Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Theology of Snoopy

I think this comic describes an attitude we should all bring to the task of biblical and theological studies. We develop our theories, form conclusions and forget that we just might be wrong. I think we could all learn something from Snoopy.

HT: The Pangea Blog.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway! Special Holiday Edition

This is the last week of the book giveaway before Christmas. This week I am giving away N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003). Here is the blurb.

Why did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape it did? To answer this question – which any historian must face – renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright focuses on the key points: what precisely happened at Easter? What did the early Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? What can be said today about his belief?

This book, third is Wright’s series Christian Origins and the Question of God, sketches a map of ancient beliefs about life after death, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. It then highlights the fact that the early Christians’ belief about the afterlife belonged firmly on the Jewish spectrum, while introducing several new mutations and sharper definitions. This, together with other features of early Christianity, forces the historian to read the Easter narratives in the gospels, not simply as late rationalizations of early Christian spirituality, but as accounts of two actual events: the empty tomb of Jesus and his "appearances."

How do we explain these phenomena? The early Christians’ answer was that Jesus had indeed been bodily raised from the dead; that was why they hailed him as the messianic "son of God." No modern historian has come up with a more convincing explanation. Facing this question, we are confronted to this day with the most central issues of the Christian worldview and theology.

So if you want to win this book put your name below and I will draw a random winner on Sunday. Once chosen the winner has five days to claim the book. Good luck to you all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Must you believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian?

I know this is not a topic that many are comfortable talking about. It is also Advent/Christmas and thus the Virgin Birth is on the minds of many. As we know, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke say that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. But not everyone believes it. And I am not just talking about "scholars." There are a number of people who call themselves Christians and yet do not believe in the virgin birth. For whatever reason they find it to be a pious legend the communicates more theology than history.

The question I would like to put to my readers is: Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? The impetus for the question comes from an article Albert Mohler wrote yesterday in which he argues that one cannot be a Christian and not believe in the Virgin Birth. He concludes the article with this statement.

This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.

So my question is this - Must a Christian believe in the Virgin Birth? Must they be convinced of its historical veracity? What I am NOT asking for is evidence for or against the virgin birth. I know the arguments and that is a different topic. But I am interested in hearing as to whether you think a person can be a Christian and NOT believe in the historical veracity of the virgin birth and why or why not.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When the Manger is Empty: Childless at Christmas

While some people call this time of the year the “Christmas Season” it is technically Advent. For those who follow or are familiar with the liturgical calendar, Advent is the season in which the church looks forward to the coming of Christmas, the birth of Christ. During the four weeks prior to Christmas day, churches across the world will read scriptures and sing songs expressing the hope that the Christ will be born. It is a time when the church looks forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus, as an infant, incarnate. In some churches a manger is positioned at the front. But the baby Jesus is not placed in the manger because it is not yet Christmas. Christ has not yet come. But on Christmas Eve/Day the babe will be placed in the manger as part of the celebration of Messiah’s coming. Until then, however, the manger remains empty.

But in the midst of the celebration there are those who find Advent and Christmas a struggle. It is a painful reminder that for them the manger in their own home is empty. It is empty not because they are not religious. Not because they refuse to participate, but because they are unable to fill that manger. They are among the six million couples a year that learn that they are unable to have children. And the irony of the season is not lost on them. As the church celebrates God’s gift to the world, a baby, they are keenly aware that there is a level at which they cannot participate in the Advent celebration. The coming of the Messiah is somehow dulled by their realization that God’s gift seems to have skipped over them. There is a feeling of disconnect for them as they hear the promises of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:29-33 read in church, all of which speak of a child, of joy, of great things to come. And yet, the childless couple is unable to identify. Add to this the overwhelming focus on children at Christmas (a good thing), and the season is more crushing than uplifting.

The Bible is of little help to the childless couple. A quick survey of the Bible reveals a number of stories about childless couples. Most of them focus on the woman’s inability to conceive. All of them, without exception, find resolution when God opens the womb. Quite often the focus of readers, teachers and preachers of the Bible is on the divine intervention that finally allows the woman to bear a child and bring to fruition a previous promise made by God. But the absence of stories about promises to those who remain childless creates a painful cycle for the couple. The story of the Christian Bible focuses on the promise and birth of the baby. But there is no place in the Bible for the couple to turn to find comfort when their own manger remains empty.

Ministers will often recognize the pain that a Mother’s day or Father’s day celebration can cause to a childless couple. Usually these couples will stay home from church on that Sunday. They don’t want to spoil the celebrations of others, but they also don’t want a reminder of what is lacking in their own life. But some are unaware that there is a level of discomfort at Christmas as well. And it is theological as well as emotional. Why is it that God overturns the circumstances of every childless couple in the Bible, but leaves them in their own circumstances? God makes promises to the barren Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, but where are the promises of God to them? How can they process their situation theologically? In the midst of the celebration of Christmas, the birth of a promised baby, they live in theological silence. There are no answers. And Advent and Christmas becomes a bittersweet time as they join the church to celebrate God’s gift, while their own manger remains empty.

