Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thessalonica (Acts 17)

  • Paul was probably there a little more than three Sundays. In Philippians he notes they sent him material support more than once. Maybe a couple months?
  • Usual pattern is presented--go to synagogue, a few Jewish converts but more from God-fearers and non-Jewish women. Going from 1 Thessalonians, the make-up of the church ended up primarily Gentile (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
  • They presumably worshiped and stayed in the home of someone named Jason. They get in trouble for treason.  We can imagine that preaching "Jesus is Lord" was treasonous. Not surprising Paul often ended up in jail.
  • We know from the Damascus incident, comparing Paul's version with that of Acts, that Acts may be somewhat one-sided in its assignment of blame for Paul's troubles. Yes, non-believing Jews opposed Paul. But they were constantly in trouble with local authorities as well. It is the local authorities that interrogate Jason here, not Jews. (very interesting that no Jason is mentioned in 1 or 2 Thessalonians, by the way)  
  • My hunch is that Luke was making it clear to Theophilus and others that there was a reason God let the Jerusalem temple be destroyed.  I consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Luke-Acts was written after the destruction of Jerusalem, maybe around AD80.
1 Thessalonians
It is interesting when you look at 1 Thessalonians, sent back to Thessalonica perhaps from Corinth (or Athens). We get hints of Paul's version of recent events. They were forced to leave Thessalonica somewhat quickly (2:17). At Athens they had sent Timothy back to them to shore up their faith.

The letter of 1 Thessalonians was then in response to that visit. Timothy comes back to them (had they moved on to Corinth by then?), and Paul writes 1 Thessalonians as a substitute for his own presence.
  • What was Paul's early preaching like? We face the problem that Paul's letters mainly address the problems, not the common ground. That puts us in the ironic situation of seeing the eccentricities and having to work to see the essentials.
  • From 1 Corinthians 15, we can probably infer that the tradition of Christ's death and resurrection was central to his preaching. 1 Corinthians (e.g., 1:23) and Galatians (e.g., 6:14) corroborate that the cross stood at the center of his preaching. 
  • He apparently also focused on the wrath of God (e.g., 1:10; 2:16). Christ was soon going to return to judge the world (3:13; 5:23).
From these clues, we can get a good sense of what Paul had preached. You all have been worshiping the wrong gods.  The living God was the God of Israel. Because of the sins of the world, God is soon coming in judgment, to pour out his wrath on the whole world.

But he has also made a way to escape. In the mystery of God's wisdom, he has sacrificed the very king through whom he will judge the world. Those who are baptized in his name, will be saved from the coming wrath.
  • What is not mentioned here?  The resurrection!  Paul apparently did not make it clear while he was there that those who die will be part of the coming kingdom.
  • Sexual immorality was still sinful. Paul warns them that they must keep their sexual life pure. This certainly included adultery, but Paul assumes they know what he means.
  • Christ was going to return. That was no excuse to stop working. In fact, we should work harder.
2 Thessalonians
The second letter is more puzzling. We do not even know if it was written around the same time. It has some formal similarities to 1 Thessalonians. It has some content similarities (e.g., against laziness).

The tone of chapter 2 is what is puzzling. Although it is easy for us to read 2 Thessalonians 2 against current events, it is eye-opening to read it as a first century reader would have...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Gospel Reaches Greece (Acts 16)

Some notes...

1. Paul seems to have liked to have a missionary partner (Barnabas/Silas) and an assistant or two.  Did he use people like John Mark, Titus, and Timothy as work horses?  ...

It is fascinating that Acts never mentions Titus...

Why did Paul circumcise Timothy?  Had he not fully worked out his theology of justification by faith yet?  Did he do it as a shrewd mission strategy?  Did he have Titus as his go-between with non-Jews and want Timothy as a go-between with Jews? Timothy's mother was Jewish. By the later reckoning of Jewish tradition, that qualified him as a Jew, even though his father was Greek.

2. Paul and Silas' path probably followed the Roman roads.  His sense that they were not to go north or south basically aligns with the cross-road options on the way northwest throughout Asia Minor.

3. The "we" passages of Acts begin at Troas. Traditionally Luke is thought to be the author, the only ancient name suggested. It seems like the author was someone who traveled with Paul a little. The author is with Paul at the end of Acts in Rome.  Since Colossians is traditionally dated to that time, the list of people at the end of Colossians does have Luke's name there. Other possibilities of course.

Not a matter of faith... People get upset because so much of their faith has calcified around traditions about the Bible (which includes inerrancy, by the way) rather than the Bible itself.

4. Why did Paul sense there would be some Jews worshiping by the river?  Some clever speculations pop up here. One I remember is the suggestion that Jews were kicked out of all Roman colonies in 49, not just Rome itself. The fact that it is a group of women there sometimes is taken to mean that there weren't 10 Jewish men in town to form a synagogue.

The "we" passages end here and will later pick back up here. So we can presume that the author of Luke-Acts spent several years at Philippi.  He would thus know the situation there, even if Acts itself does not make it clear.

It is a Jewish gathering, rather than a Christian one. Paul and Silas may talk to the women but it doesn't say there weren't men there, and Paul didn't go there with the expectation that there wouldn't be men. So I doubt the "there aren't 10 men" suggestion works, a suggestion that comes from later rabbinic literature anyway. I personally think it was the Christian Jews who were kicked out of Rome so Paul would have no reason to think that a generic synagogue would be outside the city because of the expulsion under Claudius.

The answer could be as simple as someone in Paul's group having heard there was a place of prayer by the river outside of Philippi.  On the other hand, maybe it was common in the Diaspora for a synagogue or place of prayer to be located by rivers near cities. The water could have provided a means for ritual purification. Or did Christian Jews meet near rivers so that they could baptize?

We should keep in mind that a synagogue at this time was not a building, but a meeting. Most cities at this time probably did not have a synagogue building. Lydia was a non-Jewish merchant.  Could it be that cities also often had synagogues for travelers near rivers so that strangers knew where to find them when they were passing through? So many questions we don't really have answers to.

5. Lydia is presumably married.  Her whole household gets baptized, as does the whole family of the Philippian jailer later in the chapter. My hunch is that this included everyone in the family, including the children. This was a group culture, where the whole family followed the lead of the father. Our emphasis on believer's baptism strikes me as a modern individualist concern which, no surprise, rises with the rise of Protestant individualism.

This is a striking woman. She probably has a husband but, man, he is nowhere to be seen in this story. She invites them to her house. Her family follows her lead in baptism. Of course the rich never have to follow the norms of the rest of society, and she is probably a wealthy woman with a large house. A dealer in the dye of royalty!  Luke's mention of her fits his emphasis on women as full participants in the gospel.

Apparently she and Luke didn't get the memo from Mark Driscoll and John Piper.

6. Philippian jailer... don't want too long of a post so I'll either leave this story for the book or come back to it later here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Soldier of the Legion...

For some reason, this poem popped into my head tonight:

Bingen on the Rhine
A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers—
There was lack of woman’s nursing, there was dearth of woman’s tears;
But a comrade stood beside him, while his life-blood ebbed away,
And bent, with pitying glances, to hear what he might say.
The dying soldier faltered, as he took that comrade’s hand,
And he said: “I never more shall see my own, my native land;
Take a message and a token to some distant friends of mine,
For I was born at Bingen—at Bingen on the Rhine!

"Tell my brothers and companions, when they meet and crowd around
To hear my mournful story, in the pleasant vineyard ground,
That we fought the battle bravely—and, when the day was done,
Full many a corse lay ghastly pale, beneath the setting sun.
And ’midst the dead and dying were some grown old in wars,—
The death-wound on their gallant breasts, the last of many scars;
But some were young,—and suddenly beheld life’s morn decline,—
And one had come from Bingen—fair Bingen on the Rhine!

"Tell my mother that her other sons shall comfort her old age,
And I was aye a truant bird, that thought his home a cage;
For my father was a soldier, and, even as a child,
My heart leaped forth to hear him tell of struggles fierce and wild;
And when he died, and left us to divide his scanty hoard,
I let them take whate’er they would—but kept my father’s sword;
And with boyish love I hung it where the bright light used to shine,
On the cottage wall at Bingen—calm Bingen on the Rhine!

"Tell my sister not to weep for me, and sob with drooping head,
When the troops are marching home again, with glad and gallant tread;
But to look upon them proudly, with a calm and steadfast eye,
For her brother was a soldier, too—and not afraid to die.
And, if a comrade seek her love, I ask her, in my name,
To listen to him kindly, without regret or shame;
And to hang the old sword in its place (my father’s sword and mine),
For the honour of old Bingen—dear Bingen on the Rhine!

"There’s another—not a sister,—in the happy days gone by,
You’d have known her by the merriment that sparkled in her eye:
Too innocent for coquetry! too fond for idle scorning;—
Oh friend! I fear the lightest heart makes sometimes heaviest mourning!
Tell her, the last night of my life (for, ere this moon be risen,
My body will be out of pain—my soul be out of prison),
I dreamed I stood with her, and saw the yellow sunlight shine
On the vine-clad hills of Bingen—fair Bingen on the Rhine!

"I saw the blue Rhine sweep along—I heard, or seemed to hear,
The German songs we used to sing, in chorus sweet and clear;
And down the pleasant river, and up the slanting hill,
That echoing chorus sounded, through the evening calm and still;
And her glad blue eyes were on me, as we passed with friendly talk,
Down many a path beloved of yore, and well-remembered walk;
And her little hand lay lightly, confidingly in mine …
But we’ll meet no more at Bingen—loved Bingen on the Rhine!"

