Reading The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

6:08 PM Today I started reading a wonderful little book called The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, who is perhaps the doyen of American history among evangelicals today. It is masterfully written and brilliantly argued.

the-civil-war-as-a-theological-crisisNoll tries to show how mid-19th century American Christians (both North and South) generally agreed that the Bible was authoritative but they differed on how that Bible should be understood. Not only this, but he shows how “the Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms” (p. 8). He is so right about this! Indeed, how apropos to today’s political climate in the United States. Biblical interpretation in America today, even biblical interpretation by conservative evangelicals, has perhaps never been so divided and chaotic. Just as the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, so this year’s presidential election is generating a first-order theological crisis over how to understand the work of God in our nation. The church of today has to a large degree become more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion rather than shapers of public opinion. The parallels with the 1860s are obvious. “Had white protestants been following the Bible as carefully as they claimed, they could not have so casually dismissed the biblical interpretations advanced by Pendleton and Fee and mentioned by Lincoln. The inability to propose a biblical scheme of slavery that would take in all races reveals that factors others than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence as well” (p. 56). I suspect that many Christians reading Noll’s book would be nodding their heads in agreement. I’m finding this book a compelling demonstration of this truth. That’s why today you will find leading evangelicals both defending Donald Trump and excoriating him, with both sides using the Bible to defend their actions. For my two cents, I cannot understand how anyone can defend Trump’s candidacy. Yet I want to end by saying that this doesn’t mean that I or anyone else has the right to condemn those who support Trump based on their own interpretation of “forgiveness,” “the God of a second chance,” “the sanctity of life,” etc. I thus have no right to judge my Christian brother or sister in these matters. But neither can I with integrity claim to understand how they can reconcile their views with the teachings of the New Testament. All of this suggests, I believe, that each of us has to wrestle with how to reconcile the facts of this year’s political cycle with the Scriptures. Above all, I hope we can all remember that we do not fight as the world fights — that is, by hatred and violence (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Instead, we are called to fight this battle by displaying God’s love to all people, including those with whom we might strongly disagree politically. My point is not that we shouldn’t have strong convictions about whether so-and-so is qualified to be president of the United States. My point rather is that we need to constantly distinguish between the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and the kingdom of this world. And to do this, we must be more about giving other people Jesus Christ  — not rules, not entertainment, not partisan rhetoric. I have no confidence in the political system but I have every confidence in Jesus.

I encourage us all to keep the Gospel first. It really is a big deal!

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

David Alan Black: A New School Year and a Favorite Book

Seven Marks of a New Testament ChurchI’m really looking forward to a fun and exciting fall semester, not least because I’m teaching NT Intro again for the first time in several years. The course covers Acts – Revelation, which means that, if I time things just right, the semester will end before I have to discuss the Apocalypse (wink, wink)! Let me tell you how we’re beginning the class. Day One consists of students reading the book of Acts and then also reading my Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – which, I would remind you, is nothing but an exegesis of Acts 2:37-47, eleven of the most action-packed verses in the entire New Testament. Students will then produce a “reaction paper” to what they have read and I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the rest of us what they learned. Thus, from the very first day of class, we’ll be asking ourselves the question: “What does an obedient church look like?” Christian discipleship means placing ourselves under orders. It’s not merely a psychological experiment in self-improvement (along with watching our weight and catching up on our Honey-Do lists). As disciples, we are not on our own. The goal is not self-actualization but obedience to the instructions of the church’s Head and only Boss.

That’s one reason I’m enjoying reading James Thompson’s new book called The Church according to Paul: Recovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Now if that doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist title!

How easily we profess a willingness to do church “God’s way” but forget the first condition of obedience: understanding what the Bible teaches about the church. Thompson’s book contains nine chapters, the final of which is called “Leadership Like No Other for a Community Like No Other.” He argues it’s time for all hands on deck. Alas, “church” for so many today means pastor-centrality rather than every-member ministry. Writes Thompson:

With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) a failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation of the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership.

