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My interest in scholarly philosophical and theological thought began in my youth. Much of it was driven by the concerns of the older generation who saw my generation’s waning faith as symptomatic of the subversive influence of our “antigod” culture.  The passion one develops in middle school and high school quickly fades when our professors present us with a rational alternative to the Christian story.

Apologetics became an essential part of my education. I love completeness and tidiness. I thought that with deep thought and good research I could answer almost any question opposed to my faith. My high school science textbooks diverged from time to time to address Creation vs. Evolution questions. I remember attempting to read Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which was at the time, an authoritative encyclopedia of apologetic evidence for Christianity. I attended conferences, debates, and lectures, and discussed them with my friends. I could listen to Stand to Reason podcasts for hours. Every activity I devoted to studying apologetics honed my thinking about Christianity, Scripture, and the world.

After many years and hours of listening, reading, and discussing, I finally had my fill of apologetic thought – the same questions, the same answers, hashed and rehashed. I was satisfied with the answers, and my interest shifted directed toward theology and biblical studies. After I graduated NC State, I took a half year before enrolling in Seminary. With the same appetite for knowledge and the same love for completeness I pursued academic learning.

I had a new questions to investigate. I had trained my mind through apologetics to seek answers, and theology and biblical studies asked plenty of difficult, interesting questions. At the end of my six years, I had satisfactory answers to many of the questions I initially asked. I also had way more questions to ask. When I started, young and naive, I thought I could discover answers to some of the nagging questions of the Faith – questions like continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, Christian use of the Law, and the key to a proper Christian reading of the Old Testament, and other issues that only seem to interest scholars. At the end, less young and more naive, I could only answer those questions by discussing possibilities or providing an answer with a long list of qualifications. Apparently simple questions defied simple answers and required devotion to research with little guarantees that the research could provide tidy or complete answers.

Was I wrong to invest so much time an interest in study into something that provided very little in terms of satisfactory answers? If what I have left after so much study are questions that hold little to no interest to the lay public, what was the value of all those hours? Are my only options to seek information for its own sake? Shall I with Ecclesiastes say: “Vanity! Vanity!” and give up? What value did my academic pursuit add to my life and my faith ultimately?

These are the new questions I ask myself. I admit that I slipped into a mild depression as I sought an answer. These are soul-searching questions. I can only provide some reflections, but these reflections have comforted me lately and re-energized my pursuit of knowledge.

There is a conflict between the local church and the seminary.  We have opposing critiques about what’s significant, and we aim our critiques like canons at each other. One side rebukes the other for their lack of pragmatism and the other for their lack of theological interest. On the one side, we run into the danger of capitulating to cultural pragmatism and thus limiting our interest in Scripture to “how to’s” and instruction manuals. The other side risks a kind of positivism that fails to realize our limitations as human beings and diminishes the vastness of its research subject, i.e. God and Scripture.

How humorous would some passages of Scripture be if the author had substituted “Amen” for how we might actually be reading it? We could consider the many times Jesus spoke, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” as if Jesus were saying, “I have some advice for you. I think this could really help you out.” Or if Paul had said instead of “Amen” in Romans 11: “Oh the depth of the riches…Q.E.D.” as if he were summing up his proof of justification and election instead of concluding in benediction.

When we come to some understanding of God, for instance that God is Trinity, it doesn’t really dispel the mystery. If anything, it embellishes that mystery and we come to the limits of our understanding  (is there anything in the world like the Trinity?). If our concern in reading Scripture is limited to what we are supposed to do, what do we with the parts that are not as immediately pragmatic? In either case, we’re not really affected by the great truth Scripture reveals to us. Only if we end up at praise and benediction, we can arrive at an appropriate response: “This is how God really is. Amazing!”

Scripture often redirects our questions and provides us unexpected answers. Consider Job. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health and for many long chapters he is advised, questioned, and accused by his friends. Job seeks out an answer for his unjust suffering, and we wants God to give that answer. At the end of the narrative, God appears to Job and says basically, “I’ll answer your questions, if you can tell me answers to mine.” God asks Job many unanswerable questions. In effect saying, “if you can’t understand these simple questions, how can you understand why you’re suffering?” Job acknowledges his limitations and receives comfort from it.