His voice grew faint and hoarser,—his grasp was childish weak,—
His eyes put on a dying look,—he sighed and ceased to speak:
His comrade bent to lift him,… but the spark of life had fled!
The soldier of the Legion, in a foreign land was dead!
And the soft moon rose up slowly, and calmly she looked down
On the red sand of the battle-field, with bloody corpses strown;
Yea, calmly on that dreadful scene her pale light seemed to shine,
As it shone on distant Bingen—fair Bingen on the Rhine!

Caroline Norton

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fighting Just to Fight

Some people like starting fights. They like getting into arguments because they like arguing.  I hope I don't come off that way because I don't perceive that to be my personality at all. When I was in college at Southern Wesleyan University, I had two very close friends.  In a conflict or contest, I was happy if everyone just ended up getting along when it was all over.  One of my other friends was content if he just got even.

My third friend needed to get ahead. He dated a girl who also loved to fight, and they just loved to argue with each other. The two got married, are still married and, I presume, are still arguing with each other for endless delight.

I believe that God can sanctify ambition and the drive to win.  If God told Adam and Eve to take charge of the garden, then God can use those who are wired to come in first. Such people have to be careful, however, for God and Scripture are not exactly enthusiastic about the lust for power and domination. Rather, "the first will be last and the last will be first."

There was a line in the movie Jack Reacher that stood out to me.  In the movie, Tom Cruise says that there are three types of people who sign up for the military.  First there are the patriots who want to serve their country.  Then there are those who see the military as a chance to make something of themselves and their lives. But a small, scary group likes the idea of being able to kill others with impunity.

Similarly, there are some who fight for God because they want to stop the oppression of others.  Then there are some who sincerely believe God wants them to "stand up for what is right." But they truly hope that others will repent and that the world will become a more godly place.

Then there are the scary ones, the ones that use God as excuse to fight because they really like to run over others. They get off on the power and hide their lust under the cover of standing up for the truth. These are the kind that will turn on their own in a heartbeat if someone on their own side tries to speak truth into their lives. Could it be that those who shout the loudest about standing up for the truth are the most likely candidates for this category?

Remember the Crusades?  How many of the kings who led the Crusades were really standing up for God?  Could it be that most of those who started the Crusades were really just warmongers who enjoyed the idea of conquering some territory and killing some bad guys? The idea that they were fighting for God just gave them cover for their true motives.

The human capacity to deceive itself is astounding, including our capacity to take good and use it for bad.  We can even do it with the Bible. Maybe we say we're conquering Jericho or purging the land of the godless.

But it's just as likely we're fooling ourselves.  Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."  Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek."  Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful."

He didn't say, "Blessed are those who pick fights with those who disagree with you" or "Blessed are those who kick out those with the wrong perspective."  There are others in the Bible who were more prone to kick people out of the synagogue for disagreeing.

The words of Jesus should haunt those of us who like to fight: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Agreeing to Disagree (Acts 15:36-41)

In Acts, the conflict between Paul and Barnabas seems to pop up out of nowhere. They have just had a successful missionary journey. They have just prevailed at the meeting in Jerusalem. Now suddenly they have an argument over whether John Mark should go with them on a second missionary journey?

The book of Galatians suggests that the argument was over more than just John Mark. In the disagreement at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14), Barnabas ends up taking Peter's side over Paul in the dispute. While it would be convenient to think that Acts 15 resolved this dispute, it seems more likely that Paul lost this argument and that the tensions lingered on for a number of years. [1] Paul makes it a point to tell us earlier that he convinced Peter, James, and John about circumcision (Gal. 2:6-10). But he can't tell us that he convinced Peter and Barnabas at Antioch, because he likely didn't.

What was Barnabas thinking?  Didn't he agree with Paul that Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised?  Had he not eaten with Gentile converts until the blow up at Antioch?

Perhaps he agreed with James' logic.  Yes, Gentiles can escape God's wrath without following the Jewish purity laws, being circumcised, and so forth. But that doesn't mean that Jewish believers can stop keeping the purity laws.  Unless the Gentiles are willing to follow certain rules, the two will not be able to eat together.

We can't read Barnabas' mind.  Maybe he sided with Peter for reasons of authority.  Maybe he thought it was important to submit to the authority of Peter and James, even if he disagreed with them. Maybe he was being pragmatist.  Maybe he thought it was a good tactic to yield for the moment until a compromise position could be worked out.

For Paul, this was perhaps the moment God used to sow the seeds of justification by faith. He knew the Gentiles were "in" without having to be circumcised.  How quickly did his theology explaining this mysterious fact follow? His thinking apparently was still forming back when he was in Galatia, for someone was able to convince them that he preferred that they get circumcised (Gal. 5:11)!

But this event in Antioch would seal the deal. No, these sort of "works of Law"--things like purity laws and circumcision--must have nothing to do with a right standing before God.  Had he not been blameless at keeping them (Phil. 3:6)?  If he had not been right with God through them, then no one could get right with God through them. Justification must be completely through the faithful death of Jesus, something we put our faith in when we are baptized. Then God gives us the Spirit as his seal of true ownership.

Acts remembers John Mark as the flash point, but he was only the symptom of a deeper conflict. Had John Mark been the one who tattletaled on Paul's mission to Gentiles when he went home early from the first missionary journey?  After all, he was from Jerusalem and well connected to Peter and the inner circle. If all we had were Acts, we might think it was just because Paul thought him a quitter, and maybe that was part of it.

But God redeemed the conflict.  God used it for good.  The result was two missions instead of one. If they had agreed, Paul might merely have gone back to Cyprus. But now he and Silas set course to spread the good news to new lands.  They will not only presumably take Titus with them, but they will add a young man named Timothy to the ranks of missionaries (Acts 16:1-3).

The rift was not permanent. Paul speaks in positive terms of Barnabas in 1 Corinthians 9:6, and he speaks positively of Mark in Colossians 4:10. Christians will not always agree on everything, and there is a time to be unified in disagreement, to agree to disagree. That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas did.

[1] If, as I think likely, Galatians 2:1-10 is Paul's version of Acts 15, then the incident at Antioch actually happened after the meeting in Jerusalem. I of course think Galatians fits better in the middle of Paul's ministry rather than at the beginning.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How God Uses Scripture 2

continued from this morning
It is interesting to compare what individual passages of Scripture did originally with how they function within Christianity today. For one thing, it is doubtful that most if not all of the New Testament authors knew they were writing Scripture. The Corinthians, for example, felt perfectly free to question Paul's instructions, which they presumably would not have done with the Old Testament. Old Testament prophets felt a clarity that they were bringing the word of the Lord, but we can doubt that the authors of the Old Testament narratives felt the same way.  Indeed, the category of "Scripture" may not even have existed for them at the time.

N. T. Wright has suggested that worldviews have four components: 1) story, 2) symbol, 3) practices, and 4) answers to basic questions. [1] This delineation is at least more helpful than the usual approach to worldview that focuses only on the fourth element. James K. A. Smith has pushed the fundamental dynamics of our approach to the world even deeper by speaking of a Christian "imaginary." [2]  Rather than think of human beings as "thinking things," the notion of a social imaginary looks to a deeper part of us driving the way we look at the world.

I suspect that the default way Christians read the Bible today is as a single book from God to us. In and of itself, this approach implies that we have a tendency to read the books of the Bible differently than their first meanings. Assuming that God wants us to experience the Bible in this way today, it implies that God does certain things with Scripture today that are somewhat distinct from what he did with them originally.

Following Wright's lead, yes, the Bible now gives us a unified story that helps shape our sense of identity. [3] Unfortunately, the flexibility of language has allowed a myriad of Christian groups to interpret the story differently. Nevertheless, Christians can surely agree on some key features of the biblical story. God and Christ are king, to whom we all owe our allegiance. Christ is the solution to humanity's problem and he's not finished yet.

What does God mean this story to "do" to us as readers?  At the very least, he means to be our Lord and Father. He means to shape us into his servants and children. That leads us to the question of what practices he wishes to form in us. Here the New Testament is clear, he wishes to make us a loving people, people who love.

Yes, God also gives us answers to basic questions, but this is not the most important thing he does. Far more important is his shaping us into people who love each other and who submit to the lordship of Christ. Indeed, the answers he gave in Scripture were incarnated answers, answers couched in the thought categories of Scripture's ancient audiences. The task of re-presenting these answers in new times and places is never done.

[1] NT and the People of God

[2] Desiring the Kingdom. Language of imaginaries traces to Charles Taylor.

[3] The unity we see now gives distinct meanings to the biblical texts that they did not originally have. For example, the significance of the story of Adam is more prominent in most versions of the Christian story than Genesis 2-3 were for the majority of the biblical books.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

God's Doings in Scripture

Words do things. They are tools. The original authors of the biblical books were trying to do things through the words, and Christians believe God was doing things through the words as well. I believe that God does things through those same words today that are not exactly the same as what he did originally.

What did the words originally do?

1. They affirmed the identity, values, and practices of Israel in relation to YHWH.
The narratives of the OT, from Genesis to Esther, gave Israel a sense of who it was and who its God was. It singled Israel out from the other peoples who surrounded them and their gods.  Its laws set a boundary, a "hedge" to set it apart from other peoples. Certainly there were also moral lessons, the chief of which was that Israel would prosper when it served YHWH and it would fail and go into subjection when it didn't.

