Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Rapture and I Corinthians 15

I am still reading Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationism.  Moody Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book.

My favorite essay in this book so far is Michael J. Vanlaningham’s “Paul and the Rapture: 1 Corinthians 15.”  One reason is that this essay brings the Hebrew Bible into the equation.  As a classic dispensationalist (I assume), Vanlaningham interprets the Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s future restoration literally.  That has implications on his attempts to address whether Paul in I Corinthians 15 believes in a pretribulational rapture, and also on his attempts to define how Paul is interacting with the Old Testament.

In this post, I will discuss how Vanlaningham addresses two issues regarding I Corinthians 15: the last trump of I Corinthians 15:52, and death being swallowed up in victory in I Corinthians 15:54, which is a reference to Isaiah 25:8.  Both issues are relevant to the question of when the rapture—-the resurrection of the saints and the ascension of risen and living saints to heaven—-will occur.  Will it occur prior to the Great Tribulation, which precedes Christ’s return to earth to rule?  Or will it occur after the Great Tribulation?

In this post, I will not critique Vanlaningham’s arguments, as much as I will be digesting and explaining them.  I will, however, include some asides that are not exactly related to I Corinthians 15, but Vanlaningham’s arguments remind me of them.

A.  Let’s start with the last trump.  The last trump is mentioned in I Corinthians 15:51-52:

51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (KJV)

The resurrection of the saints occurs at the last trump.  A number of Christian interpreters interpret the last trump in I Corinthians 15:52 in light of Revelation 11:15.  In Revelation 11:15, the seventh trumpet marks the kingdoms of the world becoming the kingdoms of God and of Christ.  The seventh trumpet is the last of seven trumpets.  It is sounded near the end of the Great Tribulation, soon before the second coming of Christ.  If the last trump of I Corinthians 15:51-52 is the same as the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15, then the rapture is not pretribulational.

Vanlaningham, of course, believes in a pretribulational rapture, and he does not interpret the last trump of I Corinthians 15:51-52 to be the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15.  He offers explanations for what the last trump could be: it marks the church experiencing an eternal theophany, better than what Israel experienced in the Hebrew Bible (which was marked with trumpets; Exodus 19:16); or it signals that the church’s war is over and it can go to heaven and rest.  I am unclear as to why Vanlaningham believes that Paul calls the trump the “last trump.”  Does not “last” imply the last of the sequence?  Would the “last trump” truly be the last trump if the rapture is pretribulational and seven more trumpets would be coming up during the Great Tribulation?  Could “last” (Greek eschate) simply mean that the trump is in the future, or is an eschatological trumpet, not necessarily the very last trump in a sequence (see, for example, LXX Genesis 49:1; Numbers 31:2; Deuteronomy 31:27)?  Could it be “last” in that it is the last trump before the Great Tribulation, the last trump before God steps in to judge the earth?

What is interesting is that Vanlaningham seems to suggest that there will be a trumpet after the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15.  Not even the seventh trumpet is the very last trumpet, technically-speaking.  Vanlaningham states on page 134:

In Isaiah 27:12-13, the great trumpet is sounded in connection with God’s gathering up of Jewish people individually, probably in connection with the gathering of Israel in preparation for entrance into the restored kingdom, an event that is always posttribulational…[T]he trumpet sounded in Matthew 24 is not to signal a posttribulational rapture.  Instead, the trumpet of Matthew 24 is for the regathering of the Jewish people in natural bodies to their homeland after the second coming, not during it as required by posttribulationism.

One can perhaps dispute Vanlaningham’s interpretation of Matthew 24:31 as applying to the restoration of Israel.  Still, if one wants to put different parts of Scripture together and interpret them literally, Isaiah 27:12-13 may very well refer to another trumpet after the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15.  In such an interpretational scheme, Revelation 11:15 occurs in the context of the second coming of Christ, whereas the trumpet of Isaiah 27:12-13 could be blown after Christ has returned and marks the restoration of Israel.

Interestingly, Revelation 11:15 and its context do not explicitly present the saints being raised at the seventh trumpet.  Revelation 11:18 says that the time has come for the judging of the dead, but, in the Book of Revelation, God judges the dead after Christ’s millennial reign, long after the events of Revelation 11 (Revelation 20).  There is no explicit statement about when the dead martyrs will be resurrected (the first resurrection of Revelation 20).

As an aside, the issues surrounding the last trump remind me of the number of resurrections.  My impression is that, in a pretribulational eschatological scenario, there are at least three resurrections.  The first is the rapture of the saints, which occurs prior to the Great Tribulation.  The second is the resurrection of the righteous who were martyred during the Great Tribulation, which Revelation 20 calls the first resurrection.  The third is the resurrection of everyone else, who will stand before God and be judged according to his or her works (also, Revelation 20).

