Monday, September 29, 2008

Jews and Muslims Celebrating in Jerusalem

Both Jews and Muslims have a ritual calendar which is lunar, not solar. This is why Passover, Hanukkah, etc. move around in the calendar and the same can be said about the Muslim celebrations such as Ramadan. I've been in Jerusalem when it was celebrated in May, but this year its being celebrated now. And it coincides this year with the celebrations leading up to Yom Kippur. Here is an interesting article from today's N.Y. Times about the juxaposition of these celebrations.

See what you think.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Is there A Christian View of Politics?

My friend James Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC, always writes thoughtful columns on important subjects. Here is a recent one of his on politics.

So what is the Christian angle on politics in America? Aren’t we supposed to buy into the conservative line, as we’ve been told for years? Or could liberals be onto something important? Or are they the ruin of everything we hold dear?

People ask me: are you liberal? or conservative? Sometimes my reply is: it depends on the issue – but my true answer is: neither! The Church drifts into absurd irrelevance if we do nothing more than baptize one or the other of the prevalent options society has dreamed up. We have our own perspective, which at times seems in sync with this or that policy – but then Bam! …we surprise everybody with a wrinkle, a twist. We are not middle of the road, although when we are most faithful to God we are likely to annoy (and occasionally to please) liberals and conservatives in equal measure.

How could this be? Human institutions, political parties, and even the noblest people who choose public service, are sinful, flawed; self-serving agendas get in the way, or the perils of the moment blind us to a greater good God would have us pursue. And frankly, not everybody out there is exactly “lost in wonder, love and praise,” deeply immersed in the Bible, and prepared to “take up your cross and follow” (Mark 8:34). Many citizens in both parties don’t think twice about God, or God is like a good-luck charm they think will help them get the goodies they crave. Politicans fawn over the electorate; they will “say anything,” and they even hire wizards to advise them on how to talk religious folks into voting for them. Parties and politics are not surprisingly out of sync with God.

We can see the wisdom, then, in John Howard Yoder’s words: “Jesus refused to concede that those in power represent an ideal or acceptable definition of what it means to be political. He did not say ‘You can have your politics and I shall do something else more important.’ He said, ‘Your definition of politics, and social existence, is wrong.’” Our intentions may be praiseworthy, and at times we rise to the occasion; there is so much that is marvelous and to be cherished in American life. But God quite mercifully calls us to something better than the inevitably compromised options of Democrat or Republican.

Tony Campolo has recently written about Red Letter Christians – those who take their cues, not from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore, but from the words of Jesus; no political operative can tell us what to think, for we are Christians, believing Jesus is the way. Red letter Christians can be Republican or Democrat – and hopefully both! They can and should be the “leaven” in the world; they “should be the ultimate swing vote, holding both sides accountable to a broader moral vision” (as Campolo wisely states).

There is always – always! – a “contrarian” bent to the Christian political angle. After all, in the Roman empire the complaint filed against Christians was “they are turning the world upside down” (Acts 17). In a world that does not love the Lord Jesus, we will expect to find ourselves at odds with business as usual; we shun a judgmental spirit, but we do not refrain from making judgments. “The Church is not simply a ‘voluntary association’ that may be of some use to the wider public, but rather is the community constituted by practices by which all other politics are to be judged” (Stanley Hauerwas).

Abraham Lincoln told the truth about “sides” who boast of God: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered… The Almighty has His own purposes.” Knowing this, we treat each other charitably, and look to God for something better: “With malice toward none; with charity for all… to bind up the nation’s wounds – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”


In God We Trust-- an Essay on the Idolatry of Security

I have just returned from a first rate symposium on the issue of security (political, spiritual, eternal, economic and other forms) where a group of theologians, Biblical scholars and ethicists gathered to discuss what the Bible had to say about various forms of security at North Park Seminary on Sept. 25-27. The papers in general were excellent and in due course will appear in a future issue of Ex Auditu. Walter Moberly a top drawer OT scholar and churchman who teaches at my alma mater the University of Durham presented one of the best and most challenging papers, and he kindly consented to let me reproduce the text of it here. The notes will appear with the edited form of this in Ex Auditu. Let me know what you think of his reflections.


R. W. L. Moberly (Durham University)

Security is perhaps the most basic of human longings and needs. Nations, communities, families and individuals all in their various ways seek security – safety, protection, confidence, stability. Negatively, security means a context of living in which people are free, or protected, from dangers and threats, while positively it means a context in which people are able to flourish together, ideally also with the existential awareness that this is so.
If one wants to put "being secure" into biblical Hebrew, the root that most readily springs to mind is bth; there is a common verb batah ("trust"), and a related noun betah, which standard lexicons render as "security". Another Hebrew root is ys(, whose common verb and noun forms (hoshia(, yeshu(ah), generally rendered with "deliver/deliverance" and "save/salvation", cover related conceptual ground. Of the numerous other roots that might be mentioned, the noun shalom ("peace") should perhaps be singled out as belonging in this context. These are prime terms within the OT for depiction of the divine-human relationship as it should be. And of course the concept and reality may be present with no particular terminology to depict them.
Yet the more important the human need, the greater both the potential for, and the seriousness of, its misunderstanding and misuse: corruptio optimi pessima. Unsurprisingly, it is the prophetic corpus within the OT which most obviously and extensively addresses misdirection and malpractice in the whole area of the longing for security. Indeed, this is one of the prime reasons why the prophets have been valued down the ages; their highlighting of the ways in which the heart of life under God can be perverted has given the prophets an enduring existential challenge to groups and individuals alike.
Within the OT, the temple in Jerusalem is the prime place of the presence of YHWH with His people, a place of enormous symbolic significance. The Psalms in particular often celebrate Zion as the focus of YHWH's good pleasure, and the place where His people can expect to meet with Him and receive His blessing. In many ways, the temple symbolizes security. Here Israel can sing: "God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved… The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Ps. 46:6,8 [ET 5,7]).
However, where much is given, there much is expected (cf. Lk. 12:48). A recurrent failure on the part of Israel/Judah to live up to those expectations and conduct themselves in a way commensurate with the presence of God in their midst is a prime concern in the prophetic literature. So I propose to look at three famous prophetic "temple sermons", passages that focus on the mismatch between the priorities of YHWH and those of Israel/Judah.

It must be admitted that it is not self-evident that my initial "temple sermon" is a temple sermon. I propose this, however, as a reading strategy, because the ten verses read well as a unit, and there is direct address to people engaged in the practices of temple worship. Within the context of the book one can imagine the temple in Bethel as its location, with the hostility of Amaziah as its response (Am. 7:10-13).

18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

The people Amos addresses have a confident expectation associated with God, an expectation depicted as "the day of YHWH". The precise nature of this day is assumed to be known, and unfortunately this assumption no longer holds for Amos's readers. Nonetheless, one main point is clear, that this is a time which can be depicted as "light", which would mean a time when in some special sense God's will is done, and God's people could expect to rejoice in it. Amos inverts this: "darkness, not light" is how the day of YHWH will be. This is illustrated by a picture of a man vainly trying to escape deadly animals – he escapes from a lion (intrinsically a remarkable feat) only to be confronted by a bear, and when he escapes from the bear into a house, presumably imagining himself safe at last, an unnoticed snake bites him. The inexorability of disaster is reminiscent of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. Moreover, at the risk of over-reading the text, I would at least note that the imagery has strong canonical resonances: the lion is an image of YHWH's judgment in Kings, and YHWH's roar like a lion introduces Amos's whole message (Am. 1:2, cf. 3:8); while "the house" (habbayith) is the most common term for the Jerusalem temple. So one could perhaps read the man's fleeing from a lion as an image of Israel's fleeing from YHWH, with the suggestion that there is nowhere safe to hide and even (or, rather, especially) the temple offers no refuge. In any case, Amos resumes and intensifies his depiction of the day of YHWH as that which utterly confounds hopeful expectation (v.20).
Why should this be? A reason (additional to those earlier in the text of Amos) is directly given.

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The text focusses on what YHWH rejects and on what He seeks, and concentrates on what the people do (the many activities of temple worship) rather than on what they do not do. Yet the point is clear and emphatic: worship without concomitant practice of justice and righteousness is not merely worthless but actively affronts YHWH and is an object of loathing to Him. The imagery of rolling, flowings waters suggests that the practice of justice and righteousness should be both strong and constant, an integral aspect of Israel's life. Integrity in public life is the sine qua non of true worship.

