Category Archives: Scholarship

the erosion of moral facts?

The Facts of Life (TV series)
The Facts of Life (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are we teaching our children that only “proven” facts can be called right? Indeed, such is the proposition Justin P. McBrayer makes in a NY Times Op-Ed:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

via Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts – NYTimes.com.

This is, I think, a result of modernity. The philosopher (one who teaches religion) rails against this. I was apprehensive about suggesting that he is right — until I consulted an ethicist who basically agreed. I mean, I “feel” this way, but since that is not “proven…”

In my opinion, we are factually discrediting science when we create these categories as well as leading us into some serious moral problems in the future. If moral facts are nothing but opinions, with no one able to make a choice about them, then what is to stop the most heinous crimes from being executed without repercussions?

I would recommend reading the entire essay.

Review, “Transformation, The Heart of Paul’s Gospel” @logos @lexhampress

Have we missed St. Paul’s message… the proverbial forest for the trees?

During the debate between New Perspective, Old Perspective, and everything else about Paul’s intellectual origin, what may get lost is Paul’s goal of the Gospel. In a new book, the first in a series edited by renowned Pauline Third-Way scholar, Michael F. Bird, David A. deSilva proposes that at the center of Paul’s message is one simple concept: transformation.

The goal of Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel is simple: “to propose a way of thinking about Paul’s gospel — a vision for what God is seeking to bring about through the death and resurrection of his Son, the indwelling of his Spirit, and his future intervention in cosmic affairs.” (pg 5) While deSilva writes with an evangelical perspective in mind, his reach extends to others as well, especially with the centerpiece of his tripodic proposal. Indeed, the indwelling of the Spirit is what makes up the idea of transformation.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter is deSilva’s case for a “broader understanding of Paul’s Gospel of Transformation.” He is hesitant about assigning too wide a gulf between justification and sanctification. He points to several Christian traditions that highlight one over the other. He posits that Paul would be troubled at the separation and a creation of “an order of salvation.” Indeed, I think we should be too. He argues five points against such a false separation (pg 10), all of which sound Wesleyan (if I may be so biased). Indeed, deSilva suggests an ongoing justification, from the initial acquittal to the “final justification.” For Wesleyans, we see this act as the journey of grace, albeit with three stages of grace (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying). Regardless of my bias, the thesis is simple: There is no momentary act of salvation, but an ongoing changing of the person into the new creation, and thus, transformation. For the rest of chapter 1, deSilva lays out well the reasons why his five points are sound, calling on Scripture and Reason (scholarship) to aid him. He explores the “why” of transformation (i.e., God shows no partiality) and delves into the debate of what justification actually means.

Paul-iconChapter 2 turns to explore what transformation means to the individual and to the individual’s freedom within Christ. He begins, again, but setting the initial act of justification within the framework of the entire Christian journey. Paul simply does not spend a lot of time detailing this theological point, but rather spends a majority of his time instructing the Church what this means and how this looks (how transformation looks) in the body (and the body made up of individuals).

In chapter 3, deSilva explores the community’s transformation as individuals who are opposed to one another in life become conformed to a unified body. Yes, reconciliation is a part of the transformation which is the heart of Paul’s message (at least according to deSilva). So is ecumenicalism, it seems. I dare say, this chapter is important to the overall concept of Christian unity. This chapter speaks to me as one who believes heavily in John 17 as a mission for today’s Christian. The final chapter is deSilva’s answer to contemporary eschatological enterprises and, I think, empire criticism. It is a rewarding chapter, but one that is best not explained in a review.

I was apprehensive about this book. When I begin an introduction of a book on Paul’s message by exploring the Roman Road(s), I am easily turned off of the subject matter. However, I am glad my first, brief, and uninformed opinions were wrong. There is no hero worship of Paul, NT Wright, or Luther, only a straightforward and enticing examination of the heart of Paul’s message. The more I read, the more I enjoyed it. The more I read, the more I learned. The more I read, the more my opinion of Paul and post-Reformation views on Justification were…well, transformed.

I cannot help but to read books on justification and sanctification as a Wesleyan — and as one attempting to, occasionally, write a dissertation on the atonement mechanism in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. I see a lot of my views of Wesley’s views in this book, and not least because deSilva quotes the 39 Articles and refers to Wesley several times. I think I see a connection between Wesley and this book because of what I perceive as the ongoing work of Grace in the life of the Christian, which deSilva assures us is the heart of Paul’s message. I would encourage all Wesleyans (and Arminians) to pick up a copy of this book as a way to build their own personal theology. I would equally suggest all others read this book to understand better what other Christians feel about the journey of grace, but grounded only in Paul’s writings. Finally, those of us interested in Christian unity should at the very least read chapter 1 and chapter 4, first to understand the heart of Paul’s mission and second to understand how this applies to us today as we try to build Christian unity.

