Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Thursday, April 13, 2017
The Sweetness of Gathering to the Vine
The sweetness of gathering to the wine
is claimed by children resting in a tree
whose root became the food within the vine.
These, childlike made, they bless the cup and dine
upon the fleshy food they cannot see,
and drink the holy bloody wine.
Like sibling children fighting in a line,
who later laugh when by the bell set free,
these happy ones are laughing in the vine.
And raging gods whose deeds their shape confine
have called for war, whose very end shall be
determined by the drinking of the wine.
Go death to death, the children life define;
now blood of saints and Christ's good blood agree
the holy life is living in the vine.
If nails be sharp pursuing flesh to pine,
and wooden burdens bend and bruise the knee,
feast on the broken flesh, drink up the wine;
hold fast the fellowship within the vine.
by Viola Larson
Monday, April 10, 2017
Traci Smith, a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) pastor, who several weeks ago complained that the Reverend Tim Keller should not receive a theological award because of his beliefs about ordaining women and members of the LGBTQ community, is now making some rather confusing remarks about the atonement provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Smith’s posting, “Protect Children from the Violence of the Cross and What to Do Instead During Holy Week,” broadens her perspective about Keller’s theology and all evangelical/orthodox reformed theology. No, she doesn’t mention Keller here but the reader begins to see two faiths emerging in her writings—one is progressive, the other orthodox—and Smith seems to be pushing away from the faith that is orthodox.
In an essay meant to help parents and leaders dealing with children during Easter and Lent, Smith, insists that the cross and suffering of Christ and what that means, put in what she calls a simplistic manner, can frighten and offend children. She writes:
“When we reduce the crucifixion story to a simple soundbite digestible for young children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). … When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not quite so simple. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak.”
And toward the end of her posting, Smith suggests that her readers “re-evaluate” their theology of the atonement. She asks “Did God kill Jesus?” and answers, “I don’t think so.”
Well no, some of the Jewish leaders, the Roman leaders in Jerusalem and all of us because of our sin killed Jesus. But, yes, his death was necessary. Smith’s question and answer is simplistic in the extreme.
In his little compact book, Christian Doctrine, J.S. Whale, after explaining the extreme suggestion by some that if the idea of atonement entails Jesus’ death as a necessity than God is a tyrant, writes:
“In all the classic soteriologies [atonement theories] of the Church, he who is sacrificed is not a human being chosen out from humanity to serve as a scapegoat. That would be the Nestorian heresy. On the contrary it is the offended One himself, the Holy God who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, who as the second ‘hypostasis’ or ‘person’ of the Trinity assumes a human nature in order to be able to suffer for offending sinners, and in their stead. According To Christian theology, the Being who goes deliberately and freely to his death is not a human personality but the second ‘person’ of the Trinity, God incarnate in the clothing of human nature. … the dogmatic formula of the Church is: two ‘natures’ in one ‘person’. The link between these two natures is ‘hypostatic’ and the ‘person’ constituting the link is divine.”
That is a lot of theology, both difficult and beautiful—complex and biblical—as Christian theology should be.
But let us return to the children. No, children should not be given graphic stories and harsh pictures of the crucifixion. It isn’t necessary. But plain pictures, simple stories and the understanding that Jesus died on the cross for our sins—and rose from the tomb to fill our lives with joy and hope. We shouldn't be afraid of the words; Jesus died for sinners. Jesus saves. That is blessed hope for children.
I have told this story before—I will tell it again. When my children were little I had a Good News Club in my home. We told Bible stories the old fashioned way with felt and flannel cutouts. Many of the children in my neighborhood knew nothing about Jesus. At Easter I told them the story of Jesus and his death on the cross. One little boy who had never heard this story before was so very sad when I told about Jesus' death. But then I told about Jesus coming alive, and he got so excited, so happy. Children need this story and they need to know in simple terms that Jesus loved them so much that he died for them.
The good news is deep—deep enough that scholar and student can bathe in its deep luxurious riches. No simplifying the work of the Trinity, the death of the Son, the gracious sacrifice given and the glorious resurrection. Adults need to dig deep.
But the good news is simple too. Laid out for the child and the special learner who struggles to understand. It is there as gift. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lives. He loves and forgives sins. He suffered because he loves. Children all over the world are suffering and dying because they love Jesus. Why should we withhold his truth?
