Purpose:

The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Oct 18, 2018

Translation Issues in Hebrew: The Search for a Textbook (I'm open to suggestions!)

In our new translation-oriented Master of Arts here at BTS, my father and I have the privilege of teaching a new class this January: "Translation Issues in Greek and Hebrew." Both my father and I have been involved in Bible translation into Japanese, at one point my father was teaching Greek in Japanese to Japanese ministerial students, and I have recently been published in The Bible Translator (vol. 68.2). However, this is the first time we'll be co-teaching a class on translation (though my father has taught a basic "Introduction to Translation Theory" class).

This is not another advanced Greek or Hebrew exegesis class. Rather, the point of this class is to discuss how to translate the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into modern non-English languages, paying special attention to areas of debate within modern scholarship. 

For example, this class will discuss such topics as: "How would your perspective on verbal aspect theory impact how you translate 1 Peter into Japanese?" Or, "How would the discourse features of Psalm 67 best translate into Farsi?"

Herein lies the problem. So far as I have seen, no affordable textbook really accomplishes what my father and I wish to accomplish with this class. There are, of course, plenty of guides about translating Greek and Hebrew into English, but not much for the future missionary who wishes to translate into something other than English. A notable exception would be Toshikazu Foley's Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek which is definitely worth the price for the professor (I own it), but hardly affordable for the student! Also, it's much narrower in scope than we're looking for (since Foley focuses primarily on verbal aspect theory).

For his part (the Greek), my Dad borrowed my copy of Constantine Campbell's Advances in the Study of Greek, an excellent book that is definitely relevant to the topic but does not, of course, deal with the difficulties of translating Greek into a non-English language. Still, it's a start.

For my part, I am nearly at a loss. It's assumed my students will have had beginning Hebrew; they will be required to have both Pratico and Van Pelt's Basics of Biblical Hebrew and the very handy Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax by Arnold and Choi; also, our library has Gesenius and Waltke/O'Connor.  However, English books specializing in translating Hebrew into non-English languages are hard to come by. Also, I am unaware of any Hebrew equivalent to Campbells' excellent book (i.e., something like Advances in the Study of Hebrew; actually, I just did a search on Amazon and there is an Advances in Biblical Hebrew Linguistics, published in 2017 by Eisenbrauns; does anybody know anything about this book?).

I am open to suggestions
To be clear, I am not looking for a book on translation theory (we have plenty of those), nor a book on translating Hebrew into English, but rather a book dealing with the issues that come from attempting to translate Hebrew into various non-English languages.

So far the best I have found is a book from the Dutch perspective (albeit in English) entitled Bible Translation on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Athalya Brenner and Jan Willem van Henten. It's affordable, and many of the essays in it are very relevant to what I envision the class being about. The fact that it's from a non-American perspective is also very helpful.

I will probably require that book, and supplement it with some select articles from The Bible Translator and, perhaps, SIL's Journal of Translation. In addition, I am probably going to allow them to choose a language of their choice, acquire a basic grammar on that language, and utilize that in writing an essay on something like "Translating Ruth into [language of choice]: Issues and Potential Pitfalls."

I am definitely looking forward to the class. I have become the default Hebrew teacher at my (small) seminary, even though my area of expertise is Greek (my doktorvater was David Alan Black). In order to push myself, I am going to begin translating some of the Psalms (and probably some parts of Genesis) into Japanese from Hebrew, something I've never done before. 'Twill be a busy Christmas break!

Sep 29, 2018

Three academic journal articles that have changed the way I think about a Bible passage

Yesterday a colleague and I led a "writer's workshop" for our college students. One thing I emphasized is the need to study scholarly sources to truly be able to claim to have given "due diligence" to a topic. To a certain degree, peer-reviewed journal articles represent the pinnacle of scholarship. They (along with key monographs) are the "movers-and-shakers" of the scholarly world, often leading to changes in how people approach a biblical or theological topic (of course, this only applies to a small percentage of top articles overall).

In light of that, I'd like to introduce my readers to three articles that actually changed the way I think about a Bible passage.

1. Travis Williams, "The Divinity and Humanity of Caesar in 1 Peter 2,13" ZNW 105.1 (2014): 131-147.
If John H. Elliott is the Michael Jordan of 1 Peter studies, and Karen Jobes is the LeBron James, then Travis Williams is the Stephen Curry (and yes, that may be one of the weirdest things you'll ever read on a Bible blog; don't try such analogies at home, I'm a professional academic).

What I mean is that Williams is still in the relative early part of his career, and yet has already produced two significant monographs on 1 Peter, as well as numerous articles. He's currently working on the new ICC commentary on 1 Peter with British scholar David Horrell (this, so far as I know, will be the next big English-language commentary on 1 Peter).

So how did this particular article change the way I think? First, it convinced me (thoroughly; I did my own research that backed up what Williams was saying) that in 1 Peter 2:13, "every ordinance of man" (Greek: anthropinh ktisis) is not speaking of the institution of government per se, but the actual person ruling (in this case obviously the emperor: "as supreme. . ."). Thus a better translation would be "every created human" (with context making it clear we are referring to leaders: first the emperor, then governors).

