Thoughts on Faith, Posture, and Academic Paths…

It’s weird not having blogged for a month. I mean, I have been busier than usual what with getting ready for and traveling to Oxford, England – where I’m writing from now. But I have had things to write about. However, in the beginning of writing those potential posts, I had realized they all required a bit more thought and care than I was giving them.

Why am I in Oxford, though? Several months back I was awarded an all-expenses-paid, two week trip over here to study manuscripts as well as work on a few. There are a little over 30 other students here with me, including a couple from my own school at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Thus far, it’s been quite the experience – for one thing, it was my first international trip and for another, it was my first flight in fourteen years.

Every student here is working on a small project which is part of a much larger project conducted by the Green Scholars Initiative (GSI). We’ve been given lectures and talks on being a member of the faith in the academic world, various methodologies in textual criticism, and even a few on Oxford’s history (including a talk on C.S. Lewis). This last Saturday we were led over to Winchester to tour the city as well as the famous Winchester Cathedral, which is incredibly large and stunningly beautiful. Walking around inside felt as though I had walked onto the set of a Lord of the Rings movie. Like I said, it has been quite an experience thus far (despite missing out on the opportunity to travel around London yesterday and a few lectures today due to a recent cold).

Inside the Winchester Cathedral.

Inside the Winchester Cathedral.

Coming near the end of my third semester at George Fox (yes, I’ve been in Summer Semester for about eight weeks now) and hearing these talks and lectures about being Christian scholars has caused me to think ahead of my own future and where I’ll be after Spring of 2016 (when I’m planning on finishing my Master’s). For now, the hope is to do well enough through my Master’s and on the GRE to get accepted into a fully funded (or at least partially funded) PhD program. I don’t think I’m questioning what I want to do, but I am questioning how I want to approach what I want to do.

During the first few nights of our time here, there were a couple talks given about life as a Christian scholar in a mostly non-Christian world. Such talks carried a strong theme of defending one’s beliefs – of the need for apologetics, which included, to no small degree, defending Scripture’s authority, reliability, and essential nature for the modern day Christian. Included in all of this was the emphasis on practicing thorough scholarship. Looking back on all this now, I see this as one potential approach to academia that many take. However, I do not find that this approach fits me.

Instead I find a strong need for quality scholarship in biblical and theological studies. I do not see the need for faith to be defended largely because I do not think God is so small that God would need our defense. I’m quite certain that should there be a mass falling out within Christianity and biblical scholarship that left nothing but non-Christians handling the biblical text, God would remain untouched. However, such a falling out I do not think is in God’s agenda.

Why do I feel this way? Why am I surrendering apologetic studies in favor of a more “secular” approach? Because I find agendas such as defending God’s existence or the validity of the Scriptural texts to be in the way of quality scholarship. I find that it skews one’s studies to input their own conclusions long before the evidence supporting such a conclusion ever gets drawn out (if it ever gets drawn out).

None of this is to demean those who choose to go the apologetic path; it is simply to say that it’s one I don’t think fits best for me. Instead, I think God wants me to go a different route that hasn’t been defined entirely. Yet I know that I must allow God to be God – to defend what God finds worthy of defense. And if we are paying attention to the Scriptures we (yes, myself included) deem authoritative, we should find that God seeks to protect those who cannot protect themselves (Prov. 31:8-9). Perhaps if we started there, then we may realize that this alone is enough of an apologetic for those who are willing to see, hear, and listen to the God we proclaim.

Such a path as the one I see before me requires a certain kind of posture – one of sincere humility, diligence, and discipline. Yet this posture is not exclusive only to the world of biblical scholarship nor even the larger umbrella of academia. It is a posture set forth by Christ himself for all who proclaim his name to follow. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to talk about the other areas this posture plays into (one that immediately comes to mind is the topic of gay marriage or homosexuality as a whole – I have been silent for too long on this and I am excited about taking it up).

