A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Interesting quote on Paul

From page 134 of Cities of God by Rodney Stark:

But what about Paul? Did is missions have an independent effect on Chrisitianization? Or was it that he went where the pickings were best and, in fact, where all the Christian missionaries went- as is suggested by Paul’s constant conflicts with interloping competitors? An answer to this questions requires regression analysis (Regression 5-2).

Looking at the data, we see that Paul’s missionizing had no significant, indepedent effect on Christianization, while the importance of Diasporan communities was quite significant. These results strongly suggest that Paul’s impact on the spread of Christianity was incidental to the general receptivity  of the Diasporan communities to Christian missionizing.

Echoes of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (NRSV)

I have more to reflections on Rodney Stark’s Cities of God for later.



January 31, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Religious trust, community, the emergence of self-esteem, and politics

The prevailing emphasis upon the boosting of the self-esteem of individuals is a particularly newer phenomenon, rooted in the scientific study of psychology. But yet, self-esteem isn’t a new cognitive phenomenon. However, boosting of individuals self-esteem is given as a panacea, particularly for depression. There is no denying that it does not work in that regard, as those who have high self esteem do not tend to be depressed (although other things like productivity may not correlate well with self-esteem, at least not as well as productivity would correlate with depression). But why is the focus upon self-esteem such a contemporary phenomenon?

At its core, self-esteem is essentially the confidence of an individual in the individual. It does not consider other persons, nor does it consider (at least directly) a God or higher power. It is focused solely upon the self as an individual. In the American landscape which placed a huge emphasis upon rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, there would not be much focus upon the idea of the esteem of a corporate group or other individuals. Each person should be able to do everything they need on their own.

Once psychology became a more developed field and followed a greater scientific rigor, it would have studied the concept of self-esteem and by seeing a correlation with self-sufficiency. With a disregard for reliance upon others already within the American and modern mind set, individual self-esteem would have been seen as a solution to problems.

When we consider the idea of depression though, which self-esteem correlates well with, the idea of happiness and sadness is a combination of two things: the current state the person is in in addition to the prospect of future pleasure and happiness. Self-esteem relates to this in making judgments about whether we can capably reach a positive goal. In a sense, self-esteem is a self-trust to manipulate our the environment and our resources (both physical and mental) in order to bring about what we feel will be a positive emotional result. Self-trust provides hope, and the greater the hope, the lesser the depression.

But hope doesn’t have to be grounded upon self-esteem in order to exist. If we trust that someone other than ourself will provide the positive outcome we want, then that still engenders feelings of hope. But the individualism of modern philosophy and American culture instead engenders suspicion in others, which leads to break down of trust other persons within a community. The natural result then is of the breakdown of community, although it would be a gradual process.

In addition to that, though, is that with the modernist skepticism of religion, trust in God to provide hope would have been minimized also. At best for some of the religious, they might think that God has given humanity everything they need (in a Deistic manner), and so there is no need to place any further trust in God, but to help ourselves. This is most exemplified by the Benjamin Franklin quote “God helps those who help themselves.”

Combine these two factors, and it leads to the present situation we are in day. Gone is the confidence even in scientific progress taken up by the scientific community. And there is a lack of trust in God by theists, agnostics, and atheists alike. The one bastion of refuge is individual.

But even that is getting torn apart, as it is becoming less and less feasible for people to truly view themselves as truly as capable as they were lead to believe they were. Self-esteem is an evaluation of trust in oneself like trust in another person. It can be eroded when the trust is found to be false, or the person will always interpret their failures as do to others people or situational factors. The first leads to extreme depression, the other to narcissm. The former depresses the individual, the latter frustrates everyone else. But narcissism will slowly erode as the concept of self-esteem becomes less and less tenable. Fewer people will go down the route of self-esteem that can lead to narcissism.

Depression rates are indeed increasing in America, as one would expect with the destruction of individual self-esteem. And postmodernism, with its implications now being a very influential way of thinking among the masses, is in one sense an extension of that idea, in that we can not even trust upon ourselves reliably for knowledge.

