Saturday, 30 April 2016

Larry Perkins: paper review

I am currently researching the Divine Name in the Greek Old Testament, very curious to understand how we ended up with "the LORD", and the implications that confusing title and name might have in our theology. Dr. Larry Perkins is a very well-read Christian scholar, President of North-West Baptist Seminary, Canada, and provides a valuable contribution to the debate around the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament. He specialises in the Old Testament book Exodus, and if you are interested in seeing the original I am responding to in this post, you can consult it for yourself here.

The conclusions to his paper are threefold.

Firstly, he affirms and demonstrates that the very common translation for YHWH is kyrios, without the definite article (absence of "the"), and that this strongly implies a consistent grammatical rendering for a name. Although only looking in detail in Exodus, there are still hundreds of samples to work with, and Perkins shows that of the exceptions to the rule (i.e. those times where Kyrios is articulated), it is well within the norms, at approximately 6%. Other names like "Israel", "Moses" etc have similar percentages of articulated translations in the Greek.

Secondly, it is therefore for Greek reasons, not for Hebrew reasons, that the articulation occurs, implying even more consistent intention - I would say anything from 95% to 100% of Kyrios occurrences with reference to YHWH - that Kyrios is a translation of the divine Name, and not a (or the) divine Title.

Thirdly, and most shakily, Perkins is very confident that the original translator of the LXX applied "Kyrios", anarthrously of course. Why shakily? There seems to be an underlying assumption in Perkins (and possibly some of the other work done in this area - I need to re-check Martin Rosel's benchmark piece) that overstates the translator/copyist distinction. Like Rosel, he covers some of the complicated historical issues. The most critical of these is a lack of explicit textual support for a pre-Christian rendering of Kyrios in the Old Testament, although various explanations can be provided for this, which I may summarise in another post. My view on this is that without further evidence, we need to adopt a more fait accompli approach to this complex translation process, whereby Kyrios, without the article, emerges as a suitable translation for the divine Name. The meaty question remains: why in English and other modern languages is the carefully preserved name converted back to a title? It's an historical question that will take us back at least to the KJV.

FYI: Perkins includes an interesting footnote on the last page of his paper. It reads: "The reasons why the Greek translators of the Hebrew text chose kyrios as the rendering of the divine name remain somewhat unclear. It is quite possible that the use of this term within Egyptian documents to
describe the Pharaoh and divine beings gave its use in the Jewish Alexandrian community for YHWH."

Friday, 29 April 2016

Responsibility (2)


This is a small update on my first post about the wonderful discovery of responsibility. While on my retreat, I realised that issues in me that I didn't want to recognise (they really "suck" as Americans would say) held me back from deeper relationships. Fragmented identity is a killer in our modern societies, and more than once I have heard French philosophers wax lyrical about the fatigue and pain of simply being.

At least some of what Christianity understands as "sin" in our lives, makes existing really hard work, simply trying to "hold it all together". As a fragmented person, as soon as I meet someone, I am confronted with complex decisions like: what aspect of who I am should I reveal to that person? Shall I try and impress them falsely to feel better about myself? If there is no real sense of cohesion in my identity, then my relationships will instantly suffer and level out, for the simple reason that folk aren't dupe. We all sense when what you see is NOT what you get. That discrepancy has potential to ruin relationships. Because our potential friends do not seem knowable or trustworthy even to themselves. In the New Testament of the Bible, James says:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like

In fact the first chapter of James is really hot on deep sincerity, and not just with other people. With ourselves.

Taking responsibility is a wonderful spiritual process that has its place in what Christians call repentance. Taking responsibility is taking ownership of everything you are (the bits you love and the bits you'd hate anyone else to point to you) and all the negative consequences of your existence on others, intentional or otherwise. Most of the time it is otherwise.

Roadworks make you late for your husband, who regularly criticises you. This is a very tough one. But can you imagine a you who has the depths of grace to dig soooo deep down to find the genuine sorry, even though it is not your fault? One of my grievances about the 1st century Palestinian context in which Christ's life and record are indelibly marked, is that some of these "grace notes" of please, thank you, so sorry, and so on have yet to be developed.

