Tuesday, 28 June 2011

With no apologies

I've never quite worked out how mature, sensible people can indulge in the mind games of apologetics.  It's a dismal pursuit.  First you fix on a conclusion to your taste, then stack the evidence in its favour, and proceed to defend it tooth and claw against all comers.

Schweitzer had something relevant to say here.
Because I am devoted to Christianity in deep affection, I am trying to serve it with loyalty and sincerity.  In no wise do I undertake to enter the lists on its behalf with the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologists, but I call on it to set itself right in the spirit of sincerity with its past and with thought in order that it may thereby become conscious of its true nature.

Albert Schweizer in Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Questioning Dogma

Sharp criticism of dogmas is to be preferred in every case to total indifference, since the latter does not even pay them the honor of taking them seriously.

Bernhard Lohse in A Short History of Christian Doctrine

Saturday, 25 June 2011

On snarkiness in diverse places

One of these days I'm going to learn not to respond to a comment on an apologetics blog.

For some reason unknown to me Thom Stark is on a charm offensive over at Matt and Madeleine Flannagan's blog. It's all apologies, hugs and sweet reconciliation (well, sort of.)  An aside by Matt, however, left me puzzled.
Thom, Gavin is just showing how nasty the NZ theological scene can be. I did my PhD at Otago and some people still there have a snark reflex reaction towards conservatives. I suspect its more about me than it is about you.
Yup, that's his take on this post.  Proof, if any more was required, that hardline Reformed folk have a severely limited appreciation of humor.

Not that I deny the occasional descent into snarkiness. Apologetics tends to do that to me...  As Matt writes of himself, "I just call it as I see it."

But Matt has a long memory.  To my protestation that I've never been part of an Otago cabal, he rejoins that I was a contributor on the now defunct Dunedin School blog which published some "lovely stuff" about him.

Well, to that I plead guilty. I was invited by Deane to post there, though as with Matt, our only contact has ever been virtual.  Whether Matt wants to call me a liar or not, as he now infers, his name didn't come up once, to the best of my recollection, during that time.  My total contribution there was perhaps five posts, none of which, I believe, mentioned Matt at all.  Later Deane and others based in Dunedin decided to crop the posts and refocus on "reception history,"  and I was left with but one post flapping in the cool Dunedin breeze (on the meaning of the term 'evangelical'.)  Shortly thereafter, sadly, the plug was pulled completely.  At no stage, as far as I'm concerned, was that blog intended to be a "snark reflex reaction to conservatives" any more that Matt's blog is intended as a "snark reflex reaction" to mainstream biblical studies.

Now consider the tone of Matt's further response.
But I am sure you really don’t have any issue with me at all this is all just coincidence and it’s a mistake to see any of this as evidence of some kind of hostility towards me at all... try reading what people actually write it’s a lot more sensible than attacking straw men)... But I am sure this [is] all a coincidence as well. When the same authors try and draw attention to Stark[']s illtempered comments about me, that’s a coincidence as well. There is not a group of theologians at Dunedin in Otago who write snarky stuff about Conservative theologians like me, nor do people associated with this group right [sic] nasty stuff about me designed [to] ridicule me and denigrate my scholarly credentials, it’s all just a coincidence.
Clearly Matt is himself a master of the genre.

A 13 year old deals to Harold Camping

There it is, in the pages of the venerable Otago Daily Times no less.  A 13 year old high school student puts Harold Camping in his place.  Kind of makes you optimistic about the up 'n coming generation...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Don't mess with Thom

Apologists have long been used to an easy run when it comes to delivering their comedy lines with a straight face. Who's willing to challenge them? Most of those who can and should simply shrug their shoulders. They're crazies, right?  So why bother.

That's a really bad move.  It leaves the apologists crooning to their home-crowd admirers.  See, we're right, 'cos nobody can answer our talking points.

Then along came Thom.

Thom Stark, I think it'd be fair to say, doesn't suffer fools gladly.  When braying jackasses set out to defend themselves against the indefensible, Thom doesn't sit back and mutter ineffectually to himself... he picks up the proverbial jawbones of said asses and lays lustily into them with unrelenting point-by-point refutation.

And - hallelujah! - he has a sense of humor too.

Yes, there are those who take offence at Thom's style. But then, as someone recently put it, pouting about Thom's 'direct' approach is a bit rich when these same aggrieved apologists are happy to think of Yahweh as a righteous murderer of the innocent.

