Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Thou shalt commit adultery"

The wikipedia entry for Bible errata is a fun read. It is intriguing how just omitting a "not" in a particular passage can completely change its meaning.

Imagine purchasing a Bible hot off the press and finding the following inside:

"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?"
(1 Corinthians 6:9)

"Go and sin on more"
(John 8:11)

"Thou shalt commit adultery"
(Exodus 20:14)

"For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands."
(1 Peter 3:5)

Things are confusing enough arguing over the original texts and Greek meanings!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Clean Hands, Clean Conscience

Perhaps Pilate's behavior in Matthew 27:24 was more therapeutic than symbolic.

physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect.

The Lady Macbeth syndrome is a myth. You can wash the spot out!

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Guides Our Theology?

One of my professors in college had a catchphrase: "Theology does not happen in a vacuum." Any theologian is inevitably going to be influenced by outside elements. Beliefs that we have are never pure and come from our genetic and culturally influenced biases. Should we consider these things contaminants in our theological petri dishes? External influences do not necessarily destroy the validity of our beliefs but it helps to be aware of them when evaluating our own decision-making (check out the blog Overcoming Bias for cool discussions on human rationality). Many would consider this a problem for theologians because the practice of theology is not scientific. It is impossible to test a theological hypothesis (despite my petri dish comment), so what criteria do we use to test our theological ideas against our biases? How do we filter out the noise to find out what is truly divinely inspired?

Christians have some consolation in that there are certain specifics that they do not need to have right to be saved. According to traditional Christianity one is not saved by whether they are calvinist or arminian, premillenial or amillenial, covenential or dispensational; it is their faith in Christ's death for their sins and resurrection. The penalty for biased thinking in those matters is considerably low. However, essentials of faith are also a matter of theology. Soteriology is just as theological as any of the non-essentials mentioned earlier, the fact that it has stronger universal agreement among Christians (at least in its basic sense, for details many come up with check out the wikipedia article on atonement theories in Christianity) does not magically disqualify it, or remove it from the realm of discussion and articulation. Also, many Christians are tempted to categorize reading and interpreting the Bible as a different thing than theology. When I pose this question, I do not.

Here are some solutions that many Christians have come up with:

1. Strongly emphasizing Biblical exegesis. The best way to keep your culture from contaminating your theology is to understand the Scriptures as best you can within the context of when they were written. This may seem like simply switching to another cultural contamination. However this was the culture that God chose to write inspired words down, so one who uses this solution would see this culture as closer to the source than current culture. Also, the prophets who were the individuals God acted through expressed themselves in conventional ways of their time. Understanding these conventions helps find the "pure" message they were given to convey.

2. All theology must be uncontaminated by culture. Any connection that can be made between someone's theology and a cultural influence automatically falsifies that theology. I do not think anyone openly endorses this method, but many people do attempt to falsify a theology by pointing out its cultural influence. That method suggests that this is their approach.

3. Acknowledge that saying, "you believe this because your culture influenced you to believe this" is the equivalent of saying, "Yeah? Well you WOULD say that!" Simply dismissing what someone says as a result of bias ends the conversation without saying anything about the truth of the statement or how the bias leads someone down the wrong path. Also, you could say this to almost anyone saying anything. Two plus two equals four? Only a modernist European imperialist would try to push such an absolute on me!

4. The Holy Spirit guides true believers, so don't worry about it. If our bias is harmful to our relationship with God we can pray for the Spirit to give us the wisdom to rise above it. We know from the promise of James 1:5 and the example of King Solomon that if we pray for wisdom, God will grant it.

Number one is the most tempting for me. I like history and am biased towards a solution that involves the historical method. I fully believe that God grants wisdom to those who pray for it (see #4), but that does not exclude #1. God can even make us wise historians who understand the historical context of the Scriptures. Number three is tempting, but most disciplines have methods for addressing this issue with ways of filtering out bias without destroying the possibility of knowledge. It is a form of academic responsibility and I do not see why theology should be exempt from it. Also, the extreme skeptic voice #3 provides is sort of a straw man. Most people accept a certain degree of common sense objectivity like math and basic logic. Number two is the least convincing solution. For one thing, it inches the thinker closer to the straw man presented in #3. For another, it is impossible to form a theology that cannot somehow be traced to some cultural element. Even the writings of the Bible show cultural assumptions that were contemporary to the authors.

