Thursday, 17 October 2013

A Theology of Mark - Some quotes

Despite their religious upbringing, the disciples persist in self-dependence, for both their day-to-day lives as well as their understanding of God and his will. The disciples come to Jesus with fixed religious ideas, which are a selective sample from the Old Testament as taught by Pharisaic synagogue teachers during the disciples’ early adolescence. Jesus does not only teach a defined “curriculum,” but intends to reshape their thinking and heart-attitude towards themselves and God, thus affecting every aspect of their lives. Jesus pursues nothing less than the complete reshaping of the disciples in mind and heart.
— A Theology of Mark by Hans F. Bayer, p. 62

Rather than understanding the call to discipleship primarily as a call to exercises and performance, we should see it, at the very heart, as surrender to the love of God. It is surrender to the liberation of truth, to the “exodus” from our own autonomy by embracing the substitutionary atonement of Christ. It is the liberation of the soul through the power of Jesus. Without that liberation, there will not be liberty and strength to live godly lives. It is the love and the kindness of God that frees us to surrender. We are not forced into being disciples of Jesus. We surrender to the One who pursues us in sacrificial love, kindness, and deep knowledge of our inner selves.
— A Theology of Mark by Hans F. Bayer, p. 72

We can rest assured that we will not surprise our Master with anything he will discover in our souls. So why keep it hidden? Why live with it anymore? Why continue a divided life between the outside (pretence) and inside (reality)? Why continue that hopeless battle when, in fact, the One who calls us has the power to overturn our self-centeredness?
— A Theology of Mark by Hans F. Bayer, pp. 71-72

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Book Review (Part 1): A Theology of Mark by Hans F. Bayer

A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship is part of the Explorations in Biblical Theology series published by P&R. What I have read in this series so far has been very good. I am not familiar with Hans F. Bayer as an author but am familiar with other professors who also teach at Covenant Theological Seminary. I also have an ongoing love/hate relationship with scholarship on the Gospel of Mark. Was Mark written first? Did Mark actually write it? Did Mark write with a plot in mind? Did Mark deliberately develop characters? Did Mark write for oral performance? Did Mark write for the first Christians? And so the questions mount up. I find all of this fascinating but ultimately of little use to me or, say, the young men I help teach the Bible to on Saturday mornings. So when I saw this book on the theology of Mark with a focus on Jesus and discipleship, after much prayer and advice from wise Christians, I bought it (at the Evangelical Book Shop, Belfast)
The book is split into 2 parts - (1) Mark as Biography and Message of God's Eternal Rule and (2) The Dynamic between God's Messiah and Authentic Disciples. Part 2 makes up the bulk of the book. Issues about the formation and origin of Mark are in an appendix. Another appendix looks at Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship and Mark 8:34. I have not yet read the appendices. Bayer starts by pointing out that while many people rightly look to Jesus for salvation, they do not focus enough on his view of discipleship.
This book is an attempt to remedy this situation. Though there is value in other approaches to discipleship, our purpose here is to explore a more comprehensive approach-that of Jesus with his own disciples ... many readers will be surprised-perhaps as surprised as the original band of disciples. (p. 1)
He goes on to say:
We will argue that Jesus teaches, exemplifies, and above all enables "pattern-imitation" among his followers rather than simply calling for a simplistic, self-generated "copying of Christ". (p. 12)

But why Mark's Gospel? Well, the theme of the identity of Jesus and what it means to follow him come out very clearly in Mark.
The twelve initial companions of Jesus, chief among them Peter, were indeed taken by surprise, as John Mark's presentation of Peter's account reveals. The account is honest, self-critical, transparent, and unadorned. The group with which Jesus works admits to disbelief and the inability to comprehend key aspects of his person and teaching. The Master is portrayed as incomprehensible and yet deeply personal, puzzling yet captivating, awesome yet the harbor of profound hope. What has been revealed about the purposes of God in the Old Testament is brought by the disciples' Master to a perplexing yet exhilarating realization. In the wake of this realization, preconceived expectations held among Jews in first-century Palestine are shattered to make room for the unexpected yet deeply biblical appearance of "him who is to come." In the end, the profound claims laid upon Mark's readers are a consequence of the eminent stature, sacrificial commitment, and transforming power of the Master, as well as his knowledge of the human heart. (p. 1-2)