But humanity can not be sustained within a vacuum of trust and hope. There has to be a reliance upon something or someone, or there will be the permanent fall into depression. And when the public is so worn down, it is natural to place trust in a seemingly powerful figure. Postmodernism and modernism would not allow this to be in God. So we look to another person or persons. Hence, in America the fascination by the masses by Obama and the near messianic expectations placed upon him and the concept of change. Whether or not Obama is indeed capable at all, a society that constantly views politicians in a negative light can not help but place such huge positive expectations upon a particular politician. The current skepticism makes “Obama-mania” even more suprising, except when we realize that the current societal mood leads for people to be grasping for something. But it isn’t so much in a community, but in a particular individual.

When the bubble bursts, what will be the result in America? Will there ever be an opening to actually placing trust in God and community (particularly a Christ-like community)? Of course for that to be true, a community of Christians must differentiate themselves form the current morass of Christianity. But with Christian ministers themselves existentializing the Bible and making it relate to individualistic self-esteem, will that happen? Is this already happening, and the previous Christian inclination to be based upon belief in propositions instead of trust in God is beginning to pass away?

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Genesis 9:25-27 and the composition of the Pentateuch

So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant. “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.”  – Genesis 9:25-27 (NASB)

Typically, the sources of the Pentateuch have been identified in part by the name that is given to God, whether it is Elohim (“God”) or Yahweh (typically translated as “LORD”) or a combination of the two (“the LORD God”). But 9:25-27 throws difficulty upon this form of identification, as by Elohim and Yahweh are used in this passage, and both have othere elements that are to be identified with either the “Elohim” or “Yahweh” sources.

Now, the difficulty could be alleviated if one could ascribe to 9:25-27 as following a process of development, where it had one part (probably Elohim) and then it was completed in its present form (probably Yahweh). The problem with this idea is that if any line of 25-27 is excluded, then the story is incomplete. If you exclude “Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Shem”, then you have taken out mention of one of the brothers, and verse 27 (which uses Elohim) relies upon the fortunate state of Shem (as communicated by 26) in order for Japeth dwelling in the tents of Shem to make a great amount of sense. Otherwise, Shem is only mentioned in passing. It is doubtful the oldest son would have been mentioned only briefly in a such a blessing and cursing. Secondly, there is a unity between 25 and 26 indicated by the contrast of “Cursed be Canaan” and “Blessed be Yahweh.” So 26 is essential for verse 27, but also verse 25 and 26 show a unity.

Every mention of Shem in Genesis besides this one is in the texts that identify God as Elohim, and never Yahweh. This is also the case for Japheth and the person of Canaan, distinguished from the phrase “the land of Canaan.” So the text is characteristic of the texts that contain Elohim. But yet the “Blessed be…” and “God of…” formula is used within the Yahweh texts.

Taken all of this into considering, it leaves us with one of two options:

1) That there was a completed blessing that the Elohist had compiled, and the Yahwehist altered it to its current form (or vice versa).

2) The source for this text used both Yahweh and Elohim interchangeably

If it is the first option, there has to be a reason for the Yahwehist or the Elohist (or the Documentary Hypothesis’ Priestly, who also uses Elohim). But there is no seemingly important facts pertinent to Israel within the Elohim material that would merit such an action. And while the exalting of Shem occurs in the Yahweh part, it would be likely that an alteration would be more explicit than merely identified Shem’s reliance upon Yahweh (“Blessded by Yahweh, the God of Shem”). Even if it is feasibly, this throws the hypothesis that the Yahwehist was the first source or redactor out the window.

Genesis 9:25-27 is best concieved as a literary whole, and as such throws out the idea of the exclusive use of Yahweh or Elohim within a text. While one should be careful of basing a large hypothesis based upon one text, this should reveal that the sources for the Pentateuch can not clearly and reliably be identified.

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Genesis and Abraham the astrologer

The book of Jubilees, along with other Jewish literary sources, hold a tradition that Abraham was at one time an astrologer (some saying he forsook astrology, and some saying he didn’t). However, Genesis never makes any explicit statement about Abraham’s occupation. But we find in Genesis 15:5 that God tells Abram “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” (cf Genesis 22:17).

When we look Genesis 15:5, is it really possible to conclude that this is related to an occupation of astrology, or would it be a commonly use form of a communication that was simply appropriated for the situation? We can note that a similar type analogy is used with dust (Genesis 13:16 and 22:17), of which no tradition has been passed down (to my knowledge) about Abraham working in a field that requires dust/sand. However, the analogy of sand and the analogy of the stars can have been appropriated for different reasons.