Job receives an answer that doesn’t answer the original question. When God reveals himself, he realizes how small his world is and how vast God’s knowledge is. Job, wise as he is, does not have the capability to understand  everything that happens in the world. As readers, we know God makes a bet with the accuser that begins Job’s suffering. We may understand the cause Job’s suffering, but we don’t understand why God would allow or even be in some ways responsible for Job’s suffering. Scripture gives us glimpses of God’s decisions, but we cannot hope to understand the depth of God’s wisdom. He’s out of our league, and our tiny minds could not comprehend all the reasons behind God’s actions.

Personally, I tend toward positivism: Humanity can overcome its limitations through rationalism and science. Positivism has no patience for mystery for the only thing that is not limited in this world is the human capacity to discover and know. I considered all these theological and biblical questions answerable with more reading and knowledge. Our minds, however, were created by God, and our ability to understand and to fashion tools for discovery are gifts from the Creator.

If Job teaches me anything he shows me that I am indeed limited. Some types of knowledge exist in this world which the human mind cannot grasp. Moreover, the most important kind of knowledge is beyond the reach of our best tools to discover it. We learn this kind of knowledge through revelation, and our discovery of that revealed knowledge is subject to a will greater than ours. God decides where and how and what to reveal, and he opens our minds to understand it.

We, limited as we are, still discover great things. We learn, think, and understand, and we wonder, which seems to me to be the most appropriate response when we come to any kind of understanding of God, this world, or his Word. By doing so we avoid the temptation to think that by understanding we own the subject matter we have come to know. We avoid the mistake of pride which itself kills any true pursuit of knowledge. Pride limits the world and the questions we ask as if there are only a few gaps in our knowledge.

True knowledge directs us to worship. In knowing God we know that we are limited. When we come to know our limitations, we recognize the vastness of the knowledge of God. The only proper response is benediction – the pronouncement of “Amen.” With each discovery, our Amen’s ought to become louder and more frequent. For in doing so, we recognize knowledge as a gift, that our tiny minds have the ability to grasp something vast whether in science or Bible or theology causes us to wonder, and that One who willed us to know, revealed himself as an act of kindness toward we who are feeble-minded. This is a great mystery and a great mercy. Amen.

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In Mark 2, Mark describes how a group of friends bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus by removing part of the roof on the house where Jesus was teaching. They were expecting Jesus to heal their friend. He did, but to the great irritation of the religious leaders Jesus’s version of healing included forgiving the man’s sins as well. In this passage, we come face-to-face with a question that still puzzles us today: “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk?'” For Jesus, the healing of the paralyzed man is an inside out process, and his physical healing demonstrates the reality of his spiritual healing.

Today, we might say this: “Which is easier: ‘to let someone go despite wrongdoing’ (read “forgiveness” here) or ‘to make them pay?'” In our society, the latter receives the most attention. Movies like Kill Bill, where a woman seeks revenge on her former employers for taking the life of her unborn child and sending to her a hospital in a coma, portray a messy, yet to some degree rewarding view of revenge. At the end of the Kill Bill movies, she locks herself in a hotel bathroom while she laughs hysterically for the joy/relief of accomplishing her revenge mission. Katniss Everdeen, the main protagonist of the book series The Hunger Games, votes in favor of instituting a final Hunger Games, turning the Capital’s (the antagonists) main method of subjugation against them, in order to demonstrate the brutality of the Capital and exact retribution from them. Cultural depictions of revenge often acknowledge its inherent messiness, yet revenge is often glorified as a better alternative than forgiveness. After all, what’s more satisfying than successfully exacting retribution and putting the offender in their place?

