July 2010

Romans Part 1 – Revisited

by Dave on July 23, 2010

in General, Theology

I was recently reading an interview of Bishop Tom Wright regarding the new perspectives on Paul and it brought to light an angle that I have not covered in my earlier post on the beginning of Romans.

One of the key elements to consider in the so called new perspective on Paul is that Paul was inherently anti-imperial.  That is, Paul was against the pursuits of the Roman Empire and actively tried to make it known that the imperial Roman Empire is against the ways of god.  As I have studied this topic I have concluded a couple things.  First, it sure looks like Paul and the teachings of Jesus are against the idea of the Imperial Empire.  Second, the Imperial Empire of Rome looks an awful lot like the Empire of the United States in the current world order.  But this post is really about the first point.

Let’s look back at the  beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  When you read this, it may pay to keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to the Romans.  That is, he is writing this letter to the people who are day in and day out benefiting from and succumbing to the rhetoric and influence of the Roman Empire.  The text:

1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4and who through the Spirit[a] of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

 7To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
      Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. NIV

This looks like pretty common language that we would hear of us all declaring that Jesus is Lord, right?  The key I was reminded of in Tom Wright’s interview is that much of the language that is used here in the opening to the letter to the Roman’s is a rehash of the language that was used to refer to Caesar.  It was common place to say your allegiance to Caesar.  The roman world would also say that Caesar was a god, and he was a god here on earth and he was the most powerful god as evidenced by his great power and wealth.  If you were to follow Caesar and be obedient to him then you too will get to share in the wealth and security of the roman empire!  Caesar is Lord!

Paul, in his opening to his letter to the Romans turns that on its head and instead declares that this forgiving and wise carpenter turned teacher that was crucified by Caesar is Lord, not Caesar.  Paul does not add that last not Caesar to his language but that was understood by his audience who were immersed in the language of Caesar being lord and god and you need to be obedient to his will and through that obedience you will secure salvation for you and your family in this new world order, the Pax Romana.  Sounds a lot like what Paul is saying about Jesus, right?

That is part of the scandal that was the letter of Paul to the Romans.  We read the opening today and miss all the nuanced association that Paul is making between the Kingdom of God and Jesus being Lord and the Roman Empire, with Caesar as lord.  Remember, Caesar is a son of the gods and he himself a god living here on this earth.  He is bringing peace and salvation.

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the good old USA?  We are extending our borders out to distant land, we will bring peace to the world through our power.  We will give our people peace here in our homeland and security.  But who pays the price for this?  Who is not secure?

Are you called to be son’s of the American Empire, or the Empire of the Lord?  Which lord?  I invite you to take the time to re-read the beginning of the letter to the Romans and see why a servent of Caesar may look at what Paul is saying differently than you or I today.

One last quote, from the Bishop Wright:

After all, in a democracy ‘Caesar’ is ‘all of us’, and though we have Presidents and Prime Ministers the critique of ‘empire’ is more complicated now than it was in the first century.

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Rational Religion

by Dave on July 16, 2010

in General, Theology

I know that it seems like an oxymoron, but I believe that there needs to be a rationality with which we approach religion or all of religion risks being relegated to irrational people with political agendas and cult like followings.  I am specifically following up to my previous post, Are the Southern Baptists a Cult?.  I have been actively participating in a series of posts relating to this subject over at the Jesus Creed, and decided that I need to start a longer term project of thinking through the relationship between religious beliefs and rationality.

To start, I propose this sequence:

  1. Personal Revelation with God Trumps All
  2. Solid, experimental physical evidence trumps the rest
  3. Reason trumps the rest
  4. Historic Church teaching trumps the rest (i.e. the church interpretation of bible)
  5. Scripture trumps the rest

To put this into practice, you could use this as follows.  Let’s take an example such as the existence of Jesus as God.  Step 1 would ask if I had a personal experience with God that I believe and makes it so.  This would not mean, in this case, whether you participated in a religious service and had a feeling like you knew Jesus.  Instead, step 1 would mean something like God spoke to you in your mind and gave you a vision of Jesus and he told you that this was Jesus and that he was part of God.  If you have not had that then you go to step 2.