But if Genesis 15:5 is based upon the idea that Abraham was an astrologer, then we have to consider the relationship between the Abrahamic tradition in the Aprocrypha and the Genesis narrative. There is no direct mention of Abraham being an astrologer in Genesis, so the odds of the Abrahamic tradition being formed beforehand and then including this analogy from God without making any direct reference is incredibly unlikely. The only reasonable scenario for that would be to say that there was originally an inclusion of astrology into the narrative, but later scribes erased any explicit mention of Abraham’s astrological background due to an aversion. But if we take the hypothesis that Genesis was formed in stages and there were scribal removals, then why did this not happen for other more difficult parts of Genesis? Plus there is no explicit rejection of astrology either within the Torah. In my opinion then, it is extremely unlikely that any Abrahamic tradition was formed beforehand that lead to the addition of Genesis 15:5 and 22:17.

Either then, the Abrahamic tradition developed as an implication that was drawn from the stars analogy or the tradition and Genesis narrative came from a common third source. The former is perhaps unlikely also for two reasons. First, 15:5 and 22:17 are unlikely to have drawn such speculation. There is nothing that really marks them as indicating anything further. Secondly, if there was an aversion to astrology (and Isaiah 47:14 indicates one), then it is unlikely one would extrapolate that the revered Abraham practiced astrology.

So the best answer as to the relationship between the Abrahamic tradition and the Genesis narrative is that they developed, at least at first, from a third source. Genesis does not mention the occupations of the patriarchs unless it served to develop the story (for example, Jacob working for Laban), so if there were other sources the Genesis narrative were derived from (instead of being a later creation) then mentioning Abraham’s astrological background perhaps served no purpose. But the same sources (or sources that came from them) could have served as the basis for the Abrahamic tradition outside of Genesis.

So in my opinion, if Genesis 15:5 is based upon an astrological background for Abraham, then this leads us to ask questions regarding the composition of Genesis and the Pentateuch. For me, it takes away from any theory that attributes the composition to later date made by people with a particular agenda. Genesis’ and the Pentateuch’s composition best fits within a hypothesis that it is based upon sources that also make historical claims about the Patriarchs and Israel. The narratives and ideas of the Pentateuch are not the creation of compilers, but rather they are derived from other purportedly historical sources (as to how they came into being, we would have little idea).

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Discontinuity of Election between Judaism and Paul

As I trek out to try to read (again) Judgement & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by VanLaningham, I feel there is one important note to make in the relation between Judaism and Paul.

While there is definitely some continuity between the Jewish Scripture’s view on election and Early Judaism with Paul, Paul himself gives a reason to attribute as least some discontinuity. In Romans 11:1-4, Paul speaks of the remnant that God preserves from those who did not commit idolatry in worshipping Baal. In verse 5, Paul affirms that there is a remnant that remains at the present. However, Paul explicitly speaks of the choice being by grace and, as he continues in verse 6, “no longer by works.” Paul offers a clear contrast there, as if to say that election now differs from election then.

However one is to interpret Paul’s precise understanding of election and its relationship to justification and eternal life, there is for Paul a discontinuity between election in the Old Testament AND with Israel’s view (as seen in Romans 9:31), allowing that Israel may refer to specific groups and not every Jewish sect. In other words, reading pre-Christian primary source material of Judaism may offer some light to the situation,  one must be ready to draw a line in the sand and say that Paul offers a different view in some manner (at least with some of the prominent Jewish views) beyond merely adding Jesus as the Messiah.

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Spiritual death and the Bible

In conservative theology, there is a big tendency to place a soteriological emphasis on the spiritual condition of the “saved” and “lost.” A frequent designation for the lost is that there are “spiritually dead,” and that is the common problem for all humanity from the Fall. Jesus then comes in to take our punishment and make us “spiritually alive.”

However, sorely lacking in the Bible is any explicit reference to this supposed metaphysical reality. The main argument for such an idea is indirect, arguing that certain passages do not make any sense if they do not refer to spiritual death. For demonstration, here are three popular passages:

Genesis 2:17 – “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.

