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It Really is Hard to Reconstruct Aspects of the Biblical Times

Last evening, well early this morning, I was reading James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church and came across his discussion about the challenge of reconstructing the underlying forms or pre-existing offices that would have informed the earliest Christian communities. He points out that there well could be a number of traditional patterns and social attitudes that are simply unrecoverable to present day historians. He then provides this excellent illustration:

Imagine the impossible task of any future scholar trying to reconstruct the internal political history of almost any institution in America in ignorance of Robert’s Rules of Order, the format by which virtually all meetings are conducted. The wardens of a Congregationalist church in Newport, a teamsters union in Chicago, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in Dubuque: all of the them run their meetings pretty much the same way, Robert’s way. The book is a traditional item of community organization, entirely familiar to the nation, and for that very reason it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned. By the same token, any familiarity which we can gain with similarly familiar antecedents of the earliest Christians will help us to construe better the way that they were following – because they were the only ways they knew of forming a community. (pg 199)

He goes on to note how the earliest Christians would have certainly looked to their common heritage and cultural milieu, specifically the synagogue.

Now, this really does capture the challenge of reconstructing the picture of the first century environment. After numerous generations of critical historical inquiry the picture is becoming increasingly clear. However, it still is missing pieces and a haze of uncertainty persists.

The underlying cultural forms that helped craft and structure authority in the earliest Christian communities are better known today than one hundred years when Sohm and Harnack (et al) were discussing the nature of charism in these early communities. Leaders in the scholarly communities that have pushed away the heavy stones of history have cleared the path and drawn on our growing knowledge of archeology and ancient understanding. Of course, the path is still clouded.

treaty-westSo to frame the continued challenge we think of the historical scholar in 1,000 years that looks back at the United States of America (or whatever country you might think of) and is attempting to work through a pile of yellowed manuscripts of official documents (since out data architecture long vanished because of its delicate state) from the wide ranging organizations as listed above. Perhaps she even has some official files from Congress. Yet Robert’s Rules does not exist in any written form. Imagine the frustration and limited horizons. If any of us could leap into her time we might be able to explain (once we learned the languages) these things better, yet we know we cannot do this.

This same problem vexes historians and biblical scholars.

We have a good picture of these times of antiquity and, perhaps more than any other people of the turn of the age (from BCE to CE) we understand Christians well. The development of the earliest Christianity wasn’t a static venture, but certainly an organic one that has many warts and scars. Yet here the Church still stands in this day (rather different I suggest) and still proclaims a Gospel so similar to the earliest Christian creed “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The picture of these earliest believers might not be in full color or complete, but it is there and increasingly made clear through the efforts of legitimate, critical scholarship. For those of us looking to add to that picture, or at least learn how to add, a robust and competent historiography (historical method) is necessary for moving forward. It isn’t something that is easily spoken of in small groups or sermons, but it is absolutely necessary for helping finish the picture to which so many have already contributed. And yet, in 500 years, the painting might be just as unfinished.

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Snark and Theological Discourse

One  of the great characteristics of the Millennial generation (which is certainly not limited to them) is a kind of deep flowing angst which manifests itself in copious servings of irony, sarcasm, and nearly perpetual satire that becomes central to much of their communication. Being fluent is sarcasm is not a vice, but, for some, perhaps a virtue. It seems that for so many, good feelings and happy-go-lucky sentimentality only perpetuate a false front for reality which is uncovered through, for lack of a better term, snark.

One example of this came out last evening while I ventured through my RSS feeds to find a post over at Near Emmaus written by Kate Hanch titled “The Mark Driscoll Scholarship for Women Pastors: A Good Idea?

Hanch is responding to a Facebook post by Shane Claiborne where talks about a group, Epiphaneia, who have sponsored a conference which hoped to support a charity titled “Mark Driscoll Scholarship Fund for Women in Ministry.” Clearly this is a theological jab directed at promoting an egalitarian position on women in ministry over and against a patriarchal view such at Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church.

What struck me about this is how it has been sort of a fitting capstone to a series of developing conversations between the complementarian and egalitarian views of gender and ministry roles. Having been involved in some of these conversations for awhile, there has been a growing animus between the sides over the past several years that has been increasingly less charitable. For full disclosure, I am a complementarian (which Pastor Driscoll also claims to be) but of a different stripe than some.

