Friday, August 19, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- "According to Paul"

Picture by Stephen Larson
In the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, in lesson five, “According to Paul,” the focus is on Paul’s theme of a crucified and risen Jesus. Yes, the cross and the resurrection are two of Paul’s important themes. As author Judy Yates Siker states “Paul’s lens, first and foremost, is the cross, and that resulting portrait is not focused on the life and teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels but rather is focused on the risen Christ.”

Toward the end of the lesson Siker writes:

“From Paul’s perspective the cross is at the heart of the Gospel message, for it reveals a God who embraces humanity in all of its sinfulness and redeems humanity through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The cross reveals a God who so identifies with human suffering and the pain of humanity’s own inhumanity that, in Jesus, this God takes on the power of sin and the power of death, and transforms it all into life abundant (Rom.5-6)”

Siker goes on to quote Romans 5:6-8, a beautiful picture of God’s redeeming love. I applaud her words in this section on page 55 of the lesson.

However, even in this lesson Siker continues to split apart the New Testament’s views of who Jesus is. She tends to place too much emphasis on scholarly debates about the text which tends to muddy her good words about the good news which women need to hear. In this lesson there are two debates about the text that Siker uses

The first is her decision to exclude several books which traditional views, until the nineteenth century, have attributed to Paul. The books are 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians and Ephesians. Ephesians is an interesting case. I believe most conservative/evangelical scholars would certainly include Ephesians as one of Paul’s letters. In the Dictionary of Paul and His letters, all of the above books are attributed to Paul.

In the book’s piece on Ephesians, the author, Talbot School of Theology professor Clinton E. Arnold, affirms Paul’s authorship noting that Professor Ralph P. Martin, one of the book’s editors does not agree. It could also be noted that Marcus Barth in his Ephesians commentaries also attributes Ephesians to Paul.

If Siker had accepted the book of Colossians as a Pauline letter she could have also underscored Paul’s magnificent Christology. As Peter T. O’Brian writes, “Colossians has much to say about the importance of the gospel, the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially as Lord in creation and author of reconciliation (Col 1:15-20.).” [1]

The other scholarly debate that Siker uses in this study is the idea that Paul seems to have nothing to say about the life and teachings of Jesus. As she put it if we only had Paul to read we would only know, “born of a woman (Gal. 4:4) of the lineage of David (Rom. 1:3) born under the law (Gal 4:4), had a group of followers (1 Cor. 15:5), died on a cross (Phil 2:8).”

Siker does give some good reasons for Paul’s seeming silence about the life and teachings of Jesus, that is, he was after all writing letters to address the problems of the various churches. But she also adds that “some scholars argue that Paul did not know very much about the historical Jesus.” (She leaves the door open to the reader to choose their preference.)

This divides the risen Lord from his incarnation when there really is no division. If Paul knows the risen Lord, he knows the Jesus who lived and ministered on earth. His letters develop the theology that is formed out of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s ethics, as he guides the churches and individual Christians, grow out of the teachings of Jesus.[2]

If liberal scholarship did not so easily pull the various books of the New Testament apart but read the text as a whole the problems would not be so great. One could believe Paul and see him and his letters in the contexts of Luke’s writings in the book of Acts. Paul’s letters should undergird Acts and Acts affirm Paul’s letters. One could simply accept the biblical fact that Paul knew the apostles and other Christian leaders who knew Jesus during his ministry on earth.

I have not written much about the suggestions for leaders at the end of each lesson. They are written by Dr. Lynn Miller. Both Miller and Siker at the end once again bring up the idea of a different Jesus because of different author’s perspectives. Speaking of Paul’s words about redemption and the cross, Siker, at the end, writes, “No, this is not the same portrait of Jesus we saw in the Gospels, for Paul’s lens is a lens of the cross.” And Miller in suggestions for leaders writes:

Paul’s letters to specific communities ‘bear witness to the challenges of applying the gospel message to new and changing circumstances.” What are todays changing circumstances and who is the Jesus that can speak to those circumstances?”