Secondly, and this is key, Williams convinced me that that very phrase "every created human" in reference to the emperor was a jab against the imperial cult; to focus on the emperor as a created being places Christians in opposition to the imperial cult, which worshiped the emperor as (more-or-less) divine.
From my own practical perspective, I see this as pointing to the clear difference between "respect" (or "honor") on the one hand (which leads to obedience so long as it does not conflict with Christian allegiance to Jesus Christ) and reverence, on the other hand, which should never be offered to any man other than Jesus Christ.

2. Aaron Michael Jensen, "The Appearance of Leah," Vetus Testament 68.3 (2018): 514-18.
Jensen is an acquaintance of mine, having met him briefly at a regional ETS. I have always enjoyed teaching the story of Leah in my class "Hebrew History" because it shows that God exalts the humble but abases the proud, that God cares for the one who is despised. However, Jensen has convinced me of the precise meaning of Gen 29:17. He notes how the term "eyes" can actually refer to the appearance of somebody in Hebrew. Consequently Genesis 29:17 is not saying that Leah needed glasses, but rather that she looked frail.

Jensen does an excellent job of noting the irony here. In the eyes of humans, Leah looked frail (i.e., too thin, ironic in light of today's obsession with thinness) and thus unfit for child-bearing. Yet God ironically favors Leah, who bears more children than Rachel.

I have incorporated Jensen's observations into my notes (citing him appropriately, of course) and will mention his work in my lecture. This is an excellent example of how good scholarship can reinforce a key theological truth: God delights to bless the underdog and humble the proud (also, "man looks on the outward 
appearance . . .")

3. Michael W. Andrews, "The Sign of Jonah: Jesus in the Heart of the Earth," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61.1 (2018): 105-119.
I have felt for a long time now that Jesus died on a Friday (not Thursday) and rose again on a Sunday, which in my opinion is the best way to make sense of "the third day" (not "three days later"). However, the best argument (actually, I would suggest the only good argument) for the "Thursday" view is Jesus' link of His death and resurrection with the "sign of Jonah," which involves "three days and three nights," not as easily reconcilable with a Friday death (though many argue for a Hebrew idiom here; there does seem to be some OT lexical support for this, that "three days and three nights" can sometimes mean "parts of three days").

Andrews argues, however, that Jesus is portraying the "three days and three nights" as beginning His "descent to the underworld" (so to speak), which in essence begins with the Garden of Gethsemane, not His death on the cross (remember, Jonah did not die in the belly of the whale, so the analogy of "Jesus compared to Jonah" is not a perfect mirror either way). His thesis has convinced me, and also conveniently eliminates what I've always felt was the only good argument the Thursday view had going for it.

The article is a bit technical, and deals with a lot of theological themes, and the overall point is not to prove that Jesus died on a Friday. Still, I think that's a corollary effect.

In my opinion, the chronology of Jesus' death and resurrection works better as: Jesus died Friday afternoon (day 1), spent all day in the tomb on day 2 (which began Friday evening and went until Saturday evening), and was raised the morning of day 3 (Sunday;  remember, in all such calculations, the Jewish day began at nightfall). If Jesus died on Thursday, then Thursday is day 1, Friday is day 2, Saturday is day 3, and Sunday would be day 4. The text says "the third day, not "three days later" or "72 hours later."

Honorable mention: Dieter Böhler, "Liebe and Freundschaft im Johannesevangelium. Zum alttestamentlichen Hintergrund von John 21, 15-19," Biblica 96.3 (2015). (In English: "Love and Friendship in the Gospel of John. On the Old Testament background of John 21:15-19").
Now, Böhler did not convince me of his main point regarding the difference between agapaw and philew in John 21:15-17. What he did point me to, however, was the Ezekiel 34 background of this passage, and the "good shepherd" vs. "bad shepherd" motif; I'd never thought of this before. If you read Ezekiel 34, and then read John 21:15-17 in concert with it, this opens up a wealth of application here, especially for pastors: "don't be a bad shepherd, be a Christ-like shepherd!"

Sep 13, 2018

Introducing the Solid Rock Greek new Testament (ed. McCollum and Brown)

I am excited to draw your attention to a new type of Greek New Testament, The Solid Rock Greek New Testament (see here for purchase on Amazon, and here for Logos pre-pub). The editors are James J. McCollum (who introduced this at the recent Bible Faculty Summit) and Stephen L. Brown.

The basic premise of this edition of the Greek New Testament is, in a nutshell, a Byzantine-based Greek Bible (close to, but not identical with Robinson/Pierpont 2005) that compares the readings to other critical Greek editions. In other words, the Solid Rock Greek New Testament (which we'll call the SRGNT) is to the Byzantine text what the new SBL GNT is to the eclectic text. In McCollum's own words (from his presentation at the BFS), the SRGNT
"Was developed with the purpose of offering a comparative overview of prominent NT editions . . . . Because it does not collate the readings of individual manuscripts directly, it is not a critical edition in the strict sense. Rather, it is a digest of other critical editions intended to give pastors, translators, and researchers a compact and accessible snapshot of trends in scholarly opinion over the last few centuries."