Chapter 1 - Mark as Biography and Memorized Witness Account - addresses the type of document that the Gospel of Mark actually is. As with many Greco-Roman scholars, Bayer states the Mark (and the other synoptics) fits best the general genre of ancient bios. This is not to say that Mark sat down and said "I shall write in the genre of X" but that when modern scholars look back at a bunch of writing about influential people or heroes, they recognise certain common features which can be classified into genre X.
Chapter 2 - Mark's Structure, Purpose, and Flow of Thought - deals with what has often frustrated me with other works I have read about Mark. Did Mark really have a structure in mind with character development and plot? Or did he simply write about what he knew in the way he thought or was told it happened? Bayer brings out many useful features of Mark such as a "conspicuous element in the section 8:27-10:52 is the fact that each of the three predictions of Jesus' passion and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34) is followed by an instruction in discipleship (8:34-38; 9:32-50; 10:35-45)" (p. 21). He also notes the bipartite structure of the Gospel (with 8:22-26 as a transition section). Pages 24-30 go on to provide an excellent short overview of the flow of thought in Mark. But what is the point of all this?
Based on these observations, the ultimate purpose of Mark is to legitimize Jesus' universal and authoritative call to discipleship (see the narrative repetition of this theme and the fact that the audience of Jesus splits into followers and opponents as the narrative unfolds). The two-fold outline ... demonstrates that the central effort in presenting this call is to narrate the identity, action, teaching, and severe testing of Jesus. This fact already indicates that discipleship in Mark is essentially a function of the eminence of the Master's person, deeds, and teaching, not of a certain code of conduct for the disciples. (p. 24)
Quite so. But I'm sure this could have been stated in a more straightforward way. In fact, this is one point I could raise on numerous occasions. The language is a tad academic without needing to be so. I suppose this has made me read more carefully.
Chapter 3 - Mark's Thematic Framework: The In-Breaking of God's Eternal Rule - is very important and focuses on his kingdom (Mark 1:15). "The kingdom is to be expected on earth but not mediated by a mere human (such as David). Rather, the incarnate Son of God, fulfilling human and divine aspects of Old Testament kingdom expectations, eternally rules as messianic King over his people worldwide" (p. 38).
The main meat of the book is in Part 2. Chapter 4 - Witness to the Unique Person of Jesus - presents Jesus in light of the disciples "fixed set of expectations and scriptural interpretations, taught for centuries by synagogue teachers all over Israel" (p. 42). To put it bluntly, Jesus shatters the disciples expectations. Bayer addresses the messianic secret and the conflicting expectations of the Messiah at the time of Jesus.
The people of Israel thus had a fixed plan for their Messiah, and the Messiah had to fit into that plan (cf. John 6:15) ... As soon as Jesus acts remotely like the expected messianic figure, he will be the spark which may cause a political uprising. While the atmosphere is pregnant with a particular expectation of political liberation, Jesus, as the eternal Son of God, is sent for a broader messianic purpose that includes the totality of the Old Testament anticipation of liberation by God ... The root problem of human alienation from God and self has to be dealt with above all else." (p. 47)

Now, with Chapter 5 - Jesus' Fundamental Challenge to the Twelve and to All Disciples - the real challenging material starts. Bayer has been very helpful up to this point as he treads familiar territory through Mark's Gospel. Chapter 5 marks a shift in gear. It is a long chapter and conceptually profound. In light of this I am splitting this review into two parts.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book Note - The Jesus Way by Peter Walker

The Jesus Way: The Essential Christian Starter Kit by Peter Walker. Monarch Books, 2009.

Dr Peter Walker was lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford. In his academic capacity he has focused a lot on Jerusalem and the Holy Land*. In fact, he has written the book that I think anybody studying Eschatology should read carefully - Jesus and the Holy City: New Testament Perspectives on Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 1996). However, as a churchman he has written many more books to help Christians understand the Bible and how to be disciples of Jesus. The Jesus Way is in this later category. Walker focuses on two chapters of the Bible - Luke 24 (Learning from Jesus Himself) and Acts 2 (Learning from the Apostles). This in itself is helpful as the reader has two chunks of Scripture to meditate on while reading the book.