That is a question with the aroma of apostasy.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

[1]Peter T. O’Brian, “Letter to the Colossians,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, A compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid, editors, ( Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1993).
[2] For a compelling argument against Paul having little knowledge of the earthly Christ and his teaching see, J.M.G. Barclay, “Jesus and Paul,” Dictionary of Paul.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Confessing & "white supremacy" The misuse of confession, the misuse of language

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) co-moderator, T. Denise Anderson, in her article, “Confession time: How white supremacy hurts white people,” on the Presbyterian Outlook web-site, calls on individual white people to personally confess their individual racism.

Anderson insists that all white people in the United States are involved in racism and white supremacy because the founders of America were colonialist and involved in slavery. Referencing Kelly Brown Douglas, Anderson writes, that the puritans contributed to white supremacy believing themselves to be “the pure remnant of the freedom-loving and exceptionally moral Anglo-Saxons.”

Anderson continues, “The idea of American exceptionalism is intrinsically linked to not only faith, but Germanic (and Norse) heritage. That exceptionalism necessarily excludes those not of that heritage.” She also writes:

“Let me be very clear: One does not have to be malicious or hateful to be racist. One needn’t even be intentional about it. White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist. In fact, it’s difficult to not be racist.”

I was troubled by Anderson’s essay for at least three reasons. The first is historical. The nineteenth century saw a rise in some ideologies that produced racism. And they were based on religious viewpoints and historical views about Germanic and Norse exceptionalism, but they had nothing to do with the puritan’s beliefs about their place and purpose in God’s kingdom.

I was troubled by the use of the term “white supremacy.” Having studied and written a great deal on many of the racist groups in the United States I believe it is a misuse of language to attach the term white supremacy to all white Americans. White supremacy groups are known for their vileness, their hate and their ignorance. It does not help to write that “White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist.”

No it is not easy, among moral people, to be racist. To say that and to say that all whites are racists is to partially eliminate the evil of racism. This is harmful to all ethnic groups. Surely Anderson would not say that because some Arab groups are terrorist all Arabs are terrorist! Or because some husbands have abused their wives all husbands are wife beaters!

But my greatest concern is the idea of personal confession. I have read one of those confessions and I was dismayed. It consisted of private matters that should have been confessed, not on social media, but privately to those hurt and most of all confessed to God. And this is where some in the church may misunderstand what it means for members of the church to confess the ills of society. It may be one person confessing but it must be for the whole church.  It is after all the Church which makes confession. In a sense those who ask for individual public confession are themselves tyrants.

Daniel’s beautiful prayer of confession is the biblical example. He confessed to God the sins of Israel including himself in the prayer. He did not say I did this or I did that, but the people of God, including Daniel, are the sinners confessing before God their sin.

Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant and lovingkindness for those who love him, and keep his commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. Moreover we have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land.” (9: 4-6)

There is much more; read the whole ninth chapter.

Bonhoeffer, in his book, Ethics, lays out a confession for the church. And before he begins he explains that the prayer is not meant to be a time of pointing fingers at any particular group such as the “blacks” or the “whites” but rather it is the church speaking of their failures and sin. It is individual in that individual sin hurts the church. But it is corporate, as the church, because only in Jesus Christ can humanity recognize their guilt and find grace. [1]

Yes, there is racism, still, in the United States and the Church has a calling to eliminate that sin from their own institutions, displaying the beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ in their midst. But we will not display His beauty by accusing brothers and sisters of the vileness of the world.

[1]In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution concerning racial reconciliation entitled, “The Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention.” It was a time of confession. And the Presbyterian Church in America passed an overture on racial reconciliation in 2002. Both statements can be found in On Being Black and Reformed by Anthony J. Carter. I highly recommend Carter’s book.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- "According to John"

Picture by Ethan McHenry

Judy Yates Siker, in the fourth lesson, “According to John,” of the Presbyterian  Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, seemingly gives the reader a truthful picture of Jesus. After all, she writes, “In this forth Gospel we will see a very different Jesus. It is here, in fact, that we begin to see that Jesus and God are one.” And she goes on to write about Jesus as ‘pre-existent, creator, lamb of God, I Am and Son of Man.

