Friday, September 23, 2016

Which Religion?

“Why do you NOT believe in all the other gods, but you believe in yours?”

   That’s a classic challenge I see regularly on skeptic videos and read repeatedly on skeptic websites. Even so, it is a reasonable question from someone for whom all religions seem the same. It deserves an answer. My answer as a Christian is the Bible. But the rationale is not what you probably think.

   There is wisdom in almost all the holy books of major religions. Some of what you read in the other religious books is even close to what you'll read in the Bible. But none of those books is really like the Bible.  Unlike other religious books, the Bible is not simply a collection of wise sayings or religious instructions. The Bible is a story, and it is  one story. 

   It is comprised of what we might better describe as 63 chapters (Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were written as single books, not in two parts.) That one story displays the unity, coherence, and plot that we would expect of a single story. And it does so with unusual elegance as it combines a variety of genres into that one story.

   I have been a student of literature since I worked on a degree in English literature in college. I taught world literature for fifteen years to high school students. I have also studied the Bible as literature, earning a post grad degree in the Bible about 25 years ago. I am convinced that the Bible is unique in all of world literature.

   But as a story?

   Yes. As a story it has all the features we have come to expect of a story. It begins with an exposition in which the setting, backstory, characters, and conflict are introduced. It has a antagonist, who is introduced as the serpent in Genesis 3, and in the same chapter it foreshadows the appearance of the protagonist, the offspring of the woman.

   The story continues as the conflict develops in what is called rising actionSuspense builds with new clues foreshadowing the appearance of the protagonist. However, while we wait for this mysterious son to appear, there are times when it looks like the serpent will win without a fight by preventing the appearance of the son.

   The tension of the conflict builds until the protagonist, who now has the name Messiah, is revealed.  We know by this point that the Messiah is a king who promises to overcome the serpent and establish a new kingdom. But the outcome of the battle is still in question. The Messiah is attacked by kings who consider him a rival and by the religious establishment who sees him as a threat to their power and  even by storms on the sea.

   Finally, the Messiah protagonist is arrested and through political intrigue is sentenced to death. There is no escape. He is executed. The serpent has won. But no. In a fascinating plot twist the Messiah returns to life.

   This is the crisis or climax of the story, the point at which the plot turns toward resolution. The serpent now seems to be defeated. But not yet. The Messiah is beyond his reach, but he attacks the followers of the Messiah. If the King cannot be killed, the citizens of his kingdom can be. Or if not, they can be prevented from succeeding in establishing the Messiah's kingdom. But no. Every attack by the antagonist is met and overcome (resolved). Despite everything, the King extends his kingdom in the part of a plot called falling action.

   But the serpent does not go away, and there is an inevitable showdown (the book of Revelation) in which the final battle between the serpent and the King occurs. It is the final resolution. The serpent is defeated, and in the denouement of the story, the Messiah's kingdom is established forever.

   It is the epic of human history from the beginning to the not yet realized end. It has been the all time best seller. It ought to be made into a movie. It would be a blockbuster. The author's name would be in lights. But the surprise is that this epic story was written by dozens of human writers.

   They wrote over a period of over 1000 years having no idea that they were writing a story other than the stories of their individual chapters. Many were writing with no knowledge of the outcome of the story. Yet their stories fit together in one developing  plot and foreshadow the events of the final chapter with great detail. How can that be?

   The author of this story cannot be one of the human authors of the chapters, nor can the resulting unified story be the product of an editor. The early chapters (the Old Testament) were collected by editors before the story was completed. The editors had no idea how the climax would develop or how it would end. And the collection of the later chapters (the New Testament) was done not on the basis of how they fit the story but on whether each chapter individually was inspired.

   All of this is written in virtually every literary genre and incorporates virtually all the classic rhetorical tropes and schemes we find in the best literature of our day, all with extreme elegance, so that I am truly amused when someone with no knowledge of or training in literature claims the Bible was written by "Bronze Age goat herders."