What worries me about attempts (by any of the sides…because there aren’t just two) to make a point at the expense of someone else is that you ultimately a) devalue your point and b) undermine your credibility. 

It seems that as we continue these conversations (and particularly on these issues) there is less accommodation for those who might disagree and more of an antagonism between the sides. During my time in having these conversations I’ve been called all kinds of names (misogynist, hater, bigot, etc) by others in opposite camp in the midst of trying to clarify and discuss these issues. Now, granted, the more sane voices in these conversations don’t resort to such measures, but for too many of their followers this is fair game.

This kind of hurtful discourse also occurs in other theological discussions, most obviously between the Reformed and not campus. Why is it that we feel that the use of snark and sarcasm will bolster our points as opposed to not extending an olive branch of humility and contrition?

One truth is that someone might be able to gain a louder voice in these conversations and end up with many followers by using these tactics and tone. However, as we’ve seen so many times in history, this kind of a voice ends up being stuck in its own generation and does not have a lasting use.

So, more directly to this latest issue: why would anyone feel the need to support an organization that openly detracts from the conversation by impugning another believer’s testimony and character?

For all his strengths and weaknesses, one thing we can know about Pastor Driscoll is that he would not support this kind of movement. Those who are mockingly supporting this kind of scholarship are missing an entire group of leaders who do support the training of women in ministry who might be better leveraged to gain both credibility and real support.

Of course, this isn’t the goal of such declarations. Their goal is to jab us in the eye and sock us in the gut to attempt to gain our attention. Well certainly this has worked, but at what cost? This isn’t to say we can’t have a light and fun conversation. We can. Yet examples like these above clearly intend to go over the line of what is appropriate and easy camp out in the area of what is offensive and unnecessary.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29-32  29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Perhaps too many of us believe that filling our books, articles, papers, and blogposts with snark will make up for a lack of substantive engagement with each other and the real issues. However, I believe it only limits your voice and confines it generationally. The cause of Christ should echo through the generations.

If you disagree with Pastor Driscoll, tell us why is a reasoned and appropriate way. There are aspects of his theology, and specifically here anthropology and ecclesiology, that I disagree with, but also many aspects that I mutually affirm. Perhaps you are a woman who is called into ministry, go! and get trained at a great seminary. Find a church and be ordained to fulfill your calling. There is so much more that we agree on than we disagree, let’s not let these things stand in the way of the Gospel and its proclamation among those who need to hear.

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What Happened to the Apostles?

One of the vexing issues left when you read the post-Pentecost accounts in Acts and other New Testament literature is that most of the 12 Apostles disappear. Though some major figures continue, the rest of the twelve are outside the view of the New Testament.

As I was doing some more (as if it ends) dissertation reading in Streeter’s  The Primitive ChurchI noticed that he points out a third century pseudipigraphal document, The Acts of Thomas, that makes a curious note concerning what happened to the 12 Apostles following Pentecost. Here’s the passage from the Acts of Thomas:

1 At that time all we the apostles were at Jerusalem, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Cananean, and Judas the brother of James: and we divided the regions of the world, that every one of us should go to the region that fell to him and to the nation to which the Lord sent him.  2 According to the lot, therefore, India fell to Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he would not go, saying that by reason of the weakness of the flesh he could not travel, and: I am a Hebrew; how can I go among the Indians and preach the truth?

Streeter, after appropriately noting the specious nature of the reference, does make a note about how it is helpful in framing a possible picture of the dispersion that existed following Pentecost. The 12 Apostles, representative of the 12 tribes of Old Testament Israel, went into dispersion to accomplish the Great Commission and charge in Acts 1:8.

The idea that the Apostles remained consolidated in Jerusalem for the next several years is certainly reasonable. Acts 9, perhaps occurring within two years of the resurrection, details Saul’s conversion and entrance into ministry (before being sent off in Acts 9:30.) The dispersion of the earliest Christians into regions beyond Jerusalem and Judea becomes more clear as it seems Saul, who later became Paul, had someone to go to in this distant place.

