What if John wrote first?

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the character Han Solo was confronted by an intimidating bounty hunter, Greedo. In the original cut of the film, Han shot Greedo before things could get out of hand. This fit with the anti-hero arc, Han was the scoundrel with a heart of gold. In later recuts of the film, Greedo shot first. And so in nerd circles, people lament, ‘Han Shot First.’

And this raises an interesting question, what if John wrote first? I’m actually of the opinion that Matthew’s gospel was written first, but Paul Anderson (among the few scholars who read and digested J.A.T. Robinson’s The Priority of John) mentions a startling line of argument:

[I]f John was produced in an isolated region, it may be easier to infer that three traditions [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] might have overlooked John than to believe that John has overlooked all three of the Synoptic traditions.

The rest of the paper is okay. If that idea catches on, it would be great to hear Bible scholars lament the death of their elaborate source critical theories, “Mark wrote first!”

The Image of God: Each Man Makes Heaven and Earth Anew

In Genesis 1:1-2, God makes the heavens and the earth.

In Genesis 1:26-31, God makes man in his image.

Okay.

We’re not able to engage in creating a cosmos from nothing.

But here’s what we can do.

We construct the world in unique ways, each of us.

The objective world, of course, is real.

But any particular first person point of view is as vast as the universe itself and it is entirely unique from all other first person points of view.

And so, by going through the world, we come to new perspectives on the heavens and the earth from out point of view that are more or less true depending on how we came to them.

But the point is that in each of us is a universe. To be a human being is, in a subjective sense, to create the world anew.

Maybe that’s why gaining the whole world is not worth losing your soul.

Christian Conflict Resolution

Like all people, Christians have conflict over ideas, practices, preferred traditions, and how the to spend money. Conflict is good. It helps solve problems. But we frequently handle this conflict in ways that contradict the purpose of the church and the content of the gospel message! When we value a minor thing as though it were a major thing, we let our emotional response guide us rather than truth, practicality, or ethics. And so below, I’ll explain what appears to me to be a New Testament guide to conflict resolution among Christians:

Christian Conflict Resolution

A Translation of Philippians 4:2-9:[1]

“I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.”

Below is an attempt to give a commentary on the passage above, followed by an argument for why I think it is meant to conflict resolution. But for those more interested in the practical take away, here it is. In list form, Paul’s recommendations for Christian conflict resolution:

  1. Call to mind your calling as Christians
    If you remember, in the midst of a conflict, who you are, who the other person is, and where you are, and why you’re together in the first place, then you’ll have a foundation for productive Christian conflict. To “have the same way of thinking” in the passage hearkens back to Philippians 2:5-11. It doesn’t mean “agree in all things.” It means remember to try to be like Jesus.
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always.
    Think of specific reasons to be joyful in connection with your faith. So think of Christ’s death for sins, your forgiveness, the greatness of God’s love, answered prayers, etc. 
  3. Behave reasonably (esp.) when you have an audience
    Paul recommends that when others are present, you put extra care into being moderate and reasonable. This makes sense, as acting vindictive or angry in public exacerbates things.
  4. Recognize the nearness of the Lord
    Just like realizing you have an audience might make you circumspect, remembering that the Lord is near ought to make you more so. 
  5. Do not fret about anything
    Allowing a thought to occupy your mind obsessively can blow it out of proportion. Instead of thinking constantly about how you’re not getting your way, Paul recommends the next step.
  6. Thankfully ask God to grant your requests
    Think of specific reasons to be thankful, and in that attitude of thanksgiving, ask God to give you what is best. God may grant your request. Also, you’re preparing yourself to seek the best thing, not merely what you want in the moment. And so Christian arguments should include time for prayer. 
  7. Think about what is good in the other.
    It’s harder to hate somebody and aim to thwart their desires without reason when you sit and consider what it best in them. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience where somebody tells you a true, positive fact when you’re mad or sad and you start to laugh. That’s a sign that you’re being persuaded into a positive frame of mind.
  8. Practice the Paul’s spiritual disciplines in accordance with Paul’s gospel.
    Finally, everybody involved should be practicing self-denial, prayer, fasting, etc. Every Christian ought to be aiming their life at Christ-likeness. And in this letter and spread throughout the New Testament are the practices in accord with that lifestyle.

