Friday, October 15, 2010

Things Worthy of Your Time

Here are a few places that I have stopped to read along the way this week.

Over on New Testament Perspectives Matthew Montonini has an interview with J Ramsey Michaels about his new commentary on the Gospel of John.

The NT POD is back up and running. Mark Goodacre returns to broadcasting with a new microphone and a podcast asking "Was Paul the Founder of Christianity"?

I am not the only one to start a review of Terence Fretheim's Creation Untamed. Scot McKnight is also reviewing the book over on Jesus Creed . It will be interesting to see what similar and dissimilar elements we each highlight.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creation Untamed: God created the world good, not perfect

That is the title of chapter one in Terence Fretheihm's recent book Creation Untamed (See the earlier notice I posted). I began reading the book this weekend and the title and content of this chapter caught my attention. Frethheim's goal is to try to understand the role of God in natural disaster. In chapter one he lays the theological groundwork for understanding God's creation.

So often we are conditioned to think of the existence in Eden as perfect. That there was no room for improvement. This literally becomes a paradise to which we think we want to one day return.

But Fretheim raises some important points. Creation is good , but not perfect. In Genesis 1 God states six times that what has been created is "good" (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and once we read that God said it was very "good" (1:31). Even after the introduction of sin the evaluation of "good" is not lost, particularly in relation to human beings as witnessed in Isaiah 43:5 and Psalm 8:5. The human sinful condition is certainly not welcomed, but it does not change the fact that God still considers creation "good."

But it is not perfect, if by that we mean finished, free from suffering and without need of improvement. Fretheim points out that the command to "subdue" the earth (1:28) suggests that there is an inherent lack of order that needs to be constructed within creation, and God expects the creatures to do it (p. 31). In conjunction with this is the need for creation to participate in the act of creation. The earth is to bring forth plants, seed and vegetation (1:11-13). Creatures, human or otherwise, are to be fruitful and multiply (1:22, 28). Thus, although creation is "good" it is not perfect in that there is nothing for the created to do. The process of creation continues through the created.

And humanity has even greater role to play. Not only are humans to be fruitful and multiply, but God invites humans to participate in the creative activity. In 2:18-20 God allows the man to name creatures (p.25-28).

But not all is "good." In 2:28 God realizes that it is "not good" for man to be alone. And although the man is allowed to participate in the creative process by naming the creatures, it appears that there is a flaw in the creation. In spite of all that God did that was "good," it was not perfect. God realizes that in order for humanity to find its fullest expression there must be yet another creative act, this time bringing forth the woman.

But even after the creation of the woman the world is not perfect, if by that we mean free from suffering. When God speaks to the woman in Genesis 3:16 she is told that her labor pains in childbirth will increase. Note that God is not introducing pain to the human experience here. Although the woman has yet to bear any children, it is already assumed that pain will be a part of the process. What has changed is that pain increases. This means that God's creation is a place in which pain exists and is to be expected. The introduction of sin does not inaugurate pain, it only complicates it more.

It is based on this assessment of creation that Fretheim makes the statement that "God created the world good, not perfect." And the imperfection and incompleteness of creation, he argues, shifts responsibility on to the created. In the closing paragraphs of the chapter Fretheim ponders what this might mean to us and says:

These various texts place the issue of human responsibility for the future of creation directly on the plates of the creatures, especially human beings. We cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of creation is solely in God's hands. Ultimately it is, yes, but in the meantime, human beings are called no to passivity but to genuine engagement, and the decisions that we make will have significant implications for the future of the earth and the nature of the future of God. (pp. 36-37)

How we understand the "good creation" of God and our role as the created should have an impact on how we continue to participate in the creative process that God has called us to. The world is not, and apparently never was, perfect. We are called to be creative with God as well as responsible for what God has entrusted to us.

I have just finished chapter two and will post some thoughts next week.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Fall Lecture Series at Ashland Theological Seminary, October 25-26

Please join us for this complimentary conference October 25-26, 2010, featuring:

  • Dr. Roberta Hestenes,Minister at Large, World Vision
  • Dr. Mimi Haddad, Executive Director, Christians for Biblical Equality
  • Dr. Paul Chilcote, Director, Center for Applied Wesleyan Studies, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies
  • Dr. Claudia Sadler-Gerhardt, Assistant Professor of Counseling

Smetzer Auditorium

Gerber Academic Building

910 Center St, Ashland OH 44805

Featured Speaker:

Dr. Roberta Hestenes, Minister at Large, World Vision

After my Christian conversion while in college, I was taught repeatedly that it was inappropriate and wrong for women to assume formal or highly visible leadership roles within the Christian community. The Bible forbade it and male leaders reinforced this with support from the women around them. Women should labor quietly and almost invisibly "behind the scenes," with a submissive spirit under male leadership. I even co-authored a discussion Bible study guide that asserted that public speaking and teaching gifts were restricted to men while women had other gifts such as the gift of "service" and "helps."Over a 50 year journey of Christian discipleship, I have had to work through, at theoretical, personal and practical levels, the issues related to women in leadership. Click here to READ MORE.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What happened to the "flesh" in Romans? More thoughts on the CEB

Last Monday I asked if we have too many translations. On Tuesday I mentioned that I was teaching Paul's letter to the Romans this term. This week I bring the two together.

One of my students in Romans was looking at the new Common English Bible. She brought to my attention Romans 7:5 which reads "When we were self-centered, the sinful pleasures aroused through the law were at work in all the parts of our body, so that we bore fruit for death."

What struck me was the choice to translate the Greek word sarx, as "self-centered". A literal translation of the first portion of 7:5 is "For when we were in the (sarx) flesh, the passions of sin were at work in our members." What happened to "flesh"? Is Paul really talking about being self-centered here? A scan of Romans 8 indicates that this was what someone thought. In 8:3-8 sarx appears another 13 times of which 10 are translated as either "selfishness" or "self-centered." I am not sure this gets at what Paul was talking about here.

In fairness sarx is a notoriously difficult term to define and translate. It has often be translated literally as "flesh," but this does not always get at what Paul (or other NT authors) meant. In Romans alone the term can take on connotations meaning ancestor/descent (1:2; 4:1), humanness (3:20), weakness (6:2o) the sphere in which sin operates (7:5, 18, 25) and a source of corruption and hostility against God (8:7).

The difficulty of interpreting this term is demonstrated in other translations. While the NAS and NRSV have retained "flesh" in 7:5 the NIV renders it as "sin nature" and the NLT as "old nature". Translations like that of NIV and NLT have been less than helpful, but simply translating sarx as flesh has not been any better. The problem with "flesh" is that in the modern age it tends to encourage dualistic thinking that leads to the conclusion that our bodies are somehow sinful or inherently evil and therefore something that we need to escape.

In the CEB the problem of how to understand "flesh" (sarx) has been met with a gloss over. "Flesh" is not used as a translation for any occurrences of sarx in Romans. The term appears 26 times in Romans but not once is it translated as "flesh". Moreover, half of the occurrences are in Romans 8, but you would not know it since the CEB translates sarx as "self-centered" or "selfish" 10 of the 13 times.

Is this what Paul really means by sarx? That sin is a problem of selfishness? Can the problem of human sinfulness be boiled down to being self-centered? I don't think so.

The problem, as Paul points out in 7:17, 20, is not with sarx, but with sin. The struggle that "I" has with doing what is right is not because of selfishness, or a sin nature, but because sin takes advantage of the weakness of the sarx. As flesh (sarx) humans are susceptible to sin, but they are not sinful simply because they are sarx (flesh).

Just as translations such as "sin nature" do not get to the heart of Paul's message so too "selfishness" fails. Such interpretations/translations flatten out the multifaceted meaning of what Paul is saying and paints his concept of "flesh" into a theological corner. Furthermore, there are times when Paul's use of sarx is intended to communicate several meanings at once. For instance, Paul's identification of Abraham as "our ancestor according to the flesh" in Romans 4:1 probably refers not only to the lineage of Abraham, but also to his circumcision of the flesh in which some were boasting (cf. 2:28). Abraham is not just the father of those circumcised in the flesh, but also those who are not circumcised (4:9-12). This is important stuff for Paul. But if you gloss over sarx you miss the way that he has woven together his argument and theology.

So what is a better translation? I am not sure there is one. Some words in the Bible are technical terms and do not easily lend themselves to translation. In their commentaries on Romans, Dunn and Byrne have both highlighted sarx as a technical term and that it must be translated literally as "flesh". I am in favor of this, but of course that leaves us with the old problem of dualistic thinking which can lead to a theology of extreme asceticism.

What if we didn't translate it but instead left sarx as sarx? Yes it is a foreign term, but that would provide teachers and preachers the opportunity to explain what it means rather than leaving it as "flesh," "sin nature" or even "selfishness." But even as I write this I am thinking of reasons why this would not always work.


What are we to do? Any suggestions?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 4:8 (NIV)