Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Promise of a Letter, by Kathleen Fuller

Kathleen Fuller.  The Promise of a Letter.  Thomas Nelson, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Promise of a Letter is Book 2 of Kathleen Fuller’s “Amish Letters” series.  The first book, Written in Love, was about Jalon, Phoebe, Phoebe’s child Malachi, and, last but not least, Blue the cat.  Book 2 focuses on Leanna, who is the sister of Jalon, Roman, Roman’s brother Daniel and his wife Barbara, and Karen and Adam, a couple that is sitting on the fence about getting married.  But Jalon, Phoebe, Malachi, and Blue still have cameos in the book!

Leanna and Roman are both odd ducks.  Leanna is a bit of a tomboy and is not good at what women in Amish society are expected to do (i.e., cooking).  She works for Daniel, who (if I recall correctly) is a carpenter, and a couple of busy-bodies are spreading rumors that she and Daniel are having an affair.  Daniel fires her, and she initially thinks it was because she read a note that she was not supposed to read.

Roman is a creative person, one who excels at coming up with ideas and drawing technical designs.  He does not have a whole lot of discipline with hands-on work, though.  Years before, he left the community.  His dream is to get a degree at a college, and he wrote the college a letter.  Because he left, he and Daniel are estranged from each other.  When he learns that his grandmother has died, he returns home, as his grandmother encouraged him to become reconciled with his brother.  We learn in the course of the book that their parents were rather cold and did not show affection.

Other things happen in the course of the book.  Daniel is injured.  Barbara is pregnant and loses the baby.  Karen and Adam are each waiting for the other to make the first move.

I read this book over the course of two months, a little each day.  It was an enjoyable book.  Roman does a lot of growing up, and Leanna gets to observe this because she was acquainted with him before he left.  Roman and Leanna were also characters for whom I wanted to root, as they were underdogs, in a sense.  The book had enough going on that it was not boring.  And its ending set the stage for the next book of the series.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Write-Up: Anatomy of an Affair, by Dave Carder

Dave Carder.  Anatomy of an Affair: How Affairs, Attractions and Addictions Develop, and How to Guard Your Marriage Against Them.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Dave Carder is a pastor and counselor.  He has degrees in psychology from Wayne State University and the University of Toledo.

Anatomy of an Affair covers a variety of issues.  First, there is the question of how adulterous affairs can develop: what people are missing in their marriages when they commit adultery, and what they are looking for.  Carder discusses different kinds of affairs, and he also addresses apparent puzzles, such as the question of why many who commit adultery do so with someone who is unlike their spouse.  Carder provides exercises that can assist a married couple in taking the temperature of its marriage.  Second, there is the question of how a married couple can recover from adultery.   The book has exercises on steps that a couple can take in forgiveness and in adding spice to its marriage.  Third, there is the question of what motivates the “other woman” or the “other man,” as well as sex addiction.  Often, they are attempting to cope with their own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, even trauma in some cases.

The book is filled with real-life case studies.  A lot of them followed a predictable pattern, but some of them had distinct details.  There was one sad story about a woman who was given to her grandparents when she was a child, and her parents lived right next door, raising her brothers and sisters; as a result, she felt unwanted.

Much of the book is probably common-sense, but, for a lot of people, that common sense needs to be put into accessible words: they are hungry for a repertoire that they can draw on as they seek to avoid adultery, or to move on from adultery.  This book provides that in an empathetic and practical manner, while suggesting resources that readers can consult.

In terms of critiques, I have two.  First, on page 107, Carder appears to recommend that married couples have occasional sex in an “unconventional place” to add spice to their marriage.  Couples should keep in mind, however, that sex in a public place is illegal in several places and may have dire legal consequences.

Second, many have criticized the “Billy Graham Rule” (the rule that a married man should not be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife) for discouraging Platonic friendships between men and women, and even for holding women back professionally.  Carder addressed these issues tangentially, but he could have done so more than he did: how can one avoid the risks that Carder highlights, without unfairly preventing women from advancing professionally due to a lack of networking opportunities, or opportunities to interact with men professionally?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Church Write-Up: God's Love; Congregant Questions

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of John, and the “Pen” church.

