Review, @ivpacademic’s “Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain”

Richard Rice has written a marvelous little book on the problem of suffering, or rather, the mystery of suffering. He has written it in gentle, direct language, without the need of an interpreter. He has done so through parables, stories, and letting authors speak for themselves. Rice provides, in this short little book, a multitude of views on theodicy, their respective high and low points, and a way forward respective of these wide ranging views and Christian tradition. Indeed, I can think of no better introduction to the philosophical problem of suffering as grasped in the Christian Tradition and how to form our own theology than this book.

Rice divides the book into 9 chapters, with 7 chapters to explain the various theodicies and 1 to explain why we need to examine this. The final chapter is his personal view. He knows full well, and uses noted apologist Alvin Plantinga as his support, that the one challenge atheists have best over theists is the problem of evil. He begins in chapter 2 with the easiest — the easiest to grasp at the very least. As he does with all other theodicies, Rice gives an overview, usually accompanied by a personal anecdote. Our author then gives the philosophical backdrop as to how these viewpoints came to take shape. Following this, he gives questions about the theodicy in view. In chapter 2, he examines the perfect plan wherein the holder sees God’s perfect will behind every action, good or bad. He raises the right questions, as he does in each and every viewpoint. He is not biased towards any one over the other.

There are only a few issues I have with this book. One, he relates what I would consider personal stories falling under the restricted structures of teacher-student, or otherwise, considerations. He may have reached out to those students, but this was not related to us. Perhaps it is not a problem with many, but I bristled at it, recalling some of the private conversations I had with teachers. Further, I would liked to have seen a stronger approach to the actual problem of the philosophy of evil. Why do we need to define evil and then use it as a litmus test for God? Overall, given the limitations of the nature of the book, these issues are perhaps more personal and should be taken into consideration if you are exactly as I am. Finally, in examining the non-theist view of theodicy, he takes an apologetic track. This was not as oft-putting as when others did it, but I’m not completely satisfied with the answers he gave.

I’ve chosen to include the best of this book last, forgoing my usual book review structure. In the last chapter of the book, Rice gives us a practical way forward. He admits that the previous views, even the view of the non-believer (he calls this “protest theodicy” in chapter 8), all hold something for him, but do not answer the question completely. He lays out four tenets of how he maintains the separation between God and evil (the most basic definition of theodicy). Without giving them away, they reside on the things Christians believe and hope for, falling into the realms of the doctrines of creation and salvation. It is in Rice’s practical theodicy we find a real path forward, consistent with the Christian tradition of mystery and confession over theories and facts. While you and I will have our own views of God and suffering, Rice’s understanding should be one we can give an ear to and learn from.

In all, this book does not answer the question of suffering — why good things happen to bad people; rather, it admits that, admits we do not know, and calls us to live in that place where a great deal of Christianity remains…the great mystery of Godliness.

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Book Notes, @ivpacademic’s “The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas”

Periodically, Christians will awaken to the fact we no longer live in a pure, unadulterated Christendom. Since 1776, the West has been rocked by the notion that pluralism can happen and if it does happen, previously secure groups will begin to lose adherents. Such is the fate of the Christian Church in the West. In Europe and in the United States, we have seen a marked decrease in church attendance and identification as Christians. We have also seen Christianity challenged by various movements. There are reactions, not necessarily good ones either. There is a general consensus, however, that Christians need to understand the times in which we live (the end of a Christian-dominated West) and how this will shape our message. Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak attempt to deliver a plan by using Paul’s time and context to show how it shaped his preaching so that we may learn how to use the pluralism today to shape ours. Think of postmodernism, relativism, and a heavy reliance on science and how this is shaping reactions to Christianity and Christian reactions to the world at large. They divide the book into 10 chapters, with each chapter adding something to the conversation about social context. We are introduced to ancient, pluralistic Athens before Christianity. It is a time that was dangerous to new messages. Yet, Paul succeeded. How so? He used rhetoric, persuasion, and followed God. They used the language of the time and place to teach about Christ, using the hallmarks of the time to point to him. I’m not sure I would call this apologetic, Copan’s usual fare, but is it evangelical (without the capital ‘E’). The book gets a bit repetitive at times, but this may be helpful in driving home what Paul was up against. This is a needed book as we face the graveyard of American Christianity.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

is Peter quoting James, James quoting Peter or are both quoting Proverbs…or…

The Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1345-1346),...

The Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1345-1346), The Repentence of King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t spend a lot of time in James since it includes very little about people going to hell, but noticed this today:

πρὸ πάντων τὴν εἰς ἑαυτοὺς ἀγάπην ἐκτενῆ ἔχοντες, ὅτι ἀγάπη καλύπτει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν – 1 Peter 4.8

γινωσκέτω ὅτι ὁ ἐπιστρέψας ἁμαρτωλὸν ἐκ πλάνης ὁδοῦ αὐτοῦ σώσει ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐκ θανάτου καὶ καλύψει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν. – James 5.20

Achtemeier has this…

The most puzzling part of the verse consists in the final four words (ἀγάπη καλύπτει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν). While the notion that love covers sin is common in the Bible and early Christian literature, the closeness of this formulation to the Hebrew of Prov 10:12b* and its almost identical form in Jas 5:20* point to the proverbial status of this phrase, a status probably antedating both uses in the NT.1

Using a certain resource, I found a connection to several Clementine letters.

Blessed were we, dearly beloved, if we should be doing the commandments of God in concord of love, to the end that our sins may through love be forgiven us – 1 Clement 50.5

Now I do not think that I have given any mean counsel respecting continence, and whosoever performeth it shall not repent thereof, but shall save both himself and me his counsellor. For it is no mean reward to convert a wandering and perishing soul, that it may be saved. – 2 Clement 15.1

Almsgiving therefore is a good thing, even as repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both. And love covereth a multitude of sins, but prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every man that is found full of these. For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin – 2 Clement 16.4

and for my friendly gnostic fellow,

All those who anoint themselves with it (.i.e, Truth) take pleasure in it. While those who are anointed are present, | those nearby also profit (from the fragrance). If those anointed with ointment withdraw from them and leave, then those not anointed, who merely stand nearby, still | remain in their bad odor. The Samaritan gave nothing but | wine and oil to the wounded man. It is nothing other than the ointment. It healed the wounds, for “love covers a multitude of sins.”2

In reviewing the ancient instances of this quote – even those making use of James/1 Peter, it looks like it is a recognized proverb (pardon the expression). We shouldn’t think Peter and James are at odds with one another. While James has the reputation of supporting “works righteousness,” I believe they are both saying the same thing. Both are about rescuing the less-than-sober/self-controlled Christian from sins. One calls this love, one calls this repentance. Same thing. Even the Gnostic version alludes to the recapturing of Truth.

So, maybe the early Church didn’t have too divergent a theology at the beginning? And, maybe that theology included the notion that we can aid in (co-responsible for) one another’s journey?

  1. Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: a Commentary on First Peter (ed. Eldon Jay Epp; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 295.
  2. Wesley W. Isenberg, “The Gospel of Philip (II, 3),” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (ed. James M. Robinson; 4th rev. ed.; Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), 155.

Unsettled Christianity and Settler Colonialism

Everyone repeats the same line: Sunday is the most segregated day of the week, and remains so. Why does some Christians fight so hard for racial justice, and others do not? This is a question that has been going through my mind a lot recently. God made all human beings in God’s image, the Imago Dei. Every person is of invaluable worth. This is an enduring truth of Christian tradition passed on for centuries. Racism is a denial of not only the Imago Dei in every human being, but also, a denial of Christ’s resurrection. In order for racism to be a persistent force in U.S. American politics, systems of death targeting specific populations (primarily People of Color) must take root as the norm. When they go unchallenged by the Church, that is a denial of the Gospel, the Good News of Christ’s victory of sin, Satan, and death, and God’s work of reconciling us to each other.

