Claiming Old Testament Promises

Alas, I am still easy-chair bound, and to hobble downstairs and yank out my giant textbooks would be too difficult for a simple blog post, but I’ll write this without citing sources simply as a challenge — rest assured that this challenge was given to me in the form of first year seminary courses, and not something off the top of my head. If you have questions, I encourage you to research them for yourself.
At issue is our tendancy to claim Old Testament promises out of context. I myself am guilty of quoting Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage someone going through a tough time, but its important to understand the implications — especially political, national and theological — of doing so.
The promises God gave to the Israelites in the Old Testament were given to a geopolitical group: when He promised land, He wasn’t promising you land; when He promised wealth, He wasn’t promising you wealth; and when He promised a hope and a future, He wasn’t talking to you, or even to individual Israelites at the time. He was promising to provide a home, and later to provide restoration, to His chosen people — a whole nation (and sometimes not-yet-born generations of that nation, not even the ones alive when He made the promise!!) — with the stipulation that they obey His commandments!
The only way to claim those promises for ourselves today is to re-understand “Israel.” The most common approach to that, and in my opinion, best supported Biblically, is to understand that when Christ came, he redefined “His chosen people” not as a geopolitical people group but as the new nation-less, race-less assembly of those who would chose to follow Him, whom He called His Church. If you can accept that “Israel” is not now the (relatively newly established) country in the Middle East, but is instead the Church, then you can lay claim to some of those Old Testament promises and stipulations on them — as they relate to the whole Church; again, not to individuals.
If, however, for reasons likely political, it is important to you maintain the current country and people of Israel as a continuation of the Old Testament Israel, then you have no claim to the promises given to that nation thousands of years ago; all of those promises belong only to them.
Apparently there are those who find some middle ground, or compromise between those two positions, chosing to view the church Christ established as a chosen people, and ancient-through-modern Israel as also a chosen people, picking and chosing which rules and promises are applicable to the former, as they see fit. I see the two positions as mutually exclusive. John 16:33 promises that in this world we will have trouble. It doesn’t promise that God will make everything right — at least on this earth. Our only reason for hope, and the only reason our brother’s and sister’s living in Israel have for hope, is in life eternally with Him.
There’s no promise that each of us will have a pain free life, just because we’re Christians. I offer as evidence my mangled leg: I hope it will heal completely — but the most likely outcome is that I’ll have 2-3 months of re-hab, 6-12 months of painful swelling, a lifetime with at least a mild limp, and probable arthritis when I get older. If I hope hard enough (or pray hard enough) there’s no promise that will change. But when I get to heaven, I do have hope that my new body will be a much better one than I have now!!
A good list of the viewpoints on who the “Chosen People” are today can be found here.
PS: It would be prudent to exclude Psalms from this discussion, as those should be interpreted differently, due to their genre. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well seem to offer promises, but the wisdom genre again requires a different kind of exegesis…

Seminary Paper 2: Homosexuality and the Bible

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from.
I put off posting this paper because I know how contentious it is (and even painful for some.) Its a complicated topic, that has not been represented well by the Christian community. Some might be surprised to learn that Jesus apparently said nothing on the topic — that’s certainly a far-cry from the far right, conservative position on the subject! At any rate, I don’t post this for flame bait, but in the spirit of respectful discussion and an earnest desire to uncover what the Bible really says about this. Personally, I lean toward a more conservative viewpoint, but after doing the research for this paper, and finding decades of spiteful vitriol spewed by very un-Biblical Christian leaders on this topic, I can’t help but view the other side of the debate in a more empathetic light. Here’s my conclusion — or you can read the whole paper here.
If the church fathers have maintained a well-documented position for 2000 years, the church of today would do well to pay heed to that legacy. Certainly homosexuality is not a new concern, and if intelligent, Godly men have poured over what scripture we have on the subject and concluded that homosexual tendency is a sin to be conquered, then Christians have a duty to reach out to those lost in that sin, meet them humbly as fellow, fallen human beings, and demonstrate the love that Christ commanded of us.
If, however, the church leaders of centuries past lacked information, or staunchly defended a viewpoint that is intellectually and scripturally questionable – and there is certainly historical precedent for human error and bias affecting church positions – then that love and humility must remain applicable. We have to acknowledge that there are certain topics on which we lack literal divine instruction, and not stand in the way of those who would come to our Father’s throne holding an opinion different from our own!
However distasteful our view of a specific sin is, God leaves no margin for interpretation when He says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), that all sin is abhorrent to God (Jas 2:10), and that each of us is entirely dependent on His grace (Eph 2:8) and changed by His redemptive work (Phil 1:6). What right have we, who through no work of our own, having been saved by love, to tell fellow sinners that they are undeserving of that love?
Wherever an individual Christian lands on the debate about homosexuality, thank God it is not our place to judge. (John 8:7). Rather it is the duty of every believer to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). Those of us touched by this subject, either personally, or through family or friends wrestling with a reality that even conservatives estimate to impact up to 10% of the population , would do well to study scripture prayerfully, read the opposing viewpoints, and resolve before God to act, think, speak and welcome in love anyone who would look to us, the church and the body of Christ, for guidance and friendship. We are called to be a light in the darkness, not flame throwers.