But still, there is that phrase in her sentence, ‘a very different Jesus.’ Different than what? Different than the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Siker has already, in her other lessons, pictured Jesus as Prophet of God, (Luke), the Jewish Messiah who is teacher, (Matthew), and God’s Son who suffers (Mark). And as I pointed out in my review of the other lessons, he is all of that. But even in the other Gospels Jesus is God, a truth that Siker fails to include in her earlier lessons.

Added to this concern is Siker’s attempt to see the Gospel of John as careening too far away from a balanced view of the person of Jesus. She writes, “In this lesson, we will see how John reaches for as many titles and metaphors as he can gather, to portray Jesus as more of a divine figure than a human one.”

So, for the moment, putting aside the main sections of Siker’s lesson four, I intend to answer a question that has been troubling me and perhaps troubling my readers. Why is Siker presenting her material in this manner, and how is it that she acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as God in the Gospel of John but does not acknowledge it in the other Gospels? What is the foundational teaching that under girds such a view of the Gospels? And where does the view that there are different variations of Jesus in the different Gospels lead?

In three places within the fourth lesson a book is recommended to the reader. First, Siker writes, “It is evident from the start that John’s [Gospel] is a different sort of story. John’s Gospel has been called—and rightly so—a “maverick” Gospel, for here is a portrait of Jesus unlike any of his three predecessors.” In a side note about the difference between John and the synoptic gospels there is this suggestion, “I suggest reading Robert Kysar’s book, John, the Maverick Gospel.” In another note about the separation of the early Christians from the Jews there is, once again, a reference to Kysar’s book. And finally in both the endnotes and the bibliography John, the Maverick Gospel is listed.[1]

This isn’t the place to write a whole review of the book but it certainly clarifies where the author of Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes obtained some of her central ideas.

Kysar, in his book, gives an explanation about the Christology of the New Testament as well as how the material of the Gospels was formed. And his view of the Christology of John is confusing to say the least.

Kysar believes there are three types of Christology in the New Testament. There is “Adoptionistic Christology which as Kysar puts it “suggests that Jesus was a man who, because of his obedience to God, was adopted as God’s Messiah.” He believes this is the earliest view of Jesus but is only “faintly” found in the New Testament. He offers Acts 2:36; 3:13; and Romans 1:3-4.

The second type Kysar sees as Agency Christology and believes it is more common. Jesus was sent as a representative “to perform a revelatory and saving function.” He finds this even in John. The third type is Incarnational Christology which is “to claim the divine nature of Christ and at the same time to claim that this divine Christ has taken a human form.” So Kysar, like Siker, believes that each Gospel holds differing views of the person of Jesus.

But Kysar’s view of the incarnational Christ is certainly problematic, although he, like Siker, takes the time to consider all of Jesus’ identities in the Gospel of John.  His final view of John’s Christology is a long quote but it is important even though confusing. I place it here:

“The evangelist recognizes that the founder is the Father’s Son. All the statements that assert the divinity of Christ are qualified by the fact that he is the Father’s Son, not the Father’s own self. This author is no systematic theologian but she or he is theologically sophisticated enough to make clear that Christ is not to be confused with God. Christ is divine and participates in the very being of God, but is distinct and subordinate to the Father. He is the expressive dimension of God’s being, or the Son who is fully obedient to and sent by the Father. Our author recognizes that whatever the incarnation of the Logos means, it cannot mean that a human being is in every way fully the being of God. …” (Italics mine) (68)

Kysar goes on to state that in John’s Gospel Christ is the functional equivalent of God.

Kysar commits two miserable actions with his words. He demotes Jesus, yet designates him God in word and action for the ‘community.’ Jesus, although called divine, he makes less than God and the community no longer encounters the living and personal God in a real way. Instead of being the Church hidden in Christ and therefore embraced by the Father, it is a community who encounters a lesser divine being who is related to and sent by God. Because Jesus is fully human Kysar does not reckon him to be fully God.[2]

And how do the various Gospels shape their stories about Jesus? Kysar, writing of the Gospel of John and believing that an oral tradition about Jesus had already been formed, states:

“This is to suggest that the creation of the literary gospel form was not so much the genius of the author of the written material (the Gospels of Mark and John) but the gradual and less-than-deliberate effort of the early Christian community to preserve the materials that it had at its disposal. The oral tradition, then based on historical recollection of Jesus of Nazareth, shaped itself into gospel. By filling out the historical material with legend, myth, and new teachings from what they believed to be the living Christ, the early Christians gradually shaped the gospel form in the preliterary tradition. (30)

So it is the various early Christian communities who supposedly had differing views of Jesus. According to Kysar the Johannine community’s faith experience of Christ and their search for identity informed their Christology. Kysar writes, “In a faithful and creative way, the author of this document rethought the answers to fundamental questions regarding the nature and function of the Christian movement. In this way, the Fourth Evangelist did what each constructive religious thinker must do in every new period of history and what we are called to do today.” (69)

Here then is the outcome of a view of the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus that includes multiple variations on his identity rather than affirming the unity of the scriptural portrait of Jesus. Believing that it is the community and its experience and needs that shaped the Gospels the door is open for reshaping the good news in different times and cultures. And this is seemingly one of Siker’s understandings as the reader will find when they reach the last lesson, “According to contemporary Cultural Interpretations.”


[1] Robert Kysar,  John, the Maverick Gospel, third edition, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2007).
[2] It should be noted here that Kysar is attempting to split the two natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. I explained this problem in my first review. Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God. Those two things cannot be separated when speaking of Jesus.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review-"According to Luke"

from the catacombs of Rome fourth cent.

Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, one finds many characters, such as Gandalf or Aragorn, who are not always who they seem. They are mysterious and multidimensional personalities, but if their whole being was not, eventually, revealed in the stories, the stories would not qualify to be truth as it is understood by Tolkien.[1] Jesus, who is Truth, is multidimensional, he is teacher and prophet and king. But above all he is God incarnate and Lord of the Church.

Judy Yates Siker, author of the Presbyterian Women’s 2016-2017 Bible Study, “Who is Jesus? : What a Difference a Lens Makes,” in the lesson “According to Luke” focuses mainly on Luke 4:16-30. This is the story of Jesus’ reading prophetic texts in the synagogue in Nazareth. He speaks of himself as the fulfillment of those words, which combine some of Isaiah 61 and 58.[2] Siker sees Luke presenting Jesus as God’s prophet.  And yet, although he is a prophet like Moses, (see Dt. 18:15 & Acts 7:35-37), in Luke, as in the other gospels, he is so much more.

Siker, looking at Luke 4:16-30 including Jesus’ rejection by the people of Nazareth, writes:

‘This, in a nutshell, is the story of Jesus in Luke, a prophet of God, rejected by his own, as so many other prophets of old had been rejected. What we see here, and what we will see throughout the Gospel of Luke, is a Jesus who comes in line with the prophets who have come before him and whose ministry reaches (eventually) beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. While this doesn’t happen in Luke’s Gospel as much as in Acts, Luke uses the story of Jesus as a prophet to carry the story from the Hebrew Bible to Jesus and the Church.”

Siker uses her focus on Jesus as prophet to emphasize his ministry to the outsider, the poor, the oppressed, the Gentile. This is not wrong. Jesus came to minister to broken people. He came to save sinners, But Jesus, in Luke, is more than the prophet of God. In fact, E. Earle Ellis in his commentary points out that in the ninth chapter of Luke, the transfiguration, God rebukes Peter because he equates Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Suggesting that they build a booth for all three.[3]

Instead, God states, “This is my Son, My chosen One, listen to him.”

These are the words that truly clarify “who Jesus is” in the gospel of Luke. Additionally, the prophet John, as his father Zacharias states, goes before the Lord, to prepare his way. (1:76)  The angel’s words to Mary should be added, “He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will have no end.” (1:32-33)

Of the words that Jesus appropriates for himself in the Isaiah texts, at one point amid the skeptics at Nazareth who question why Jesus has not performed any signs among them, Ellis writes:

“The original perspective of Isaiah’s prophecy was deliverance from political oppression. Its messianic fulfillment has a much vaster scope. It is a personal and cosmic deliverance from the power of sin and of death. Demonic possession and sickness are visible manifestations of these powers. Therefore the ‘signs’ of Jesus’ ministry are pre-eminently exorcism and healing.”  

