Proposal: Center of New Testament Theology

I propose that at the center of New Testament Theology, descriptively, lies the gospel about Jesus.

This means that though the gospel message is expressed differently among the NT authors or even is not mentioned by name in some books, it is the controlling narrative or central notion of all of the books in the New Testament. Here’s how it looks:

  1. The four gospels are the gospel of the early church in biographical format.
  2. Acts is a summary of how the apostles spread the gospel of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, Acts contains several sermons that follow the same outline as the four gospels (despite how weird John is).
  3. The epistles and the apocalypse are all, in some way, a call to show fidelity to the message of Jesus and his apostles.

This has several advantages:

  1. It connects the documents of the New Testament not only my their internal themes, but by the purpose of the collection itself.
  2. Instead of making a theme like Christology, Theology Proper, God’s glory, wisdom, or even discipleship itself central, it makes the message preached by the early church central (regardless of the individual expressions of foci of various authors).
  3. It can be demonstrated with ease that the gospel functions conceptually in most books of the New Testament as: revelatory, salvific, the common confession of the church, and a a structure and source for ethics. Thus it holds together several other emphases of the New Testament.
  4. Even books that do not utilize the word “gospel” refer to the word of life, the word preached, the word of Christ, the word of God, or the word of truth, as the source for the group identity or of the individual Christian experience.
  5. Rhetorical and conceptual moves made by Paul and other authors can be seen as moves meant to express, clarify, apply, or defend the gospel (or the apostleship of Paul…which means defending the gospel). Thus, we do not have to assume a fundamental contradiction between James’ view of the Christian life as a life of wisdom and Paul’s view of the Christian life as being “in Christ.” Both are true ways of expressing the truth of the gospel. Both might even be true beyond metaphor and rhetoric, but ontologically, but this isn’t the place for that discussion.
  6. If we take the gospel story as it is expressed in the gospels as primary then we do not have to look for idiosyncratic themes in some of Paul’s letters (justification by faith alone) as though they are central to all of New Testament thinking.

 

I am writing, when time allows, a longer essay on this topic, but these are my thoughts.

Great-Grandfather

Last night we held my great-grandfather’s memorial service. Here’s his obituary.

He made it to 101. I got to officiate the service, though his Catholic funeral will be held this morning.

We had time for members of the family and community to express their fond memories, but I asked especially for stories of Grandfather’s service to others after a reading from Mark 10. He had a tendency to keep his service to others quiet. A legend even circulated in my youth, that turned out to be true, that he gave land to the school system, but didn’t want the school named after him so he deeded it to a friend in secret so that he wouldn’t be named. His friend spilled the beans, but it was a noble effort.

  1. Grandfather helped my aunt by caring for my cousin and taught him how to care for the homeless.
  2. He and Grandmother always invited the town never-do-wells to dinner. Thus everybody in the family remembers strangers at holiday dinners and lunches.
  3. He fastidiously opposed all television except for the news and the discovery channel because “it’ll rot your brain.”
  4. He let “an old wino be buried on the family plot because he died with nobody.”
  5. He did a tremendous amount of pro-bono legal work for the poor.
  6. He fought in WWII.
  7. He “never left a place without making it better.” Examples: always took a trash bag or a bucket and picked up garbage. Would often bring a rake, mower, and/or shovel and clean up various properties and teach grand kids to do the same.
  8. Also, not so much service as hilarious, if you didn’t finish your dinner he would cook it into your pancakes the following morning to make sure you ate all your food.

There were many more stories, but these stick out in my mind.

New blogspot post from my wife.

http://avery-reflectivejourney.blogspot.com/2014/08/re-thinking-ordinary.html

Here’s my favorite bit:

I’ve had to re-think how I view the Christian life and one thing I’ve had to admit to myself is that my desire to do big things and have an impact was driven in large part by the desire to feel significant. And the motivation to feel important and significant is drawn towards words like radical and runs from words like ordinary. The desire to make an impact might have more to do with boosting my self-esteem than it does with calling or vocation or long-term commitment. It’s not that these desires are wrong. They are wired into all of us.

