Class, Week 5: When Did the Early Church Become the Catholic Church?

Growing up in a tradition that sought to emulate the so-called “New Testament church,” I never thought to ask a couple of questions that seem relevant:

  1. What did the New Testament church actually practice?
  2. When did the New Testament church stop being the New Testament church?

These questions seem really basic, but the answers are quite complicated. The answers are assumed to be:

  1. What the New Testament says they practiced
  2. When it stopped doing what the New Testament described

Here’s the problem with both of those answers: Continue reading Class, Week 5: When Did the Early Church Become the Catholic Church?

Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce

The final two days of Summit last week, I attended a class given by Barron Jones, whom I’ve mentioned before. The title of this post was the name of the class. Barron presented his material in a way that kept a serious subject light – lest it become too serious – and certainly made me want to study the issue more. He probably needed one more hour (he only had two), as he ran out of time both days, and as such, left me a touch unconvinced.

“This is about people,” he began. “This is not about theology. … It’s about people’s lives, and they get messy.”

The first day he devoted to simple defining the traditional teachings and poking logical holes in them.

“If I can get you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ve made progress,” he said. “We need to embrace that phrase and understand it does not mean weakness. It means humility. This topic is about pride and humility as much as it is about marriage and divorce.”

Continue reading Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce

Chick-fil-A’s True Colors

This news hasn’t made quite as big a splash as the original controversy, but I’d argue it’s more important:

Chick-fil-A will no longer donate money to anti-gay groups or discuss hot-button political issues after an executive’s controversial comments this summer landed the fast-food chain in the middle of the gay marriage debate.

Executives agreed in recent meetings to stop funding groups opposed to same-sex unions, including Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, according to Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno.

The restaurant itself isn’t commenting, so all we have are the words of some gay-rights individuals and organizations who say they are “encouraged” by their discussions with Chick-fil-A, but the consensus seems to be that the company’s Winshape Foundation will no longer give to groups – like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – that have said hateful things about LGBT women and men.

Continue reading Chick-fil-A’s True Colors

Summit, Day 1: Death and Resurrection

Every September, my alma mater gets together biblical scholars, preachers and the like to talk about pretty much any topic you can think of. It once was called Lectureship; now it’s called Summit. I wrote about Summit last year, and I’d like to do the same thing this year, highlighting what stood out from each day of classes and/or sermons.

The day started with Glenn Pemberton, an Old Testament scholar who suffers from chronic foot pain that leaves him in a wheelchair most days. I’ve mentioned him before, as he wrote and delivered perhaps the most poignant, honest prayer I’ve ever heard.

Glenn discussed Psalm 38, one of the bleakest of lament psalms, and gave six clues for why he believed the author of the psalm was familiar with deep, chronic pain – most convincing are his points regarding its structural discontinuity and abrupt swings of emotion. He closed with this question: “How do these psalms help the reader with whom they resonate?”

His response: Psalm 38, like other lament psalms, “restores our ability to speak. It gives us the language to restore and maintain contact with God. These words are forceful and audacious, equal to the writer’s situation. Most of all, they’re honest.”

As I’ve discussed, there’s a place for brutal honesty with God – who either causes or allows the suffering and is seen as either a tyrant for punishing beyond what is merited or neglectful for forsaking his “covenant partner.” On the former, Glenn described it this way:

God has had a few too many drinks of anger. The poet asks God to sober up first, or find a designated rebuker until he’s not so inebriated with wrath.

But the psalm also “models a tenacious grip to God – even when we believe God has caused our suffering. God may be the problem, but this writer knows no other source of help or hope than this same God.”

When Glenn talks about God being “inebriated with wrath,” certainly no passage fits the description better than Hosea 2.

Famed scholar Walter Brueggemann provided something of a live exegesis of the chapter, which opens with God’s stinging condemnation of faithless Israel and concludes with his pledge to win her back. It is, Brueggemann argued, “the most perfect poem in the Old Testament that articulates the sum of all biblical faith.”

Continue reading Summit, Day 1: Death and Resurrection

Why Did Monotheism Win?