2. The prophets strongly reinforced these values.
The prophets indicted Israel for its injustice to the weak. They decried the enemies of Israel for their injustice as well. They gave hope to Israel of restoration after enslavement.

3. The writings expressed the worship, the laments, the hopes, the anger of Israel, as well as the wonder of the world.

4. The gospels presented the good news of Jesus Christ, our king, each in their own way.  They presented who he is, what his values are (love), and validated his identity as Messiah.

5. Acts gave them an ideal community of faith in this time between Christ's resurrection and coming again. It gave the church a sense of who it is and what its values are.

6. The letters and sermons of the NT played out in various first century contexts Christian values in the new age of the Messiah.

7. Revelation expressed the hope and certainty that Christ would be victorious in the end over the forces of opposition that currently war against God's kingdom.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reinventing my blog

I started this blog in 2004 with the name "Schenck Thoughts," a riff off of Jack Handy's Deep Thoughts. Then in 2008 I renamed it "Quadrilateral Thoughts," in honor of Wesley's Quadrilateral.

I hinted last week on the 9th anniversary of the blog that I've often felt whiplash here.
  • Some posts are specific to my denomination, which can at times seem bizarre to broader friends and scholars.  You have two tiers of membership? You don't allow members to drink moderately?
  • Some posts are mostly for fellow scholar bloggers, which can be alarming to lay people.  What do you mean the NT reads the OT in a fuller sense?  
  • Some posts are shared by some Wesleyans but even more by my broader Christian friends.  You think that about immigration, Ken?  
It has caused me not a little whiplash over the years.

So here's my strategy:
  • There is plenty opportunity on Facebook now to have inner Wesleyan type discussions.  I think I will mostly take those sorts of posts there.
  • I more and more think that there's a reason for a lot of scholarly conversation to take place among people who understand where the conversation is coming from (and who don't have designer pitchforks in their sheds).  I think I'll try to do more of my scholarly work the old fashion way... in Microsoft Word.
That leaves the blog for broader Christian discussion.  Yes, that includes kingdom oriented discussions of politics.  It leaves discussions about what's going on in American Christianity.  What I hope it doesn't leave is "brand confusion." :-)

I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.  We'll see how it works!

Catching the Wrong-Doer

We say we believe in God, but our actions sometimes betray a lack of trust.  Sometimes I get nervous when flying.  I tell myself that there's absolutely nothing I can do to affect the outcome of the flight.  There's nothing I can do to make the flight stay up, and there would be nothing I could do to mess up the flight, even if I wanted to.

Anxiousness and fearfulness is perfectly human. It's not something you can just turn off, even if your head knows it's inappropriate.  It's a little like an addiction. You can tell someone to stop doing something they're addicted to, but their will is impaired.  It's probably going to take some outside help, including help from God.

But my head tells me that in such moments of fear, I should trust in God. He can effect the outcome of the flight.  If there is some mechanical issue waiting to surface, God can take care of it.  And if he doesn't, it must be for some greater purpose.  The proper posture is trust.

I think many Christians also have a similar below the surface lack of trust when it comes to catching out the "law-breaker."  Christian colleges used to expend considerable energy not only creating rules but making every effort to make sure those who broke them were caught. I know a professor who has an elaborate system to figure out whether students have cheated on an objective test.

I use a moderate number of common sense checks.  Give alternating versions of the test to students sitting next to each other with the questions in a different order.  Online tests can randomize the order, give the questions one by one and not let you go back once you've given your answer.

But I was struck when I taught a few courses at Notre Dame at the honor system they had back then. If you choose to cheat, you're only hurting yourself in the long run. And, after all, God knows.  I still think it makes sense to protect students from themselves a little, to help them do the right thing.  But, ultimately, I think the honor system reflects a more mature ethic.

It is our business to work so that people do not harm others. But it is not our responsibility to make sure wrong-doers get their just deserts and punishment. We should try to stop people from harming others--including themselves.  But it's not our job to make sure wrong-doers are caught and punished. That's God's job--and of course the job of the government when it is a common law (rather than a specifically Christian law, Rom. 13).

Do we trust God to do what is right with those who break the rules?  Or do we think if we don't catch them, they'll get by with stuff?  This attitude may not only reflect a lack of trust in God, who sees and does the right thing.  It may also betray Jonah or elder brother syndrome in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where we're afraid God will show the wrong-doer mercy.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Archaeology of Knowledge

I came up with this diagram last night:

Our knowledge of the world is constrained and formed by the world around us, which God made.  Our brains also have a similar structure, which implies that all humans, to some extent, have a similar view of reality. A Christian might say that God designed it to have a generally accurate sense of the world. Evolution would say that the brain evolved in a way that makes it function successfully in the world. These two viewpoints do not seem to be mutually exclusive.

Within these external constraints, a good deal of our view of the world is a function of culture and individuality.  Our cultural inheritance assigns meaning to many objects, events, and actions that is not universal or timeless.  Similarly, our individual genetics, environment, and choices shape individual aspects to our view of the world.

The universe gives us most of the content of what we might call our knowledge through our senses.  But our minds, consisting of our brains, cultural and individual constructions, organize that data.

The Bible does not make an end round all this.  The Bible is processed in our brains and our interpretations are impacted by our culture and individuality.  Indeed, its original moments of writing involved the biblical authors' culture and individuality in the midst of inspiration. God does tell us about the world in the Bible, but he does so in an incarnated way rather than an objective way.

Some thoughts...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Jerusalem versus Paul (Acts 15), Part 2

continued from yesterday
I wanted to give a possible historical reconstruction of the circumcision controversy in the early church.  I'm trying to read between the lines, taking into account the way Acts seems to present things and relying heavily on Paul.

Gentile "God-fearers," men who believed in the God of Israel but did not fully convert, were already a part of the synagogues of the Roman Empire. [1] It is not clear how many Diaspora Jews were expecting some apocalyptic event to take place in the near future, probably not a lot.  Some many have expected God to restore Israel at some point as a nation.

When the message of Christ's second coming and the coming judgment of the world started to spread, it is only natural that such Gentiles would want to be saved from God's wrath. The church at Antioch seems naturally to have started to open the door for this to happen. Why wouldn't they allow a Gentile to be baptized like anyone else? They could be in good standing in the coming kingdom just like they were now, like the "strangers in the land" of old.

And assuming early Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit, what if Gentiles manifested the same signs of having the Spirit as anyone else? This is exactly what the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 indicates. Over the course of Paul's first missionary journey, he finds non-Jews more receptive to his message than Jews. He becomes more and more convinced that this is not only a possibility but in fact his fundamental calling.

But this situation is alarming to conservatives among the early believers.  The lines between Jew and Gentile become seriously blurred if the key entry marks are baptism and the Spirit!  What about the most important boundary marks of Judaism--circumcision and law-keeping?  Jesus himself is remembered as being rather lax when it comes to such issues and we can imagine that Peter and the disciples were not strong on such issues either--many of them were fishermen, after all.

On the other hand, many of their early converts in Jerusalem were surely "apocalyptic conservatives," people like the Essenes who were especially looking for a Messiah to restore Israel and who had a strong sense of angels and demons in spiritual warfare. These are the types that were looking for a purified and restored temple. It creates an inner tension in the earliest Jerusalem community--those who are more in continuity with Jesus' ethic and inclusiveness and those who are attracted to his apocalyptic ideology.

So we see the phenomenon of "Judaizing missionaries." These are individuals who begin to try to pull Christian Jews into line on their law-keeping, especially on purity issues. Eventually they will make their way into Galatia and begin to undermine Paul's teaching there. Their message to Gentile converts was probably something along these lines. "It's nice that you have correctly decided to follow the God of Israel. But you need to go all the way.  If you're really serious about following God, you need to become circumcised and fully convert to Judaism, because salvation is of the Jews."

Paul realizes the situation and the Lord tells him that he should go to Jerusalem to secure the support of the Jerusalem leadership.  He and Barnabas take uncircumcised Titus as an object lesson. Although James, Peter, and John still think it is optimal for Titus to be circumcised, they do not force him (Gal. 2:3). They adopt a "separate and unequal" policy of sorts.  They agree that Titus will not fry on the Day of Judgment, even though he is not circumcised. He is like a stranger in the land of Israel.

The danger of this intermediate position is obvious to James and the Jerusalem church. It may start a slippery slope where Jews start to cut corners on their law-keeping too. Peter visits Antioch to see the church that has sprung up organically. Perhaps Jerusalem is feeling a little out of control. They are the disciples, after all, the ones who actually knew and witnessed Jesus. They are the leaders. What's this megachurch to the north outside of HQ's control?

Peter seems to do just fine.  He is fellowshipping with the Gentile converts, eating with them.  All is good. Presumably, as a Galilean fisherman, this purity stuff wasn't naturally a big deal to him. But then the messengers come from HQ, from James, Jesus' brother. [2] "Peter, you are the apostle, the one to whom Jesus first appeared.  You have to set the tone.  You have to hold the line on purity rules or all the Jewish believers will throw them out the window."

So Peter caves, and Barnabas obediently follows HQ's wishes, whether he agrees with them or not.  Jewish believers stop eating with Gentile believers so that they do not become unclean. Perhaps Barnabas is thinking that this is the best compromise for now, that they'll work it out. Two steps forward, one step back, to get ready for the next two steps forward.