In other words, the SRGNT gives you the Byzantine text, but then notes where other Greek New Testament editions differ, specifically:
1. Robinson-Pierpont's Byzantine
2. Pickering's f35
3. Stephanus' 1550 edition of Erasmus' Textus Receptus (to be clear, the TR is, in a sense, a "critical text" because it was not based on one manuscript but multiple manuscripts and Erasmus had to make choices between them when they disagreed)
4. Tyndale House's corrected edition of Tregelles's Greek NT
5. Westcott and Hort's Greek NT
6-8. Nestle-Aland 25th, 27th, and 28th edition.
9-10. The Greek text behind the 1973 and 2011 versions of the NIV (which is not technically identical to any one Greek NT, though similar to the Nestle-Aland)
11. The SBL Greek New Testament
12. For (some) Pauline epistles only, the Greek text assumed by John Eadie's commentaries.
13. For Galatians only, the Greek text assumed by Stephen C. Carlson.
14. For Philemon only, the Greek text argued for by Matthew Solomon in his recent dissertation at NOBTS.
15. For Jude only, the work by Tommy Wasserman in The Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission. [Though fairly recent, I get the impression that this is now considered the definitive work on textual criticism in Jude, and Wasserman has definitely established himself as a tier-1 textual critic].
So, in regards to those 15 different Greek texts, the SRGNT includes the variants where any of them might disagree with the base text of the SRGNT itself.

The only significant omission here is the Hodges-Farstad The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text. Besides Hodges-Farstad, I cannot think of any other edition of the Greek New Testament that really matters at this point for actually figuring out what the Apostles originally wrote, so McCollum and Brown have almost covered all the bases! (And Hodges-Farstad would probably not have too many variants that were not reflected somewhere in the other editions McCollum and Brown compare with their text).

As a Byzantine priority guy myself, I'm excited to see an edition of the Byzantine Greek New Testament that nonetheless provides the differences between it and [almost] all the other major Greek texts out there, including the TR. Furthermore, if the reader will permit some theological speculation on the nature of preservation, because of the scope of material it covers as a result of being a "comparative-critical edition of critical editions," so to speak, based on the Byzantine text, I will tentatively suggest that (at least from my perspective) the SRGNT has a higher probability of having preserved all the original words of the apostles somewhere in its text than any other version/edition in existence (let alone any single ancient mss)! If a variant reading does not occur somewhere in the text or apparatus of the SRGNT, then it probably isn't worth considering as legit, no matter what your views on preservation.

I ordered my copy of the SRGNT today, and I'm excited about the possibilities of utilizing this text in my seminary "Introduction to Greek Exegesis" course. I already have my students read my Doktorvater David Alan Black's New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide, and the SRGNT would potentially add to their understanding of the practical ramifications of textual criticism along with that.

Aug 31, 2018

Bible Faculty Summit 2018 papers

Many thanks to Bob Jones University and their faculty and staff for hosting this year's Bible Faculty Summit, and to Drs. Mark Ward Jr. and Jeff Straub for generally directing the summit. This year, I believe, had a record number of papers, and for the first time ever we had to offer "split tracks" where in a couple cases one had to choose which paper to attend.
In addition, Mark Ward, Brian Collins, and myself formed a "publishing committee" whose purpose was to offer assistance and encouragement to paper presenters (especially the younger ones) who were looking to do something more with their papers.