One of the many sins that Christians refuse to repent of is that of the genocide of First Nations persons. These wars and injustices are relegated to the past, as professor Andrea Smith points out, rather than instances of the present as well. Smith puts it this way, “One possible reason that the “exception” of Native genocide is not fully explored is that it is relegated to the past. That is, Omi and Winant argue that the United States has shifted from a racial dictatorship characterised by “the mass murder and expulsion of indigenous peoples” to a racial democracy in which “the balance of coercion began to change”.9 Essentially, the problem of Native genocide and settler colonialism today disappears.” for more see : Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy. The laws in which our First Nations sisters and brothers live under were made under the presumption that, #1, Native Americans were not Christian, and therefore not American, and #2, that First Nations people were not competent enough to rule themselves. Unfortunately, Christians in the past as well as today are far more invested in the nation-state than they were/are in the Gospel. What we as the Church need is a commitment to the Gospel of the Unsettling God who calls us to oppose the White Supremacist nation-state for the cause of justice, and to work towards a more just and loving community.

science approaches the way memory changes

Jesus in the Gospels

Jesus in the Gospels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memory research is interesting exactly because of the way we remember things – even the way we remember the remembrances of the Gospels. I believe that such science can help us even in understanding how the Gospels shaped the early memory of Jesus and were themselves shaped by the early memory of Jesus.

Some aspects of the memory can endure a long time, while others are more fickle. “The memory of a romantic first meal out with a partner may take on a different mood when the relationship falters,” said Tomonori Takeuchi and Richard Morris at the University of Edinburgh, in an article accompanying the study. “In these cases, memory of the place remains accurate, but the positive associations with that place are lost.”

In short, I believe the monumental act of the written Gospel forever changed the historical memory of Jesus, even among those who may have actually known him (although by this time, it would have been very few).

Jesus’s (building) entries into Jerusalem (Mark 11.11–27)

English: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

English: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is really for discussion… In Mark 11, Jesus enters into Jerusalem 3 times, each one more grander than the last.

Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα εἰς τὸ ἱερόν· καὶ περιβλεψάμενος πάντα ὀψὲ ἤδη οὔσης τῆς ὥρας ἐξῆλθεν εἰς Βηθανίαν μετὰ τῶν δώδεκα. – Mark 11:11.

Καὶ ἔρχονται εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν ἤρξατο ἐκβάλλειν τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ τοὺς ἀγοράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ τὰς τραπέζας τῶν κολλυβιστῶν καὶ τὰς καθέδρας τῶν πωλούντων τὰς περιστερὰς κατέστρεψεν – Mark 11:15.

Καὶ ἔρχονται πάλιν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. καὶ ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ περιπατοῦντος αὐτοῦ ἔρχονται πρὸς αὐτὸν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι – Mark 11:27.

The first time, Jesus silently (ignore the Hosanna shouts) enters into city, goes to the Temple, looks around, and leaves. In Mark 11.15, Jesus enters the city and goes to the Temple to cleanse it. In Mark 11.27, Jesus goes to the Temple where he begins to preach. This happens quickly, within the space of 3 days.

Each entry is marked by an increasing sense of importance for Jesus. I may side with some who suggest the crowd was already present when Jesus entered the city, celebrating the Passover. In other words, Jesus slipped by and stood in the crown while it shouted the usual triumphant shout. The second time, however, Jesus comes in and makes himself known as a person of priestly suspicions (basically, he wanted the Temple pure). The next time, Jesus comes in and starts to preach.1

Could the thrice entry point us to some of Mark’s literary sources? I am inclined to believe Mark 11.15–17 points us to Titus’s siege in 70, wherein the bandits were holed up inside the Temple. What about the first one, then? I may argue in a future paper the first one points us to the attempted coup by the Egyptian. The third one? Well, Jesus did have to go Jerusalem… In all, however, the stories are told in such a way as to answer previous entries by would-be-tyrants and siege victors — they show that Jesus did not come to conquer.

  1. Maybe these two entries, with their two goals, point to the Two Messiah Motif.

Satan: Accuser or Executioner?