In step 2, we would see if we have physical evidence of Jesus and his being God.  No we don’t.  So go to step 3.

Step 3 asks whether you can use reason to know that Jesus is God and is real.  No you can’t.  So go to step 4.

Step 4 asks if there is an existing exegesis of the Bible that will lead to this conclusion for you.  If you are a Christian then you have to answer yes, there is.

Then you go back a step and ask, given my base as step 4, is there cause to trump that.  In this case, is there cause for you to use additional reason.  If you don’t feel like researching it better then it is perfectly rational for you to accept the conclusion that Jesus is God based on the teaching of the Christian Faith of which you are a part.  Easy, right?

The key to this is that there are ever increasing hurdles that you would have to overcome as one goes higher and higher up the ladder, to step 1 or 2 for instance.  Said another way, if you simply open the bible and decide to read a passage on your own and take what it says on the surface and believe that, then you do not have a lot to stand on.  But if the Church had a history of interpreting the Bible the same way you did then you could be more confident in your believe.  Then if it was reasonable you would be more confident.  If there was physical evidence even more, and then finally personal experience you would be the most confident.

This is the way the Biblical references to Jerusalem are.  You could open the Bible and find the following passage in Matthew:

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east[b] and have come to worship him.”  NIV

In this passage you would make the assumption that Jerusalem was a city in the time of Jesus.  To add more credibility to this, one would see if the Christian Church teaches this.  A quick search of the Roman Catholic Catechism would tell you that they indeed think it is a city in the Ancient Near East (ANE).  Then you could think it is reasonable given both of those to think that.  Then you could search Wikipedia and see if there is physical evidence for this.  Then you can plan a trip and actually go there and know for sure that Jerusalem is a city that was in the ANE.

If this sounds reasonable then one would have to think twice about the arguments that Al Mohler made regarding the age of the earth in the speech I reference in my post Are the Southern Baptists a Cult?.  In that speech, Mohler argues over and over about how if we were to believe that the earth is old, then it would cause a mass rethinking of the theology that has come before.  90% of his speech is basically saying that he does not want to even consider the physical evidence because their teaching is more important.  I can interpret his hierachy of steps to be:

  1. Southern Baptist Church Teaching
  2. The Bible
  3. Reason
  4. Physical Evidence
  5. Personal Experience

He strongly made the argument that his church theology is the most important thing, and they will overrule Reason, the Bible interpretation, Physiscal evidence and everything else to maintain that their teaching is preserved.  Note that he is not saying that the Bible is the most important thing.  He is saying that their interpretation of the Bible is the most important thing.  If he was saying that the Bible is the most important thing then he would propose many more studies to try and understand how their interpretation may be wrong.  But he isn’t saying that.  What he is saying is that he won’t even look at it.

They are a cult.

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Dr. Albert Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist theological seminary recently made a speech addressing one of the key elements in defending the cult status of the SBC.  A transcript and a video is available.

EDIT:  I want to point out that the subject of the SBC being a cult is not something I came up with.  I am just weighing in on the conversation.  Twice in this presentation Dr. Mohler refers to the accusation that they are a cult.

Here is a quote from the speech:

The controversy concerning Bruce Waltke, who even in recent months became a focus of controversy after making a video where he argued that, unless evangelical Christians come to terms with accepting the theory of evolution, we will be reduced to the status of a theological and intellectual cult. The urgency of this question and the demand for an answer comes over against what is pressed upon us with the definition of the assured results of modern science.

In this speech Dr. Mohler is trying to address the question:

Why does the universe look so old if it was actually made about 6,000 years ago?