A Christian Conflict Resolution Commentary

  1. I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
    Paul reminds the women and the entire Philippian church that they are co-workers in the gospel. And the gospel comes with a calling to acquire the mind of Christ. And so if you remember that you’re on the same task force, it will be easier to get along. And in fact, if you remember that your partners in conflict have their names in the book of life, you’ll remember how much God loves them too!
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
    In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
  3. Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
    The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
  4. The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
    Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
  5. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
  6. Finally, brothers
    This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

    1. whatever is honest
      Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
    2. whatever is noble
      Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
    3. whatever is just
      Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
    4. whatever is pure
      The word pure carries the weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
    5. whatever causes affection
      Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
    6. whatever is commendable
      Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
    7. if there is any virtue
      If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
    8. and if there is anything praiseworthy
      Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private praise? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood, do they show kindness, do they share the gospel? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
    9. take account of these things;
      Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
  7. and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
    Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
  8. and the God of peace will be with you.
    The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s peace will reside with the church. 

Appendix:

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis (a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice).[2]

The passage seems more specific than that to me. Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not ideals to be contemplated.
  3. Paul’s says that following these instructions will result in peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of individual Christians).

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[1] Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

[2] There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.

 

The life of the mind in early Christianity

This is the best couple of paragraphs from N.T. Wright’s massive two volume tome:

That is the point at which Paul found himself inventing and developing this new discipline we call, in retrospect, ‘Christian theology’. The radically new worldview in which he and his converts found themselves was bound to face the question ‘why’ at every corner, and in order to answer it, and to teach his churches to answer it for themselves, he had to speak of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had done before.

 

This had an important result: the life of the mind was itself elevated by Paul from a secondary social activity, for those with the leisure to muse and ponder life’s tricky questions, to a primary socio-cultural activity for all the Messiah’s people. The interesting question of whether one thinks oneself into a new way of acting or acts oneself into a new way of thinking will, I suspect, continue to tease those who try to answer it (not least because it is of course reflexive: should you answer it by thinking or by acting?).

 

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 27.

For the early Christians, philosophy became a way of life. 

Levels of Analysis in the Sermon on the Mount: A brief outline

What is the Sermon on the Mount? How do we read it? What I have in mind is Matthew 5-7. Let’s leave Luke 6 out for now. Below are some potential layers of analysis for understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the most simple way to read it is: hear these words and do them. But to do so requires a life of reflection.