Bingo! Paul understood what leadership looked like: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” How odd this seems in the face of our sermon-centered lives. What makes the Gospel life-changing isn’t a message or a concept but the real-life person who has been radically changed by that message. As you and I enter post-Christian America and modernism, we understand that knowledge is no longer king as it was during the Enlightenment. People who don’t go to church don’t go for any number of reasons, but high on the list is probably the fact people no longer automatically assign authority to a building or to a man (whether he is wearing a collar or not). And I write that as someone who loves to give “sermons”! But to be a New Testament Christ-follower is to be a disciple of Jesus and not of any man. There are no two ways about it. Church can never be what its Head designed it to be without Christ assuming the role of “Commanding Officer” in my life and yours. This will involve nothing less than a transformed vision of reality that is able to see Christ as more real and more coveted and more powerful and more lovely than anyone or anything our churches can offer us. I know this is like asking my students to walk on water. But was not Peter able to do just that for those seconds when his gaze was locked on Christ’s, his mind set on things above? It is a profound moment in our lives when we realize that this pilgrimage of ours isn’t just about us or even our churches. My hope and prayer is that my students this semester will have the courage and obedience to launch out into the deep. Because it matters. It really matters.

During the Montreal conference a young man asked me what I thought was my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I replied that I thought the question was a bit unfair — akin to asking, “Which of your grandchildren do you love the most?” I confess to taking pleasure in each of my books, just as I love each of my grandchildren equally. I hope others have enjoyed my writings — and not just those who were forced to read them as required textbooks! Still, the question is a fair one. Without a doubt, I believe my most important book is one that only tangentially deals with Greek. It’s a book that recounts the quiet shift that happened in my heart many years ago now — a shift from law to grace, to freedom over fear, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy (without ever sacrificing my orthodoxy), from, if you will, Paul to Jesus and the Gospels. Like an earthquake destabilizing old power structures, the life of Christ crept into my consciousness. What I had to learn was that God delights in taking messes and making them into masterpieces. He began to open my eyes and allow me to see what He sees when He looks at me — a man forgiven and loved, God’s own dwelling place, a man destined to use his whole being (including his body) as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God alone. It seems too incredible to believe, right? But that’s why euangelion means Good News. Because of our union with this Lion-Lamb, we have a new identity, a new destiny, and a new purpose in life. It all comes down to the question, “Am I following Jesus with no strings attached?” Dallas Willard put it this way in his book The Great Omission:

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christian” will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.

As I peer into the past, I see now why God led me to write The Jesus Paradigm. He delights in taking damaged goods and making them into trophies of grace. And I pray that this book of mine will impact other damaged people the way it impacted my own life when I wrote it. I was no longer merely a consumer of Christianity. I realized that if I’ve received mercy, I needed to dispense it. Whether you are a plumber or a pastor, your calling (and mine) is a sacred vocation. God wants us to be like His Son — motivated by His glory to worship Him as we go about doing our daily work, whatever that is. Even if we’re not in what we would consider the “ideal” job, we can still do our best for His glory. Jesus fulfilled His God-given assignment with maximum effort. He gave 200 percent. His one goal was to do the Father’s will by serving others.

My friend, pause for a moment and contemplate the words of Jim Elliott: “Wherever you are, be all there, and live to the hilt whatever you are convinced is the will of God for your life.” And remember, as we do this – as we follow the Jesus paradigm – He is cheering us on.

Responding to the Political Season


Cheerleading with pom-poms.

7:50 AM Finally, the conventions are over. I am wearied and not a little irritated. We are not a two-party system!

How do I view this election? On the one hand, I reject totally any escape to spirituality that disdains the things of this earth. I am a very earthy man, for God has put me (and you) on this earth for a purpose and has given us a charge we can’t refuse. On the other hand, Christians can hardly become pom-pom waving politicos because this notion runs contrary to the command of the apostle Paul not to be conformed to the ideas of the present world system. In its history, the church has thrived under monarchists and dictators and republicans and imperialists. Hence the need for writers like Eller and Ellul whose writings form a very happy and much-needed counterbalance to conformism. Whether the state is republican or democrat makes no difference to the pilgrim and stranger, for whom no political party can ever be Christianized. Nor would I adopt a lesser of two evils philosophy to justify my vote. Jesus’ way bypasses conflict and provocation. He says that if anyone takes our coat we are to give him our cloak as well. I can’t condemn those who look to political power, but I think their revolt is ineffective as real revolution. The Way is the only Revolution that matters. During the age of Constantine, when the church became the official state religion, political power became a final court. But Phil. 3:20 remains in the Bible. I know how scandalous for non-Christians is a God who demands our ultimate and undivided allegiance. Our responsibility as Christians is to pray for the authorities including those in high public office. We pray for their conversion (obviously) but also that they may become truthful, renounce saber-rattling, etc. We realize that they have obtained their power only through God. Authorities are also people, deserving of the same understanding and sympathy that we would extend to any human being. But for the Christian, the starting point will always be non-conformism (Rom. 12:1-2), that is, we begin with the word of God and the will of God and the love of God. It might seem completely crazy, but Paul is calling the church to “unhypocritical love” (Rom. 12:9-21), which includes love among Christians, love for all people, and even love for enemies. We are to live peaceably with all. I have written a detailed exegesis of this “love passage” (Rom. 12:9-21) in case you’re interested. The curious thing is to see how Christian pastors have (to their embarrassment) fared when they have offered their services to candidates. The point of Revelation 18 is clear enough, I think: Political power always makes alliances with the power of money. And violence only begets further violence. Ultimately, the beast unites all the kings of the earth and wages war on God and is finally crushed when his representative is destroyed. In the meantime, the church is setting up a marginal society that is only tangentially interested in political matters and in which there is no power, authority, or hierarchy save that of King Jesus. As Ellul often reminds us, Jesus is not against earthly power, but He treats it with disdain or indifference. His kingdom is not of this world. And there is still plenty of room on the road that leads to this kingdom, but the gate is small and the road is narrow. Those who find it seem to be few indeed.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