If the pretribulational rapture is true, is the “first resurrection” technically the “first resurrection,” since another resurrection came before it?  The Armstrongite eschatology of my upbringing essentially said that the first resurrection of Revelation 20 is the resurrection of all of the righteous; it did not believe in a pretribulational rapture, but rather that all of the righteous would be resurrected in the first resurrection.

Pretribulationists may base their interpretation of the first resurrection (that it is of martyrs during the Great Tribulation) on Revelation 20:4: “Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (KJV).  The focus does seem to be on those martyred during the Great Tribulation.  At the same time, it may not be excluding other righteous people, for it also mentions those who were given authority to judge, which could mean saints in general.

B.  Our next topic will be I Corinthians 15:54, which is a reference to Isaiah 25:8.  I Corinthians 15:54 states: “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (KJV).  Isaiah 25:8 states: “he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (NRSV).

Robert Gundry defends a post-tribulational rapture by interpreting I Corinthians 15:54 in light of the context of Isaiah 25:8.  Vanlaningham quotes Gundry:

A perusal of Isaiah 23-26 reveals that the resurrection spoken of in 25:8 and 26:19 will occur after the tribulational anguish of Israel and the nations (24:1-13, 16b-22; 26:18-19, 20, 21) and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom and conversion of Israel (24:14-16a, 22-25:12).  Paul quotes Isaiah 25:8 as fulfilled at the resurrection and translation of the Church (1 Cor. 15:54).  If the defeat of death for the Church will fulfill the posttribulational defeat of death prophesied by Isaiah, the translation and rapture will likewise be posttribulational.

Robert Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 146.

For Gundry, Isaiah 25:8 is discussing what will occur after the tribulation of Israel and the nations, not before.  According to Gundry, that means that, when Paul quotes it in I Corinthians 15:54, Paul is implying that the rapture/resurrection of the saints will occur after the Great Tribulation, not before it.

Vanlaningham disagrees with Gundry’s conclusion, as one who believes that the rapture/resurrection of the saints in I Corinthians 15 is pretribulational.  For one, Vanlaningham states that Gundry is putting the defeat of death in Isaiah 25:8 at Christ’s second coming, when Revelation 20-21 places the end of death beyond even that: after the end of Christ’s millennial reign on earth, which is long after Christ’s second coming.

Vanlaningham believes that elements of I Corinthians 15 are actually consistent with death being finally and completely swallowed up after the millennium.  I Corinthians 15:25-26 states that Christ must reign until all enemies are placed under his feet, and the last enemy to be defeated will be death.  For Vanlaningham, that concerns Christ’s millennial reign on earth; at the end of that, death will be defeated.

That leads us to Vanlaningham’s second point.  For Vanlaningham, Paul in I Corinthians 15:54 is applying Isaiah 25:8 to the pre-tribulational rapture of the church.  But does that work, if Vanlaningham is correct that Isaiah 25:8 is about what will happen after the millennium, which is long after the time of the Great Tribulation?  Vanlaningham’s response is that Paul is not “invoking every aspect of the Old Testament context” in quoting Isaiah 25:8 (page 137).  For Vanlaningham, Paul in quoting Isaiah 25:8 is not saying that death is swallowed up forever, which is what Isaiah 25:8 says, but that death is swallowed up in victory.  The latter is consistent with the rapture being pre-tribulational, for death being swallowed up in victory does not necessarily mean that death has been completely abolished; the latter, for Vanlaningham, will occur much later, after the millennium.  For Vanlaningham, Paul in I Corinthians 15:54 is applying Isaiah 25:8 “quite narrowly to the church,” but Isaiah 25:8 would have a fuller fulfillment after the millennium; perhaps Vanlaningham’s point is that the pre-tribulational rapture is part, but not the whole, of God’s defeat of death.  Vanlaningham states that such an approach is characteristic of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament: New Testament authors can connect a theme or principal in the Old Testament to their situation, but this does not suggest that “everything in the OT context of the citation is invoked by the NT writer” (page 142).