25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27 therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.

There are numerous well-known difficulties of interpretation here, the first of which is probably the separation of 5:25 from 5:24, since the negative rhetorical question about sacrifices best belongs integrally with 5:21-24 (despite the fine interim climax that is made by the summons for justice and righteousness). For present purposes we may simply note that Israel's worship not only lacks the necessary accompaniment of integrity but also is directed to recipients other than YHWH, such that YHWH is not the "one and only" focus of Israel's acts of devotion (cf. Deut. 6:4-5). As a consequence, Israel will not only lose temple and land by going into exile, but YHWH himself will be the instigator of that loss (no doubt through the agency of one of Israel's enemies). The "day of YHWH" will be darkness, and the form that darkness will take will be the loss of all security through defeat and deportation. YHWH becomes, as it were, the enemy of his chosen people. How this should be understood is an issue to which we will return.

No narrative context is given for the passage from Micah which follows, yet its content qualifies it as a "temple sermon". Moreover, the appeal to these words of Micah as a precedent for Jeremiah in the narrative account of Jeremiah's "temple sermon" (Jer. 26, esp. vv.17-19) implicitly locates Micah within Jerusalem, and the text of Micah also imaginatively invites such a location.

9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
11 Its rulers give judgement for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
"Surely the LORD is with us!
No harm shall come upon us."

Micah's address is direct and blunt. He speaks to the leaders of Israel, those with responsibility for its common life (3:9a), and portrays them as corrupt, failing in their obligations for just dealings in public (3:9b), and maltreating those labouring on public and/or private building projects with a harshness that is careless of life (3:10). The leadership in its various forms – both 'secular' (rulers) and 'spiritual' (priests, prophets) – is venal; the justice and guidance that should enable healthy communal life have become commodities, to be had only for a price – which intrinsically (though the point is implicit) subverts their true nature (3:11a). Yet apparently these leaders do not see their conduct as incompatible with strong religious claims; they acknowledge their dependence upon YHWH; they claim YHWH's presence "in our midst", which is clearly a reference to the Jerusalem temple as the focal point of YHWH's presence with Israel/Judah (as celebrated in the psalms); and they regard YHWH's presence in the temple as a guarantee of security from their enemies (as also celebrated in, for example, Psalms 46,48).

12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Micah brusquely draws out the implications of the mismatch between the leaders' practice and their religious claims, and "connect[s] fault with fate". It is precisely because of their complacent corruption that the disaster they are confident cannot happen will happen: city and temple together will be reduced to ruins overgrown by vegetation. What will happen to the people is not specified; though insofar as the site of city and temple returns to the wild, the implication is that its inhabitants will not be there to rebuild, and so will either be dead or deported into exile.
Although various questions can be put to this, not least in relation to the account of Micah's reception in Jeremiah 26:17-19, we will for the present move directly to our third temple sermon.

Jeremiah's well-known temple sermon is perhaps the only one of our three passages that would be generally recognized under this nomenclature. But although it is lengthier than the other two, and is provided with a clear narrative setting, there is, as will be seen, a striking commonality of content and understanding between all three.

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'

Jeremiah is to position himself in a place of maximal exposure to temple worshippers, and initially say three things. First (v.3a), he challenges temple worshippers to "amend their ways"; in other words, as Jeremiah puts it elsewhere, they are to "turn"/"repent" (3:12,14, 4:1, 18:7-8); change of conduct is necessary. Secondly (v.3b), he holds out a positive consequence of such turning, which is that YHWH will let the people of Judah stay in their land and not (by implication) be defeated by their enemies with consequent deportation for the survivors. Thirdly (v.4), he warns against a deceptive thought, a false presumption, that is the (implicit) assumption that YHWH's presence in the temple means security for Judah from its enemies. It is important, moreover, to see that what Jeremiah pronounces to be "deceptive" – "This is the temple of the LORD" – is on one level undoubtedly true: as a matter of fact the Jerusalem temple was the temple of YHWH. The way in which something that is good and true can become deceptive or false is central to Jeremiah's prophetic message.
The rest of Jeremiah's address expands these three points.

5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors for ever and ever.

First, Jeremiah gives fuller content to the initial challenge to amendment, and spells out what is involved. The basic requirement is to practise justice (mishpat, v.5b) – a key term as also in Amos (5:24) and Micah (3:9). This is specified in terms of not taking advantage of those of whom advantage might most easily be taken – the resident foreigner, the orphan, the widow – because they lacked normal social security as embodied in kin or head of the house. As so often in the OT, the assumption is that if justice is given to those who are most easily denied it, then justice will (in principle) be practised elsewhere too. Shedding of innocent blood could envisage either the oppressive maltreatment of labourers (as in Mic. 3:10), or the manipulation of legal procedure (as against Naboth, 1 Kgs 21), or possibly some other malpractice; whichever way, exploitation and violence are seen as the denial of justice. Going after other gods represents fundamental disloyalty to YHWH (a denial of the first of the Ten Commandments and of the Shema), and would also entail Judah's undoing ("to your own hurt"). In all these ways, the Judahites are challenged to change for the better.
Finally, YHWH's gift to Israel/Judah of its land in perpetuity ("for ever and ever") is implied to be no guarantee against YHWH's depriving them of that gift. The prophetic understanding is that gift implies expectation, and so failure to live up to expectation can imperil the gift and amendment is needed to retain it. Jeremiah's account of what that expectation entails now leads into his speaking further about how the people of Judah's belief in their security with YHWH, because of His presence in the temple, has in fact become false, and so idolatrous.

8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say "We are safe!" – only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.

Just as vv.5-7 expanded v.3, so now vv.8-10 expand v.4. The people's mantra, their "deceptive words" that "This is the temple of the LORD", is now resumed and clarified by the claim "We are safe", which makes more specific the belief that YHWH's presence in the temple means the deliverance of Jerusalem from its enemies. Yet Jeremiah sees self-contradiction here. In essence, Jeremiah's point is that the claim to YHWH's presence and protection is self-involving language, language that implies a human way of living commensurate with the divine presence that is invoked. But Judah is living in flagrant disregard of YHWH's priorities, and their specified transgressions reads like a summary of disobedience to the Ten Commandments. To suppose that one can use the language of YHWH's presence and protection and yet detach oneself from the intrinsic moral and spiritual dimensions of YHWH's will is to misunderstand one's language, to empty it of content and to abuse it. This is what turns claims about YHWH's temple, which on one level are factually true, into something deceptive, a falsehood.
Jeremiah next develops further the issue mentioned in v.3b, only casting it now not as hopeful possibility but as pure warning of disaster, where the possibility of hope can only be realized if the warning is heeded and acted upon:

12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.

The warning is backed by appeal to a precedent – the temple of YHWH at Shiloh which by Jeremiah's time had been reduced to ruins and had been abandoned (i.e. Shiloh exemplified Micah's depiction of Jerusalem, Mic. 3:12). If the corruption of Israel led to the overthrow of Shiloh – where the strong emphasis on divine action in overthrowing is presumably to be envisaged in terms of YHWH's use of human agency – then the heedless and unresponsive corruption of Judah can similarly lead to Jerusalem's overthrow at the hands of an enemy, operating at YHWH's behest. The consequence will be the familiar fate of the vanquished, already experienced by the northern kingdom – deportation into exile. The irony is that YHWH Himself, to whose divine presence in the temple the Judahites complacently appeal as protection against disaster, will be the primary cause and agent of that disaster.

