Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ben Witherington on the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

Ben Witherington's post, "Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?" is an interesting essay, although I must say I remain unconvinced. Dr. Witherington argues, largely from internal evidence, that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus raised from the dead, was the "beloved disciple" in the Fourth Gospel and was responsible for writing what would amount to the "first draft" of the book. Unfortunately, there's a bit too much "Oxford wrote Shakespeare" here for me.

Dr. Witherington's argument involves first questioning the external evidence of authorship--the attribution of the Gospel of John to the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. According to Dr. Witherington, the first person to attribute the gospel unambiguously to John the Apostle was Irenaus, around AD 180 (although he refers to "various church fathers in the second century" who thought the same thing). He brings up the argument that Papias, the first to attribute the gospel to a "John" in the early second century calls this "John" an "elder," not an apostle. He ignores, however, the arguments of those who hold to the traditional ascription that identify this "elder" with the Apostle. Moreover, Dr. Witherington continues by identifying this "John the elder" with the John who wrote Revelation from the island of Patmos (whom he continues to distinguish from the Apostle John), based on nothing more than Papias's millennial theology. So essentially, Dr. Witherington brushes aside all of the external evidence, in order to secure a hearing for his argument from internal evidence.

The Internal Evidence

Dr. Witherington makes much of the fact that none of the "Zebedee" stories and few of the Galilean ministry narratives from the Synoptics are found in John. However, if John knew the Synoptics and wrote his gospel consciously to supplement them (which is the historic view), it wouldn't be surprising that he leaves out stories that had already been told and retold by the Synoptic authors. It is true that John focuses much more on Jesus' Judean ministry, largely ignored by the Synoptic authors, and Lazarus was a Judean (Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem, and Jesus went back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethany each day during Passion week). But this is hardly conclusive, and some events to which Dr. Witherington draws attention (e.g., the night visit by Nicodemus) wouldn't have been observed by Lazarus in any event.

The "disciple whom Jesus loved" is first mentioned by that title in John 13:23. Dr. Witherington draws attention to Lazarus being described by his sisters as "the one you love" in John 11:3; then when referring to 13:23, Dr. Witherington makes a series of linked hypothoses: first, that the meal was not necessarily a Passover meal or the Last Supper; then, that it may have not been eaten in Jerusalem; then, that it may have been eaten in Bethany; then, that Jesus would have been seated by the host; and then, that since Lazarus had a home at which Jesus often stayed, he was the host and would have reclined by Jesus. Let's assume that each of these hypotheses have an 80% probability of being true (which I think improbable of some of them); the entire string has less than a 1/3 chance of being correct. But Dr. Witherington argues that someone who heard John being read would have remembered Lazarus being described as being "loved" by Jesus, and assumed that the "disciple whom Jesus loved" would necessarily have been Lazarus, despite the fact that two chapters have intervened, a different word for "loved" is used, John 13:1 makes a point of Jesus demonstrating his love to all his followers who were there at the time, and to my knowledge there is no external evidence of an ancient interpreter recognizing the "beloved disciple" in this manner.

Further Evidence?

Having thus identified the beloved disciple, Dr. Witherington continues by demonstrating how nicely such an identification would fit into John's narrative. (Once again, this reminds me of how well the Earl of Oxford's domestic situation is thought by some to mirror the narrative of Hamlet.) His first example, surprisingly, is the fact that the beloved disciple has access to the High Priest's house. Dr. Witherington speculates that Lazarus was a "high status person" who may have had a relationship to people in Caiaphas's house; this despite the fact that Lasarus's resurrection had caused consternation in the Sanhedrin and had even provoked Caiaphas to suggest that Jesus be killed (John 11:47-53). During this same time frame, the chief priests were making plans to kill Lazarus as well, since people were coming over to Jesus as a result of his resurrection. Yet he was supposedly well-connected and had unrestricted access to Caiaphas's house?

Dr. Witherington makes a number of other such speculations, either through linked hypotheses or simply fitting Lazarus into situations that he thinks would make more sense if Lazarus were the author of the narrative. He discusses the tradition that the beloved disciple would not die as depending on Jesus having raised him from the dead, even though John 21:23 clearly relates the tradition to Jesus' response to Peter and makes no mention of the resurrection of Lazarus. Dr. Witherington also thinks that the high Christology of the fourth gospel derives from its author's having been resurrected; this does not explain why Paul, for example, has an equally high Christology, at probably as early or earlier a date.

