“The Bible was WRONG”… or Not; Religious Illiteracy in West Reaches New Low

Drouais Caananite Woman

Letter IImagine for a moment being told that your history book is wrong because archaeologists digging in Georgia have discovered evidence that the United States previously allowed slavery. You would rightly scratch your head, because anybody who knows anything about U.S. history knows that slavery has always been one of its defining features. A similar scenario recently played out in headlines across the web.

As background, the above painting is an oil on canvas by the eighteenth century French painter Jean-Germain Drouais. It currently hangs at the Louvre in Paris and is entitled ‘The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ.’

For anyone who’s been paying attention to the recent headlines this painting should come as quite a shock. Sources from USA Today to The Telegraph and Science and Daily Mail all rushed to the presses in recent weeks to report that “The Bible was WRONG,” “DNA vs the Bible,“The Bible got in wrong,” “New DNA study casts doubt on Bible claim,” “Was The Bible Wrong?,” amongst others.

Continue reading

Book Review: Hitler’s Theology – By Rainer Bucher

Hitlers Theology Bucher
Letter TThere aren’t many individuals in modern history more studied – or at least referenced – that Adolf Hitler. As we know from Godwin’s Law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

One of the areas which has received less attention in all of this discussion is the topic of Hitler’s theology. Many assume that Hitler was an atheist, others that he was a Christian, and others believe that it is irrelevant what his thoughts about the theological were. A sea’s worth of ink has spilled trying to discern what happened in Germany during the early part of the 20th century, but very little on the topic of Hitler’s theological system. Enter Rainer Bucher.

Mr. Bucher’s goal in this is not to argue against or disprove Hitler’s theological views, but merely to study what they were, and to furthermore study why many theologians (and philosophers and scientists in actuality) welcomed his views so enthusiastically.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Angelic Doctor‏ – By Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain The Angelic Doctor.pngLetter TThe Angelic Doctor, as one might well guess from the title, is Jacques Maritain‘s biography of Thomas Aquinas, as well as a treatise on the philosophy of monolithic thinker. The latter portions of the book are especially devoted to discussing the philosophy of Aquinas as it affects us today and laying out what Maritain believes to be the proper course of action for Christians in the face of the various systems of thought which face them.

As noted the first sections of the book are devoted to discussing the life of Aquinas in a purely biographical arena. The life of Aquinas as presented by Maritain is both readable and informative, as well as insightful.

With the life of Aquinas layed out Maritain goes on to speak of his philosophy. As posited by Maritain, “Saint Thomas’ method… is essentially universalist and positive. It aims indeed at preserving all the acquired knowledge of humanity in order to add to it and to perfect it; and it requires the more and more complete effacement of the personality of the philosopher before the truth of the object.” He goes on to note that “The philosophy of Saint Thomas is independent in itself of the data of faith: its principles and structure depend upon experience and reason alone.”

The prime duration of Maritain’s philosophy discussion is the exposition of his Thomism, concluding in a catalog of references to places in which the leaders of the Catholic church have shown support of that Thomism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Thomism claims to use reason to distinguish the true from the false; it does not wish to destroy but to purify modern thought, and to integrate everything true that has been discovered since the time of Saint Thomas.”

-“The error of the modern world has been to claim to assure the reign of reason over nature by refusing the reign of super-nature over reason.”

-“I mean this in an altogether different sense: that common sense itself is an embryonic and rudimentary philosophy, a philosophy which has not yet reached the scientific state.”

Specific Criticisms

I’m unsure whether my criticisms serve as critiques of this book in particular, or of Maritain’s Thomism, or of Aquinas, or simply of Catholicism. It is possible my critiques are simply a reflection of my Protestantism. Either way they are the places I depart from the thought of the author (whether directly or indirectly).

My chief issue with the philosophy presented by Maritain, and the only one I’ll really bother to get into here, is that it sets up the problem of the Fall as an intellectual dilemma, it is one that he believes can be remedied by the use of the mind (which would make one wonder why there was any need of Christ if man could just think his way out of the trap he’d fallen into). Here are two examples of this mindset:

“A resurrection of metaphysics and a new expansion of charity: before all else this is the prerequisite for the return to human unity, to that unity which was perfect only in the Garden of Eden and in the heart of Christ in Gethsemane, but the longing for which will never cease to haunt us.”

“Now, it is important to realize that nothing below the intellect can remedy this disease which affects the intellect and which sprang from it; it is by intelligence itself that this disease will be cured. If intelligence is not saved, nothing will be saved.”

Within these two quotations we have presented everything which is in opposition to the message of Christ. In short, sin is not the problem. The issue is not one of the soul, or the will, but a simple problem of a diseased intellect – but the bright side is that even though it is the intellect which is diseased, the intellect is capable of curing itself!