Because the Lutheran service and the Pen church’s service overlapped in theme, I will consider them first and second, respectively, before discussing the Sunday school class.

A.  The pastor at the Lutheran service talked about the hole in our hearts that only God can fill, according to Augustine, but that we futilely look to other people or things to fill.  What can heal us of this?  Can we simply stop sinning?  The pastor said that we cannot.  If we discipline ourselves in one area, we find three other areas in which we are looking to sin to fill our hearts.  What is the solution?  The pastor said that the solution rests in God’s love.

I was wondering if he was going in a Tim Keller-sort of direction.  Tim Keller often gave sermons about how we seek to root our identity in things other than God, with disappointing results.  For Keller, we cannot simply decide to stop doing that and to start doing the right thing.  The solution rested in Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for us, and, the more that is real to us, the more we will rest in his love.

I am sure that both pastors believe that the Holy Spirit’s work within the heart has to be involved in this conversion process, in some manner.  Sometimes, though, one can get the impression from sermons like these that Jesus’ act on the cross inspires people to respond with love towards God, like a moral-influence view of the atonement.  Does it, though?  I can believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again; believing I am a beneficiary of that, to be honest, can be more difficult, for do I have the proper faith, or do I repent correctly, or are the salvific benefits of Jesus’ death somehow contingent on my forgiveness of others?  Those who have assurance that they are children of God—-and Romans 8:16 speaks of the Spirit testifying within believers that they are such—-would probably be able to rest better in and to build their identity on God’s love for them.

The pastor also said that he does not want us to leave the service asking ourselves what we can do for Jesus.  Rather, he wants us to reflect on how Jesus invites us to be with him and to learn from him.  That is an interesting thought: the disciples got to be around Jesus and to hear from his wisdom.  Imagine people today being able to do so, either in reality or pretend: to walk with Jesus, either hearing from him, or asking oneself what Jesus might say in such-and-such a situation.

B.  The pastor at the “Pen” church also spoke about God’s love.  He said that many are like Simon Peter in Luke 5:8, after Jesus caused Peter’s boat to be filled with fish: Peter asked Jesus to depart from him, for Peter was a sinful man!  They cannot believe that God has a purpose for them because they have been and are sinful.  Whereas God wants them to have an identity in God, which entails abundant life, Satan tries to steal that identity (John 10:10).  The pastor shared that this was true of his own grandfather, who died in that state.

According to Psalm 139, the pastor shared, God loves us deeply and has a purpose for us.  God designed us in our intricacies, down to the smallest level.

C.  What stood out to me in the Sunday school class was the questions that the congregants asked.

—-We were reading patristic interpretations of John 6, which concerns eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood.  Many church fathers applied that to the Eucharist.  Some seemed to go so far as to suggest that partaking of the Eucharist was necessary to receive eternal life.  A lady in the audience had a problem with that: she said we are saved by faith alone; similarly, last week, a man said that communion was part of sanctification, not justification.  Interestingly, in the sermon, the pastor was telling about a shut-in who did not want the pastor to bring communion because she did not feel that she was a sinner: she was shut-in, after all, so what opportunity did she have to sin?  Is the implication that forgiveness of sins somehow relates to communion?  In any case, the teacher talked about how faith is more than cognitive: it is trusting in God, even when things do not make sense, and faith is what leads one to understanding.  We trust, he said, that we ingest Christ when we take communion, even if it looks like bread and wine; we trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through the pastor.

—-Another lady was saying that she disagreed with Christians who claim that all human beings have an eternal spirit inside of them, for she believes that people receive immortality only through Christ, and through belief in him.  I did not know if she was espousing conditional immortality here: the doctrine that only the saved live forever, whereas the un-saved are destroyed.  The teacher defined death as destruction and as eternal separation from God, and he probably believes that all have an immortal soul, including the un-saved.  Back when I was a teenager, going through the Ambassador College (Worldwide Church of God) Correspondence Courses, I encountered the view that Martin Luther rejected the immortality of the soul and embraced soul sleep.  That claim is still around, but I found this article to be a balanced assessment of it, and of Luther’s comments about the state of the dead.