A Mountain to Climb

Becky Black Memorial Fund signI came to Zermatt in search of a summit or two — and, like Terry Fox, the Canadian who ran thousands of miles on one leg to raise money for cancer research, I wanted to give a nod to the Becky Black Memorial Fund, which I started a few weeks ago. (To date, 650 million Canadian dollars have been raised in Terry’s name. I’m trying to raise $25,000.) I decided I’d display a banner with Becky’s name on it every time I summited one of Zermatt’s peaks. You ask, “Weren’t you even a little bit afraid?” Oh yeah. For the first hundred yards or so I always had butterflies in my stomach. But as Helen Keller once said, “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.” (A heartfelt thanks, by the way, to everyone like Helen Keller who has been an inspiration to me.) To climb my first 4,000-meter peak (that is, anything over 13,123 feet), I drew on less than a year of experience climbing the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. After a lot of looking back at the past year, I asked myself a big question: “Are you really up to it?” Charles Dickens once said that it was focus that made him such an accomplished writer. “I could never have done what I have done,” he said, “without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” Coming to Zermatt I think was the Lord’s way of saying to me, “Dave, I want you to concentrate yourself one more time.”

In climbing I’ve discovered something I love — a thing that really turns me on and excites me. Passion is what enabled Aimee Mullins to set records for running even though she’s missing two legs. I care passionately about what I do in life. I really want to do them. I don’t know where these passions come from (other than from the Lord), but I’ve got them. I love teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think being irrationally passionate about what you do is enormously healthy. I’m what psychologists refer to as a “striver.” Strivers are people who know what they want and run straight toward it. There’s something in me that pushes me to challenge myself as a climber, and I just have to go with it. Exploring your passions doesn’t mean you have to go all the way. I have no interest in climbing anything much over 15,000 feet. And yes, it’s hard work, but that’s part of the fun. (By the way, I’ve never known anyone who has accomplished anything in life who didn’t work hard at it. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Before leaving for Switzerland I trained 100 miles a month not to mention the hours I spent in the gym lifting. Still, it’s not about the hours. It’s about enjoying what you do.)

Dave standing on the side of a mountainHere’s my message for you today, good friend. (Yes, I’m in a preachy mood.) Be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your God-given goals. I believe that climbing not only brings me satisfaction but also a sense of confidence. We become confident when we meet a challenge head-on and overcome it. I’ll never forget the day my guide Walter took me to Zermatt’s famous Klettersteig — a vertical rock wall on very exposed terrain. A long metal ladder is the key point in the entire climb. It took us 4 hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet. Focus was absolutely critical.

Many people work hard but they’re not focused. They’re Dabblers and not Doers. I realized as soon as I began climbing the Klettersteig that I had to focus. The focus paid off and I completed the course.

When Bill Gates started Microsoft he focused on one thing and only one thing. “Microsoft is designed to write great software,” he said. “We are not designed to be good at other things.” Being able to focus will help you regardless of what you’re doing. My formula for climbing is simple: training and concentration, and then more training and concentration. The truth is that we all find it easy to focus on what we love doing. When people are lazy, they’re usually lazy about things that don’t interest them. To climb you’ve got to love the sport — and then you’re got to push, push, push yourself, mentally and physically. Mostly I’ve had to push through self-doubt. In climbing there are plenty of opportunities for second-guessing yourself: Will my body adjust to the elevation, will my legs be strong enough to carry me, will I tire out before the climb is over? On this trip there were many moments when I said, “Oh man, I can’t believe I got this far!” The trick is to keep pushing yourself, even when you think you can’t persevere.