 The papers were:
1. Ted Miller on "Idolatry and the Church: Towards an Old Paradigm for Describing How Christians Relate to Pagan Culture," which included a definition of "culture" and an in-depth discussion of 1 Corinthians  8-10 and its relevance for this theological topic.
2. Greg Stiekes on "No Peace without Victory: J. Gresham Machen's Non-Calvinistic Epistemology in Christianity and Liberalism," which included a discussion of where Machen fit on the spectrum of "fundamentalist," "evangelical," and "modernist."
3. Christopher Cone on "The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Role of Extra-Biblical Resources in Transformational Learning," which discussed various perspectives in Christianity towards tradition, etc.
4. Ryan Martin on "Jonathan Edward's Early Psychology." For the record, Martin's revised doctoral dissertation is being published with a tier-1 publisher (T&T Clark) as Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercise of Love."
5. Phil Brown's balanced review, "A Biblical-Theological Critique of Michael Allen's Sanctification."
6. Andrew Minnick on "Sonship and Resurrection," where he notes how Jesus' resurrection is the "culmination" of "Christ's reclamation of Adamic sonship."
7. Layton Talbert on "Interpreting the New Covenant in Light of its Multiplexity, Multitextuality, and Ethnospecificity."
8. Joey McCollum on "The Solid Rock Greek New Testament" (more on this one in a future post, b/c I'm excited about the possibilities).
9. Mark Sidwell on "The Riddle of Seventh-day Adventism" (specifically whether they should be considered a denomination, a cult, or something in between; while suggesting that they should probably not be labored a "cult" per se, Sidwell does express some serious reservations about the implications of their theology, especially the more traditional aspects of their doctrine and links to Ellen White's work. Interestingly, if I recall a couple decades ago the Evangelical Theological Society had commissioned a study on this very topic).
10. Timothy Hughes on the "Fallacy of the Excluded Middle: Reassessing the Category of 'Deponency' to Reclaim the Middle Voice in NT Greek" (the paper and subsequent discussion dealt with pedagogical aspects of this topic, as well).
11. Richard Winston, "'Love Your Neighbor as Yourself': Paul's Appeal to the Moral Law in Galatians" (Winston grapples with a Pauline theology of the Law, including Paul's perspective on a "moral Law").
12. Troy Manning on "What Languages Did Jesus Speak?"
13. Paul Himes (that's me!) on "Grafting in the Original Branches: Rethinking the Purpose of a Pretribulational Rapture in Light of a Biblical Theology of Israel" (I argue that rather than seeing the rapture as simply the means that the church escaping divine wrath, or as some sort of reward (as some argue from Rev 3:10), it makes more sense to see the Rapture as removing the church out of the way so that God can utilize Israel to complete her original vocation, reaching the nations).
14. Scott Aniol, "'That They May Be One': Conservatism, Cooperation, and the Center of Christian Unity" (includes a discussion of the theological implications of culture).
15. Jeff Straub on "Thomas Todhunter Shields (1873-1955): 'The Canadian Spurgeon'" (examines why, exactly, T. T. Shields was often compared to C. H. Spurgeon, and how valid the comparison was. Dr. Straub has specialized on the life and work of Shields and has often had the opportunity to research the Shields archives in Canada).
16. Stephen J. Hankins, "Matters of Conscience: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Observations on the Use of Syneidesis in the Greek New Testament and Some Ministry Implications" (a fairly in-depth study that includes a discussion of the Greek term syneidesis).
17. Mark Bruffey, "The Influence of Universalism on Finney's View of the Atonement" (interestingly, Bruffey points out how Finney rejected the doctrine of imputation in dialogue with universalism; to me, this indicates how sometimes bad theology can occasionally come about in response to bad theology!)
18. Brian Wagner, "The Perspicuity of Scripture: Rehearing the Testimony from Christian History of Those Who Held to the View as Foundational to Their Evangelical Hermeneutic."

Aug 15, 2018

What, then, is "Fundamentalism"? An introductory treatment of the topic.

Somewhat irked by the ease at which people can throw out labels on the internet without accountability, I recently wrote a post entitled "What, then, is a cult?" After reiterating the key scholarly aphorism "Always describe somebody else's position in such a way that they would say that you have described them fairly" (which sounds awfully familiar to Jesus' Golden Rule!), I would like to now post on "fundamentalism."

[Full disclosure: I'm hardly an impartial historian, of course, since my great-grandfather was John R. Rice, and I think rather highly of him, without agreeing with everything he ever wrote]

For some, a Christian fundamentalist is "an evangelical who is mad at something." For others, it is automatically synonymous with KJV-only-ism (there are three levels of this belief: 1. by definition: "the KJV is the only English Bible that should be used"; 2. in extreme form: "the KJV is inspired and inerrant"; 3. in apostate form, "the KJV is the only Bible through which one can get saved"). Consequently, for many people "fundamentalist/fundamentalism" is a derogatory term that is simply slung out there as an insult or completely misunderstood. I recently saw a comment posted on a well-known evangelical theologian's blog suggesting that "fundamentalists" are not even real Christians [ironically, that comment is itself somewhat "fundamentalist"-sounding!].

My purpose here, as a self-identifying moderate fundamentalist belonging to a very conservative fundamentalist church (that, I might add, is doing some great things in pursuing the Great Commission), is to offer the beginnings of a theological definition (as opposed to a sociological definition) and then to point you, dear reader, to some key sources for understanding fundamentalism.

First, fundamentalism is, at its core, a historical reaction to modernism. Consequently one of the best places to start is by  reading The Fundamentals, published between 1910-15, consisting of 90 essays on theological topics written by some of the brighter conservative minds of the day, as well as some of the more eccentric conservative minds of the day. Examples include James Orr on the Virgin Birth, B. B. Warfield on the Deity of Christ, R. A. Torrey on the Holy Spirit, James Orr again on Science and Christian Faith, and W. H. Griffith Thomas on "Old Testament Criticism and New Testament Christianity."

Back in those days, at the origins of modern fundamentalism, the denominational barriers were not quite as strong; today, most self-identifying fundamentalists (at least in North America) are independent Baptist with occasional Methodists and Presbyterians (and contra the general perception of the media, I do not believe the majority of Southern Baptists would consider themselves fundamentalist, though theologically we are often very close).

Initially, fundamentalism and broader evangelicalism were more united in their opposition to modernism. Occasionally the two terms were synonymous; indeed, notable fundamentalists such as John R. Rice and Bob Jones were both involved in the National Association of Evangelicals (my own research in the Wheaton archives reveals the point at which Bob Jones began his split from the NAE). Historically, however, the split between evangelicalism and fundamentalism could probably be characterized as revolving around the inclusive direction Billy Graham began to take with who could participate (as Christian ministers) in his evangelistic revivals [Billy Graham, by the way, was mentored in his early years by John R. Rice]. The final breaking point was the 1957 New York crusade in which Graham partnered with modernist churches; from that point Graham would often allow non-evangelicals, even liberals, to participate in the ministry (as opposed to mere attendance) of the crusades.