A few other minor issues are the idea of a Christian philosophy being capable of existing independent of faith (operating solely on reason), as well as the general trend towards assimilating the ‘truth’ of all other philosophies into some Christian body of truth. The simple question is, ‘what are the qualifiers for bringing new truth into the Christian philosophy?’ Is it simply that which already agrees with Christian philosophy? In this case it would be redundant. Or is it simply acknowledging facts outside those expressly put forth in scripture (and/or tradition in the case of Catholicism).

Book Review: Augustine as Mentor – By Edward L. Smither

Smither Augustine as Mentor.pngLetter TThe first line when opening this book reads “How could a fifth-century African bishop be relevant to the twenty-first century?” and goes on to note that “Many pastors today… are struggling in isolation without a pastor to nurture their souls.”

The goal of Augustine as Mentor is to answer that question while providing for the concern of pastors in isolation. It is a text meant for aiding spiritual leaders in the task of mentoring, as well as being mentored.

The text is fairly simple in setup. It begins with a brief discussion of what mentor-ship is and uses the New Testament to develop a set of eight characteristics present in any good mentoring strategy, including: a group context, the mentor as a disciple, discernment in selection, a personal mentor-disciple relationship, sound teaching, modeling and involvement in ministry, releasing to ministry, and resourcing leaders. Following this introduction to the mentoring model Smither goes on to evaluate the most prominent First Century Christian leaders and demonstrate how each of them followed this model, including Cyprian, Basil, and Ambrose of Milan. This is followed by a discussion of who exactly mentored Augustine, so as to better understand his own mentoring strategy.

With this groundwork laid Smither comes around to the focus of the text, Augustine’s approach to mentoring and his thoughts on mentoring, finishing up with a short chapter on mentoring in the contemporary setting.

Smither’s work is certainly ripe with information and it can’t be held against him that he doesn’t provide plenty of backing to show that Augustine and the early church fathers did indeed employ all the characteristics of mentoring which he listed. And this is where he stops. As mentioned, the first line read when opening this book is “How could a fifth-century African bishop be relevant to the twenty-first century? ” What is the chief criticism to be had of this book? That it doesn’t answer the question that it starts out with.

The chapter on contemporary application is two pages long, that’s two out of two-hundred-fifty-nine. The other two-hundred-fifty-seven pages are all one long list of examples showing how Augustine demonstrated each of the characteristics presented. Smither claims in the preface that “From this evidence I will make an argument for his principles and convictions for mentoring spiritual leaders.” The problem is that he spent all his time putting forth the evidence and forgot to make his argument – the reader is left on their own to judge and figure out how to apply these characteristics of mentoring.

When reading a book one wants to know just what it is that the author is building up to, what insights they’ve gleaned through all their study. Smither shows you that he’s done his homework, but doesn’t bother to tell you what he’s learned from it – it’s all academia without application.

One thing to be said for the text is that it does serve to greatly widen the scope of just what it is that one should consider in terms of mentoring. It doesn’t just say that an older person needs to take a younger person under their wing or use similarly vague analogies, but presents a wide number of aspects through which mentoring can be done. While this particular aspect is helpful, it doesn’t seem to have been the actual goal of the book.

In the end, the book is an academic history book, not a book on spiritual leadership or mentoring. That said, it might serve as a decent source for somebody wanting to write a book that’s actually about spiritual leadership or mentoring, for somebody who wants to give legs to the academia provided by Smither.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Mentoring and discipleship, as observed in the New Testament and early Christian writings, was the work of on Christian helping another disciple or group of disciples grow in their knowledge and application of the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures.”

-“His teaching philosophy was student centered, and discussion topics were driven by participants’ interests because he believed that the external dialogue served to encourage the internal dialogue in each person.”

-“As Augustine took on the cares of the ministry, his focus went from philosophical speculation to practical Christian living.”

Specific Criticisms

A few more things to point out about his book.

1) The book, which is called ‘Augustine as Mentor’, doesn’t start talking about Augustine as a mentor until almost exactly halfway through the book – that’s 125 pages you have to wade through before you get to the topic at hand. And not only do you have to wade through all that, but almost every point made in those early chapters in terms of mentoring strategy are just repetitions of what’s going to be said about Augustine; thus, unless you just want to know a little more about Basil or Monica (Augustine’s mother) then in terms of this book there is absolutely no reason to read the second or third chapters (which between them are roughly 100 pages long).