   This book is a miracle. There is no other book in all of literature like it. And it is evidence for an author who is divine and who not only knows the future but writes the story of the future. That is why I believe that this God who calls himself Yahweh is the only true God and  the Who that wrote this book. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What Has 2nd Peter Got to Do with Anything?

I stood intimidated before dozens of Bibles that stood shoulder to shoulder on the shelf of my local Bible bookstore in Spokane. Of the many new translations shouting for my attention, some dressed in warm brown covers, some friendly paperbacks, some with reverent gold leaf pages, which one was best? Which was most accurate? Which most readable. As I struggled to make a decision, I began to wonder about inspiration. Were these many versions inspired?

   I had been taught a standard definition of inspiration by my Bible teacher in Christian school, "verbal plenary." That means every word is inspired and inspired equally. It was easy to remember, but how did it work with these new translations? I asked a pastor.

   He said that "verbal plenary"  only had to do with the original "autographs." That's a fancy name for the actual document written by the author, not copies or translations. But that wasn't very satisfying because of the many Bibles on the shelf, not one was an autograph. In fact, it turns out no one has an autograph. All we have are copies and translations. But I wasn't done thinking.

   I asked my pastor whether maybe God had inspired the ideas rather than the words. Maybe the issue of which translation is the best translation is not so important. He was of a generation older than myself and had received a pretty fundamental education. He said no; God inspired the specific words - in the autographs - and that was important. We need to get as close to those words as we can.

   A year or so later, in the same church, we had a retired Wycliffe missionary visit and speak. He had been a missionary to a Mayan tribal people in Mexico and had there helped translate the Bible into the Mayan language. I asked him about his translation. He said it was rough. But rough as it was it had led many Mayan people to place their trust in Jesus and had transformed their lives and tribal culture. At that point I got it.

   Inspiration is not simply about the original documents written by the prophets or Apostles. It is also about the way God uses those sometimes imperfectly translated books to change lives. Being as accurate as possible to the originals is important, but just as important is the Holy Spirit's presence in the reading.

   To be fair with the theologians, that is called "illumination" and distinct from "inspiration. But in real life one is not sufficient without the other. And as in the case of my Wycliffe translator friend, God uses the imperfect if that is all he has to work with. And that is all God does have. We do not have the theoretically perfect originals. We must depend upon illumination by the Spirit.

   So the next leap in my mind was this question: How do we know if the books we have in our Bibles are inspired?

I had no idea at the time how complicated the answer to that question was going to be - or how simple.

   The complicated answer is that the process of deciding which books are inspired was long and messy. As far as the New Testament books were concerned, it took several centuries for Christians to come to a settled decision, if it can even be called that. The fact is, the 1st and 2nd century Bible book store was crowded and messy. There were a lot of books written about Jesus or written as instruction to the church. There were gospels everywhere. There were letters written to churches and books of instructions and books of stories and allegories. Most do not show up in our present Bibles.

   Why not?

   In the late first century and second century the question of which books were "Scripture" was pressed upon the church by the shear numbers of books and the diversity within those books. Early on there was little consensus about which of the new books were to be considered authoritative or inspired. The Hebrew Scriptures, of course, were assumed by nearly everyone to be God's inspired words. But what about these newer books?

   In practice, some were pretty much accepted by everyone. Among them were the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were the foundation of the new list of books that would become known as the canon or approved list - which is what the word canon means. Others were rejected outright as being out of keeping with the word already received and out of keeping with Jesus as he was revealed in the flesh and in the collected memories of the disciples and Apostles. Some few were on the fringe. They were accepted as authoritative by some and neglected if not rejected by others in the churches. Among them were the books of Revelation, 2nd and 3rd John, James, Jude, and 2 Peter.

   It was not until the 4th century and early 5th century that there was something of a final list drawn up. And even then, there continued to be less than great enthusiasm about some of the books. Martin Luther, for example, in the 1500s called the book of James a "strawy epistle" because it seemed to contradict Paul's firm stand on salvation by faith. The book of Revelation has always been a puzzle and was often neglected by teachers of the Scriptures. And lately questions about 2 Peter have resurfaced.