No go read it. Quickly, before you’re trampled by tiny lizards or you meet an alien who gives you super-powers and you get caught up in some crazy adventure and then you forget!

Always Have Something to Say: On Keeping a Digital Copia

Have you ever said aloud, “Oh, I wish I could remember that special quote!” Or perhaps instead, “Who made that three point argument?” Or perhaps, “What was the last line of that poem I otherwise memorized?” Well, if that’s you, then this post is on me. Or this post is for you.

Copia is not commonly used word, but it comes up in one very specific context: rhetoric.

A copia is essentially a notebook of aphorisms, quotes, poems, paragraphs, etc that you maintain for the express purposes future writing and research. I prefer to organize mine topically. The topics include almost anything. Seriously, things like “the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans,” “Misunderstandings of Statistics in Science Journals,” and “Ignorance in the high IQ population.” The quotes can be as complicated or simple as you wish, but the point is that any idea, paragraph, or quip you wish to ponder, utilize for research, or quote is all in one place. I even put the source under each one in Turabian format. It’s like an annotated bibliography for your life. I would even recommend putting your own thoughts about the quote underneath the quote in bold. This way you also have a pithy version of a story for illustrative purposes.

Having a copia document allows you of simply searching for that whatsit or whosit you have in the shadows of books past in the deep caverns of your mind. There are two ways to keep a copia.

  1. A physical copy
    You see this in George Herbert when he gave advice to pastors. I’ll give the quote in a moment. But this can be used is lots of ways, you could have several topical note books or even one mega binder (so that making things alphabetical is easier). The problem with this method is that it loses its searchability. The nice thing is that writing things helps one commit them to memory. If I were keeping a copia by writing, I would keep a large binder of several topics, but for large writing projects or for specific courses I teach I would keep a separate binder for each. Here’s the quote from Herbert on keeping a copia in the form of a systematic theology:

    THe Countrey Parson hath read the Fathers also, and  the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proition of all, out of all which he hath compiled a book, and body of Divinity, which is the storehouse of his Sermons, and which he preacheth all his Life; but diversly clothed, illustrated, and inlarged. For though the world is full of such composures, yet every mans own is fittest, readyest, and most savory to him. Besides, this being to be done in his younger and preparatory times, it is an honest joy ever after to looke upon his well spent houres. This Body he made by way of expounding the Church Catechisme, to which all divinity may easily be reduced. For it being indifferent in it selfe to choose any Method, that is best to be chosen, of which there is likelyest to be most use. George Herbert, The Country Parson: The Parson and His Accessory Knowledge

  2. A digital copy
    There are several ways to do this and it works nicely with the obscene quantity of digital books out there. Seriously, for the purposes of saving money by using sales I have books on kindle, pdf, real life books (that smell like tobacco, mildew, glue, and paper!), Logos Bible software, Bible Works, Google Books, and a collection of journal articles that I’ve saved from Ebsco! Keeping track of it all isn’t what’s hard, but remembering a quote in a pinch can be difficult if I don’t immediately remember which version of the book I possess.

Here are some protips:

    1. Keep a persistent document
      Title the document Copia or Interesting thoughts and quotes.
    2. Save this file locally and in the cloud
      It’s useful to be able to can add to it from anywhere on a phone, tablet, or local computer.
    3. Memorize the best stuff
      Memory is still the most useful tool for keeping important information in a usable format. Having data in your mind makes it far more useful to you than having it in a computer. This is especially true of inspirational quotes or poetry if you’re a romantic.
    4. Utilize a service like Onenote or Evernote
      These tools can help you you can snip things from websites with very little effort then you can later paste them into your copia. With these you can even utilize pictures and diagrams. Here’s somebody showing how to get kindle highlights into Evernote.
    5. Utilize Zotero or some bibliographic manager
      Zotero and tools like it keep track of all of the bibliographic data ever. Adding one to your browser is an excellent idea. It’s even better if you force it to save everything on your computer rather than in their database, this way any journal article you save is put into a file on your computer. But then any highlights you do, just remember you copy into your copia.
    6. Transfer hard copy resources to the copia
      Make the effort to type your underlines and highlights into your copia as this will help you to etch them into the wax tablet of your memory (though not as well as with writing).
    7. Remember to keep things simple
      If you get to the point that you have a copia, some note files, and annotated bibliographies for different projects you’re probably fine. If you get to the point that you’re using Evernote, Onenote, keeping a copia, utilizing annotated bibliographies, and writing notes in zotero (which is a useful function if you’re not doing it elsewhere), then you’re over complicating things and not spending enough time actually writing and thinking. You’re a collector but not a thinker or producer at that point.