Siker ends her study with reference to a text with which she uses to begin that part of her study that focuses on the question ‘who is Jesus.’ It is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:22-24; 32-36. It contains the reference to the Psalm where David states, “The Lord said to my Lord. ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”  It also contains the end of Peter’s sermon, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” This is who Jesus is.

Without commenting on Peter’s words except to say that Luke also uses this to answer the question of who Jesus is, Siker writes that she will return to the text at the end of her study. This is what she writes at the end of her study:

“Because we are able to see the rest of the story in the book of Acts, we have a picture of Jesus that is fuller in many ways than in the other Gospels. Here, as the disciples gather at Pentecost (Acts 2) we are able to see how, according to Luke, God keeps God’s promise to Israel and pours out upon the disciples (Now Apostles!) God’s spirit. This is the same spirit that came upon Mary, that animated Jesus throughout his ministry, that brought healing and compassion to the outcast, that Jesus gave up to God at his death and that now has been poured out by the risen Jesus upon his followers (and us).”(Italics mine)

Siker goes on to write of our continuing ministry to the outcast, as she puts it, “this prophetic ministry of preaching the good news of inclusion of the outcast, this challenging message to all insiders to be attentive to the outsiders among us.”

In these statements are several problems. The first is that Siker returns to the text that points to Jesus as Lord, but doesn’t comment on the identification. One problem may be editorial, but it is none the less a problem. If Siker is speaking of the ‘spirit’ as the Holy Spirit then Spirit should be capitalized because the Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity.

One problem is a muddle. Siker says the ‘spirit’ is the same ‘spirit’ “that Jesus gave up to God at his death.” That is where Jesus states, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” That is not the Holy Spirit.  It simply means that Jesus gave up his life. Augustine put it this way, “He gave up his life because he willed it, when he will it, and as he willed it.”[4]

The final problem is the dismal process of reducing the good news to news of inclusion and a wariness that insiders not neglect outsiders. It is certainly true that the good news brings the wanderer home. And it is true that we all must be attentive to those who are on the margins of society. But this is not the good news. The good news is that Jesus Christ, who is fully human and fully God, entered our human world to live for us, die for us and be resurrected. Because of his love we who had no hope, no forgiveness, no joy, now hope in Christ Jesus, are forgiven by him and live in his joy. We have the promise of forever in his presence.



[1] See J.R.R. Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories,
[2] E. Earle Ellis, The New Century Bible Commentary; The Gospel of Luke, reprint (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans  1991)
[3]Ibid.  Ellis, Century, 143.
[4] Found in Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament, Synoptic Gospels, reprint of 1886  (Mclean, Virginia: McDonald Publishing Company  no date) 145.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review-"According to Matthew"

AMatthias Stom's depiction of Jesus before Caiaphas, c. 1630.
If a biblical lesson starts off with a false assumption about the text the whole text is inadequately explained. The second lesson of the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes, begins with a half-truth. The lesson, “According to Matthew,” written by Judy Yates Siker, is written around the assumption that the Jewish community and the Christian community were in conflict with each other because of the fall of Jerusalem.

 In the midst of the crisis Siker believes each community was attempting to find their identity minus the sacrificial system.  The Jewish community found their identity in the Law while the Christian community found their identity in Jesus and his interpretation of the law

Siker’s point is that Matthew and the community he was writing for were involved in a debate and the Christian side of the debate involved “derogatory remarks and venomous hate speech” which the author of the text placed in Jesus’ mouth. The words of the Jews at the trial of Jesus, that his blood should be on them and their children, is also blamed on the crisis of the community rather than the truth of history. Siker puts it this way:

 “As we noted at the beginning of this lesson, the Gospel of Matthew was written at a time when there was great turmoil among the Jews; the temple at Jerusalem had recently been destroyed for a second (and final) time, and the Jews were struggling to determine for themselves what it meant to be a good Jew in the wake of this disaster. There were those who believed that even without the temple (and thus the sacrificial system) it was possible to remain strong in their faith because they had the Torah and could not only survive, but thrive, by living in accordance with God’s revealed law. They did not believe that the messiah had come. We call them non-messianic Jews.[1] There were however, others who believed that the messiah had come—Jesus of Nazareth—and that he had fulfilled the Jewish law, he had offered the definitive understanding of the law; thus, through belief in him and his teachings, Jewish faith could flourish. We call these Messianic Jews.”