2) The author is very monotonous, and is entirely too fond of merely listing things as if it somehow adds something to the text to have twenty examples of the same thing as opposed to one or two. Maybe he’s trying to demonstrate that he’s not simply picking a few isolated instances and extrapolating from them – and good for him if that’s his goal – but he could have put that information in an appendix instead of cluttering up the main body with it.

The absolute worst instances of this are when he talks about how people wrote letters or books as a form of mentorship. Smither isn’t content to say that they wrote letters, but proceeds to go on for multiple pages listing letter after letter that they wrote and giving a few word summary of what each letter entailed. Why? His only point is that they wrote letters, he doesn’t go on to say anything about the content of the letters or tie it in to any grander scheme, he just seems to think you might want a cursory knowledge of every letter and book Augustine ever wrote. Lets give an example:

“In Letters 42 and 45, written in 398, Augustine lamented that the had heard nothing from Pualinus and reiterated his request for Paulinus’s book. Around 404, he wrote Letter 80 inquiring from Pualinus about how to discern God’s will. In Letter 95, penned around 408, Augustine dialogued with Paulinus over the notion of eternal life while also responding to Pualinus’s questions about the nature of the resurrection body. Also, Augustine posed once again a question about Christian leisure that Pualinus had apparently failed to address. Finally, Letter 149, written in 415, was purely an exegetical resource in response to Pualinus’s questions on passages in the Psalms, in Paul, and in the Gospels… Augustine sent Letter 28 to Jerome via his disciple Profuturus in 394 or 395, though Profuturus was unable to fulfill the mission because he was ordained bishop of Cirta in 395. Meanwhile, the letter took nine years to get to Bethlehem… and on and on for TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES.

Twenty-seven pages of list after list addressing letter after letter. What is the point of this? Why does the reader need these dates and letter numbers? Why does the reader need to know that Profuturus wasn’t the best choice for messenger or how long the letter took to reach Bethlehem? And most importantly, what insight is the reader gaining into mentoring by wading through this, especially for modern-day application (which is supposed to be the point of the book)? The best thing the book can be compared to are the essays many students write in college where they have to meet a certain page limit, and while they have vast amounts of information they don’t necessarily have a thesis or a way to tie all the information together. If the deadline is near the solution is to just hope that they can hide behind a wall of information, hoping that their lack of exposition is masked by the sheer amount of information. This is the feel the reader gets from this book, as if the author had to reach a certain page limit and decided the best way to do that was to throw in a few dozen pages of fluff here and there.

3) Again, two pages of application. The main thing the author needs to do is balance his book. 99% evidence and 1% extrapolation is not a balance, its an afterthought – it’s as if the author made it to the end and thought “oh yea, I was supposed to be making an argument” but only had five minutes before he had to send off his manuscript.

What is a D.Min (Doctor of Ministry)?

asbury theological seminary dmin.png

 

Letter WWithin the past 40 years or so a [relatively] new type of program has cropped up in education, that of the DMin, the Doctor of Ministry. The degree surged in popularity for a few decades, began to fall to the wayside (so much so that Princeton discontinued its DMin program), but has kept a somewhat steady pace amongst evangelicals.

The DMin may sometimes get a bad rap in academia as being a ‘fluff degree’ or a ‘watered-down doctorate’, but with more schools offering DMin programs and more ministers entering into those programs, it’s helpful for us to have an idea of what we’re dealing with.

In short, the DMin is a degree program designed to fill the learning vacuum present for ministers who have completed their Master of Divinity (MDiv) and have been serving in ministry for a while. Ministers who stop cultivating their knowledge will inevitably stunt their maturation as leaders, and so the DMin is a practical doctoral-level degree designed to integrate scholarship with practice and push those in ministry towards further growth.

Thus, the DMin is the highest professional degree for those in the field of ministry – the terminal degree for ministerial studies – with the goal of increasing the minister’s effectiveness in their area of the church.

It is a professional degree – as opposed to an academic degree – which means that the focus of the curriculum is geared more towards practical application than research.

A DMin program usually takes around 3-4 years (2 years of coursework and another for the final project/thesis) and most programs work to have a flexible schedule by combining short on-campus residential seminars with distance learning (this isn’t unique to the DMin, many schools across the pond have a similar setup). The goal of this is to help those in the program to earn the degree without leaving their ministry to do so.

Most DMin programs require their applicants to hold a MDiv from an accredited theological school (some allow applicants to substitute other ~72 hr master’s level degrees provided they include Greek and Hebrew), and between three and five years of active ministry experience.

So it is a fluff degree or a watered-down doctorate? Well, no. The DMin is not merely an lighter version of an academic doctoral degree (PhD); rather, it has a completely different goal. The DMin – like the MDiv – is a professional degree rather than a research degree; in that respect it is more like a Medical Doctorate. The DMin is a degree in action, where as a PhD is a degree in intellectual rigor.