Concluding Remarks:
If you’re in high school or just starting college, I highly recommend you start a copia and an annotated bibliography. Keeping this type of useful information in two places (copia and annotated bibliography) will help you for the rest of your life but at least for the rest of your academic career. If you’re a preacher this is incredibly useful, take note of Charles Spurgeon’s thought’s on knowing things from the sciences and put it to practice for all things you study:

It seems to me that every student for the Christian ministry ought to know at least something of every science; he should intermeddle with every form of knowledge that may be useful in his life’s work. God has made all things that are in the world to be our teachers, and there is something to be learned from every one of them; and as he would never be a thorough student who did not attend all classes at which he was expected to be present, so he who does not learn from all things that God has made will never gather all the food that his soul needs, nor will he be likely to attain to that perfection of mental manhood which will enable him to be a fully-equipped teacher of others.C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 3 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 144.

Though human memory can be greatly perfected with use and attention to treating it as a skill, not all things can be treasured up in your heart. Therefore, you would do well to store them up externally, like a tool shed of ideas and thoughts.

Jesus and the Gospels

Jim West, in a post I cannot find, says that the two presuppositions for understanding the gospels aright are:

  1. Jesus was God in the Flesh
  2. Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.

I’ve been reflecting upon these. Whatever you think of Jim West (I think he’s from outer space, some think he is as timeless as the moon and stars, and others think he’s fairly eccentric), I think he’s got this right. More in the future.

This Week

This week I restart college in a very official way. Yesterday I got off of work at 4, took a brief break, then went to Calculus 3 until 9pm.

Today I learn, or rather re-learn because what I know is dated, computer programming. Then I take fundamentals of engineering, followed by Physics. Working as a teacher 3 days a week and going to college four days a week may prove to best me. But I have a feeling that my hypothesis remains true: If you can learn to read Greek and Hebrew, you can learn anything. There is simply no reason to suppose that school, though long and tiresome, won’t prove fairly easy once again.

Religion and “All Those Wars!”

Atheist logic

Sam de Britto posted a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about God and war. He’s one of those brilliant brights who intentionally mischaracterizes what most believers in God claim their God-belief constitutes. So he calls God a sky-wizard and gives up his effort to prove a point by saying, “Build your churches, mosques and temples – I’m building a bomb shelter.”
The article has some statements that might be factual, but that is disputable. What interests me is that based upon his own logic (not mine) he’s wrong:
It must be frustrating worshipping an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being and He does nothing to smite, humiliate or deter those who do not. Violence or discrimination in God’s name thus seems to be the ultimate redundancy because surely the point of divine omnipotence is setting the chessboard just as you’d like it…
Take the same stand against God [that I take] in the US and you’ll never see high public office, which means every “leader of the free world” now believes in the Sky Wizard or is so fearful of a pious backlash, they lie about it in public and toddle off to church every Sunday to complete the charade…
So, according to his presupposition, “nothing happens to humiliate or deter unbelief” he is incorrect. This is the case because he whines that atheists are persecuted and that world leaders have to pretend to believe in God to be elected.
This should have been obvious to him because on his (wrong view) of divine omnipotence, God very well could have set it up so that the leaders of the free world believe in the sky wizard, and indeed has done so. De Britto even sarcastically identifies the alleged persecution he faces , at the hands of religious fanatics in Australia, with God: “God is very much with us and he’s coming to get me…” With respect to his first premise, if these persecutors are real, then things do happen to deter unbelief.
So, if God is setting up a chess board (which I doubt) and God’s work is to be identified with what believers do without qualification (which is a stupid idea, but de Britto accepts it), then God did make the state of affairs difficult for atheists.  The author is wrong on several levels since most religions really do claim, in their own holy books, that there is a right and a wrong way to do their religion. This means that one cannot attribute the works of every religious person to the deity to whom they give allegiance. There’s a heuristic in a holy book, tradition, or aphorism.