Monday, April 3, 2017
The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations
This posting covers the last lesson in Presbyterian Women’s Horizons Bible Study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a LensMakes. Author, Judy Yates Siker, could have helped the reader of the whole Bible Study by placing this lesson, “According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations,” or at least its underlying theme about biblical interpretation, as a part of the introduction. Looking back over the nine lessons one sees the real cheat—there is, according to Siker, no absolute answer to the question about Jesus—instead there is personal opinion.
I have already quoted twice, in other parts of my continuing review, from this lesson. Siker’s words are the mainstay of all nine lessons whether they be orthodox or heterodox. She writes:
“As we become more and more conversant with our sacred text, we begin to understand that to seek the meaning of a text is not as useful as seeking what New Testament Scholar Brian Blount calls ‘meaning potential.’ Some who hear this term may fear that it is watering down the biblical text, allowing it to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. After all it is much more comforting to think that if we try hard enough or if we study enough, we can know the one true meaning of the text. I would like us to consider, however, that the approach of ‘meaning potential’ is a more honest reading of the sacred text. This way of approaching our Bible acknowledges the reality that every reader is an interpreter standing within his or her own community. Each interpretation is a conversation between the biblical writing and the biblical reader, most often mediated by centuries of tradition and immediate experiences and situations of the reader. Along the way, we encounter many potential readings of the text, some more compelling than others. There is no such thing as a completely objective reading of a text.”
Siker, using a radical feminist and liberation theologian, Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz, to exegete Matthew 15:21-28, attempts to explain how ‘meaning potential’ works. The effect is a Jesus who errs since he seemingly excludes the ‘other’ and needs to be “humanized” by the other.
The story in the text is about Jesus’ response to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is demon possessed. The story is problematic because at first Jesus apparently refuses to help stating that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s response, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” is seen by most progressive theologians as a wise means of getting Jesus to see the other as equal to himself and others, also encouraging him to change.
Siker writes of Guardiola-Saenz’s view of the story as a liberation story. Her take, to say the least, is horrific:
“Reading the story this way, Jesus represents the powerful ones who demand that she stay in her place, as it were. This kind of power play is dehumanizing, even as we are surprised to see Jesus treating the Canaanite woman as less than a full human being. A culturally sensitive reading suggests that, rather than succumb to being dehumanized yet again the Canaanite woman stands firmly in her place and leaves Jesus speechless. The woman is able to awaken Jesus to the dehumanization that she has experienced, and the result is that she humanizes Jesus.”
I want to deal first with the story and then look deeper into the problems connected to Siker’s statement about biblical interpretation.
This particular story about the Canaanite woman is not a good story to come to the text with the question, “who is Jesus?” That is because who Jesus is informs this story. The text does raise questions. Why did Jesus tell the woman “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”? (NASV) And why did Jesus in the former part of the story tell the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This latter question is simply addressing the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry although it did entail a few gentiles. R. T. France answers the question in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew, covering both Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, and 15:24, “To call Israel to repentance was the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry; the call was urgent and demanded total concentration (cf. 10:23). They were lost sheep, a common Old Testament metaphor (Je. 50:6; Ezk. 34:1-16; cf. Is. 53:6. …”
The former question about Jesus’ reply to the Canaanite woman fits well into Jesus ministry to the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’ As John Calvin points out in his commentary, the “bread” that Jesus speaks of is not the good gifts that are given to all of humanity (God’s general grace) but the gifts of the covenant God made to Israel. (Even Paul states that the gifts are first offered to the Jewish people and then to the gentile. Romans 2:9-11)
And while biblical scholar Richard Bauckham posits the idea that the woman had changed Jesus’ mind with her perseverance, and biblical scholar, R. T. France believes that Jesus’ seemingly harsh words were said with a twinkle in his eyes, neither of them see Jesus as someone who views the outsider as ‘other.’ For them he does not represent the powerful. Nor do they see him as someone who needs to be humanized.
In the text, the Canaanite woman sees Jesus in a special way. She addresses him as ‘Son of David,’ a reference to his Jewish messiahship, and she worships him. She believes that he can do what she is asking of him; in humility she perseveres. All reasons for granting her request, and reasons for granting Jewish supplicants as well. It is who Jesus is that informs the text. He is son of David, the messiah king of Israel, the healer and the granter of covenant gifts. May his crumbs, marvelous crumbs, fall to all of us.