Forgiveness, however, does not receive its fair shake. Keira Knightley illustrates this point well when she says: “It’s absolutely extraordinary. If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.” It’s too costly for the one wronged and too cheap for the one forgiven. Forgiveness demands no change of course for the forgiven and gives no justice to the ones who have been wronged. Forgiveness offers no satisfaction – at least in the eyes of modern people.

Jesus holds a different view: His forgiveness is a powerful healer. Aside from Mark 2, where forgiveness and healing are presented as part-and-parcel to Jesus’s ministry, take a look at how Luke 4:17-21 talks about Jesus’s ministry:

And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses the language of Isaiah to describe his own ministry. Isaiah is using the language of Jubilee where debt forgiveness receives a central focus. The prisoner is no longer a prisoner because he is free. The blind is no longer blind because he can see. The debtor is no longer a debtor because he is forgiven. Forgiveness is truly a powerful thing if it can accomplish that!

So we come around once again to Mark 2. Jesus healed the man from the inside out. Forgiveness does not come cheaply for Jesus, but he gives it freely to those who need it and ask for it in faith. For those who receive his forgiveness, their outlook on the world is different. They are no longer rebellious outcasts but faithful children. No longer are they to perpetuate injustice; they are to be beacons of justice. They are to be lovers of God and of people. They are not perfect, but they seek to live lives that forgiveness frees them to live. Forgiveness does not allow us to live how we want without consequences. No, forgiveness frees us to live the way were made to live without condemnation.

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Writing for the church

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been kicking around ideas for putting what I’ve studied and taught in Sunday School and at Southeastern into text. While I don’t think that what I’ll say is a “new” or “fresh” perspective on an issue, I hope that what I write provides a way for people who don’t have the time or resources to go to seminary to share in the benefits from my learning. My education would only really be a waste if I kept it to myself.

Here are a couple of the projects I’m thinking about right now:

Amos Today: How Amos’s words calls today’s church to action. I’ve been studying Amos in my Septuagint class.  In his message to Israel he describes the depth of Israel’s sin and coming judgment of God on his people. We are met by a holy God who cares about what his people do. His words are tough yet gracious since they since he reminds of the importance of how we live in his world. Even the “mundane” matters to God!

What the Psalms say about… A few months ago I team taught a 13 week series on various types of Psalms. Instead of dividing the psalms by their genre, we asked how the psalms address different situations in our lives, how they guide our worship, how they structure our prayers, and how they shape our understanding of God and faith.

In addition to these topics, I’ve been struggling with what the content should look like. I would like for this book to be useful in small groups.

How detailed should the book be? How much attention should the book pay attention to academic matters?

On the flip side, how devotional should the book be? How can both the “academic” and “devotional” elements be blended together?

If this book’s target audience is small groups, what kind of material would be beneficial for small groups?

The biggest question I have to answer is how much do I let questions we ask today shape the material?  The biblical text often (and ought too!) reshape the kinds of questions we ask and I need to pay special attention to that.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m hopeful that by God’s grace I can produce something that is useful to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Septuagint Presentation

One of my assignments in my only class this spring semester is to present on Amos 2. The presentation covered everything  from  evaluating important textual issues to developing sermon/teaching outlines. It was fascinating to try to get into the mind of the Greek translator as he struggled to translate the Hebrew text accurately and present a version that his readers could understand. The presentation went excellently, and I just want to tip my hat to those who made this long process of research go smoothy.

First, my partner, Matt Christian, was a great cog in the machine that made this process go well. Our conversations about the little things (we spent an hour at least on one word during our first meeting) and the big things (we opened the library every Monday) was extremely valuable.

Second but not really second, My good friend, Jacob Cerone, always provided solid guidance and good recommendations for resources to consult for my research. This project would not have gone nearly as well without him. His friendship continues to be invaluable.

Thirdly, I’d like to provide an abbreviated annotated bibliography on a few works I found most helpful for this project.

Glenny, Edward. Finding Meaning in the Text: Translation Technique and Theology in the Septuagint of Amos.