Siker goes on to explain that the non-messianic Jews evolved into rabbinic Judaism while the Messianic Jews became Christians. She writes that we are looking at an “in-house debate” and “sibling rivalry.” Siker’s explanation, “the mistake that many Christians have made over the centuries is to take the in-house Jewish debate from the first century, adopt its animosity and use it to denigrate the Jews across time. The misuse of our Scripture has resulted in centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating with the horrors of the Holocaust.”

While Siker’s concerns about hatred of the Jews are valid and compassionate, her understanding of the text and history is very confusing and wrong. It is a tangle that needs undoing.

First, while Rabbinic Judaism did evolve from the crisis of the loss of the temple, the conflict between Jew and Christian was really a conflict about who Jesus is, not about Jewish identity.

Second, Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his day was in the long line of the Jewish prophets. Malachi, who was of the priestly line himself, shames the priests of his day insisting they despise the name of the Lord. He even tells them that God will spread refuse (manure) on their faces because they offer blemished sacrifices and do not honor God. Ezekiel, after God shows him the evil committed by the religious rulers in Jerusalem, including the priests, has him listen to the proclamations of their death by the hand of an angel. Isaiah and Jeremiah include the religious leaders in their prophetic judgments.

In the end Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of their rejection of his offer of salvation. The text is not hate speech but rather in the line of the prophetic word of the Jewish Bible.

Third, although too many people have misused the words of scripture against the Jewish people it was, in reality, those in the liberal tradition in Germany who combined their disbelief with a radical nationalism and helped to persecute the Jews to their death. They also, like many progressives today, did not uphold the authority of scripture. They also had texts that they tried to explain away.

All of this takes the focus away from who Jesus is. Siker rightly sees him, in Matthew, as a teacher like Moses. The book is written to the Jews. But there is so much more.

R.T. France in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew[2] writes of Matthews theological emphases:

“The essential key to all of Matthew’s theology is that in Jesus all God’s purposes have come to fulfillment. That is, of course, true of all New Testament theology, but it is emphasized in a remarkable way in Matthew. Everything is related to Jesus. The Old Testament points forward to him; its law is ‘fulfilled’ in his teaching; he is the true Israel through whom God plans for his people to go forward; the future no less than the present is to be understood as the working out of the ministry of Jesus. History revolves around him, in that his coming is the turning point at which the age of preparation gives way to the age of fulfillment. Matthew leaves no room for any idea of the fulfillment of God’s purposes, whether for Israel or in any other respect, which is not focused in this theme of fulfillment in Jesus. In his coming a new age has dawned; nothing will ever be quite the same again.”

And France sees in Matthew several answers to who Jesus is. Matthew uses Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, King and Son of God. But he uses them carefully that they might be filled with the additional understanding of one who is crucified for the sins of his people. And so that they might be seen as titles connected to the one who fulfills God’s purposes which means that several of them such as Son of Man has been enlarged.

[1] This must surely bother any Jewish person reading the lesson because the Jews of the time, although they rejected Jesus as the messiah did look for a messiah.
[2] R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, General Editor, reprint,  (Intervarsity Press, 2008).

Monday, May 16, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review-"According to Mark"

“… the high priest was questioning him and saying to him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one? ‘And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Mark 14: 61b-62)

Picture by Ethan McHenry
One of the causes of error in the church is an emphasis on one truth with neglect or rejection of other truths. This too often occurs because Christians fail to consider the paradoxes of faith. For example when we think of Jesus’ victory and the coming of the kingdom we rightly think of the words, ‘already—not yet.’ The kingdom has come because of Jesus’ death and resurrection but it is not yet fully here until the bodily return of Jesus. That is a paradox. Again the incarnation, Jesus fully human and fully God is a paradox.