The imaginative atheist

Aside from barely rising to the level of writing a self-consistent article, the author ran into other troubles as well. He also accepts the idea that the west, in general, isn’t friendly toward atheists. He appears to have imagined a version of western civilization that is more akin to a Caliphate than any actual Western nation. But when it comes to the data available, some polls show that even atheists distrust atheists,  but it still remains the case that in general Christians and non-Christian religious types are quite friendly toward atheists.
This might be because Christians were identified as atheists by the pagan roman empire. Christians who know that might feel some kinship with atheists. We understand why people worship other things, we just find said worship to be unappealing on the basis of our other commitments. It is also the case that my atheist friends, many of whom I befriended after they made fun of me and I joked back with them, eventually reveal that they make fun of religious people or start debates with them in the midst of non-argumentative conversation. In other words, they pick fights. Everybody argues with that guy, whether a Christian a libertarian, or an atheist. If you act like the weird uncle and then also act shocked by people thinking you’re a jerk, then you are the weird uncle.

The Historically Errant Atheist

The main error is obvious, but he makes more. It’s not even his identification of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Hitchens as esteemed thinkers (of then, only Hitchens stands out). He steals their hypothesis that moderate religious people somehow enable extremists (no citation?!?! Sad!):
As has been pointed out by many esteemed thinkers, this is the insidious nature of “moderate” religion. It makes it all so reasonable to respect and treasure “fantastic propositions” that can be believed without evidence and that it’s only extremists who distort the “truth”.
If the religion has a heuristic, you can tell if its followers are doing it right or wrong by checking:
  1. the source text (Bibles, Vedas, etc.)
  2. how the mainstream sects interpret said text
  3. what are people doing that either contradicts or comports with that interpretation.
In other words, any religion that judges its extremists according to it’s orthodoxy is, by definition, not enabling them. As an aside, atheism, as simple belief that God is not, has no orthodoxy, so it’s weird to hear atheists criticize atheists for not being atheistic correctly.

The Potentially Violent Atheist

Another problem problem is the over-all premise that because he identifies certain social ills that have a connection to God belief, that he’s found the solution to all wars: Get rid of God belief, get rid of violence. He’s not as violent about it as Sam Harris, who famously recommends preemptive violence against others based on their beliefs, but he does allude to Harris, so one wonders if he buys Harris’ argument that killing religious people for their beliefs is a good idea. Harris mentions this in his book The End of Faith:
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

The Historically Errant Atheist

Now, Mike Bird deals with his argument on the level of articulating what Christians actually believe or at least what their holy book articulates (some Christians do not know that the New Testament says to love your enemies).
But I’m more interested in the fact that the “religion causes wars trope” has been refuted. Vox Day refuted it by actually checking the Encyclopedia of Wars (don’t buy it, it’s pricey, several libraries have it, check worldcat.org). I have a digital copy and searched through its religion references. He is correct when he notes that the Encyclopedia of War lists as religious “123 wars in all, which sounds as it is would support the case of the New Atheists, until one recalls that these 123 wars represent only 6.98 % of all of the wars recorded in the encyclopedia” (Vox Day, The Irrational Atheist, 105). As an aside, Vox includes more wars than the authors do in the “religiously motivated wars” category.
So, are there atrocities that are apparently happening as a logical consequence of certain forms of God-belief? Yes. Or more clearly put: Are people doing evil things for which they use God-belief as a justification and warrant? Yes. But is it the case that horrible conflicts, strange evils, and injustices would end if we got rid of religious belief? No. People find lots of reasons that are disconnected from God to go to war, to cheat, to steal, to wantonly mistreat others, destroy property, and so-on.
Phillips, Charles, and Alan Axelrod. 2005. Encyclopedia of Wars. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
Vox Day. 2008, The Irrational Atheist. Benbella

Hypocrisy: A working definition

What a hypocrite is not

We use the word hypocrite a lot. But what does it mean?