Thom is the author of The Human Faces of God, my nomination for the best biblical studies book of 2010.  And don't overlook his free book-length review of Paul Copan's hugely flawed Is God a Moral Monster.

A kindly word of advice to Matt Flannagan.  If you want to take him on, then you'd best do your homework thoroughly, and even then I'd definitely think twice...

Just ask Richard Hess.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Chalcedonian Pepper

Spill the pepper over your poached eggs, as I did recently, and you're likely to have a "stimulating" breakfast.  I keep going back to John Shuck's blog to see what havoc he's causing in the Presbyterian digestive tract, and am rarely disappointed.

Presbyterians. Strange folk. Calvin and the school of hard Knox.  You probably haven't (ahem) noticed, but this blog tends to be somewhat unaffirming of Reformed theology in general.  If any tradition needs a hefty dose of prophetic irritation, Presbyterianism has to be somewhere near the top of the list.

And prophetic irritation has indeed been showered upon them.  Lloyd Geering in New Zealand is the country's highest profile theologian; that fact being a source of chagrin to fundamentalists and certain Otago theology faculty members alike.

Shuck seems a kindred spirit.  He has some provocative things to say about a "hold the line" article appearing in a US church publication.  Here's a forkful of that particular egg 'n toast:
Presbyterians believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, without confusion and without change, without separation and without division." This statement dates all the way back to the fifth century (451 to be exact) and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition.
How many Presbyterians do you know who are Chalcedonian divas?  In fact, how many would really know what the word Chalcedonian even refers to?  No wonder Shuck says, "I strongly resist those blanket statements. It doesn't relate so much to the content of what the authors or editors might believe, it is the assumption that everyone believes or should believe these things."

Then the top of the pepper shaker topples and the condiment is upended...
That statement from 451 doesn't even make logical sense. It is a contradiction... This statement from 451 was a political compromise. It isn't a statement of absolute truth or Divine proclamation.

Human beings decided this. Whether the means of decision were violent, manipulative, or a democratic vote, human beings made it up... They didn't all agree. There were losers. There were people who didn't win "the vote" that day. Were they wrong just because their view didn't win the day? ... I think we need to know how our ancestors wrestled with decisions. We can respect their efforts. We can criticize their efforts. We can learn from their process and their decisions. We can honor our tradition but we are not beholden to their provisional conclusions.
Shuck finishes by asking two questions about things like creeds.
Are they
1. statements of belief to which we must adhere or
2. are they streams of tradition from which we are free to learn?

Are they
1. tests of faith or
2. testimonies to faith?
 Good questions for all Christians - not just Presbyterians - to ponder.

Friday, 17 June 2011

How to say "Otagosh"

Yeah, I know this has been tormenting a lot of readers, how the heck do you say that?  And no, it's definitely not Greek!

Kiwis have a head start here, for everyone knows how to say Otago, the name of a sizeable slab of the South Island. Oh-tar-go. I believe it is an Anglicization of the Maori word "Otakou," the original meaning of which might possibly have been "red earth."

I know what you're thinking; how meaningful, what huge theological potential!  Red earth - Adam, gosh - euphemism for deity... sadly, no such profundity was intended; when I began this blog I was starting out in theological studies through the University of Otago. A colleague commented 'oh gosh!' (doubtless wondering at my slender link to sanity in studying a subject of no practical use.)  Sooo... I bunged the two words together: Otago and gosh. Hence Otagosh (Oh-ta-gosh.)

In that it's an invented word however, it does help out directing folk to exactly the right place when they google it, regardless of pronunciation!

On a tangent, three Otagosh posts made the latest [ad hoc] Christianity podcast list, one of which got a passing mention on the audio ("typical Otagosh"? Obviously I'm getting far too predictable.) The podcast itself is a long one, chewing up the best part of an hour with good-natured banter, but if you're a biblioblog junkie, well hey, so what?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Eternal Conscience Punishment

Those Southern Baptists are keen to call down an 'amen' on "the church’s historical teaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment of the unregenerate …" at their Phoenix conference.

That means affirming their "belief in the biblical teaching on eternal conscience punishment of the unregenerate in Hell …"

What the heck is that, a typo? Jim West is reporting it this way, and a Google cross-check indicates that Baptist Press is too.

Conscience punishment? Obviously not quite the same thing as conscious punishment. Seems to be a new heretical doctrine no one has ever heard of before, not "the church's historical teaching."