Most scholars would probably agree with the following summary of Israelite history:

After emerging from the semiautonomous tribes and villages of the Palestinian countryside, several loosely affiliated tribes periodically banded together for protection and mutual aid, eventually formalizing the compact by appointing the warlord who most recently united them as their ruler. His name was David. Under his heir, Solomon, the tribes officially became a kingdom, but the majority of them dissolved the compact after his death, and the rival kingdoms – Israel, the larger, wealthier north, and Judah, the smaller, poorer south – moved on parallel tracks for the next 200 years or so. These kingdoms were mostly polytheistic, worshipping a pastiche of local and regional gods, as well as a national deity named Yahweh. Over time, voices advocating worship of Yahweh alone arose, represented most vocally by men calling themselves his prophets and less vocally by the priests of Yahweh’s temple. Historians sometimes call this faction, though that label probably overstates the unity between the prophets and priests, the monotheistic party.

But a question could well be asked: How did monotheism win? Given the tragedy that befell both of these Yahweh-worshipping nations – Israel’s annihilation by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. and Judah’s destruction by Babylon in 586 – how did his worshippers retain their faith in a culture where the defeat of a nation was viewed as a defeat of the nation’s god?

Enter William H. McNeill, who has the first essay in a fun book I just picked up, What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. As the title implies, it’s filled with essays by historians telling an alternate history. What if just one or two chances of fate hadn’t happened in any given event? How would the world have changed from that point?

McNeill argues the most important event in the history of the western world is the failure of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. It’s told in 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37, and it’s confirmed by Sennacherib’s own inscriptions, in which he boasts of shutting Judah’s King Hezekiah up in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” an accurate enough boast that nevertheless indicates Sennacherib couldn’t finish the job.

And why not? Well, the Bible says that after praying to Yahweh, Hezekiah received a message from Isaiah predicting Jerusalem’s safety. and the next morning, “the Lord’s messenger went out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in the Assyrian camp. When people got up the next morning, there were dead bodies everywhere. So Assyria’s King Sennacherib left and went back to Nineveh, where he stayed.”

A plague had raced through the Assyrian camp and decimated its ranks – McNeill points out that 185,000 is an exaggeration, as that figure is larger than any ancient army – sparing Jerusalem from the rapacious hand of Sennacherib, who had otherwise decimated the kingdom of Judah.

Hezekiah was a monotheistic reformer, who took the side of those wanting to centralize worship in the Jerusalem temple.

Destroying “high places” where other rituals prevailed was part of the program. So was respectful consultation with inspired prophets, among whom, Isaiah, son of Amoz, was then the most prominent.

He also, seeing the growth of Assyria in the east, fortified Jerusalem’s walls, carved a tunnel to provide water to the city even in the event of a siege – and perhaps most important, appears to have diverted the natural sources of water away from the fields where a sieging army would need it. McNeill wonders if this forced the Assyrian army to drink tainted water, which led to the disease that wiped it out.

As McNeill notes, “such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah were right to rely on God’s power and protection. More than that: It proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth?

Of course, monotheism wasn’t exactly there to stay. Hezekiah’s own son, Manasseh, was an inveterate polytheist, if perhaps not as evil as the biblical text portrays him. Yet his son, Josiah, returned to monotheism, thanks to the discovery in the temple of “a book of the law,” which most scholars think was Deuteronomy, perhaps written during Hezekiah’s reign or sometime earlier. The collapse of Assyria in the east paved the way for a peaceful, successful reign of Josiah and, by affiliation, Yahweh.

Less than 40 years after Josiah’s death, the conquerers of Assyria marched against Jerusalem and destroyed it. Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar deported most of the population, but unlike the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah’s exiles retained their faith in Yahweh, using the time among the Babylonians to refine, explain and justify their faith, particularly in light of their defeat. Thus much of the Old Testament was written – explaining the exile not as Yahweh’s defeat but as his punishment for their sins, particularly the sin of polytheism.

McNeill puts it this way:

The pious party of Yahweh had to figure out why God had allowed such a disaster to take place. But by then the idea that God did in fact govern all the world was so firmly established that abandoning Yahweh, as the Israelites had done after 722 B.C.E., was inconceivable. Instead, long-standing prophetic denunciations of the sins of the Jewish people made it obvious that the Babylonian exile was God’s punishment for the failure of Judah’s rulers and people to observe his commandments to the full.

On the shores of the Euphrates, “the Jewish religion ceased to be local and became an effective guide to everyday life in cosmopolitan, urban settings, fit to survive and flourish across succeeding centuries into the indefinite future.”

And with the survival of the Jewish religion came the births of two others – Christianity and Islam, which together count among their adherents more than half of the world’s population. Which is why McNeill considers the salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib to be a singularly important event.