This, then, leads us to two key theological points in defining modern fundamentalism:
1. A heavy emphasis on regenerate church membership and fellowship only with other churches that consist (as much as can be discerned) of regenerate membership. 
2. A refusal to ally with modernists in the work of the church. In other words, a doxological focus trumps even evangelism ( the integrity of the Gospel must not be compromised, even in evangelism). The thoughtful fundamentalist views Billy Graham as essentially Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 19:1-3, a great man who nonetheless compromised by making tragic alliances with those who are enemies of God (to be clear, somebody who denies the deity of Jesus or a literal resurrection is an enemy of God).
The above two points more-or-less characterize what we mean by the term "ecclesiastical separation."
3. A corollary to the above two points will generally be a heavy emphasis on avoiding worldliness in matters of culture (including music). This would often be the biggest difference between an Independent Baptist church and a Southern Baptist church: they might be identical in theology, but the Southern Baptist church is more likely to have a drum set and sing CCM songs. 
Some forms of fundamentalism (but not all) would also see modern Bible versions as a sign of worldliness; KJV-onlyism, however, should not be taken as an important aspect of fundamentalism (my own unverified "guestimate" is that even within fundamentalism KJV-only churches are in the minority; the majority of fundamentalist churches such as my own probably still use the KJV, and may consider it the best, but do not consider it to be the only legitimate English translation).

Now, for a theological case for their position by modern Baptist fundamentalists themselves, I recommend the following books:
1. Fred Moritz, Contending for the Faith
2. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism.
3. Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation
4. Larry Oats, The Church of the Fundamentalists: An Examination of Ecclesiastical Separation in the Twentieth Century
5. Kevin Bauder and Robert Delnay, One in Hope and Doctrine: Origins of Baptist Fundamentalism 1870-1950 (note: this is a historical discussion with a fairly narrow focus; for a theological treatment, read Dr. Bauder's essay defending fundamentalism in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism.
6. Douglas R. McLachlan and Les Ollila, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism.

Finally, for what is in my (limited) opinion the best "outsider" perspective on fundamentalism, see George M. Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.

The word "fundamentalism" has a rich, fascinating, and occasionally sad history as a descriptor of a particular facet of Christianity. For those that wish to critique our position, I suggest pursuing a fair definition of the term and reading at least some of the above sources first, as opposed to simply perusing the "comments" section in a blog or Facebook forum and repeating what you hear.

Jul 28, 2018

What, then, is a "Cult"?

This coming week I have the privilege of attending and presenting a paper at the "Bible Faculty Summit," which consists of self-identifying Christian Fundamentalists (broadly defined). We represent a wide array of schools including my own Baptist College of Ministry, Bob Jones University (which is technically nondenominational, and this year's host), Maranatha Baptist University, various independent Baptist schools (though radical [emphasis on "radical"] KJV-only types are not attracted to our Summit), and even one Methodist school in Ohio.

It occurred to me, while perusing theological blogs, that many people misuse both the term "fundamentalist" and "cult." Those that may have once attended a fundamentalist church (or gone to a fundamentalist school) may have reacted strongly against it and labeled it a "cult." Conversely, many people think that fundamentalist Christians are somehow the evangelical counterpart to ISIS, minus the suicide bombers. Recently I saw a comment on a well-known theologians' blog suggest that fundamentalists are not even real Christians (ironically, the comment itself imitates some of the very people it tries to attack!). Elsewhere online I've seen the suggestion that fundamentalists are miserable, joyless people (all because a young child tried to offer this particular person a Gospel tract!).

An extremely important axiom exists in scholarly circles: "Always describe somebody's position in such a way that, if they heard you describe it, they would agree that you have understood it properly." I believe this resonates strongly with NT teaching which warns against slander (Gr. blasphemeō), e.g., Titus 3:2 (not to mention one of the 10 commandments!). 

Consequently, when critiquing fundamentalism, one should make sure they can define it properly and represent its views in such a way that a reasonable fundamentalist would agree they "get it." When accusing somebody (a church or a school) of being a cult or "cult-like," one must be able to give a definition of this and offer verifiable proof ("before 2 or three witnesses . . .") This is something of a personable matter, since my own church has been accused of this by the disgruntled; we are talking about the internet, of course, where everybody can be accused of anything—I'm sure somewhere online Mr. Rodgers has been accused of being the antichrist! (and, in all fairness, fundamentalists of quite a different stripe than myself often, on their websites, basically declare with vitriol that  Brooke Westcott was the reincarnation of Attila the Hun and responsible for more damage done to the church than anybody since the Emperor Diocletion.

This post I will be focusing on the definition of "cult" and its misuse. Next post I will do the same for "fundamentalism."

What, then, is a "cult"? (Yes, there is a point to this post and I'm getting to it!) First, notwithstanding the many disgruntled people who leave fundamentalist churches and immediately start venting online, let me suggest what a cult is not.