—-The physical and the spiritual were salient topics in this session of the class.  According to some of the fathers we read, Jesus in John 6 was contrasting ordinary bread, which brings physical and temporal nourishment and life, with Jesus (and, perhaps, the bread of the Eucharist) as bread, which brings eternal life.  And yet, the teacher was saying that, according to the fathers, God meets us in the physical, which would include the elements of the Eucharist, and even the written words and verbal proclamation of Scripture.  The teacher also said that Jesus has a physical body—-a glorified body, and yet a body of flesh.  Someone in the class was curious about the definition of physical and non-physical.  His question reminded me of my Armstrongite heritage, which held that Jesus rose with a spiritual body.  Of course, people can ask: are not “spiritual” and “body” contradictory concepts?  Does not spiritual mean non-corporeal?  But, in ancient times, was that necessarily the case?  Did not the gods have bodies of some sort, in ancient pagan belief?  Then there is the issue of Jesus in the New Testament shining like the sun (Revelation 1:6; see also Matthew 17:2; Acts 26:13), which Gnostic literature liked to stress: is that consistent with Jesus’ resurrected body being spiritual, or physical, albeit a glorified physical?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: No Quick Fix, by Andrew David Naselli

Andrew David Naselli.  No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful.  Lexham Press, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew David Naselli has two Ph.D.’s: one from Bob Jones University, and another from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He teaches New Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, which is in Minneapolis.  He wrote a dissertation about the Keswick movement, which he revised as a book for Lexham press: Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick TheologyNo Quick Fix is a shorter book about the same topic and is more accessible to lay readers.

What is the “Higher Life Theology” that Naselli is criticizing?  Higher Life Theology posits that there are two kinds of Christian believers, both of whom are saved: there are carnal Christians, who are habitual sinners and are not fully yielded to God, and there are spiritual Christians, who are yielded to God and are filled with the Holy Spirit.  At a dramatic moment of decision sometime after his or her conversion, a Christian may decide to yield to God in surrender and to become filled the Holy Spirit.  This results in a great spiritual transformation, as the believer becomes liberated from sinful tendencies and attracted to righteousness; it also entails receiving spiritual power to do God’s work.  While obedience to God can set the stage for this intense moment, the transformation comes, not through actively working for it, but through “letting go and letting God”: trusting and allowing God to do the work of transformation.  Practically speaking, according to Naselli, many who have this kind of experience find that their spiritual batteries eventually run low and they feel a need to attend a Keswick conference where they can have the experience again.

What are Naselli’s problems with Higher Life Theology?  He has a variety of them.  For one, he does not acknowledge any distinction between carnal and spiritual Christians.  All true Christians bear spiritual fruit, to varying degrees, and this commences when they are saved, not at a later point in time.  Second, Naselli disagrees with the passivity that Higher Life Theology encourages.  According to Naselli, the New Testament does not teach believers to passively wait for God to transform them but encourages them to live out actively who they are as Christians: to mortify sinful desires and to perform works of righteousness.  On the basis of John 15, Naselli defines the believer abiding in Christ as walking in Christ’s commandments, and Christ abiding in the believer as Christ’s words dwelling in the believer; this entails activity, not passivity, on the part of the believer.  Third, Naselli believes that Higher Life Theology overlaps with Pelagianism, which he states “exalts a human’s autonomous free will and inherent ability to obey any of God’s commands apart from God’s help” (page 84).  How can this be, when Higher Life Theology encourages the believer to let God do the work of spiritual transformation?  For Naselli, Higher Life Theology is Pelagian in that it emphasizes that the believer can make a decision on his or her own to surrender to God, to plug into the Holy Spirit, and to become transformed.  The correct view, according to Naselli, is that God is the one who creates the faith and the will in the believer to obey God and to do good works.