This book is available in several different formats from Amazon, Logos, and Lexham Press.

Review, “A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir” @ivpacademic

This is a guest post by Evan W. Rohrs-Dodge, a UMC pastor in New Jersey and a founding member of Via Media Methodists. I briefly read Thomas Oden’s memoir before I passed it on to Evan for review. In these pages can be found a great hope for the people called Methodists. While Oden is best known for his role in the Confessing Movement and in paleo-orthodoxy, what will be known after reading this book is his great love for the United Methodist Church, even if it disappoints him. Like so many of us who struggle with our membership, Oden has been there before. And he shows us a way forward.

I was eager to read Thomas Oden’s memoir, Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, as soon as I heard of its publication. My interest in Dr. Oden is not just because I am a graduate of Drew Theological School (although I was not a student during Oden’s tenure). He has been influential in my personal and professional development; I have benefited greatly from much of Oden’s scholarship, including his magnificent four-volume work on John Wesley and his three-volume systematic theology. And, I heard numerous second and third-hand stories about Oden during my studies, both of his keen intellect and his strong will. I have a had a keen interest in hearing, as it were, the other side of the story.

Change of Heart did not disappoint. Each chapter is divided up into decades (1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and so on), and, as such, chronologically highlights his academic training and teaching, his scholarship, his theological journey, and his personal life. Perhaps most central to this book, as indicated in the title, is Oden’s move from radical thought and activism to Christian orthodoxy. Oden devotes much time to describing his interactions and friendships with a variety of notable theologians, such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). On Oden’s theological change, however, no relationship was more important than the Jewish scholar and fellow Drew professor, Will Herberg. Open notes in the book that Herberg was encouraged to study Judaism by the H. Richard Niebuhr, and the Jewish scholar Herberg is the very one who encouraged Oden to more deeply study the roots of his Christian heritage.

Oden’s love and defense of Christian orthodoxy is abundantly clear in this book, and is wonderfully refreshing. Despite his repeated encounters with theological radicalism within both academia and the church, he often found his students hungry for robust, historical theology. They rejected the hubris of modernity/postmodernity, and desired to drink deeply from the wells of orthodoxy. As such, Oden fondly termed them “young fogeys,” and to him, they represent hope for the future of the faith, in both the academy and the church.

If you want to learn about a passionate academic, a devoted husband and parent, and a humble child of God who writes in an accessible, engaging manner, read Thomas Oden’s memoir.

CTP — Arummim and Arum (a Naked Genesis 2.25–3.8)

CottonGenesisFragment03rGodAdamEve
CottonGenesisFragment03rGodAdamEve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just had a vision of Adam’s vision of his Other Half. Now, we are ready to shift into another story.

Genesis 2.25 is the beginning of the passage. This week, we will pick up here and discuss it up until the moment they take the bite out of the “apple.”

As a reminder, try to forget the stories you’ve heard and read the text (Genesis 2.25—3.8) for yourself. Read it slowly, in at least two different translations (Genesis 2.25—3.8NIV). This may help to break up what you know from what you read.

Naked. It’s a term that makes some of us cringe, some of us laugh, and some of us…ashamed. But why? We have this innate sense that nakedness is something to be ashamed of. After all, this story does sorta suggest that, right? But, what if this is a word play? What if nakedness is a metaphor for something else?

Disclaimer. I am not suggesting everyone get naked and carry on daily business. I’m just saying our attitudes about nakedness, skin, flesh, sex, etc… may be due in large part to simply not reading Scripture correctly.

What is the central tree we have to avoid? It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As I have discussed before, this tree is more than a false dichotomy of right and wrong. It represents the all-in-all of what it means to know, to have wisdom, about everything from good to evil. In this small passage, we are told that this tree would give to the humans the knowledge of all that good-to-evil, making them divine (Genesis 3.5). This wisdom (Genesis 3.6) is what the tree represented. It was not about sin, but about knowing what God knew.

Think of what is the first characteristic “divinity” is given in Scripture. Wisdom. In later uses, Wisdom is personified as an attribute of God (usually female, Proverbs 8; Sirach 24). Even Job has Wisdom featured somewhat as an anthropomorphized image of God. What is this wisdom?

In the Ancient Near East, the serpent represented… life, death, wisdom, and fertility (among other things). Christians have sense given the serpent the title of “Satan.” But, remove that for a moment. In Gilgamesh, a serpent is present to cheat someone out of immorality. Think about how a serpent that cultures would have recognized as meaning “life, death, wisdom, and fertility” brings this story to life.

