Rethinking Authority During the Reformation

Jesus with BibleThe issue of authority within and for the church has long been a topic that has sparked debate within the Christian tradition. Even in our own context questions remain concerning the Christian’s attitude toward the state, the role of women in the church, and questions concerning the sufficiency of ecclesiastical offices. In the essay that follows below, we examine several Reformation Era perspectives on authority within the church. Through these perspectives we see that central for these reformation perspectives was their desire to rethink the authority of scripture in light of differing interpretations and interpretive authority structures within the church.

In his Brief Declaration, Robert Fulke writes that the church, as the “house of God,” should be ordered in accordance to the scriptures (185). In scripture, he argues, there are two forms of office: the temporal and the perpetual, each of which holds authority in a particular church, city, or regional area (186). Temporal offices, those which were used in the establishment of the church, included apostles, prophets, evangelists, and those who demonstrated supernatural gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing, and miracles (186). For the current church, Fulke argues, only those who hold perpetual offices are to be understood as authoritative. These ecclesiastical offices include those of pastor, doctor, governor, and deacon (187); of these he conceives of doctors and teachers as the chief instructors of the church (187), and of the elders and deacons as those who should provide order and discipline within the church (187, 190). The goal of the church disciple doled out by elders and deacons was fourfold. He argues that disciple was necessary in order “to keep men in awe from offending and to bring offenders to repentance, to avoid the infection of sin within the church, and the reproach that growth by neglecting the punishment of sin…” (191). Clearly Fulke advocates church discipline that both forms morality and punishes the sins of the congregation when necessary. These purposes in hand, Fulke writes that church discipline was to be enacted by the pastor together with the elders, either punishing Christian offenders or cutting them off from the church (191). Fulke decries the Roman church’s practice of excommunication for he termed minor disagreements with the church, arguing instead for excommunication only on account of unrepentant sins such as covetousness, idolatry, slandering, and those heretics who failed to repent of their errors (191). Ultimately, Fulke appeals to the authority of scripture, specifically that interpreted by pastors in a synod of fellow pastors, as the ultimate authoritative basis for the church (189).Continue reading “Rethinking Authority During the Reformation”

C. S. Lewis on Meaning and Joy

C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis

How many times have you sat down after a good meal and thought about how good it tasted? Or how often after an enjoyable evening with friends do you sit back and think about the true meaning of your conversations? While most do not consider themselves philosophers reflecting upon the deeper mysteries of the universe, many people contemplatively enjoy live in less abstract ways. We go through our days enjoying the food, the beauty that we see around us, and the pleasant conversations, while at the same time failing to explicitly contemplate why we enjoy certain things in life. Why does a good meal seem to make the world better? Why is a sunrise so appealing to us? What is it about well written poetry that makes it so good?

C. S. Lewis offers us an example of how we may reflect upon our meaningful experiences in his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” where he discusses the difference between simply enjoying an experience and the deeper contemplation of said experience. Lewis once was standing in a dark toolshed and saw a sunbeam come through a crack above the door. He says that while looking at the beam, he was “seeing the beam, not seeing things by it” (Meditation, 212). This is similar to many of our everyday experiences. We see activities and enjoy them for what they are without looking deeper. This is not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the pleasurable things in life, but we ought to examine our lives and experiences closely in order to capture more of the joy that they offer.

Lewis goes on to explain what he saw when instead of merely looking at the sunbeam, he looks through it, out into the world beyond the dark of the toolshed. He says, “Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun” (Meditation, 212). There is a difference between simply looking at an object or experience, and using that experience to see something greater, a facet or characteristic of an experience that would is often lost on us when we do not examine closely the lives that we live.Continue reading “C. S. Lewis on Meaning and Joy”

The Historical Jesus and the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers

 

Parable of the Vineyard Laborers, Jacob Willemsz de Wet.
Parable of the Vineyard Laborers, Jacob Willemsz de Wet.

