Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why Read Old Commentaries?

Every period of church history exhibits a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Human nature being what it is, we tend to prize what we have going for us while remaining ignorant of our deficiencies.

This is the great value of old commentaries for today's Bible students. Although the old books reveal the weaknesses of their time, they also contain its strengths. That's why I love these words from David Steinmetz:

The principle value of precritical exegesis is that it is not modern exegesis; it is alien, strange, sometimes even, from our perspective, comic and fantastical. Precisely because it is strange, it provides a constant stimulus to modern interpreters, offering exegetical suggestions they would never think of themselves or find in any recent book, forcing them again and again to a rereading and re-evaluation of the text. Interpreters who immerse themselves, however, not only in the text but in these alien approaches to the text may find in time that they have learned to see, with eyes not their own, sights they could scarcely have imagined and to hear, with ears not their own, voices too soft for their own ears to detect.

--in "John Calvin on Isaiah 6," Interpretation 36 (1982), p. 170.

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Speaking of old books, I got to go to the noon meeting of the Downtown Lion's Club yesterday. One of my friends, Trent Sisemore, was the keynote speaker. He talked about the history of the English Bible and brought along several examples from his personal collection, including a 1611 copy of the King James Version. Trent gave a really good speech. Afterwards, I got the chance to look through some of those Bibles. Fascinating.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Friend is Better and "Jesus is Lord"

My friend Stan is in much better shape than we feared last week. He's banged up and will have to spend a good bit of time recuperating. But he's alive, with the hope of a full recovery. I'm thankful for your prayers for him.

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Regarding the political character of the expression "Jesus is Lord," here's another quote from Michael Bird's new book, Introducing Paul:

Imagine it is the late 1930s and you are in a lavish hotel in Berlin for a sumptuous dinner with a cohort of German industrialists, bankers, barons, university lecturers and officers from a German SS Panzer division. The evening is relatively cheerful and the mood jovial; conversation revolves around the weather, advice on financial investments, holiday plans in Austria and the latest operas. Then an SS officer taps his glass and proposes a toast to the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, to his health and the new Germany, and everyone raises their glasses. And then you, being the committed Christian you are, propose another toast and bellow out in your best German, "Jesus ist Fuhrer!" Now what manner of reaction do you suppose it would prompt from those SS officers? Do you think they would even entertain the idea that Germany has room for two Fuhrers, the other being a Jew? (pp. 83-84).

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A few weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore and came across this sweet, classic-looking paperback copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It was a dollar, I think. Friday evening I started reading it a little at a time; for a few minutes sitting on the porch, a little bit more lying in bed.

That night it was so much on my mind that I couldn't sleep very well. I'd wake up, read for a little while, go back to bed, fall asleep, and then do that all over again. I finished it on Saturday afternoon.

There aren't too many writers who can do that to me. So what is it about Hemingway? Which writers can keep you up reading when you'd otherwise be sleeping?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Prayer Request

A friend and confidant, someone whom I respect so much, was in an accident yesterday.

This is serious stuff. He had to be transported to a larger city with doctors who specialize in the sort of treatment he needs. It hurts my heart to know he's in such trouble.

I want to ask you to mention in your prayers today a fine brother in Christ named Stan Baldwin.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lots of Class

This semester, I have to be loaded for bear every Wednesday. It's the one day of week when I teach all day long. I start at 9:00 a.m. and stop at 8:00 p.m., with lunch and supper in there somewhere. It's a long day, but I'm not complaining. When it goes well, it's actually a lot of fun. Here's the schedule of classes:

New Testament

Today we're looking at 2nd Peter and Jude. Many of my students are involved in some sort of church work. Some of them plan to be pastors and teachers. So when we take up these two letters, I like for my classes to notice what the New Testament does and does not mean by the term false teacher. That's important to know.

Life of Paul

We've made it to the Sixties. Having appealed to Caesar, Paul is under house arrest in Rome where (I think) he'll write the so-called Prison Epistles. I prefer to call them the Captivity Letters. We'll start by reviewing the history from Acts and by noticing markers in these four letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) that make them appear to come from the same period in Paul's life.

General Epistles

Today the class will start walking through 2nd Peter. I never get tired of the add to your faith section of the first chapter. Seems like that passage was standard sermon material in the church of my youth. Just a thought: Is there anyone in the Christian world you'd talk about as Peter talks about his opponents in this letter? Who? Why?