Dave facing the MatterhornSetting goals can help us push through our manmade barriers. I wanted to bag two summits on this trip, and I got them both. So even though I’m not a very experienced climber, I realized my dreams, thanks (1) to the grace of God and (2) to pushing. In life it is always important to have goals, no matter what those goals are. My goals for next summer are to summit my second 4000-meter peak and to scramble up the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. On each trip to the Alps I want to set for myself titanic challenges and try to rise above them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not necessarily cut out to be a climber. Walking and trekking come much more naturally to me. But I enjoy new challenges and I think climbing pushes me. Summiting the Breithorn at 13,661 feet was a real challenge for me, but I think I took on that challenge to propel myself forward in life.

50 Days of Easter?

8:55 AM My good friend and fellow New Testament teacher Allan Bevere asks:

On Ash Wednesday we are invited to observe a holy Lent for forty days. Why are we not similarly invited to observe a joyful Easter for fifty days following the morning the empty tomb is discovered?

In one strand of Protestantism there are traditions involving holy days: the 40 days of Lent, the 50 days of Easter, etc. Allan argues that Easter is the most significant of these holy days. If this is true, then why, he asks, do we not celebrate “the full fifty days of the Easter season?”

For me, a Baptist, I suppose the first answer that comes to mind is, “Where is the biblical requirement that I do so?” But such cynicism can often be an obstacle to real understanding. Methodists observe holy days, and they obviously do so for legitimate reasons (at least in their minds). So Allan’s question is a legitimate one. He raises a good point that deserves serious consideration.

My guess is that the current generation of youthful believers is not likely to pay too much attention to it, however. They are too busy screaming, “Why are Christians so mean and angry? Why do they insist on putting Christ in the White House when Jesus used to hang out with lepers? Who do churches spend so much money on themselves? Why do so many strands of Christianity smack of power and hubris when Jesus humbly served others?” If we’re not careful, we Christians (Methodists and Baptists alike) can easily prioritize tradition over engagement. Still, Allan’s essay is worth careful study. It seems to me that a good place to start is Paul’s teaching in Rom. 14:1-12 (The Message).

Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.

What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

Paul seems to be making three points here:

1) Whether or not we follow any particular “holy day” is a matter of personal conscience and conviction.

2) Either way we choose, we are to live each day for the glory of God and in cooperation with those with whom we disagree about such non-essentials.

3) Jesus died and rose again not only so that He could save us from sin but so that He could “free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.”

Believe it or not, this is a matter I want to discuss with my students next fall as I teach Romans and 1-2 Corinthians. Let’s put the difficult questions before our students. Let’s teach them to ask hard questions about why they do what they do in their churches. Let’s stop patronizing them because — let me tell you — millennials are very capable of thinking for themselves. Lest you think that Allan’s question is irrelevant to Baptists, think of all of our own “holy” observances — from the “annual revival meeting” to the “Christmas cantata” to “youth Sunday.” Good friends can discuss such matters without getting put out with each other. Jesus can handle it. When Paul says, “One person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other,” I tend to find myself in the latter camp. And yet I see the logic behind the church calendar. As Methodist New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts it in his essay Happy New Year!!:

My suggestion to us all is to live in the Christian moment for the entire year to come— Advent leads to Christmas, which leads to Epiphany which leads to Lent which leads to Easter which leads to Pentecost which leads to Kingdomtide and then we start the cycle over again. The cycle begins with the story of Christ, moves on to the story of the church, and returns once more to the story of Christ’s Comings on the first Sunday in Advent. We are on a pilgrimage with Jesus and then on our own until he returns. His story is the story we must recite and retell until it becomes our story. My suggestion is that whenever we are in danger of getting caught up in the non-Christian moment with its own urgencies that we say to ourselves ‘all in God’s good time’. God’s good time and timing is what we should be living by.

For Ben, the church year is all about Christ, about His story, about a kingdom of God that is tangible, about living in the midst of a ridiculous pagan culture that tailors its calendar to retail sales. No, I don’t think Allan or Ben or any other Methodist scholar I know of is trying to impose a new set of legalisms on the church. Customs are fine as long as we attach no salvific significance to them. Perhaps, in the end, the real question is the evangelistic one. Secular culture recognizes our holy days, but people seem woefully confused about our love. Which is why Paul concluded (NLT):

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating.