I hope it will be readily apparent why I have grouped these three passages together as temple sermons. Each criticizes corrupt practice in Jerusalem, which could be summarized as a failure to practise justice (mishpat); each criticizes spurious trust in YHWH, focussed in some way upon His presence in the temple; each sees the trust as spurious because it is complacent and has become detached from an obedience commensurate with the trust; each warns of a coming destruction of the temple and/or the Judahites' deportation into exile; and each sees the destruction and/or exile as the act of YHWH.
Because the implied dynamics of these prophetic messages are in principle familiar within Jewish and Christian thought, it would be easy to resort to shorthand formulations to summarize our expositions. One possible shorthand would be some form of "Ethics trumps ritual". However, I consider such a formulation unhelpful, as it oversimplifies the complex relationships between moral practice and the activities of worship. It is one thing to say that the rituals of worship without appropriate moral practice are empty, indeed offensive; it is another to denigrate ritual as such in relation to moral practice. Yet shorthand formulations in this area almost always imply some such denigration. A much better shorthand would be the first line of the well-known chorus, "Trust and obey", for such a combination indeed goes to the heart of the prophetic understanding of life with God. Nonetheless, even the best theological shorthands perhaps risk encouraging a certain kind of complacency, in that there is a danger that one may come away thinking "I knew that anyway" or "Nothing new here" without having felt afresh any existential challenge from the biblical text. So instead I propose briefly to offer a few preliminary reflections to try to exemplify what it might mean to take seriously these prophetic texts today.
First and foremost, any use of these biblical texts in relation to our concern with the idolatry of security today necessarily involves the adoption of analogical and metaphorical modes of thought, as the means whereby we may do our constructive thinking today in attentive and faithful dialogical relation with the ancient text. For the fact that the Jerusalem temple has long since disappeared does not nullify the prophetic challenge, or make it anachronistic, since there remain other prime symbols of trust in God, the human dynamics in relation to which may be strongly similar to those in relation to the temple.
Within a Christian context the two prime symbols are probably the Bible and the dominical sacraments (baptism and eucharist). In many and various ways these are understood to be vehicles of the divine presence, and as such become focal points of hope and expectation, and also of assurance that God is with His people. Yet Christians who attend diligently to reading and studying the Bible and hearing it preached, or who regularly attend eucharists and develop spiritual disciplines related to eucharistic worship (confession, fasting, etc), may become lax in their moral practices that relate to the wellbeing of others. If so, if there develops a significant mismatch between their religious practices and their way of living, they may need to hear a challenge that their religious practices have become empty, even offensive, to God.

That which applies initially with relation to primary Christian symbols can pertain also with relation to larger concerns, such as church, race, country. At the risk of pointing to the speck in someone else's eye, while ignoring the log in my own, and/or raising an issue where heat can easily predominate over light, let me suggest that some of these problems are evident in major strands of premillennial dispensationalism and its outworking in Christian Zionism with its distinctive kind of political, financial and military support for certain aspects of the state of Israel.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are at least two core characteristics of this movement. One is a focus on OT prophecy as predictive, indeed as predictive in an as yet unrealized way, awaiting realization once the timetable of the end times gets under way after the rapture. Quite apart from the way in which this ignores the intrinsically conditional and response-seeking nature of much biblical prophecy, the peculiar emphasis of this approach also effectively ignores the passages we have been looking at, which stress that without the practice of justice God's favour and protection is forfeited. Thus the more or less no-questions-asked support for Israeli militarism and for Israeli settlements in the West Bank in disregard for Palestinian concerns represents a failure to grasp that which is central to prophetic concerns. It is an approach that is incapable of hearing Jeremiah's warning that a land given in perpetuity may be forfeited through, among other things, unjust oppression of the weak and vulnerable.
A second characteristic is the indirect concern for America's own security, through the prime emphasis given to God's words to Abraham in Gen.12:3a, "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse." The explicit logic of some Christian Zionism is that America must bless Israel (i.e. provide financial and political support) so that God may bless America (i.e. give America security and victory over its enemies). There is here a deeply chauvinist streak, perhaps most famously exemplified in Hal Lindsey's scenarios of God giving America ultimate victory over its enemies in the end times. There is less concern with America discerning and doing what is just, than with America positioning itself advantageously to receive blessing (security) now and in the end times.
This kind of Zionism involves at its heart a self-serving reading of the Bible, which fails to understand how God's promises relate to God's demands. It is ironic, indeed tragic, that Christians who seek to be distinctive by their faithfulness to Scripture should have allowed themselves to be misled in this way into idolatrous practice. As in the days of Micah, those who lead bear special responsibility.

I would also like briefly to touch on a major theological issue posed by our prophetic texts: how are we to understand God? The OT portrayal of YHWH as one who brings conquering armies against His people, armies which destroy cities and carry the defeated into exile, is one that makes some believers nervous, especially in a contemporary context of heightened anxieties about the relationship between religious belief and violence.
This can be posed as an issue about the use of Scripture in forming belief, where there are ready polarized positions. On the one side, anything the Bible says about God must be straightforwardly accepted as a true self-revelation. On the other side, God is a literary figure within the biblical text and any relationship between that God and a true God is both unknown and unknowable. And there are, of course, significant mediating positions. But rather than approach the issue in this way, I would prefer to work with the classic Christian understanding that there is a true self-revelation of God within both testaments of Scripture, and that in prophetic texts such as the ones we are considering we hear an authentic message from God – and to ask what follows morally and theologically from this.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, let me suggest that a major problem for much contemporary Christian thinking is that of "de-moralizing" God. We rightly proclaim and celebrate God's "love" and "grace", yet we wrongly fail to understand the inescapably moral and demanding nature of that love and grace. In the terminology made famous by Bonhoeffer in the opening words of his The Cost of Discipleship we are prone to "cheap grace". Or, in the terms of this paper, we have forgotten and/or neglected the nexus between knowing God and doing His will which is repeatedly formulated within both testaments and given particular emphasis by the prophets.
Another way of putting this, in general theological terms, is that we have become uneasy and/or unfamiliar with the biblical concept of the "wrath of God" ()aph yhwh, orge theou). Yet it is one thing to recognize how easily this language is corrupted, and another to fail to understand its right use. In general biblical and theological terms, "wrath" is what happens when God's good and loving purposes (hesed, agape) encounter human complacency and intransigence (stiffness of neck, hardness of heart, impenitence, unbelief). Here a prime way in which the reality of God's moral character can be expressed is through warnings to try to engender a right response, rather than through affirmations of love and mercy, which can simply engender in the unresponsive the sense that they can get away with whatever they want. Or, differently expressed, heaven and hell are related dimensions of the realities of responsiveness, or its lack, to the call of God.
When such warnings are addressed not just to individuals but to a people, they will naturally tend to take those forms in which trouble and hardship would most readily come upon a people in that particular culture. For many Western countries today, especially those within NATO, warnings might not be meaningfully expressed in terms of the military overthrow that was an ever-present possibility for small countries such as ancient Israel and Judah – though no doubt things look different from within Kosovo or Georgia. To be sure, deep existential cultural fears remain, both in relation to the horrific potential of nuclear weaponry in unreliable hands, and in relation to the way in which the terrorist threats of Al Qaeda (among others) have assumed enormous imaginative significance. However, it is not at all clear how best, if at all, contemporary warnings might be formulated in relation to these – beyond recognizing that the Islamist critique of Western culture as decadent, arrogant and imperialistic contains important truth, if only one can find appropriately discriminating and non-ham-fisted ways of formulating the critique from within the culture.
In short, the challenge to discern an appropriate form of warning to the heedless and complacent in contemporary culture is a demanding corollary of a biblical and Christian vision of God.

In the above reflections I have somewhat narrowed our theme of "the idolatry of security" into a focus primarily upon two issues: the use of Scripture, and the relationship between grace/gift and demand/expectation. I trust that other papers will address other dimensions. The reason for my approach is that it is all too easy, within a context of Christian theologians in a Christian academic setting, to use familiar biblical language and concepts with insufficient reflection on their real significance. Those who have learned to inhabit the world of the Bible can readily bring biblical content to bear upon today's world – and I am all in favour of that! But a little reflection upon what we are doing ought to make us more alert in both watching our language and attending to our practice. As we ponder some of the many ways in which the human longing for security can become idolatrous and lead to corruption of self and injustice towards others, I hope that we will not ourselves be beguiled by the security of familiarity with the Bible and an academic context into idolatrously detaching ourselves and our love of the Bible from obedient attentiveness to God's priorities for His world.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008



A lot of heat, and very little light is about to be shed in the next six weeks when it comes to political races, and we have already seen some truly surprising things happen. Who would every believe George Bush would propose a massive bailout for Wall Street malfesance and bad financial practices? Not me. And now that we have Presidential debates starting this Friday evening, its time once more to trot out my voter guide-- with some revisions

Our current national economic crisis gives us an opportunity to reassess the whole issue of Christian aligning themselves with a particular political party, rather than evaluating candidates on an issue by issue, or candidate by candidate basis. We ought to be evaluating each candidate on their own merits, not on the basis of their current party affiliation. This of course requires more thought, instead of just pushing the straight party ticket button in the polling booth. Christians should be good citizens and be more thoughtful about who they vote for. They shouldn’t just listen to this or that Evangelical leader’s endorsements, even if it is someone like James Dobson or Pat Robertson who have considerable political clout.