The contents are:

  1. Enjoy Jesus' Resurrection
  2. Accept His Forgiveness
  3. Welcome His Spirit
  4. Feed on His Scriptures
  5. Participate in His Meal
  6. Bear Witness to His Reign
  7. Share with Jesus' People
  8. Worship His Majesty
  9. Follow His Teaching
  10. Live His Life
  11. Resist His Enemy
  12. Trust Him for the Future

I think this book is an excellent modern introduction to the Christian life. The teaching contained in it is solid, minus gimmicks and to the point. It would be very useful to new adult Christians and, with the addition of a good study Bible and a healthy local Church, would set a good foundation for growth and maturity in the faith.

* See the following books edited by Walker.

  1. Jerusalem Past & Present in the Purposes of God (Cambridge: Tyndale House: 1992; 2nd ed., Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994)
  2. The Land of Promise: biblical, historical and theological perspectives (ed. with P.S. Johnston; Leicester: IVP, 2000)
  3. The Bible and the Land: Israeli, Palestinian and Western perspectives (ed. with M. Wood & L. Loden; Bethlehem: Musalaha, 2000)
  4. The Gospel and the Land of Promise: Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible (ed. with Philip Church, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft; Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Can science help us interpret Scripture correctly?

Nicholas Wolterstorff thinks so. The following quotes are from "Reason within the Bounds of Religion", 1984, Eerdmans, 2nd Ed.
On February 19, 1616, the Holy Office in Rome submitted to its theological experts the following two propositions for their assessment:
  1. The sun is the center of the world and hence immovable of local motion.
  2. The earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but moves according to the whole of itself, also with a diurnal motion.
The theologians met four days later on February 23, and the day after that announced the results of their deliberations. Their conclusions were unanimous. The first proposition they declared to be "foolish and absurd philosophically, and formally heretical, inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrine of the Holy Scripture in many passages, both in their literal meaning and according to the general interpretation of the Fathers and Doctors." The second proposition they declared "to receive the same censure in philosophy, and as regards theological truth to be at least erroneous in faith." (p. 15)
The matter was then handed over to the Congregation of the Index (under the General Congregation of the Inquisition). On March 5 of the same year this Congregation handed down its decree:

It has ... come to the knowledge of the said Congregation that the Pythagorean doctrine - which is false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture - of the motion of the Earth, and the immobility of the Sun, which is also taught by Nicolaus Copernicus in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, and by Diego de Zuniga (in the book) on Job, is now being spread abroad and accepted by many.... Therefore, in order that this opinion may not insinuate itself any further to the prejudice of Catholic faith, the Holy Congregation has decreed that the said Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium, and Diego de Zuniga's On Job, be suspended until they be corrected.... In witness whereof the present decree has been signed and sealed with the hands and seal of the most eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinal of St. Cecilia, Bihop of Albano, on the fifth day of March, 1616. (p. 16)

Sometimes an incompatibility between what the Christian scholar regards as the results of science and what he regards as the belief-content of his authentic commitment, can best be resolved by the Christian's revising his beliefs on the latter, for he may have been mistaken as to what constitutes the belief-content of his authentic commitment. (p. 94)
... the Congregation of the Inquisition viewed the geocentric theory as belonging to authentic commitment. I think they were mistaken, and virtually the entire community of Christians now thinks they were mistaken. We have all revised our beliefs, though we have by no means all revised them at the same point. What originally induced the revisions were developments in astronomy and physics. Thus it must be concluded that developments in science have induced at least some of us to move toward a better view as to what constitutes authentic Christian commitment - if you assume (as I do) that at least some of the revisions constitute a better view. (p. 94)
Christians have been mistaken in what they thought constituted authentic Christ-following; and sometimes they have become aware of their mistake through developments in science. (p. 95)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

An Encouragement for Pastors by John Stott

"So then in our evangelistic proclamation we must address the whole person (mind, heart and will) with the whole gospel (Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, reigning, coming again and much else besides). We shall argue with his mind and plead with his heart in order to move his will, and we shall put our trust in the Holy Spirit throughout. We have no liberty to present a partial Christ (man but not God, his life but not his death, his cross but not his resurrection, the Saviour but not the Lord). Nor have we any liberty to ask for a partial response (mind but not heart, heart but not mind, or either without the will). No. Our objective is to win a total man for a total Christ, and this will require the full consent of his mind and heart and will." John Stott, Your Mind Matters, p. 73, IVP, 2006 (orig. 1972)