I do not entirely agree with Vanlaningham that Paul “purposefully shifted ‘for all time’ in Isaiah 25 to ‘victory’ in 1 Corinthians to avoid the idea that death is undone at the time of the rapture.”  The word translated as ‘for all time’ is la-netzach, and netzach can mean “victory” (II Samuel 2:26; I Chronicles 29:11).  There is nothing about victory in the LXX of Isaiah 25:8, however, so the question would be where Paul is getting his understanding of the text: is it his own translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 25:8 (assuming Paul knew Hebrew, which some scholars have disputed), or is he drawing from another Greek translation?  This may not make a difference to Vanlaningham’s argument, for Paul still understands Isaiah 25:8 to concern victory rather than the final end of death.  One can ask, though, whether a partial defeat of death is truly a victory.  Perhaps it is, for the resurrected saints!

As an aside, Vanlaningham’s discussion of I Corinthians 15:54 reminds me of struggles I used to have over Gog and Magog.  In Ezekiel 38-39, Gog tries to attack Israel, but God destroys Gog.  In Revelation 20:8, Gog and Magog attack the New Jerusalem, after the millennium.  Does Gog attack twice?  A dispensationalist could argue that Ezekiel 38-39 applies to the time right before the millennium, or at the beginning of the millennium: Israel is restored to her land, Gog attacks, God destroys Gog, and that allows God to set up a millennial reign, with a new Temple.  Those familiar with Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series probably realize, of course, that they say Ezekiel 38 will occur before Christ’s second coming, and they interpret it as Russia attacking Israel.  In any case, will Gog attack Israel and be destroyed, only to try to attack the new Jerusalem a thousand years later?  (I think of Ellen White’s view in The Great Controversy that the wicked will be resurrected at the end of the millennium and will try to attack the new Jerusalem.)  Or is Revelation 20-21 necessarily assuming or absorbing all of the context of Ezekiel 38-39?  Maybe Revelation 20-21 is drawing from some themes, while ignoring others.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Pretribulational Rapture and the Millennium

I’m currently reading Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationalism.  I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Moody Press, but this is not my official review.  Rather, in this post, I want to wrestle with the relationship between the pretribulational rapture and the millennial reign of Christ.  I will interact with an essay in this book, and also another book that Moody Press sent me to review (and which I did review): Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption.

Let’s define some terms first.  The Great Tribulation is when God will pour out God’s wrath on the earth.  It is also called the “Day of the Lord.”  It includes the rise and rule of the Antichrist, God’s judgments on the earth, and the Battle of Armageddon.  It lasts for seven years.  The Great Tribulation precedes Jesus Christ returning to earth, overthrowing evil, and setting up his righteous rule on earth.  This rule of Christ on earth will last for a thousand years, a millennium.  It will be a time of paradise and peace.  During that time, Satan will be confined to a bottomless pit.  At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released from the bottomless pit and will deceive nations, including Gog and Magog, who will try to attack the camp of the saints and the beloved city.  God will defeat them.  Then, God will raise people from the dead and judge them according to their works.  Those who are not found in the Book of Life will go to the Lake of Fire.

The rapture refers to Christ coming back, resurrecting the saints, and taking the departed saints and the living saints up to heaven.  There is debate about whether this rapture will occur before the Great Tribulation (pretribulational), or after the Great Tribulation (post-tribulational).  There are other Christian perspectives that will disagree with my definitions of the Great Tribulation or the millennium.  I do not want to muddy the waters in this post by describing their definitions on these topics.

Now let’s interact with some essays.  Both essays believe in the pretribulational rapture.  The first essay makes a pretty good argument for it.  The second essay, ironically, makes me doubt the pretribulational rapture!

A.  In Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption, Stanley D. Toussaint has an essay entitled “God’s Plan for History: From the Ascension to the Second Coming of Christ.”  On page 182, Toussaint offers an argument for the pretribulational rapture that was previously unknown to me:

A fourth line of defense lies in the necessity of a span of time between the rapture and the end of the tribulation.  (This argument is primarily in opposition to the posttribulation view of the rapture.)  The Scriptures teach that when the Lord Jesus returns to reign there will be a judgment of all the people who are alive at the end of the tribulation.  The judgment of Jews is described in Ezekiel 20:33-44, and that of Gentiles in Matthew 25:31-46.  Only saved, living people will go into the kingdom.  They will reproduce and live normal lives.  Isaiah refers to boys, a nursing child, and a weaned child in the coming age (11:6-8).  People will die after living long lives (Isa. 65:20).  They will build houses, plant crops, and bear children (Isa. 65:21-23).  Many of the children born to those who live in the kingdom will finally rebel against the Lord (Rev. 20:7-9).  If the rapture of the saved will take place at the end of the tribulation this will be impossible.  In the posttribulation view everyone would have resurrected and heavenly bodies.  They would not be able to reproduce! (Cf. Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34-36.)  If the rapture occurs before the tribulation, then people will be converted during the tribulation and if they live through that terrible time they will go into the kingdom with their natural bodies.  They will cohabit and have children.  Then the Old Testament prophecies of life on earth will be fulfilled.