John Piper (the ideas guy behind Desiring God) connects the heart in Scripture with the sentiments. When he does this, his apparent background in romantic thought and in “authenticity thinking” comes through. Another author, like Piper, essentially equates hypocrisy with doing something you don’t feel like at the moment:

What can we do when our hearts feel nothing?

What we must not do is think feelings are optional — and just go through the motions, acting as if we are feeling what we are saying and singing.

Jesus called that hypocrisy: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15:7–8) But if our hearts are feeling far from God, and were not supposed to just go through the motions, what else can we do?

But is this really a reasonable definition of hypocrisy? If the heart, in Scripture, is closer to the faculty of reasoning and choosing, then Jesus’ comments above are about the reasoning behind the Pharisee’s actions, not their feelings.

Jesus’ Definition of Pharisee

In fact, Jesus uses the word hypocrite to describe those who do pious deeds purely for the sake of praise by people instead of for God:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Mat 6:5)”

Hypocrisy the Bible is doing pious deeds entirely to be honored by others with no regard for God or the well-being of others.

The Distant Heart

The heart being far from God is a quote from first chapters of Isaiah. There the people follow the sacrificial practices as an excuse to ignore godly character. The solution to their worship problem is given in in Isaiah 1:17:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 1:16-20)

A Final Point

One of the prime commands in the New Testament is self-denial (Mark 8:34). Because our affections are damaged by sin, cultural influence, and neglectful habits we must do it against what we want in the moment. Not only so, but our bodies rebel against us when we want to do hard things. If we make self-denial into a form of hypocrisy then basic Christian spirituality stops making sense.

Paul even notes that the fruit of the Spirit comes to those who “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Not feeling like doing Christ-like things is not hypocrisy. Sometimes people don’t feel like paying taxes, but it’s still moral for them do to so.

If you want to stop being a hypocrite, the best strategy, according to Jesus is to do your good deeds in secret, presumably before you attempt to be the light of the world.

Teaching the Gospels

I am teaching a class on the gospels. My first tendency is to think: the content of each book, it’s relationship to the Old Testament, and then a synthesis of all four seems best. It will keep things interesting as we focus on Jesus and we can compare intertexts with the rest of the New Testament. But, then people won’t learn all the stuff that is kinda important but really doesn’t help you read the gospels because it is so much conjecture: dating, who copied who, what sources lie behind the texts etc.

In seminary and Bible college classes you seem to focus so much on the non-important issues that you spend very little time in the text and what you do spend, you don’t spend it dealing with issues related to things like ancient culture and genre so that you can understand each narrative. It certainly isn’t spent studying how the gospel authors intended to move their hearers to live. It’s usually spent asking which gospel writer added or subtracted this or that detail. You can’t teach everything. But man, I want to go with my first tendency despite it not being what most classes I’ve taken or heard complained about by others recommend.

Dallas Willard once recommended that a pastor spend two years studying the four gospels with a church before moving onto other important things. I doubt he meant the synoptic problem or the best reconstruction of the gospel’s writing (which I do care about to the extend that I have a theory).

The Devil and Pierre Gernet

I just read the short story The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart. I’m not sure that a short story has ever left me wanting to sit and talk to its author the way this one has. I’ll post a review soon. Initial thoughts:

  1. The book seems pretentious due to the vocabulary, but Hart just talks that way. If you can read it without a dictionary, the GRE or the LSAT would be a joke (I missed two on the verbal GRE and I had to look things up).
  2. Hart’s descriptions of the emotional life are spot on, which is unusual to find in a public intellectual.
  3. Several of the themes of Hart’s work come up, particularly aesthetics, materialism, and a sort of Trahernian mysticism that the demonic character mocks.