This brings us back to the nakedness. In Genesis 2.25, the couple is said to be naked (arummim). In Genesis 1, we are introduced to the serpent who is said to be “shrewd” (arum). This wordplay is important, I think.

From the NET Bible (Genesis 2.25–3.8NET):

  • The Hebrew word עָרוּם (’arum) basically means “clever.” This idea then polarizes into the nuances “cunning” (in a negative sense, see Job 5:12; 15:5), and “prudent” in a positive sense (Prov 12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:8, 15, 18; 22:3; 27:12). This same polarization of meaning can be detected in related words derived from the same root (see Exod 21:14; Josh 9:4; 1 Sam 23:22; Job 5:13; Ps 83:3). The negative nuance obviously applies in Gen 3, where the snake attempts to talk the woman into disobeying God by using half-truths and lies.
  • There is a wordplay in Hebrew between the words “naked” (עֲרוּמִּים, ’arummim) in 2:25 and “shrewd” (עָרוּם, ’arum) in 3:1. The point seems to be that the integrity of the man and the woman is the focus of the serpent’s craftiness. At the beginning they are naked and he is shrewd; afterward, they will be covered and he will be cursed.

What does “naked” mean? Some believe it is a word play, with one nakedness highlighted above another’s nakedness. The Targum Jonathan (c. 3rd century) translates Genesis 2.25 like this: “And they were both wise, the man and his wife, but they did not remain in their glory.” Thus, Genesis. 2.25 becomes something like a heading.

Maybe.

But, what we have then is that the serpent is made more crafty than the humans. Or, if we take these words as metaphors, then we see a fear of vulnerability in which case, the serpent (more naked) must work to trick the unsuspecting duo into eating the fruit because it is jealous.

There are a lot of “ifs” about these puns.

Let’s connected “nakedness” to wisdom. What happens when they become wise? Then they realize their nakedness and then work to cover it up.

If Genesis 2.25 is not a heading, but a statement of reality, then why does nakedness bring shame after they eat the fruit? Is this really a lesson about sexual temptation?

But, is there more?

This is a foundational story, especially for Christians. We have a lot of theology based on “the original sin.” But, what if the totality of the story is simply to ask the question, “What happens when humans get their hands on the knowledge of good-and-evil?” Maybe this: “The story … simply says that the knowledge of good and evil, in anybody’s hands other than God’s, will bring death and suffering, that is, expulsion from Paradise.”1

Another question… where do you think Adam was during all of this? Why is Eve the only one approached?

Some of the things this story is not about?

  • Evil. Evil pre-exists
  • This is the story of the Fall, a particular important story in Christian theology.  But, does the Fall exist in Judaism?
  • If this is the story of the Fall, what does this say about God?
  1.  Cesareo Bandera, The Sacred Game, pp. 114-115

The 6th day and Noah’s Rainbow Covenant

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering (painting...
Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering (painting circa 1803 by Joseph Anton Koch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Genesis 1 contains a mystery.

1.26 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'”

Who is this “we”?

The answer(s) is simple, right?

For Christians, it is the Trinity. God is speaking to the Son and the Holy Spirit, although we never see this replicated, even in the New Testament.

For some, this is simply the so-called Royal We used by people like Queen Victoria.

The ArtScroll edition of the Tanak I have makes it into a question of Moses’s recognition of monotheism.

Academics point to this, mirror it with Babylonian usages and certain passages from Psalms to suggest Elohim is speaking to the divine court (sons of God, angels, etc…). I am inclined to agree with this.

But, one Rabbinical interpretation has it that God is speaking to the animals. After all, on the fifth day the first living creatures were brought forth. These living creatures populated the waters and the air (fish and fowl). On the beginning of the sixth day, God brings forth, again, living creatures but this time, on land.

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. (Genesis 1.24)

If Adam is a living soul (Genesis 2), then perhaps God is speaking to the living creatures — which makes the scene in the Garden (before Eve) look worse than it did before. After all, if “helper” is better translated as “correspondent” and after Adam could not correspond with any animal, God had to make an almost-man… well, you get my drift.

Anyway, fast forward to the flood, or rather, after the flood. There is a covenant made between God and Noah and Noah’s sons. Yet, that is not all. The covenant is not merely between Noan and all of his descendents, but…:

‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. (Genesis 9.9–10)

The covenant between God and Noah is not merely with God and Noah, but included all animals. The language is similar to the original Creation accounts (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3).

By the way, the Noah story is actually another creation account.

So, maybe God is speaking to the animals when He says “let us…” (which, again, expands the scene in Genesis 2, doesn’t it?)

How closely are we connected to the animals (or, perhaps, the environment?)