We have two models: the pretribulational rapture and the posttribulational rapture.  The scenario of the pretribulational rapture is this: Christ comes, resurrects the saints, and takes the risen and the living saints to heaven with him.  Then, God pours out God’s wrath  on earth.  During that time of Great Tribulation, there are people who were left behind at the rapture who subsequently become saved (or they believe in God and Christ—-there is some debate among pretribbers about whether the tribulation saints technically count as Christians).  These tribulation saints go through the Tribulation.  Some are martyred.  Some survive.  Christ then returns at the end of the Tribulation, destroys evil, and sets up his righteous millennial rule on earth.  The surviving tribulation saints are the ones who enter into that earthly kingdom.  They live temporal, earthy lives, albeit under conditions of paradise.  They have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren in the course of Christ’s millennial reign.  This fulfills the Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc., about God setting up a righteous paradise on earth, in which people live and die.  Whereas the tribulation saints are righteous, their children and grandchildren are not necessarily, and they are the people who rebel against God at the end of the millennium.

The post-tribulational scenario, by contrast, is this: The saints are NOT taken to heaven prior to the tribulation.  Rather, they stay on earth.  They endure the tribulation.  Some are martyred, and some survive.  There is no distinction between the raptured saints and the tribulation saints, in this scenario: all of the saints are tribulation saints, living during the tribulation.  At the end of the tribulation, Christ comes back and overthrows evil, and that is when Christ resurrects the dead saints and takes the risen and living saints with him to heaven (the rapture).  They are given immortal bodies, and they neither marry nor are given in marriage.

Toussaint has a problem with the post-tribulational scenario: How does it account for the millennium, or the earthly paradise consisting of mortal people that the Hebrew prophets talk about?  For Toussaint, it fails to account for that, or it fails to do so adequately.  If all of the saints are given immortal bodies right after the Tribulation, then who are those people on earth, living and dying during the millennial reign?  Toussaint presumes that wicked people will not be the ones entering and living under the millennial reign: Christ will destroy the wicked at his coming, while allowing the righteous to enter his kingdom on earth (then they will have children and grandchildren, some righteous, and some not).  For Toussaint, the pre-tribulational position makes all of these pieces fit together: the saints are raptured and given immortal bodies prior to the tribulation, people then convert to God during the tribulation (tribulation saints), Christ comes back and sets up his righteous millennial rule, and the surviving tribulation saints live under that rule as mortals, living, dying, marrying, working, and having children.

Sounds reasonable to me!  Or, at least, it seems to me to be a good argument for the pre-tribulational rapture.

B.  In Evidence for the Rapture, Glenn Kreider has an essay entitled “The Rapture and the Day of the Lord.”  Of particular interest to me is Kreider’s interaction with two biblical passages: Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, and Jesus’ statement about one being taken and the other being left in Matthew 24:40-42.  Kreider seems to interpret both in light of each other.  Allow me to quote these passages, from the KJV.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:

24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn…
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 24:40-42:

40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. (Mat 24:40-42 KJV)

In Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the righteous and the wicked are living in the world together.  Long before the harvest, when the wheat and the tares are still seeds or are growing alongside each other, God is reluctant to uproot the tares (the wicked) because that could uproot the wheat (the righteous) as well.  God lets both grow together until the harvest.  At the harvest, God gathers the tares and burns them, while gathering the wheat into the barn.  This represents God gathering the wicked and burning them in fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The righteous, meanwhile, shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

In my opinion, Kreider is nebulous in his interpretation of this parable.  On the one hand, Kreider seems to apply the parable to the pretribulational rapture: Christ comes, takes the saints to heaven, and leaves the wicked to endure God’s wrath during the Day of the Lord, which is prior to Christ’s return to rule.  Under this interpretation, the fire into the wicked are thrown in the parable is not (only?) hell, but it refers to the Day of the Lord, or the Great Tribulation, when God is pouring out God’s wrath on earth before Christ returns to rule.  On the other hand, in places in the essay, Kreider seems to support another interpretation: Christ comes, takes and punishes the wicked, and leaves the righteous to enter his millennial kingdom.  Kreider appears to interpret Matthew 24:40-42 in light of this latter interpretation.  While another essay in the book interprets the one taken and the one being left in terms of the pretribulational rapture,  Kreider goes another route: the one taken is the wicked one taken to be punished by God, while the righteous one is left to enter Christ’s millennial rule.