In the rest of the New Testament, there is a growing sense that the earliest Christian communities are indeed growing outside of Jerusalem as the Apostles, or at least early adherents, are moving away to capture the commission of Christ. While they seem to be around for the Jerusalem in Acts 15:6-21, though it isn’t immediately obvious if this means the original 12 Apostles, there is also the issue that Paul had to, at point after his return from ministry abroad, submitted himself to a council of Apostles per Galatians 1:11-24.

Perhaps here we consider that the Apostles referenced is not always synonymous with the original twelve but that an Apostolic Council, or a collegium of Apostles, would meet regularly to consider new leaders and aid in the direction of the earliest communities. This seems a reasonable point given that Acts 15 mentions the idea of Apostles and elders in some kind of council.

As a result, it would not have been natural for the New Testament to continue to include specific references to the 12 Apostles if they weren’t in view of the authors. For instance, if Thomas did go to India (and was often referred to as Jesus since he was Jesus’ identical twin…or not) it would be outside the normal development of texts primarily written about events in Judea to include him in their narrative. Perhaps, if for no other reason, the exclusion of the Apostles from the rest of the New Testament is a helpful authenticating device to show the truthfulness of the New Testament documents. While many Gnostic and pseudepigraphal texts attempt to draw the Apostles back into the ministry of the early church, the truthful New Testament texts represent an authentic picture.

Other texts indicate that the Apostles did indeed seek out regions for their ministry in the earliest days of Christianity. This would certainly account for the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean region, Africa and Asia. While the Acts of Thomas is not a definitive text for what actually occurred, it likely has some data to provide for shaping the earliest Christian developments.

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Strange Fire and Demography

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this conference that haven’t already been said better by others. I do believe a happy middle ground on an assessment is important, because mischaracterizations going both ways are quite overwrought.

As I listened to Dr MacArthur’s podcast, I do appreciate his preaching style for many reasons, there were several installments over the last several months that framed out his approach and thoughts on this conference.

Perhaps the only thing I can contribute at this point is a couple of thoughts about demography and what it looks like to have a global face on theology.

It has been noted by a number of researchers, that the growth of Christianity across the world is being driven by those in second and third world countries and is primarily among Pentecostal congregations. Most specifically, Philip Jenkins has provided some insightful data to support these claims in his book The Next Christendom. This means Christianity across the entire world probably looks very different than what is taught and caught at churches like Dr MacArthur’s church in southern California.

This makes me wonder (as I did on Twitter) about what the demographic cross-section of the Strange Fire Conference would have been. Is the conference representing a global ethnic group, or one slice of the demographic pie? 

Granted, I was not in attendance nor am I aware of any data like this which has been put out. As a result, I cannot speculate as to what happened beyond a few of the pictures of the conference that were posted on social media and news sites.

It would seem that if this kind of conference were to move forward it would be bolstered by a diverse section of believers who were able to engage in compelling conversations and robust debate. For any of us that would visit Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations around our communities, we would find that they are highly integrated ethnically and often have prominent leaders from minority groups. Now this isn’t a strike against white evangelicals (as I am one of those,) but it does give a moment of reflect. If we are truly hoping to develop and represent a global reach in our theological conversations, it might be important to have recognition of the global realities we are facing.

Now, sheer numbers of adherents do not blindly qualify a theology or religious position. Yet if we are honest about what we see in our own churches it should provide us reason to either continue these conversations, or at least get another perspective. No one is helped by aimlessly talking to those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, or live like us. Instead, thorough theological reflection and conversation is deepened when we engage those who are not of our tribe.

As a white evangelical, who holds the “Open but Cautious” view of miraculous gifts, I am challenged by my brothers and sisters in Christ who are from other places in the world and report seeing these things and activities in authentic encounters. My own position has moved, because of robust conversation with friends while at college, from a cessationist position to this current one. The primary expression of these miraculous gifts, in my theological beliefs, is for the burgeoning church in communities and countries where the Gospel is not readily accessible. Having been around several experiences where these gifts were both forced and unbiblically practiced, I am challenged to think there is open license to experience all the giftings of the New Testament times in all churches today. These giftings seem, at least in my own theological and biblical research, primarily spontaneous and not planned or organized.