This is a good point to address a mistake I made in my previous post, where I overly connected the idea of sin and responsibility. I appended a small comment about this to the post itself to state:
A couple of issues in the relationship between responsibility and sin here ... If God took his responsibility with respect to his oath, Responsibility is not a.k.a. "sin", as I casually asserted .... Responsibility is about truly being in the universe, without any discrepancy between word and deed, word and thought, thought and deed, repressed desire and thought, and so on. Since sinning is affecting me and others in the universe, and I often ignore it, then this is an example of failure to  *be* in the universe and take my responsibility. Taking responsibility creates re-alignment in the chaos, and is truly a most beautiful thing.

What could we say with respect to he who was without sin, Jesus Christ? Jesus' human path of self-realisation is nothing short of extraordinary. It is assumed by some that Jesus actually may have coined the term "hypocrite". For Jesus, this inner cohesion is  E S S E N T I A L  for the holy life of his followers. I think perhaps the best way to understand the spiritually mature Jesus (and apparently he was streets ahead even at age 12!), is to realise that he became totally incorruptible. You could tempt him all you liked, but sin had zero hold on him, because he truly loved his Father God and cultivated his relationship with God. And it was mutual. When you see in John's gospel especially all this Jesus-talk of I depend on the Father for this and I depend on the Father for that, Jesus (theologically and I am certain historically) must have been a grand master of humility (see John 5:19 and 12:49, for example). Amazing. Without the Father, Jesus would have had no source for his abilities, words, wisdom, than himself, and this perspective strapped to a human brain has a highly reliable pride-generating mechanism.

As a slight aside: I'd like to announce plans to launch a website at some point in the next few months dedicated to promoting the love shared between the father and the son in the Christian faith. There will be a subsection about Christian worship too. Regular readers of the blog might already be aware that I am quite concerned by the modalistic tendencies in some churches (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are so "one" that they are basically the same person, he's called "God", and he loves me), fuelled by a plethora of confusing Christian worship songs. The goal here is not to smash the modalism (that won't change anything), but again to promote what is so precious and at stake by confusing the Father and Son. Love itself.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Ehrman complaint and defining God

I am fresh off a slight rant at Bart Ehrman on his blog at

Here's what I had to say to him on his ambiguous way of using the G-word :)

Hi all.
Dr Ehrman I believe we already discussed the implications of not defining our terms regarding G-o-d; I suggested that most folk listening to you will not be defining G-o-d as "a divine being". You do this discussing John's christology and I now see you do it with Arius too. That's a confusing tactic, because " a divine being" is **not** how most folk would define, or even understand you saying G-o-d. If you mean "a divine being" then please just say that from the start, consistently. It almost seems like currying some favour with the evangelical crowd regarding John. Since I know that you have some issues with their approach at times and perhaps a certain narrow mindedness, I doubt that is the case, I am just saying it almost seems like that. I would not be so public about this complaint if I had not tried to share it privately first!

My second comment concerns the argument of God becoming a Father requiring the impossible situation that the unchangeable One changed. That seems like a non sequitur. Yhwh can be shown to have had different states with regard to his creation. If creation hasn't always been then he hasn't always been creator. He hasn't perpetually had some kind of mind-state of wrath, but he has definitely, biblically been wrathful.... And then not again. Yhwh sometimes moves about. Most significantly, however, and most probably won't agree with this, I don't think we can say that Yhwh himself has always been God. By this I mean that God is a title, with respect to a **people**. Yhwh is **Israel's** God, etc. Before all time and space, Yhwh wasn't anyone's God. Look forward to any responses :)

Saturday, 23 April 2016


I have been thinking about responsibility, taking responsibility for all that constitutes our identity.

There is a possibility, I have to grant it, that the roots of what we call "sin" go back a long, long way.

Not long ago, many Christians would be most offended at any so-called Christian taking the Genesis creation account non-literally. Nowadays, most don't approach the subject because of the problems (and let us be frank, offense) that any direct discussion on the topic can generate. That non-discussion doesn't mean there are millions of secret old-Earth Christians out there. Most simply "don't go there". It's a bit like the Trinity in many non-traditional churches, in which both the teaching and worship practice simply "don't go there".

I believe the current estimate for the age of humankind from an evolutionary perspective is 65 million years, intelligence only emerging in homo sapiens in the last quarter of a million years. As I may have shared before, I don't believe in a young Earth. My main problem with this position is not so much the age of the universe relative to the biblical "days" (or the order of those days). My main problem as a Christian is to explain how humans came to be made in God's image and be responsible for their sin, thus staying faithful to the symbolic nature of the Genesis account, but in a potentially very gradual fashion.