Fourth, Naselli contends that Higher Life Theology sets believers up for spiritual discouragement.  They have a dramatic religious moment and expect things to be smooth sailing for them spiritually after that, but this does not happen.  They may conclude that they did not truly surrender everything to God, or they may even redefine sin, lowering the bar to where they are, to defend the authenticity of their religious experience.  Naselli discusses his own negative experience with Higher Life Theology and his recovery from it.  He also mentions evangelical luminaries who have had similar struggles with it, including J.I. Packer.  And, in an epilogue, John MacArthur, Jr. shares his own struggle with it back when he was a young Christian.

The book discusses the historical roots and development of Higher Life Theology, as its roots came from a variety of sources (i.e., Methodism, Pentecostalism, dispensationalism, etc.).  He talks about key figures associated with the movement, including D.L. Moody and Hanna Smith, the author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.  Naselli refers to the high points of the movement: for instance, Moody was impressed when a cantankerous Christian attended a Keswick conference and became sweeter and more loving afterwards.  But Naselli also mentions the lows: Hanna Smith’s husband Robert was sexually immoral and became an agnostic, and Hanna became (by Naselli’s and many conservative Christians’ standard) a heretic.

To his credit, Naselli attempts to account for those who have had positive spiritual experiences with Higher Life Theology, without dismissing their experiences.  For Naselli, sanctification can entail times of rapid growth spurts, and that may be what they are experiencing.  Naselli also acknowledges that believers becoming aware of their dependence on God’s Spirit for sanctification (which the Keswick movement encourages, albeit in an incorrect manner, as far as Naselli is concerned) is a positive development.

The book is informative.  Naselli does not systematically lay out his view of sanctification in one setting, but he does refer to it, and he supports it Scripturally, when he attempts to refute Higher Life Theology. Naselli not only demonstrates that there are New Testament passages that affirm that believers must actively fight sinful desires and do good works, but he also seeks to unpack the meaning of the concept of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  He presents different interpretive options concerning Ephesians 5:18, and he concludes that it means being influenced by the Holy Spirit and being indwelt by the words of Christ, which can exist at varying degrees.  Yet, unfortunately, Naselli does not address the concept as it appears in the Book of Acts.  Naselli’s discussion of how some commands in Scripture entail varying degrees of obedience, and how one can always improve one’s obedience of those commands, was an interesting insight.

There are spiritually inspiring statements in the book, from those Naselli seeks to refute, from himself, and from those Naselli cites for support.  Regarding Higher Life Theology, there is an appeal to letting go and letting God, as opposed to climbing uphill in an attempt to become better.  And Naselli favorably cited a powerful comment by Jerry Bridges in his appendix of Christian resource that he considers helpful: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace.  And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”

It was ironic, from my standpoint, that MacArthur narrated his spiritual struggles with Higher Life Theology, considering that his Lordship Salvation beliefs gave me my own share of spiritual struggles and disappointment.  I continually wondered if my life was spiritual or holy enough to be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in me, and if I could even follow Christ’s commands.  Naselli may have done well to have addressed the question of what professing or nominal Christians can do if they find that sin is great in their life and question whether they are truly Christians.

Finally, it stood out to me that, in listing spiritual exercises that believers can do to assist their sanctification, there was no reference in the book to accountability from fellow believers or fellowship.  There was a brief reference to church discipline, in an attempt to refute the idea that there are carnal Christians.  But, considering that accountability is emphasized in evangelicalism today, its extremely rare occurrence in the book was salient.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Ash Wednesday 2018

I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church.  My plan, for the next several weeks, is to attend the church’s weekly Lenten services, followed by the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.  And, yes, I hope to do a blog post about each one of them, as a way for me to process the service and to preserve it for myself and anyone interested.

The pastor opened his sermon by referring to an old car commercial, depicting a car that went through various terrain.  The slogan was, “It’s not about the destination, but the journey.”

The pastor said that the journey is indeed important, but so is the destination.  He told a story about when he was in Hawaii with other Lutherans, and his group wanted to see a waterfall.  The directions were not clear, so his group was trying to find the waterfall.  They were walking on what they thought was a trail—-for a while, they were trying to convince themselves that it was a trail—-but it was not.  They were lost, and they did not reach their destination.

The pastor applied this to repentance.  Whereas the directions to the waterfall were not clear, God has laid out God’s instructions.