This raises a lot of questions in my mind, especially when I compare this essay with Toussaint’s essay that I discussed in (A.).  So who does Kreider believe that the wheat/left people are?  If they are on earth and enter Christ’s millennial rule, then are they the earthy tribulation saints, the ones who will enter the millennial rule, live, die, work, reproduce, etc.?  But how can they do all these things, when Jesus says that they will be shining like the sun (Matthew 13:43)?  That sounds not-quite-earthy to me!  In addition, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares does not seem to me to leave much (if any) room for the pretribulational rapture.  The wicked and the righteous dwell on earth together, then God comes, throws the wicked into hell, and exalts the righteous with astral-like bodies.  There does not appear to be a notion of God removing the righteous from the wicked world.

There may be ways to get around this.  Perhaps one could say that the ultimate destiny of the righteous, including the tribulation saints and their righteous offspring, is to shine like the sun: they would do so after living under the millennium as earthy beings and dying.  Their shining like the sun concerns their afterlife, not their life in the millennial kingdom.  The Parable does not have to mention every single detail or stage of God’s plan, one could say.  Another relevant detail may be the reference in Revelation 20:8-9 to the camp of the saints and the beloved city that Gog and Magog try to attack at the end of the millennium.  Could this camp or city during the millennium contain the tribulation saints who are shining like the sun?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Real Life

My church’s Life Group is not meeting today, since one of the leaders and her husband are on vacation.  This post is about last week’s Life Group.

As I’ve said before, I like how the group gives everyone a chance to talk and to share what is going on in his or her life.  Last week, as with every week, people were sharing their struggles and their apprehensions.  By “struggles,” I do not mean moral struggles so much, but more struggles with life.  One of the ladies there broke her arm a while back and is recovering.  Another of the ladies is frantically awaiting medical news about her husband.

A part of the church service that I actually like is when people share their joys and concerns.  This is not to say that I “like” the concerns.  Of course, I do not like it when a person has only a few weeks to live and has two small children.  Of course, I do not like it when a person is going blind.  Usually, these are not people who are in our congregation, but people in the congregation are sharing about what their friends are going through.  The reason that I appreciate this part of the service is that it is real life.  Faith does not have to ignore what is going on in real life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Write-Up: Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics

Mark Alan Bowald.  Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The summary on the back cover of the book was a lot clearer than the book itself.  The summary on the back cover also seemed to have a different focus from that of the book itself.

The summary on the back cover focused on the nature of Scripture, specifically the question of whether Scripture is human or divine in its properties.  It said that Mark Alan Bowald’s answer is both.  To quote from the back cover: “When the divine inspiration of Scripture is overemphasized, the varied roles of human authors tend to become muted in our approach to the text.  Conversely, when we think of the Bible almost entirely in terms of the human authorship, Scripture’s character as the Word of God tends to play little role in our theological reasoning.”  Excellent observation!  A question one could then ask is how God inspired Scripture—-how is Scripture divine, and how is it human?

The book itself focused on something different: the reading and interpretation of Scripture.  Rather than extensively discussing the nature, properties, or inspiration of Scripture, its focus was on the way that readers approach the Bible.  Should people bracket their religious convictions in reading Scripture in an attempt to be “objective”?  Or should theology play a role in how one (or a community) interprets Scripture?  Does God play a role in how a Christian community reads and interprets Scripture, guiding the interpretive process and leading the community?  Is there authority in how a religious community, as a religious community, reads Scripture?  Is what the text actually says relevant, or does that become lost in a sea of interpretive subjectivity?

Triangles occur often in this book.  Bowald interacts with the thought of George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Kevin Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, Stephen Fowl, David Kelsey, Werner Jeanrond, Karl Barth, James K.A. Smith, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Bowald plots their thought onto a triangle.

The triangles’ three points correspond to three approaches to the text.  One point is the text itself.  This point relates to trying to determine what the text itself says and means, objectively-speaking.  This can include the historical-critical or the grammatical-historical method of reading the Bible, or it can include simply looking at the text itself (new criticism).

The second point relates to readers’ reading and interpretation of the text.  This point coincides with questions about whether there really is an objective reading of the text.  Readers bring themselves into their reading, and they can take the text in directions that its author may not have intended.  This second point focuses on religious communities’ interpretation of the text, as religious communities.

The third point relates to God’s role in the interpretive process.  Does God play a role in guiding how religious communities interpret and apply the Bible?  If so, how?  This point can pertain to the question of how the Bible is inspired, but, as I said, Bowald often focused on reading rather than the properties of Scripture itself.