Seminary Paper 3: Creation

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from…
Our TA who marked my paper (and gave me an 88%!) said I did a good job researching other people’s opinions, but wasn’t clear enough on what I thought. I actually think I barely scratched the surface of all the different opinions, both educated and not-so-much, on the topic. And to be honest, all the talk bores me — my opinion is simple: God created the world. Moses wrote down his best understanding of how that happened, which both God and tradition revealed to him. His purpose in writing was to set the appropriate outlook and expectations for God’s people. I suspect that creation took longer than 6 literal days — although I believe that if God wanted to do it in 6, He could have. I suspect that God didn’t reveal the story to us literally because God loves science — He desires for His kids to learn about Him through the study of His creative power. And I see importance to the debate in the differentiation between creation (bara) and formation. Only Elohim can create matter from nothing — even ardent evolutionists are at a loss to explain matter where there was none before. Formation, on the other hand, is observable throughout the created world — even today.
I’m not an evolutionist. Human beings are more than the sum of their parts, so I accept a “special creation” or at least special formation, when it comes to human beings. How God did that, or how He formed the rest of the universe? Well, I’ll leave that pursuit to those smarter than me. I suspect God wants to communicate with them on a level I am ill-equipped to perceive. Here’s my summary. You can read the rest of the paper here.
Why were the initial Christian reactions to Darwin’s theory received without prejudice, and even welcomed by some, when now they are maligned as affronts to our religious beliefs? Have we as Christians grown tired of revising our understanding of the Bible, and in the face of scientific progress become stubborn and superstitious? Or has Neo-Darwinism’s scorn for theology backed Christianity into a defensive and reactive position? Are we any different than the church who forced Copernicus into hiding for his theory of heliocentricity? Or is a literal 6 days the final line we must hold in order to defend the inspiration and value of the Bible?

The reality is God directed Moses to write about 6 days, and to describe the creation of mankind in His image. How God did those things, or how long He took to do it is a mystery we’re invited to explore – as He gave us all of creation to explore. “Scriptural statements are not bound by rules as strict as natural events, and God is not less excellently revealed in these events than in the sacred propositions of the Bible.” (Galileo, 1957) and in fact it is in the very exploration of God’s creation (and creative method) that intelligent people find God !
We can’t know, or pretend to know, or argue vehemently that we know how God created the universe when we weren’t there, and He didn’t spell it out for us scientifically. Even the most likely author of the book of Genesis wasn’t present when it happened. What we can know is bara Élohim – God created. Not just formed, but created. And because He made us like Him, we’re allowed to ask “how?”