Paul completely disagrees.  He has kept the Law better than any of these pretenders.  He was a Pharisee's Pharisee, after all. It was a joke to see these light weights pretending to be law-observant. "You keep the Law, Peter.  I kept the Law.  You don't keep the Law."

Paul had previously tried to be in good standing on the basis of law-keeping.  He had been perfect at it (Phil. 3:6).  It just wasn't what God was looking for.  God is justifying, establishing a right relationship with him, through faith, not through these sorts of works of Law.  It is the faithful death of Jesus that God counts, appropriated through baptism and the Spirit. The rest is now a distraction, especially for non-Jews.

Eventually, the Jerusalem church would come up with a compromise.  If Gentiles will stay away from sexual immorality, if they will not have any blood in the food, if they will not serve meat that has come from a nearby temple or that was strangled so that the blood stayed in it, then Jewish and Gentile believers can eat together.

But Paul was long gone.  He completely disagreed because, like Jesus, he believed that clean was a matter of the heart, not a matter of what you eat. When the issue of meat sacrificed to idols comes up at Corinth, he completely ignores the position of the Jerusalem church.

[1] It is less clear to me by what clear ritual a women might have converted.

[2] We remember that Jesus' brothers didn't support his ministry when he was on earth. Are we seeing some of the tensions between James and Jesus in the tensions between James and Paul?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Showdown in Jerusalem (Acts 15)

1. Acts 15 presents what is sometimes called the Jerusalem Council.  The issue is whether non-Jewish believers have to get circumcised in order to escape God's wrath and be "saved."

Acts 15 presents a very orderly and peaceful series of events. There is a disagreement at Antioch over the issue. Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas to HQ for advice. The Jerusalem church welcomes them.

Then some believers who are Pharisees argue that the Gentile believers must fully convert. The apostles and elders consider the issue. Then Peter shares about his experience with Cornelius, and Paul and Barnabas share their missionary experiences.

James, the brother of Jesus, seems to render the final verdict. He quotes Scripture. He wants to make it easy for Gentiles to get in (After all, they already have Moses and aren't going to flock in with the same requirements as before). He gives four requirements: 1) stay away from meat sacrificed to idols, 2) stay away from sexual immorality, 3) stay away from meat from an animal killed by strangling, and 4) don't ingest blood.

A letter is composed to this effect and sent in the hands of two men to Antioch, a man named Judas and a man named Silas. The church at Antioch receives it with joy.

2. Galatians 2 presents a somewhat similar event but from Paul's perspective. There were some telling the Gentiles at Antioch that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved from God's coming wrath.  Paul and Barnabas (and an uncircumcised young man named Titus) go down privately to Jerusalem to ask the pillars of James, Peter, and John. These leaders recognize that God has called Paul to go to the Gentiles (just as Peter is called to Jews) and receive them in peace.

Then there is a second event. Peter comes up to Antioch and fellowships freely with Gentile converts. Then some people come from HQ, from James, and convince him he shouldn't eat with them to stay ceremonially clean. Barnabas even joins Peter.

Paul will have none of that. He openly calls Peter a hypocrite. Peter is no scrupulous law-keeper. He's pushing a standard on the Gentiles that he himself doesn't keep.

3. What are we to do with these two accounts? There have been some brilliant attempts at harmonization. F. F. Bruce suggested the following scenario: 1) the Galatians 2 visit was during the "gift trip" of Acts 11, before the first missionary journey, 2) then the incident with Peter happened at Antioch after the first missionary journey, 3) then the issue erupted in Galatia, causing Paul to write Galatians, the first of his letters that he wrote, 4) then the Jerusalem Council settled the whole issue.

As brilliant as this scenario by Bruce is, we have to wonder whether it tries too hard. Harmonization of this sort usually creates an alternative scenario that twists all the existing accounts in deference to an ideal the text itself may or may not care about.

a) The timing of the private meeting does not coincide well with the gift trip of Acts 11. To argue for it, Bruce reinterprets what "after 14 years" means in Galatians 2:1.  He takes it to mean 14 years from Paul's conversion, when its most natural sense is 14 years from the last time he visited Jerusalem. Also, the revelation that leads Paul to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 is not revelation about a famine, as in Acts 11, but revelation that he should go and consult with HQ.

b) Galatians may fit better a little later in Paul's missionary journeys than at the very beginning. Theologically and rhetorically, it reads well as a slightly earlier version of Romans, an argument that Paul has been developing for sometime, perhaps while meeting at the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. Paul uses a word in 4:13 to refer to his first visit to Galatia that would normally imply it was the first of more than one--but Paul would have only been there once if he wrote Galatians when Bruce suggested.

c) Acts is not just giving a videotape of what happened. As was fully acceptable at the time, Luke seems at least to have edited the sermons (because in Acts 2, it seems to have Peter quoting the Greek version of the OT in Jerusalem, as well as the fact that the sermons mostly follow the same outline). Acts arguably shifts blame to Paul's Jewish opponents and omits perhaps some key opponents, such as when we know secular authorities were after him at Damascus and it shifts the blame entirely to Jewish opponents. Peter's visit to Cornelius is highlighted in a way it may not have been at the time. Luke 24 similarly compresses 40 days between the resurrection and ascension into what seems like a single day.

These tendencies lead us to ask whether Acts 15 is an efficient, orderly, and ideal way of presenting what historically was a little messier and perhaps took a little more time. Again, it was perfectly acceptable to do such things in history telling at the time (i.e., it would not be an error). For example, the four prohibitions sound more like a response to how Jewish and Gentile Christians might eat together than a complete list of what Gentiles need to be saved. Presuming that Paul knew of such a letter, he never mentions it when the issue of meat sacrificed to idols came up at Corinth, suggesting that he didn't agree with it.

A possible analysis of the event tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"I'm not dead yet" (Acts 14)

Some notes on Acts 14:
  • Very interesting the way that God used signs and wonders to confirm that Paul and Barnabas were authentically from him (14:3)
  • Paul heals a lame man just as Peter did just as Jesus did... pointing to us...
  • The scene of Lystra is very interesting because it is very reminiscent of a story found in Ovid's Metamorphoses where a couple named Baucis and Philemon entertain Zeus and Hermes disguised as humans. Indeed, the region Paul and Barnabas are visiting is not far from Phrygia where this story takes place. I wonder if the first readers of Acts would have made the connection?
Here we are again at Lystra on our trip to Turkey.

  • Notice the shout out to natural revelation:  "He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy" (14:17). 
  • This by the way is the city where Timothy was from... Paul will pick him up next time through.
  • Paul gets stoned at Lystra, not long after they tried to sacrifice to him as a god... fickle crowd. He's just lying there and everyone is thinking he's dead. Then he just gets up and walks back into the city.
  • Acts 14:22 has always stood out to me: "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."
  • They appoint elders in every city (14:23).  Very significant window into the organization and leadership of the earliest churches. These elders had placed their faith in the Lord... perhaps a shout out to Pauline theology.

Monday, September 16, 2013

9 Years of Blogging

After hearing that Keith Drury was doing it, 9 years ago today I quietly posted my first blog post.  I didn't publicize it to be sure, because it had to do with politics. Keith had warned me that politics would get you in more trouble with our circles than just about anything.

I can't tell you whether the net effect of this blog has been positive or negative for me.  I would say that here are some of the consequences:
  • I have had significantly more impact on my circles than I otherwise would have. For good or ill, when people in my circles are looking for resources and perspectives, my thoughts are quick at hand. There may be many thinkers in my church with better thoughts, but only their students have heard them.  I have had an impact disproportionate to my significance because I'm here.
  • I have gone from having pretty much everyone think of me as Ken the nice guy to sometimes being Ken the lightning rod. Most people who meet me think of me as easy-going and quite accommodating. There are advantages to keeping your thoughts to yourself or at the dinner table. 
  • Although at some point I have probably given everyone delight, I have also probably at some point raised everyone's eyebrows. My scholarly friends are no doubt occasionally surprised at some of the pragmatic things I say. My broader Christian friends are no doubt surprised at some of the Wesleyan things I say.  My Wesleyan friends are no doubt surprised at some of the scholarly things I say.  
  • I have written a lot more popular books than scholarly ones.  While I have found it very easy to crank out books through the blog, they have almost all been popular rather than scholarly in nature.  Young scholars might ask themselves that question, will blogging get me off task or help increase my name recognition as I begin to write scholarly articles and books? 
So I really can't decide whether the net benefit has been positive or negative.  At times it has kept me sane.  At times it has caused me fits of insanity. At times it has allowed me to have an impact I wouldn't have had on important issues and situations.

What do you all think? :-)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

God's Love and Justice 1

The next video I have planned for my theology series is "God's Love and Justice."  I wanted to process how I might approach it in that video.

First, both biblically and as a Wesleyan, love seems to be more ultimate in character for God than justice.  After all, the Bible never says, "God is justice" but it does say "God is love."  Similarly, the absolute commandment to end all commandments is not "an eye for an eye" but "Love God and love your neighbor." James 2:13 even says that mercy triumphs over judgment.

What then is justice?  Justice is a term of moral consequence.  In terms of science, certain causes bring certain effects. Barring intervention by God, you can bank on cause and effect in the material world, at least on the macro-scale.

We have a sense that moral and immoral actions should also have consequences.  It is arguably a God-given sense that those who do wrong should receive appropriate consequences and those who do good things should also be rewarded accordingly.  It seems to be part of the order of things.