If there is any book that I found helpful in getting my mind around what’s going on in the LXX of Amos, it was this one. He provides a detailed discussion on translation theory as well as a detailed overview of the changes the translator made and why he may have made them. This resource is excellent, and I think is helpful even if your research in the LXX is not focussed on the book of Amos.

Dines, Jennifer. “Stylistic Invention and Rhetorical Purpose in the Book of the Twelve.” Et sapienter et eloquenter: Studies on Rhetorical and Stylistic Features of the Septuagint.

I found anything that I read with Jennifer Dines’s name on it was gold. Her discussion here as well as her dissertation on the book of Amos were insightful. In this article, she lists rhetorical features that she finds in the Greek text but not in the Hebrew. She also gives her reasons why she thinks the translator may have added those rhetorical features. This short article was excellent and thought-provoking

Paul, Shalom. Amos: A Commentary on the Book of Amos.

Shalom Paul’s contribution to the Hermeneia Commentary series is a good one. His attention to the details of the Hebrew text (and the Greek!) really helped me think through many of the finer issues of translating, evaluating textual differences, understanding the meaning of words and difficult constructions, and comprehending the passage as a whole. Once again, I recommend this work for any serious study of the book of Amos.

Rudolph, Wilhelm. Joel-Amos-Obadja-Jona. Kommentar zum Alten Testament XIII/2.

This volume is dated, yet I still found his notes on textual issues informative and helpful. The details are amazing, and he helped me form an understanding of what was going on with the differences between the LXX and the Hebrew text.

Lastly, I just want to say that this project was one of most challenging that I’ve ever done. I’ve learned more about God’s Word in Amos than I’ve learned before (and I’m only at the beginning  of the book!). I’m looking forward to further discussions on what Amos has to say to us today.

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Define “Sarcasm” –  the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny (Merriam Webster).

Example: I love very few things more than memorizing enough vocab to win at German scrabble.

While my use of sarcasm also contains a heavy dose of overstatement, I really do not love to memorize words. This statement shocks no one, I’m sure. I, however, was home schooled. Typically, we home schoolers have (at least) the entire English dictionary memorized by the time we reach high school. I never grasped the practice.

Since I am a student of both Greek and Hebrew, I know the immeasurable benefit of memorizing words, namely, being able to read. I am now in the process of learning another language: German. In the first two weeks, I have memorized the English glosses of nearly 500 German words. Trust me, the fun is in the reading. Actually, memorizing Worten hasn’t been too schlecht. Plus, the more vocab you have memorized, the easier time you have in figuring “fun stuff” of syntax.

Let me tell you something. Prepositions put the Furcht Gottes in any potential language learner. German is no exception. My vocab memorization was going a lot like a Schiff in guten Wetters…until I got to prepositions. Then my nice Schiff hit some scharf rocks. Sure, April Wilson tells you that the discussion on prepositions is overwhelming and that the material is really only reference material. If you’re really going to learn a language, you’re going to have to learn the prepositions. No question. It still hurts when you come across a Wort wie “gegen.”

While prepositions are nasty in any language, German loves to stick it to you. Apparently, German prepositions can change the meaning of verbs, come after the object of preposition, or even be split up in the phrase. Yes, fun stuff indeed. I feel a little hypocritical at this point since a non-English speaker accused English of similar crimes. Non-English speakers, ich leide mit dir.

Don’t let this somewhat negative post deceive you. Ich leibe Deutsch. I love learning languages. I love the prospect of being to read and enjoy the language (even the nasty prepositions). I only hope to communicate that memorizing viele Worten, as painful as it is, is probably one of the most best ways of truly learning a language. It will remove many road blocks and lead to a more satisfying experience.

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Among Christians today, especially from what I can tell in the United States, we love to play the bully. The target, however, is not anyone or any group. The target is a word: religion. We say that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship. We have websites such as notreligion.org. We even enlist God’s help in our bullying: “God hates religion.” Poor guy! Is this poor word really worthy our derision?