Dr. Witherington finally ascribes the final version of John (he sees at least chapter 21 as an editorial addition) to the John of Patmos who wrote Revelation and who is Papias's "John the elder," thus explaining how the Fourth Gospel got associated with the name John. What he is arguing for is the proposition that Lazarus wrote most of John as an eyewitness, John the elder (of whom we know nothing else) finished the manuscript, Lazarus's contribution was completely forgotten, and John's contribution was not only attributed to the whole but also misattributed to the Apostle. (Incidentally, there is also a problem in that Dr. Witherington thinks that John of Patmos wrote 2 and 3 John as well as Revelation; however, 1 John has many affinities with the gospel of John--presumably, this would have been written by Lazarus as well, whose authorship would once again have been completely forgotten and misattributed to John the Apostle.)

I have great respect for Dr. Witherington, but here I fear that he falls prey to the speculation that is all-but-endemic to gospel studies. If he wanted to argue that we can't know for sure who the beloved disciple is, who wrote the Fourth Gospel, or even if the two are the same, I could be persuaded. I am not wedded to the idea that John wrote the Fourth Gospel, since the scripture itself doesn't say so. But putting another person in that position, on such speculative evidence, I find entirely unpersuasive.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Cheap Gas and Eschatology

The Ecotality blog has a piece on "The High Price of Cheap Gas," basically saying that for both environmental and geopolitical reasons, it's a good idea to keep on the path of reducing gasoline usage and finding alternative fuels. Unfortunately, the lowering of gas prices (in inflation-adjusted dollars) over the course of the 1990s had the opposite tendency of fueling the public's appetite for V-8 SUVs and reducing investment in alternative-fueled vehicles.

I haven't dealt with the topic of environmentalism in this forum, partly because I'm not in the slightest qualified to opine on the various charges and counter-charges made on that subject. But both this piece and Ben Witherington's (continued here) have caught my interest and gotten me thinking of these subjects in a way I haven't seen elsewhere. In order to get at it, I have to turn to a seemingly unrelated subject: eschatology.

There seem to be two dominant strains of eschatology floating around these days: a "Left Behind" dispensationalist version, which focuses us on being ready for the Rapture and regards the judgments that happen afterward as generally miraculous in origin; and a preterist version popular in the emerging church, which basically says that the NT writers dealing with the subject (primarily John) were talking about stuff happening within the first century. The "Left Behind" version is often criticized for encouraging a "use it up while we can" mentality: if we expect Christ's return at some point in the near future, then environmental concerns are misplaced, since trends that may have a catastrophic outcome at some point in the not-too-soon future are not expected to reach termination. Most people favoring this approach don't put it in such stark terms, however. Rather, they tend to be skeptical with regard to concerns regarding the environment. This is partly because those politically allied with radical environmentalists tend to be hostile to the concerns of traditional Christians on such issues as abortion. But it would also appear that a variant of Pascal's wager is going on here. If one assumes that we're all going to be outta here soon, then the cost of being wrong on environmental topics is insignificant.

In general, those who favor a more preterist eschatology also happen to be more progressive on the environmental front, but there is no eschatalogical reason for them to do so. If eschatology is really just about the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and opposition to the power and paganism of the Roman Empire, then there is little left to inform the Christian about environmental concerns. The issue of stewardship over the Earth God placed in our care is often appealed to, but once mentioned, there is little left to say, other than to associate generally "green-friendly" ideas with the Genesis command to rule over the earth. And if there is truth to the claims of environmentalists, then a bit of recycling here and there and a change in one's vehicle of preference aren't going to change the course on which we're headed. The way of life among people in the developed world would have to change drastically, and human nature being what it is, that kind of change won't be accepted unless it's imposed against our will. I don't think even members of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace are prepared to deal with it.

Although I'm not dispensational in my eschatology, I'm also not a preterist. I do believe that most of the eschatological portions of scripture do refer to the time period more-or-less immediately prior to Jesus' second coming. And if we look at the scriptures dealing with developments during the end times, some of them correspond rather frighteningly with things that are happening now--for instance, the mass destruction of vegetation and fish (Rev. 8:7-9). Am I saying that these prophecies are in fact being fulfilled now? No, I'm not making any such grandiose claim--the truth of the matter is, I don't know. What I do know is that prophecies in the past that would have appeared to require miraculous divine intervention (e.g., Ezek. 26) came to pass through human means.