As you wonder about where God is leading you or has led you, what kind of posture do you sense that you have or had? What is or was the impact of your posture? How do you think it could be improved upon?

God bless.

On Being a Seminarian: Enjoy the Process of Rejection…

Over last weekend I was privileged to attend a couple sessions for the West Coast Qumran Study Group, which felt like a miniature conference with scholars from the west coast of the U.S. and Canada gathered to share ideas, research, and give tips on utilizing Bible software. Or, at the very least, those were the topics of the sessions I was able to attend (the bulk of the study group was held on Saturday – the same day I had my eight hour class). After the final session on Sunday, we went to the Stickmen Brewery in Lake Oswego for lunch.

What was really cool for me was to see my former professor from U of O, Dr. Daniel Falk, talking with one of my new professors at George Fox – my advisor, in fact, Dr. Steve Delamarter. What I found even cooler, though, was having the opportunity to chat with Falk after everything was over. I had told him that I had just finished my first year of seminary and am hoping to continue on for a PhD thereafter. Somewhat to my surprise, he seemed excited and after sharing a couple tips here and there, we got to talking about how scholarship – that is, the advanced study of a particular subject in a particular field – works. He had told me that if I spent my time researching and presenting a topic that doesn’t get rejected, then I haven’t really done much for scholarship. However, if I were to find something – preferably something that hasn’t been tried before – that does get rejected by other scholars, then I actually have advanced – however minutely – scholarship. By ruling something out, one is actually moving the greater pursuit forward.

As I ruminated on this while heading home, I realized there are a few things that I must focus on even as I pursue my Master’s. First of all, however studied one may be, one must never fall in love with their thesis or their particular methodology. Should this happen and that thesis become utterly rejected, then one will feel that they have failed – even though, as just discussed, one has done something for the field. Ultimately, then, my focus should be on being proven wrong; to do as much research as I can and as well as I can with the hope that it gets knocked down. It will not be for naught; it’ll be an opportunity to try something new.

Secondly, I must never carry myself as though I’m always right. In fact, I ought to do the opposite: invite my professors and fellow students to prove me wrong, even in the littlest of essays. Our culture, of which I am very much a part, has become so engrained and fixated against criticism that we’ve become blind to the benefits of criticism – of our work and ideas being out-rightly proven wrong, unsupported, or too steeped in presuppositions. My first paper for writing 121 in college received an ‘F.’ Had it not received such a low, demoralizing grade (with extensive commentary in the margins), I highly doubt that I’d be as motivated to try harder and rework the incorrect areas until they were right – or at least closer to being right.

Thirdly, I must lower whatever expectations I might have about being an influence in scholarship. As Dr. Falk told me on Sunday, nobody really sends waves throughout the rest of the scholarly world for nearly fifteen or twenty years later. There are the rare exceptions, sure, but they’re the geniuses of the scholarly world. I still ought to strive to change the world, but adjust the scope toward something very, very small with the major focus on being utterly rejected and sent back to the drawing board. This, of course, leads to the last thing I realized.

Enjoy the process. Studying more and more is less about acquiring knowledge and more about creating more questions and unraveling one’s knowledge. My experience in seminary has ultimately been a journey of epistemology – of learning and relearning how I know what I know, which requires unraveling one’s knowledge and asking more questions instead of giving more answers. Such a process seems hopeless, if not annoying. But perhaps, once again, this is because our culture has misled us into believing that success is in finding more answers than questions – in being right more than wrong.

Dr. Falk’s words could not have come at a better time. I just finished my first year, have already signed up for classes this fall, and have begun deciding where I’d like to explore for my Master’s thesis (or if I even want to write a thesis). Having my understanding of what defines successful scholarship flipped around allows me to see that the thirst for understanding thrives in an environment where things are proven wrong rather than right. Even as I head into more coursework and build ideas for a thesis, I am shifting my focus not onto proving my arguments right, but to boldly push small, new ideas to rule them out and keep trying. I mean, after all, it gives me an excuse to read more books.