I have been unable to find a way to close this post. Indeed, it may be that closure is not the answer here since for many childless couples closure is not something that ever fully happens. I decided to Google the phrase “Childless at Christmas” to see if anyone else had thoughts. I found two columns recently published on the topic. One from the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and the other from the UK Daily Mail. Neither of them proposes answers to the theological aspect of being childless at Christmas. But perhaps you will find them helpful if you find yourself ministering to a childless couple this Christmas. If you are childless this Christmas, perhaps this blog or the linked articles will at least let you know that you are not alone.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Credibility of the Miracles in the New Testament

Miracles. The Bible is full of them. But few in the western world have ever see one. I know I have never seen one. I have heard plenty of stories about them, but they always seem to take place somewhere else. A place where I can't got to see it or the person who experienced the miracle.

And the truth is the longer you go without seeing a miracle the more you suspect that they no longer happen today or, quite simply, never happened in the past either. This is a particular problem of the modern age. We can explain so much through science that we are able to explain away many things that might have been called a miracle. The same happens with the miracles in the Bible.

But Craig Keener believes in miracles, especially the ones of the Bible and says that modern believers should expect them. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and has recently published a two-volume work titled: Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker, 2011).

Most modern prejudice against biblical miracle reports depends on David Hume's argument that uniform human experience precludes the possibility of miracles. Yet current research shows that human experience has been far from uniform.

Hundreds of millions of people all over the world in all cultures, in both ancient times and in modern times, claim to have experienced miracles. In Miracles New Testament scholar Craig Keener argues that it is time to reevaluate Hume's evaluation of the miraculous in light of the growing stock of evidence available to us in support of miraculous events.

This magisterial, wide-ranging and meticulously researched two-volume study presents the most thorough current defense of the credibility of the miracle reports in earliest Christian history, namely the Gospels and Acts, and also for plausibility of the miraculous occurring in today's world. Covering methodological concerns and assumptions, empirical evidence, and majority-world assumptions, Keener also draws on claims from a range of global cultures and takes a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of miracles.

Thus Keener argues, that when the methodological issues are properly dealt with, and the historiographical veracity of many miracle accounts throughout history and from contemporary times are explained, our best option remains to acknowledge them as genuine divine acts which, in turn, lend credence to biblical miracle reports.

Keener recently gave an interview to Christianity Today about his book. Here is some of what he had to say about miracles and New Testament scholarship:

Miracles are an unusual subject for a New Testament scholar. What led you to it?

I was going to write a footnote in my commentary on Acts, and was dealing with questions of historical reliability. Many scholars dismiss miracle stories as not historically plausible, arguing that they arose as legendary accretions.

I was familiar with [contemporary] reports of miracles taking place. There must be thousands of such reports. It was inconceivable to me that people would say eyewitnesses can't claim to have seen such things.

What do you want to accomplish with this book?

Primarily, to challenge scholars who dismiss miracles in the Gospels as legends and not historically plausible. Eyewitnesses say these kinds of things all the time. I also want to challenge the bias that says these things can't be supernatural. I believe God does miracles, and I don't see why we scholars are not allowed to talk about it.

What does New Testament scholarship gain from taking miracle stories seriously as historical phenomena?

We have been embarrassed by the miracle stories, and have tended to allegorize them more than other narratives. Accounts from the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing—nobody allegorizes those. I agree that the Gospel writers are teaching us broader principles with broader applications. But in much of the majority world, when people read these narratives of healing, they see a God who cares about their suffering, who meets them at their point of need. I think we in the West can learn from the way they hear.

One of your main points is that non-Western cultures may provide a better paradigm for reading the Gospels than the academic Western paradigm. Can you say more?

Most cultures believe and report experiences that do not easily fit our Enlightenment paradigm. Hume may have been aware of that, because he makes a point of dismissing reports from "ignorant, barbarous" peoples. Hume's ethnocentrism is well-documented. It's not an argument that would fly too well in the 21st century.

Are you suggesting that even in our own era, there is an ethnocentrism in the way scholars read the New Testament?

Yes, though I think there is more openness today. If somebody today said what Bultmann said, that nobody in the modern world believes in miracles, then that would be flat-out having your head in the sand.

You can read the rest of the interview here. In addition to talking about New Testament scholarship Keener talks about his own experiences with researching the miraculous. It is an interesting read and I imagine his book will generate a good discussion.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friday Book Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Jeremy Miller! He is this week's Friday Book Giveaway winner. Jeremy has won David deSilva's - An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation(IVP, 2004).

Jeremy, you five days to email your details to Failure to claim your book in five days will return the book to the shelf.

Didn't win this week? Don't forget that next Friday I will be giving away a copy of N.T. Wright's - The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).