The pastor got onto the topic of godly verses ungodly repentance.  II Corinthians 7:9-10 refers to godly repentance, but, according to the pastor, it also seems to imply that there is such a thing as ungodly repentance.  What is ungodly repentance?

The pastor defined ungodly repentance as repentance that is superficial and does not accompany or lead to an authentic change of mind—-which encompasses more than intellectual thoughts but also includes moral decision-making.

The pastor told a story to illustrate ungodly repentance.  The pastor was trying to get to an elders’ meeting at a Lutheran church where he was serving, and he went way over the speed limit.  A cop stopped him, and the pastor told the cop that he was trying to get to an elders’ meeting; the pastor was wearing his collar, so he hoped that the cop would go easy on a clergy-person.  It turned out that the cop was a lapsed Lutheran.  The cop remarked that his grandmother went to that Lutheran church, and he should be going, too, but he never does.  The cop decided to let the pastor off in an attempt to get right with God.

There were two things wrong with this cop’s repentance, the pastor related.  First, it did not lead to any change on the cop’s part: it was not as if the cop started attending the church!  But, second, the cop was trying to solve the problem of his alienation from God on his own.  According to the pastor, he was like Adam and Eve in the Garden: rather than turning to God, he was trying to be God, assuming autonomy.

What is true repentance?  According to the pastor, it entails being challenged by God’s law and asking God to be merciful to us, sinners (Luke 18:13).  It includes dying to a desire for sin.  It entails wanting oneself to decrease while Jesus increases (John 3:30).

But, the pastor said, even this focuses on us.  For the pastor, we are helpless to save ourselves.  Many of us, when confronted with our transgression of God’s law, may become resentful rather than repentant.

The pastor then talked about how God grieves for our sin.  The pastor detected God’s grief at Adam and Eve’s sin when God in Genesis 3 asked them where they were and who told them that they were naked.  It was manifest when Jesus asked God to forgive his persecutors, for they know not what they do (Luke 22:34).

These were the highlights of the sermon, as I recall them.  I could identify with what the pastor said about resenting God’s law: I often feel that God’s law (as I understand it) is the problem because it is too high of a standard, one that I, and very few people, can reach.  But I wondered how the pastor envisions God healing our attitudes.  Is it through an act of monergism, of God unilaterally transforming our hard heart?

We sang different songs, but one that particularly ministered to me was an old Lutheran hymn called “Today Your Mercy Calls Us.”  You can read its lyrics here.  The hymn is worth reading because it illustrates the meaning of forgiveness and highlights God’s love:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Isaiah's Daughter, by Mesu Andrews

Mesu Andrews.  Isaiah’s Daughter.  Waterbrook, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Isaiah’s Daughter is biblical fiction that is set in the time of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah.  Ishma and Yaira are refugees from the invasion of Judah by Northern Israel and Syria in the eighth century B.C.E. (II Kings 16-17; Isaiah 7).  Ishma is adopted by the prophet Isaiah.  She is friends with Prince Hezekiah, with whom she attends school, which Isaiah teaches.  Ishma and Hezekiah eventually marry, and her name is changed to Hephzibah, or Zibah, for short.  The book goes from Ahaz’s idolatrous, cruel reign, through key events of Hezekiah’s reign (i.e., his fight against the Philistines, the Passover celebration, the Assyrians’ attempted invasion of Jerusalem, and Hezekiah’s sickness), to the birth of Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh.  It does not include the Babylonians’ visit of Jerusalem.

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A.  Naturally, I compared this book with Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series, which covers the same time period.  There were similarities between the two works: a child sacrifice scene, and Hephzibah’s discouragement at not being able to give birth.  Some similarities may be due to the authors’ common insights into biblical history or what biblical passages say: Lachish is depicted as rather idolatrous in both works, and both works depict Isaiah applying promises to Zion to Hephzibah personally, which is not too surprising, considering that Hephzinah’s name appears in Isaiah 62:4.  But there were also clear differences between the two works.  Hezekiah’s mother Abijah is a righteous martyr in Austin’s work, whereas she is a conniving queen and queen-mother in Andrews’ narration.  Shebna is an atheist in Austin’s series, but merely a self-serving know-it-all in Andrews’ book.