Introduction to World Religions

A whirlwind tour of (some) Islamic history. During the Dark Ages of the Christian world, Islam was leading the way in virtually every area of human learning. This is where we got Arabic numerals, for example. I like them better than Roman numerals, don't you?


Tonight's class will be the third in a series of four lessons I'm teaching at the Colonies Church of Christ here in Amarillo. In the providence of God, there were people who decided to just get over the unconventional character of Ecclesiastes and welcome it into the Jewish Scriptures. We cannot be sufficiently thankful for that.

So, I 'm curious. If you were in my shoes today, how would you approach any or all of these classes? What are some of the best resources (books, articles, websites, videos, etc.) for these subjects? I like to hear what other people have noticed and learned.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Anakin and Luke Skywalker in Paul's Theology

One of my current reads is Michael F. Bird's new book Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message. Bird says that his aim is to introduce Paul "without losing people in the mire of scholarly debates and complex technicalities" (p. 6).

I'm about a fourth of the way through and have already decided that, barring some sort of unexpected problem with this book, it will replace F. F. Bruce's introduction as the supplementary text in the "Life of Paul" class that I teach every spring. Bird's explanations and overviews are really good and, for the most part, accomplish his goals quite well. I especially like the way he deals with the Adam-Christ typology in Paul's thought:

The argument of Romans 5:12-21 involves a synkrisis, or comparison between two 'types' or figures, Adam and Christ. In Adam we have a story of a world gone horribly wrong. As the one who was made to rule over creation is now subject to it, he forfeits his wonderful privileges of intimate fellowship with God. He suffers a severe loss of fortunes, loses divine favour, is exiled from paradise, and even his own being becomes disfigured and corrupted. The one created for immortality experiences the painful horror of death, and so do all of his offspring, . . . Death begets death. Sin dehumanized humanity, so that, despite possessing the divine image, they act like little more than complex beasts, fighting and devouring one another.

But in Christ we have a story of a world put right, as Christ is faithful where Adam was faithless, and is obedient where Adam was disobedient. Through his act of righteous obedience, Jesus overturns the transgression of Adam and so is able to deliver and transform the fallen progeny of Adam. Christ creates in himself a new humanity, which, through the renewing power of the Spirit, is able to undo the effects of the fall and become the new Adamic race.

In want of a modern analogy, George Lucas's six-part saga Star Wars can be called a "Tale of Two Skywalkers", and in many ways mirrors the Adam-Christ contrast of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, where Adam and Christ stand for the two respective heads of humanity. They are representatives or types of either a corrupted humanity (Adam) or a redeemed humanity (Christ). The first Skywalker (Anakin Skywalker) faced the temptation to give in to the dark side of the force: he gave in to it and death, destruction and chaos followed. In contrast, the second Skywalker (Luke Skywalker) faced the same temptation, but was faithful and obedient to the Jedi vocation, and consequently hope, life and the triumph of good followed. In fact, Luke was able to redeem the first Skywalker, his father Anakin, from evil through his faithfulness (pp. 42-43).

Now there's a fun sermon possibility.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My First Seder, Gene Shelburne on Baptism

I have a biblical Hebrew reading group that meets for a few hours almost every Tuesday night. One of the participants serves as the director of a Christian synagogue here in Amarillo.

He invited me to come to their Passover Seder which was held last night (Friday). Why not Thursday night? It has something to do with the new moon, counting days, etc. I took their word for it.

Anyway, Michele and I went and stayed for most of it. An interesting experience. One thing I notice is that the more I'm exposed to rabbinic interpretation, the more I get a feel for what's going on in the New Testament, how very Jewish it is.

Ever been to a seder? I know of some churches that have had them. Ever been a part of something like that? I'd like to hear about it.

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People in the Churches of Christ think we have a point about baptism. Many of us don't want to be contentious or ugly about it (though some do). It's just that we believe the New Testament teaches that baptism isn't some command to be obeyed a couple weeks after you take Christ into your heart. To us, it appears that in the Bible baptism is an integral part of the salvation experience, a faith-repentance-baptism experience that marks off a person's entry into the kingdom of God's dear Son.

But how do you say that; say what we are convinced the Bible says, without picking a religious fight? I think Gene Shelburne did a very good job of it in today's Amarillo Globe-News. Here's his article, Baptism allows faithful a rebirth in the spirit of Christ.

Nicely done, Gene.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Column in the Paper, Letter in the Mail

Last Sunday's Amarillo Globe-News included an editorial I wrote. I was responding to an article by one of the paper's regular columnists.

