Archive for April, 2014

You’re not smart enough or good enough, even if people like you

Stuart Smalley 1It was Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, who said, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” As it turns out, many took Smalley’s credo to heart. And the results have been sadly predictable.

Case in point: the American Bible Society, in conjunction with the Barna Group, recently published its “State of the Bible” report for 2014. The report opens with plenty of punch:

Now there are just as many Americans skeptical of the Bible as there are engaged with the Bible. According to the fourth annual State of the Bible survey, 19 percent said that they were skeptical of the Bible. This number is up from 10 percent in 2011.

This trend is even more pronounced among the Millennial generation (who range in age from 18-29). According to the State of the Bible report, Millennials are

–   Less likely to view the Bible as sacred literature (64 percent in comparison to 79 percent of adults),
–   Less likely to believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life (35 percent in comparison to 50 percent of adults), and
–   More likely to never read the Bible (39 percent compared in comparison to 26 percent of adults).[1]

It turns out that America’s latest generation is more suspicious of the Bible than any that has come before it.

Now, on the one hand, such suspicion requires solid biblical apologists – people who can argue for Scripture’s veracity, historicity, consistency, and even morality to a society that is increasingly questioning Scripture on all these fronts. Indeed, one factoid that came out of this report is that while 50 percent of all adults believe the Bible has too little influence on society, only 30 percent of Millennials believe this. This is, in part, because many Millennials no longer accept the basic premise that the Bible teaches right from wrong. Instead, many Millennials now believe the Bible promotes wrong rather than right – for instance, on topics like sexual ethics. Thus, they see the Bible as having a negative, rather than a positive, influence on society – one they would be happy to see continue to wane.

But there is more to this report than just what Millennials believe about the Bible. The statistic I found most telling from this report is this one: 19 percent of Millennials believe no literature is sacred compared to 13 percent of all adults who believe no literature is sacred. In other words, it’s not just that Millennials have a problem with the Bible in particular, it’s that they struggle with any literature that claims to be sacred in general.

It is here that we arrive at the core of this new generation’s struggle. For to claim a particular piece of literature is sacred is, at the same time, to say something about its authority. After all, something with a sacred, or divine, origin is, by definition, “above” me and can therefore make certain claims on me and demands from me. But this is something this current generation simply cannot endure. For to believe a book like the Bible has divine authority is to concede that if I disagree with the Bible, the Bible gets the right of way. But when I’ve been told, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me,” I cannot stand to have my goodness or moral intelligence questioned by some backward work from ancient antiquity. My modern, enlightened sensibilities cannot be wrong. I must be right.  The only sacred literature left, then, is the moral script I’ve written for myself and carry around in myself – hence, the reason so many Millennials see not only the Bible as unsacred, but any religion’s holy book as unsacred.

So with all of this in mind, perhaps it’s worth it to do a little reflection on our assumption concerning the sapience and sacredness of our moral sensibilities. We have been told we are smart enough. But are we, really? Have we never made a wrong call, a tragic error, or a bumbling fumble? We have been told we are good enough. But are we, really? Have we never broken our own moral boundaries or changed them over time because of a shifting perspective, or, more cynically, because of coldly calculated expedience? A little bit of honest introspection is enough to remind us that what Stuart Smalley taught us is profoundly untrue. Indeed, it is downright silly. And it is supposed to be. That’s why it aired on Saturday Night Live.

So let’s stop looking to ourselves for truth and morality and start looking to something higher. Let’s take an honest look at the Bible. Who knows? We may find it’s smarter and better than even we are. And, doggone it, we might even learn to like that.

____________________________

[1] “State of the Bible 2014,” American Bible Society.

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April 28, 2014 at 5:15 am 2 comments

We’ve Only Just Begun

Empty Tomb 1As a kid, I remember a song my mom used to play from the 70’s by the Carpenters called  “We’ve Only Just Begun.”  The song is about a couple’s wedding day and imagines all the things still to come in their relationship.  “We’ve only just begun to live,” the song muses.