My options seem to be:
- Human intelligence and responsibility were given in an instant (a.k.a. God breathing into Adam's nostrils) in the last few thousand years after huge periods of biological and geological preparation. That would have been pretty cool, however, it is not my favourite based on the historical archaeological data. For example, there seems to be slow emergence of sophistication in design of the axe-head, and much older forms of spirituality are shown to have existed much earlier than literal biblical dating could possibly permit. We also have ancient fish-brain tumours, which question the sudden recent arrival of suffering, brokenness and injustice in the world.
- God caused increasing intelligence and morality to develop within this species. 250,000 years sounds ridiculously long, but in evolutionary terms, it's a blink. I remember how stunned I was to learn how long dinosaurs had been around without ever evolving intelligence as we have it now. If they had followed the same evolutionary curve as us, they would be populating the next solar system by now, and we'd be their pets.

I do just want to say that I wish I could be less symbolic about these things with respect to Genesis, which is an amazing (and I still take to be inspired) writing.

The title of this post is "responsibility", and that is where I want to head now. Since my retreat, it has been such a breath of fresh air to acknowledge and own some of my own twisted motivations, manipulations, power games, self-promotion, pride and destructive thoughts. Why would that be? Simply because beforehand, I knew that they were there, but it seemed so much more comfortable in the short term to try to ignore them, to disown them. Their ugliness was in sharp tension with the self-image I wanted and my parents instilled in me. There were problems connected to this situation.

As a Christian, I failed to realise that avoiding surrendering parts of me for which I would just feel repulsed by or never fully recognise my responsibility over, was a failed enterprise. Secondly, I had believed a lie: if I wasn't intentionally the cause of some evil within me or some inconvenience or even harm to someone else, then my responsibility is not incurred. This is such a wicked lie that can cause unspeakable inner tension. It has held me captive for many years to increasing degrees, and I thank God so much for setting me on a new path toward greater honesty.

Much, much more could be said about this, but what about the evolution of humans? What if some of the evil in us could be connected to necessary evolutionary processes - would that excuse us? NO WAY. That is precisely my point. Trying to reduce our responsibility to this tiny slice of intentional harm (how often do we intentionally harm?!) is to not step up to the plate, and become leaders. Leaders first of our own spheres of influence, which begins a few centimetres behind the eyes you and I are reading this. Too long I have felt God's Spirit had to do this magically and directly (in 2007 I had a major faith wobble on this exact issue at God's apparent inertia in my own character). So if God slowly (although in fact remarkably rapidly) created in us the capacity to reflect, it need not be a problem for us in terms of responsibility. I see taking responsibility as God's gracious gift to integrated living and deeper relationships. Taking responsibility: it is part of the "image".

Luke 18.
'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13"But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'14"I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Jesus rejoices because this man just "imaged" the humble God.

Atheists and more fundamentalists might strike up a temporary friendship against me at this point, as I still might seem to have a problem concerning the cause of the evil in me. But what the words I said above need to sink in deeper (even within me). If there is unintentional and harmful pride or competitive attitudes or defensiveness that can be somehow traced genetically to necessary evolution for human beings to reach their current state, how can that be my responsibility? How is it not God's responsibility, if he set things up this way?

Obviously we are not going to sort the problem of evil in a single blog post! There are no simple answers of evil stemming from a good God's creation in unwitting creatures. The option that I am trying to develop, however, in today's post is to do away with this unwarranted assumption that the creature only bears responsibility for what it has intelligently dreamed up. The image bearing is the assumption of the responsibility in the way God is and does. So yes, the cat who bullies the neighbour's cat is unwittingly responsible. The owner of the bullying cat even more so for not intervening.

Christians believe that this chain of responsibility for the bullying cat can continue all the way up to God for the simple reason that he was not found wanting. He did intervene in sending his Son, Jesus Christ. We see God as fully taking his responsibility where we failed to do so, and permitting us to reach out to him to receive the extraordinary love and grace that inhabits his heart, and subjugate the earth with it. And subjectively, it feels so right when we glimpse it in ourselves, doesn't it?

Theologically, that might seem tricky. If God is free, then he was not "bound" to sending his Son for our (and the cat's) salvation. He would have been quite within his rights to let us continue on our self-destructive course, unless...

Unless he had bound himself with an oath. The Bible emphasises the seriousness with which God took the covenant that he had made with Abraham.