Monday, 10 September 2012

Book Review - Science, Creation and the Bible by Carlson and Longman

I remember going to hear Ken Ham (leader of a young earth creationist group) in Belfast sometime in 1991 or 1992. At that point in time, as an 18 year old who had been a Christian for a few years, I had a vague notion that there might be a conflict between science and the Bible but it was not something keeping me awake at night. However, when I went with my church youth fellowship to hear Ken Ham, the conflict became real and it did keep me awake at night. Finally, I had a way to show my non-Christian friends how groundless their belief in the 'religion of science' was. Finally, the Bible was really trustworthy. Finally, I could see how much Evangelical Christianity was actually made up 'compromisers' and therefore could not be trusted. Everything became black and white, all very neat. For me and a few friends, young earth creationism became the test of orthodoxy for how much we trusted other Christians.

Ken Ham not only made the conflict between the Bible and science real, he offered a solution:

  • Science is wrong
  • The Bible is right
This was in contrast to the liberal compromising Christians, atheistic scientists and other reprobates who claimed:
  • Science is right
  • The Bible is wrong
Carlson and Longman, both Evangelical Christians and believers in an error free Bible (see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), see no substantial conflict between the Bible and science, claiming that:
  • Science is right
  • The Bible is right

Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins by Richard Carlson and Tremper Longman III is a short book on a big topic. Carlson and Longman find the conflict 'satisfactorily resolvable' and 'fully satisfactory to Christians' (p. 12). They do not detail 'the conflict' so the reader will have to look elsewhere to determine if 'the conflict' actually exists and to what extent. I would recommend History of Christian Theology: Creation and the History of Science by Christopher B Kaiser and The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design by Ronald L Numbers. Carlson and Longman do hint at where the conflict can be primarily found,

Christians who read Genesis literally reject this science, regarding it as a faulty, godless and anti-Christian enterprise. Some have made significant efforts to establish the earth as thousands and not billions of years old and to characterize evolutionary schemes as incompatible and erroneous (p. 27).
They also highlight the other direction when scientists step outside their areas of expertise and begin making metaphysical statements about God based on what they have discovered in their laboratories.

In what really sums up their position, the authors go on to say:

If the first two chapters of Genesis present the fundamental character of an ancient Hebrew people rather than a factual scientific account of beginnings that meets contemporary standards, then it is not appropriate to try to reconcile contemporary science with the Genesis accounts (p. 14).
All very neat and simple. Maybe to neat and simple?

The book has seven chapters that aim to show how the reader can also find 'the conflict' to be satisfactorily resolvable. Chapter 1 provides the full text of Genesis 1 and 2 and a description of the prevailing scientific account of origins. It also presents four Christian viewpoints on origins - (1) Creationism, (2) Intelligent Design, (3) Partnership and (4) Independence. This is merely to whet the appetite of the reader as the authors do not have space to fully describe these positions with all of the nuances. For example, the authors state that "The choice in the minds of many Christians is faithful (literal) Bible reading versus atheistic science. Two mistaken ideas underlie this choice. Faithful Bible reading does not always imply literal reading, and science as a whole should not be classified as atheistic but rather as methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically naturalistic." (p. 27) This is somewhat simplistic and does not deal with the fact that many young earth creationists would agree with them regarding literal Bible reading.

Chapter 2 very briefly addresses the characteristics of theology and science, the role of common sense, sound interpretive processes and how science and theology might inform each other in interpretation. The authors say:

Biblical interpretation (but not the original words of the Bible) may even undergo change or correction in the light of continuing experience and further reflection ... Christian theology needs to pay attention to any source of knowledge that can add relevant information to an issue under consideration. Part of this, derived from experience, may come from sources other than Scripture (e.g. from scientific investigations). (pp. 37-38)
The use of the Bible requires careful reading and skillful interpretation. Any systematic interpretive method must include the reader's attempt to understand the intent of the biblical writer in delivering a given message to its first hearers or readers. A biblical passage cannot mean something to twenty-first-century readers in contradiction to what it meant to those for whom it was first intended. (p. 46)
Again, Carlson and Longman do not address the fact that many young earth creationists would agree i.e. the original readers/hearers would have understood six real days therefore so should twenty-first-century readers. I am not saying that 'six real days' is what the original readers/hearers understood. But many Christians assume it was.