Which isn’t to say that monotheism would not have emerged in some other way – Greco-Roman culture was already moving in that direction before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity – but in the way things did happen, God used the events of history to bring about his plans in a way that was not clear for more than 700 years.


Why Christians Should Be Environmentalists

One of the churches in town recently hired a new preacher – a young guy, around my age with kids my age. I was curious because this church has long had an older preacher and been on the conservative end of the spectrum. I didn’t expect them to hire Rob Bell or Brian McLaren, but new blood isn’t a bad thing, and I decided to check him out.

His name’s Wes McAdams, and he runs a blog called Radically Christian – which sounds promising for us progressive types until you realize he’s setting up New Testament restorationism as a radical break from the Christian norms of today. It’s a neat construct, but pedestrian conservative pseudoevangelical theology with a cappella worship doesn’t scream, “Radical!” to me.

One of his posts caught my eye, however, and that’s where I’m really going with this. The post is called, “3 Reasons Why I’m Not an ‘Environmentalist‘”.

It leads with this disclaimer:

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say, I love this planet and everything God put on it. I love the trees, the hills, the water, the animals, even the air; and I’m all for us keeping these things clean. But, I can honestly say, I’m not an “environmentalist.”

The reasons are, sadly enough, the reasons I used to give for why we needn’t worry about climate change or deforestation or any of the other ills humanity continues to inflict on our planet:

  1. God is in control
  2. The earth’s purpose is to be used, not protected
  3. It’s going to be destroyed anyway

Continue reading Why Christians Should Be Environmentalists

Class, Week 3: The Heretics

When last we talked about the crazy worldview of the Gnostics, I left unresolved the question of legitimacy:

The winners write the history books, and they get to determine what is orthodox. Is it possible the first centuries of Christianity were a lot muddier than we usually think? Stay tuned!

Elaine Pagels has made a career of portraying Gnostic worldviews as widespread alternatives within the broad stream of early Christianity that were ultimately defeated and sidelined by what later became orthodox Christianity. It’s an intriguing possibility, one that cannot be disproven, which is what makes it seductive – any evidence one could produce to show Gnosticism’s marginalization in early Christianity can be dismissed as ex post facto dismissal by the winners of the debates.

But this view is rejected by both my professor and the textbook for this class, Church History Volume One by Everett Ferguson, and I think their argument is stronger than the one posited by Pagels and other scholars of Gnosticism.

Continue reading Class, Week 3: The Heretics

Class, Week 2: The Martyrs

Polycarp was an old man, at least 86 years old, when the Roman authorities arrested him around 156 C.E..

At his trial, the proconsul tried to get him to deny Jesus:

“Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, ‘Away with the atheists.'” the proconsul demanded.

Christians at the time were considered atheists because they refused to worship the popular gods of the day. Polycarp turned the word’s meaning on its head, waving to the observers in the room and saying drolly, “Yes, away with the atheists.”

The proconsul tried again: “Swear, and I will set you free; reproach Christ.”

Polycarp’s response sealed his fate:  “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The dialogue above comes from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter written by the church in Smyrna describing his arrest, trial and execution at the hands of the Romans. As the first known “passion” outside the Gospels, it’s an important window into the mindset of early Christians, who lived under threat of exposure, condemnation and death.

Along with providing a narrative of the events at the end of Polycarp’s life, the letter also sketches the earliest theology of martyrdom – one that probably seems a little strange today.

Continue reading Class, Week 2: The Martyrs

God Is Love; Love Is God

How do we make homosexuality an agree-to-disagree issue in our churches?

By affirming two points, one less controversial than the other:

  1. There is a significant biological component to same-sex attraction.
  2. Same-sex love, therefore, is natural.

On the first point, no one would say biology or genetics fully explains sexual orientation; the causes are numerous and complex. However, studies have shown a significant number of physical differences between straight and gay men and women, and scientists largely agree biology is a major player in whether someone is gay. Or we could simply make it more basic and ask this: When did you decide you were straight? If your answer is, “I didn’t,” then congratulations; you’ve affirmed a significant biological component to sexual orientation.

The second flows naturally from the first. If same-sex attraction is natural, then same-sex love must be, as well. And if same-sex love is natural, then we should reassess how firmly we hold to our convictions about same-sex intimacy.

Continue reading God Is Love; Love Is God