Or is it perhaps this just illustrates a variation on "why white men can't jump"; i.e. why Southern Baptists can't spell?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Headline Theology

A minister in one of the smaller post-Herbal sects (let the reader understandeth) recently commented negatively on "headline theology"; the idea that you can - and should - read Bible prophecy right out of (or into) your daily newspaper. His particular church seems to have de-emphasised the "watch world news" call. This activity isn't the same thing, according to this worthy bloke, as actually preachin' the gospel.

And of course he's right. Whether in the dispensationalist camp of Hal Lindsey and Dim Tim LaHaye, or in the boggy marshlands of fringe Adventism, speculation on how the End Times fit in with the latest Time magazine is rife. The signs of the times have been legion: the Suez Canal crisis, the Six Day War, instability in Yugoslavia (remember Yugoslavia?), or the rise of Mussolini; you can be sure "prophecy marches on, brethren!"

You'd think by this time folk would have wised up. But no, the 'players' in Casino Apocalyptic have passed the point of 'prediction addiction' reversal. There are few plainer examples (or cautionary tales) of this than the magazine called (paradoxically) The Good News. The latest issue brings its cutting insights to bear on the Middle East. Just take a look at the table of contents! And yes, they also produce a dedicated magazine and website called World News and Prophecy!

Features called "World News and Trends"?, you'd think it was a current events magazine... which is exactly what it mimics. In case you think this is a one off, the January-February issue was based around the theme 'Signs of the Times'.

What has this stuff got to do with Christianity?

I guess all churches - especially those competing for a nice, fat tithe dollar - want to appear 'relevant,' and there's no straighter road to relevance than attaching yourself parasitically to the news of the day. But there's a small problem: a zero percent success rate in prediction.

The GN calls itself "a magazine of understanding," a subtitle it filched from the old Plain Truth. These guys, however, have so little understanding about things in general that they couldn't foresee, let alone solve, the very predictable crisis that engulfed their own organization over the past few years, leading to disenchantment and schism.

But here they still are, older but no wiser, playing the poker tables at Casino Apocalyptic, hoping that the real world will somehow suddenly conform to their half-baked assumptions about Bible prophecy.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Is the Holy Spirit God?

Gregory of Nazianzus
That's the question posed by perichoresis enthusiast Ted Johnston over at his Surprising God blog. No surprise what answer he comes up with. I couldn't care less whether the HS is ascribed personhood or not: you could argue it a dozen ways back and forth simply by finessing the language.

What interests me are the reasons Ted gives: (1). The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is God; and (2). Knowing that the Holy Spirit is God, assures us.

To point one. Parts of the New Testament might possibly be construed as hinting that the Spirit is God. Other parts are easily construed to indicate that he/she/it most certainly isn't. If the Good Book clearly taught that the Good Spirit is God, how come it took centuries to articulate that doctrine and give it a name?

Let's put it on comparative timelines. The church is usually thought to have launched around 33 CE. Here's what that venerable, conservative Oxford authority Alister McGrath has to say on the subject.
[P]atristic writers were hesitant to speak openly of the Spirit as "God," in that this practice was not sanctioned by Scripture... Even as late as 380, Gregory of Nazianzus conceded that many Orthodox Christian theologians were uncertain as to whether to treat the Holy Spirit "as an activity, as a creator, or as God."
Too bad Ted wasn't around back then to set them all right.

Now let's drop in the timeline. 33 through to 380. With a little help from a calculator, or even a trusty pencil and paper algorithm, even Ted should be able to subtract 33 from 380. By my quick calculation that's 347 (three hundred and forty seven) years. Even if we chop off twenty years to allow for Athanasius' prime years of ill-tempered ranting, the figure is still three and a quarter centuries.

Now, here we all are in 2011. Let's put this in some kind of context. How far back from today would 347 years take us?


Yes Virginia, if poor old Gregory was bemoaning the lack of consensus on the Trinity today, we'd be looking at a period of 325-347 odd years - since the 1600s - in which this "Bible understanding" had failed to carry the day among Christians. Simply saying "the Bible teaches it" and tossing in a bouquet of potted proof texts apparently didn't convince them either in 380, or any time before, and it certainly doesn't sound particularly persuasive now. I can think of nicely selected proof texts that "prove" God is a binitarian or unitarian entity too.