Review: Rethinking Hell…

Not having studied hardly anything at all regarding hell or the end times, I was presented with an opportunity to read and write a review for Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. Although a morbid topic, it is nevertheless important. As this book draws attention to, Jesus thought it was important enough to warn unrepentant people of their fate that awaited them. It stands to reason, then, that we would also seek to understand what hell is and why it is something that one should want to avoid.

Part one acts as an introductory to the whole conversation of hell in general and conditionalism in particular. In Peter Grice’s chapter, he gives a diagram depicting the relationship of conditionalism with two other major views of hell or the end times – universalism and traditionalism. After this short chapter, Glenn Peoples takes things a little deeper by discussing, as the sections in his chapter are arranged; Immortality, A World Without Evil, Substitutionary Atonement, and Destruction. What this section seeks to do is to draw attention to one’s theology regarding hell (in a way, summed up in the term “eschatology,” study of the end times) and how much of one’s understanding might not actually be influenced from the text of Scripture.

Part two dives much more deeply into conditionalism mostly in relation to traditionalism since there are many more evangelicals who believe traditionalism without having weighed other ways of understanding. This section carries several of the key figures in conditionalism (Edward W. Fudge, John R. W. Stott, etc.) and focuses on particular aspects of conditionalism. With a greater number of writers in this section, I’ll only draw out a couple examples.

Drawing attention to where many eschatological terms in the NT find their origin in the OT (or Hebrew Bible), Fudge then unpacks their meaning and where he believes traditionalism gets it wrong. If traditionalism is the belief that hell is a place for those suffering eternal conscious torment, then how is sense made of Rev. 14:11 with the “smoke [that] rises for ever and ever”? Fudge highlights that “The visible smoke is a certification of accomplished destruction,” (37, emphasis mine). How are we to believe that the torment of the condemned continues on if the signals one receives indicate they’ve been finished?

Stephen H. Travis states how one can make sense of the “eternal punishment” language and imagery; “‘Eternal’ may signify the permanence of the result of judgment rather than the continuation of the act of punishment itself,” (46). John W. Wenham says something which I find is my own biggest peeve with traditionalism; “My problem is not that God punishes, but that the punishment traditionally ascribed to God seems neither to square with Scripture nor to be just,” (90). One’s eschatology says a lot about one’s God. If God punishes finite humans with infinite, conscious torment, then, echoing Wenham’s words, how is this God just?

Part three focuses on biblical support for conditionalism. Drawing a comparison Rev. 14:11 with Rev. 6:12-17 as the backdrop, Ralph G. Bowles says, “The clause ‘they have no rest day or night’ is a description of the moment or process of divine judgment, one among the many found in the Revelation to John; it is not a description of the eternal state of the judged,” (148). Citing Matt. 10:28, Harold E. Guillebaud says, “[T]he life of any living thing is necessarily ended by fire, unless God supernaturally provides otherwise: therefore, where fire is in question, the verb ‘destroy’ is not ambiguous at all, but definitely implies the ending of life,” (163). If one once assumed that conditionalism had no basis within the text of Scripture, this section debunks that assumption entirely. There is an abundance of support.

Part four moves into the philosophical support for conditionalism. As I hinted at above, one of the main questions in this section is how could God punish infinitely that which is finite? Embedded within questions like this are other questions regarding the immortality of the soul, God’s justice, punishment of the wicked, etc. If one is to believe the condemned suffer eternally, then how is this balanced with Rev. 21:4, which reads “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” (emphasis mine)? It can’t, says Philip E. Hughes; “The conception of the endlessness of the suffering of torment and of the endurance of ‘living’ death in hell stands in contradiction to this teaching… It means that suffering and death will never be totally abolished from the scene.”