What if the judgments that God rains down on the earth in the book of Revelation are not miraculously caused at all, but are the natural consequences of human actions--our failure to take care of this Earth as God commanded us to do? What if the "wars and rumors of wars" that Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:6) are at least partly a result of the developed nations taking advantage of less-developed ones in a relentless, consumer-driven thirst for more and cheaper goods and sources of energy? In that case, it appears that we won't reverse the trend, at least not in the long term. What God has prophesied will inevitably come to pass. But each of us bears a responsibility regarding whether we are a part of the problem or stand against the tide. I don't think most Western Christians are prepared to think seriously about whether our very way of life is sinful and destructive, even if we as individuals are not committing overt sins. If we have a "Let them eat cake" attitude toward the underdeveloped world, will we not be held to account?

I'm not pontificating. I'm just asking questions. All my life I've been politically, as well as theologically, conservative. My theology hasn't changed. But I'm beginning to wonder about the rest.


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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Concept of a "Redemptive Trend"

Scot McKnight has been posting on the concept of a "redemptive trend," specifically as it relates to the idea of women in ministry. In today's post, he asks the following question:

Does the redemptive trend take the Bible from the lay person’s hands or does it make explicit what we (and the Church) have been doing all along? How many of us think it is wrong to wear clothing of two different kinds of material (Lev 19:19)? How many of us think Jesus’ statement to sell our possessions and give to poor (Luke 12:33) is permanent? How many of us think women need to cover their heads (1 Cor 11:6-7)? Now I don’t want to debate specifics, but I do want us to grapple with how we treat such statements and why we treat them the way we do and to ask if we don’t already have a redemptive trend hermeneutic at work but are just uncomfortable with applying it to women in the Church?

I have been in the odd (but not unfamiliar) position of agreeing with the implied point of the discussion (that there is no Biblical warrant for excluding women from ministry) while disputing the reasoning being used to come to that conclusion.

My understanding of the basic concept of a redemptive trend is this: God inspired human beings to write the Scriptures from a position within their own cultural norms and understandings. This was necessary for the scriptures to have been written and to have been comprehensible to human beings at all. Therefore, some of what was written is culturally conditioned, and therefore application of the principles involved may vary from one cultural circumstance to another. Any reasonably developed hermeneutic will acknowledge this. The "redemptive trend" idea takes this a step further, suggesting that we may move from the culturally-conditioned commands of scripture through other passages that appear to modify or ameliorate these commands, and press this "trend" forward to a conclusion that may not be found explicitly in the Bible and may even contradict the culturally-conditioned commands.

What I understand Scot to be saying in the questions he asks is that if we acknowledge the existence of culturally-conditioned commands, obedience to the letter of which is not necessary (or applicable) today, then we have already implicitly acknowledged the concept of a redemptive trend, and therefore resistance to the concept is likely resistance to a particular application of that concept--such as women in ministry. I think that a more modest hermeneutic will suffice to deal with the cultural aspects of Scripture, and avoid some of the more problematic implications of the redemptive trend idea.

The problem of the "redemptive trend" idea is its open-endedness. How are we to distinguish between a "redemptive trend" that is to be pursued to its ultimate, logical conclusion, and a cultural situation that God may have wanted to change but not necessarily to curtail completely? For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy is tolerated; in the New, monogamy is insisted upon, and we are told that in the resurrection, there will be no marriage at all. Should we follow a "redemptive trend" and eliminate marriage altogether? (You could quote me passages in the New Testament that affirm marriage; I could dismiss these as merely culturally conditioned.)

The classic "poster child" example of a redemptive trend is that of slavery. The Bible nowhere prohibits slavery, yet throughout, God ameliorates the effects of slavery, and 19th century Christians came to the conclusion that slavery ought to be eliminated on Biblical grounds. Isn't this an obvious example of a redemptive trend?

I don't think so. What the Bible allows in the Old Testament is a form of indentured servitude which is either temporary (7 years) or voluntary, and in which the treatment of the servant is circumscribed by law. What we consider slavery--the outright ownership of one human being by another--is not permitted at all. In the New Testament, believers are to live out their Christian lives in the social and economic situations in which they find themselves. The morality of the institution itself is not dealt with.