Some of the thinkers Bowald profiles lean more towards the first point in their emphasis.  Some lean more towards the second point.  Some interact more with the third point.  After describing and assessing their thought, Bowald himself says that all three points are important.  Regarding the first point, we should be trying to understand what Scripture means.  Bowald does not support bracketing off theology in attempting to do this, for he believes that proper theology can place Scriptural passages in context: as Aristotle said, understanding the character of the author can help readers understand the text.  But the second point is also significant: how Christians and their communities approach and read the text.  For Bowald, they should be reading the text devotionally, prayerfully, and with receptivity to God.  And, of course, point three is significant because God guides the interpretive process.

The book’s asset is that it discusses the views of various thinkers, who are significant in discussions about theology and biblical hermeneutics.  Bowald’s contribution could be that he challenges prevalent interpretations of these thinkers.  According to Bowald, some believe that Hans Frei initially leaned towards point one of the triangle (the text’s meaning) and later moved towards point two (reader response to the text).  Bowald, by contrast, maintains that Frei did not completely abandon point one, even after moving towards point two.  The standard characterization of Karl Barth’s thought is that Barth said that Jesus, not the Bible, was the Word of God, and that God uses the Bible to instruct people, apart from any divine properties that Scripture itself has.  While Bowald acknowledges that there are passages in Barth’s writing that point in that direction, he raises the possibility that Barth may have believed that Scripture was the Word of God, in some sense.  Then there is the question of whether Nicholas Wolterstorff believes that the Bible itself is inspired (and if so, how?), or thinks that humans wrote the Bible and God appropriated the text for God’s purposes.

There were things that Bowald said that made me curious, even if I did not understand them entirely.  There is the question of how Christianity can affect hermeneutics, not only of the Bible, but of texts in general.  Can Christianity make people better readers, in the sense of making them more charitable?  One thinker believed so, and his emphasis was on what Christ did on the cross.  At some point, Kevin Vanhoozer, seemed to relate hermeneutics of texts in general, and texts themselves, to God’s order of creation.  I was unclear as to whether Vanhoozer was saying that hermeneutics manifest the orderliness that God intends, or that texts themselves are divinely-inspired or reflect God, in some manner.  More reading of Vanhoozer may be in order, on my part!

In my opinion, Bowald did not adequately wrestle with the question of why biblical scholars believe interpreters should bracket their religious convictions in an attempt to read the Bible objectively.  Bowald went into reasons for Kant’s support for such an approach: Kant believed that Scripture should be evaluated according to whether it agreed with reason, and Kant preferred for interpreters to focus on what was in front of them rather than bringing larger theological issues into the picture (since there is so much that we do not know).  But there is another reason that biblical scholars believe in bracketing religious convictions in an attempt to be objective: because reading the text with a bias can get in the way of seeing what the text itself is saying!  I have seen evangelical Christians project their evangelical Christianity onto the Bible, and this can easily lead to ignoring what the text itself is saying, or trying to force the text to say something that is not apparent in the text itself.  Bowald says that he is writing a sequel, so perhaps he will address such issues in that.

The book is very abstract.  I did not follow everything, and I sometimes wondered if I would have followed it as well as I did had I not learned about literary theory in school!  It was not the clearest book in the world, and yet I could still learn from it.

I apologize for any misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of the book on my part.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Evangelical Experience, by Anthony Coleman

Anthony Coleman.  The Evangelical Experience: Understanding One of America’s Largest Religious Movements from the Inside.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Anthony Coleman deconverted from evangelicalism.  In The Evangelical Experience: Understanding One of America’s Largest Religious Movements from the Inside, Coleman talks about his journey to and from evangelical Christianity.  Coleman also offers his description of what evangelicalism is like, according to his understanding and experiences: its beliefs, practices, and culture, and the differences of opinion within it.  In addition, Coleman provides a brief section on evangelicalism’s history.

The book is a solid introduction to evangelicalism.  Coleman did not always document the positions that he was summarizing, but his summaries were informative, as overviews.  Coleman describes evangelicalism in such a way that one can get a grasp of its substance, while still realizing that evangelicalism is diverse, in areas.

I did have some areas of disagreement with Coleman.  In discussing the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, Coleman says that Calvinism believes in predestination and irresistible grace, whereas Arminianism believes in free will.  Many Arminians would say, however, that they acknowledge that God must play a role in enabling sinful human beings to believe (prevenient grace), meaning that, for them, humans cannot come to God solely by their free will.  Coleman’s section on eschatology was good in that it discussed premillennialism, amillennialism, and preterism, but Coleman also should have offered a brief description of different views on the rapture (i.e., pretrib? post-trib?), especially since he introduced this section by mentioning the Left Behind series.  In a section on famous evangelical authors, Coleman mentions Rachel Held Evans, even though she is a polarizing figure among evangelicals, and herself has become a mainline Protestant.