The "law of retribution," the lex talonis, is a very old formulation of justice in relation to wronging others: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This formulation is over 1000 years older than the Bible, older than Abraham. Many would argue that the initial sense of the rule was actually to limit retribution rather than to ensure it. In other words, it was to make sure you didn't exact a revenge of two eyes if the other person only took one of yours.

It seems to me that the law of retribution is a excellent sense of what justice of consequence is. A person should receive a consequence for wrongdoing that is commensurate with the wrong. Notice that here we are talking about wronging another person, not about violating some abstract rule.

A person can wrong God, of course. For example, a person can fail to give God the appropriate honor. Disobeying God wrongs him in the sense that he is the ultimate authority. Some argue that it is just for even one failure in relation to God to bring in consequence an infinite time in hell. While this line of argument makes some sense, it does not seem to be the way the Bible thinks, as we will see.

Some, although not all of the Old Testament, functions with a non-intentional sense of wrongdoing, unintentional sinning.  In that respect, a person can be liable for doing wrong even when one did not intend to do so.  Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and dies accordingly.

However, the New Testament has almost nothing to say about unintentional wrongdoing. Rather, intentionality is much more the name of the game. So it would seem that the most complete understanding of justice is not oriented around the violation of absolute rules or deviation from perfection but rather around one's intentionality in relation to action.

A good action can be a sin if it is done with a wrong motive.  Similarly, a bad action can be done without blame because your intentions were virtuous. None of this denies that there actually is a standard of good and bad action, only that God is far more interested in our motives than the actual things we do.  Unclean goes from inside out, not from outside in (Mark 7:18-23)...

Is God a slave to justice? ...

NT Survey at 12Stone

Many thanks to Robin Ritchie, Chris Huff, Dan Reiland, and all the wonderful people at 12Stone who set up and are participating in the new certificate program.  Chris Bounds blew the minds of his theology group, and I give all my admiration for the group who endured 10 hours of drinking from the fire hose of the New Testament with me.  Now we all go online for 8 more weeks to finish up.

12Stone is such an incredible church (Lawrenceville, Georgia)!  Just driving onto the main church campus and walking into its building brings peace.

If you live in the northeast Atlanta area, definitely worth worshiping at one of the campuses and one of the services!

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Natural Philosophers

This is about 28 minutes long, but will have to do as my post today.  Had a profitable session in Pittsburgh with the Association of Theological Schools. They really are our friends. :-)  Very helpful.

This lecture covers Thales to the Sophists, with a brief bit on ancient myths and the birth of medicine and history writing.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mission to Cyprus (Acts 13)

1. Look at how diverse the group of believers at Antioch was!  (This is before James sent Peter up there to crack down on their open fellowship)  Simeon is called Niger, which may have meant he was dark skinned. Lucius is all the way from Cyrene, in North Africa. Manaen was a person with high connections, since he grew up with Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist. [1]

[1] Some have suggested in the past that some individuals attracted to Christianity might have been individuals who were not born into status but were on the margins of status.  Think Erastus at Corinth.

These individuals, with no mandate from HQ, lay hands on Paul and Barnabas to go on a mission to the island of Cyprus.

2. This choice of destination was not random.  Cyprus was where Barnabas was from originally (cf. Acts 4:36). John Mark goes with them and he Barnabas' cousin--quite possibly he has family connections there as well.  It was low-hanging fruit.  Who knows, Barnabas might have already known just about every Jew on the island.

3. They span the length of the island and find themselves in front of the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus. As we saw with Paul's tussle with authorities in Damascus, Acts arguably may downplay conflict with Roman authorities.  Acts puts it politely--Sergius wanted to hear the word of God. That doesn't mean he didn't have a reason to want to know.

Basically, I'm saying Paul might have been in trouble again. I can't say for sure.  Maybe Sergius was just curious. Or maybe he was doing his job.

Whatever the reason, he believes. Acts 13 doesn't say he was baptized but I wouldn't be surprised, personally. Paul has some sort of run in with a sorcerer named Elymas (did he bring charges of some sort against Paul?).  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul strikes him blind for a while.  Sorcerer out-miracled!

4. It is only at this point, perhaps 15 years after Paul believed on Jesus, that Paul starts going by Paul instead of Saul. "Paul" was thus not a Christian name given to him at conversion, baptism, etc. It was more likely a Roman name or nickname he had always had. Is it significant that he starts going by Paul at Cyprus.  I suspect it is, perhaps in some ways we can only guess.

Is part of it that Paul has now embraced his destiny as apostle to the Gentiles?  He is no longer Clark Kent.  Now he's supermissionary.  Gone for good are the days of suppressing his Diaspora, Greek-speaking origins.  Now, he embraces it as his God-ordained destiny for mission.

5. I doubt they had planned to head north to Asia Minor originally. I'm guessing it was Paul's idea. Why stop here--let's head north!

When they come ashore on the underbelly of Turkey (Perga), John Mark has had enough. He quits.  Why?  We mostly have to speculate.
  • "I didn't sign up for Asia, especially not those mountains." 
  • "I mean, Cyprus was familiar, a chance to visit family.  Don't know nuthin' about Galatia!"
  • "I thought my cuz, Barnabas, was in charge of this mission. Who does this Paul guy think he is?"
  • "I'm not really comfortable with how chummy Paul is getting with these Gentiles."
It will come up again.

6. They make their way up into the middle of Asia Minor, uphill into Pisidia to another town called Antioch, formerly a favorite city of the emperor Augustus. This is likely the area in general to which he would later write the book of Galatians.

We get a brief window into the way synagogue was conducted. We know there was a reading of the Law and a reading from the Prophets (Acts 13:15), the two established collections of the Jewish canon at this time.

A "word of exhortation" is presumably a homily, and perhaps it was normal for appropriate leaders to give such.  The book of Hebrews styles itself a word of exhortation (Heb. 13:22), perhaps indicating that it was meant to be read during this part of worship at whatever destination to which it was sent (Rome?).

7. Paul gives a sermon.  Part of Acts subliminal goal, surely, is to show the similarity between the sermon of Paul and the sermons of Peter.  He wants his audience to see the continuity between the mission of Paul and the mission of Peter.

The shape of the sermon is thus quite similar to that of Peter's Pentecost sermon:

  • He starts with the story of Israel.
  • Jesus came according to God's plan. He was wrongly crucified, but it was all part of God's plan.
  • God raised him from the dead.
  • Through Jesus is now possible the forgiveness of sins.
Paul even uses the same passage from the OT as Peter: Psalm 16 in its Greek form.

8. Some interesting hermeneutics and theology in the use of Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 16. Psalm 2 was apparently used by the early Christians to speak of Jesus' enthronement as cosmic king at the point of his resurrection. Acts 13:33, Romans 1:3 and Hebrews 1:5 all point to this use of the psalm.

9. After Paul and Barnabas get opposition from the synagogue, they turn to the Gentiles. This will be a major theme of the rest of Acts, the turning to the Gentiles. Luke seems to want to make a point of this, so it is part of his theological perspective that affects how he tells the story.  The book of Acts climaxes with a decisive turn to the Gentiles, which probably is meant to foreshadow the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

Isaiah 49:6 is invoked as a prophecy of the Gentiles' faith. Luke also alluded to this verse in Simeon's song, in Luke 2:32.

10. Despite opposition, some believe, including proselytes to Judaism. Arguably, a lot of the first converts to the Jesus movement were Gentiles who were either God-fearers or proselytes of this sort. Interesting that some of the key opponents in this region were "God-fearing women of high standing." The phenomenon of women of high standing who were interested in Judaism is fascinating, and we find evidence of it even in Caesar's household at the end of the first century.

"Those who were appointed for eternal life believed."  A deterministic way to word it.  I've argued elsewhere that this is "after the fact" language.  Some believe and some don't.  Why is a mystery.  It was in keeping with the Zeitgeist that they would use fatalistic language to say so. It doesn't in itself imply a full blown theology of predestination.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Famine, a Martyr, and Justice (Acts 12)

1. The church at Antioch is vibrant.  Look at its prophets!  Agabas predicts a severe famine that will sweep the Roman Empire and, apparently as in the days of Joseph in Egypt, they get ready. Acts tells us that the word, "Christian," first sprang up in Antioch. Before that they seem to have been called followers of "the Way."

Look at the missional mindset of the Christians at Antioch! This famine seems to have happened around AD44, during the reign of Claudius. Paul and Barnabas carry some food relief down to Jerusalem from the church at Antioch.  Interestingly, Paul doesn't mention this trip to Jerusalem in Galatians 1.  So if Paul's lost years were from around AD36 to, say, AD43.

The leaders of the Jerusalem church were called "the elders." It's interesting to ask whether this group actually included the disciples who were still in town, since these leaders probably were actually older. While local assemblies probably were led in part by elders, the assemblies in Jerusalem seemed to have a group of elder-leaders who were not only over all the house churches in Jerusalem but may have thought of themselves as the ultimate leaders of the whole Jesus movement, a kind of Christian version of the Sanhedrin.

2. Acts 12 is a tale of persecution and justice. In the first half of the chapter, Herod Agrippa I persecutes the church. In the second half, his intestines explode. This is the Herod that was friends of the Emperor Caligula and who apparently interceded for the Jewish people when Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple around AD39.

It is also the Herod whose pomp when visiting Alexandria, Egypt, led to some riots against the Jews there around AD38. Philo ended up taking a delegation to Rome over that one, and it eventually led to a downgrading of the Jews' position in the city. The emperor Claudius tells them to be happy with who they are--which isn't Roman citizens.