So is what the DMin? the terminal degree for those in the field of ministry – a practical professional degree geared towards growing ministers in their field of expertise, whether that be expository preaching, reformed theology, pastoral ministry, counseling, apologetics, ministry leadership, or many others.

Given that a DMin is a degree completed after a master degree and has the word ‘doctor’ right there in the title, there is some debate as to whether somebody with a DMin should be referred to as Doctor (as we do with those with a PhD). We’ll tackle that question next time…

Book Review: The Future of An Illusion – By Sigmund Freud

S Freud The Future of An Illusion.png

Letter WWell known for his work in the fields of psychology and particularly his founding of the field of psychoanalysis, The Future of An Illusion is Freud‘s tackling of the foundations and future of religion, especially as it relates to civilization.

Religion, as Freud see is, arose out of the “necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature” where “the primal father was the original image of God,” or rather a model on which he was shaped. Freud sees religion as a sort of neurosis which, with the advancements of science and proper education, the human race will eventually overcome.

Within the past fifty years or so we have seen the development of a certain critique of the sciences (and of rationalism in general) in the form of postmodernism and its “incredulity towards metanarratives” as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Many mistakenly think this is an aversion to stories which try and fit all of human experience into some over-arching schema (meganarratives), but this isn’t the case.

What it is opposed to is the sort of stories told by science while claiming not to be telling stories; stories that, in another way of putting it, don’t account for their own presuppositions.

The key problem with Freud’s presentation of religion is that he’s simply telling stories while claiming not to be telling stories.

Thus he concocts explanations of the origins of religion based upon narratives that he has dreamed up of the way that primitive man thought and related to each other and nature at large. He offers an explanation, but there is nothing to say that his explanation is the correct one, or even a likely one.

Freud simply presupposes that his view is correct, that religion is wrong, and that science is the only way to truth.

This is the essence of circular reasoning. Religion is wrong because it is untrue, and science is right because it is true.

Thus he simply suffices to say “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves” or “an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give we can get elsewhere.” As Etienne Gilson rightly observes, those with this mindset simply “prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility” to the point that they would just assume cripple the human intelligence by dismissing metaphysical rationale than admit that there can be nonscientific truth (even though science itself never makes any such claim upon the intellect).

Science does not claim to be all-encompassing, it only claims to seek the answer to the question “what?”

Freud offers a view, but he does not even begin an attempt at justifying it, and even within the view presented he finds himself littered with internal contradictions. The book is a decent study on what Freud thought in relation to religion, though, as I note below, even if we give Freud the benefit of the doubt his own narrative is littered with internal contradictions.

Memorable Quote:

-“Most people have obliged to restrict themselves to a single, or a few, fields of [human activity]. But the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future.”(p1)

-“Human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which have built them up, can also be used for their annihilation.”(p4)

-“… art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else does to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.”(p18)

Specific Criticisms

I’ve long been of the belief that any sort of objection to religion can be met with Christian orthodoxy; that I have never actually seen an argument against Christianity, only against its heresies. Here Freud can be seen falling into that same line, stating that the justifications used for religious beliefs are that “they were already believed by our primal ancestors” that “we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times” and “it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all.”(p39)

In viewing these as the supposed justifications for religion it is no wonder that Freud had a dismal view of it – the problem is that very few religions would actually use this sort of rationale (as with most things, Freud doesn’t cite any sources but creates straw men or simply says whatever suits his position), nor does the religion that Freud would have been most exposed to and most directly addressing, that of Christianity. Freud asserts that religions “are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”(p47)

Freud seems to have had virtually no exposure to any sort of real religious philosophy, whether existential or that of natural theology.

Furthermore, as stated above, Freud’s account of religion seems to be littered with internal contradictions.

On the one hand he argues that religion is something that spawned from attributing deity to nature and the father-figure. Yet then he goes on to state that “civilization gives the individual these [religious] ideas, for he finds them there already; they are presented to him ready-made, and he would not be able to discover them for himself. What he is entering into is the heritage of many generations, and he takes it over as he does the multiplication table, geometry, and similar things.” Yet the maths are objectively true, rationally constructed forms, so how is religion related to them without being of this type as well, and if religion is already in civilization ready-made, then how can it also be derivative only from tribal superstition?

We can see this same trend in his statements that “I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced began to trouble himself about God and things in another world.”(p78) And yet he posits that the earliest tribal peoples, on their own, came to the idea of God and of another world.