His opinion is that Amarillo people act like thoughtless hypocrites when the majority of them claim some sort of Christian conviction, while at the same time favoring the Texas policy of executing those who have committed the worst of crimes.

My response came from this angle: you haven't necessarily lost your "Christian principles" (his expression) if you agree that at least in some cases capital punishment is appropriate.

One thing you find out when you publish something in a print paper or magazine: at least a handful of people track you down, usually to say something like "I agree, and thanks." Because of the trouble they go through, I tend to value their "comments." Most any time I published something in a Church of Christ periodical, within a couple weeks I would get a beautiful note from the late Hugo McCord. That always meant a lot to me.

This week I received a heart-rending letter from someone whose family members were murdered many years ago. This person also regrets that the criminal has received two stays of execution. In prison, said the letter, the convict has outlived most of the family. They have been denied whatever sort of closure or satisfaction that might have come from the execution of the murderer.

As I read those words, I was astonished at how quickly things left the realm of theory and moved much closer to reality. It was time for me to stop thinking like a debater and start acting like some sort of pastor.

I sat and wrote down the best things I could think of and sent them off with a prayer.

Anyway, if you care to read the exchange that appear in the paper, the first article, "Dead is dead, and justice suffers," by Greg Sagan is here. My article, in part a response to the first one, is here.

No, I didn't pick the title and don't like the photo either. Sometimes I wish I had an agent. Note to self: start writing things that people actually pay for.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Ecclesiastes: The Setting

Among the ancient Israelites, there were three kinds of spiritual leaders:

1. There were the priests, the kohanim.
The priest was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. He stood between God and the Israelites, offering the sacrifices that were prescribed by the Torah of Moses. Above all, it was the job of the priest to teach the Torah and to make sure that the Israelite nation observed it. A few passages that illustrate this:

In Leviticus 10:11, the Lord said to the priests, you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.

When Moses blessed the tribe of Levi--the tribe the priests came from--he said to the Lord: He teaches your precepts to Jacob, and your law to Israel (Deuteronomy 33:10).

In Ezekiel 44:23-24, the Lord issues a job description for priests: They are to teach my people the difference between the holy and the common and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean. In any dispute, the priests are to serve as judges and decide it according to my ordinances. They are to keep my laws and my decrees for all my appointed feasts, and they are to keep my Sabbaths holy.

The priest was expected to know the Law, to teach it, and to ensure that the Israelites lived by it. If there was any question about what the Torah said on some disputed matter, the priest was like an umpire. He knew the Scroll and could make the call.

2. A second group of leaders were the prophets. The Israelites called them the nevi'im.
Unlike a priest, a prophet was not born into that position. No one was a prophet because he was part of a certain family. Instead, people became prophets because they were specially chosen by God to fill that role.

Another difference was that, unlike the priest, the prophet did not look to the Torah for his message. Of course, if he was a true prophet, then his message was consistent with the will of God. But the prophet did not offer sacrifices at the altar, and he didn't teach the Torah.

Instead, the prophet spoke a message from God as the Lord himself provided the words. Again, the contrast: The priest relied on a book for his words; the prophet received from God an immediate word, a message that came directly from the Lord. Hundreds of times in the Old Testament, the prophets begin their sermons by saying,

Thus says the Lord, or

Hear the word of the Lord.

When prophets speak of where they got their messages, they say, The word of the Lord came to me.

A prophet did not speak on his own. Rather, it was God who was speaking through the prophet. The Lord simply used a human being as his mouthpiece. Most often, the message was an accusation or a warning. The message of the prophet was, Turn away from idols and immorality, and turn back to God.

3. A third group of leaders among the Israelites were the wise, the khakhamim.

(There are certain Hebrew words that you don't want to say with someone standing directly in front of you. Khakhamim is one of those words. The kh stands for the letter that, when pronounced, sounds like you've got popcorn stuck in your throat and you're trying to get it out).

The wise man or woman, also known as a sage, was a person who closely observed life. The sage was careful to notice how things in the world work, or don't work. She noticed the attitudes and the habits that lead to success; she also took note of the attitudes and habits that lead to failure.

Based on her observations, the sage would come up with clever, memorable ways of expressing those insights. These little capsules of wisdom were called proverbs. The sage would recite old, traditional proverbs, and maybe even some new ones that she had come up with, to teach young people, to pass on to them the insights that come only from experience.

Sages, wise old men and women, filled the role of teacher to the younger generation. Inexperienced people need to learn how to get along in life, how to live wisely, how to avoid the pitfalls of foolishness, and above all how to succeed in life. The sage was the person in the community who served to accomplish that goal.