This Herod puts James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, to death. My hunch is that this is the brother of John, the author of Revelation. Perhaps he was as apocalyptic as the book of Revelation. We don't know anything about the circumstances leading up to his arrest and death. He may have been quite zealous, but unfortunately is largely forgotten to time and history. He is the first of the apostles to die.

3. Herod goes for Peter next. This story is almost comical.  Peter thinks he's having a vision.  "Boy, this is nice.  I'm escaping in this dream.  I wonder what this means."  Of course it turns out not to be a dream.

He goes to Mark's house--the John Mark who will go with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey to Cyprus.  This is the Mark that tradition suggests wrote the Gospel of Mark (although Mark itself does not say so). His family must have had some wealth. They have a servant and a big enough house for lots of people to gather.  Theoretically, this might explain how Mark could know Greek and why he was none too pleased about backpacking through Asia Minor.

The servant Rhoda is so excited she doesn't let Peter in.  They're praying for him but apparently not with a lot of faith.  "Lord, help Peter not to suffer too much tomorrow when they kill him."

"He's at the door!"

"Go away Rhoda... We're praying for Peter."

She finally convinces them and they think, "They've already killed him.  It's his ghost/angel."  Interesting window into how Luke thought about the intermediate state. He apparently thinks a person becomes an angel of sorts at death (cf. Acts 23:8), maybe an intermediate embodied state before the final resurrection. It would be different than a spirit in that sense because it would involve a body.

4. Note that this time, when Peter is the actual target of persecution, he leaves town. This supports the idea that he was not the target when Paul was persecuting the Greek-speaking Christians of Jerusalem in Acts 8. Note also that James is not at the prayer meeting, possibly implying that he was part of another house church in Jerusalem.

5. The moral of Herod's story is, "If someone says you're like a god, deny, deny, deny!"  Josephus tells about his death as well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wesley Seminary enrollment passes 400!

We were all a little surprised when the enrollment numbers for August rolled out at at the seminary: 401! Can you believe it?  At the beginning of our fifth year in business, Wesley Seminary has over 400 students.

Wayne Schmidt and our admissions team (led by Aaron Wilkinson), not to mention Joanne Solis-Walker over our Spanish MDiv, get the lion's share of the credit for this growth, chiefly from all the new connections they are making all the time. And it wouldn't stick if we didn't have such a stellar faculty, especially in their ability to teach online: Charles Arn, Colleen Derr, John Drury, Safiyah Fosua, Kwasi Kena, Lenny Luchetti, Bob Whitesel, and a cadre of talented adjunct professors (including a stellar cadre of Spanish adjuncts).

Many thanks to the Lord and to all the students who have entrusted themselves to this journey!

Why I Am an Egalitarian

My posts on Mark Driscoll have created some side conversations on the egalitarian/complementarian issue. An egalitarian is someone who believes that women can play any role in the church or home that men do. A complementarian believes that there are certain God-ordained roles for men and women in either the home or the church.

My denomination affirms that God calls women to all roles of ministry, including the highest leadership, and is most naturally an egalitarian denomination. Nevertheless, there are some in my church who combine a sense of complementarianism in the home with a belief that woman can be ministers. In 1 Corinthians 11, for example, the wife in part wears a veil so that she can prophesy to other men while not shaming her husband-head.

So we are a denomination that affirms women in ministry but allows for its members to be complementarians. In this post, I want to share why I believe God is an egalitarian.

1. It fits the Spirit of Scripture.
If you look at the way Jesus and Paul applied Scripture, they were not fundamentalists in the slightest. For example, if you look at how Jesus "fulfilled the Law," he shook some things up. The Law says, "eye for an eye" and he says don't do that part (Matt. 5:38-42). The Law fully allows for divorce but he says that wasn't ever God's best intention for marriage (Matt. 5:31-32). He makes exceptions to pretty significant rules, like not eating temple bread (Mark 2:25-26).  And the Parable of the Good Samaritan builds off of two individuals whose OT job is to keep purity rules--and who won't make an exception to save a life.

Paul is the same. Whether he keeps much of the OT Law depends on who he is ministering to (1 Cor. 9:19-23). "The letter kills, the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).

American fundamentalism, however, is a culture of the letter and stands on the side of the biblical Pharisee and the Judaizer.  What are the signs of a letteral religion? There are three hermeneutical tasks in applying the Bible: 1) interpreting the meanings of the words, 2) fitting the various passages with each other, and 2) applying the words to today. Fundamentalism fails at all three: 1) it limits meaning to the letter (and then often fails), 2) it reads individual passages without processing them in light of the whole, 3) it applies individual passages directly to today without a sense of what they meant in their own time.

By contrast, the spiritual use of Scripture 1) can hear the Spirit dance with individual texts, 2) sees the big picture of Scripture and locates individual Scriptures in that light, and 3) is mindful that not all texts are for all times and situations.

That's all groundwork. On this issue, the fundamentalist runs aground on certain individual verses, like the household codes of Colossians or 1 Peter. It does not think about how these passages fit in a patriarchal world or how they would have given a good witness at that time. There is nothing uniquely Christian about telling a wife to submit to her husband in that world--back then it said that Christians were orderly, good people.

Is subordination a good witness today? Not in the slightest because in our time, everyone knows that women are not less intelligent than men. A woman can be as good a leader as a man. A woman can know how to fix a car better than a man. A woman can be stronger than a man.

In our world, to say a woman can only do certain things comes across as irrational. The complementarian can only say, "That's just the way God wants it." There's no sense to be made of it. In our world, it restricts in a way it did not in the biblical world.  Indeed, it tells God, "Sorry, God, you can't call a woman to do this." Or worse yet, "Wife, you know your husband is an idiot on this decision, but it's God's will that you let him lose all the family's money because he's the head of the home."

Several of my other points are peeking out but I wanted to address the Scripture one first because it is really the only argument for complementarianism.  The complementarian has to argue that this is just God's will, even though it doesn't make any sense whatsoever in our world. It reflects a defective use of Scripture, even if one all too common in our world. It reflects a letteral use of Scripture, rather than the spiritual one that Jesus and Paul used.

2. Subordination is a Fall thing.
For a minute, let's play the fundamentalist game.  If we are to play the rabbinic game, Genesis 3 clearly places the subordination of the wife as a consequence of Eve's sin.  "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). She is created as a helper earlier (Gen. 2:18). Important to recognize that this same word is used of God as our helper (e.g., Ps. 33:20), so the word in itself does not imply subordination.  The Genesis text points to Eve's sin as the cause of subordination, not the created order of things. Indeed, in Genesis 1:27, both men and women are commanded to rule the earth.

Since Jesus undid the curse of the Fall, we are on flimsy ground to insist Christian women fall into place with subordination on these grounds. Indeed, this is one of the very strange aspects of 1 Timothy 2:14-15, which seems to use Eve's sin as an argument for the wife's continued subordination to her husband.

The tension between "Christ's death atones for all sins, including the sins of Eve" and "Eve's sin has put wives in a state of transgression from which childbearing saves them" is so striking that it is the height of foolishness to think that 1 Timothy 2 gives us anything like the ground zero of a theology of wives and women.  Any real sense of what 1 Timothy 2 seems to be saying makes it fantastically bizarre that anyone would think these are the "clear" verses on this topic!!!

No, we believe, along with the fully developed theology of Hebrews, that Christ has atoned for ALL sins, including the sins of Eve. To unnecessarily perpetuate the curse of Eve in a time when it is actually a good witness to empower wives and women fully--as they will be in the kingdom of God--is perversity.  It is to say that we know what God's ultimate will is but we choose to hold off on it just because... well, I'm not sure why we are holding off on it.

3. Subordination and patriarchal culture.
Again, most people don't have much experience with other cultures and think that the meaning of certain structures or actions are self-evident. But the meaning of husband-headship in ancient Corinth is completely different from husband-headship in modern America.  In Paul's world, his empowerment of women must have been striking, to have a Priscilla as a coworker or a Phoebe as a deacon. There was nothing uniquely Christian about saying the husband is the head of the wife--Aristotle says the same basic thing in his Politics.

What was distinctly Christian about Paul's writings was thus when he said things like, "In Christ there is not male and female."  Notice the odd wording.  After two "neither-nors" in Greek, he switches to "not male and female."  Could he be alluding to the wording of Genesis 1:27 and saying that Christ in some way undoes the distinction between the genders?

In our world, husband-headship actually works against the trajectory of the gospel.  It requires us to disempower rather than empower women. And it is a hindrance to the gospel rather than an asset.

4. It is a common sense thing.
I believe Christians, including myself, often make God look bad, and this issue is a potential biggie for it. Why would we insist that a particular person take the lead on the basis of their genitalia rather than on the basis of... whether they are the best leader in a particular instance? The male organ, after all, is not particularly known either for its godliness or sound wisdom.

"Someone needs to make the final decision." That's such a flimsy cop-out it's embarrassing. If you have to designate one person as the leader, why not pick the one who is... the more gifted leader?  Duh.

In a proper relationship, husband and wife would submit to each other (Eph. 5:21). Each would be willing to sacrifice for the other. They would want to surrender individual happiness in preference to the other. Each would give and take and recognize that in some instances the wife has a better sense of what to do and in others the husband does.

In a proper relationship, each would yield to the other egolessly when it is clear that one or the other has the best insight, regardless of gender. When conflict ensues, you negotiate the way any two people negotiate when they disagree. If the two can't work out disagreement, that indicates a much deeper marital problem than gender.