Pages 58 and 59 contain, what I think are, the key points of the book in relation to Genesis 1 and 2:

The sacred author formed his creation accounts in terms of the scientific and historical understandings of the ancient people of Israel ... We wish to explore the possibility that certain passages in literary works in general and in the Bible in particular are significantly more true when understood in a nonliteral way. In certain cases, a writer will intentionally use the nonliteral genre of story or fantasy ... to convey truth in a more effective way than if the writing were merely factually accurate. The case will be made later that rather than factual accounts, Genesis 1 and 2 function for twenty-first-century Christians as two different stories of creation, stories that describe creation in the form of scientific and historical accounts as understood by the ancient people of Israel, but that are not historically and scientifically factually true by twenty-first-century standards ... A passage of Scripture correctly identified as written in a nonliteral genre is no less inspired than a passage using a literal genre.
I think this is where most young earth creationist Christians will bottle it. "More true" and "not historically and scientifically factually true"? Surely God could inspire something that is comprehensible to the ancient people of Israel and historically and scientifically factually true to the twenty-first-century Christian? Does it have to be either/or? Carlson and Longman do not dig below the surface (although they do quote a bit from Peter Enns 'Inspiration and Incarnation, which I really must get and read).

In chapters 4 and 5, the authors discuss how the Old Testament and New Testament use creation. This is important as they want to uphold the principle of 'Scripture interprets Scripture'. The theory is, if we know how creation texts function in other parts of Scripture then we will be better placed to understand how they function in Genesis. Carlson and Longman say that the creation Psalms are "joyous songs praising God for his creative power, care and wisdom." (p.95) These themes are echoed in Genesis 1, Isaiah 40 and Job 38-41. The New Testament clearly places the creative and sustaining power of all that there is with Jesus. I am not sure that the authors achieve what they want to through Chapters 4 and 5. It seems a little disjointed from the rest of the book.

So what does all of this means for Genesis? According to Carlson and Longman:

Our conclusion is that most likely the Genesis creation narratives are not to be read literally but rather are to be read as stories that have two levels of truth. First, the Genesis 1 account represents the ancient Hebrews' understanding of cosmic history and development, including the earth and its inhabitants. But the sacred author was not as concerned about the factual details as he was about clearly presenting theological concepts understandable by his intended audience, the ancient Hebrews. Genesis 2 has a different theological purpose, and the author did not hesitate to tell a story that contained this truth. The theological messages in these chapters represent the second level, the level under the story of both creation accounts. The first level is irrelevant today because of scientific and cosmological historical understanding. But the second level, the theological level, inspired by the Holy Spirit, contains the message that is relevant for all people yesterday, today and into the future. And it is at this level that the importance of Genesis creation comes to the forefront. In short, we propose that Genesis 1 and 2 are nonliteral accounts, housed in an ancient cosmology and a story of humankind's beginnings, whose purposes are to teach important theological truths. (p. 126)
Again, some of this will be hard to swallow for many young earth creationist Christians. Statements such as "not as concerned about factual details", "The first level is irrelevant today", "because of scientific", and "the second level ... inspired by the Holy Spirit" all require unpacking. Do multiple levels apply to all of Scripture and which levels were inspired by the Holy Spirit? How do I determine what Scripture is 'irrelevant'? Is it right to say any of it is irrelevant? How much trust should I put in the findings of science?

This has been a thought provoking book. I think the authors are on to something by claiming that "Genesis 1 and 2 constitute a worldview statement of the ancient Hebrew people" (p. 134). However, they do not address some key issues that will be important for many Christians. For example, what is the nature of historical science? How much can scientifically untrained people really grasp the significance or lack of significance in historical science and whose word should we take on it? Should it be expected that God would inspire his word to be 'factually accurate' for all times? The reader will have to go elsewhere to begin digging into these issues (I suggest Origins by Loren and Deborah Haarsma as a reasonable source to stimulate thinking on such issues). Carlson and Longman's writing style is reasonably simple (although it could have a few less technical terms). One thing for the IVP editors, at times it seemed as if parts of the book were made from paragraphs cut and pasted from other works by the authors.

In summary, I recommend it for Christians who are scientists (and who could therefore do a better review than me), Christians who are working through these issues because of the questions non-Christian friends have asked them, or for those who are not Christians and think that young earth creationism is the only school in town.

Daniel Curry - You have won 'Atheism's New Clothes' by David Glass

Congratulations to Daniel Curry who has won 'Atheism's New Clothes' by David Glass. Hopefully I will have another book giveaway before the end of the year.