In the ongoing search for the Historical Jesus, critically important for many scholars is determining authentic Jesus material in the Gospel accounts. Scholars apply multiform methodology in their interpretations of canonical material, but there are several criteria that the majority employ to determine the historical character of a passage of scripture. Qualities such as the originality or dissimilarity of gospel material from other known sources, multiple independent attestations to a narrative or saying, or the overall thematic coherence are vital to determining authentic Jesus material in the modern historical-critical methodology.[1] Concerning gospel material, even the most skeptical scholars generally agree that Jesus spoke in parables. Thus, proper contextualization and interpretation of parables provide scholars a wealth of information concerning the Historical Jesus. Using material from contextual and New Testament studies, we will examine here the parable of the Vineyard Laborers found in the Gospel according to Matthew 20:1-16 and seek to understand how this parable was received and understood by its original audience, as well as in the gospel and modern contexts.

 

Many scholars believe that the parable of the Vineyard Laborers, while only appearing in the Matthean account does preserve an authentic parables of the Historical Jesus, primarily due to its genuine originality of theme and general coherence of defying cultural expectations.[2] The parable begins as follows: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”[3] Here, the parable introduces a number of concepts to its audience. First, this narrative concerns itself with defining and perhaps explaining the concept of the Kingdom of God. Next, the hearer learns that the plot concerns a householder, a man of importance, honor, and means. At this point the audience first encounters cultural dissimilarity. This particular householder specializes not in subsistence crops for daily living, but instead owns a vineyard for producing wine, a specialty crop that indicates his elite status in society. However, the Historical Jesus indicates that this householder leaves his house and seeks laborers early in the morning, an action that would undoubtedly cause some level of confusion for the original audience, as elite landowners in the first century Mediterranean context did not hire their own day laborers but instead often relied on brokers or foreman to do so.Continue reading “The Historical Jesus and the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers”

A Protestant Reformation Without Martin Luther?

 

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

One of the more interesting thought-experiments that Reformation-era scholars embark upon is asking if there could have been a “Protestant Reformation” without Martin Luther. Understanding that we would likely need to reconceive our current notions of “Protestant” and “Reformation,” it seems likely that some form of theological reformation would have occurred in 16th century Europe even without the flamboyant figure of Martin Luther. In historical inquiry it remains a highly abstract (and somewhat fanciful) process to ask “What if…?” questions. However, given the pre-Protestant Reformation circumstances and European theological and socio-political context, it seems appropriate to let our minds wander and ask “What if there had been no Luther?” Certainly Luther powerfully shaped the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent history of Western Civilization. One need only look to Biblical Studies and the justification-centered interpretation of Pauline thought and the book of Romans that only now, nearly five-hundred years later, Protestant (and protestant influenced) scholars are beginning to emerge from in earnest. One need only to drive down the street in any town or city to notice the diversity of Christian Churches in America, each with the conviction that they cannot give into to other forms of theology, lest they betray their conscience. Unquestionably, Luther indelibly colored the fabric of the reformation and its subsequent impact on our world, few would argue otherwise. Continue reading “A Protestant Reformation Without Martin Luther?”

Book Review: The Rapture Exposed (Barbara Rossing)

The Rapture ExposedIn her book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books: New York, 2004), Barbara R. Rossing confronts perhaps one of the most confusing and highly debated theological topics within the modern Christian Church: the interpretation of the Biblical book of Revelation. In this book, Rossing covers the tenants of what she sees as one of the more popular modern interpretations of the Apocalypse, namely, the dispensational view of the rapture commonly portrayed in the Left Behind series written by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Throughout The Rapture Exposed, Rossing argues with force that a dispensational view of the rapture and current mindset fostered by such an eschatological view is not only a deeply flawed and unsound interpretation of the Apocalypse, but also that this view may be dangerous from a socio-political perspective. Rossing does a fine job summarizing the basic tenants of dispensational theology as well as her own interpretation of Revelation, and she thoroughly argues her case against dispensational theological interpretation of the scriptures. As a result of reading The Rapture Exposed, readers will have engaged with numerous eschatological interpretative perspectives and will see that a dispensational view of Revelation remains a highly problematic interpretation of the Apocalypse.