Seminary Paper 1: Hell and Universalism

As a preface to this post, please read this one, to understand the position I’m writing from…
I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book yet, but I’m interested to do so soon. This paper was written as part of my own exploration of what the Bible had to say on the fun topic of eternal damnation. A seminary prof has since forwarded me an interesting article on a related idea called “Christus Victor” which is worth a read. Here’s my summary:
Faced with clear scripture as is found in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a liberal, in a more conservative mood, would have to concede that “eternal destruction” probably meant, at least to Paul, “eternal.” A conservative, faced with the reality of hell for someone they love, likely would concede that God can do things we can’t imagine, and remember that He alone governs such things: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Rev 1:17-18)
Interpreting Paul’s words on judgment and hell, alongside Old Testament notions on the subject, Christ’s teaching, the cultural understanding that Paul was speaking into, the rest of the New Testament canon, and the literalness of the form, it would seem to take some significant mental effort to construe his writing as anything but literal and what God intended him to write. Paul spoke about judgment after life to inform, encourage and instruct the church at Thessalonica, admonishing them to live in a way worthy of God’s calling and reminding them that God would reward the just and punish the unjust – clearly articulating an eternal, painful outcome for those who did not obey.
Although it seems wise to take the scripture at face value, one should acknowledge that God’s love and his power are beyond what we can imagine. It is fortunate, then, that these things are up to Him, and not to even His church to decide in the end.
You can read the rest here using Office Web Apps on SkyDrive.

I think we're alone now

Another reason for pushing our blog a little further into obscurity is that the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. Occasionally I rant with fervor, and those rantings should not be associated with my “work life” identity as a representative of a large software company. For instance, while my job title indicates that I evangelize technology (literally using the word “evangelist”), in my personal life there’s a Gospel that I’d much rather be associated with — created for a cause much more important.
Not only am I a dad, a husband, and a technology guy, but I am also a seminary student. And although I hope my personal faith guides my professional life, and that obedience and devotion to the Lord of my life throughout my daily routine can somehow reflect His truth and grace; although I appreciate a country and a workplace that allow me freedom to practice my beliefs, I do not, like Sunday School teacher’s used to tell us we should, use my work life as an opportunity to prosleytize.
Some may call that cowardly — and maybe it is — but the reality is that religion and politics are two conversation topics sure to raise ire quickly. And in much of the world, politics has become irrevocably infused with religion. This morning I watched Mike Huckabee on the Daily Show having a chat that started on the topic of the founding father’s religious beliefs, that seamlessly became a talk about big vs. small government. In neither the host’s, nor the guest’s, mind did the topic change from religion to politics. As far as they recognized, there was no dividing line. And if you can’t talk one without the other, and if at least one of those is sure to offend the sensibilities of your audience, then outside of a personal relationship, there is no way to share your faith at work.
That doesn’t mean there is no way to share your faith with individuals you meet at work who become friends. It just means that the relationship has to come first. Within a boardroom, a rant about ones beliefs on hell would quickly destroy any ability to communicate professionally. Within a friendship, however, listening to your another’s thoughts and beliefs and sharing your own, is a mutually rewarding and enjoyable activity.
So let me be clear for those who know me professionally and still read this blog, and for those who may later stumble across it: this blog is a conversation between friends. Yes, the Internet creates strange definitions of friendship, but the point remains valid. These are not the opinion of my employer, nor would I espouse many of these opinions in the course of a normal business day. I hope and work for an ethic and integrity in my job that reflects the noble characteristics that my faith teaches, but I respect the viewpoints of others, and would not use my belief system to judge or preach to others I come across in my professional life. Within the context of friendship, that respect continues, but in the form of dialogue and exploration. On this site, and in my personal life, I do articulate my beliefs, but in the spirit of an open, and enjoyable exchange of ideas. Since you’re reading my site, my beliefs are likely to be more prominent, but you are free to disagree, debate, ask questions, and challenge my conclusions. You are also invited to explore these beliefs for yourself, to see if maybe there is a God of the universe, who created you unique and with a purpose…
All this to say that I’ve written a couple papers for my seminary class on Biblical Interpretation. I’m not in seminary to become a pastor, but to leverage a spiritual and academic environment conducive to a better understanding of my Saviour and a more mature and informed faith. To that end, I chose to explore interpretations of a few controversial topics, and in the coming week or so, I’d like to post excerpts from those papers here for discussion. I have tried to be moderate and balanced in my approach, while honoring my own faith which informs my decisions. I hope they are useful for a respectful, interesting exchange of ideas.