In the World Not of the World

It is instructive to understand (and worth imitating) that the author of Hebrews was clearly formed by Jewish apocalyptic thought, yet was obviously conversant with middle-Platonic thought, and was therefore speaking from the worldview that had formed him, but in a language that made sense to the society in which he resided.

Cultural Relevance

I have often heard Ron Allen discuss how dangerous it is to adopt a cultural rather than a biblical hermeneutic, and I entirely agree.

On the other hand, I also highly value the following statement from Alan Mann.

[T]he gospel narrative should not become a museum piece, and neither should the theology and cultural awareness that we derive from them. We need to read and reread the atonement [among other theological issues – NL] as time and place change the context in which we are called to communicate the salvific work of Christ.

What would one call or how would one express the appropriate balance between those two seeming extremes?[1]

[1] Alan Mann, Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008 reprint) 3

Is the Sabbath a Ceremonial Law?

I often hear contemporary Christians assert that the Sabbath is a ceremonial law. If this is so, it is strange that out of 10 commandments, 9 are “moral” and one is “ceremonial.” The historic Christian position has been that all 10 are moral (e.g., John Wesley and J.C. Ryle).

Walter Kaiser, in his book Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, suggests that the moral law is found in the Decalogue (as expressed in Ex 20 and Deut 5) and in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 18-20.

I don’t share that view entirely, but since it is commonly accepted, this leads us to an interesting verse:

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:3)

There is no one, I suspect, who would argue that honoring our parents is not a moral commandment, and here it is sandwiched along with the commandment to keep God’s Sabbaths. It’s a very steep hill to climb for those who suggest that keeping the sabbath is not a moral law.

Charles Simeon, the great 19th century expositor, close friend of William Wilberforce, and contemporary of John Wesley had some good insight here:

Christ, our incarnate Lord, has fulfilled every part of God’s law; enduring its penalties, as well as executing its commands: and this he has done, as our Surety: so that, if we believe in him, we may plead his obedience unto death in bar of all the punishment it denounces against us; and may even plead it also as having procured for us a title to all its promised blessings. Our blessed Lord, in fulfilling the law, has abrogated it as a covenant; and has obtained for us a new and better covenant, of which he himself is the Surety. As a rule of conduct, the law does, and ever must, continue in force; because it is the transcript of the mind and will of God, and contains a perfect rule for the conduct of his creatures:[1]

[1] Simeon, Charles. Horae Homileticae Vol. 15: Romans (London, 1832-63). 165-166.

How do you read Scripture?

Can we read the Scriptures in such a way as to understand the people of God’s story, not solely as history might record it, but as God would want us to remember it and learn from it? Would we be better off to describe the faith of God’s people, not as the First Testament or archaeology record it, but as the Scriptures reckon it should have been and should be? What if we aimed to live life, not as it was actually lived by the people of God over the centuries, but as the Scriptures describe it should or could have been and should and could actually be lived?

I live according to the unlikely conviction and perhaps improbable reality that the Scriptures are designed to inform a vision for the people of God in the twenty-first (and every other) century. [1]

[1] This musing was prompted by and is actually a re-working of the opening paragraph of John Goldingay’s, Old Testament Theology, Volume 3: Israel’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 13.

Explaining My Life

“The test of each story is the sort of person it shapes,”[1] and (as the authors of that comment would grant) the sort of community it shapes. “The practice of community establishment and maintenance was at the center of the social ethic of earliest Christianity”[2] as it has been of the First Testament’s social ethic.[3]

There in a single, two-sentence, paragraph is an excellent description of what is, perhaps, my cardinal conviction regarding the nature and purpose of Scripture (and God’s intention for it); a conviction that shapes my life, the expenditure of my time and energy, and is the goal of my pursuits.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell, “From System to Story,” in Why Narrative? ed. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 158–90; see p. 185; reprinted from Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), pp. 15–39; see p. 35.

[2] James W. McClendon, “The Practice of Community Formation,” in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre, ed. Nancey Murphy et al. (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity, 1997), pp. 86–110, see p. 102.

[3] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Volume 3: Israel’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 14.

Jewish-Christian Relations from 70-135 A.D.

The following quote is one of the most accurate and yet succinct summaries of developing Jewish-Christian relations in the primitive Church period that I’ve ever come across.

Jewish-Christian Relations (70–135)

The boundaries of this period are provided by two important dates in Jewish history: the repeated destruction of Jerusalem during the first (66–74) and second (132–135) Jewish revolts against Rome. Though Christians participated in neither, both (the first more directly than the second) affected the church and its future, and therefore merit a closer look.

Though the first revolt lasted until the fall of Masada in a.d. 74, the key event was the destruction of the temple in 70 by the Roman general Titus. He put down the rebellion hoping that the loss of the temple would contribute to the extermination of both Jews and Christians. While his hope went unrealized, his impact was in some respects greater than he might have anticipated.