This is the way my parents operated before the "husband is the head" movement arose in the seventies and eighties. On any given choice, my Dad would generally sacrifice his own desires in preference to mother's preferences. She is not a strong personality that pushed him to do so in any way. Anyone who knows my mother knows that's the wrong interpretation. He did it completely from his own love of her.

And she felt fully free to share her opinion of what they should do. There was never a sense that her opinion was inferior to his in any way. I never remembering hearing this: "Dad is the head of this house." That rhetoric didn't become popular until I was out of the home and it became part of current American Christian culture in reaction (intimidation?) to the empowerment of women in American society.

Some in my circles like to distinguish the secular feminist movement of the 50s from the feminism of my Wesleyan roots in the 1800s and no doubt there are distinctions.  But there is usually an undertone, as if the "feminism" of the 50s was obviously evil. I challenge you to show what was any worse about women sticking up for their rights than blacks standing up for their rights in that same period. This continued blight on the drive for women to have equal rights is as myopic as those in my circles who criticized those black "law breakers" who refused to use the right water fountain.

A show like Mad Men reminds us that such individuals are on the wrong side of history. We have forgotten how sexist American society actually was back then. We have selective memory. The "husband headship" movement today has made all the concessions it must, given how common sense has changed, but it holds the same historically wrong position as its forebears.

I've used this example before.  If I'm on a plane that's about to crash and we need a pilot, I don't want them to pick me because I have male genitalia.  I want them to pick the best pilot. And if there's a woman on the plane who knows how to fly a plane, I want her flying the plane.

Anything else doesn't make any sense to me at all!

Monday, September 09, 2013

Antioch versus Jerusalem 1 (early church power)

1. You may have heard in leadership of the difference between formal and informal power.  Formal power is official power, the power of an office.  Informal power, though, is much more important and potentially subversive. This is the "church boss," who may not even be on the church board. This is the person in whose direction the eyes turn when a decision is being made... and it may not be the person leading the meeting.

The early church probably did not have too formal of a power structure. There were the apostles, of course. But even then, four "pillars" seem to have emerged as the real leaders among the leaders (cf. Gal. 2:9). At first it was probably Peter, James, and John. These are the names that the biblical texts remember as the core disciples.

But it is not long before James, Jesus' brother, seems to become the real leader of the Jerusalem church. Arguably he became the fourth leg of a four pillared church.  Better yet, perhaps these were the four pillars of the new temple.

2. I'll confess that I don't get too excited about the Jerusalem church. I see them as somewhat inwardly focused rather than missional like Stephen and Philip. I see them as conservative such that they easily included Pharisees as believers without much alteration to their previous focus on separation and purity (Acts 15:5). The good news didn't reach the world because of these folk, good though they probably were. God performs miracles, but the Jesus movement arguably would have died if it had been up to them.

3. The church at Antioch was different.  It sprung up organically--there were no missionaries sent there officially. Without any approval, they start telling the good news to non-Jews. Although Acts gives its obligatory doff to Peter with Cornelius, my hunch is that the real Gentile mission started here.

Barnabas goes to Antioch to help provide leadership to this burgeoning church. Was it a protectionist move, to help bring order to chaos? It was no doubt a good move, and everything we know about Barnabas suggests he was a great person for the job. Here was a man who was a true statesman, someone who was more interested in the goal than his own status or authority. This was a man who was self-confident enough later to let Paul basically hijack the mission he was in charge of.

In fact, Acts tells us that Barnabas went to get Paul from Tarsus at this point.  In one scenario, Paul has been in his home country for over five years. These are his lost years (at least as far as our knowledge of them).  Perhaps he had spread the word so zealously that he had burned over Cilicia to the gospel, as he perhaps had in Arabia. Sometimes a person just flips a switch from one zeal to another.

4. The early church had prophets as well as apostles.  Ephesians remembers these two groups as the foundations of the early church (Eph. 2:20). Antioch apparently had many of them. They may have had as much to do with the formation of the beliefs and practices of Christianity as the apostles did.

This is the old tension between structure and charisma. Charisma is energetic, wild, and often chaotic, but it has great power. Structure is dependable, long-lasting, and stable, but often boring.  In the earliest church, Antioch was the charisma. Jerusalem was the structure.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Gospel reaches Gentiles (Acts 10 notes)

1. It's good to see Peter get out of Jerusalem finally. He and John went up to Samaria in Acts 8 because they had not received the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 9, we fine Peter in the broader region of Judea and Samaria some more, fulfilling stage 2 of Acts 1:8.

2. Peter heals a paralyzed man (Aeneas) and raises a woman from the dead (Tabitha). This arguably is meant to show that, with the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter does things that Jesus did.  A trajectory is being constructed which points toward today. We can do things that Paul did, which were things that Peter did, which were things that Jesus did, because of the power of the Holy Spirit in us.

3. Peter stays in the home of Simon, a tanner.  Lots of dead animals around there.  We're busting out of the Levitical purity rules. Acts doesn't make an explicit deal out of it, but the subtext is that Jesus has abolished the purity rules of the OT.

4. Acts 10 really brings this point home. Cornelius is a full blown Gentile, a Roman centurion (commander of 100), apparently from Italy. The gospel has spread to Samaritans. It has spread to a eunuch and perhaps a tanner. It is slowly breaking down purity and ethnic barriers. No it fully jumps to the Gentiles.

5. Perhaps most of the earliest converts to Christian Judaism were from "God-fearers." These were Gentiles who worshiped Israel's God but who had not gone all the way to be circumcised (for men). God singles him out here because of his prayers and gifts to the poor (10:4).

6. Peter sees a vision three times of God giving him a net full of unclean foods to eat. Peter refuses the first two times because he is following the purity laws of Leviticus. God corrects him by saying not to call anything impure that he has cleansed.

It's an obvious indication to Peter that he should go to the house of Cornelius, an unclean Gentile. We today might want to debate whether Peter is really violating the OT to go there, but Acts assumes that he is (10:28). The main point of the story is clearly that Gentiles can be saved too.

7. God stops all debate over whether Gentiles can be included before it even starts.  God fills them with the Holy Spirit and that's that.  This is the obvious conclusion they reach in Jerusalem after Peter reports back (11:17-18). Peter is criticized at first when he returns to tell this story. But the Gentiles even speak in tongues--probably an indication that their experience of the Spirit is in no way inferior to that of the Jews. They are baptized.

8. Peter's sermon to Cornelius and his men also confirms this point. God does not show favoritism--he receives people from every nation when they fear him and do good (10:34). sermon has similar elements to the other sermons in Acts: 1) God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power in his ministry, 2) they killed him but God raised him from the dead, 3) we are chosen witnesses to his resurrection. Other elements include the prophets foretelling and the final judgment coming.

9. There are some curious aspects to this story. For one, we find Peter in Galatians 2 not eating with Gentile Christians who are already believers. That is several years after this incident.  How could the Peter of this story have any questions about eating with Gentile Christians long after this boundary has been crossed?

Paul never thinks of Peter as apostle to the Gentiles, as that Galatians 2 story points out. Acts seems to want to authenticate the Gentile mission by connecting it to Peter, with Paul as a good little boy following orders.  It is at least possible that Acts has given us a more "decent and orderly" version than it was at least experienced at the time. Acts is not a videotape, but "apologetic history."

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Grudem 14d: Trinity Errors

My summary-evaluations of Wayne Grudem's chapter on the Trinity continues.
C. Errors on the Trinity
In the previous section, Grudem has conceptualized the Trinity in terms of three statements he believes capture biblical teaching: 1) God is three persons, 2) Each person is fully God, and 3) There is one God. In this section, he discusses various historical perspectives on God that fail in regard to one of these three.

1. Modalism
Also called Sabellianism after the early third century teacher Sabellius, modalism understands the three "persons" of the Trinity simply to be three different forms or modes in which the one God manifests himself. In other words, modalism fails to see God as three distinct persons.  The United Pentecostal Church affirms modalism as one of its core beliefs.

Modalism is obviously strong in its affirmation of there being only one God and that he is supreme ruler (it is sometimes called "modalistic monarchianism") but it fails to capture relationships between the persons of the Trinity, such as we find at Jesus' baptism or in the intercession of Jesus and the Spirit to the Father on behalf of us.

2. Arianism, etc.
Grudem puts denials of the full deity of the Son and Holy Spirit under the heading of Arianism, although it is only the best known representative of this category.

a. The Arian Controversy
Arius taught that although Jesus was the greatest of all creation, he was created by God before God made everything else (cf. Col. 1:15). The Council of Nicaea in 325 decided that his views were false. The Creed of Nicaea said that Jesus was "begotten, not made."  The Nicene Creed, which issued out of the next Council of Constantinople in 381, clarified that this begetting took place "before all ages."

Nicaea also debated whether Jesus was "of one substance" (homoousios) with the Father or only of similar substance (homoiousios).  It concluded that Jesus was "of one substance" with the Father, which Grudem believes is true to biblical Christianity.

b. Subordinationism
As Grudem defines the heresy of subordinationism, it is to hold that the Son is inferior in being or attributes to God the Father. Grudem does not believe it is subordinationism to believe that the Son is subordinate to the Father in role or function (244 n.27). He will return to this issue later in the chapter.