However, I could have stayed in my cessationist position to this day, but the kind encouragement of friends who were different than myself pushed me to reconsider and actually research that position. 

So my only though concerning Dr. MacArthur’s conference would be, are the organizers and attenders willing to engage others who differ in their perspective and have authentic dialogue. I do disagree with the harsh assessment of our brothers and sisters in Christ given by several speakers. We need not see fellow Christians as our enemies, but should see them as friends even if we disagree over theological issues. Likewise, the unfair categorization of all Pentecostals and Charismatics by extreme examples is a straw man that aids no appropriate reflection.

There are plenty of issues within these movements. Each of these excesses can be, and should be responded to and correction made. Of course this will never be accomplished if you begin the conversation with open disregard to their salvation.

A global theology for a global church necessitates a global audience.

Yes, I am worried about the continued colonialization of theology. Convinced tribes of any stripe will only rediscover their own beliefs. If there is any movement to be made in our conversations it must begin by seeing the realities that different people might practice differently but are still received legitimately.

So, what did you think of the conference and its global face? Can an evangelical audience from southern California appropriately engage a global theology in this way? What demographics do you see in the global spread of Christianity? How am I wrong?

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Review: The Elders by R. Alastair Campbell

Though ecclesiology has been, widely, neglected in historical theological discussions, there is a growing field of research looking back to the earliest Christian communities for insights. Historical ecclesiology remains a growing field that is poised to, hopefully, receive important attention in the coming generation of scholars. If this occurs one work which will surely be included as effective for moving this field forward is R. Alastair Campbell’s The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity.

Arising out of his doctoral thesis, at King’s College in London, this text seeks to evaluate the current state of ecclesiological thought on the role of elders within the earliest churches. Campbell approaches this task by considering the how contemporary scholarship reached its majority opinion on the role of elders, then looks back at the actual Sitz em Leben of elders in the New Testament environment, and then walks forward to the second century to see how the office developed. How the early churches understood elders in their structured ministry offices, or not, will be in focus for the entire text.

Campbell sets out to accomplish this work by way of eight chapters of research. One of the first priorities in the text is describing and making an initial evaluation of Rudolph Sohm’s landmark proposal at the end of the 19th century about eldership and church order. This approach has been adopted by many subsequent ecclesiologists, perhaps most notably by Hans von Campenhausen in his work Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1997.) Campbell spends the first chapter covering this information and also providing some essential references for this study.

The  second chapter steps into the ancient Israelite and early Judaistic context for eldership. Following this, in the third chapter, Campbell handles the Greco-Roman context for elders. In both of these chapters the methodology lends itself to a deeper investigation of the language and concepts employed by these ancient societies. As a result, the reader is given a multi-disciplinary investigation of elders in the formative environments for early Christianity.

Chapters four through six (and an appendix to the sixth chapter) move into the literature of the New Testament for the references to elders. Chapter four spends its time looking at the critically affirmed Pauline documents for their references to elders and the fifth chapter considers the Luke-Acts usage of such references. For chapter six, and its appendix, the Pastoral Epistles, not Pauline in their attribution, is evaluated along with the rest of the New Testament.

Chapter seven moves into a post-apostolic view of eldership by helpfully considering texts from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and a few others pertinent texts. Finally, in chapter eight, Campbell provides a summarization chapter with sections on present day applications. The author’s ending content, works cited, indexes of modern authors, texts, and topical, round out the ending material.

At the heart of Campbell’s proposal is his proposal that the role of elders should be understanding differently the majority of early Christian historians generally believe. While the majority, not consensus, view is that elders indicates an office, or at least a formal role, within the earliest churches, Campbell suggest this is incorrect. The term is a difficult one to pin down and, likely, has multiple meanings in these different contexts. As Campbell summarizes:

The main contention of this thesis is that in the ancient world the elders are those who bear a title of honor, not of office, a title that is imprecise, collective and representative, and rooted in the ancient family or household. To put it another way, we do not know who is referred to by the term ‘the elders’ unless we know the context and even then we do not know whom the term includes or excludes. (246)

Campbell’s text is an example of excellent and meticulous research that, thankfully, incorporates helpful footnotes replete with many works from antiquity and more contemporary scholarship from the 19th and 20th centuries. His handling of the sociological setting from which Christian and Jewish-Christian churches arose is particularly notable. It is not an easy thing to confront a growing body of scholarship and offer a course corrective. Campbell does his task well and presents a text worth reading for those interested in the role of elders historically and in the present churches. With the growth the neo-Reformed movements that enjoy elders over other, more traditional, offices, this is an important read to help offer corrective instruction. His engagement with a wide range of literature is admirable as is the discussions of the underlying factors of contemporary scholarship.