   That gives an idea of how complex and messy this drawing up a list of inspired books was. However, for most Christians it was simple. The question for them was this: Does God speak in this book? Was there a spark of the Spirit?

   The formal selection process included limiting the books to those written by Apostles or those near the Apostles. It included the question of unity or theological agreement with the previously written Scriptures in the Old Testament and those books early deemed authoritative in the first century, the four gospels. It was an intellectual process. In the end, however, the books that made the cut were those in which God spoke to the reader and to the church.

   That freshness and sense of God's immediate word (the Greek word for that is rhema) to them is what impressed Christians. That sense of rhema was what impressed people about Jesus' teaching. They said, "He speaks with authority, not as the Scribes and the Pharisees." That impreciseness seems to those who would like something more measurable terribly subjective, but to the mature Christian in the 2nd century or the 21st, it is the ultimate and most important test.

   It is with that background in view that we come to the current challenge to one of the books in our Bibles, the book of 2 Peter. As I began to considered 2 Peter seriously, I asked why it had not been embraced as enthusiastically as some of the other books.

   Second Peter was one of the last books to receive the qualification "canonical." Not until the late 3rd century was 2 Peter included in the official canon.  In fact, in several cases it was called a forgery - as it is called by some today - even though it had been recognized by various groups of Christians as the rhema of God from late in the 1st century.

   As I searched for an answer I stumbled upon the webpage of evangelist Steve Cha, Authenticity of 2nd Peter   He has done an exceptional job of defending 2 Peter as an authentic book by Peter and as the inspired rhema of God to the church. The research and thought he put into the defense of 2 Peter is  impressive. But I wondered why an evangelist would be so interested in 2 Peter. Wouldn't other books be more suitable in his evangelistic calling?

   I wondered also why 2nd Peter is so passionately opposed by the new atheists.

   As I often do, I slept on those questions. I wanted to allow God time to lead me to the answers. I woke in the middle of the night with this:
  • Second Peter was not written primarily for the Christian of the 1st century or the 2nd. It did have a message for them. It spoke to their circumstances and the challenges they were facing. It was an encouragement to persevere in the face of the opposition they faced.  But it was more a message about the future. It spoke of the hope of new age to come. And they, the church of the 1st century, weren't there yet.
  • Second Peter is God's rhema for our time more than any other. We are living in the time Peter spoke of. We are at the end of the age. We are faced with the dangers from the within the church Peter wrote about and the attacks of scoffers from outside the church - more than any generation in the past. This book and, interestingly, the other books that were in the early centuries considered a little ify - Revelation, James, and Jude -  were meant for us. They are time capsules meant to be opened and understood  anew in our age.  And that is what evangelist Steve Cha implies when he ends with this: "In a time when false doctrine and theories abound (in this case against 2 Peter itself), it is important that 2 Peter is preserved for the good of the church’s instruction, which is to combat false teaching and to uphold the glorious truth of the gospel in a dying world. Without it, the church is bereft of instruction concerning the importance of upholding truth and rejecting error."
  • Second Peter is opposed by the new scoffers because they are in it. Nowhere else in the Scriptures are the scoffers of the end of the age called out and identified as in 2nd Peter. Peter writes: "Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come." They will deny and oppose the truth of God's word. They will mock believers and seek to destroy the message and raise doubt by their questions. Yet at the same time nowhere is there a message of grace so directly spoken to them: "God is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
   That message moves me. I pray that it moves you. If you are reading this as a Christian, stand firm in your faith while at the same time holding out grace to those who oppose you. If you are a scoffer, I beg you to consider God's grace. He loves you. He holds out to you forgiveness and peace and hope.

   Peter ends with this message to his readers - you and me: "Grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ."

 "To Him be glory both now and forever, amen."