Three kinds of spiritual leaders in ancient Israel. The Book of Jeremiah refers to these categories. It speaks of the teaching of the law by the priest . . . counsel from the wise, . . . the word from the prophets (Jer. 18:18).

The overview can help us see the place the Book of Ecclesiastes. It doesn't reflect the concerns of a priest. Nor was it written by a prophet. Instead, the book falls into the category of wisdom. To be more specific, Ecclesiastes represents one of the two different kinds of wisdom writings found in the Old Testament.

Our great American psychologist William James once said that there are basically two kinds of people. There are tough-minded people. And then there are tender-minded people.

The tough-minded person asks the practical question: How does it work? What makes it go? The tender-minded person asks the reflective question: What's the point?

The tough-minded person wants to get things done. The tender-minded person wonders if this the right thing to do.

One wants to move, to act; the other wants to think, to speculate.

I suspect that William James would be the first to admit that his division of all people into two groups is a bit arbitrary. But he would also say that there's a lot of truth to this. His distinction can help us when we think about the two different kinds of wisdom writings in the Old Testament, because they reflect his two different categories.

That is to say, there is a type of wisdom writing in the Old Testament that is very tough-minded, practical, interested in how to live a successful life. And, there is another type of wisdom writing that is tender-minded, reflective, interested in the deeper, more-complex questions of life.

The first type, practical wisdom is found above all in the Book of Proverbs, which is a wisdom manual for how to live your life. Some proverbs are warnings:

Like a gold ring in a pig's snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (11:22).

Other proverbs encourage us to value the things that really matter:

A good name is to be chosen rather that great riches,
and favor is better than gold or silver (22:1). If you earn a good reputation, you can go far.

And, all of this is seen by the Proverbs as being vitally important:

In the path of righteousness is life,
but the way of error leads to death (12:28).

The second type, speculative or reflective wisdom, is found in two books of the Old Testament: the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

1. The book of Job explores this unanswered question: in a world created and controlled by a good God, why do terrible things sometimes happen to the best of people? In God's universe, what is the reason for undeserved suffering?

2. Our book, Ecclesiastes, explores this question: Given the injustices of life, the crookedness of the world, the uncertainty of things, and the reality of death, what is the point of living?

I wonder, What are some of the ways that people today answer that question? What do our contemporaries usually assume is the purpose of our lives?

Source: Part of this post comes from my memories of a speech by the late Robert Gordis. I listened to it so many times, it just became a part of me. During my student days at Harding Graduate School in Memphis, I would regularly listen to different cassette tapes from the School's fantastic library. I didn't know Rubel Shelley or Wolfhart Pannenberg or Carol Osburn or Robert Gordis. But it was like I knew them because I heard some of their best stuff over and over again.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Ecclesiastes: The Title

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzle from the very start: What does Ecclesiastes mean?

The Hebrew title of the book is Qohelet, another word that isn't easy to figure out.

The great Jewish scholar Robert Gordis used to enjoy telling audiences that Ecclesiastes is a fine translation. "That's because we don't know what Qohelet means," he would say, "and we don't know what Ecclesiastes means either. So it's the perfect translation of a mysterious title."

But as Gordis himself knew, it isn't quite so hopeless as that. Qohelet comes from the Hebrew root qahal, a word that involves the idea of collecting or gathering. When used as a verb in the Scriptures, qahal always means "to gather people." So Qohelet is someone who assembles a crowd, or gathers an audience, presumably to speak to them.

Along this line, the ancient Greek translation of the Scriptures, the Septuagint, came up with a title that's connected to the word for "an assembly." From the Greek ecclesia (assembly) it's a short step to ecclesiastes (the assemblyman).

When translating the Latin Vulgate, Jerome used an expression that emphasized the idea of someone speaking to the assembly. Jerome's idea was an interpretation, one that's probably right.

If this view of the title is correct, then Qohelet is the description of a wise man, a sage who has spent many years looking at life. And now as he writes, it's as though he has gathered his friends and colleagues in order to speak to them, to talk about his observations, and announce his conclusion.

Martin Luther took this view and called the Book of Ecclesiastes der Prediger: The Preacher. Qohelet might be a preacher of sorts. But he's got to be one of the most unconventional preachers ever.

I want to write some more about this book. In the meantime, I'd be interested to hear your take. What are some of your observations about the Book of Ecclesiastes?