Matthew 8:22 – ” Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

Ephesians 2:1 – “you were dead in your trespasses and sins”

If one takes these phrases literally true (although, this brings up the idea for a post on what “literal” really means, the common usage of literal/non-literal being as about as valid as objective/subjective), then physical death makes no sense. The narrative of Adam has him continuing to live on after he disobeyed. Jesus refers to people burying dead, which physically dead people can not do. And Paul refers to his audience as dead, but dead people do not read or hear. The implicit argument then is that these passages must refer to a spiritual death.

But, if one takes a different approach to those verses, one need not have to include an unmentioned concept. For the passage in Genesis, one could translate it as “you will surely be dying”. In the two later passages, one could use see the usage in a proleptic sense (a past or present message being used to refer to the future, such as “You are dead”).

Spiritual death, perhaps, has its grounded in Greek philosophy and its tendency to the abstract. But the Bible nowhere talks about hidden spiritual realities, but it is grounded in the observable and historical.

This leads to soteriology not needing to be focused upon some spiritual benefit that proceeds from the death and resurrection of Christ, but the natural, physical benefit that is to be had. The natural direction of this is to see Christ’s resurrection as the revelation of God’s desire,  and through that we can  trust in God for him to do that for us to, therefore allowing us to become free from the concerns of death that might lead us to sin.

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Well. If I weren’t a theist, now I would be…

And as an added bonus:

I think the proofs speak for themselves

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Proof that Christianity is true…


This is just proof about the Christian faith and that the cross is the center of everything God does.

Nevermind the fact that a cross can be easily randomly formed by two differently sized pieces intersected, with the smaller piece not intersecting at the middle of the large piece. The reality is, the longer arm is needed to allow for the binding, as the illustration shows. It is that shape because of efficiency, not because God is somehow trying to testify to our Christian faith.

We are just looking for something to prove our faith, that gives it some validation. While faith is not irrational or blind, it is not something one can prove, and grasping at straws like this does nothing.

Or maybe God is Protestant. After all, there is no body on the laminin protein.

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Isaiah 56:1-2: God’s righteousness

Pivotal to the interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the text of Isaiah 56:1-2. In Romans 3:21 speaks of God’s righteousness being revealed and attested to by the Torah and the Prophets. Isaiah 56:1-2 is probably the most influential text on Paul’s assertion.  But how one interprets God’s righteousness affects one’s view of Romans.

Thus says the LORD, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come And My righteousness to be revealed. How blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who takes hold of it; Who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”  – Isaiah 56:1-2 (NASB)

The doublet bolded above is critical to the interpretation of God’s righteousness. The two ideas of a doublet frequently have some relation to each other, though they need not be exactly synonymous. On one hand, one might interpret the revealing of God’s righteousness as being synonymous with God’s salvation. For instance, NT Wright interprets God’s righteousness as being God’s covenant faithfulness, which fits perfectly within the idea of salvation. However, I would propose a different semantic relation, where the second line is a means for the fulfillment for the first line. In other words, the revealing of His righteousness is how God brings about salvation.

Isaiah 1:27 speaks of redemption being accomplished by justice and righteousness. Assuming First Isaiah (although I do not buy into the different authors of Isaiah) has continuity with Deutero-Isaiah, then we perhaps interpret the command to keep justice and to do righteousness in 56:1 as being related to the salvation that is spoken of, where salvation/redemption is not merely conditioned upon justice and righteousness, but is obtained through those qualities.

Secondly, it is doubtful that oracle intends to use “righteousness” in such a fluid manner in 56:1, where the first usage is ethical whereas the second is referring to faithfulness. While the word could encompass both usages, it is more likely that the revealing of God’s righteousness is directly related to the call to be just and righteous. So coming about full circle, the second line of the bolded doublet seems more fitting to be the means of the salvation spoken of in the first line, instead of merely a synonymous saying.