The first lesson in the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, looks at the gospel of Mark. There are beautiful truths here—that Jesus as the messiah is the suffering servant, and that as the suffering servant he is able to help us in our suffering. But there is a paradox that is ignored. The suffering servant, the messiah, is also the Coming Son of Man.

And, in fact, Judy Yates Siker writes:

“The Jewish expectations of ‘the messiah’ included one who would be king in a future age, when there was peace, and ranged from ideas about a political figure who would restore Israel to a position of power to a cosmic figure (as in Daniel 7) who would come in on the clouds of heaven, or a priestly figure. Clearly, for many Jews at the time of Jesus, Jesus did not fit any of these categories.” P. 17

While it is true that many Jews did not see the messiah as a suffering messiah and were horrified to think that the messiah would die like a common criminal, the gospel of Mark does not fail to inform the reader that Jesus is not only the suffering servant and Son of God. He is also the Coming One. The One who’s coming is glorious.

It matters not that Jesus’ family, disciples, and enemies did not understand him and often rejected him, Mark gives a complete picture of Jesus’ identity. A picture that does not contradict the other gospels.

Jesus, in the gospel of Mark often refers to himself as ‘the Son of Man.” In some cases his self-identity as the Son of Man clearly includes his divinity.

 Biblical scholar George Eldon Ladd, in his book A Theology of the New Testament, provides a whole chapter on the Son of Man texts in the gospels. He divides them into three categories. “The use of the Son of Man in the synoptics falls into three distinct categories: the Son of Man on earth serving; the Son of Man in suffering and death; the Son of Man in eschatological glory.”

All three are in Mark. The last category, the eschatological Son of Man in glory is found at Mark 8:38, “When he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels;” Mark 13:26, “They will see the Son of Man coming with clouds and great glory.”; and Mark 14:62—see above.[1]

Mark’s perspective does emphasize the suffering servant but it does not preclude Jesus as the coming Lord of glory. And the fact that Jesus the suffering servant is identified as Jesus the coming Son of Man enhances his identity and lifts up the Christian’s call to service and suffering. Jesus is always the Lion who is the lamb who was slain—who purchased, with his blood—people from every tribe and tongue, nation and ethnicity. (Rev. 5)

Siker, at the end of the first lesson, writes: “So, who is Jesus according to Mark? He is the suffering Son of God, and he will meet you in your suffering.” And so he will. But still in another place writing of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, Siker refers to Jesus as “The Jesus in this story …” But there is not a different Jesus for each gospel. There is instead Jesus, absolute, seen from different perspectives, yes, but always the same.   Trustworthy because he is the same, yesterday, today, forever.

[1] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, fourth printing (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1979) See the chapter on The Son of Man 145-158.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- the introduction

I am beginning a review of The Presbyterian Women’s 2016-2017, Bible study, “Who is Jesus? : What a Difference a Lens Makes. Although this is a study written and published by a women’s organization connected to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I now belong to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, there are good reasons to do the review. A large group of ecumenical women use the study, in fact, there is a copy published, in particular, for women in other mainline churches. More importantly several years ago PW officially allowed those women whose churches had left the PCUSA to still maintain their PW status within their new denominations. If they do exist they may be studying this material.

This first review will entail looking at the introduction with its basic premises about Christology and what different ways of looking at Jesus involves and produces. I also will look at some of the suggestions for leaders worksheet found in the back of the study.

In attempting to look at—not answer—the question “who is Jesus,” Judy Yates Siker, the author divides the first four chapters into the four New Testament gospels. She then, in the following chapters, looks at some of the writings of Paul, extra biblical literature not included in the canonization of the New Testament, and views about Jesus within the Jewish community and within the Moslem Qur’an. Finally she looks at contemporary cultural interpretations. The final chapter is meant to apply to the cultural views within the church.

While there is good material in the study there are two errors that cause the study to be extremely problematic. The first is Siker’s understanding of Christology in its relationship to Scripture. The second error is a failure to accept that there is a revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture that is, taken as a whole, complete and unchangeable.

Finally although it does not contaminate the whole study there is a theological error in one of the study worksheets which may not have been intentional but nonetheless kills any correct view of who Jesus is. I will return to that at the end of this review.