This alone seems enough of an inconsistency, yet the greater problem with this statement is that it ignores the manifold experience of anybody who has had the slightest exposure to children, and that is that one of their fundamental inquires about the world is “why?”, which is the primary question which science is utterly unqualified to answer, nor does it suggest that it can. Yet as soon as one asks ‘why?’, one begins to tread the path towards contemplation of God.

In retrospect on the events of the 20th Century, this statement is particularly falsified: “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization.”(p63) This is not only because it was educated people and brain-workers who gave us two World Wars, but it also ignores the even more important fact that if we look at the progression of history it has been the religion in every case which has preserved the culture of prior civilizations.

Were it not for the Christian scholars, scribes, and monks, the Renaissance would have had no text to look back to Rome from. Were it not for the Muslims (and the Christians before them), Aristotle would have been lost to time.

Religion preserves because it has a set ideal and a set goal. Secular society destroys because it can never decide what it wants, and therefore consistently tears all of its ideas down to rebuild again.

Scripture in Context: Greek Oratory

greek-forumletter-oOne of Paul’s main sources of competition during his missionary journey were the Greek orators that he encountered in the various cities of his travels. With regards to these orators there were some similarities, and many differences, and Paul actively sought to differentiate himself from them.

In looking at the writings of Paul it is apparent that he is differentiating himself from the Greek orators. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 he talks about how he would refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God,” and in 2:17 that “we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity.”

In 1 Corinthians 1 he talks about the simplicity of his message – merely preaching Christ crucified – and in chapter 2 he mentions how the style of his message his also simple, he “did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” Finally, in 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul can be found stating how they “never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed” but instead “worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”

In these ways Paul can be seen as similar to some Greek orators. For instance, Dio Chrysostom often talks about how he is not engaging in flattery, and that he is not expecting money or praise. Plato, also, speaks of the rhetoricians as flatterers.

Still, while these select orators may have not been directly out to flattery, or to garner praise, they did still use a high eloquence in their words and wrote extensively in their writings.

Paul, on the other hand, spoke with general simplicity and brevity, thereby further distancing himself from those rhetoricians. However, perhaps the most striking difference is that of the fundamental motivations behind their actions.

The Greek orators even in their best form sought to serve either their state, themselves, or their idea of some ‘good’; as Dio Chrysostom states “all who act deliberately do so either for money, for reputation, or for some pleasurable end, or else, I suppose, for virtue’s sake and because they honour goodness itself.”

While Chrysostom is getting slightly closer to the mark with things like ‘virtue’ and honoring ‘goodness itself’, the fact that he is operating on a non-Christian world-view makes his view of these things fundamentally different than that of Paul, even if Paul were seeking these same things.

But indeed, Paul was seeking something much more than this, for he sought to further the cause of the one true God.

Paul is seeking the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom in specific, thus he speaks against the divisions of the church of Corinth; both in chapter one and chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians he is found addressing the fact that the Christians have divided themselves into various factions under certain personalities (“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?”).

It seems it is just this that the Greeks were likely keen to do in their own pagan circles, to find some pagan orator that they might follow such as Socrates.

Thus, while Paul’s style and superficial motivations bore some similarities to the Greek orators, on the whole they were fundamentally different – the one out to serve the world, the other to serve God.

 

 

 

Scripture in Context: Second Temple Judaism

Second Temple Judaism.pngLetter TThe ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus did not happen in a vacuum, but rather they were set in various historical and political contexts.

The primary time period which helped develop the context in which John the Baptist and Jesus lived was the period between the 5th Century BC – this period saw many developments that would influence their lives and the world in which they lived.

Return from Exile

One of the great events which helped develop this context was the return from exile of the Jewish people in the 5th Century BC, an exile that they had been put into by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. With Babylon’s defeat to Persia, they were allowed to return, which meant that John the Baptist and Jesus were ministering to a Jewish population in the Jewish homeland.

The Jews having been allowed to return to their homeland introduces a variety of factors that would have influenced and provided context for these ministries. For one, when the Jews had been taken by Babylon, the Babylonians had destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. With the return from exile the Jews are able to begin rebuilding their temple, around which the pre-exile Jewish religion was based.

The rebuilding of this temple meant that the Jewish religion once again had a center, a center which gave Jesus could then use as a place of teaching; this rebuilding also brought back the symbolic sacrifice which foreshadowed Christ.

Hellenization

Apart from the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, other great influences on the context include the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world, which was followed by the Roman period.

Both of these helped to move the worldview of the time from a more communal view to a more individualistic view (something also accomplished by the lack of temple sacrifice during the exile period, when the Jewish people gathered in synagogues rather than the temple and had to turn to study and prayer as a way of exercising their piety).