For those of you who do not know, the Southern Baptist Convention teaches it’s members that the earth was made about 6,000 years ago in one instant by God.  He actually does not get to answering the question until the very end of his presentation.  Instead he takes a very long time to do his adult imitation of one of those timeless traditions of putting your fingers in your ears and talking loudly so that you won’t hear what other people are saying.

Here is a definition of a cult

cult –noun

  1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
  2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
  3. the object of such devotion.
  4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
  5. Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
  6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
  7. the members of such a religion or sect.
  8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
I think the primary definition in this case is number 6 since the issue at hand is that the Southern Baptists continue to teach, unequivocally that the only way to believe and the true way to believe is to have God created the universe out of nothing, fully formed, 6,000 years ago along with a history of many many things that obviously happened more than 6,000 years ago (dinosaurs and other fossils, DNA evidence, light from stars billions of light years away in mid-flight).
I am not going to try and convince people who believe in a young earth that the earth is old.  If you want some good reading on this topic go to the biologos website and there will be more than enough there.  Instead, I want to propose that the Southern Baptist Convention is indeed a cult given their leader’s closed stance and unwillingness to consider that the earth is old in the face of irrefutable evidence.  They continue to hold this position even though they have access to all the available information.
I also want to distinguish between the leadership and the church going people.  The people are being misled intentionally by the leadership so there is no problem with them.  It is not their fault.  But the leadership is now a cult because of their refusal to even consider that the earth may be old and recognize that it is most likely very silly at best and downright deceitful at worst, for them to believe that the divine creator is trying to trick us into thinking the universe is young.  That would mean that God is lying, and that would truly be against everything we as a faith believe.
It should also be noted that Al Mohler is required to uphold this belief in order to maintain his employment.  Perhaps he should have to divulge that while he is telling people that the earth is 6,000 years old.

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Romans Part 6 – Righteousness of God

by Dave on July 11, 2010

in Theology

Today I start to get to some of the key concepts that are often misinterpreted in Paul’s letters.  First, the scripture, Romans 1:16 and 17

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  NIV

I have often wondered why Paul would feel compelled to have to write that he is not ashamed of the gospel.  Why would the story of God and Jesus possibly cause shame to him in some way?  One of the reasons that I can think of is because the gospel that he is referring to is so simple and easy that it almost seems too simple and easy.  The gospel is, as I have been trying to articulate in The Lost Codex, is actually so simple that people may have laughed at it in the Roman world.  Remember, this is the world of the great Greek philosophers who have high sounding philosophies of other higher worlds and a disassociation of the mind and bodily concerns.  To hear someone preach that they should just try to be good to others here on earth may have been laughable.

Also, it could be that the gods of the Roman Pantheon were gods who would grant all kinds of wishes, that were powerful in war, powerful over the lives of people.  In contrast the god of Jesus and Paul is shown to be a loving, caring god who by the rules of this world is not powerful or strong.  Instead, he could be viewed as weak.  So it would be easily conceivable that some in Rome would be ashamed to have such a weak god.

So Paul says he is not ashamed because it really is the way that you can have a great and fulfilling life.  It really is the way that you can find a piece of the Kingdom of God here and now.  It is really the way we were meant to be.  He is not ashamed that his god is not going to go and beat up your god.  Or that his god is not going to go to battle for him.  Instead, his god is going to love you…

I attended a Bible study class where the attitude of the teacher always seemed to be that following Jesus and his gospel somehow inherently involved suffering.  While I agree that there are many in this world who will cause you suffering for following the ways of Jesus, that is not the point that Jesus (or Paul) is making.  What Jesus says is that you will live a life of the ages, you will have eternal life.  This does not mean that you are going to go to heaven.  It actually means the opposite.  It means that you will have a life the way God intended you to have it here on earth.  Once we are all following this new way of being there will only be happiness and the Kingdom of God fully realized here on earth.