Ted's second reason? Well, as with so much Ted writes, I have only the foggiest idea about what he means.
Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit indwells us. This declaration gives us great assurance when we understand that the Holy Spirit is God in person. Indeed, God himself is with us! He does not merely send us a "force" or "power."
Okay, a warm fuzzy. But hey, this is semantics. In fact if you take it to its logical (or illogical) conclusion it just reverts to mush. "Knowing that the Holy Spirit is God, assures us..." of what? Possibly that "he" is a pretty ineffectual chunk of the godhead, given "his" track record doing this "indwelling" thing.

I'm not trying to be offensively "anti" Trinitarian. In fact I'm happy to use the language of the Trinity as a normative metaphor (which is all it can be). Some very fine Christians are thoroughgoing Trinitarians. Most of them, though, would be embarrassed by Ted's facile little attempt to justify it. On the first count Ted is just plain wrong. On the second he is fuzzily incoherent.

McGrath quote from Christian Theology: An Introduction (fourth edition), Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p.238.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

What would Mike Feazell make of this?

The Trinity - or a particularly bloated version of it - has become the mantra of many in that wing of Protestantism that embraces Baxter Kruger and the Terrible Torrances, and there can be few more rabid disciples than Mike Feazell, theological Einstein (or perhaps Hoeh) of Grace Communion International.

So I wonder what Mike would make of John Shuck's latest posting...
...I disagree that we need to reclaim the Trinity except as one metaphor among many. If it is true that we Presbys have become "functional Unitarians" it may not be because we are bad or wrong. It could be because the Unitarians are more persuasive. (Many of the Unitarians I know have moved beyond "God" altogether).

I do not mean this as an insult, but I find much of our modern theological work little more than dealing in antiquities. The Trinity, the person of Christ, the sacraments, the authority of the Bible, eschatology, and so forth were invented in the pre-modern era and are best suited for that time period.

This does not mean that we are smarter or more hip than the people who invented these ideas. We simply have changed. Trying to retrofit our belief systems to a modern understanding of the Universe, Earth, and Earth's inhabitants turns theologians and pastors into pawn brokers for ancient religious relics that fewer and fewer people embrace.

If folks aren't interested in the Trinity and have become functional Unitarians, it could be because they have moved. Rather than make people feel bad, theologically inept, or heretical--"You are not Presbyterian unless you believe all of this stuff"--maybe we should listen to what people are really saying.

While I find the Trinity to be poetic and artsy, I have a hard time finding any reality to it.
Poetic and artsy? That seems to describe the perichoresis-type "trinitarian theology" embraced by these guys. Those good, decent folk in GCI who are being sold this stuff by Jonathan Stepp and others are hopefully benefiting in some way, but for the life of me I can't think how.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Cats among the Creationist Pigeons

The old certitudes are crumbling, even among the ranks of America's evangelicals, judging from a lead story in the current issue of Christianity Today.

Under pressure is the commitment of evangelicals to a literal Adam and Eve. The issue is particularly acute in the Reformed camp, with its rigid, over-theologised dogmas and dour view of humanity.

Pushing the boundaries is the BioLogos Foundation, much to the chagrin of hand-wringing Calvinists who fear that their theological house of cards is about to come down. We can only hope!
[T]he emerging science could be seen to challenge not only what Genesis records about the creation of humanity but the species's unique status as bearing the "image of God," Christian doctrine on original sin and the Fall, the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, and, perhaps most significantly, Paul's teaching that links the historical Adam with redemption through Christ...
Theistic evolution seems, despite this, to be in full cry, largely thanks to the advocacy of Francis Collins, and the scientific evidence cited is impossible to dismiss. That's too much, however, for some to swallow. Their objections have nothing to do with the science, but everything to do with a mangled anthropology.
Vices we associate with consequences of the Fall and original sin, such as self-serving behavior, exist in lower primates and would have been passed on via evolution to humans. Thus Eden "cannot be a literal description of how things really were in the primal human past."
Reformed clergyperson Richard Phillips is quoted in the CT article: "Can the Bible's theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?" he asks. If science trumps Scripture, what does this mean for the virgin birth of Jesus, or his miracles, or his resurrection? "The hermeneutics behind theistic evolution are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall."

Not so likely. A broader Christian belief - outside the swarming ghettos of Reformed Evangelicalism and fundamentalism - can clearly cope with the reality of human origins. If a theistic acceptance of evolution does indeed bring the hammer down on an Augustinian view of "mankind" as fallen and deserving of eternal punishment... well, that's got to be good news for everyone.

This is one CT article that is well worth a close reading.

Friday, 10 June 2011


Tim Henderson asks the question: can Historical Jesus work be done by those affirming inerrancy?