In response to the loss of the temple, Judaism underwent a major reformulation. The temple as a focal point for the faith was replaced by the synagogue and an academy at Jamnia (Yavneh), and scholarly rabbis like Johanan ben Zakkai and Akiba eventually replaced the priests as key leaders of the people. Of all the various strands and varieties of Judaism that existed before the revolt, only the Pharisaic branch appears to have survived the ensuing turmoil, and it did so largely by transforming itself into rabbinic Judaism. The reformulation included a purge of sectarian tendencies, especially those thought to be responsible for starting the war. Further, the dividing line between Jew and non-Jew was more sharply defined; for example, the twelfth of the “Eighteen Benedictions,” the oldest part of the synagogue service, was reworded to exclude sectarians and heretics, including Christians: “For the renegades let there be no hope, and may … the Nazarenes and heretics perish as in a moment; may they be blotted out of the book of life and not enrolled with the righteous.…”7 At the same time evangelistic efforts directed toward outsiders continued apace; Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote at least in part to commend the Jewish faith to his fellow Roman citizens.

The eventual effect of the reworded Twelfth Benediction on the church was gradually to close off access to the synagogue on the part of Jewish Christians, which increased the distance and sharpened the distinction—and the hostility—between the synagogue and the church. Each thought that it was the true Israel, and consequently that the other had fallen away from God. Classic statements of this perspective from the Christian side include Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish rabbi, and the anonymous Epistle of Barnabas, likely written from Alexandria between 70 and 130. Among other things the latter writer collects a number of scriptural prophecies that allegedly prove that the Jews missed their opportunity due to ignorance and disobedience and were rejected and replaced as God’s people by the Christians. The bitterness of this intramural fight, however, goes beyond theological differences; anti-Semitism, a not uncommon feature of Greco-Roman culture, was on occasion to be found within the church as well.

The second revolt of 132–135, led by messianic aspirant Simon Bar Kochba, marks the beginning of the end of this overtly hostile phase of Jewish-Christian relations. After Hadrian succeeded in putting down the revolt he leveled and rebuilt Jerusalem (now called Aelia Capitolina) and forbade Jews from entering. One consequence was that many Jews increasingly isolated themselves from non-Jewish people and culture and heightened the social barriers between themselves and the rest of society. Thus there arose a sense of increasing distance between the two movements at a time when each was being more and more distracted by other pressing concerns, and the open hostility began to fade. The levels of suspicion and hostility remained high, however, and though individuals from each side might establish contact (Origen and Jerome would learn Hebrew from rabbinic instructors), Judaism and Christianity would not be on good terms for centuries to come.

Though less noticed at the time, the gradual closure of the synagogue to Christians also meant the loss of an important source of learned converts for the church. From this point on the intellectual focus of the church would shift increasingly toward the Greek philosophical tradition [emphasis mine] from which a growing percentage of the more intellectually inclined converts was being drawn. This laid the basis for a Jewish reform movement to eventually express its most fundamental tenets in terms drawn primarily from Greek philosophy.[1]

7 The full text can be found in C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 167; rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 211.

[1] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 6-8.

Richard Hooker & Tradition

Anglican theologian and parish pastor Richard Hooker (1554-1600) is credited with coming up with what is often called the three-legged stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Reason and Tradition. While these were not actually Hooker’s words, the idea certainly sprang from his writings. (This is often the case, by the way, another case in point is that William of Occam never actually said what is now known as Occam’s Razor…that was actually articulated from Occam’s body of work by Bertrand Russell, if memory serves….)

Hooker lived in the midst of great tensions pulling the English Church between the Puritans and the more High Church aspects of the Church of England. Hooker was a man ideally suited to write of seeking a via media (middle way) for he was a man of many high church associations married to a woman from a prominent Puritan family. His 8 volume magnum opus is Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, in which (among many other things) he argues that while justification is by faith it is not necessary for that to be understood nor even accepted in order to be saved.  This flew in the face of much of the anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric coming from the Puritans.

Of Law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world. All things in heaven and earth do her homage,—the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power. – Ecclesiastical Polity. Book i.

But, this is not what started this post…I appreciate Hooker for quite a few reasons, but it was something I read by J.I. Packer that got me to thinking about him again. The following quote explains well, why Hooker would point us toward tradition.

In the Old Testament we read how Isaac, forced to relocate his large household, “reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died” (Gen. 26:18). Isaac thus secured the water supply without which neither his family, nor his servants, nor his cattle, nor he himself, could have survived. He did not prospect for new wells in a water-divining quest that might or might not have succeeded, but he went straight to the old wells. He knew he would find water in them, once he had cleared them of the earth and debris that malevolent Philistines had piled on top of them.

Isaac’s action reflects two simple spiritual principles that apply here in a very direct way:

  1. The recovering of old truth, truth that has been a means of blessing in the past, can under God become the means of blessing again in the present, while the quest for newer alternatives may well prove barren.
  2. No one should be daunted from attempting such recovery by any prejudice, ill will, or unsympathetic attitudes that may have built up against the old truth during the time of its eclipse.

These are the principles whose guidance I follow in this book. No novelties will be found here. I shall draw, gratefully, from an older Christian wisdom.

J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life With God (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2009), p13.