Part five considers historical support for conditionalism. In Kim G. Papaioannou’s chapter, he looks at how “Gehenna” is used in various other texts, arguing that “Gehenna” was not a real wasteland for Jerusalem’s garbage “because there is no documentary evidence earlier than the thirteenth century testifying to [its] existence…” (256). He concludes with the gospels, saying, “Gehenna is nowhere in the Synoptics presented as a place of torment. Rather it is a place of destruction,” (258). LeRoy E. Froom evaluates conditionalism’s tenets within the early church and how it’s not a new concept. Suffice it to say that conditionalism has a legitimate foundation (biblically, historically, philosophically, etc.) as a way of understanding hell.

Finally, part six brings in traditionalists who, although not convinced by conditionalism, engage it on its merits. Ben Witherington III, in the final chapter of the book, brings an element within the finite sinners/infinite suffering dilemma that I hadn’t considered before. He asks, “Is that actually fair and just? The OT law of lex talionis, which says only a hand for a hand, only a foot for a foot, only a life for a life, suggests a principle of justice that involves proportional and appropriate response depending on the sin committed,” (298). We often remind ourselves that Jesus was above “eye for an eye,” but have we brought that in comparison with our own eschatologies? Again, Witherington doesn’t hold to conditionalism, but he, alongside other traditionalists, takes it seriously.

I don’t spend too much time considering hell and who goes there and what it’ll be like, but I enjoyed the well-reasoned, well-researched, and not-so-new perspective offered within this book and from all the contributors. I would recommend this book to anyone who closed-fistedly holds to eternal conscious torment as the “correct” view of hell. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in what the tenets of conditionalism are and where they come from. With a great balance between the texts of Scripture, the contexts from which they arose, and an understanding of who God is and what God’s characteristics are, Rethinking Hell has caused me to do just that: rethink what I’ve assumed, what’s actually in the text, and what I believe God would actually do with impenitent people. If you’re like me, this book seems to be a great way to begin that journey of rethinking.

For those interested in purchasing the book or attending their conference in July, here is their website. Should anyone read it, I would love feedback on what I’ve drawn out here as well as a discussion of what you found to be strong and/or weak points of the book.

Blowing Up Evangelical Baggage: A Series From Jane Halton…

I wrote a post for Jane Halton’s series, “Blowing Up Evangelical Baggage.” Here’s a little snippet:

“It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.” – Proverbs 25:2

In 2009, I had made the choice to continue attending a church whose pastor did not believe a really important doctrine, an “essential,” as another pastor of another church described it to me. When talking with a friend, I had confessed that I agreed with my pastor – that this “essential” doctrine wasn’t so essential. My friend told me, “What if you don’t go to heaven because of this?”

Read the rest here.

On Being a Seminarian: Can We Bridge that Gap?

Part of my influence in attending seminary was to help bridge the gap between the academic realm and the realm of the average congregant. In the four classes I had taken at U of O, I saw so much value in scholarship and wanted to help find a way to bring it all to those who are doing other things, but still showing up on Sunday mornings. I wanted to break it all down into little nuggets that people could take with them and look into in their own free time. Yet after one year of being in seminary, I am left wondering if it is even possible to fill that gap.

I know most people are not like me; not interested in the Bible more than a little reading each day and a sermon on Sunday, not interested in thinking critically about our beliefs and theologies, and not interested in the original languages of the biblical text except for a few Greek and Hebrew words. Yet I also know that one doesn’t need to be interested in all these things to learn a little more about them. But what I have found is that when it comes to theology and thinking critically, those less exposed to the biblical criticisms of recent scholarship (or even within the last century) seem much more hesitant to try on a new idea. I get that. New ideas are hardly ever comfortable ones, especially if it means changing the way one perceives a “near and dear” text as the Bible. But that hesitancy often turns into resistance, which is leaving me feel quite exhausted in my endeavor to bridge that gap.