Good question. Easy answer (forgive my hopeless naivete): yes.

Yes of course, and they do, book loads by the bucketful.

Can responsible, credible HJ work be done be inerrantists? Easy answer again: nope. As Tim concludes: "is the necessary conclusion already present before the endeavor has even begun?"

Rhetorical question, but I'll bite anyway. Absolutely. As someone once said (I do believe it may have been me), never trust an apologist. Ever.

Take a certain well known and widely published scholar (please, someone?) over at Dallas Theological Seminary.  He is doubtless a fine fellow, kind to small animals and children, who flosses regularly. He also has great academic qualifications, no question. But he teaches (to use that term in its broadest sense) at an institution that, as far as I can tell, demands the intellectual castration of its teaching staff. An exaggeration? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not; just look at what these folk have to affirm.

No wonder that the folk in the pews are confused when they seek the answers to important questions. Arrayed in the path of an honest response are the storm troopers of inerrancy, the apologetic marines, armed to the teeth with really bad works of pseudo-scholarship (probably by graduates of DTS and its kin) to divert the seeker from his or her path. A Zondervan title to the left, an IVP paperback to the right, and Thomas Nelson laying down cover while Crossway drops cumbersome ESV Study Bibles from a great height on anything that still moves.

Worried about 2 Peter being a fraud? Don't worry your silly little head, it says it's completely legit in this nice book by a famous writer who teaches at DTS. Oh look, here's proof in the ESV Study Bible. Now, back to sleep...

And because we all want easy, comfortable answers so our naps don't turn into nightmares, the gigolos do a roaring trade.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Price on a Humanist view of the Bible

Preach it brother Bob!

Robert M. Price in Latter-day Scripture.

Cosmic Christ or Cosmonaut?

There's been a bit of bloggery on the events associated with Ascension Day (Himmelfahrts in German).  James McGrath got the ball rolling, and Scott Bailey has joined the fray.  In the original story, the resurrected lord hops on a slow-moving cloud (helicopters being unavailable at this point in history) and is wafted up, up and away in clear view of all.  The tale derives inspiration, in part, from the earlier ascension of the angel Raphael in the book of Tobit (12:15-22) which is a personal favourite of mine in the deuterocanonical literature (man, would it make a great graphic novel!)

James McGrath puts it in a nutshell: "Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible," and he cites Dunn and Ward in support.  Scott Bailey goes further by pointing out the cosmology: "we can’t really take this story literally for a variety of reasons. Literally Jesus goes up to heaven in the story. This ‘perspective’ is built on the cosmology of first century persons".  He also provides this nifty diagram, which is one of the better representations I've seen, which answers other equally head-scratching puzzlers like, "where did all that water come from to float Noah over the top of Everest?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Judas Gospel a hoax?

Among all the discussion that emerged following the publication of the Gospel of Judas in 2006, including translation controversies spearheaded by April DeConick, lies the contention that the document itself is a modern fake. Richard Arthur is chief advocate for this position, though his argument probably isn't helped by his choosing to publish in the Journal of Unification Studies (Arthur teaches at the Unification seminary, but is apparently a mainline scholar, doing graduate studies at Gordon-Conwell, Harvard, Claremont and Berkeley, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, "The Gospel of Thomas and the Coptic New Testament.")  His 2008 article is online, and he summarises his objection to Judas' authenticity by stating:
"My main reason for branding it a hoax it that it contains an outstanding grammatical error at 48.18, TOU-, instead of correct TREU-, and that this exact error is found in an almost identical passage in the Codex II version of the Apocryphon of John, at 24.34, where AJ reads TOU- instead of correct TREU-. This fact to me indicates that a writer was familiar with one defective version of AJ (the Codex II version) - there are two other copies without this error - and this Codex II version, first published in 1963 is quite familiar to all modern students of Coptic and is the root of the error now found in the Judas Gospel."
Post '63?  I'm not in any position to comment on the strengths or otherwise of Arthur's objections, but it'd probably be true to say that he's flying in the face of the sacred consensus as Judas has been widely accepted as authentic (in the sense of at least being an ancient document), appearing in English versions by a veritable "who's who" including Marvin Meyer (Nag Hammadi Scriptures), Willis Barnstone (Restored New Testament), Karen King, DeConick and the original National Geographic translation team (which included Meyer, and is freely available online.)

So, if Arthur is correct, does this mean Judas should sit alongside the Secret Gospel of Mark on the shelf labelled 'suspected hoax'?