B.  In terms of which telling is better, both have their advantages.  Austin did better in laying out the characters’ motivations.  Andrews, however, had a more sophisticated, deeper writing-style.  That made the book rather slow for the first half, but the book came alive in the second half.

C.  Both tellings highlight the complexity of biblical interpretation, albeit in different ways.  Austin’s work concerned interpretation of the Torah and the different conclusions that this could yield.  Andrews, by contrast, focused more on the prophecies of Isaiah.

D.  Austin’s work tended to assume a Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecies, treating them as about the far off future and in reference to Jesus Christ.  Andrews, by contrast, seemed more sensitive to historical-critical interpretations, which interpret the Book of Isaiah in light of its own historical contexts.  The characters wonder if Isaiah’s prophecies relate to their own day, and, while their eventual conclusion is that several of them relate to the future, they still maintain that they may have at least a partial application to their own time.  Hezekiah wonders continually if he is the anointed Davidic king who will preside over eschatological peace and prosperity.  And, drawing from an article by Margaret Barker, Andrews contends that Hezekiah’s sickness, on some level, fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53 about the servant suffering for people’s sins.  Like a number of conservatives, Andrews apparently treats the prophet Isaiah as the author of Isaiah 53, whereas many scholars would associate that section with an exilic or post-exilic author.  Still, her sensitivity towards interpreting Isaiah in reference to the time of Hezekiah is intriguing and refreshing.

E.  There were some hints of Christianity in the book, some more warranted than others.  Andrews interprets Isaiah 7:14 as a virgin birth, and, in attempting to discern if the prophecy is being fulfilled in their own time, characters wonder if a specific character is a virgin.  This is somewhat warranted, as conservative scholars have argued that “virgin” is a possible meaning of the Hebrew word “almah,” as they are distinguished from queens and concubines in Song of Solomon 6:8.  At the same time, the word may simply mean young woman, as “alam” means “young man” in I Samuel 17:56 and 20:22.  In another passage in the book, there is a statement that offering a lamb can atone for sins.  The stress on the sacrificial victim being a lamb is obviously Christian, since Christians believe that Jesus was the lamb of God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, however, a variety of domesticated animals are offered for sins.

F.  In Austin’s work, Hezekiah and Isaiah largely seemed to be on the same page: both are pious men, seeking to do God’s will.  By contrast, Andrews emphasizes the clash between Isaiah and Hezekiah.  Hezekiah is practical and seeks an alliance with Egypt, which Isaiah lambastes, and even walks naked through town to protest.  Hezekiah tries to build a water tunnel to help Jerusalem in times of siege, but Isaiah deems that to display a lack of trust in God (see Isaiah 22:11), as well as a violation of the sanctity of Gihon (which Andrews seems to base on Nathan’s anointing of Solomon there in I Kings 1).  Andrews even presents Hezekiah and Isaiah clashing in ways that the Bible does not: when Hezekiah allows Levites to sacrifice and Israelites to eat the Passover without being purified (II Chronicles 29-30), Isaiah is outraged, seeing that as a violation of the Torah; Isaiah acknowledges that this is his opinion, though, not a word from God, as his other prophecies were.  Although Isaiah and Hezekiah make peace eventually, the tensions between their two positions are never fully resolved.  Hezekiah rejects Egypt’s gifts of scarabs, seeing them as idolatrous, yet Egypt still helps Judah when the Assyrians invade.  Hezekiah proceeds to build the tunnel.  When Isaiah instructs Hezekiah to put a lump of figs on his boil (Isaiah 38:21) to recover, Hezekiah wryly asks if Isaiah is telling him to help God out, rather than trusting God completely, as Isaiah usually exhorts Hezekiah to do.  The tension between practicality and trusting God remains unresolved in this book.

G.  Hephzibah was not always easy to understand.  She could sympathetically and empathetically comprehend why women would want to worship Asherah, yet she was practically a religious zealot in expunging Asherah worship from the harem.  Still, the book was somewhat believable in depicting her religious journey: she gained strength as she reflected on Isaiah’s words in a season of solitude.