This ‘modernization’ of the world introduced the Jewish world to new peoples and ideas and to languages which were widespread (something that would in turn allow for the message of accepting Gentiles to be more practical). As interpreted by G.K. Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man, this meeting of ideas between the Jewish people and the Greek/Roman people saw the bringing together of the pinnacle of human religion – Judaism – and the pinnacle of human philosophy – the Greeks – in order to set the perfect stage for the pinnacle of history: Christ, who would complete and surpass both.

Maccabean Revolts

Finally, the Jewish revolts – such as that under the Mattathias during the 160s BC (which wold come to be called the Maccabean revolt) – strengthened the Jewish expectation of a political messiah, an expectation which Jesus would be able to then subvert.

John the Baptist and Jesus entered a world which was filled with turmoil on the one hand, but which finally had regained some of the structure of the older Judaism, and which had begun to be exposed to the greatest human philosophies of the time – all of which worked together to create the context into which the messiah would enter.

As has been noted, the political turmoil – and especially the Maccabean revolts and the ideas of the Zealots (a Jewish group which wished to rebel against the Roman empire) – caused many within the Jewish community to believe that the Messiah was to be a political leader; indeed, the titles ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ signifies the ‘anointed one’, which can refer to the Jewish offices of a prophet, priest, and king.

Along with this kingly aspect, one may also look to the title ‘Son of God’ and compare it to the way in which the heir to the Roman ruler was referred to in the same way, also giving some political undertones.

Yet Jesus was meant to be much more than a political figure, and ultimately his mission was not a political one.

Jesus did not promote any rebellion against the government of his day, indeed, quite the opposite (Matthew 22:20-22 – “render unto Caesar what is Caesars”).

Rather, Jesus’ message was spiritual and incarnational, that of God entering the world to save his people – not from the evils of mundane rulers, but from the evils of the spiritual rulers (Satan) and from the evils within their own hearts.

Exploring The Uniqueness of the Bible [In Its Ancient Near Eastern Context]

bible-and-coffeeLetter TThe ancient world was one filled with myths and stories of all types, stories about gods and about prophets and oracles who spoke with those gods. In secular society the Bible is often seen as just another one of these ancient myths.

The Bible is not just another myth, but it is in the context of these myths that the Bible was written. They provide the background against which we are to interpret the text; it was often these sorts of myths which the Biblical narrative was responding to. Thus, it is important for Christians to analyze the Scriptures in light of their ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts.

So just what are the similarities and differences were between the Scriptures and those other myths which seem to bear some resemblance to it? It is by answering this question that we may determine whether or not the Bible is indeed unique in its content.

Some areas in which the Christian might compare the Scriptures to similar texts in the Near East include (1) how they present their creation accounts, (2) their understandings of morality, and (3) their understandings of prophecy and revelation.

Creation

Given that creation myths begin in the beginning, comparing the creation myths is one of the better places to start. One such text that the Scriptures might be compared to is the Enuma Elish, and one of the most immediately striking differences is the manner in which the myths are told.

One of the disti
nctiveness about ancient Near Eastern creation accounts is that they are told in a distinctly mythic manner. In contrast, the creation account in Genesis gives its account in a highly historical, concise and matter-of-fact manner.

Thus we can see the Enuma Elish begin with:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…
Ages increased,…
Then Ansar and Kisar were created, and over them….
Long were the days, then there came forth…..
Anu, their son,…
Ansar and Anu…
And the god Anu…
Nudimmud, whom his fathers, his begetters…..
Abounding in all wisdom,…’
He was exceeding strong…
He had no rival –
Thus were established and were… the great gods.enuma-elish

These primeval gods eventually start fighting one another, monsters, dragons, scorpion-men, fish-men, and all sorts join the mix. All sorts of shenanigans ensue, Marduk eventually arises and Tiamut is killed. Marduk then fashions the heavens and the earth out of her body:

Then [Marduk] rested, gazing upon [Tiamut’s] dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud.
And the lord measured the structure of the Deep,
And he founded E-sara, a mansion like unto it.
The mansion E-sara which he created as heaven,
He caused Anu, Bel, and Ea in their districts to inhabit.

In all this it takes about six chapters just to get to the creation of the world.

In contrast to this we have the creation of the world in Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s it. God simply does it. No great battles, no wrangling of primordial forces, no monsters. God simply makes it happen. Along the same lines, there is nothing before God in Genesis. He doesn’t use pre-existing material, he does his work ex nihilo.

Genesis is simply concerned with the fact that creation came into being and that God is the one who did it.

Just as noteworthy as differences in the way creation comes into being is the difference in the way mankind comes into being. In the Enuma Elish we find Marduk create mankind:enumaelish

“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established, and that their shrines may be built.
But I will alter the ways of the gods, and I will change their paths;
Together shall they be oppressed and unto evil shall they….

