Monday, January 26, 2015

Is our preaching succumbing to our Culture?

William Willimon Professor of Christian Ministry over at Duke University delivered an observation on Tuesday 20th Sept 2011 called "the Culture is overrated" which is even more poignant today.
He started by saying
When I recently asked a group of pastors what areas they wanted help with in their preaching, most replied, “To preach sermons that really hit my people where they live.”
At one time I would have agreed this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching—to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. Now I believe it is our weakness.
In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in. Most of the preaching in my own denomination struggles to relate the gospel to the modern world. We sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the modern world; the traffic was always one way, with the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like, “This relates to me,” or, “I’m sorry, this is really impractical.” It was always the modern world telling the Bible what’s what.
This way of preaching fails to do justice to the rather imperialistic claims of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t want to speak to the modern world; the Bible wants to convert the modern world.
Much of what William says is challenging to our preaching to the world, but when we consider we are preaching mostly to our congregations, those professing to be Christians, claiming to be disciples of Jesus, then this speaks volumes about where they are at.

It certainly clear that many find it difficult to listen to expository preaching, they much prefer the 3 point sermon or topical sermon. In most cases for the expository sermon to be palpable it must begin with an attention getter from our world and end with some worldly relevance to my situation. As the kind professor pointed out, too often the focus is how all this "relates to me" in my situation, my life experiences.

Now I am not for a moment suggesting we go to the opposite end of the pendulum and have preaching not at all relating to the hearer, yet even saying it that way is to misunderstand the preaching of Scripture. It's not all about you. Frequently the application is seeing How Great God is and His faithfulness and dedication to fulfilling His plan and praising and Thanking Him. Many Christians at this point are in need of reassessing their attitude to God addressing them in the Bible.

William said "the Bible wants to convert the modern world". Just as aptly we might say that for believers listening to the Scriptures, "The Bible wants to transform you. make you more like Christ."

Read William and prayerfully reflect on how you listen to the Sermon this Sunday.

In Christ

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Creation Genesis 1 and the Gap Theory

The Gap theory. This is just one of a number of views held about Genesis 1:1-2.
            It is frequently attributed to some early Jewish writers, some early Church “fathers” and some even today hold this view. Some translations, such as the TEV are now suggesting it by the use of "when" in verse 1, academics like Michael Hieser also teach it or at least that verse 1 is a dependent clause.

At least four different arguments are mentioned in support of this view that there is a gap in time between verses 1 & 2.
  1. It suggested that the word create doesn’t mean out of nothing but God took something and formed it from that. This latter notion just pushes the creation question of origin one step further back. Eg Where did the matter come from for God to form it? Sometimes the word “create” bara, and “made” are used at the same time, as in the creation of man from the dust of the earth, vs 27, so  the word create can be used for out of nothing and also from stuff already there the context makes it clear. READ Hebrews 11:3. What comes to pass out of nothing? “What is seen” ie the universe was “out of nothing”.

  1. Some suggest that God made the earth as a place for the angels and that they left their abode and tried to usurp God, or at least some did, eg satan. This then suggests that what we have in Genesis 1 is a recreation. But the text is clear in the following verses that this creation is of the universe, the sun and moon, etc not just of this planet. Granted that angels and satan just enter the story unannounced in chapter 3, but the focus is not on them, but God and mankind.
  2. Some argue that verses 1-2 have a possible translation[1] of “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” which is called a dependant clause.  Which means you expect further information to complete the sentence. So on this understanding verse 2 supplies that and the real down to business begins in verse 3. Illustration “when Carolyn and I got married in 1987.” This is illustrative that a dependent cluase needs further information to make the point. They say it must be a dependant clause because Ancient Near East Cosmologies such as Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish begins this way. And when Masoretes added vowels to Hebrew in 600AD they translated it as a dependant clause. But the Hebrews knew their Old Testament had dependent and independent clauses but saw fit not to translated it this way, not even between 300-200BC when they wrote the Old Testament into Greek [ The Septuagint ] they left it as an independent clause. 

     4.   Lastly some argue “empty and void” vs 2 suggest destruction. And so this was the way God had the stuff at the time of satan’s rebellion before he “remade” it. However empty and void more aptly means  uninhabited. God made the Heavens and the Earth to be filled, not left uninhabited. Additionally, we must consider that Genesis 1 has the refrain “good” and that at the Creation of light God says it was good. It is difficult  then to think that verse 2 refers to something bad and that God has not bothered to point this out in the  text which has God declare good as a dominant phrase.

[1] Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s true.

In Christ

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Myth and the Bible

For at least the last 100 years people have taken to type casting Genesis 1 &  2 as Myth. The contrast has for many been between the text as myth and the text as history. So what is the definition of myth being espoused lately?
William J Larkins JR points out in his book on Culture and Biblical hermeneutics that "the primary purpose of the Bible is to promote the faith of the one true God over the pagan myths of origin, power and destiny, and so direct reference to the lurid content of such myths is intentionally restricted." pg 208.
One should remember that part of the Biblical Worldview is the reality of the satanic and demonic and that this reality must not be scoffed at and dismissed as an adored relic of religious myth. One reason the Bible clearly has a negative attitude towards myth is that it is grounded in a distortion of the truth and that it leads people away from God. As we read in 2 Tim 4:4 which presents the contrast so well, that of the temptation to turn from the truth and "wander away to myth". See also in regard to myth, Titus 1:14, 2 Peter 1:16.
It is hard then to see how one could see a positive role for myth or declare The Word as myth without rejecting this Biblical foundation. Yet some still do this.
I am presently reading Gary Dorrien's 'The Word as True Myth' and I am looking forward to seeing how he deals with this for the suggestion is that the Bible as myth has been the foundation of liberalism since the Enlightenment. This consequence of the Enlightenment is seen in some theologians who declare that the New Testament contain "some accounts which are plainly mythical" Dorrien pg 6.
In declaring Acts 19:11-12 the healing by contact with cloths that touched Paul's body, or Matthew 17:24-27 about the coin in the fish's mouth, or the rock that followed Moses in the wilderness, 1 Cor 10:4 the immediate response seems appropriate that to take such accounts as myth is to assume that the God of the Bible doesn't act supernaturally. Which is exactly the consequences that the Enlightenment engendered through it's rejection of the Authority of God and the position that the reality of Kant's noumena was unknowable. The age of the patriarchs in Genesis 5:1-32 who lived an average of 857 years shouldn't be apriori ruled out under the classification of myth.  I for one doubt the proclaimed position of certain liberals that the biblical stories of the flood and Tower of babel are reworked from mythical Babylonian texts. ibid. There is a more cogent and reasonable answer to what is going  on  there given the  inspiration of  Scripture. However this is not Dorrien's concern in presenting a history of modern theology. pg 6.
Given these texts mentioned above are a motivation for liberals seeing some texts in the Bible as myth, even so this doesn't mean one can and should then infer all the Scripture is myth, yet as we see below this is the consequence of liberals who define myth as the language of religion.