In this particular post I want to suggest a series of steps Evangelicals should take in approaching next November’s elections. Some have to do with basic Christian obligation as a citizen of this country who appreciates the freedom and democracy we have, and then some of them have to do with critical thinking about issues and candidates.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK—There is really no excuse for laziness when it comes to being an informed voter, especially when we now have such a wealth of information online, and through other viable sources of news about candidates. Do not use the ‘cop out’ of ‘they’re all just the same’, or ‘no politicians are trustworthy’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’. If you have time to enjoy the freedoms you have in this country, then you certainly have time to become an informed voter. Period.

PLAN ON VOTING, EVEN IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED—The percentage of Christians who could vote but don’t is high, much too high, and the end result of such bad behavior is that we often get exactly what we’ve voted for--- Nothing! Or at least, nothing good. Do not let the fact that at this juncture there may seem to be no obvious candidate for a truly conservative Christian to vote for, for this office or that, deter you. There is better and there is worse, and you’d better figure out which is which, or what we will get is worse. This is particularly an urgent matter since in the last eight years things have certainly gotten worse economically and it terms of our relationships both with our allies and enemies. The politics of fear is trumping the politics of faith and sound reasoning repeatedly, and this leads to disastrous results in the long run for our country-- both economically and militarily.

DO NOT BE A ONE ISSUE VOTER-- However passionate you may be about a particular issue, lets say abortion, you should never, never vote for someone simply on the basis of a single ethical issue. Never. Did, I mention not ever. Why not?

Because there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence, and if you privilege only one such issue, you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating candidates. It is fine to allow a stance on one issue to be the tipping point such that you favor candidate A over candidate B, when otherwise it’s pretty much of a wash, but there should be no shibboleth. One illustration will have to do.

In a crucial election during the time of the cold war, and with heightened tensions with Cuba. Kennedy ran vs. Nixon. Many people did not vote for Kennedy, simply because he was a Catholic, and we had not had a Catholic President previously. There were even stupid and ill-considered inflammatory remarks made about how if Kennedy got elected, the country would be subject to the influence of the Pope in some objectionable ways. Thank goodness such benighted ideas did not determine the outcome of the election. Kennedy was the right man at the time, and he helped diffuse the Cuban missile crisis. We need to learn some lessons from the political past lest we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

From here on, in this post, I will be talking about matters that pertain to critical thinking on the issues.


Life is complex, and so are ethical issues. One of the things you need to decide is whether it is more important to you what kind of person you vote for, in terms of character, or what the stances are of the person you are voting for. Sometimes we have elected well-meaning good Christian folks who couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. Sometimes we have elected very effective politicians, who nevertheless raised some issues for us because of their stances on particular issues. In a perfect world we could wish for candidates who are both skilled as public servants and have impeccable character.

Unfortunately, this all too often not the case, especially because of the way our political process now works with PAC money and lobbyists and numerous other unhealthy factors determining who actually can be viable candidates for a major office. In the situation we are in, how much should the candidate’s agreement with me on my list of hot button issues weigh in my decision? How much should their apparent character weigh? What do you do if it’s hard to tell? These are important questions. Personally I would rather have a politician skilled in the art of compromise (which is of the essence of modern democracy and policy making) who is of generally good character, but with whom I may disagree with on this issue or another, than a devout but unexperienced and unskilled Christian person. Let me use an analogy.

Would you rather have a surgeon operating on you in a life threatening situation who is a devout Christian, but not all that skillful and experienced in getting the job done right, or would you rather have a surgeon who has an impeccable record in regard to doing his job well, a stellar record of good outcomes when he applied his skills but whom you had some ethical disagreements? I personally would want surgeon B, if there had to be a choice.


Obviously, this list of vital issues is a moving target which will change in some cases, as our country’s situation changes. I wouldn’t think anyone would be weighing where the current crop of candidates stand on the Spanish-American war many moons ago! I would strongly urge Evangelicals not to limit their list to just personal ethical issues, such as matters of sexual ethics, abortion, and the like. These are very important, but as thinking Evangelicals you also need to weigh where candidates stand on various aspects of foreign policy—the trade deficit, the war in Iraq, or economic relationships with China and other third world countries, the position of the candidate on Darfur, the issue of nuclear regulation (in North Korea, Iran etc.), our relationship with crucial Muslim countries where we have a stake but are not embroiled in military action currently—Turkey, Pakistan, etc. In other words, we need to be global Christians, and think globally, especially if our first commitment is, as it should be, to the worldwide body of Christ and the worldwide spread of the Gospel.


Obfuscation and fuzziness has of course become a political art form, and sometimes this is because the potential emperor has no clothes, or hasn’t thought through the issues themselves. The last thing we need in our current situation is politicians who make it up as they go along, or show signs of constantly shifting their views, depending on which way the political wind blows.


I wish I could tell you that the above outlined process of discernment was easy, but it is not. And there will be ambiguities, and you will have to make some judgment calls. You have to accept that you may well make some mistakes, and all the more is this likely to be the case when there is no clear front-runner that an Evangelical Christian of any stripe might think was someone one ought obviously to vote for.

Over the course of the coming six weeks, pay attention to the ads, watch a few of the debates, read up on the candidates web sites, watch the primaries, and be prepared. It would be a great tragedy if only a minority of Christians voted in the next election who are eligible, and the country continued its downward slide as a result. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ could be changed to ‘you get what you do or don’t vote for’.

Remember the old adage—all it takes for something bad to happen, or continue happening, is for good people to stand idly by and let that transpire.

Monday, September 22, 2008


What people do to animals,is, well amazing. And dogs especially all to often seem to come in for what can only be called cruel and unusual treatment. But in these pictures there is an attempt to humanize the hound, as you will see.

I have some captions for you, so match the caption to the picture: 1) I can't believe the chihuahua drank all the root beer; 2) a dog cannot live by bread alone; 3) dog practices Kung Fu moves; 4)'Honestly I always wanted to look like a seal, and O.K. so I have my rubber ducky, but where is the Old Spice body wash?; 5) 'Who says there are no happy meals for dogs?'; 6) 'A mouse! Quick, jump up on a chair (especially if the mouse is bigger than you)'; 7) I'm writing a doggone term paper. Did you think I was looking for the mouse?'; 8) when you weigh less than 3 ounces wringing wet, you never wanna be wringing wet'; 9) 'If someone would just hold my head up, I could keep eating'; 10) 'Last I checked, Halloween is not a celebration for dogs'; 11) 'Not a peep out of you, 'cause I am nothing to sneeze at'; 12) 'O.K. now I see why they call this sucking thing a dummy in England'; 13) 'I don't care if I just broke my leg, I've just had a triple espresso at Starbucks also and I feel perky!!!'

Excerpts from the dog and cat diaries of the week:


Monday--- given a new bone-- the best treat ever!
Tuesday taken for a walk-- the best walk ever!
Wednesday-- fed left over steak bits-- the best meal ever!
Thursday-- Ride in car with windows down-- the best day ever!
Friday-- Play frisbee with master-- He's the best master ever!

Monday-- given more bland left over cat treats-- How long can this go on?
Tuesday-- allowed outside for all of five minutes! This is day 3,000 of my captivity.
Wednesday-- kicked out of my favorite chair by his highness when he came home. I thought possession was nine tenths of the law!
Thursday-- Hid under the bed while the infernal vacuum cleaner was going. God that thing is loud!
Friday-- Left blissfully alone as family heads off for a night out. Whew-- survived another week of incarceration.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Red Sox Fan's Tribute to Yankee Stadium

By now anyone who knows baseball at all knows that Yankee stadium was rightly dubbed, 'the house that Ruth built'. Indeed one could call it at its inception in 1923 the house built for Ruth, with that less than 300 feet distance down the right field line. George Hermann Ruth was of course a Red Sox who won a world series with the Sox, as a pitcher no less. And yes, its true, he was traded for a song-- more particularly so that the then owner of the Red Sox could stage a musical-- 'No, No Nanette', in one of the colossally stupidest moves ever made in baseball history.