But that's just the point, redemptive trend advocates would tell us. The Bible accommodates itself to the cultural circumstances of the day, tolerating slavery but not condoning it and ameliorating its cruelty. It was left for later generations of Christians to follow this trend out and finally to condemn slavery in all forms and to outlaw it forever. It seems to me that this position misses two points. First, taking Scripture seriously means not only dealing with the presumed terminus of the trend--in this case, the elimination of slavery--but also dealing with the accommodation itself: apparently, in some cultural circumstances, slavery was not the ultimate evil. Temporary or voluntary servitude could be preferable to being an economic outcast with no means of support. This leads to the second point: focus on the elimination of slavery can blind us to social and economic injustices that may be equally oppressive but don't bear the name, "slavery." Is it better to be a voluntary servant in the household of a fair-minded Old Testament Israelite, or to be entrapped in an Asian sweatshop today?

With regard to Scot's examples above, I take the Lev 19:19 passage as an Old Covenant proscription not binding in the New; the command to sell our possessions as just as binding on us as on Jesus' original audience (i.e., probably not an absolute command even then, but probably more binding on us than most of us would like to admit); and the head covering command as, yes, cultural, but telling us in principle that we are to dress and conduct ourselves in a manner that would be recognized as modest and humble in whatever cultural circumstances we find ourselves. Similarly, I may not greet my brothers in Christ with a "holy kiss," but I do think that I should greet them warmly and affectionately in the Lord.

In other words, a serious hermeneutic must recognize the differences between different covenants; must recognize hyperbolic language where it exists; and must recognize that there are sometimes underlying principles that are expressed in culturally specific forms in Scripture. None of these recognitions implies our right to follow a "redemptive trend" that is not only beyond Scriptural warrant but actually opposed to certain things Scripture actually says.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Finding the Right Husband or Wife

Joe Carter has a great post on finding the right husband or wife. It's a review of a book by Alex and Marni Chediak entitled With One Voice: Singleness, Dating and Marriage to the Glory of God.

The basic point of the post (and apparently, the book) is that it is more important to work toward becoming the right person for someone else, rather than to try to find "Mr. or Miss Right." During the period of time in my life that I call, "Single and Not Very Happy About That Fact," I figured this out: everyone seemed to be trying to find the right person for them (i.e., the person who will accommodate all of their whims and fulfill all their dreams and not require them to change at all) and not at all trying to become the kind of person who could be a good husband or wife for someone else.

The pattern that I saw was repeated relationships and break-ups, over and over again (well, except for those of us who had a difficult time getting anything going to begin with), until finally the person became more fearful of being left alone than of marrying The Wrong Person--at which point the next dating relationship magically became The One.

Another mistake singles make when dating and looking for a marriage partner is assuming that marriage is supposed to be the panacea that makes all of life a state of joy. The Chediaks write, "Women have been duped by the media into thinking that marriage must be
a state of perpetual bliss and that, if it is not, something must be
wrong with their partner" (p. 47). There are two things going wrong here: unrealistic expectations regarding what marriage should be like, and the assumption that anything that goes wrong must be the fault of one's "partner"--i.e., never oneself (or just the reality of living in a fallen world).

Much marital unhappiness comes from failing to recognize that putting marriage on such a pedestal is a form of idolatry, and marriage can never live up to these expectations. It can be wonderful--the very best relationship one can ever have with another human being--but only when both people are willing to adjust to one another's flaws and foibles, and are willing to try their best to be the best husband or wife they can be. 

For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Praying for Parking Spaces

My Pastor approvingly cited this article on praying for parking spaces. I tried to comment there, but first CoComments wouldn't work, and then the picture that contains letters I'm supposed to copy to prevent robots wouldn't load. So I'm writing here. Sorry, Bob.

Hmmm. Read the article. Not sure how much I agree. The author writes,
[P]raying for parking is poor theology. In Philip Yancey’s new book on prayer, he quotes a philosophy professor on the subject: "If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant." The point is not what kind of god God is, but what kind of God we believe him to be, and what our prayers say about our vision of him.
This appears to imply that, in order for God not to be "morally repugnant," there must be some hierarchy of importance, comprehensible to us, that God follows in choosing what situations to intervene in and what situations not to. But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The same God that sprung Peter from prison had already allowed the Apostle James to be executed, and would later let Paul rot in jail for over four years. He has reasons that are beyond us. He doesn't have to conform to our idea of dignity, or importance.