If there is a seeming problem in the text, the reader should apply other scripture to the text. Who is Jesus in all of scripture, not just in one particular passage? Is the whole passage being used to gain an understanding? For example in this story of the Canaanite woman, neither Siker nor the author she is using includes the titles that the woman uses to address Jesus. Nor do they comment on the fact that she worships Jesus and believes he is able to answer her request. They begin with their own feelings about being excluded and interpret from that position—they don’t ask what is God saying to me through this text, but how does my perspective or experience inform this text, or even how do other people’s perspective experience inform the text.
Scripture informs scripture and a commonsense reading of the text is important. Above all Scripture is God’s story not ours. The Holy Spirit is the giver and interpreter of the word. (2 Peter 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:16) Jesus cannot be both the compassionate savior and at the same time representative of the powerful oppressor. Siker rather than insisting that some interpretations are simply wrong, allows Jesus to be maligned—like the evil persecutors of the 17th century Christians of Japan, Siker and Guardiola-Sáenz might as well ask Presbyterian women to step on the face of Christ.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has proclaimed him.” (John 1:14, 18)
 R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, reprint, (Leicester, England; Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 194).
 John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol.2, found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xlvii.html
 Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the named Women in the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 2002) 41-46.
 See Shusaku Endo’s Silence and The Samurai.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
I’ve been sitting here attempting to write, afraid of my own anger which I must put aside. I have listened to a song I particularly like. Over and over I have listened.
Span of stars over head as we walk this route/ While this darkness remains I will bear your load/ And together we will tend to the seeds we've sown/ As we walk along that road to that city/
Well my eyes can't see what is waiting there/ And my mind can't conceive all that he has prepared/ There the blind will see the Son/ what was old will be young/ And the lame, the lame will run, all over the city/
I don’t belong to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) anymore, I know, but I have many dear friends that do—friends that, like Rev. Tim Keller, do not believe in the ordination of those who practice biblical sexual sin, be it fornication, adultery or homosexuality. I suppose, now, like Keller, they are not qualified to win theological awards such as the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness given by Princeton Theological Seminary. Or perhaps they too could have it offered and then taken away because too many progressives protest.
Keller is still speaking at the seminary and his subject is Church Mission. The Religion News Service quoted PT’s president, Rev. Craig Barnes, stating that “Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.” He is still ministering.
I have been troubled by this for several days after seeing a link placed on a Facebook site I belong to, Happy to be a Presbyterian. The link was a petition produced by Princeton’s Center for Theology, The Women and Gender Advisory Council, Women’s Center and BGLASS which is Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Supporters. Bruce Gillette posted the link with these words, “My father Jerry Gillette (Class of 1953), my wife Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (Class of 1985) and I (MDiv Class of 1984, ThM Class of 1985) have all signed this petition. Please encourage others to join us, especially the Princeton Theological Seminary graduates. Thank You.” Of course this is good American political action but hardly conducive to care for the orthodox still in the PC (U.S.A.).
But it was very troubling to see another on the thread refer to Keller’s theology as idolatrous and in another thread where it was announced that the award had been rescinded, A Christianity Today article, a person wrote, “Because he's a homophobic and misogynistic schismatic who doesn't deserve to be honored by any PCUSA body.” That comment was liked by eight people including one of the administrators of the Facebook site.
This kind of hatefulness is a gathered storm in the PC (U.S.A.) and other mainline denominations.
Why is it that many of us who are orthodox and believe that women can biblically be ordained are appalled by Princeton’s action of taking away the award that was to be given to Keller? Keller loves the Lord Jesus Christ. He has labored faithfully a long time in a great city, New York City, which desperately needs the gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He does not hate the LGBTQ community but longs for them to experience the transformation that Jesus bought with his cross. He cares about both women and men. He loves people. He has taught many of us with his sermons and books. His and our agenda is simply leading people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that is what the enemy of our Lord does not want.