1. "Strong leadership" does not make a church a cult. 
Let me repeat: simply because a pastor has a lot of responsibility and a lot of influence and generally runs the show does not make his church a "cult." We are not talking about radical authoritarianism here, where any dissenting note in a business meeting results in somebody being kicked out of the church. However, simply because "the buck stops here" accurately describes the head pastor of a church, that does not make him a cult leader--at least not until he starts making the congregation drink cool-aid or keeps referring to the "Mothership" that will come to pick them all up right after the next blood moon eclipse.

I acknowledge that much debate exists about church structure and hierarchy, or even about how much authority a pastor may have. This is not the place to get into that here. I do believe in a form of congregational government, but I also believe that pastors are by their very nature leaders (though as Jesus taught, servant-leaders), and leaders make decisions, and sometimes those decisions will not be popular with everybody. One may disagree with decisions made, but this does not make your church a "cult."

Now, I am not saying that there have never been Christian leaders (both fundamentalist and broader evangelical) who were "cult-like." One pastor (years dead) once attempted to have the missionaries his church supported sign what was essentially a "pledge of loyalty" to him and his ministry. To his eternal credit, my father refused to sign. (This particular pastor also, right after my father had finished preaching at his church, told my father, "Now you're going to hear some real preaching").  However, I suspect this is not limited to fundamentalism, anyways. My point is: a pastor who wields a lot of authority is not necessarily cult-like, until it gets to the point where he has the power to physically prevent people from leaving.

2. Stricter standards do not make a church a cult.
Once again, I do not deny that legalism can be in issue in some fundamentalist churches (as Jesus defined it in Matthew 15:9b). Yet simply because a church has certain requirements for ministry (i.e., every preacher wearing a tie) does not make it a cult (otherwise the Apostle Paul was a cult leader! See 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). Everybody has standards of some kind, and your standards will always be both stricter and less strict than somebody else's. Now, how those standards are enforced may or may not be "cultic," but that's a different matter altogether.

Consider the Didache, one of the earliest non-canonical church documents and very influential in the early church. In chapter 7, this document states, "But before the baptism, let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before." (Trans. M. B. Riddle).

Wow! Fasting for one or two days! What a strict standard! But, does this make the authors of the Didache cultists? Hardly.

Now on to an actual definition (albeit one that could be improved on, I believe). Here's a good place to start:
 = "A relatively small, often transitory religious group that commonly follows a radical leader. A cult, unlike a "sect," espouses radically new religious beliefs and practices that are frequently seen as threatening the basic values and cultural norms of society at large. . . . The three dynamics of a cult are sociological, psychological (behavioral), and theological." s.v. "Cult," page 86 in Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, ed. George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993). [I hasten to add: every church will have its own theological quirks; what we're talking about with "radically new religious beliefs" are those that, essentially, originate with the group itself].

Let’s focus on that phrase “radical leader.” This is not simply “that pastor” that you don’t like because he turned down your idea for a Cappuccino Bar in the foyer, or because you don’t always agree with his preaching, or because things generally get done his way. Rather, the key word is “narcissism.” Former FBI agent Joe Navarro, in a fascinating study for Psychology Today, has examined famous (and diabolical) cult leaders such as Marshall Heff Applewhit, David Koresh, etc. He states, “They were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. The demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged.”


This is a helpful summary, and I suggest it is radically different from what most people have really experienced in a church when they refer to a church as “cultic.” Once again, this is not to deny that there are “bad apples” out there. My point is simply that words like “cult” and “cultic” are thrown around too carelessly simply because somebody has had a bad experience.

I am grateful that in all three fundamentalist, independent Baptist churches I have been a member of in the US, the leadership has always exhibited humility and kindness, two features which you will not find in a cult leader. This does not mean that no Baptist preacher has ever exhibited "cult-like" tendencies; my point is simply that those venting on the internet need to be more careful with terminology; simply because you had a bad experience (by your definition) at a church does not make it a cult. Finally, to those who are always looking for an excuse to jump on the bandwagon and call another church a "cult" (if it does not meet whatever theological-ecclesiological criteria you have, which of course is the standard for all of Christianity [note: that's sarcasm]), remember, there's always another side to the story.

Jul 5, 2018

Didaktikos: A New Journal for Bible and Theology Teachers

[Normally I try not to make my blog sound like advertising, but since Didaktikos is a great resource for those interested in making a career out of theological studies, I figured it's worth mentioning]

For all full-time and part-time teachers out there, broadly connected with biblical and theological studies, I'd like to make you aware of the brand-new journal, Didaktikos. Billing itself as a "journal of theological education," Didaktikos is packed full with insightful articles on such topics as teaching bible and theology, what it means to be a theology teacher, developing future Christian leaders, etc. The editor is Douglas Estes, who plays an important role at Logos (Faithlife/Lexham press). Many of those featured in Didaktikos, as well as those on the editorial board, are all-stars in their field, including Karen H. Jobes, Grant Osborne, Mark L. Strauss, Edith M. Humphrey, and Darrell Bock.

The best news is, the journal is free to professors! Simply sign up for Logos' "Academic Status," which is free in of itself and includes a discount to Logos products and a free subscription to Didaktikos.