Further to that, the physical and timely events of the cross were somehow eternally etched in God's mind:
All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast -- all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8, NIV)

It's time to wrap up this post, as it is already (but necessarily) a bit long. I began by noting that my old-Earth position creates the problem of responsibility (a.k.a. Acknowledging and owning "sin") and of being made in God's image. Having discussed the responsibility side a little, we can move on in the next post (with a little help from Michael Heiser) to focus more on the question of being made in God's image.

Genuinely sorry if this was a bit boring, waffly or unclear. I would love to be more concise I promise!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Retreating pointers (2)

On my first post about my spiritual retreat, I tried to encourage folk to consider carving out precious time to get away to think and pray alone. We saw that this required actively seeking out opportunities, and choosing a good inspiring location that is basic but not uncomfortable. I tried to emphasise the way in which you prepare your soul for lift off, anticipating that in three days, two days, one day it'll just be you, your soul (to be claimed by you), and the Father, Son and Spirit. I guess it depends how you want to count, but on at least one count it's five! I then attempted to give some ideas for how to prepare practically (and also not over do it). My fifth pointer gave some insights into what the kinds of experiences might be.

There were just two more I had, but the post was already a bit long so I said I'd add those later (and nearly forgot). The sixth point, which ties into the anticipation and preparation phases, is to balance the prayer times with outward focuses. Pray for people you know, situations of suffering, people you find relationally difficult, your family, your work, God's kingdom in your town. I have a lot of work to do in this area. I can spend long periods of time in thought and reflective prayer about me and God, but those prayers bring much needed balance. Some folk I guess might need to re-align the other way as they are so altruistic that they can only think of praying for others at the expense of allowing God's Spirit to shed light on their inner difficulties, bringing wholeness and directly glorifying the Father and the Son.

Finally, I knew before I went that I needed to arrange a couple of meet-ups with people whom I could talk to openly about some of the experiences of the retreat. So much happened for me while away, that I knew I would not be able to relate much. But the idea of meeting two friends the very evening I returned and hearing their question "so how'd it go?" meant that I knew I could not simply surf some experiential wave, "er...yeah, it was very peaceful, it was deep, really good, err....". I needed to know some of the real things I could fall back on once the hum-drum of normal life kicked back in, and also continue the journey.

So: prioritise it, good location, anticipate it, prepare practically, enjoy it, strike a balance and ensure a rapid review.

I hope these pointers are helpful in planning your own retreat soon!

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus (4)

Here is part 4 of my critical response to The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus.

As something of a first - you can hear this part in audio! Hope it works...
(Music in intro and close is Counting Crows "1492")

Here are the notes:

In the first three posts we have focussed on some of the methodological points which I found problematic in Irons' presentation, which was quality and ordered, focussing on more essential arguments I most certainly agree. Among the problems were his inconsistent use of "being" and "nature", an assumption that "Lord" and "Yahweh" are identical (I have developed this in other posts since, see especially here), an unjustified presumption of resumption of divine rule in Christ's exaltation, and others. Most astonishing of all - and we see this on the increase within the scholarly world - there was the important concession that it is unhelpful to simply state "Jesus is God" and that "Yahweh is basically the Father" on p. 20. Perhaps the most wearisome note in his presentation is to assume that Unitarian perspectives are basically the same as 300 years ago.

So following Irons' ecumenical conclusion, let us see how Dixon will respond, bearer of the Arian label (reminder, this basically stands for the position that Christ pre-existed as a divine being, but is not God himself).

Dixon makes an interesting connection between the titles "Son of God" and "the Christ". Why is that important? It is relevant to the discussion because if you look at the conversation development between Luke 22:67-70, you get direct equivalence, Dixon claims because of the Greek underlying the weighty "then" of the chief priests and the teachers of the law: "You are then the Son of God". I'm not totally convinced Daniel Wallace would be totally comfortable that he has been correctly cited given the context of the intermediary verses, especially v 69: But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God. Thus "Son of Man" doesn't enter Dixon's argument, which I think weakens it.

However, where I see more eye to eye with him would be where he actually provides some evidence for my suspicions over John 10:33 interpretations. While the Jewish leaders did attempt to try Jesus for claiming Messianic authority once they had him in their kangaroo court, they never again brought up the claim that he was equal with God after this: Jesus' clear explanation and exegesis were sufficient to them. I think that is an excellent point. If we all agree that it would be the most outrageous claim of all to claim equality with God, then you would certainly expect that accusation to resurface before the authorities the night preceding Jesus' crucifixion. But it doesn't, which would indeed imply a satisfactory response from Jesus in the following verses.