All that said there are a number of points at which I disagree with Campbell. Briefly, there is an admitted pluriformity of church model in the New Testament and for the first four centuries of the growth of the Church. Campbell acknowledges this movement but finds problem with the extent of that pluriformity. Being slightly neo-Sohmian myself, I would suggest the influence of the Jewish synagogues and Temple clerical systems are more influential than Campbell necessarily grants. This is a point worth discussing and hopefully additional resources will promulgate such discussions. Also, the development of the offices of the earliest Christian communities is developmental and elders, or presbyters, do in fact appear to have official capacities in local communities by the end of the first century.

Campbell has provided a valuable text for those interested parties in academia and the church world. While the writing is not overly technical, some of the discussions require knowledge of biblical and ancient languages to be fully appreciated. Though some minor typographical errors exist, the prose of the text is engaging though not overly flowing. This is a fine historical text.

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Recommended Books for Recent Seminary Grads

Every spring, and often in the fall, our seminaries are turning out new crops of graduates who hope to enter some role in pastoral ministry. Hopefully, during seminary, each graduate has developed some reading habits that will last them for the rest of their lives.

What are some particularly helpful books for recent seminary graduates to read to help make the transition from academic life to pastoral ministry?

After having read some substantial theology for the last several years, there are five recommended books that some of my fellow ministers have recommended for recent graduates:

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. This was one of the first books recommended by a seminary professor for graduates. It is the classic text that, in a concise 57 pages walks recent seminary graduates through the transition from academic discussion to application within local church ministry. Others have attempted to match it but this is still the classic text.

Brothers, We are Not Professionals by John Piper. Arranged in 36 chapters, Piper’s text develops a practical pastoral ministry for pastors who are both new to ministry or are veterans. Piper’s paradigm for pastoral ministry seeks to rediscover the shepherd’s task and heart and move ministers away from the professionalization that has lost its connection with biblical ministry.

They Found the Secret by Raymond Edman. Moving towards a more devotional topic, one of the questions that I’ve had for established ministry leaders when I am able to take them to lunch or sit and talk with them, is “What books impacted your life the most?” One of the books that I’ve consistently heard from so many was this one by Edman. It is a classic on finding the “exchanged life” that can help each of us focus our ministry trajectory at an early stage.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. Seminary does many things well, but one of the challenges that we see all too often is that there is a lack of actual ministry preparation. We learn plenty of wonderful things about theology and biblical studies, but actual pastoral ministry has less to do with those and so much more to do with leading people. Maxwell’s text is, in my opinion, the best at helping us understand several key leadership rules to will help us, along with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, motivate people to life change.

Good to Great by Jim Collins. Obviously this list is less theological, but as we all find out in ministry, the pastorate is less theological than we hope. When I first sat and read this text, in my first church out of seminary, it shook my world and help refocus my leadership goals. Collins has brought together some of the best practices of making good organizations great. When I’ve asked that question about who pastors read, Collins’ text has also made that list of some of the most dynamic pastors who have built Jesus loving, God glorifying churches of all sizes.

Certainly there are a number of other texts I could put on this list, but I wanted to keep it slim. Every year when I organize my yearly reading schedule (outside of seminar and research texts) I try to read three of these five.

Seminary prepares us so well for the rigor of ministry and these texts will, hopefully, add to the practicality of ministry. While some might decry the lack of substantive theologies, in reality for most seminary graduates we need a dose of reality in our first pastoral role that familiarizes us with the beauty of our parishioners.

So, what other books would you add? What practical texts have help mould you for ministry?

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