The journal began last year; the latest issue includes such articles as "Teaching and Virtue" (Douglas Estes), "Cultivating Leaders in the Arab World" (Elie Haddad), and "Explore New Avenues for Popular-Level Publishing" (Chad Hall). In addition, this issue features a segment on "Currents: Trajectories in Theological Education," while the main feature is an interview with Edith M. Humphrey (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) on "The Professing Life."

On a side note, Didaktikos is published by Faithlife, which runs Logos Bible Software. Since BibleWorks is sadly going out of business, both Logos and Accordance are offering "cross-over" packages to help those who own BibleWorks. This also means that instead of the "Big Three" of Bible software, we now have the "Big Two" (both of which have their strengths--I use both!)

Jun 22, 2018

Reflections on having taught "Reading and Syntax in the Prison Epistles"

This past Spring semester I had the privilege of teaching a graduate-level class, "Reading and Syntax of the Prison Epistles" (NT 531), for the first time at Baptist Theological Seminary (Menomonee Falls, WI). The prerequisite for the class was 5 semesters of Greek (including grad-level "Introduction to NT Exegesis").

For this class, I tried something different. Although my lectures covered all four books, each student was required to choose their own "track," the options being (1.) Ephesians, (2.) Philippians + Philemon, or (3.) Colossians + Philemon (the latter two options are about equal in length to the first five chapters of Ephesians). The "track" they choose to focus on determined:
1. The textbooks they would purchase
2. Their research paper (which culminated in a sermon outline and in-class presentation).
3. Their final exam (customized for each track)
4. Their article review (each student had to analyze an academic journal article by a scholar and present its pros and cons in class). 

For the required reading for Ephesians and Philippians, I had a general idea of what they should be interacting with, but for Colossians I initially had no clue. I am pleased to report, however, that David Pao's "Zondervan Exegetical Commentary" on Colossians is excellent, at the exegetical, theological, and practical level (I have noted in a previous post that this commentary even mentions the 1950 Wheaten Student Revival).

The required, main textbooks were:
1. For those on the Ephesians track: 
(a.) Harold Hoehner's stand-alone commentary (still the standard!) and 
(b.) Clinton Arnold's Zondervan Exegetical Commentary. 
2. For those on the Philippians track:
(a.) Gordon Fee's NICNT
(b.) The revised WBC by Hawthorne and Martin (2nd ed.; it was initially just Hawthorne's). I generally am not a fan of the WBC format or content (though Mounce on the Pastorals is one of the best), but I had heard good things about this particular commentary.
3. For Colossians (both of these commentaries also covered Philemon):
(a.) David Pao's Zondervan Exegetical Commentary
(b.) Douglas Moo's Pillar NT Commentary

In addition, there was plenty of supplemental reading required (to balance things out, I had the "Philippians" group read the "Philemon" section in N. T. Wright's small Tyndale commentary of  Colossians and Philemon).

Now, a couple random thoughts on the content of the class:
1. Gordon Fee's NICNT on Philippians remains, in my humble-but-opinionated-opinion, one of the greatest commentaries ever written. His treatment of Phil 2:1-11 is masterful.
2. Speaking of which, I had no idea until relatively recently just how significant the intertextuality of Phil 2:9-11 is, and the deeper sense it adds to Paul's message (here's a hint to get you started, dear reader: read Isaiah 45:23-24, preferably in the LXX if you are able to). Also, "All praise to Thee for Thou O King Divine" (Tucker) is a really, really cool song based off of this passage.
3. "Cosmic" is a key word when it comes to all the Prison Epistles. We should embrace it! The Jesus Christ of Paul's Prison Epistles does not wield authority only in the hearts of believers, or even on this earth, but over the entire Cosmos!
4. Gordon Fee's article "To What End Exegesis" is a great article to read to get started in this kind of class (all my students had to read it by the first day of class). It can be accessed here.
5. Markus Barth has some excellent material in his Anchor Bible commentary (all those on the Ephesians track had to read 50 pages from this). His discussion on Ephesians 5:25f is excellent. [Markus Barth is a much more profitable and edifying read than his father, in my humble-but-opinionated opinion, though with that radical statement I become an outcast to mainstream theological scholarship :) ]
6. The Greek "Skubala" is not a vulgarity, though it can certainly be a word with "shock value." Josephus uses the word about how you'd expect as the equivalent of simply "manure" or "excrement" (e.g., War 5.571) not in contexts where it would make sense as a vulgarity. So Paul in Phil 3:8 is not being "edgy", though he is certainly being "shocking."
7. Philippians 3:11-16 is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult passages to exegete in all of the prison epistles, though Col 1:24 comes in a close second.
8.This was really my first exposure at any level to an in-depth study of Colossians. I've come to the conclusion that the heretics Paul was opposing in the Epistle to the Colossians is probably some kind of a syncretic Torah-centric mysticism with elements of pagan mythology added [more-or-less; it's complicated!].
9. I shall end with this great quote from Scot McKnight's new NICNT (an occasionally helpful commentary, but not one I would use as a textbook; Pao's is much better, imo, but McKnight has some great quotes):
For McKnight, Colossians is about "Vision for the cosmos with Christ at center." Amen!