For the most part Christian hate toward religion is justified by a sort of pigeon-holing religion into a set of categories that the Bible does explicitly hate: non-reverent, works-based, going-through-the-motion spiritual activities. In that sense, surely God hates religion, but I think we have more problems with religion than that.

We hate religion. Our non-conformist culture hates anything that seems traditional. Aside from the typical Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist, we target traditional music services, traditional preaching, traditional church programs. Some of these (most of these in some cases), cry out for reformation. They have become expressions of dead, false religion. We should not be quick to exorcise from the church all forms of traditionalism, especially if people exercise true religion in the form of traditional worship. 

Granted, most Christians would agree with the prior statement, such agreement doesn’t eliminate the issues I have with the formula “God hates religion, but loves relationships.” Relationship is a not a direct antonym of religion. Relationship between two people does stress that God wants authenticity, but our comparison may have too steep a price. I wonder if our constant comparison of religion to relationship tickles our individualistic, non-conformist attitudes to the point where we reduce Christianity to a two way “relationship” between a person and God. How easy is it to say, “I don’t need the church or all that ceremony, I don’t need relationships with other believers, I don’t need Bible studies,  I just need God?”

The truth is, God kind of loves religion. He did,after all, set up the ceremonial rites of law for the Israelites and constantly call for obedience to that law saying that it is a wonderful thing that they have the law in the first place (Deut 4:5-8). The prophet Joel calls for repentance through the ceremonial rite of lament. Jesus often attended, participated, and encouraged following religious  ceremony (John 7, Luke 22, Matt 26, Luke 11:42).

Maybe I’m taking too much offense at this point. I know Christians who say, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship” don’t really mean all that. In our communicating the truth of Christianity, however, it sends the wrong message. We need to find a better way of communicating the essential nature of a vibrant relationship with God vis-a-vis the dead practice of religion.

Might a suggest another emphasis? Maybe we should say God hates falsehood but loves truth, or, if we want to be hipster about it, God hates fake but loves authentic. I suppose those words could come across as judgmental. I think, however, putting Christianity in those terms gives us the opportunity to say, “I’m the worst of the fakers. God alone is authentic, and if it weren’t for his actions in history, we have no hope of being authentic people.” 

We should be wise to consider the prophet Joel’s command to the people of Israel. Yes, he commands people to observe the ceremony of lament in response to a past tragedy and future judgment, but he also says to the people, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (2:13) God desires authentic people to follow true religion (that is, according how he has defined true religion, not according to how we define it). Above all, love God with all your heart and do what he says to do. That is what this faker is trying to do by the grace of God alone.

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When Life Throws You Lemons…

Today was the first day in a long time that I dropped a class. Adding and dropping classes aren’t normally a big deal. I did adds and drops on a regular basis in college; albeit, I rarely dropped after the semester started. At about 2:40pm yesterday after already sitting in the class for 2 hours, I already knew I had to drop it. Still, I went through several different emotions as I was driving home. The feel of inadequacy hit me hardest. Am I not tough enough to continue in this class? Do I lack the intellectual capacity to continue in this class? Am I just a lazy student? I still wanted to continue and prove my imaginary doubters wrong. I can get through this.  I’m not weak. The thought of continuing, however, was overbearing still. I had no excitement of enduring 4 1/2 months of these feelings. After talking over the situation with friends and family (thank you Grace, Jacob, and Doug for your advice!), I understood that, for a variety of reasons, I needed this class less than I thought I did. What’s more is that there was another class that I needed more. My new textbook is in the mail, and I will be studying with my father-in-law (yes, he’s in my program too) tomorrow night.

I’m still upset over my experience. I really was looking forward to taking this class. I put a bit of mental prep into getting ready for the semester. Dropping the course altered my study plans. I’m not going to be studying a subject I thought I would be studying since October. I’m now going to be studying a subject I wasn’t expecting study until today. What seems so small was actually pretty big. But it all worked out for the better, and I’m glad to come to this realization before it was too late. Goodbye Greek 4. Hello Hebrew Poetry.

Here’s to lemonade.

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