In verse 16 Paul also starts to use the phrase “everyone who believes”.  Do you believe?  I think that the way people have typically rendered this is something like: “do you acknowledge that Jesus is God and he was really here, that is believing”.  But that is not the way Paul uses the word believe.  Paul is not wanting people to somehow believe in a propositional statement of whether you think Jesus is God, but he is saying to you to believe the Gospel, which is that the person Jesus really is the new King to rule over the world, and his laws are to love each other!  When people ask the question, “do you believe in Jesus?” they are usually missing the point.  It is not whether you “believe in Jesus”, it is whether you believe that God’s kingdom has begun on this earth and the way you can live and share in this life is to love each other and treat people well.

So Paul says “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”.  This does not mean, “I am not ashamed of Jesus because if you believe in him you will go to heaven some day.”  What it means is “if you follow the ways of Jesus you will participate in God’s Kingdom here and now on this earth and it is available to everyone.

Then in verse 17 we get the first instance in this letter of the phrase “righteousness from God”  This is one of those cases where it is beneficial to go back to the original Greek in which Paul wrote the original letter.  In his letter, the term we translate in the NIV as righteousness is dikaiosune.  Dikaiosune in the NET bible is defined as:

  1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
  2. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
  3. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
  4. in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due

Thus, when we are talking about the righteousness of God (dikaiosune gar Theo, Theo meaning God) there is room for interpretation.  There are several interpretations of how this phrase can be used.  One of interpretations that I have seen used in Protestant (particularly Baptist) circles is that somehow this righteousness from God (dikaiosune gar Theo) is something that God imparts onto the person who believes.  That is, when Paul says “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed”, these people interpret that as God has somehow given them righteousness and it is revealed in them.  Clearly this can lead to some problems that I think are significant and apparent in today’s baptist cultures (they are indeed holier than thou, Paul says it, right?).  This problem of feeling that they are righteous is exacerbated further by the next part of verse 17:

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The baptist view of the word faith here is usually interpreted as a person believing that Jesus is God and by having this faith (that Jesus is God) he will impart his righteousness onto you and you will be holy.  I know a couple of “saved” people where this would certainly describe how they interpret this part of the letter.  This interpretation (I confess that I believe Jesus is God and he makes me righteous and therefore I will go to heaven) is not in the bible.  It is totally in keeping with the hyper individualistic notions of modern society.

But Paul may have meant this is a different way.  To me, the dikaiosune gar Theo, the righteousness from God, is a characteristic of God.  God has a righteousness.  As is in the Gospels, he is love and good, he has this quality of dikaiosune.

And faith, in the context of this letter, is not really some intellectual statement or some feeling that you have accepted Jesus as your personal lord, but instead it is that you have faith that you should live your life in the way that Jesus gospel (his good news) tells us that we should live.  Having faith is not an internal thought, it is an orientation, it is action, it is that you know that you will share in the Kingdom of God by living your life according to the teaching of Jesus.  In the ancient near east there was not an implicit distinction between the thoughts of a person and their actions.  It was generally assumed that if you thought a certain way (for example, had faith that Jesus taught God’s will), then you would generally do it.

The very last part of verse 17 is also important especially considering the degree to which it is twisted in much of today’s society.  It says:

“The righteous will live by faith.”

If one were so inclined to feel that the gospel is all about how a person who accepts Jesus as his personal saviour will have eternal life by going to heaven then it is pretty clear that this phrase would confirm that stance.

But I contend that the real meaning of this is that those who share in the Godly quality of dikaiosune (the actual word used by Paul here is dikaios) will live (here and now in the way of God) by faith (believing that the ways of Jesus are the right ways and therefore they will actually live that way.

So a quick comparison of a couple of possible interpretations of verses 16 and 17 can lead people to radically different world views.  On one hand, the baptist believer will possibly state those as:

I am not afraid because God has the power to send people to heaven if they attest that Jesus is the Lord (in their mind and heart).  For God has gives you righteousness so you are now holy because you acknowledged that Jesus is God and believe!  You don’t have to do anything, only have faith and believe.