H.  One scene was particularly intriguing.  Biblical scholar Brian Beckham argues that a biblical author in Isaiah 37 criticizes Isaiah’s prophecies by placing Isaiah’s words in the mouth of the taunting Rabshakeh.  Andrews actually attempts to do something with this idea: Hezekiah suspects that Isaiah has communicated with the Assyrians.  By the way, that was in character for Hezekiah, as far as this book is concerned.  Although one might expect Hezekiah to have more faith in his former teacher, Hezekiah could get rather suspicious and paranoid in this book.

I.  Andrews, to her credit, acknowledged nuance among pagan views, rather than lumping them all together.  She narrates, for instance, that the Assyrians were not too keen on human sacrifice.

J.  On page 373, we read: “When one of God’s prophecies doesn’t come to pass, it’s not because He failed; it’s because we misunderstood it.”  How would that be reconciled with Deuteronomy 18:22, which states that a prophet is false if his words fail to come to pass?  If one can explain away non-fulfillment, does that not undermine Deuteronomy 18:22, in some manner?

I am giving this book five stars, because it was engaging.  I appreciated its sensitivity towards historical-criticism and the differences between Hezekiah and Isaiah.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books.  My review is honest.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Church Write-Up: Christ's Transfiguration and Miracles; Real Presence; Agape

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.

Here are some summaries, followed by links:

A.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, we were celebrating Transfiguration Sunday.  The youth pastor and the pastor were both discussing Christology.  They said that Jesus as a human being on earth was still divine, but he was hiding his divinity from people; the youth pastor suggested that this was because a premature revelation of Jesus’ divinity would anger people and they would put him to death before his time.  According to the youth pastor and the pastor, Jesus showed Peter, James, and John his divinity at the Transfiguration.  The pastor likened that to the Eucharist: the Eucharist looks like a simple meal, if it can even be called a meal, for it is not enough food to fill one up.  But divinity accompanies the elements of the Eucharist.  The pastor also talked about God being present in the seemingly mundane things of life.

Similarly, at the Sunday school class, the teacher was saying that Jesus hid his divine nature in becoming fully human.  Jesus still drew from it in doing miracles, however.

Some links:

A while back, I wrote a blog post about J.R. Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God, in which Kirk argues that the synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus as pre-existent or ontologically divine when he was on earth.  The post is here, in case you want to read it.  Unfortunately, I did not refer to Kirk’s discussion of the Transfiguration.  If my memory is correct, Kirk argued that, at the Transfiguration, Jesus was showing Peter, James, and John the glory that he would have after his resurrection, not any ontological divinity that he possessed.

Regarding Jesus doing miracles through his inherent divine nature, I referred in my Church Write-Up last week to passages in which Jesus does miracles through the power of his Father or the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28; John 5:31-38; 14:10; Acts 10:38); I noted, however, John 2:19, in which Jesus seems to affirm that he has the power to resurrect himself from the dead.  Here is that post, if you want to read it.  I wondered if there were ancient Christian thinkers, after the time of the New Testament, who acknowledged that Jesus performed miracles through the power of the Father or the Holy Spirit, as opposed to drawing on his own divine nature.  I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of patristics, but, in my post here a while back, I discussed the debate between Theodoret and Cyril of Alexandria: Cyril thought Jesus did miracles through his own divine nature, whereas Theodoret said Jesus performed them through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

B.  The Sunday school class talked a lot about the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.  We were reading patristic sermons about John 6, in which Jesus talks about how eating his flesh and drinking his blood brings a person eternal life.  The sermons we were reading applied that, at least in part, to the elements of the Eucharist.  An elderly woman then asked, “In light of this, why do Reformed people teach that the bread and the wine are merely symbols for Christ’s body and blood?”

The teacher replied that the teaching that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic originated after the sixteenth century, whereas, before then, the widespread Christian position was that Christ was actually present in the bread and the wine.  He stated that the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Orthodox are very similar on the Eucharist.  Luther differed slightly from the Catholics, the teacher said, in that the Catholics believed that the bread and the wine literally became the body and blood of Christ, whereas Luther thought that, on some level, they remained bread and wine, even though they were connected to the spiritual.