  1. Literary-Rhetorical Levels
    1. The sermon is nested in Matthew’s gospel. So it’s place in Matthew’s story of Jesus must be considered. 
      1. In its context, the Sermon is Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God in non-parabolic format. 
      2. It is presented as a layer of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah who has authority.
        1. First because it contains Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament (hermeneutical skill). 
        2. Second, because it is presented as truth of the sort the Messiah would teach (divine revelation). 
      3. It is presented as a summary of Jesus’ vision of happiness, righteousness, human perfection, and wisdom. 
      4. As such, the contents are presented as an expression of an idea to be sought, but a constitution to be instantly applied. The guiding metaphor for relating to Jesus in Matthew is of discipleship, not legal judgment. 
      5. It is presented, then, as the foundation upon which the church is built (Matthew 7 and Matthew 16).
      6. It is taught on a mountain, in the hearing of crowds, to disciples who are called to preach the same message. And so it is a retelling of the Moses’ receipt of the law from God on Sinai. 
    2. The sermon, in Matthew, is elaborated upon in the narrative of Matthew in key ways. 
    3. In Matthew, the Sermon is self-consciously intertextual with the Old Testament, so those resonances must be taken into account. 
    4. Though I used to be skeptical of attempts to do this, the Sermon fits quite nicely into Aristotelian rhetorical form. Jesus appeals to commonly accepted facts, begins with an exordium, gives a narration of facts, makes a proposition statement, gives examples, uses a sort of recursive-self referential outline to clarify-elaborate on key terms, and concludes with an emotional call to action.
      1. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand Jesus’ main point(s).
      2. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand which parts of the Sermon are appeals to emotion over appeals to fact.
      3. Looking at the rhetoric through the lens of ancient social norms can help us grasp what function the Sermon has in his ministry. 
  2. Theologically
    1. As a book in the Bible, the Sermon is meant, by those who placed it in the canon to be interpreted within the frame work provided by the Bible even in the absence of intertextuality. The golden rule might be be informed by material in the Psalms or the personal covenant in Ruth, for instance. 
    2. Since the canon of Scripture came together in a theological milieu which included discussion of the Trinity, theosis as the goal of salvation, and the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, it’s important to discern these themes in the Sermon.
      1. Incarnation: The life is Jesus is necessarily divine revelation because Jesus is God incarnate. But the teaching of Jesus can still be the result of careful human thought and consideration because Jesus is also fully human. Both elements are important to consider. Understanding the human reasoning behind the sermon in how we experience it as divine revelation.
      2. Trinity: The Sermon is presented as the Son making known the culture of the Trinity as instantiated among sinful human beings. See also Matthew 11:26-30. Jesus is
      3. Theosis: Jesus says, in the Sermon, that his disciples will ‘see God,’ ‘be called sons of God,’ and that they should ‘be perfect’ like God. And so the Sermon is about how we approach the being of God as creatures. Jesus also uses the word ‘μακαριος’ which carries the connotation of ‘blissful’ as used in contemporary philosophy to describe the gods. 
  3. Philosophically
    1. As ancient philosophical discourse
      Ancient Greek philosophy (Stoic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurian) dealt with certain key issues:

      1. Blissfulness/Blessedness- Jesus describes his vision of blessing/bliss in Matthew 5:3-10 and bookends those beatitudes with ‘the kingdom of heaven.’
      2. Virtue – Jesus never uses the word virtue, but his sermon does touch on righteousness and prudence, and these terms are associated with Jewish virtue ethics in contemporary literature. 
      3. The Passions – Jesus never uses this word, but his topics include: anger, lust, hatred, the need for approval, and anxiety. 
      4. Politics – Jesus is dealing with conflict resolution, group solidarity, resource management, and personal piety within the context of a divinely sanctioned community: the kingdom of God. He is, in the Aristotelian sense, producing an ethical foundation for a constitution of people. 
    2. Ancient philosophical discourse tended to refer people to the Logos, but individuals like Parmenides weren’t afraid to claim divine inspiration as a rhetorical technique.
      1. Jesus, while showing his work (he gives reasons for his pronouncements) still places himself in a place of implicit divine authority, ‘I say unto you.’ and ‘I will say to you, depart…’ In this sense, Jesus is operating as philosopher/Prophet, but also as the Logos behind both. 
      2. To bring your mind into closer conformity to the Logos, ancient philosophy recommended philosophical exercises: hiding good deeds, time alone, meditation on the day’s duties to avoid worrying over the future, considering one’s misdeeds, making amends for wrongs done, taking criticism well, keeping promises when inconvenient, and so-on. Jesus does precisely this. 
      3. On the ancient understanding, the Old Testament was/is a body of philosophy (see The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony). Jesus is furthering that discussion, operating as a voice among many, but also as the Voice.  
    3. Jesus touches, albeit briefly on the topics most germane to human happiness, and so that naturally brings the Sermon into conversation with Christian and non-Christian discourse on metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and politics. 
  4. Sociologically/Historically
    1. In the sermon, we have a window into Jesus’ aims as a player in history (see The Aims of Jesus by Ben Meyer…not enough people read this). 
    2. Historical background (obviously) will give some window into what Jesus was getting at. Particularly in conjunction with rhetorical and literary analyses. In the Sermon are explicit and implicit critiques of other forms of Israelite practice contemporary with Jesus.
    3. If Jesus conceives of his kingdom as a people, in a place, with a king, and a culture, then the Sermon can be conceived of, not merely as ethical or theological discourse, but as strategy. The Sermon includes some aspects of how to appropriately maintain the reputation of God’s people in an honor shame culture with competing strategies for acquiring status within the meta-group of the Roman world. I can think of four items that cover this well: Neyrey’s book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of MatthewThe Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic GospelsThe Micro-sociology of Charisma, and The Power Tactics of Jesus ChristOther items of interest include Stephen Bram’s Biblical Games with his emphasis on Game Theory applied to biblical narrative and Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds.