May 31, 2018

Humpty Dumpty and Biblical Interpretation

I have the privilege of teaching my favorite class, "Hermeneutics," twice a year (Spring and Summer School). Hermeneutics is, in a nutshell, "how one should handle the Bible." Quite often I feel that the question of "good" vs. "bad" hermeneutics is a matter of who is the master, the preacher or the inspired text (for Christians, the answer should be the latter!). To illustrate, I'd like to quote a famous section on lexical semantics (tongue-in-cheek!) from Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking Glass:
Humpty Dumpty:
"As I was saying, that seems to be done right--though I haven't time to look it over thoroughly just now--and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--"
"Certainly," said Alice.
"And only one day for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you."
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant, 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

The problem, of course, is that Humpty basically exalted himself above language, believing that he can "force" a meaning onto a word regardless of whether or not anybody else can or should recognize such a meaning.

The same problem occurs in preaching. Let me use Jesus' "Parable of the Good Samaritan" as an example (Luke 10:25-37).
Twice in my life I have heard bizarre takes on this parable, preached from a pulpit. The first case was the classic allegorical interpretation à la Augustine, where Jesus is the Good Samaritan, the victim is "everyman," the Levite is "organized religion," etc.

The second occurrence was more bizarre. The preacher said at the beginning, "Now I'm going to give you a new twist on this" (at which point I believe I literally put my head in my hands in despair), and then proceeded to give us an allegory on Christian sanctification where "Jerusalem" is the "spiritual Christian life," "Jericho" was "worldliness," or something along those lines (it got a bit blurry at that point; my memory is probably subconsciously suppressing the details).

Now, what's the problem with those two perspectives? The same problem as Humpty Dumpty had. Why? Because they were forcing their own meaning onto the text. They were declaring themselves the master, rather than the Spirit-inspired Word. This is clear when one considers that Jesus Himself has already given us the "point" and "application" of the parable (read Luke 10:36-37; dear reader, may we keep reading it until we get the point, then may we follow Jesus' command).

When preaching takes liberties with the text in such a manner, the result is an interpretation that comes not from the Word itself but from the preacher's rich and fertile imagination. Now, imagination is a good thing when it helps the preacher illustrate or contextualize the text, but not when it helps him come up with alternative meanings (I find it highly ironic that many very conservative preachers are basically post-modern in their approach to Scripture: "Here's what it means to me!")

One of the keys to proper hermeneutics, then, is something called "Reproducibility." I am drawing here from a fascinating blog post by Philip B. Stark on the Nature magazine website.
Stark states, "Science should be 'show me,' not 'trust me.'" I would say the same for hermeneutics. Every preacher should be able to demonstrate what a text means by methods that are, in theory, all available to his audience (even drawing on the original languages is, in theory, a reproducible piece of evidence; anybody can, with the right tools, check your claim that "this present tense verb implies this," or "this Greek word was used by the Greek OT to signify . . ." etc. ). In other words, a preacher should never have to say "trust me, this is what the text means, you're too unimaginative to check it out for yourself" (after all, remember what made the Berean Christians "more noble"? [Acts 17:11])

Consequently, if there's no way anybody in a preacher's audience could have possibly come up with that particular interpretation, despite having the same tools, then that preacher may in fact be preaching an invalid message, saying "thus saith the Lord, when the Lord hath not spoken" (Ezek 22:28). In other words, the fertile depths of one's own imagination is not where proper interpretation resides.

Let me demonstrate. Many interpreters have enjoyed reading Revelation 2-3 as representing different "eras" in church history, despite the fact that no evidence exists in the words of Rev 2-3 to indicate this (indeed, it's overly anglo-centric, as well; seeing Laodicea as the current era minimizes the suffering and poverty of genuine believers in China, India, etc.). Yet why stop there? How many potential interpretations can you, dear reader, force on those 7 churches (after all, you are the master of the text, are you not?) Here's a list to warm you up:
1. Seven types of church music (not original with me, sadly, though the next four are)
2. Seven types of Bible versions (your least favorite can be Laodicea! However, we are not starting a flame war about Bible translations on this blog)
3. Seven types of church youth group activities.
4. Seven types of Christian marriages (adds new meaning to "you have lost your first love . . .")
5. Seven types of Christian bloggers (feel free to link me to whichever "church" you feel appropriately describes this blog)

Where's the limit? Eventually, I hope, we would all get tired of this game and go back to the "radical" thought that each church was a literal church at the end of the 1st century, and that Jesus' message to each of them holds promises and warnings for all of us, no matter what era. Then we might begin to pay attention to what Jesus is actually saying (which would involve not ignoring verse 17 next time we preach on Laodicea).

This blog post has been something of an over-simplification, of course. It has not dealt with legitimate questions regarding the difference between "meaning" and "significance," the possibility of occasional "double-meaning" or "double-prophecy," proper contemporary application,  etc. But I trust I've made my point. If the meaning  somebody pulls out of the text could not have been arrived at by the audience (especially the original audience) through careful study, that meaning has more to do with one's imagination than with what the Holy Spirit intended.

For the interested reader, the (quite excellent) textbooks I use for my hermeneutics class are:
1. Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays,
2. Scripture Twisting by Sire