Looking at verse 2, this seems to be the best conclusion. The doublet “How blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who takes hold of it”, seem to form a chiasmus with the previous doublet. At first, one might want to associate those two statements as referring to the command to preserve justice and do righteousness. However, upon a closer look at “the son of man who takes hold of it”, it might refer to the trust in God for salvation. The same verb is used in 56:4, where the eunuch is told “to hold fast My covenant.” Interpreting this not as faithfulness to the covenant per se, but as reliance or trust in God to fulfill His covenant, this gives further meaning to 56:2. If the second line of the doublet is regarding God’s covenant faithfulness, which naturally correspondsto salvation, then the first line of the doublet of refers to the doing of righteousness. It can be seen as follows

A – My salvation is about to coome

B –       And My righteousnes to be revealed

B’ –      Blessed is the man who does this (righteousness)

A’ – And the son of man who takes hold of it (God’s covenant promising salvation)

If 56:1b-2a really forms a chiasmus, then “My righteousness to be revealed” indicates an ethical quality to be obeyed by the people of Israel (and the eunuchs and foreigners spoken in the later verses).

Also, in indicating the happiness of the people who hold does righteousness, it is related to the presumably happy state that would come from salvation, hence the obedience to God’s righteous ways would be seen as a means for the salvation that is to be had. Incidentally, Isaiah 55:8-13 seems to indicate God revealing His ways as being the cause of the upcoming joy to be had.

Finally, 56:2b also forms a doublet, that might also be said to form a chiasmus with 56:2a. The Sabbath is said to be the sign given by God to His people of His covenant with them (Exodus 31:13-17), so that observance of the sabbath is associated with God’s covenant. On the other hand, the one who “keeps his hand from evil” naturally fits with the idea of doing righteousness. So the chiasmus of 56:2 would be as follows:

A – How blessed is the man who does this (righteousness)

B –      And the son of man who takes hold of it (God’s covenant that promises salvation)

B’ –     Who keeps from profaning the sabbath (a sign of the covenant)

A’ – And keeps his hand from doing any evil (righteousness)

In the end, there seems to be two parallel trains of thought being developed in 56:1-2.

Salvation about to come -> Hold to God’s covenant -> Observe the sign of the covenant

Righteousness to be revealed -> Do righteousness -> Keep hands from evil

The latter train of thought is directly related to the command of “Preserve justice and do righteousness.” So the commandment can be seen as the reason for hope that God’s salvation will come. In the end then, God’s righteousness does not refer to some faithfulness of the part of God, but rather the way of living Israel was to have, that God himself would bring to the world (Isaiah 55:8-11). This then, naturally, fits within Paul proclaiming in Romans that Jesus is the revelation of God’s righteous ways, through whom redemption is accomplished.

January 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Kingdom of God and political, social, and economic ideologies

Jesus message of God’s Kingdom, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, is not focused around any ideology, but rather it is based upon relationship of person to person. More particularly, the Kingdom ethic is summed up in non-resistance, forgiving, love that does not seek to institute from the top-down, but from the bottom-up (servile love, rather than authoritarian force). It gives no mention of social institutions, political philosophies, economic theories, or anything else. It doesn’t give a comprehensive plan for the ushering in of God’s Kingdom. Jesus simply calls people to a particular form of relational ethics on the grounds that the reciprocating nature of humanity will lead to transformation of our enemies and the enemies of God’s Kingdom through love, compassion, and forgiveness directed towards them.

All attempts to subject Jesus’ relational ethic into a systematic thought on society, or any attempt to claim that Jesus’ message corresponds with a certain  ideology fails to see that Jesus gives no vision of society beyond the relationship between person with person and person with God.

Christians should not envision a society in a certain way and presume that God endorses such a system because there is some correspondance between Jesus’ message and the system. For there is likely some idea that also, perhaps in a subtle way, conflicts with Jesus’ relational ethic.

Who can envision the way that Jesus ideal relational behavior will manifest itself in God’s fully inaugurated Kingdom? To say one has a particular vision of how it should be is the height of human arrogance, presuming that they have a perfect understanding of human psychology, God’s involvement with the world, and a perfect understanding of Jesus’ message. All ideologies, at best, must be regarded as a method that could and probably should be discarded, as it spoils about as fast as milk. Communism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, authoritarianism, democracy, etc. are all like milk that is good for a little while but then spoils quickly, and like a cubic zirconia that looks like a diamond, but upon further inspection it is structurally different and a cheap, falliable imitation.

January 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 3 Comments