Rossing begins The Rapture Exposed with an introduction to the topic of the End Times (eschatology) within Christian theology. She critiques the Rapture perspective which suggests that the world cannot be saved and the lack of Christian ethics which are displayed as acceptable within the popular eschatological thriller series, Left Behind. While covering a broad variety of topics, Rossing may have introduced many readers to a plethora of perspectives and ideas that many popular readers may not be immediately familiar with. However, she makes her often wordy points well and gets her main thesis across: the book of Revelation is not an acceptable Biblical basis for rapture ideology. She then seeks to reargue the ‘traditional’ interpretation of Revelation: a message not of death and destruction but of resurrection and hope. Rossing introduces counters to rapture theology and the basic history of the belief in her second chapter, something which may have done better as the beginning of her book. Nevertheless, Rossing accurately sums up the important historical figures in the realm of dispensational theology, including John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Schofield, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, Charles Ryrie, and Hal Lindsey. Rossing then moves on the actual basis of dispensational theology—showing how the dispensationalist system finds its systematic roots in a maze of proof-texting, non-historical readings of scripture, and non-canonical interpretation, the result of which is the creation of a systematic theology divorced from its historical and contextual foundations. Focusing on the ‘rapture’ event, Rossing dissects various texts used by dispensational theologians, systematically arguing that such a use of common proof-texts is not at all Biblical, canonical, contextual, or (at times) even a truly legitimate interpretation and rendering of the passages in question.Continue reading “Book Review: The Rapture Exposed (Barbara Rossing)”

Recommended Reading: May 17-23

RioBelow are this week’s recommended readings from across the internet. As always, I hope that you find them insightful and challenging. Cheers, JP

If You Only Read One Article, Read The Days of Socially Acceptable Christianity are Over by Robert P. George

Theology and Religion

Treating People Like Human Beings by Ben Cabe

The Future of What Catholicism? by Andrew Haines

Not So Secular Sweden by Matthew Milliner

Theologizers and the Anti-Seminary by Bart Gingerich

The Loss of Vocation and Demise of the University by Patrick Deneen

Biblical Studies and History of Christianity

Why Should Biblical Scholars Care About Social Media and Blogs? by Jim West

Early Jesus-Devotion: Summary of Key Points by Larry Hurtado

Six Heretics Who Should Be Banned from Evangelicalism by Taylor Standley

Religion in American History by Paul Putz

The Historical Context of Early Christianity Timeline by Michael Kok

Worldviews and Culture

Dear Class of 2014, Thanks for Not Disinviting Me by Stephen Carter

Stairway to Wisdom by David Brooks

I Lived a Completely Gun-Free Life — Until Now by Rachel Lu

Poverty and Snowstorms by Thomas Sowell

Crony Capitalism and the Conservative Politics of Resentment by Pete Spiliakos

Reflections on an MA

“A man who has been many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” –C.S. Lewis
WFU Graduation
WFU Graduation

Monday marked the official completion of my Master of Art’s degree from Wake Forest University. It has been a long and interesting two years here in Winston-Salem (NC), two years of learning and joy mixed with heartbreak, pain, and uncertainty. Hayley and I have developed many good friendships while here in the South, grown together in our marriage, and learned much about balancing life, work, and education. While challenging at times, my time in the Wake Forest Religion Department was highly informative, and my work in the WFU Classics Department learning Greek and Latin was a blast (despite the long hours and frequent lack of sleep). Engagement with the perspectives of my colleagues and professors has been a formative experience that (I hope) has improved me as a person and as a scholar. Hayley and I have enjoyed having the time and freedom to enjoy each other’s company, to take long walks together, and to share the ‘Church Search’ experience with each other. We’ve been very blessed in doing life together here in North Carolina.