No, I don’t mean to imply that scholarship is always more correct than one’s pastor or congregation. Nor do I assume that I’m smarter than the average church-goer in subjects pertaining to the Bible. Yet I have had more exposure and know that different ways of viewing a text – even if one disagrees with that view – is healthy for understanding, which is healthy for finding ways of sharing the gospel. But more often than not, it seems as though discussions of scholarly ideas run either to prove one idea false and therefore heretical or true and further support for a church doctrine. Treating scholarship this way, though, seems to limit our understanding of the biblical text and of God, which I find also cripples whatever growth we might have made toward God.

In your experience as a seminarian, pastor, professor, or biblical scholarship enthusiast, how has scholarship shaped your understanding of God? Has this shaping had a positive or negative influence in your ministry or instruction of others? Do you think the gap between scholarship and the average congregant can be filled? What are some ways you see as potentially helpful for filling that gap? And do you think I’m being too cynical or have you shared a similar experience?

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other bloggers, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

Dear Grandpa…

Dear Grandpa,

Four weeks ago today, I watched you breathe your last. In the moments that followed, I somehow managed to do something I had never done before: pray with my brother and my aunt over you. As painful as it was, to watch you struggle for hours just to breathe and then to subsequently watch you relax once and for all, it was beautiful. Not in my entire lifetime had I ever seen you so calm – not grunting in pain while shuffling in your seat or cursing at the TV because the Blazers blew another fourth quarter lead. To know that you had finally found such a deep relaxation before you passed along to another world, with your closest family and friends seeing you one last time, it was beautiful. And with my brother, I cried the hardest I have ever cried feeling the weight of your passing.

Seeing as I can no longer call you to update you on life, I figured I’d write. So you better stop smooching on grandma long enough to read… please. I got into a car accident on my way back to Tigard after we loaded the stuff from your apartment into a storage unit. Don’t worry; it wasn’t my fault. I had stopped at a crosswalk when a rather large truck (not a semi) slammed into the back of my car. I had hoped the mechanics would be able to fix it, but they apparently weren’t, so yes, it was totaled. Insurance has been helping out as much as they can, but unfortunately I have some negative equity heading into my next car purchase, which will hopefully be within the next couple of days. But don’t worry, my finances have been as good as they have ever been, thanks to you. I will be okay.

In other news, there is a girl I’ve been seeing for  a few weeks. Furthermore, I have a list of witnesses to her existence so that you will know she is not a figment of my imagination. We don’t really know where it’s going, but we’re enjoying where we are and talking to each other every day. Unfortunately, due to our schedules, we don’t get to see each other as much as we would like, but we have been able to hang out almost twice a week. You’d like her, Grandpa.

All my grades from Spring semester have come out; all A’s. Even though I watched more TV than my fair share this semester, I somehow managed to pull out  a 4.0. I’m only taking four credits this summer semester so as to allow a little more time to breathe and enjoy a bit of life. I’ll also be working, as I told you before, roughly 20 hours a week transcribing Ethiopic manuscripts. Monday was my first day and yesterday my second. It’s actually a very fun gig and I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer. I’ve also already signed up for my fall classes, but they haven’t been finalized as of yet. There are a couple classes I might want to take in stead of the ones I’m currently signed up for. I’ll let you know, though.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you this when you were in the hospital, but I really did cherish the role of being your interpreter. We all knew that you hated having to work so hard for each word only not to be misunderstood, so for me to have a hand in helping you… it just means the world to me, Grandpa. And yes, every bit of what I told you is true: you showed me a kind of an adopting love that echoes that of God’s. Despite being nearly 60 years younger than you, you welcomed us in, gave us our own beds, showered us with toys and Legos that our friends still envy us for, and paid for us to go to school, play sports, and try our hands at anything and everything we could – in as much as you could afford. When the world dealt us a crappy hand, you slipped us a few aces and taught us how to play them. You gave us a better chance in life than anybody else ever could have. That, Grandpa, resembles the God I know and love.