Still, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. We really need first of all to define "myth".
At we read of myth as

"a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature."
and this starkly contrasts with the common understanding of myth, which is more commonly and nontechnically understood as narratives that exclude historicity, stories taken as not factually true. Others define myth as non-historical tales that contain a moral message.
Often times myth has been taken to be story about 'God' or 'the gods', and ultimate reality, especially pertaining to Creation. However it clear that myths do not always narrate about God or gods.
Already these definitions suggest that myth is normally contrasted with the historicity of the account described. However further investigation is required in gaining an understanding of what liberal theologians are getting at when citing a text as myth. 
Dorrien reveals how liberals have reworked the definition of myth over the years.
Beginning with the history of religion school in Germany with representatives such as Troeltsch, Gunkel, Wrede and others, who spoke of myth "primarily as fable or invention" to which Wrede amended it "as the use of imagery to express the otherworldly in terms of human relationships." pg 8. Dorrien calls Wrede's definition "a mode of understanding constitutive of religion itself." ibid  In other words, myth is the language of religion. This prefigured "the 20th century understanding of myth as a true story that discloses exemplary or sacred truths." ibid.  Ernest Cassirer and the literary figure Claude Levi-Strauss "understood myths as fundamental forms of world constructing thought." ibid.
The Theologian Tillich takes myth "as the essential mode of encounter with the sacred." Here "myth is the Universal category of religion." and "it's the narration of a sacred history that relates an even that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the beginnings. put differently it tells how a reality came into existence through the agency of divine beings, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality."  ibid.
Gilkey's definition follows these attempts and declares it a sacred narrative that relates the  "real story" behind the worlds reality. Myth for him clearly is "a mode of language that features a distinctive set of elements"
We need to grasp here that the above understandings of myth see it as primarily the language of the text, an approach which is accepted, almost unargued because it is grounded upon implications accepted without question from the Enlightenment, where man can deal only with the phenomena and never delve into the realm of the noumena.
It's a language that addresses "the ultimate existential questions of human living and death" and to sum it up, again as both Niebuhr and Tillich maintained, it is "the essential language of religion."

So these definitions are somewhat wide ranging and to some extent fluid, they tend to assume a methodological approach that places myth as central to religion under which Christianity was just one of the many investigated religious phenomena. 

All in all, we haven't grasped the significance of the liberal approach to myth if we haven't understood that they love to contrast between so called sacred history and history. The notion that myth records sacred history whereas actual history is what historians deal with, the texts and phenomenological events of time.

Peter Enns who recently wrote a book on Creation understanding Genesis from a functional approach sees myth  as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” (40)
Subtly this definition avoids the question whether these stories narrate real history. And as such it can be seen as applying to certain biblical texts, but it stands as markedly different to the approach of early German liberals who see myth as the language of religion and thus of Scripture.

Returning once again to Claude Levi-Strauss  who intriguingly in his structural anthropology 1963 said

"all mythology is dialectic in its attempt to make cognitive sense out of the chaotic data provided by nature, and that this attempt inevitably traps the human imagination in a web of dualisms:"
Here the focus is man's striving in the face of nature with an attempt to make cognitive sense of his life. Yet for Levi-Straus these are paradoxes that can never be solved.

Still for us, to accept Levi-Strauss' approach is to undermine God's revealed Word where God makes sense of our sometimes chaotic existence due to the fall of man etc.

I like Larkin's definition of myth as "a fictional narrative that exceeds the limits of truth and goes beyond the facts" pg 308. It's a story that is fictional. The problem which then arises for the exegete is how to determine which parts are relevant to the interpretation of that text and the listeners. If it is fictional it suggests that much of the content of the story is merely a tool delivering the payload of the intention of the author and thus in regard to Genesis 1 & 2 the focus so easily ends up on man and his worth, and if anything has the chance of being man centred, and therefore self centred, such would be that type of interpretation.  Don't get me wrong, to have a proper definition of myth doesn't mean that you are classifying Scripture as myth. It merely asserts that you know exactly what Scripture isn't!

I must not bypass what someone has pointed out as being Gilbert Ryles interesting remarks on category mistakes in 'The Concept of mind' 1949 pg 8 where "myth represent the committing of a category mistake committed where there is a presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. How that can be played out in the realm of Biblical Christianity is well worth considering.

Overall, one must remain faithful to the Biblical exhortation against myth, adhere to the inspiration of Scripture, reject Enlightenment presuppositions such as proffered by Kant and so easily endorsed by liberal theologians and exhibit great care in accepting some new nuance of myth.

In Christ