I think that I prefer a method combining #1 and #4. I do want to understand what the Scriptures are telling me in their own words, which requires exegesis, but I want to be open to the Spirit to give me something revolutionary that really does transcend historical context. While #1 is preferred for being the most objective way of understanding how God has revealed himself we must be open for something new. Jesus completely overturned how his contemporaries understood the messiah. Many of the ways he fulfilled prophecy were innovative and revolutionary. We should be careful not to adopt such an extreme devotion to solution #1 that we confine God to the ancient world.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Critic or Theologian: the Fine Line

It's a common complaint among Christians that theologians wander far away from traditional Christianity. I know an elderly pastor who often refers to modernists as "those awful Germans" (obviously Tillich, Niebuhr and Bultmann). Lay Christians think they, like King Agrippa thought of Paul, have let their great learning drive them mad. They have spent so much time reading books they have proven that up is down and black is white. Theologians who reject the idea of a personal God like Paul Tillich and Bishop Sponge don't improve the image of modern theologians among Christians. I know there are people who have accused them of being secret atheists infiltrating the ranks of Christians or perhaps sleeper agents clinging to their traditional upbringing but unaware of their true beliefs. In some of these cases, like Tillich and Sponge, these accusations are somewhat justified. It comes to a point where your concept of God is so far removed from what the traditional church has been saying you must ask yourself if you can really be called a Christian anymore.

There's another way theologians have similar views to critics, even orthodox theologians --yes even the early church fathers! I was watching the debate between Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig on the reality of Jesus' resurrection the other day the other day (for those who don't know Dr. Carrier supports the negative view, Dr. Craig the positive view) and something struck me as funny while watching Dr. Carrier's opening statement. Dr. Carrier seeks to prove the historical unreliability of the resurrection by showing that the gospels are myth. In doing so he points out reoccurring themes in the events one gospel will portray and shows parallels that exist within the Old Testament. You can see his opening statement here:

(Watch between around 1:20 and 5:05)

*Note* Audio only comes out of the left speaker in this video. Also, the debate is interesting and it's worth taking the time to watch the whole thing on youtube.

So for a second lets forget that Dr. Carrier is a major critic of Christianity and focus on some of his main points.
1. Mark has a reoccurring theme of inversion of expectation in Mark: Barrabas, "Son of the Father," is released while the true Son of the Father is crucified. Simon Peter, Jesus' disciple, abandons him while Simon the stranger carries his cross. The male disciples desert Jesus while the women go to the tomb and are the first to see it empty. James and John ask to be at Jesus' right and left hand, but those who really end up at Jesus right and left hands are the criminals he is crucified with.
2. Elements in the gospel narrative come directly from the Old Testament: Psalm 22 describes the crucifixion narrative, but also Genesis, Ecclesiastes and Psalm 24.

Don't these seem like things a theologian would say? No theologian sees the gospels as simple objective statements of fact. They all see a greater story to the events, it's what they do. Rather than being proof that the gospels should be categorized as myth, theologians seem to interpret gospel metanarrative as part of God's plan or perhaps some kind of information inclusion bias in the evangelist. Also, every Christian would fully cop to events in the gospels coming from the Old Testament. In this case, what skeptics call "myth," theologians call "prophecy." Setting their conclusions aside, is there a fundamental difference between what Dr. Carrier does and what the average theologian does?

What are some things that theologians actually say about the gospels?
1. Dr. Craig, in response to Dr. Carrier, references the theologian Robert Gundry as saying that, contrary to Carrier's assertion that Mark is about overcoming expectations, Mark is about fulfilling expectations. Instead of asserting that the gospel is a simple historical report, his response still acknowledges that there is a metanarrative that is evident in the events Mark described that coincidence cannot account for.
2. Bishop (soon to be retired) N. T. Wright says that the gospels tell the story of a suffering servant messiah taken from Isaiah (playing right into Richard Carrier's hands he notes the Old Testament allusion as well as a metanarrative). Jesus contemporary kinsmen saw the messiah as royalty and the idea of a sufferer was distinct from this messiah. The sufferer would either be another person who suffered and not the messiah or be a sufferer because he was the messiah and he caused Israel's enemies to suffer. In a passage from Simply Christian Wright offers a barrage of Isaiah themes repeating in the gospels:
Isaiah was by no means the only text upon which Jesus drew for his sense of vocation, which we must assume he had thrashed out in thought and prayer over some considerable time. But it is in Isaiah, particularly the central section, that we find that combination of themes--God's coming kingdom, the renewal of creation expressed not least in remarkable healings, the power of God's 'word' to save and restore, the ultimate victory over all the 'Babylons' of the world, and the figure of the Servant itself--which we find again so strikingly in the gospels.

It seems odd to me, being a believer, in watching this debate I found that I agreed with the basics of a lot of what Dr. Carrier said in his opening statement. Am I a closet skeptic? I believe there are recurring themes in the gospels. I believe these things are not mere coincidence. I believe that the evangelists were inspired heavily by the Old Testament. And...
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.