The message of this golden oldie is a message I often share with the soon-to-be-wedded couples I counsel.  “The wedding day is a big day,” I will say, “but it is only one day.  Don’t just plan for your wedding day.  Plan for all the days that come after your wedding day.  After all, when you walk down that aisle and make your vows, you’ve only just begun.”

Yesterday, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  The apostle Paul summarizes Christ’s resurrection thusly:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

For Paul, Christ’s death for our sins and resurrection three days later is “of first importance.”  The Greek word for this phrase is protos, from which we get our word “prototype.”  A prototype, of course, is a first run of a product or procedure meant to be a test for what comes after it.  And this is precisely what Christ’s resurrection is.  For, according to Paul, Christ’s resurrection – glorious as it is – is only the beginning.  Paul explains:

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)

Paul argues that in Christ’s resurrection on Easter Day, God was doing a test run for our resurrections on the Last Day.  As glorious as Easter is, then, it is only a foretaste of what is to come.  It is only a prototype for the big roll out of resurrection and life that will burst forth at Christ’s return.  God has “only just begun” to raise people from death.  An even bigger Easter is still on its way – an Easter when we will not only shout, “Christ has risen,” but, “We have risen!”

April 21, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Not Just Any Old Crucifixion

"Calvary" by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

“Calvary” by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

In the ancient world, crucifixions were a dime a dozen.  Hardly a day passed without one.  Consider these statistics:

  • 519 BC: Darius I, king of Persia, crucifies 3,000 of the leading citizens of Babylon.
  • 332 BC: Alexander the Great crucifies 2,000 people after invading the city of Tyre.
  • 100 BC: Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, crucifies 800 Pharisees.
  • 71 BC:  A great uprising of slaves against the Roman Empire, led by the great gladiator Spartacus, leads to the crucifixion of 6,000 of his followers along a stretch of highway from Capua to Rome, totaling 120 miles.
  • 4 BC: Varus, governor of Syria, crucifies 2,000 Jewish rebels who were leading a Messianic revolt.
  • AD 70:  The Roman general Titus sweeps into the city of Jerusalem, sacks it, and begins crucifying 500 people a day he runs out of wood to make crosses.

Crucifixions happened all the time.  In fact, according to one estimate, as many as 30,000 people were crucified just in Israel by Jesus’ day.[1]

This Friday is Good Friday – a day when we commemorate a crucifixion.  But with crucifixions being so commonplace in the ancient world, it’s worth it to ask:  Why do we commemorate one particular crucifixion?  Why don’t we commemorate the many crucifixions of the citizens of Babylon, or of Spartacus’ followers, or of the Jews under Titus’ reign of terror?  Why do we commemorate only one crucifixion – Jesus’ crucifixion?

The Mishnah, an ancient compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching, explains that if a criminal was condemned to execution, which would have included crucifixion, he was to say, “Let my death be atonement for all of my transgressions.”[2]  The idea was that if a person’s crimes were so heinous that he was deserving of death, only death could save him from those crimes.  Crucifixion, then, was connected not only to punitive punishment, but also to personal atonement.

Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was different.  Rather than making recompense for His own sins by His death, Jesus asks for forgiveness for others’ sins:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And rather than seeking atonement for Himself by His execution, the apostle John says Jesus makes atonement for the world:  “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

This is why we commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.  For we remember not only that Jesus was crucified, but why Jesus was crucified.  He was crucified not for His own sins, but for ours.  Jesus’ crucifixion did what no other crucifixion could do.  It saved us.  And that’s worth remembering…and celebrating.  And that’s why this Friday is not just any Friday, but a Good Friday.

______________________________

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary:  Matthew 24-28 (Chicago:  The Moody Bible Institute, 1989), Matthew 27:27-37.

[2] m. Sanhedrin 6.2.

April 14, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Common Question: What’s the Deal with the Apocrypha?