Whoever it was who saw the potential of Babe Ruth as a home run hitter, he must have also been far sighted enough to realize that if you build a cathedral for baseball, ideally suited for lefties like Ruth to hit home runs, then 'they will come'. And come they did. For 39 American league championships and a likely never to be equalled 23 World Series titles. No one can ever dispute that in the
20th century, no team dominated a professional sport like the Yankees dominated baseball. And of course this is a tribute to the unbelievable number of great players and plays that have graced that field.

When I was a child my father used to drive me to Greensboro to see the Greensboro Yankees play. I took my glove with me, and watched Mel Stottlemeyre and Tommy Tresh and Bobby Mercer and others come and go on the way to New York. I used to admire Whitey Ford, as he was a pitcher and a lefty like me (but I loved Sandy Koufax even more who not only was a lefy but was born on my birthday). In the late 50s and early 60s on the game of the week the Yankees seemed larger than life with a lineup of Maris, Mantle, Howard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer, Ford and so many others. Who could ever beat them?

But then a team in 1960 fired up by a Duke guy named Dick Groat and one Bill Mazeroski temporally knocked the Yankees off their championship perch. They would rebound of course and win in 1961 and 62. But no one knew it in 1962, but 1962 foreshadowed the end of total dominance in a year after year fashion. The Yankees between 1962 and 2000 would indeed win more championships, but there would be interspersed long dry spells (e.g. no championships between 1963 and 1976, or between 1982 and 1996). In fact, the year 2000, the last year of the 20th century (because centuries always begin with the year 1, not the year 0), was the last time the Yankees have won the World Series.

It is an odd truth, that just as a Red Sox began the run of glory for Yankee Stadium, it was also a Red Sox team that caused the Yankees most stinging playoff defeat in the young 21rst century, when the self-described 'bunch of idiots' called the never say die 2004 Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight games in the ALCS, (the last two in Yankee stadium) to finally break the curse of the Bambino, and send the ghosts of Yankee stadium back to where they belong. Baseball in Boston has not been the same since then. New England pessimism had to find some other punching bag than the Red Sox to blame for their troubles, thereafter. One columnist even said that the ghost of New England fatalistic Calvinism died a happy death in that year.

Tonight, when they close down Yankee stadium once and for all, it would be my hope as a lover of our National Past Time that three true Yankees of class and dignity and skill would have a great night--- Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter, one of my personal favorite Yankees of all time. Hats off to the Yankees for showing us how it was done for so many years, and Red Sox nation looks forward to christening the new ballpark next year. "Say it ain't so Joe....", they closed the ballpark in the Bronx once and for all tonight. Or as Yogi once said "it's getting late, early tonight :)"

They Also Serve....

One Sunday morning the pastor noticed little Alex standing in the foyer of the church staring up at a large plaque. It was covered with names and small American flags. The six-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up and stood beside the boy.

"Pastor, what is this," said Alex still focused on the plaque. The pastor replied, "Well son, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service." Soberly, they just stood together, staring at the plaque. Finally, little Alex, barely audible and trembling with fear asked, "Which service, the 8:30 or the 10:45?"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Michael Phelps at an Exceedingly Young Age

O.K., so it wasn't drugs that took Michael Phelps to the top, it was genetics, and that indominatable will. Kudos to Ross for this.....

Colbert Explains why President Bush Failed so Badly!

Well Nation, in this time of jaundiced politics at least there is one Christian man speaking a prophetic word into our political malaise. I am referring of course to that good Carolinian (albeit South Carolina), Stephen Colbert. Unlike the Bill Cosby post, this one is actually by the attributed author, albeit, tongue firmly in cheek.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I am very pleased to announce that with help from a lot of you, offering suggestions and corrections, our first novel has hit the bookstands today. And boy do I have a deal for you. Oregon has no sales tax, and so my publisher Pickwick Press (owned by Wipf and Stock) has deep discounted the novel if you order through the link here---

Are you tired of bad and shlocky Christian fiction, which not only offers bad interpretations of Biblical prophecy and Biblical history (think the Left Behind series), but frankly offers bad writing as well? Well, here is your chance to give someone an archaeological thriller than can prompt a conversation about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and how we ought to treat one another. Here is what Tom Morris, the popular Christian philosopher said about this novel---

The Lazarus Effect is a rare, gripping, fast-paced, intelligent thriller that can keep you entertained, and actually change your worldview. It's a wild ride through a tumultuous part of the world where you'll discover surprises that can make you think more deeply about some of the most important things in your life. Once you start to read it, you won't be able to put it down!

Tom Morris
Author of The Art of Achievement,
If Harry Potter Ran General Electric, and
The Logic of God Incarnate

And here is what Anne Rice and A.J. Levine said about it---

There's no thriller quite like an archaeological thriller, and when we find ourselves in a biblical mystery, the suspense and the drama are especially delicious. Set against the intense, exotic, and vivid backdrop of modern Israel, yet delving into the deepest mysteries of the time of Christ, The Lazarus Effect won't fail to entertain and inform. Highly recommended.
-Anne Rice, NY Times best-selling author of The Vampire Chronicles and Christ the Lord.

"Ben Witherington, the accomplished and acclaimed biblical scholar, offers a fast-paced, entertaining archaeological thriller with occasional winks to the biblical studies guild, the popularization of biblical studies in magazines and television shows, and recent controversies over ancient artifacts. Even better, The Lazarus Effect neatly portrays both the necessity of interfaith friendship and the dangers of defensive fundamentalism."

-Amy-Jill Levine, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion and College of Arts and Science

So, stock up now. Buy a bunch and give it to folks for Christmas. Its guaranteed
to be a conversation starter if its a stocking stuffer. Let's see if we can market this in the same way Christian word of mouth Marketed the Shack.


O.K. in the spirit of full disclosure and weighing all options, Bill Cosby has now decided to throw his hat in the ring in the Presidential race asa write-in candidate. Here is his platform. See what you think.

(1) 'Press 1 for English' is immediately banned. English is the official language; speak it or wait at the border until you can.

(2) We will immediately go into a two year isolationist posture to straighten out the country's attitude. NO imports, no exports.
We will use the 'Wal-Mart's policy, 'If we ain't got it, you don't need it.'

(3) When imports are allowed, there will be a 100% import tax on it.

(4) All retired military personnel will be required to man one of our many observation towers on the southern border. (six month tour) They will be under strict orders not to fire on SOUTHBOUND aliens.

(5) Social security will immediately return to its original state. If you didn't put nuttin in, you ain't getting nuttin out. The president nor any other politician will not be able to touch it.

(6) Welfare - Checks will be handed out on Fridays at the end of the 40 hour school week and the successful completion of urinalysis and a passing grade.

(7) Professional Athletes --Steroids - The FIRST time you check positive you're banned for life.

(8) Crime - We will adopt the Turkish method, the first time you steal, you lose your right hand. There is no more life sentences. If convicted, you will be put to death by the same method you chose for your victim; gun, knife, strangulation, etc.

(9) One export will be allowed; Wheat, The world needs to eat. A bushel of wheat will be the exact price of a barrel of oil.

(10) All foreign aid using American taxpayer money will immediately cease, and the saved money will pay off the national debt and ultimately lower taxes. When disasters occur around the world, we'll ask the American people if they want to donate to a disaster fund, and each citizen can make the decision whether it's a worthy cause.

(11) The Pledge of Allegiance will be said every day at school and every day in Congress.

(12) The National Anthem will be played at all appropriate ceremonies, sporting events, outings, etc.

Sorry if I stepped on anyone's toes but a vote for me will get you better than what you have, and better than what you're gonna get. Thanks for listening, and remember to write in my name on the ballot in November.
God Bless America !!!!!!!!!!!

Bill Cosby!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Like a good rain on parched ground, a good analogy can bring an otherwise turgid discourse, sermon, lecture to life. On the other hand, a bad analogy can stick in one's brain like a bad song, or a really bad smell or taste in one's mouth. Here below are some analogies 'attempted' in high school term papers. You might want to put on your sunglasses before reading these, because some of them are so blindingly brilliant you may need to look for cover :) Let me know which is your favorite. BW3

Actual Analogies and Metaphors Found in High School Essays:

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes witha pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie,surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil,this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame...maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

26. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.

27. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

28. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.


I appreciate Ben’s Epilogue. As I read it, two things stood out immediately:

One: I was quite impressed that Ben could craft a response in less than 7,000 words! ;-)

Two: I don’t think the mug shot at the top of the Epilogue is a very good photo of Ben. He’s a bit better looking than that ;-)

I’m glad to see that BW3 acknowledges that both he and I have misread each other on some points. This is inevitable given the stale medium of Internet discourse (which I have never liked). And it’s only exacerbated by our profoundly different paradigms and experiences.

On a personal note, I’m happy to learn that I misunderstood a few of Ben’s points. It’s good to know that he’s not as far out in left field as I had originally thought. (grin)

Let me repeat something I said at the front (in Part One of my Response). I could be completely wrong in all my views and Ben could be completely right. However, his arguments aren’t new to me. I, along with many others who I personally know and respect in the Lord, have grappled with them for many years. We have listened carefully to those with whom we disagree, we have weighed their arguments, and we have not found them convincing. Of course, that could be an oversight on our part. Or it could mean that we who disagree with the conventional view of church may be on to something. (Hold that out as a possibility.)

In addition, I never asked or sought to be published. Each of the publishers sought me out (to my shock). And after much prayer and counsel from people who I know and respect in the Lord, I agreed. I’m very encouraged that these books are “getting out” and creating conversation that touch on those things that relate to the headship and centrality of Jesus Christ. I stand with all that I’ve written, yet I’m keenly aware that I could be mistaken. So I welcome this sort of civil and gracious dialogue and feel that it’s healthy.

That said, let me wrap this discussion up by focusing on a number of topics that Ben addresses in his Epilogue. I trust that it will help our readers to better see my line of reasoning and why I’ve come to various conclusions.

***Counting Heads and Sitting on Limbs***

The bulk of Ben’s Epilogue invokes with I would call the argument of “counting heads.” Ben appeals to it twice. It goes like this: “What the majority of the church has believed is correct. The minority view is incorrect.” Ben asserts that my views on the church represent a tiny, tiny almost invisible minority of Christians. Using his words, I’m “out on a limb” that only a few others share.

(Frank clears his throat.)

I concede that in terms of my complete ecclesiology, I’m part of a minority voice in the Body of Christ. (In terms of my views on the Trinity, however, I’m in the majority. More on that later.)

A few facts to consider.

The Radical Reformation, which I and others identity mostly with, has always been in the minority. Most of these brave souls were exterminated in years past. In fact, if Ben and I were discussing these same issues some 500 years ago, after my “rejoinder” (if I was even given a chance to write it), I would have been taken out and burned at the stake.

Interestingly, however, this minority is growing in our day.

Reportedly, 1500 pastors a month leave the clergy system (traditional pastorate) in the United States. (That number has been reported by Rev Magazine, Leadership Magazine, CT, Focus on the Family, et. al.)

According to Gallop, 1 million adult Christians per year leave the institutional church in the U.S. and the number is growing. Most of them are still following the Lord and fellowshipping with other Christians. As Reggie McNeal has said, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” George Barna has written extensively on this in recent years.

Note: By nature, I’m skeptical of statistics. Part of my early Christian journey was in the Pentecostal movement. And I quickly came to the conclusion that if a Pentecostal gives you a figure of those healed or saved, cut it in half and divide by two and you’ll *probably* get the real figure ;-) Frankly, I have no idea what the real numbers are. But what I do know is that according to many researchers all across the board, the typical American evangelical, conservative, traditional church is on the decline. Many Christians are either shifting toward more liturgical church forms (Catholic/Anglican/Eastern Orthodox) or they are seeking to gather in more simple/organic forms of church life.

I think it’s unwise to ignore all of this or fall into the temptation of judging those Christians who’ve taken those turns.

What “Reimagining Church” does is bridge the gap between the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox emphasis on the Godhead and authentic Christian community and practically applies it to organic forms of church life.

But beyond all this, the most striking thought that shot through my mind while reading Ben’s “counting-heads/Frank’s-out-on-a-thin-limb” argument was . . .

This is the same exact same line of reasoning that was launched against John Wesley some 200 years ago. And it was launched by the clergymen of his day.

Early on, Wesley’s critics were filled with sentiments that he and his movement had departed from the historic church.

I find this ironic seeing that Ben has been serving in a denomination that owes its very existence to John Wesley.

Add to that: this same line of argumentation was leveled against all the Reformers, who in turn, leveled it against the Radical Reformers.

And history repeats itself as it so predictably does.

Historical sidelight: Shortly before the Diet of Worms, the pope dispatched one of the major theologians of the day, Cardinal Cajetan, to speak to Luther. What the pope told him was “do not argue with him on the substance of the issues. Just simply insist that he’s obligated to submit to my authority and the authority of the Church.”
Hmmm . . .
Note that I (and everyone else I know for that matter) cannot fill the shoes of a John Wesley or a Martin Luther. But the point remains. As one writer for Leadership Magazine put it recently, “The heroes of church history began as reflective Christians who doubted what everyone else took for granted, and as a result, were in almost every case marginalized … If renewal comes from the margins—as it nearly always appears to do—then by amputating our margins, we do what the chief priests and scribes did when a needed voice showed up at the margins of their community.”
If we will take “the counting heads/out on a limb” argument to its logical conclusion, then Ben and I ought to join the Roman Catholic Church and submit to the pope. The last time I checked, the RCC is the largest segment of the Christian world today.

The fact is, the church as an institution has been wrong on the issue of slavery throughout the centuries. It’s been wrong on the issue of “the sword” (shedding blood over doctrinal differences) since the fourth century. It’s been wrong on the unholy wedding between church and State since Constantine. It’s been wrong on the place of women throughout the centuries – treating them as second-class citizens and degrading them in its theology. (Interestingly, Ben himself broke with the majority historical voice on this issue.)

Point: the “counting heads/out on a limb” argument doesn’t seem to hold up very well when put under the magnifying glass of church history. The tiny, tiny minority has often been proven in the long run to be correct.

Consequently, I think the question of ecclesiology should be settled (where possible) by comparing arguments rather than by counting noses.

***Exegesis vs. Theology***

One of the constants in this discussion has been the hermeneutical question. To my thinking, because the Scriptures point to Christ, we cannot restrict ourselves to authorial intent. We must ask and answer relevant questions about the God to whom the Scriptures so truly and reliably reveal. In other words, we can’t build our views about God on exegesis alone. We must also do theology because theology is ultimately about God.

In this connection, Ben accuses Grenz, Giles, Volf, and Bilezekian of not “grounding their theologizing in a close reading of Scripture” and then says there’s “not an exegete among them.”

Really? I encourage our readers to pick up Stanley Grenz’ monumental work, “Theology for the Community of God.” Flip over to the back. You will find a 13-page, tiny-font Scripture index referencing the scores of texts that Grenz grounds his theology in. Throughout the book, Grenz’ roots his theology solidly on compelling exegesis. Also pick up Gilbert Bilezikian’s “Community 101” and watch how he grounds his theology in the NT text time and time again. Do the same for Kevin Giles’ books, “The Trinity and Subordinationism” and “Jesus and the Father.” Giles grounds his views solidly in the NT and the consensus of the church historically. Read those books and then decide whether or not Ben’s charge that these men “do not ground their theology in a close reading of Scripture” is true or not.

Incidentally, Giles and Grenz appeal to Scripture in the books I’ve cited above far more than Ben does in his theological book, “The Problem of Evangelical Theology.” (I just plugged your book, Ben. (smile) )

I believe that Ben has set up a straw man implying that theologians don’t do exegesis. That’s just not true.

Right or wrong, it’s my opinion that Ben confuses exegesis with theology. Karl Barth believed that exegesis was not theology; it was only the beginning of theology. I would agree. Very simply, the biblical text points us to something outside of itself. The Bible is not a book about the Bible. The Bible is a book about the Lord Jesus Christ.