The class then talked about what the church did to leftover elements of the Eucharist.  One practice that some Lutheran churches perform is to send the wine back to the earth.  That reminded me of what my Grandpa did when our family observed the Lord’s supper every year: he would burn the leftover matzos.  We did not believe in the “real presence” but saw the Lord’s supper as commemorative, but my Grandpa’s idea was that the bread was holy and could only be used for holy purposes.

My understanding is that Zwingli believed that the bread and the wine of communion were symbolic, and Zwingli lived during, not after, the sixteenth century.  Still, I wondered if the belief in the real presence was the universal belief until the Reformation.

Here are some links, some more scholarly than others:

In this post, Nathan Busenitz, whose book Long Before Luther I wrote about here, cites patristic statements that he believes support the view that the elements of the Eucharist are symbolic and commemorative; he states that Catholic apologists misunderstand the patristic passages that appear to support a “real presence” in the elements of the Eucharist.  Meanwhile, some Catholics in the comments section accuse him of misunderstanding.  And this Catholic article trots out patristic statements, from many of the same people whom Busenitz cites, that appears to support Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist.  Could the reality be that they believed in both/and, or does one view preclude the other?

I wondered if the Waldensians of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries believed in the “real presence.”  The reason that they came to mind was due to my Armstrongite heritage, which depicted them as part of the “true church” in the medieval era.  What I found was different people saying different things.  Here and here, one can read the view that the Waldensians rejected transubstantiation.  Here, one can read the view that they believed in it.

Another comment on this issue: I think that, in John 6, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood relates to believing in Jesus and coming to him, not so much the Eucharist.  I believe that on the basis of v 35: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”  But I can understand that other Christians interpret eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood in John 6 in light of New Testament passages about the Lord’s supper, which call the bread Jesus’ body and the wine his blood (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; I Corinthians 10:16; 11:24-27).

A question: Does the Missouri Synod believe that communion services that do not believe in the “real presence” can still contain the “real presence” and be legitimate communion services?

C.  At the “Pen” church, the pastor preached about abiding love.  His focus was on marriage and romance.  He said that there are three Greek words for love: eros is romantic and sexual love; phileo is a friendly love that contains give-and-take but can break down under pressure; agape is self-sacrificial love that is concerned about the well-being of the other person.  The pastor said that we practice agape when we grasp God’s love towards us: that God will stay with us and will never leave.  That way, we are filled, and our love spills out towards others.  Many of us, by contrast, run on empty and the slightest thing can set us off.

Some links and thoughts:

Many evangelical preachers, writers, and laypeople assume that there is a difference between phileo and agape, when, in reality, they were often used interchangeably.  See my post here.  Still, I appreciate what the pastor was saying.  There are relationships out there that are give-and-take.  There are relationships out there that are brittle.  Hopefully, there are also relationships out there that are solid, and disinterested love is a real thing.

I recalled a sermon that a United Methodist pastor preached about three years ago, about the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  He said that the man who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, did not necessarily have sinister motives.  He was just wondering something: did he have to pour out agape love on every single person, or could he do so with a few select people?  I have heard Christians casually say that we are supposed to “love everybody,” but can we?  Can we truly have a selfless, sacrificial, giving love towards everyone, even everyone we know?  Would we not naturally show that love to some over others?  On the other hand, I am not suggesting that we should only love our friends and family and forget about the outside world.  Anyway, I wrote about that sermon here, and you can read there my other thoughts about that sermon.

Finally, can I believe in God’s unconditional love for me?  That is difficult.  I can try, but, before long, some Christian will come along and say or imply that God loves me if I behave, or that I cannot use God’s love as cover for sinning, or not forgiving, or not loving my neighbor.  Then there are biblical passages about God leaving those who deny or forsake him (II Chronicles 15:2; II Timothy 2:12).  And yet, the Bible is a record of God’s faithfulness: God provides for Adam and Eve after their sin; God is faithful to disobedient Israel; Christ dies for people while they are yet sinners.

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