Mankind is made – according to the Enuma Elish – in order to be slaves. They are made in order to build shrines and to be oppressed. They are made out of the substance of a god and yet they have no dignity.

Contrast this with Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them,“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In ancient Near Eastern myth, man is created out of the substance of a god as a slave to be oppressed. In contrast, Genesis has man made in the image of God, and he is made with dignity. He is made to have dominion, to multiply and subdue the earth.

Thus the second contrast with see is that in Scripture, man is made with dignity for noble ends.

While the Bible may bare similarities to other texts these similarities prove to be mostly superficial due to being attempts at answering the same questions about the universe. While the religious literature of other groups in the region revolve around elaborate mythologies and religious sayings – or aphorisms – the literature of the bible is primarily revelational and historical, and indeed it is revelational through its history, for God has communicated himself in the history of a nation, namely that of the Hebrew peoples.

The historical aspect of Scripture reveals the way that God interacts with humanity in history.

Morality

Along with having differing creation accounts and differing views of revelation and prophecy, the Bible also differs in its morality. One of the premier examples of this can be seen in the relation between the Proverbs and the writings of Amenemope, whose ethical teachings closely parallel one another.

On the one hand one might be able to see this as an example of natural law working its way out in two unrelated individuals, on another one might be able to see it as a Biblical writer source-texting a non-Biblical writer.

Either way the Biblical text is not put in jeopardy, especially when one realizes that the underlying nature of Scripture is time and again vastly different than that of its counterparts. The chief reason for this is that Scripture presupposes the Christian God, which is something that no other myth or system of ethics can boast.

That is, the motives for writing these instructions are radically different.

Thus when we read the writings of Amenemope we find that he simply offers good guidance, his goal is for his reader to prosper, and so he begins:

Give your years and hear what is said,mask_of_amenemope
Give your mind over to their interpretation:
It is profitable to put them in your heart,
But woe to him that neglects them!
Let them rest in the shrine of your insides
That they may act as a lock in your heart;
Now when there comes a storm of words,
They will be a mooring post on your tongue.
If you spend a lifetime with these things in your heart,
You will find it good fortune;
You will discover my words to be a treasure house of life,
And your body will flourish upon earth.

You should listen to him because it is profitable and you will find good fortune. The goal is simply to give good advice that will help you along your way.

In contrast to this we have the Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their griddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Or as he says later in chapter 22:

That your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today, even to you.

The goal of the Proverbs is not simply to provide good advice, its advice has a goal. This goal is not merely that you would prosper, but “That your trust may be in the Lord.”

The Lord under-girds the wisdom given in the Proverbs. The boundary stone is not moved because “their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”

It is not simply that you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t do it because there is a transcendent God who is your standard and will hold you accountable.

Again one observes a vastly different foundation between the Bible and its contemporaries.

Prophecy and Revelation

With this in mind, another area in which one might compare the Bible to its contemporaries is in the realm of prophecy and revelation. While the Bible is not alone in putting forth prophecy, it is clear that the other sorts of prophecy which abounded in the ancient world are in no way like those of Scripture.

One of the chief differences is that the prophecy of Scripture alone has a moral imperative with a direct relation to God. In contrast to this, pagan prophecy is more akin to guessing an effect from a causal relationship, and is therefore much more mechanical than Biblical prophecy.

Furthermore, while most pagan prophets directed their prophecy to royal households, the Biblical prophets directed theirs towards the people as a whole, for it was the moral action of the people as a whole which determined how God would act towards them.

Finally, pagan ‘prophecy’ seems to have been written after the fact, which would seem to disqualify it from being any sort of real prophecy.

Just as the Biblical creation accounts differed from the pagan mythology through its centeredness on God, and just as the Proverbs and moral imperatives of the Bible also differed from their pagan counterparts through their centeredness on God, so the prophecy of the Bible differs in its centeredness on God – particularly how he interacts with his covenant people.

It is the prophecy of Scripture alone with confronts the idolatry, immorality, and injustice of the people of God, presenting them with a moral imperative and a road either to or away from God.

This is in contrast to pagan prophecy trying to guess causal relationship and necessary relations. Yet the greatest division between Biblical prophecy and that of the pagan nations comes in its reality, in its actual ability to foresee and foreshadow the future.

Whereas pagan ‘prophecy’ seems written after the fact, the Biblical prophecy foreshadows real events, whether this be Jeremiah speaking of Babylon devastating Judah, Haggai foretelling the return of the Davidic line or Zechariah foretelling that the Messiah will be killed, the Bible prophecy and the revelation of God rings true.