That said, we’ve also had some experiences which were not nearly as pleasant: the pain of church leadership devoted to their own agenda’s, the physical and mental anguish of an unknown health problem, and the uncertainty of what future schooling might involve. Nearly two years ago when planning the move to Winston-Salem, we purposed to make these years a challenge of sorts, seeking to experience life (married life, specifically) ‘on our own.’ There have been times when we felt this choice was a mistake. Our newly-married naiveté played into the church situation, though the developments in our own lives as a result of our Church Search have provided something of a silver lining to that pain. Hayley’s ongoing healthcare battle continues to weigh upon us both, though through a dear friend God has provided a doctor who is both professional and proficient. And despite months of uncertainty regarding where we were headed after Wake Forest and what we would be doing, we did finally receive guidance to our next stop in St. Louis.Continue reading “Reflections on an MA”

Ten Thoughts on Reading the Bible

all_bibles_rotating_pagesTen thoughts on reading the Bible:

1. Never read a Bible verse. Always read at least a paragraph, preferably more. Best is reading a whole book (more on that below). You can make any one verse mean any number of things, but considering the larger context of passage places that verse within a more meaningful narrative, making it easier to understand what the verse is saying. So always read verses within their larger narrative context.

2. Keep a couple of different versions on-hand. Having two or three different Bibles around serves as a reminder that English Bibles are translations and that, whatever you may believe about inerrancy and inspiration, translations are neither. Having multiple versions around also enables you to draw upon different renderings of a passage when you try to understand what’s being said. Not all translations are created equal, of course, and which translations you choose will vary based on your preferences and Bible knowledge. But keep a couple different versions around.

3. Read the Bible aloud. This is something that I have been trying to do more myself. Much of the contents within the books of the Bible were delivered orally before they were ever written down. And once they were written down, they were often read aloud for hundreds (or thousands) of years before the invention of the printing press made personal copies readily available.Continue reading “Ten Thoughts on Reading the Bible”

Why Does the NT Contain These Books?

Some of the most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the Bible?” or “Why are these specific books included in the Bible?” In conjunction with yesterday’s post on Where We Got the New Testament, this post seeks to address why the New Testament includes the writings which it contains.

Why Are These Specific Books Included in the New Testament?

The Muratorian FragmentMost of us take for granted the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament, but this was not always the case. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for there to be different books included in Christian collections of writings. Such works asthe letters of Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas are included in such noteworthy and important manuscripts as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. For many years the Eastern and Western Churches debated both the inclusion of Hebrews and Revelation. As recently as the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, there were serious doubts about the works to be included in the New Testament. Of these, Martin Luther’s objections to Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) were so severe that he placed them in an addendum to his German New Testament. Some contemporary Christian Churches in the ancient parts of the world (mostly the Middle East) still have New Testament canons that differ from the standard twenty-seven book canon of the “Orthodox” (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant). Obviously several factors had to influence why certain writings were included in the New Testament. But what were they?Continue reading “Why Does the NT Contain These Books?”

Where Did We Get the New Testament?

Some of the most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the Bible?” or “Why are these specific books included in the Bible?” Obviously complete answers to these questions are long, complex, and remain the topic of scholarly discussion. For those of you not planning to pursue a PhD in Historical Theology, there are relatively straightforward answers to these questions, answers which I want to briefly explain today and tomorrow.

Where Did We Get the New Testament?

NTSome people seem to assume that the New Testament fell from the sky by the hand of God, an assumption that lacks anything close to historical accuracy or credibility. The first thing we need to understand when thinking about the writings of the New Testament is that they are just that: writings. The letters of Paul are letters. The Catholic epistles (James, the Peters, Jude, Hebrews, Jude, and letters of John) also seem foremost to be letters. It is worth noting that many scholars have argued for the “sermonic” character of many of these writings, meaning that they may have been sermons before they were letters. Each of the four Gospels (or at least portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were also something before they were the canonical gospels that we have today. Exactly what remains a particularly thick area of discussion in modern scholarship, though clearly each of the four Gospel narratives was originally part of some aspect of Christian faith and practice. Each of the writings of the New Testament had to be written and delivered, either to the far off congregation for whom it was written or to the literate members of the community at which it was originally delivered.Continue reading “Where Did We Get the New Testament?”