This is horrible, it missed the point of what Paul is saying.  Instead, he is saying this:

I am proud to support the man Jesus who was put to death by the Romans (this letter is to the Romans), for God rules the world and you can participate in his empire by having assuredness that the simple life of Jesus is the correct life to live.  This is verified in the good news that Jesus was raised from the dead by God proving that he indeed is the long sought after King of the world.  The new King shows that God’s correct way to live is to love each other.  Experience this wonderful new life now.

So what’s the difference.  In the typical evangelical baptist message, it is all about you personally believing something so that when you leave this life you will go to heaven.  The new perspective is that you need to act with love in this life and that is how God wants you to live.

This difference plays out over and over in our society.  People who believe the old view will go to church on Sunday and as long as they think that they “believe in Jesus” they will go to heaven some day.  So they don’t do anything.  They think that they are saved.  But they missed the boat.  Being saved means to live God’s rightful life here and now.  To be actively involved in ushering in the Kingdom of God.

Next time – is God mad?

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Colonial vs Missional Church

by Dave on July 6, 2010

in Denominations, General

I have spent a great deal of time over the past several years working in a church that was purported to be a missional church, but have come to realize that the church I was a part of was more colonial rather than missional(Western Hanover Church).  While it may seem rather obvious to most of us that there is a big difference between the two, in practice the motivations of the people running the church are what make the difference.  I would like to illustrate some of the key elements about the difference in the hope that others do not make the same mistake. Post continued, click here…

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by Dave on July 5, 2010

in General

Mom, I am sorry this post is not about you.  I know you are an awesome Grandmother, but the inspiration for this one has come from Grandma.

As I was watching the PBS Newshour today, and they gave homage at the end to the soldiers that were killed in service to our country, I could not keep out of my mind the picture of my Grandma, sitting in her rocking chair looking at the TV saying “Oh, my oh my oh my.  Why can’t they have good news on TV?  Oh my, oh my oh my.”

I was a child, less than a teen, when I remember my Grandma saying those words.  And, at the time I could not understand what she was talking about.  The news, I thought, is the say as the Bad News.  Isn’t that right?  What would be news about something good?

Over the next 30 years, right up until now, I have often thought about that statement.  About how that defined her world in a way that was so different from my world.  How that statement was out of place in the world as I know it.  It is truly sad that it is not commonplace for the news programs in our society to not have good news.  Well, that is not entirely true, but imagine a day where the news programs was all good news.  What would the world have to look like for that to happen?

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Romans Part 5 – Greeting

by Dave on July 2, 2010

in Theology

Having gone quite slowly through the beginning of Romans, I am going to go quickly through this next section.

8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

 11I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

 14I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.  NIV

In 8-15 Paul gives a warm greeting to his audience.  There are many who feel that people can not come to God on their own and Paul can be viewed as a supporter of this in verse 8.  He thanks God through Jesus (as in John 14:6 “no one comes to the Father except though me”) for all of them because of the report of their faith.  Now is he is he thanking God for their faith or for the reports of the faith?  It is not obvious to me which it is.  It may be both.

Toward the end of this passage, he clearly articulates that his preaching of the gospel is for everyone.  One of the interesting parts of this is that he says that it is to the wise and the foolish.  In Greek, the term translated as foolish is anohtoiv.  In this sense it seems to be someone without sense.  He also uses this term in several other letters and in those contexts it looks like he uses it to describe people who have not taken the advice that has been given to them.  Particularly people who once had faith but for some reason no longer do.  I feel this is important since it means that Paul’s mission is to continually reinforce the gospel preached.  There are some who say once someone “believes” then they are saved.  But Paul says that some can be “foolish” and turn away.

Next time, several key words including “salvation”, “righteousness of God”, and “Faith”.


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Pray for a Friend

by Dave on July 2, 2010

in General

I have a friend that is quite ill and needs your prayers.  Please pray with me.

Thanks, and God Bless


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