In this section he also praises Athanasius for his role in defeating Arianism.  The Athanasian Creed probably does not come from Athanasius but is a clear affirmation of trinitarian doctrine used in some Protestant and Catholic churches today.

c. Adoptionism
Grudem mentions one form of adoptionism that existed in the early church, namely, the view that Jesus lived as an ordinary man until God "adopted" him as son at his baptism. Like Arianism, it did not affirm the eternal, full deity of Jesus. He also mentions in this section that the Nicene Creed of 381 added a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit.

d. Filioque
In AD589 at a regional council in what is now Spain, the Western church added to the Nicene Creed a sense that the Holy Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but "from the Father and the Son." Grudem does not believe that Scripture has an explicit statement on this issue because John 15:26 and 16:7 are about Jesus sending the Spirit after his resurrection, not from eternity past. He considers it unfortunate that the Eastern church split from the Western church over this doctrine, although the underlying issue had more to do with the authority of the Pope and the Western church.

On the whole, Grudem thinks the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son makes sense. Might not the relation in time in John 15:26 match the eternal relationship of the Trinity? In any case, he does not believe that it warranted such a division in the church.

e. The Importance of the Trinity Doctrine
Grudem believes that the Trinity is crucial for six reasons. First, he believes Jesus could not have born the full wrath of God if he had not been fully God. Second, he believes that justification by faith alone would be in peril. Could we depend on him for salvation if he were not fully God? Third, if he is not infinite God, should we pray to him or worship him? Wouldn't it be idolatry to worship him then?

Fourth, we then begin to give credit for salvation to a creature rather than to God himself. Fifth, the personal nature of God comes to be at stake, because there are then no personal relationships within the Trinity. Sixth, Grudem sees the unity of the universe at stake--how can the diverse elements of the universe have any unity if in God there is no plurality in unity?

3. Tritheism
Few persons in the history of the church have actually held that the three persons of the Trinity are three separate Gods, although Grudem suggests many evangelicals may unintentionally fall into this category by recognizing the distinct persons but not the real "unity of God as one undivided being" (248).

Grudem's account is overwhelmingly orthodox, for the most part. The one area where there is significant debate is whether he has accurately caught the sense of subordinationism. Grudem does not believe that subordination of role or function counts as a heresy, only inferiority in being or attribute. As we will see later in the chapter, serious questions can and have been raised about this interpretation of subordinationism.

Grudem's six points on the importance of the Trinity are perhaps more open to discussion. It is true that Gregory of Nazianzus in the late 300s said that, "What has not been assumed cannot be healed." He was arguing that Jesus must have become fully human for atonement to work. Grudem's argument is somewhat of the flip side--Jesus needed to be fully divine for atonement to work.

This is a fully orthodox perspective, although Grudem predictably focuses more on God's wrath than early Christian tradition did. And while it is orthodox to believe that Jesus needed to become human to heal humanity of its sin, it is highly debatable whether God, in his sovereignty, couldn't have justified us, pronounced us "not guilty," by divine fiat and command. This is arguably an ironic defect in Grudem's sense of God's sovereignty.

Grudem's arguments about the importance of relationship in God or the importance of plurality seem obscure and highly debatable.  Again, it is ironic that Grudem seems to be using the creation in order to argue for a certain understanding of God, as if God needs to have certain items on his pre-creation resume in order to relate to us.

Surely God, as God, may have his own well of creativity. The Trinity may make sense of a God who creates a world with relationships and unity in plurality, but surely Grudem does not want to suggest that God could not have created such things without the Trinity. Grudem seems to be creating God in the image of the creation.

It might be worth adding that it was not at all clear in the 300s who would emerge the winner and what would end up being considered Christian orthodoxy. It is easy for us to look back and condemn people like Arius, but it was not at all clear at the time who was correct. There was a time in the 300s when more Christians were Arian than Athanasian.

Finally, it is probably significant to point out that it was more theology and philosophy in the early church that solidified this orthodox understanding rather than biblical teaching itself.  For example, neither Athanasius nor Grudem for that matter would not have written Colossians 1:15 the way it is, that Jesus is "firstborn of all creation." The emphasis is indeed probably on Jesus' pre-eminence, but might not some in the audience of Colossians have easily assumed that Jesus was something like the logos--not created like the rest of creation, but not uncreated like God either?

What Grudem calls "biblical Christianity" is arguably more than just biblical.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Paul's "Conversion" in Acts 9 (Notes)

1. Acts 9 gives us Paul's "conversion" to Christ. It is clearly a turning point in his life, a radical change of direction. He goes from persecuting believers (cf. Phil. 3:6) to being one. He does not stop being a Jew. He simply believes Jesus is the promise Messiah of Israel. He does not start going by Paul, as if that's his Christian name. No that shift doesn't happen for four more chapters and maybe 15 years.

Paul is likely his Roman name or nickname. If I had to pick a psychological scenario, it's that as a Diaspora Jew, he had been running from his Hellenistic identity. He didn't want to be a second rate Israelite. He was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:22). He had been distancing himself from being born way off in a place like Tarsus his whole life, a Greek-speaker. He had been distancing himself from his Roman citizenship. He becomes a Pharisee.

This is a different narrative than the one William James (1842-1910) suggested, reading Paul as an older version of Luther. In that version, Paul struggles so much with a guilty conscience that he finally can't take it any more and comes to the conclusion that God accepts us only on the basis of his grace, his unmerited favor on us. The problem is that Paul thought himself blameless in his law-keeping before he believed on Jesus (Phil. 3:6).

But Jesus comes and taps Jesus on the shoulder.  "You know you think you've been helping God out," Jesus in effect tells him. "Well, you're actually fighting against him."

2. A man named Ananias at a city called Damascus lays hands on Paul. He receives the Holy Spirit. He is baptized. He instantly changes from persecutor to believer. He had ironically gone to that far north city to arrest some believers.

Damascus is way north, about as far north of the Sea of Galilee as Jerusalem is south, in modern day Syria.  It was way out of Jerusalem's "jurisdiction," so to speak. Must have been a little on the sly? It probably wasn't a "go arrest any Christians you can find" but more "Go get so and so whose in big trouble."

Acts does not tell us what Paul tells us in Galatians 1. Paul lets three years go by before he returns to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:17-18). That makes sense.  His former "employers" wouldn't be too happy with him. Instead, he goes east just outside the Roman empire to Arabia, probably the city of Petra, just east of Damascus.

Since individuals from that Arab kingdom come after Paul three years later (2 Corinthians 11:32-33), he surely ended up doing some preaching there that ticked someone off. It's easy to picture Paul preaching something like Jonah in Nineveh. Repent or God's going to fry you all. It probably wouldn't have made anyone too happy.

3. We get a small sense of Acts' point of view in the way it tells of Paul's escape from Damascus. Acts says it is the Jews who are trying to kill Paul (9:23). This is not Paul's perspective. Paul says that it is the ethnic leader of the Arabs in Damascus who was charged to arrest him and presumably take him back to Petra (2 Cor. 11:32). This gives us a small hint of how Acts tends to blame the Jews for Paul's troubles and downplay the trouble he ran into with secular authorities like the Romans.

The book of Acts is in some sense an "apology," a defense of the earliest believers.  It has as a key perspective that the Early Christians were not troublemakers and tends to pin the blame on troubles with local authorities on opposition within the Jewish communities. This brief incidence gives us a significant insight into this perspective.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The "When I'm 70" Rule

I've been trying to implement a new perspective in my doings.  It is inevitable that you get into conflict over things at home, at work, at church.  So I'm trying to ask myself, "Will I look back at this particular conflict when I'm 70 and think I made a big fuss over nothing?  Will I even feel foolish for getting so worked up?"  If so, then yield to the other person.  It's not worth it.

This is along the lines of, "Don't sweat the small stuff. P.S. Everything is small stuff."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Liberal/Conservative is VERY Relative

A few theological extremists (see discussion here and here) have laid down a few "key" indicators of what they think indicates that your seminary is liberal. They include:

1. Does your seminary train women for ministry?
2. What do they teach on creation?
3. Did Matthew or Mark write first?
4. Who wrote the Pentateuch?

Well these guys are obviously fundamentalists.  Billy Graham was a liberal to those types back in the day.  It's a reminder that what constitutes "liberal" or "conservative" all depends on who is talking. They're relative terms. A person is conservative if they resist change from whatever the "norm" is--which depends on what the starting point is. Bill O'Reilly is a flaming liberal next to the 1950s Strom Thurman.

Frankly, Jesus and Paul were flaming liberals in their day. Jesus was a liberal when you put him next to the Pharisees and Paul was liberal put next to Peter and the Jerusalem church. I'm a flaming conservative put next to J. D. Crossan and a liberal put next to these Baptists.

So the label in itself carries no substance whatsoever and is a tool of berating others without necessarily saying anything at all.  "Liberal" is either a merit badge or a denunciation depending on who's talking. I hope Adolph Hitler and the KKK think I'm a flamin' liberal.

As for his four points, if training women ministers makes my seminary liberal then I'm going to go with God's a liberal. My seminary has no official position on the other three.  I personally support Markan priority but would not force any student to adopt it.  I try to be evenhanded in my presentation of the Pentateuch issue because I know it is sensitive. And my university has no official position on how God created the world other than to affirm that God created the world.

The point of faith-filled education is not to indoctrinate but to bring faith into dialog with evidence and the flow of the discussion in humility. Education may not change your positions but hopefully frees you to take the positions you do with greater awareness of the evidence and options.

I mourn an American Christianity that talks a lot about truth but what it means by "truth" is a dogged refusal to change its thinking, no matter what it's thinking was to start with. That's not a commitment to truth. That's a commitment to ignorance.