Rhetoric for Impact or Commands?

Does faith in Jesus call women to stay with an abusive husband, men to mutilate themselves, and all of us to take a vow of poverty?

The teachings of Jesus in passages like those below have been interpreted in this way, although the last two suggestions (mutilation and poverty) are almost universally dismissed in our church today. The first is also dismissed by most of us. But this leads to a question for us to consider: Does Jesus use rhetoric to shock his audience (especially his followers) into thinking about what it really means to follow him?

Consider the following passages. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is recorded as saying

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Mt 5:27-30)

There have been those in the history of the church who have taken this command seriously at some level, and it has bothered multitudes more. Did he really teach that men should mutilate themselves to avoid lustful thoughts and avoid hell? A commenter on my last post suggested that it is appalling that Christians teach this passage to their sons.

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There are not Enough Rules

At our church we have been studying the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The focus is on the broad overview of the sermon as a carefully assembled whole and also a detailed look at individual sections. The preacher this last Sunday focused on 5:21-37.  There is an important structure here: You have heard that it was said … But I tell you.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

It is common for Christian who comment or preach on the Sermon on the Mount to claim that the aim of the sermon is to drive home the point that we are sinners who cannot aspire to righteousness, that we need the atoning death of Jesus for this. The ethical statements in the sermon are not to be taken seriously, but as an unattainable ideal. While I think we need a robust Christology and theology of atonement, I do not think that this is the intent of the Sermon on the Mount on any significant level.

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Lord, Grant us Wisdom

This has been a hard year. No one likes uncertainty, but this has been a year where uncertainty rules. We are not in control and we cannot force reality to follow our rules, or declare the virus out of existence.  The best we can do is take precautions, refine treatments, and develop vaccines and then vaccinate, and pray … not in that order.  Prayer is a regular and continuing need.

As Christians we have often focused on clear direction and certainty. We see it in responses to the current crisis, but there are many other examples of this we could mention. Calvinism is rooted in certainty (TULIP anyone?). The Catholic Church roots certainty in ecclesial structure. Inerrancy is a doctrine that abhors uncertainty, but cannot avoid it.

Charles Ryrie on p. 76 of Basic Theology wrote:

Formerly all that was necessary was to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching.

While the church has been confronted with erroneous teaching throughout its history, I don’t think such teachings drove this push for increasingly precise statements. Rather, the very human desire for unambiguous certainty drove this development. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The Bible is not a book that lends itself to such easy constraint and definition. Following the lead of Ryrie, and others who sought to root certainty in inerrancy, we will start with the Bible itself to understand the nature of the Holy Scriptures … but the conclusion will be somewhat different.

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When God Began to Create?

Genesis 1:1-3.  We all know it – and it is crystal clear, right?

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (KJV)

Well, as it happens there is some uncertainty in the translation of these verses. We don’t have the original text. Hebrew doesn’t make vowels explicit and there is more than one plausible way to place the vowel in the text. These change the nuanced meaning of the text. It is also not clear whether the first verse is an independent sentence and what follows a description of the creation in the rest of the chapter, or whether the first clause leads into the second and third verses.  The NRSV translates this section as:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

This translation emphases the initial darkness and lack of form. The creation story begins as God brings light to the face of the earth. The NIV is slightly different, verses 1 and 2 set the scene, with verse 1 perhaps a heading.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

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Of Pine Nuts, Acorns, and Mustard Seeds

February was a busy month in our household, but it is now time to get back to The Bible & Ancient Science  by Denis Lamoureux.

What is the message of the Bible? Denis finds that for him “reading the Bible is a mystical experience. It is a spiritual encounter between us and the Lord, facilitated by the inspired words in Holy Scripture.” (p. 64)  But lives are changed by the message of the Bible, not by a legalistic or literalistic rendering of precise words. Words, by the way, written and spoken in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using images of the day.

Consider Mark 4:30-32.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”(NIV)

The mustard seed and mustard plant provided an image that was immediately understood by the original audience. How many ordinary Americans, on the other hand, know what a mustard seed looks like or a mustard plant for that matter? Isn’t mustard that yellow stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle?

Pine trees and pine nuts, oak trees and acorns are images that most North Americans will understand immediately. I found two versions of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” online. In the YouVersion we read (and this is the version referenced by Denis in his book):

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

In contrast, The Bible Gateway version has:

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like an acorn. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge oak tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

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The Message is Spiritual

In The Bible & Ancient Science  and his other books Denis Lamoureux argues that the ancient cosmology and phenomenology is incidental to the text. The Bible makes statements about nature. In these statements, the message lies in spiritual truths not in the phenomenological perspective. For example, when the sun is described as rising and setting, we envision the earth spinning giving the appearance of solar motion. However, the ancient audience viewed a luminous object moving across a vault. The use of such phenomenological language is incidental to the message of the text. It isn’t important whether the earth spins or the sun moves.