I still have all your most recent voicemails – as many as I could keep. And yes, I’ve deleted everyone else’s messages before I even considered deleting yours. Hearing your voice has always been, and always will be, a reminder of home – a place where bills, car troubles, schoolwork, and even the side effects of being fatherless didn’t matter. All that mattered in your house were Skip-Bo, Cribbage, sharing good food, and having a good laugh. No matter how shitty life becomes for me in the future, I will always have your voice to remind me of the things that really matter – being together with people you love.

I cannot believe it has been four weeks – I really can’t. What I can believe, however, is that all you had taught us will not go to waste. We will still say “Thank you” to every server in every restaurant we visit – even if they only hold the door for us. We will still do all that we can for our guests to make them feel as at-home and comfortable as they possibly could. And we will still place games with our families above the demands of our jobs. You may not have known you were teaching us all those things, but there is no doubt in my mind that they came from you.

As I told you the day you passed, you were more than a father to me – more than I had ever asked or dreamed of. As my brother and I were the sons you never had, you were the father we never had. You were the answer to our prayers before we had the chance to pray them. Everything we have, all that we are, and all that is to come is only possible because of the chance you gave us. Because you first loved us, we will love those around us.

Finally, I come to the most important matter. You better be practicing your Cribbage game because when I join you, I will have no mercy. You old hag…

With love,

Your second (grand)son,

“Bug”

P.S. S’awright!

Sundays With St. Paul: Do We Still Need Torah?

With my spring semester at George Fox having finished this past week and my “Paul and the Law” class with it, I’ve been thinking a lot about Torah and how much it matters to us in modern day Christianity. Ever since the first few weeks of class, this question has been on my mind: Do we need Torah if we have Christ?

My first inclination is to jump to Romans 13:8-10[1], combine it with Romans 3:31[2], and make the conclusion that those who are in Christ and love as Christ has loved fulfill Torah, which means we would no longer need Torah for our faith in Christ. Yet, I know this cannot be true because 1. Paul either quotes Torah (understood here as a general reference to the Hebrew Bible) or at least references it as a foundation for teaching about Christ and 2. we would not be able to make much sense of Paul without a thorough study of the Hebrew Bible.

Furthermore, if we take 2 Tim. 3:16-17[3] as a reference (at least) to the Hebrew Bible (and if 2 Tim. has Pauline authenticity – or at least his stamp of approval), then it’s clear that Paul wanted those in Christ to utilize the teachings of Torah to build up the church. And even beyond that, there is much to be found within the Hebrew Bible that reveals the character of God (as is implicit within Paul’s letters).

I guess what I’m reacting against is the idea that since Christ has come the “old” way of studying Torah is no longer necessary. It’s an idea that I don’t think was ever taught to me explicitly, but certainly was by implication. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,”[4] is the general understanding behind the implicit idea. Yet does this truly apply to our modern day usage of Torah?

I’m not suggesting we turn back to Judaism, nor do I think Paul is suggesting such a thing (although I don’t think he initially saw a difference between Christianity and Judaism until much later in his life). I just think, after learning the world in which Paul lived and breathed and talked about Jesus, there is still significant value to Torah. And in my experience of 12 years of Christianity, I am finding very little – if any – focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. Until I had taken “Paul and the Law” with Kent Yinger, I feel as though I was missing out on so much within the Hebrew Bible.

In your studies, teaching, or life in general, do you give weight to the Hebrew Scriptures? Do you think there is still significance to the Hebrew Bible in and of itself? What are some of your experiences in coming to Torah with or without the Christ lens? Did you find something good or did you see something lacking?

This is part of a series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Feel free to read it there or read other posts by other bloggers.

 

[1] “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
[2] “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
[3] “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
[4] 2 Cor. 5:17b, English Standard Version. I do not think Paul is talking about Torah practices in this passage, but I could be wrong.