I had a slight problem with Coleman’s discussion of how evangelicals hear from God.  My impression is that he doubts that they do, that he chalks this up to their intuition, their imagination, or the creative ability of human beings to tie things in the Bible to their own situation.  I do not dispute that this takes place, but I have heard stories from evangelicals that make me wonder if something supernatural is going on: there are just too many “coincidences,” or timely moments.  Coleman himself may be open to this, for, although he has left evangelicalism, he still believes in the reality of spiritual experiences.

Coleman left evangelicalism primarily over two issues.  First, there were his doubts about the reliability of the Bible, which, of course, includes a lot of issues.  Second, there were the loving non-Christians he has known.  This challenged his evangelical belief that non-Christians are sinners who need to believe in Christ and have the Holy Spirit in order to be good people.

Coleman’s discussion of the first issue (the reliability of the Bible) did not present anything earthshakingly new to me, but it may provide curious readers with a helpful picture of how an evangelical wrestled with the Bible and the conclusions of mainstream biblical scholarship.  Interestingly, many of these conclusions were taught at the evangelical school that Coleman attended.  I particularly identified with Coleman’s point that he would sooner recommend Brennan Manning or C.S. Lewis to people than the Bible.  I myself wrestle with whether the unconditionally loving God of many evangelicals is the God who is found in Scripture.  Sometimes, maybe.  Other times, not so much.

Coleman’s discussion of the second issue (non-believers who are loving) made me wrestle a bit.  As Coleman notes, Paul in II Corinthians 6:2 tells the Corinthian Christians not to be unequally yoked with non-believers, for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion has light with darkness?  That does present non-believers in a negative light.  I try to respect that Paul was writing within a cultural context: Paul did not want the Corinthian Christians to place themselves at risk of compromising with idolatry.  Still, Paul’s us vs. them stance does disturb me somewhat.  Can we really say that Christians are righteous, whereas unbelievers are unrighteous?  Both do good things.  Both struggle with life and fall short of perfection in doing so.

There were areas in which I found Coleman’s description of evangelicalism to be edifying, spiritually-speaking.  Coleman talks about how believers find their center in Jesus, whatever hardship they may be experiencing.  Coleman said that, while there are many evangelicals who struggle with guilt, there are also many whose sins make them feel closer to God as they seek God’s forgiveness.  Coleman described loud contemporary Christian worship as something that envelops worshipers and makes them feel as if they are participating in something larger than themselves, while also being something personal between them and God.

I appreciated Coleman’s stance.  He was not belligerent against evangelicalism.  His attitude was live and let live.  One of my favorite parts of the book was when Coleman was trying to figure out what to do after leaving evangelicalism.  As he says, people with that sort of deconversion experience often land in different places: being uninterested in religion, attacking religion, converting to a non-Christian religion, etc.  I identified with where Coleman landed: he studied the mystics of different religions and found commonalities.  While Coleman is not an evangelical Christian, he still believes in spiritual experiences.  He states that mystical practices can center people and make them more loving and less self-centered.  Coleman’s discussion here may be helpful to people who have deconverted and wonder what to do next.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Amish Sweethearts

Leslie Gould.  Amish Sweethearts.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Amish Sweethearts is Book Two of the Neighbors of Lancaster County series.  I was able to follow and appreciate the second book without reading the first, even though there were a lot of characters whom I did not really know.

The Lehmans are Amish, whereas their neighbors, the Becks, are not.  Lila Lehman and Zane Beck were good friends during their childhood and adolescence.  Both enjoyed learning and talking about topics.  They became more alienated from each other with time, however.  Zane joined the military and went to Afghanistan.  Lila was courting the bishop’s son, Reuben.  While Reuben is a kind, loving man, he is a quiet sort, and he prefers to make things rather than reading and talking about topics, which Lila liked to do with Zane.  Zane and Lila both have romantic feelings towards each other, as much as they would like to suppress them.  But there are complications standing in the way of their relationship.  Would Zane be willing to become Amish to marry Lila?  Would Lila be willing to leave the church to marry Zane?