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Eric Johnson’s Proposal for Christian Reading

 

Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal[1]

Below is a summary of Johnson’s rules for Christian reading. It’s a useful part of his book. Because these are my own words, anything poorly stated is my own fault, not Johnson’s.

  1. The goal of Christian reading, even leisure reading, is conformity to Christ. Therefore what and how we read matter.
  2. The Holy Spirit is the Christian reading light. This metaphor indicates that while reading, the Christian is cooperating with the Holy Spirit in coming to have self-knowledge, knowledge about what is being read, knowledge about the author, knowledge about the world, and knowledge about God.
  3. New Christians should ask wise guides for help in reading, both what to read, and how to understand it.
  4. There is a natural hierarchy in the texts we read:
    1. The canon of Scripture.
    2. Classic texts of the Christian traditions.
    3. Other quality texts (I would add, classical texts of one’s national, ethnic, or intellectual tradition).
    4. Inferior texts that aren’t worth reading.
    5. Bad texts which draw the readers from what is true, good, or beautiful.
    6. Banned texts, some texts are simply justifiably censured and censored.
  5. Non-Canonical texts need to be read with trust and suspicion.
  6. Reading non-Christian texts wisely increases wisdom and is therefore worthwhile.

References

[1] Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (InterVarsity Press, 2007), 222-226.

Are you really better?

Stephanie, at Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo, criticizes a blogger for her reasoning that outrage over actions like pedophilia is improper due to our own moral failures. Here is her main thought: 

She “laughs” at the incongruity of normal people daring to judge a child molester when calling for justice to be done. 

Why would a Christian laugh at a situation dealing with something so clearly evil, and something we are supposed to view with soberness and yes, we are called to judge and expose evil (Eph 5).

 

In the comments, when responding to a victim of child molestation 😦 , who obviously was very offended by her suggestions in this post, she defends herself and takes this analogy even further to include other evil acts some humans engage in: killing a police officer – which earns people the death penalty in some states.  Don’t judge them, she says.  You’re no better as a person, than a cop killer.

 

Ok, so where does this “you’re no better than a truly evil person” stop with this line of reasoning?

With all the mass murdering happening in the news lately, first the church that was my Uncle and Aunt’s old church being shot up with MANY children and even pregnant women murdered last week, to just this morning hearing of an elementary school being another target of an evil mass murderer.  Are we really called to “not judge” evil doers who commit acts like these?  Is it really better “to laugh” at the people who DO get angry and voice their sentiments of desiring justice?

Her philosophical exercise is revealing. The fact of human beings being all equally under condemnation for sin by no means implies that all are under equal sentences or are guilty of equally evil sins. But it got me to thinking about the Biblical justification for the claim that universal human sinfulness does not entail universal moral equality. Here are some Biblical justifications:

  1. The Old Testament teaches that Enoch and Noah were morally superior to their contemporaries and the Abel was morally superior to Cain.
  2. Old Testament laws have different penalties. Jesus teaches different levels of punishment for different levels of sin in Luke 12:35-48.
  3. He also teaches different levels of sin in John 9:40-41.
  4. Again, he teaches different levels of sin in Mark 3:28-29.
  5. Paul, in Romans 2:6-9, assumes that people have different responses to God’s revelation in conscience.
  6. Paul teaches some who are spiritual have the right and responsibility to correct their brothers and sisters in Galatians 6:1-4. These verses line up exactly with what Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-5, human judgment (instantiated as criticism and correction) is for those who first correct themselves.
  7. Peter teaches that you can get morally worse (2 Peter 2:20).
  8. James, who says not to judge your brothers lest you become a judge of the law of God, also says to turn sinners back to the truth (James 5:19-20). Through his epistle, he also criticizes the rich exploiters of the poor, those who distort faith into mere assent, and those who blame God for their personal sins. So whatever James means by ‘judge,’ he doesn’t mean, ‘don’t publicly criticize sin or sinners.’
  9. Finally, for the New Testament to teach that Christ can redeem us is to teach that at least one person is morally superior to all other people.

So, moral superiority is real and actual (not merely potential). But what does that mean? Well for one, it means that you ought not pray as though you haven’t sinned at all (Luke 18:10-14), but as one unworthy of heaven’s favor. It means that you are now responsible for correcting your brothers and sisters in such a fashion that they do not just turn around and automatically judge you because you’ve corrected your flaws so thoroughly and are willing to accept similar correction even from the person who is sinful in ways you are not. 

In the post Stephanie is criticizing, the author runs into a common problem for those who think Jesus teaches to never judge. In any act of correcting Christians who judge (read: correct or claim somebody did evil), you necessarily are judging. It is perhaps best to see Jesus’ teaching about judgment as normative: Judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24). So don’t just judge by how things appear, but judge based on careful reasoning.

My suspicion is that the original post is meant to be taken as more of a puritan exercise in self-examination. They recommended that you see in yourself the depths of depravity that are truly there through the lens of the deeds you abhor in others, then be grateful for God’s grace (see Jonathan Edwards’ Resolution 8). Exercises of this sort keep you from doing such horrible sins. 

All of this is to say that it’s important judge and it’s important to judge in such a way that allows you to remain humble.

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil

Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3 ASV)

In ancient cultures, conformity to the majority was near the top of the hierarchy of values. In fact, the Old Testament takes great pains to enforce conformity to social norms through various and elaborate status rituals and harsh legal penalties. But, the Old Testament vision of social conformity is not conformity to society as such. Instead, the vision is of society conforming to the good, rather than the individual becoming a microcosm of society. The expectation of breaking rank when the rank and file turn to evil is an implicit demand to contemplate social norms and reason whether they be good or evil. This passage also calls for a rejection of social naivete which implies gaining some degree of contemplative virtue. And as a strange conclusion, the passage also proscribes allowing pity to substitute for truth. A conservative error is to equate poverty with vice. The liberal error is to equate poverty with virtue. The Biblical middle-ground is to pursue the good generally and legal justice particularly. The following passages from Proverbs illustrate the same principles in aphoristic format:

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. (Proverbs 14:5)

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:8)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. (Proverbs 14:16)

Love Your Neighbor and Marus Aurelius

In the passage below, the word “as” can mean ‘as though’ or ‘while.’ This is so in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Most interpreters take the word ‘as’ to mean ‘as though.’ So ‘love your neighbor as though he were yourself.’ But it might be a useful thought experiment to think of it this way, ‘love [seek the well-being of] your neighbor as you love [seek the well-being] of yourself.’ I’m not saying that’s what the passage means. I’m just saying that it’s suggestive. Below is a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius about doing good by others in such a way that it benefits more than just them:

This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb (melos) of a larger body— a rational one. Or you could say “a part” (meros)— only a letter’s difference. But then you’re not really embracing other people. Helping them isn’t yet its own reward. You’re still seeing it only as The Right Thing To Do. You don’t yet realize who you’re really helping. 

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1657-1661). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

And so such a thought experiment might go: as I do what is best for myself, how might I do it in such a fashion that it is a blessing to others? Or, to put it the other way, how might I do what it best for others in a way that is good for myself and my family as well?