I had the privilege today of interviewing Dr. Ryan Stokes of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He told me about his research on satan (both a noun and a verb in biblical Hebrew). Stokes has concluded that the Satan in the Hebrew Bible is not an accuser but actually is Yahweh’s executioner. The article on this topic is in the June 2014 issue of Journal of Biblical Literature. My interview with him is here on MAP.

 

@dageshforte

Review of @fortresspress’s “The Vine and the Son of Man: Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism”

In the last few decades, academia has produced few, but great intertextual scholars. I suspect that soon we will add a name such as Andrew Streett to that list. His work, The Vine and the Son of Man traces the interpretation and reinterpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism, ending with the Gospel of John. But, it does more than that. Indeed, Streett offers an interdisciplinary approach — Second Temple Judaism, rhetoric, canonical theism, and intertextuality — to understanding not just how the Fourth Evangelist used Psalm 80, but so too the inherited methodology allowing him, or requiring him, to employ the strategy. This volume is a richly rewarding experience whereby the reader is able to digest the complete context of Psalm 80.

And a very detailed introduction, Streett begins the work in earnest with an examination of Psalm 80 in its historical context. He presents his speculation that it was originally a response to the end of the Northern Kingdom, offered to call to God’s remembrance the covenant. Already, we can see why this particular psalm could become important to early apologists defending the messiahship of Jesus. It includes vine imagery, the request for a strong leader, and the restoration of the nation. Thus, the original context supplied the needed theology to develop John’s Son of Man imagery.

Following this, Streett examines the psalm within it’s setting of the psalter. This first use of the psalm allowed the receptive audience (the 6th century BCE) to see it pertaining to them. Further, by placing it within Book III of the psalter, Psalm 80’s already rich royal connection is magnified, assuming an eschatological presence that produces the connection to the Temple and Jerusalem. This is interesting in of itself because it allows the reader to see how portions of Scripture are shaped by their literary placement.

I a (not-as) convincing chapter on Daniel 7, the author argues that the natural imagery of Daniel’s Son of Man vision is supplemented by Psalm 80. He bases this on the beasts, primarily. I remain unconvinced, wishing he had devoted more time to intertextual clues — or included this chapter either in, or after, the following chapter in which he examines our psalm within Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (chapter 4). In this portion, Streett investigates such works as pseudo-Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls to understand how Psalm 80 figured into their works. It is during this time, and with the help of the developing eschatological hope, Psalm 80 is reworked to represent better what early Christians would have recognized as the “real” meaning. Had Street placed his chapter on Daniel within this framework, it would be more convincing.

Streett’s chapters on Mark are completely convincing — not simply because he delves deep into the concept of allusion and what this means when reading texts into, or out of, of another. In chapter 5, he stands out from the crowd(s) — the crowds arguing neither for Daniel 7 or Isaiah 53 as the genesis for the suffering Messiah — holding Psalm 80 as the theological instigator for seeing Jesus’s passion as necessary and “biblical.” Chapter 6 deals well with Mark 12.1-12 and its allusive connections to Psalm 80. Streett continues to build upon the idea of intertextuality, connecting Mark to his theological heritage — Second Temple Judaism. By doing so, he gives a literary depth to Mark rarely seen by a surface reading.

In his seventh chapter, Streett tackles Psalm 80 in John 15.1–8. He does not simply offer the psalm as the only intertext, but examines it next to the passages commonly associated with pericope such as Isaiah 5.1–7 and Sirach 24.17–21. He maintains that while other passages may contribute to John’s choice of words here, it is Psalm 80 supplying the spine of the passage.

How did we read the New Testament without the aid of Psalm 80 before? Sure, we did pretty well for ourselves, having rested easily enough on Psalm 110 — but, it seems we were lacking something. And if we ever believed christology suddenly sprang forth ex nihilo, we missed something there as well. Often times, we are told scholars live to find something new. Here, Streett brings back something old and gives us more things to consider in reading the New Testament. He helps us to understand just how Jewish, and continuous, New Testament theology really is. It is a rewarding experience for those seeking to understand the zygote of the New Testament as well as how previous texts were used, reused, and transformed by later writers.