It is he, Satan, that seeks to hurt or ruin those who are in Christ. We are called to love and care for brothers and sisters and to love those who are enemies of the gospel.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
Fierce Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex and Salvation
By Alice Connor
Fortress Press 2017
Alice Connor, an Episcopal priest, is a story teller. Her stories, mostly about women and taken from the Bible, are vivid, earthy, twisted and meant to help women explore their own identity. Spiritually Connor has a worthy motivation. She writes:
“When we talk about feminism in the church, in the workplace, and in our families, these conversations are all about power: who has it, who doesn’t have it, what it’s used for. These are good questions to ask, don’t get me wrong. But as Christians, we are called to something else. The God we worship, the God made human, seems to be all about the powerless, the outsider, whatever that means in a given story. And so often in our scripture, God calls us not to success but to faithfulness. God calls us not to power but to presence.”
This picture of faithfulness would make a beautiful framework for presenting biblical women, but Connor dismisses much of the truth of the stories and uses them as metaphors and principles for women’s (and men’s) experiences. And in doing so, although a good story teller, she misses the prophetic word of God which doesn’t center on our experience but on God’s work and purposes.
After writing about Rahab and Bathsheba, Connor states, “The stories of Rahab and Bathsheba are likely more legend than history, but as with all good stories, that’s not the point. What matters is what we do with them. … Rahab and Bathsheba are part of an epic narrative about how to be human to each other.”
No, if one reads the story of Rahab who hid the Israelite spies, one finds a beautiful testimony to the greatness of our God. And it is Rahab’s testimony and it is about the work and purposes of God. As one scholar has noted her words about the history of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and destruction of two kings and their peoples are part of a chiastic construction that centers the whole book of Joshua. Richard S. Hess writes “Rahab has learned her history well and responds with a reaffirmation of the fear of those who oppose Israel and with the confession that only Israel’s God controls the destiny of the world.”
In a different piece I have written about Connor’s use of Asherah as a worthy biblical woman; she was, however, an ancient goddess. Asherah was one of the causes of ancient Israel’s unfaithfulness. The prophets condemned the worship of Asherah and the good kings of Israel pulled down the Asherah poles which were too often placed in God’s temple.
But Connor uses Asherah as first the missing goddess, wrongly erased, and then the missing feminine aspects of God. She then uses the goddess as a metaphor for those missing people that the community ignores, kills and erases from history. Connor, with this description, implies that Israel was evolving in their religious views and that it is acceptable to use the stories as mere images of human experience. Doing that, Connor is able to ignore humanity’s worship of false gods and the prophetic word of God that condemns such worship.
In the same manner Eve is used as an example of human growth; she is the seeker, a child who grows up. According to Connor, Adam and Eve are sinners but their sin is a matter of nature; growth, curiosity and sorrow—not fallen-ness, is the theme of the Genesis story.
Connor explains that Paul uses the story of Adam and Eve to show the importance of Jesus. She writes, “He said because we are all Adam and Eve’s grandchildren, therefore we die. And since we are God’s children because of Jesus the Christ, we will live.” But it is his death on the cross, his resurrection—it is Christ’s redemptive death that is missing in the telling.
The story of Ruth is turned into a romance novel and a cheap one at that. For Connor, there is flirting (rather than goodness) by Boaz and when Ruth goes to the threshing floor and uncovers his feet, she supposedly uncovers his penis and they have sex. And yet the text actually tells the reader when they have sex. After Boaz redeems Ruth according to the custom of Israel, after the elders of the city bless Boaz and Ruth, “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.”
Still, again Connor misses the redemptive beauty in the story. She attempts to picture the people Naomi returned to as seeing and referring to Ruth as a “dirty foreigner,” but the text doesn’t say this. Instead Boaz says to Ruth, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband has been fully reported to me, and how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and came to a people that you did not previously know.” (Italics mine.)
The blessing that Boaz gives to Ruth, “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge,” actually is echoed in Ruth’s request that Boaz spread his covering over her as she lays at his feet. The literal meaning is a request for Boaz to spread his wing over her. It is a request for marriage as well as a request for “incorporation into the covenant people of God.”
The Bible is full of stories about women, some unfaithful, some faithful, but the story, the main story is about God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. Through the telling of each story we should here the Spirit of God wooing us toward a closer walk with our Lord and God. That is not so with Fierce Women of the Bible.
 Richard S. Hess, Joshua: An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, general editor, (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press 1996) 89.
 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2006) 679.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
It’s as ancient as the sin of our mother Eve and our father Adam, the desire to establish our own identity—minus the purpose of God. We would be our own gods and goddesses; deciding what is good and evil.
The publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), using Theology of the People, a division of Augsburg/Fortress Press, published a book entitled, Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. The author, Alice Connor, is an “Episcopal priest and a chaplain on a college campus.” An ad with a free reading guide, introduction, content, first chapter and a video was sent to me this morning, via e-mail, by the Presbyterian Women of the PC (U.S.A.).
At the bottom of the ad, PW stated, “Presbyterian Women will occasionally send an email on behalf of organizations that may be of interest to our constituency. These paid advertisements help fund Presbyterian Women's publishing work and other ministries. Thank you for supporting organizations that support PW.”
I have ordered the book with the thought of reviewing it, but so much information was sent, including a link to Augsburg/Fortress and Amazon, (which offers some pages to read), so I am setting out several warnings—about apostasy. I am certain that many women received the same information that I received. And it seems that this book will touch women in at least three mainline denominations.
Probably the worst chapter, “So God Had a Wife, Maybe? Probably,” is on the ancient pagan goddess Asherah. It begins, “She was erased.” And continues to suggest that the Israelites worshiped not only a male god but also his wife, Asherah. The author, Alice Connor, writes:
“Like math sums done wrong, or a letter phrased poorly, bits of her were scraped away and wiped off the page, as carelessly as if she did not exist. And in a way, I suppose she doesn’t anymore. Her presence has been denied for generations. She was Asherah. She was Mother of the Gods, she was the Lion Lady, and she it was who subdued the sea. She was the wife of Yahweh, She was the embodiment of nourishment; her breast fed multitudes. She represented not only survival but plenty. Her hips birthed gods; her presence created abundant harvests. The people made sacrifices to her—grain and animals, even their children from time to time. …”
Connor continues, stating that Asherah was worshiped alongside of Yahweh. Continuing with her story she suggests that eventually Asherah was erased when the Israelites were searching for a reason for their defeat and exile. But now, allegedly, she has been discovered again:
“Now thousands of years after those holy books were written, scholars have rediscovered her and the bare-breasted clay totems buried for centuries. They speak her names and write of her totems, her sacred trees, her high places with their rough and beautiful altars, and they don’t know which name to call her: Asherah, Astarte, Anat, Qudshu, Queen of Heaven. …”
Connor speculates about her existence and referring to the Hebrew Scriptures writes, “She’s between the lines of Hebrew, like the feeling you get when you try to push the positive ends of two magnets together. You can feel the energy pushing between them, even though the space looks empty. Between the lines of Hebrew where her sacred poles were torn down and she isn’t even named, there is energy pushing back.”
Connor still speculates on the historical reality of Asherah but eventually equates Asherah with others who have been erased from their historical context. The tragedy here is Connor’s denial of the utter unfaithfulness of God’s people. It is also her own unfaithfulness that she could so easily, as priest, deny the truthfulness of God and his word.
The questions on the reading guide are sometimes helpful but too often inane, “What difference would it make to you if Rahab’s occupation as a prostitute were somehow definitively proven or disproven? Not just historically, but to this story and to your understanding of sin and redemption. Do you think the Israelite spies slept with Rahab? What difference would it make to their story and that of Israel’s conquest of Canaan?”
The exercises at the end of each chapter entail meditation on icons of the biblical characters including Asherah. And the chapter on the Song of Songs entails feeling your body which, I admit, made me both laugh and appalled me. Not because the body is evil but because it seemed to me to be the ultimate self-worship.
And that, self-worship as well as self-guidance, rather than listening to God’s word and obedient discipleship, is the framework of Connor’s book.
Just recently, I sorted out my library, removing most of the radical feminist books I have used for research. I started to toss them, and did toss some, but decided to save a core of them downstairs on some unused shelves in a pantry. (My old house has so many unexpected nooks and crannies.) The books are all the same!
Until the coming of Christ I suppose that all kinds of heretical movements, such as radical ‘Christian’ feminism, will continue to form, change and die. The books will multiple and move from circle to circle with praise from those who should know better. But the ugly systems are boringly the same: denying God’s word, denying Christ’s redemptive gift of life because of his shed blood, denying our sanctification through the Holy Spirit—the list is too long and too often the same.
Lift up the cross of Christ, the word of God and the righteousness that is God’s gift.