***Canonical Criticism vs. Historical Criticism***

Ben suggests that we don’t have “permission” to read the latter part of the canon back into the earlier part. My question is: “Who is the permission giver?” “Who can give or deny us that permission?”

I wonder if implicitly Ben is suggesting that the exegetical scholar is the one who grants such permission. If that’s the case, then the exegetical scholar who denies canonical criticism is viewed as standing as king over the whole realm of biblical interpretation and tells everyone what is and what is not permissible.

Interestingly, not all exegetes are bound to the narrow methodology that says you must interpret a text by just restricting yourself to ask one question, “What did the author have in his head at the time when he wrote that text?”

Again, I address this in “Beyond Bible Study,” I’ll just say that we can learn a great deal by looking at the NT’s own way of interpreting the OT. Matthew quotes Hosea saying, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” and applies it to Jesus Christ. Such an interpretation clearly had nothing to do with the authorial intention of Hosea. But this is typical of the way the NT utilizes the OT. It sees the full meaning of a text coming in the fullness of light that we’ve received in Christ.

Just so we’re clear: I believe that the meaning of Scripture *includes but exceeds* the product of the modern hermeneutic. The modern historian doesn’t have the last word on the meaning of Scripture. The interpreters of Scripture prior to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment still had the basic equipment they needed to understand Holy Writ: the Holy Spirit and their fellow Christians through the ages. Just because they didn’t have modern historical science does not mean that they were incapable of understanding the Scriptures. Such a thought is absurd to me. To think it is the height of Western, Enlightenment arrogance in my view.

Brevard Childs, like myself, accepted historical criticism. Childs’ position was that historical criticism is a good beginning, but not a good stopping place. We don’t stop with the historical information of the text. We rather go on to see the fullness of the canon. Thus Childs didn’t deny historical criticism. The problem is that some are setting canonical criticism and historical criticism up as an either/or choice. But that’s a false choice. One can advocate the historical study of Scripture and yet say that historical study needs to be inserted into a larger and richer context, i.e., the existing canon of Scripture which contains a revelation of Jesus Christ.

My book, “The Untold Story of the NT Church,” is mostly a work of historical criticism written on a popular level. But just like Childs, I’m insisting that the interpretative process is not completed by historical criticism alone.

Put another way, the biblical texts are not just a grab bag of individual books. They are an organically united, canonical collection and they are only fully intelligible as such.

***Jesus Christ Speaking Through the Members of His Body***

This is not a black vs. white matter. I can’t identify with Ben’s statement of speaking “AS Jesus.” I have no idea what that means.

I affirm that Paul’s statement, “yet not I, but Christ lives in me” is an actual, and not a metaphorical, reality. Therefore, I believe that Christians can “speak by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Prophetic utterances occur in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12-14). The Spirit of Christ still inspires, anoints, and speaks through His people. At the same time, we are exhorted to judge every prophetic utterance and discern what in it rightly represents the mind of God. Why? Because NT prophecy is not understood by looking at the OT mediatorial prophet as its model. NT prophecy is not the same thing as the ministry of the OT prophets, because OT prophets had a mediatorial position. NT prophets and those who prophesy do not have this mediatorial position. So what they say must be judged.

By the way, it’s reported that Bishop Butler, an Anglican clergyman, supposedly scolded Wesley once saying to him, “Sir, this matter of Christians being inspired by the Holy Spirit in spiritual gifts is a horrid thing, a horrid thing.” I find that interesting, given this discussion.

***The Godhead and the Church Fathers***

Ben says with absolute certainty that the NT says nothing of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit before creation except that God “created the universe, or God was planning to redeem it. That’s all folks.”

I can’t agree. John 17:24b is just one example of a text that tells us something about the relationship between the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world. And there are more such texts folks. ;-)

I’ve never said nor do I believe that the Father died on the cross. My point was that the principle of the cross is found in the Godhead. God is love. Thus His nature is to dispossess Himself and pour His life into the other members of the Godhead. Calvary was merely an outworking of this principle, which is rooted in God’s nature and worked out among the Trinitarian Community.

The views on the Trinity that “Reimagining Church” advocates is held by Catholics today, by Orthodox today, and by most Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as many people in Reformed and other denominations.

Regarding my views of the Trinity, Ben says I’m wrong on the Eastern Fathers and I’m wrong on the Trinity. First, when I wrote about what the Eastern Fathers believed in my response, I was essentially quoting their writings themselves. Second, those who have studied the writings of the Fathers in detail know that subordinationism was considered a heresy and that the Fathers did not believe that there was a chain-of-command hierarchy in the Godhead. Some, however, have quoted the Fathers out-of-context in their attempt to try to justify a hierarchy in the Trinity (Augustine is sometimes used for this).

A challenge to our readers. Read Kevin Giles two books (mentioned above) and the Appendix in Gilbert Bilezikian’s “Community 101.” They will clearly show that the view on the Trinity taken in “Reimagining Church” is in line with the historic teaching of the church. Note that I quote them in the book also.

Case in point. When the Eastern Fathers – Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappedocian Fathers – stated that God the Father is the fount/source of the Godhead, some said, “You’re teaching subordinationism.” And they insisted, “No, we aren’t. The Father is the fount of the Godhead, but what He begets is One who is fully like Himself, and therefore, He is not subordinate to Him.” So the accusation of the subordination of the Son was specifically made and denied by the Eastern Fathers.

Contrary to Ben’s claim, I am not blending together the three Persons of the Trinity. I’m simply insisting that their glorious distinctive relationships are intelligible only when seen in the context of an overarching analogical resemblance. Yes, the three Persons are different. But they have an analogical resemblance to one another. They are distinct, but not separate. The Father’s gift of Himself to the Son is not the same as the Son’s gift to the Father. But they are analogous, and the term “subordination” can name one element of that analogy. Further, their relationship to one another is rightly named “love,” and therefore can be understood as being analogues. The relationship between Father and Son, then, is a matter of mutual submission. They just submit in different ways. “Perichoresis,” as the early Christians called it, the “Divine dance,” is what makes our human relationships intelligible in our relationship to God.

Regarding Ben’s comments on the members of the Trinity having different functions, this is what theologians call “appropriation.” The great theologians throughout the centuries, without any exception that I’m aware of, have all said that appropriation must be done very carefully. It should not be thought to mean that if we appropriate creation to the Father, that only the Father is involved in creation. In fact, all the members of the Trinity are in their own distinctive ways involved in creation. The same is true for every Divine act. All the members of the Trinity are involved in the incarnation, in the atonement, in the resurrection, in regeneration, in sanctification, etc. Each Divine act is associated with a specific member of the Godhead, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an activity *exclusive* to that member.

***Soundbytes or Building Blocks?***

I believe that Ben misses the point, here. I’m not naming various scholars as members of a single school of thought that I subscribe to. Not at all. I’m simply crediting those people who have helped me answer specific questions.

Thus when I quote and cite scholars who are Roman Catholic, Anglican, and part of other denominations, I do so because they drew the same conclusions that I have on certain questions. Quoting them doesn’t mean that I agree totally with their entire model or vice versa. What it does mean, however, is at a minimum, their handling of certain texts draw the same basic conclusions that I’ve drawn.

To get more specific: I own all of F.F. Bruce’s work and have studied his exegesis and life for years. Bruce wasn’t your typical Plymouth Brethren. He believed in 1 Cor. 14:26/Heb. 10:24-25 open-participatory meetings (as do I); he believed that women could speak in those meetings (as do I); he disagreed with J.N. Darby’s “biblical blueprintism” approach to ecclesiology as well as his dispensationalism (as do I); he didn’t believe in a clergy nor a single pastor system (as do I); he believed that elders were plural in the local assembly (as do I); I could go on.

The fact is, F.F. Bruce’s ecclesiology was far closer to mine than it is to BW3’s. Further, Bruce was a formidable exegete. And in my view, one of the greatest NT scholars of this age.

The same is true for Gordon Fee. While we may not agree on every detail of our ecclesiology, there’s wide agreement. For instance, Fee believes that 1 Cor. 14:26 was prescriptive. He believes that God through the Spirit speaks through the church, etc. He believes that Paul was an itinerant apostle. He believes in a plurality in elders in every church. He denies top-down authority leadership structures.

What follows are some direct quotes from Fee that make the same identical points that I make in “Reimagining Church” that Ben took issue with in his review.