Dixon is puzzled by Irons's claim of blasphemy from John 8:58. He recalls a similar wording from pseudepigraphal T. Job  2:1 "For I have been Jobab [Ego gar eimi Iobab] before the Lord named me Job [prin e onomasai me ho Kyrios Iob]."

On John 19:7, Jewish leaders were saying Jesus must die because he claimed to be "son of God". "Were they offended because it was Jesus who was making this claim? Was it because the claim was made at all? ...Which of these is the precise problem? Irons doesn't tell us". [I note that Irons assumes the latter].

On  Matthew 9:3 and 6... The people marvelled because such authority had been given. Again the authority to forgive had been given, which I think defuses the allegation.

Dixon now explicitly denies the "mere creature" allegations. If Jesus had a heavenly preexistence, he would have knowledge of the Father that he could indeed uniquely communicate to others. So he is not one who thinks of Jesus as a "mere creature".

On John 10:30. Jesus says in the same book that his disciples are to be "one" as he and the Father are one. See also John 17:21-23. He is totally right about this, and it continues to astound me that Trinitarians still think there is some secret unity in diversity language going on there in a way that works for the Triune-God case. If only Jesus had left out the identical unity in his church... shucks! Sorry, I lost track there for a moment. Back to Dixon.

Up to p30 now, Dixon draws another important parallel with what is possible for believers in Jesus: "is it not true that Paul prays that each believer in Ephesus be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God also (Ephesians 3:19)? Does not Peter assure his readers that it is possible for them to participate in the divine nature (share in God's identity?) and escape the world's corruption caused by evil desires (2 Pet 1:4)?"

Dixon now sets about a brief response to Irons' argument for ontological deity from 1 Cor 15:27 --> the exception to "all things" is clarified. For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ.

P32 responds to Irons' Aseity argument for ontological deity.
Irons' use of Hebrews 13.8, "Jesus is unchanging..."
"Certainly "forever" can extend unendingly into the future. But it is an absurd idea that just because a status begun at a point in time yesterday continues to every yesterday past.

P33 THE EXALTATION OF CHRIST.... The controversy is as simple as identifying whether Jesus as Son always had authority or was granted it.

One cannot exalt someone who already and always held the position to which he was raised.

P34 Worship
1 Chron 29:20.... Worshipped Jehovah, and the king. See my post on why this is not quite the same as Phil 2:

Hurtado is on board with this.

The Divine Name: While God does not give his glory to others... How does Romans 8 glorification fit into that statement?

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Debating the eye-witness testimony behind the gospels

There is a great weekly podcast waiting for you here at Unbelievable! I love this show because it confronts different perspectives on the Christian faith, which encourages honest and personal thinking. When I heard who was on this week's show, I was pretty excited. Actually as you listen through (as I did 4 times!), you can detect some weaknesses I think to both perspectives. Here is my response that I also sent in to the show host.

Dear Justin - thanks for a cracking show.

Read (or rather listened to) Bart's book myself. Absolutely no mention about his previous issues with the state of the "original" text. It's like he abandoned his first baby.

Throughout, both scholars seem to presume that Mark is the first gospel. Is it not a rather large, if not enormous, assumption to assume that the earliest surviving gospel is the first written account? Some scholars like Hurtado have commented on how surprisingly "bookish" early Christianity was.

On Mark, Bart could have made his case stronger than he did: "what we have is a collection of stories" - it is a lot more than a collection of stories! It is a crafted theological and christological piece, therefore not constructed in a way Peter himself would have presented it.

Ehrman's rebuttal to the frequency of Peter references did not seem strong - he pointed to stories of other heroes. But Jesus is the hero, and Peter is certainly not a hero in Mark.

"Historians are very reluctant to interrupt their stories with explanation" - seems to go totally against John's story-telling. Does he not helpfully provide little comments to explain Judaism to his non-Jewish recipients?

Ehrman: "I think it's the best case that can be made but I don't find it at all convincing"! The epitome of a sceptic.

Why should we presume that people thought the sources were directly from apostles: "It's a question of date". Gospel of Thomas was written much later, so different expectations as to historicity. Bart seemed correct here to demand more evidence - Richard really didn't seem to have anything substantial to back up his distinction between living-memory ("oral history") and oral-tradition (vulnerable to Chinese-whispers effect).