The book had a lot of characters, and, at first, it was difficult to keep track of all of them.  Leslie Gould should have included some sort of family tree at the beginning or end of the book, as is done in some of the other Amish books I have read.  While the book did have a lot of characters, they were likable.  There was Lila’s brother Simon, a happy-go-lucky, independent person, who goes against Amish beliefs by joining the military.  There is Lila’s stepfather Tim, who is stern, yet still has humanity underneath his stern exterior.  There is Beth, the local Amish schoolteacher.  Beth is Tim’s love interest (since Tim is widowed), and she has an intuition about how people are truly feeling.  She can tell that Lila has feelings for Zane, even when Lila is courting Reuben.  There is Charlie, who is non-Amish and has married into Lila’s family (which is in the previous book).  Charlie is a mentor to Zane.  There is also Casey, a woman soldier who serves along with Zane in Afghanistan.  Casey would like for her relationship with Zane to be more than friendship.  While she is slightly bewildered about Zane’s feelings for Lila, Casey still fits in well when she is around the Amish.

The book had interesting passages about Zane’s attempts to explain to his non-Amish friends his relationship with the Amish.  There is a scene in which Zane and his military friends see a picture of Lila on Zane’s phone and talk about the Amish.  Another poignant scene is when Zane is explaining the Amish to an Afghan friend.  The Afghani is surprised that such people (i.e., people who live simply, without the convenience of modern technology) exist in America, for he stereotyped Americans as rich and technologically-advanced.

Of particular interest to me was the book’s interaction with pacifism, or non-resistance.  Zane wrestles with the possibility that he as a soldier may have to kill someone, and he feels horrible after actually killing an Afghan.  He wrestles with whether he supports the war in Afghanistan, and with whether he is a pacifist.  What was surprising to me was that there were Amish people who themselves wrestled with pacifism or non-resistance, even if they accepted it as an identity-marker.  The bishop and Lila told Zane that he should not feel bad about killing the Afghan, since Zane, in doing so, was protecting his unit, and other people.  Lila’s step-father, Tim, was expressing strong reservations about non-resistance, saying that he does not really feel that he should do nothing were his family to be threatened.

The book was thoughtful, and it had likable characters.  I may read more books by Leslie Gould in the future.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Inclusion

At church this morning, there were two things that stood out to me.  Both related to inclusion.

A.  The church service was about the church’s youth camp.  A member of the church spoke to us about it.  She read us comments from people about their experiences at youth camp.

One story was about a person who did not want to go to youth camp because she was reluctant to leave her room.  But she went, and, after she shared her favorite Jolley Ranchers flavor with a group, someone from the staff brought her that flavor of Jolley Ranchers.  She was happy to be noticed.  She, in turn, tried to notice others there who might have been alone, or had a hard time fitting in, so that she could include them.  She said it was interesting to see the quiet people open up!

This was not exactly a formal sermon, but it was a sermon for me, in a way.  It was about taking the opportunity to notice people and to do something thoughtful towards them.  It was about paying forward to others the love that one has received.  It was also about allowing others to share and to speak.  I myself am rather quiet, but, once I am given the opportunity to share, I tend to monopolize the group.  I should remember to let others share, as well!

That said, I have liked how my church’s Life Group allows everyone to take a turn sharing what went on in their week.  I don’t always have much to say, since my life is not that exciting.  But I do like how my church’s Life Group gives everyone a chance to talk.

B.  We had communion today.  The pastor was saying that communion is open to all.  He said that, if someone were to go out and commit a heinous crime, and everyone at church knew about it, the pastor would still serve that person communion.  I remember the pastor saying the last time we had communion that, if Jesus allowed Judas Iscariot, who was about to betray him, to eat the last supper with the other disciples, who was he (the pastor) to exclude anyone from communion?

I thought about an episode of Michael Brown’s radio program that I listened to a while back.  The question was whether there should be any restrictions on who can receive communion, and Michael Brown seemed (at least to me) to think so.  He asked if a person who had just committed a murder should be able to walk into church and receive communion.

I tend to lean in the “Why not?” direction.  The point of communion is to remind us of God’s love and grace, of Jesus giving his life for us so that we can have a relationship with God.  A person who has just committed a heinous crime needs to be reminded of his need for God, so that he can repent.  What better way is there to show him that he, too, can turn to God, than to allow him to partake of communion?

The problem, however, is when we are dealing with people who seem to be unaffected by God’s grace, who continue to sin.  I think of mafia bosses who are devout Catholics.  You would think that, at some point in their attending church, the inconsistency between their faith and practice would cross their minds.  I think also of people who are committing adultery on their spouse, and they take their new boyfriend or girlfriend with them to church and expect to take communion with everyone else.  Of course, they need grace.  But Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5 have things about church discipline, which is designed to lead people to repentance.

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