"God as Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, is the ground of both our unity and our diversity within the believing community…” (‘God in Three Persons: The Spirit and the Trinity’ in “Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God,” p. 45).

"One of the more remarkable features of the New Testament Epistles is the twin facts (a) that they are addressed to the church(es) as a whole, not to the church leadership, and (b) that leaders, therefore, are seldom, if ever, singled out either to see to it that the directives of a given letter are carried out or to carry them out themselves" (‘Laos and Leadership Under the New Covenant’ in “Listening to the Spirit in the Text,” pp.132-133).

"Closely related to this is another reality that is easily missed in an individualistic culture, namely that the imperatives in the Epistles are primarily corporate in nature, and have to do first of all with the community and its life together; they address individuals only as they are part of the community. In the early church everything was done allelon ('one another')" (p.134).

"Leaders do not exercise authority over God's people—although the community is to respect them and submit to their leadership; rather they are the 'servants of the farm' (1 Cor.3:5-9), or 'household' (1 Cor.4:1-3). The New Testament is not concerned about their place in the governance structures . . . but with their attitudes and servant nature. They do not rule, but serve and care for—and that within the circle, as it were." (p.136)

The truth is, Gordon Fee’s ecclesiology is far closer to mine than it is to BW3’s. Further, Fee is an excellent exegete. (I quote him at other times in “Reimagining Church.”)

And Robert Banks’ work on the anatomy of Paul’s authority in the church is incomparable, bar none.

Point: The way that Bruce, Fee, Banks, Howard Snyder, and even in some places Dunn, handle the Biblical text is in *many cases* the same way that I handle the text.

Contrary to Ben’s statement, the “building blocks” of my theology of the Godhead and the relationship between Jesus Christ and His church maps tightly with the theology of Bonhoeffer, Grenz, Volf, and Giles. The difference lies in the *practical application* of that theology. I believe that if we apply their theology practically, it will not lead us to justify a Catholic church, an Anglican church, a Lutheran church, or an American Baptist church. Instead, it will lead us to the organic expression of the ekklesia.

All told, I’m perfectly fine with being characterized by sitting out on a limb. The truth of the matter is that many Christians of the past and a countless number in the present have taken their seat there also. In my estimation, Bruce and Fee, and even Snyder, are sitting on that limb too, but some of them are closer to the tree than others. (Unfortunately, those who were part of the original Radical Reformation were tossed off that limb to meet horrid deaths.)

By the way, Ben’s closing statement, “the consensus of the vast majority,” is an oxymoron. A consensus means you don’t think in terms of minorities and majorities.

Anyways, that’s how the tree looks from my humble limb ;-)

***Closing Words***

I’d like to thank Ben once again for this conversation. As I said in Part 2 of my response, I loathe this sort of academic discussion because 1) it typically doesn’t get past the frontal lobe, 2) it often degenerates into something that grieves the spirit, and 3) it rarely if ever ends up changing anyone’s mind.

However, I sensed that there was a shot that Ben and I could demonstrate, by God’s grace, how two Christians can have a vigorous, robust discussion on issues with which they strongly disagree and do it in a respectful, Christ-honoring way void of personal attacks and ad hominems. I certainly hope that this was the case. Our readers will have to decide if we pulled it off.

I also hope this discussion won’t end here, but that it rather becomes a “starter” of sorts that others will continue in many other places.

Methinks that if Ben and I keep going round the ben’ on this topic (no pun intended), that his blog will become an echo chamber of sorts, where the same arguments will just be repeatedly echoed. (Counter-assertion arguments have already begun to show up, I think.) There’s a lot to reflect on in what’s already been said, I think.

Regarding the book that provoked Ben’s review in the first place, there are plenty of positive reviews (see And there are some not-so-positive reviews (like BW3’s). ;-)

There are credentialed professors who wholeheartedly agree with the book (like Leonard Sweet who has made it required reading for his doctoral students). And there are those who wholeheartedly disagree with it (like BW3). ;-)

There are renowned authors who have endorsed it (like Shane Claiborne and Alan Hirsch). And there are renowned authors who haven’t endorsed it (like BW3). ;-)

Suggestion: If this conversation has been of interest to you, I seriously hope that you will read “Reimagining Church” for yourself instead of relying on someone else’s review– whether good or bad. Many of the arguments made in it haven’t been touched on in this conversation by the way.

Add to that: if you suffered the pain of reading “Pagan Christianity,” then you owe it to yourself to read “Reimagining.” For one simple reason: “Pagan” was only the first half of a conversation – the deconstructive side. The constructive half – which is the most important – is found in “Reimagining.” “Pagan” was never meant to be a “stand-alone,” and it’s not complete without “Reimagining.”

That said, I hope our conversation will continue in the church at large, and I trust that it will be Christ-honoring– friendly dialogue among brethren rather than hostile debates among enemies. I’m of the opinion that with respect to dialogue, the journey is more important than the destination— the process more important than the outcome.

Despite our differences in ecclesiology, I stand with Ben Witherington III in our shared testimony that Jesus Christ is this world’s true Lord. And I affirm him as a gifted member of the body of Christ.

It’s been an honor.

Your brother who sits on a limb,


p.s. I’ve not watched too much of Bill O’Reilly. But in some of the episodes I’ve seen, he doesn’t really give his guests “the last word” despite his claim. However, to quote Hebrews, “I shall think better things” of my brother Ben. (smile) Ultimately, the Lord Jesus Himself will have the last word, eh?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Zap! Jesus is my Friend Video

Its not just everyday you find a new musical sensation, such as a Christian ska band doing their best to look like Donny Osmond and company. Me personally I would have liked to see Devo or Bob Marley do a version of this, but instead we must settle for Sonseed. For sure, and totally to the max these folks can give Chris Tomlin a run for his money, in fact this song should have been on his new Love CD.

O.K. music critics let me hear from you-- as Dick Clark would say "I'd give it about a 4.5,but you can't dance to it" :)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Epistles to the Apostle-- What Did they Look Like?

Sometime ago, my fellow Methodist Colin Morris from the U.K. wrote a wonderful little humorous book entitled Epistles to the Apostle, now long out of print, imagining what the letters written to Paul would have looked like, The following is a sample that could have prompted 1 Thessalonians.

My dear Paul,

The followers of Jesus in this city are in receipt of your letter, which was read out in church a month ago and which appears to confirm a widely held view here that our Lord will be returning in glory at any moment to take believers such as my humble self back with him to heaven. Being a hard-headed businessman I took your words with utmost seriousness. To prepare myself and my family for the Day of the Lord, I sold my business at a knock-down price and gave the proceeds to the poor—and that, let me add, was a tidy sum, but I assume I won’t need cash in heaven! So here I am with my bags packed, my property disposed of and myself, my wife, and my children taking it in shifts to scan the skies for something unusual to appear. In fact, every time I hear a trumpet, I nearly jump out of my skin! And what has happened? Nothing.

I can’t help feeling that I’ve been made to look an utter fool in the eyes of my friends and business acquaintances. They all think I’ve gone stark, raving mad. Meanwhile, the man who bought my business, far from suffering the catastrophe reserved for the wicked, is making a handsome profit and living in my house, which is one of the finest in the city . . . .

Would you kindly tell me what I do next? The tax people are pestering me for last year’s assessment, and I haven’t a lead shekel to pay them with. Being a man of God you are probably unaware that disposing of one’s assets in the interests of a religion which is not recognized by the state does not qualify one for retrospective tax exemption. So, I’m in a pretty pickle, let me tell you! I feel most strongly that the financial implications of the Second Coming should have been given more serious consideration by the apostles . . .

I am in a most embarrassing situation, what with a nagging wife and three children who have gotten completely out of hand because they prefer earthly pranks to what they imagine will be heavenly boredom . . . it is one thing to suffer for the faith; quite another to be made to look ridiculous. However I do not intend to move from this spot until Jesus comes to collect me. Meanwhile it would be quite dishonest of me not to express grave concern at the most unbusinesslike way in which this whole matter is being dealt with. I await an eager reply, other wise I shall be forced to turn the whole matter over to my lawyers.


[There followed a letter from Paphlos’ lawyer telling Paul he had exactly thirty days to make good on his promise of heaven or face litigation in Thessalonike!]