On gospel-naming. Early 2nd century writers do not quote the sources for the Jesus sayings they quote. I didn't find Bauckham convincing on the it had to be called something, which seems to pre-suppose that an anonymous document could never truly have been anonymous regardless of its place of use. Could it not be argued that if based on the "first" anonymous gospel, the gospels we know as Luke and Matthew (I place Matthew as late as John), could hardly have claimed less anonymity than their obvious source. 

I wonder if everyone noticed just how many classic Christian assumptions Bauckham is willing to de-bunk on authorship while hanging onto direct apostolic input? Matthew? No. John? No. Revelation? No, not even the same author as John's gospel. 2 Peter? No. I don't know where he stands on the disputed pauline epistles and other books, but it seems like the list is quite long for a conservative scholar. Ehrman doesn't jump on this.

There is a deep disagreement about who can write Greek from Jerusalem - it needs a third opinion.

I have written to Ehrman on this issue of authorship. If authentic-yet-autonomous gospels suddenly needed naming, why Matthew and John? A stronger argument to my mind is that no apocryphal work had arisen - yet - under these names. This could (should?) have been an argument for Bauckham - why would no apocryphal work have arisen under those names during all that time? Perhaps their early authority and apostolic association with those characters meant the names were not for sale.

"Everyone knows that Peter and Paul didn't write gospels". Did they? Bart suddenly ascribes considerable literary knowledge to the Christian community around the Med that seems to go in a totally opposite direction to the story-telling picture he provides. For me, both situations are improbable and we have yet to have a decent narrative to describe:
• Why these four names
• Why the earlier 2nd century authors don't reference the author
• Why there are no references to the mysterious-yet "anonymous" gospels in early church history prior to Irenaeus.

Both authors' reconstructions require them to disagree with some of their favourite early authors.
• Baukham on Papias on Matthew writing in Hebrew
• Ehrman on Justin Martyr (I think on Peter).

We have little from these first two centuries really, and reconstructions assisted by future archaeological finds, still have such a long way to go. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that in the context of debate and the pressure on authors to provide such comprehensive narratives, that this simple and humbling reality is not more clearly staked out.

There you go - a somewhat critical response to both!
Can't wait for part 2!

John B

Monday, 11 April 2016

Born from above or born again? Both are on the cards.

What does Jesus teach Nicodemus in John 3?

Everyone, or most people in the English-speaking world, has heard of the Christian-lingo "born again" Christians. For many Christians, being a "born-again" Christian is a crucial part of their identity. But is that what the Greek says? Let's look at the English NIV:

John 3:3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 

John 3:6-7 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’

Bart Ehrman frequently likes to make an interesting point about John's gospel here. He actually believes that in Greek this word, anōthen, means both "again" (i.e. born again) and "from above" (i.e. born from above), and that John is placing clever, double-entendre teaching on Jesus' lips via word play in Greek (for a conversation that almost certainly would not have taken place in that language, where the Aramaic translation for "born again" and "born from above" would vary).  But if John was uniquely talking about being born "from above", then there is no good explanation for Nicodemus' confusion about physical re-birth. Meanwhile, being born from above fits the clear flesh-spirit distinctions. So it's probably both. The problem we are left with, I guess, is that saying you are a born-again-this-time-from-above Christian doesn't role nearly quite so well of the tongue :)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Retreating pointers

My experience last week was so rich, I still want to encourage people to take spiritual retreats, myself included. In the past, there have been some retreat-style experiences for me, but they were in groups and at other people's initiative. Here I want to share some of the things that helped this be a success in case any of these ideas could also help you prepare for a time out.

Firstly, sniff out an opportunity. If you struggle to continue the journey of knowing yourself and relish the thought of journeying forward with God and experiencing a fresh wave of release in your identity and purpose, then this should help you get sniffing, and, if a believer, praying for it too.

Secondly, when an opportunity arises - ask for advice on a good place and environment to go to (or maybe you know somewhere already). I have always been inspired by mountains (more so than the sea), because there is still something of a mountain-runner inside of me that just can't contain how incredibly beautiful these landscapes are when moving through them and interacting with them. I initially thought of camping, but the friend I consulted dissuaded me from that option. It's good to be comfortable but not in the lap of luxury either. I found a place on airbnb for 15 euro per night (I was particularly blessed here because the owners were away on holiday so I actually had full access to the living room, kitchen and garden too).