The Bible Unique

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the cultural and literary contexts is the God is unique in the way he does things, and that the Word of God is unique from anything else that man might develop, for doesn’t act in a way that might be anticipated.

He doesn’t tell the story of the creation like men would, hence the vast difference between Genesis and all other creation accounts; nor does he give a morality just for the sake of horizontal relations between people; nor does he give the gift of prophecy and the light of revelation purely for the good of pedigree of mankind.

Everything he presents is centered around himself, not around man, and yet man is dignified – all men, for they are made in his image.

The Bible is unique.

 

 

Book Review: The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 – By Justo L. Gonzalez

Gonzalez Story of Christianity.png

Letter TThe Story of Christianity is a two volume history of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. The first volume covers “The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation.”

Gonzalez begins with an introduction in which he discusses why we should study the history of Christianity. The primary reason presented is so that we will better understand our faith and what has influenced it; to know that we have been influenced by a certain past which colors our vision and threatens to ‘absolutize’ our personal interpretations, thus: “One way we can avoid this danger is to know the past that colors our vision. A person wearing tinted glasses can avoid the conclusion that the entire world is tinted only by being conscious of the glasses themselves… Not only is our view of the present colored by our history, but our view of history is also colored by the present and by the future we envision.”

What follows from this is a 490 page discussion of the progression of Christian history from Christianity’s roots in Judaism up until the period just before the Protestant Reformation, roughly 400BC to around 1600AD. Gonzalez is a very readable writer, that is, he isn’t overly technical and writes in a way that is easy to understand, although he does go more in-depth than say R. Dean Peterson in his book A Concise History of Christianity, but such is to be expected in a longer text.

Gonzalez’s history might also be described as fairly ecumenical, as he doesn’t (at least as far as I noticed) bring the bias of any particular theological affiliation; one aspect which might be noteworthy is that Gonzalez does fall into what one may call the contemporary method of doing history, perhaps best exemplified in lines such as “History is not the pure past; history is a past interpreted from the present of the historian.”

As is common with most texts following the history of Christianity, fair portions of the text are spent discussing the early apologists, persecutions, heresies and councils. This is followed by the period of the Imperial Church (once it had become official under Rome), discussion of various great minds in the early church, the effects of Rome’s fall, monasticism and medieval Christianity. Also of note is that the text spends fair portions discussing Eastern Christianity as well as Christianity as it was spread to the New World during colonial expansion.

I was impressed with the clarity of thought when discussing figures such as Aquinas or William of Occam (amongst others) – Gonzalez does well in laying out the essentials of their thought while fitting it into the overall narrative of church history.

All in all I would say that Gonzalez text is a worthwhile read, and many chapters which the reader may not be interested could be safely skipped without much harm. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a nice study.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The notion that we read the New Testament exactly as the early Christians did, without any weight of tradition coloring our interpretation, is an illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion, for it tends to absolutize our interpretation, confusing it with the Word of God.”(p.3)

-“The earliest Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were.”(p.27)

-“But in the West the church became the guardian of what was left of ancient civilization, as well as of order and justice.”(p282)

-“A true philosopher does not seek to prove what the mind cannot understand, even if the question at hand is a doctrine of faith… A philosopher who claims to prove the eternity of the world, and a philosopher who claims to prove its creation out of nothing, are both poor philosophers, for they ignore the limits of reason.”(p.375, while discussing Albert the Great)

-“On the basis of all this, one could even say that it was Thomas [Aquinas] who opened the way for Western modernity.”(p.380)

-“Church buildings thus became the books of the illiterate, and an attempt was made to set forth in them the whole of biblical history, the lives of great saints and martyrs, the virtues and vices, the promise of heaven and the punishment of hell.”(p.381)

-“This was not a disbelieving theology, willing to believe only that which reason could prove. It was rather a theology which, after showing that reason could not reach the depths of God, placed everything in God’s hand, and was reading to believe anything that God had revealed. And to believe it, not because it made sense, but because it had been revealed. This in turn meant that the question of authority was of paramount importance for theologians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”(p.435, while discussing John Duns Scotus and William of Occam)

Specific Criticisms

One criticism I might throw at this text is one which I alluded to above, in that there are various chapters which could be skipped without missing much; this is simply due to the fact that many chapters towards the middle of the text are devoted to individual thinkers, ie, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, which I think could have produced a better flow had they instead been integrated into the given section discussing their time period.

The later discussions of the church in the New World also seemed to lack a certain relevant theme, and felt more like simply summations of expansion rather than being set into some overall narrative. Perhaps this isn’t the fault of the writer, and I don’t know how it might be remedied, but it seems noteworthy.