I have posted a number of times on this idea that the science is incidental. You can find discussions in posts on some of Denis’s other books here: Science is Incidental or Evolutionary Creation 6 or No Historical Adam?.  Denis has found that this concept raises an important question for many of his students. Quoting from p. 50:

If the science in the Bible is an ancient human understanding of nature, then is this also the case with the spiritual truths in Scripture?

Are we not being inconsistent if we reject the ancient phenomenological perspective of the world in the Bible but accept the spiritual truths?

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A Flat Earth?

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Psalm 19:1

Is the earth roughly spherical, orbiting around the much more massive sun, with a far less massive moon orbiting the earth?

Is the universe expansive, with stars and galaxies light years away from us?

Does a 21st century vision of the solar system or the galaxy shape your reading of Genesis or the Psalms?

Denis Lamoureux digs into these kinds of questions in the next couple of chapters of his book The Bible & Ancient Science introducing concepts in biblical interpretation. When reading the Bible when and where should we expect to find correspondence or concordance with fact? Lamoureux argues that the Bible is a book of redemption. “The primary purpose of the Bible is to deal with our relationship with God and to make us realize that we have damaged it though our own sinfulness.” (p. 28). There is a spiritual correspondence between the teachings of Scripture and spiritual reality. This is fundamental to our belief that the Bible is the word of God.

But is there a scientific concordance or correspondence between statements about the physical world in Scripture and physical reality as we understand it today? Denis’s answer, and mine, is not necessarily. Human understanding of cosmology has changed through the years and these changes are reflected in Scripture and in the writings of Christians over the last two millennia. Kyle Greenwood has a nice book Scripture and Cosmology for those who wish to dig into this a little deeper. Continue reading

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Literally a Matter of Interpretation

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

As Christians we take the bible seriously as the Word of God. It provides touchstone through which we can discern the will and ways of God. Paul wrote to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

A powerful word that we would all do well to take to heart. But it is not true that all we have to do is read the Bible and everything else will fall into place. If that were true I seriously doubt that people would have found it possible to use it to justify the institution of slavery in America, Jim Crow laws, antisemitism, or rioting in the US Capitol building.

The Bible is written in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using literary forms and genres common to those times and places. It must be translated, studied, and interpreted. Prayer, the power of the Spirit, and an openness to learn all play important roles.

In The Bible & Ancient Science Denis Lamoureux outlines a number of principles for interpretation. The first two deal with literalism and with genre.

No one takes the Bible as 100% literal. Figures of speech are common. Lamoureux points to Isaiah 55:12

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

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Character Matters

I had every intention of posting on Daniel Lamoureux’s book last Thursday. Diving once again into the questions of science and Christian faith.

And then I couldn’t.

I have seen Micah 6:8 quoted several times in the last few days.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

To top it off, I picked up an old Reader’s Digest from January 2009 (randomly out of a large stack in our bathroom, but perhaps the hand of the Spirit was at work). This issue has a feature on advice for President Obama as he began his first term and one of those asked to supply advice was the Reverend Billy Graham (p 165). I quote just a bit of Graham’s advice here:

More than 2,700 years ago, the Jewish prophet Micah said to the people of his day “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Could any words be more appropriate as you assume office?

Look carefully at Micah’s three injunctions. First he exhorts you to “act justly” – to do what is right, not just what is politically expedient. Power brings with it many temptations that can be almost overwhelming … Know them, resist them, and make it your goal to live with integrity and with enthusiasm for justice.

Then Micah charges you to “love mercy” – not just to practice mercy but to make it your passion. …

Finally, Micah calls you to “walk humbly with your God.” Every word in this phrase is important. … But you can’t truly walk with God if you allow pride or ego to dominate you.

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Welcome 2021!

Fall 2020 was a tough semester. Last winter, before COVID-19 became a household word, I agreed to double teach in the Fall to fill a need in our department. (In exchange I have a light load this winter term.) Teaching in an unsettled environment with evolving expectations and constraints, with one new course and another needing significant adaptation to spatial separation in discussions, whether online or in person … suffice to say, the workload was significantly more than doubled. Writing regularly and even thinking about science and Christian faith took a back seat. It is time to get back into the groove.

I recently received a copy of a new book by Denis Lamoureux “The Bible & Ancient Science”. Much of the material in this book will be familiar to those who have read many of Denis’s other books, especially his large book “Evolutionary Creation”.

Like many Christians, Denis found the questions raised by the intersection (or conflict) of science and our faith troubling. Unlike many, however, he took the time to explore the questions in depth. When he felt called to engage in the battle between science (specifically evolution) and Christian faith, he began by pursuing a PhD in theology. This challenged many of his preconceptions about the way to read Scripture as the word of God. A second PhD in biology, focused on the evolution of the jaw, convinced him that the theory of evolution is grounded in solid empirical evidence. This background led him to a career as a Professor of Science and Religion at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta (see his site here). This latest book focuses on a series of hermeneutical principles to help guide Christians to a deeper understanding of Scripture. Drawing from his long experience teaching the topic to college students, he has pulled together a helpful guide for lay Christians. In a series of posts we will think through many of these principles.

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