Thirdly, anticipate the departure. For a week or so I could sense my spirit within me slowly poise with anticipation about encounter. Some Christians talk about retreat as a time to meet with God. It is certainly that, but it is also about more fully becoming who you are, in order for meeting with Him to be a success. He has no problem with integrity. You, however, might do, and to be fully present for that encounter he will help you prepare and also experience it during. As someone who is at times obsessed by theology, I became aware that I would have to attempt to do as little of that as possible during the retreat to enhance the encounter experience. I warned my family to expect little contact during this time, and set up an automatic response email.

Fourthly, prepare practically for departure. It should be minimal. At one point, thinking that a personal retreat should be close to my previous group experiences, I thought I should prepare an organised programme, with timings etc. That is not necessary. This was my kit list more or less:

  • My physical Bible
  • My guitar and some worship music
  • My knees
  • Some verses to colour in and my kids' colouring pens
  • An audiobook to listen to in the car on the way there. I had a credit on, and spent it on God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself. It's pretty good; I may critique it at some point in the blog, but is more theological than I had been hoping.
  • A gospel movie (2014 Gospel of John) and some worship music
  • My readiness to be silent
  • My trainers/walking shoes
  • A journal and pen (essential)
  • Candles, candle-holders and matches
  • Some basic food for the time (shopping is a distraction)
  • A great prayer book (semi-essential!). I have had a book for many years that I re-discovered on my shelves by James Houston, a Scottish Christian writer (I think). Man, I thought it was excellent:

Fifthly, enjoy! My advice would be to punctuate activities with pauses, prayers, etc. all the way along. Examine the inner thoughts and worries, the evil inside of you (or "evil" if you are not a believer), the pride, the competitivity, destructive temperament or ideas, recognise them as they begrudgingly submit to your authority of identifying themselves, own them, take full responsibility for them. I did this, and then tried writing the word "sorry" to God really slowly. Try to imagine the perfect Christ-like you. It is too vague for a Christian to simply pray or strive to be "christlike". What would you be like in a perfectly christlike way? For that, I think we need to pray, having taken responsibility for who we are for receiving God's great love and grace in our hearts.

I can also say I really took my time entering into the day, only when I felt fully rested did I get up. One day I thought I was rested started to get ready and realised my eyes felt heavy, so I went back to bed! It's all part of cultivating the inner-listening process.

There were a couple of discouraging moments. On one day I got more distracted and even a bit bored while trying to colour a verse, I also sent some SMS messages and had a little too much contact with the outside world. What helped here was the prayer book especially, the one by Houston. He brought me back to the deeper level quickly. Another thing is to be listening for when it is time (weather permitting) to go outside, to change environments. This works the other way too - after a walk, start longing to go back indoors (lodgings or a café) at the right time. I had some great moments actually just sat in the middle of nowhere with the journal.

One of the things I really appreciated in the prayer book was accepting to become a pilgrim. There is nothing magic about a retreat. You don't come back transformed into the all-new-you, but there can be breakthroughs and a shift in thinking as you embrace being on a journey, as clichéd as that has become, it needs to be a reality in all our lives.

I still have a sixth and a seventh point, concerning prayer for others and coming home, but I'll save those two for a separate post.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Retreat and meet yourself

When was the last time that you took some time out?
When did you last ask yourself "what do I really believe"?
How do you feel when there is a gap between what you feel inside and what you try to communicate to the person you are meeting? Is there a tension there? What is the effect of your superficiality on someone else's attempt at being authentic, that is to say, being who they are?
Is being "me" such a modern challenge, or have we humans always been pre-occupied by this difficulty?

I am in re-entry mode. For three nights this week I have had the incredible opportunity to go away for remarkably low cost into the stunning French Alps with the unique purpose of reflection and prayer. I honestly don't know when that will happen again. But on day 1 of re-entry, (i.e. I am back home) I can already safely say that I have sensed a covering over of improper internal machinations. And it's uncomfortable.