Christology: Siker explains Christology in the New Testament using her understanding of a High Christology versus a low Christology. She defines those terms in this way:

“High Christology is one in which the emphasis is on the divinity of Jesus; that is, Jesus is God in human form. Low Christology puts the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity; that is, Jesus is a human in whom God chose to dwell. Most of our definitions (if we attempt to define Jesus identity at all) fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”

Siker applies her definitions to the gospels. The synoptic gospels have a low Christology and John a high Christology. Siker points out that the words high & low for this are not a matter of superior or inferior and yet, perhaps she should do so. Here is the problem:

A high Christology is a Christology that is superior in that it not only emphasizes the divinity of Jesus but also affirms the humanity of Jesus. It is a balanced account of the person of Jesus, fully God and fully human. Think of the creed of Chalcedon. A fence is placed around the person of Jesus Christ and there are some things that cannot be said. A low Christology does fail to uphold Jesus’ divinity.

While the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul give a more direct and straight forward picture of Jesus’ divinity they also are very clear about the humanity of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark and Luke give very practical understandings of Jesus’ humanity, but in terms of his miracles, wisdom and even his actions they clearly picture Jesus as God. Who can still the raging waves but God? (Matthew 8) Who can forgive sin but God? (Mark 2) Who can raise the dead but God? (Luke 7)

Larry W. Hurtado, author of Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, in a comment on his blog explains first that Mark was not writing a Christology, but then Hurtado writes these helpful thoughts:

“But certainly Mark reflects and presumes a very “high” view of Jesus. E.g., the opening lines effectively make Jesus the “Lord” whose paths are prepared for by the Baptist. And at various points Jesus is pictured as heralded by demons who (unlike the humans in the story) perceive his transcendent significance. And Jesus acts in ways that allude to YHWH in the OT (e.g., walking on the waves and calming them).”

One of the troubling aspects of Siker’s way of looking at Christology affects a worksheet in the back of the study. The worksheet divides up the four gospels under categories including “More human” and “More divine.” Readers are expected to decide which gospels see Jesus as more human and which as more divine. Nothing in this study is more troubling than asking Christian women to state whether a biblical gospel presents Jesus as more human or more divine. Jesus’ person is never divided in that manner.

The unchanging Jesus: The second error has to do with the whole biblical picture of Jesus. Siker in attempting to look at the different perspectives of the biblical writers fails to place alongside that the truth that there is a biblical picture that is whole and does not change with different perspectives. Yes, different New Testament writers did write from different perspectives but they did not change the absoluteness of the person of Jesus.

While Siker presents some very clear and devout pictures about what various writers teach about Jesus, she leaves open the possibilities of optional answers to the question “Who is Jesus.” Siker is loyal to each author she writes about, but seems to toss them aside with each new text and new author. In the last chapter on contemporary cultural interpretations Siker offers scholarship that questions Jesus’ sinless nature.   When presenting the lesson on the non-canonical gospels she praises them for their ability to teach about diversity.

The question “Who is Jesus” is never clearly answered.

Explaining Jesus: fully God, fully human:  In a worksheet meant to teach how one states the biblical understanding of Jesus as both God and human the author or perhaps the editors use poor wording. There is a list of statements one is to choose from. On another page all but one of the statements, the last one, is shown as being in error and the heresy it contains is named. The last one is meant to be correct—but this is what it says:

“Jesus is made of the same “stuff” as God the Father.”

The answer states “Yes. This is what the Nicene Creed says: “… being of one substance with the Father …”

But what else does the creed say, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father …” (Italics mine.)

Yes the creed does go on to say that in His incarnation Jesus was made man but that is how and why he is fully human. We can say that in his humanity Jesus was made or in his divinity he was begotten of the Father. Or we can say that Jesus Christ was begotten of the Father and made man in his incarnation. But we cannot say that Jesus was made of the same stuff as God the Father.

There is one more problem. The sentence “Jesus is made of the same “stuff” as God the Father,” implies, unintentionally I know, that God the Father is made of “stuff.” This makes “stuff” higher then God. The creeds were worked out with great care. In most cases it is important that we simply use the words of the creed. “… being of one substance with the Father.”

In the continuing weeks I will review each lesson separately.