Apocrypha 166 books. That’s how many books are in the Good Book.  At least, that’s what I had always been taught.  But then, a Roman Catholic friend of mine in high school claimed there was more to the Bible than the 66 books I had read since I was a little boy.  There were actually 73 books, he explained.  And these additional books had strange names like “Maccabees” and “Judith” and “Tobit” and even “Bel and the Dragon.” As he showed me these books, I was flummoxed.  “Why hadn’t I ever heard of these books?” I asked myself.

These mysterious books to which I was introduced in high school are widely known as the “Apocrypha,” a Greek adjective meaning “hidden.”  And though many Christians do not regularly read these books, they are indeed a part of the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture.  In fact, one of the questions I often receive as a pastor is, “Why do Roman Catholics have ‘extra’ books in their Bible?”

Because the Apocrypha is a source of a lot of confusion, I thought it would be worth it to offer a brief history of these books along with an analysis of them from a Lutheran Christian perspective.

The books of the Apocrypha were written between the close of the Old Testament in 430 BC and the beginning of the New Testament.  These books include historical accounts, supplements to famous Old Testament books such as Daniel and Esther, and wisdom books akin to the Proverbs.

From the beginning, these books were never fully embraced by the Church as inspired Scripture. Paul Maier, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, explains:

The Apocrypha … were not included in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, which was debated by rabbis at Jamnia (near Jerusalem) in AD 93. Thus they were also not included among the very 39 books that comprise the Old Testament in Christian Bibles today …

Early on … churchmen such as Origen of Alexandria noted a difference between the Apocrypha and the Hebrew Scriptures.  Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome also drew a line of separation between the two, using the term Apocrypha for the first time in reference to these writings.  To be sure, Jerome included them in his Latin translation if the Bible, the Vulgate, but advised that the Apocrypha should be read for edification, not for supporting church dogma.[1]

Jerome’s warning against using the Apocrypha as a basis for Christian doctrine is especially important. His doctrinal concern is perhaps best illustrated by 2 Maccabees 12:44-45 when the Jewish liberator Judas Maccabeus prays for some who have died, seeking to make atonement for the sins they committed while they were still alive.  From these verses, the Roman Catholic Church derives its doctrine of Purgatory, a place where deceased believers undergo a final purification from sin that readies them for the bliss of heaven.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine of Purgatory thusly:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death the undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.[2]

This teaching runs contrary both to the broad teaching of canonical Scripture, which declares that a person enters either paradise or hell immediately upon death (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43), and to the gospel, because it adds to Christ’s perfectly purifying work on the cross our own work of purification in Purgatory by which we may “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” By adding our achievements to Christ’s achievement, the doctrine of Purgatory belittles and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.  Thus, the universal Church does not treat the Apocrypha as divinely inspired.

Interestingly, the Apocrypha was not even fully embraced by the Roman Catholic Church until the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent in 1546.  In this session, it was declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.[3]

With this decree, the Roman Catholic Church effectively erased the distinction between ancient books that should be read for private edification and inspired books that should be appealed to for Christian doctrine – a distinction that Jerome, the very one who translated the Latin Vulgate, which Rome was here declaring to be its official translation, had made!  Thus, Rome took Jerome’s translation, but disregarded his distinction. And the Church has been the worse for it over the years.

All of this is not to say that the Apocrypha should be altogether disregarded. Maier notes that “Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine” cited heartily from the Apocrypha.  These books give us much valuable historical insight into this time period and chronicle for us the origins of the religious parties we meet in the New Testament, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Thus, the Apocrypha is worth our time and study.  We need to know about these books.  Indeed, Martin Luther superscribed the books of the Apocrypha like this: “Books that are not be regarded as the equal of Holy Scripture but are nonetheless profitable and good to read.”[4]

If you’re looking for a good book, then, pick up the Apocrypha.  If you’re looking for a divinely inspired book, however – that book still has only 66 books.

__________________________

[1] Paul Maier, “Foreword,” The Apocrypha:  The Lutheran Edition with Notes (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2012), xv-xvi.

[2] See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), §1030-1031.

[3] The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (April 1546).

[4] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1512, n. 20.

April 7, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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