I probably have prayed for parking spaces, now and again, when I'm in a serious time crunch and the course of my life has forced me into an inescapable position of having to go into a store and buy something at that particular moment <shudder>. I've also been known deliberately to take a parking space further from the entrance than necessary because there are those who may have more trouble than I do taking a few extra steps.

If our prayers reflect simple greed or selfishness ("Lord, let me get that space ahead of the other guy who obviously wants it"), well then, yeah, that's not good. But should we avoid praying for things because we think they are not worthy of God's attention? Perish the thought! I say pray for everything, and let God sort out what He wants to pay attention to.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

All You Need Is Love

The Beatles said "All you need is love," and then they broke up.
--Larry Norman
There is a very interesting paradox in the New Testament. One one hand, you see rapid growth of the church and the dogged evangelistic determination of the Apostle Paul. On the other, there is virtually no practical instruction on how to do evangelism. What are we to make of the clear imperative, articulated in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), to win the lost, combined with the lack of direction within the Epistles on ways in which to accomplish this?

It is sometimes suggested that in the early church, this wasn't a problem--that the early Christian believers were filled with a fervor that most of us no longer have, that if we could just regain this excitement and enthusiasm, we would spontaneously share our faith with others as well. There was no instruction because no instruction was needed. It seems incomprehensible to me, however, that out of all the problems and heresies that the New Testament epistles were written to combat, nobody seems to have had a problem with a failure to share their faith. Whatever the reason is that the New Testament doesn't really address how to evangelize in a practical way, it isn't that all the New Testament believers were already doing it too well to need any assistance.

What the epistles do give us is clear instruction on how to live and how to relate to one another. The Apostle Paul discusses his own missionary endeavors quite freely, but what he encourages his readers in is the living of life in a godly manner. He deals with various churches on social and economic divisions, as well as those based on competing claims to follow different teachers, marriage and family relationships, slavery, differing convictions regarding disputable matters, lawsuits, sexual immorality, deceit, and many other practical matters. Paul's primary concern for the believers in the churches he writes to is that they live godly lives that reflect Jesus' command to love God and to love others--that their lives will bring glory, and not shame, to God. When he writes, "Do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5) he is writing specifically to Timothy, not to believers in general.

What I am suggesting here is a difference between evangelism and being a witness. "Being a witness" is much larger and much more life-encompassing than what we generally term "witnessing."The command to "go and make disciples" was given not generally, but to the eleven disciples
remaining after Jesus' resurrection (Matt. 28:16-20). Interestingly, even the Apostle Paul stated that he was called to "preach the gospel" (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι, related to the English "evangelize," 1 Cor 1:14-17) rather than to baptize, even though baptism had been part of the Great Commission. But Paul's primary concern for the people of God was that they would show the love of God to one another and to outsiders (e.g. Rom 13:10), and that they would conduct themselves in a manner that would bring credit and not shame to the name of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 6:5-6). In this, he is giving practical content to Jesus' command to "be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). "Being a witness" is much larger and much more life-encompassing than what we generally term "witnessing." It is living a life that itself witnesses to the reality of God's presence within us. It is only by doing so that we gain a hearing for the gospel among those who haven't followed Jesus yet.

I think that is what our brothers who advocate "missional living" are trying to tell us. Rather than alienating people with a premature imperative to "turn or burn," we need to live out God's love for us in practical ways, both toward one another and toward the world at large. Certain people have a specific gift of evangelism--the ability to reach people, often people they don't know, with the Gospel. The rest of us have often been made to feel guilty because we're not that type of person. "If I can do it, anyone can do it," the extrovert on the platform tells us. But what God tells us is to be a witness for Him.

We are all called to live lives of love and godliness; that in itself should provoke curiosity about the difference in our lives. The world likes to talk and sing about love; but it rings hollow--it's an emotion with little commitment. A real expression of love will be a real difference, and we all need to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). So we all need to be ready to speak when called upon. But it begins with living lives of love, because Love Himself has given us life.

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Daring To Be a Sinner

David Wayne has a great post on daring to be a sinner. I'm firmly convinced that the major problem with the Church today is that we've lost our sense of being forgiven sinners. Either we don't think sin is any big deal, so neither is forgiveness, or we define sin as those things that only apply to outsiders, so then forgiveness isn't something that applies to us. It's the amazing power of knowing yourself to be deeply in need of God's grace, and the wonder of having received it, that gives us the power to be authentic with one another and to carry the light to others.