Any non-Christians reading this please understand something. Christians do not believe that we are sorted (at least the sane ones don't). There is a lot of falsehood, anxiety, disappointment, and unclear motives in the church (as well as lots of great things too). But the Bible, especially the New Testament, teaches us that God, through his resurrected Christ and his Holy Spirit, is drawing his church to a different kind of humanity. It's the humanity we were destined to experience, and every atom in our being yearns for. Three nights away somewhere will let you glimpse that. Using airbnb I found a place for 15 euro/night. If I know you personally then please if you need a contribution to help you achieve some time out like this in order to help you be truer to yourself to yourself (I love this expression!), to others and (if you believe) to God, then let me know, I'd love to help. If you can organise this yourself then it's better still. Own your retreat. Own your thoughts. Own your thoughts. Establish who you are. Take responsibility for your weaknesses and failings. Take responsibility. Appreciate the beauty of your surroundings for yourself. Share them with God, if you believe in him. Listen. Pray. Think. Be dissatisfied. Be satisfied. Aim for the perfect you in a strength that cannot come from you.

Time out. Become.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Lord is the Spirit.... WHAT? New thoughts on 2 Corinthians 3:16-18

I usually try to avoid too much theologising over the Holy Spirit, not because I don't love the Spirit but because I simply don't feel a drive to study the subject, in the same way I don't feel drawn to theories of atonement or theodicy (at least one post can be consulted here, however). That said, I have at various points thought with regard to 2 Corinthians 3:16-18: "huh, that's weird". Isn't the Spirit supposed to be distinct from Jesus, doesn't he go but send another? From a Triune-God advocate's perspective, you also might want to say that both Jesus and Spirit are God or fully-divine or essentially and perfectly united, or something, but that this unity still creates no confusion between their persons. So it's something of a head-scratcher. Here is the text from the NIV to refresh our memories:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Seems like a problem, doesn't it? I have a new thought on this passage following a little bit of research I'd like to share with you, and if possible, please feel free to share your perspective. What is fascinating about this problem is that it should represent a difficulty for any christological perspective, so you never know, this may be read with less scepticism. 

Tiny details can have huge ramifications, right? Here's a whopper: I recently learned and shared an article from early Christianity specialist, Larry Hurtado, in which he also cited other scholars who noted that especially in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) but also through the Old Testament, there is a literary clue in the Greek translation of YHWH. Probably most people reading this blog already know that in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures, YHWH is substituted by KYRIOS. Kyrios is a flexible word that means Lord, master or simply "sir". It is most certainly this  LXX version of the OT that the NT church used since the quotations cited in the NT texts align so closely to it. It is hard for me to realise why the point of this research is so unknown and even among some scholars. But here it is: KYRIOS is ANARTHROUS when in place of YHWH. Eh? Anarthrous means the word does not have an article attached. In the case of YHWH, the personal name of Israel's god, a clue to this origin was left by leaving out the article. 

So why do we translate Yahweh with "THE LORD", and not just "LORD"? That is a very, very interesting question to which I cannot give you a satisfying answer. One reason might have been that translators wanted to draw out links between YHWH and Jesus Christ, who is undeniably assigned the title of the ultimate Lord. Some Greek specialists might like to quibble: sometimes the article is dropped anyway, it is difficult to predict article behaviour. On issues more associated with Theos,  this would be Daniel Wallace's perspective, who spent a lot of time wrestling with the issue. We also know from other places like John 4:24 (God [the Father] is spirit), which leads me to roughly submit the following alternative translation:

16 But whenever anyone turns to LORD, the veil is taken away. 17 Now [the?] LORD is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of LORD is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate LORD's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from LORD's Spirit.

Nowhere in the Greek in this text is Lord prefixed with the article, except possibly at the start of verse 17. We can note especially that in verse 16 (turns to LORD), it is curious that there is no article. Acts 16:18 has the same verb for turning but states "turned to the spirit". Acts 9:40, 2 Peter 2:22 also supply the article. Finally, perhaps the most striking examples are John 13:3 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9. These two verses are two of only seven in the New Testament where God (theos) is
- mentioned twice
- is anarthrous in one instance AND articulated in the other.

In both John 13:3 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9 God (of all people) is articulated when prefixed by "to" (pro), literally: AND TO THE GOD HE WAS GOING (John 13:3) and YOU TURNED TO THE GOD (1 Thessalonians 1:9). 1 Thessalonians even has the same verb as 2 Corinthians 3:16. 

So the question remains, why would a New Testament author curiously drop an article before Kyrios? This proposal provides the following hypothesis: Paul was totally familiar with the LXX practice of article dropping for KYRIOS when it replaced YHWH, and did so here, totally in line with the Old Testament context in which the passage is utterly soaked (tablets of stone, Israelites, Moses, the veil...).

Thanks for reading, and if interested see articles and the definite article. I have unfinished series in there on the word ARCHE.