This is the kind of scandalous love that drives the world crazy — or should I say sane? Followers of Jesus (of whatever denominational stripe) live by an “others-first” credo that only people who are secure both in themselves and in their Savior can pull off. Perhaps when not-yet-believers see this kind of love in action they’ll stop and ask, “Maybe this kind of love is for me too?”

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

Sniffing Out What Is Real vs Spiritual Smoke

6:04 PM While looking for an Easter Sunrise Service I ran across a church in a major U.S. city that will be serving food to the homeless this Sunday under an Interstate overpass to celebrate a Risen Savior. I’d really love to attend but the city is 1,400 miles away. Let’s face it: It’s been a long time since I went to church for the sermon. Not that I don’t mind a good sermon. But it’s sacrificial service that holds the body of Christ together. That’s just plain good doctrine, by the way. (“Faith working itself out through love,” is how Paul puts it.) That’s what’s so remarkable to me about the messy, mixed-up church that Christ died for. The New Testament church was so basic and so lovely. They assembled for togetherness — and service. Sure, there was solid biblical teaching (there had to be), but teaching that drove the people back out into the world to be Jesus to their neighbors, even under an Interstate underpass. (Just between you and me, I’m becoming a Jesus Freak again.) Give me a scrappy, tough-minded, doctrinally sound AND practically engaged church any day. A church that actually resembles the ministry of Jesus. A church where apathy is exchanged for authenticity. It’s as if God were saying, “Church, do with your ‘body’ what My Son did with His — He gave it away for others.”

Oh how I wish Becky were still here. She could sniff out what is real and what is spiritual smoke much better than I ever could. But I’m learning. I find it strange that the focus this Sunday in so many of our churches will be on getting people who rarely (if ever) attend to show up in our sanctuaries for an hour when we could be exploding Jesus’ love in our dirty neighborhoods. Listen, church. The best thing we can do for others is give them Jesus — plain old Jesus — not entertainment, and most certainly not church culture. He trumps everything. Because He is the only constant in life.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

Gloom and Doom? Not Worried!

8:14 AM Oh my. Here we go again. Gloom and doom. America is going down the tubes. Especially if you vote for the other guy, who is a despicable fraud.

Quick, Dave, check your insurance premiums!

Frankly, I’m not worried. Not one bit. It’s the same old ads. Just different names. It reminds me of an operating room. The surgeons and nurses are clothed immaculately and the instruments are sterilized. But they refuse to wash their hands. “All that matters is that you trust us. I am a surgeon. See my diploma? I don’t have to worry about keeping clean. Condition is of no importance.” The result? Pseudo-politics, pseudo-Christianity, pseudo-orthodoxy, and pseudo-piety. “For this reason God will send them strong delusion, and they will believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11). I’m not expert in eschatology, but it seems that Paul is talking about how God is preparing the world for Antichrist, the Big Lie, the final embodiment of all that is opposed to Christ. We are being primed for the final delusion, and as a result we accept cheap substitutes for the real thing. People believe the lie rather than love the truth.

I believe our Father would be pleased to give us much more if we had faith to ask for it.I’ve been rereading Elton Trueblood’s classic book, The Company of the Committed.

company of the committed.jpg

Trueblood was a lifelong Quaker, educator, and author. (He was also twice widowed.) His book is about Christian living, and the author wants to encourage a deep conversation about church and society. His main point is that the church as it exists today is ill-suited to fulfill its basic redemptive function since it has compromised itself in so many ways. “The movement we need is a movement in depth,” he writes (p. 10). This question is especially relevant in light of the fact that the line between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is becoming increasingly blurred in this election year of ours. While on the one had I have no problem with people being passionately involved in politics as they feel God is leading them, I simply maintain that politics should be kept strictly separate from what we are about as churches, and that no one should label their position as the distinctly “Christian” way of doing politics. Remember, in most wars in history, both sides firmly believed that their “God” was on their side. The unique call of the Christian is to pursue the kingdom, and this is accomplished in counter-cultural ways, including our willingness to sacrifice ourselves and even our very lives for others.

Trueblood gets this. He shows that many of the most “successful” programs in our churches will not bear up under close examination. “It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the modern Church seems irrelevant to modern man” (p. 17). From my own experience, I can tell you this is very true in post-Christian Europe, where I have lived. To be a Christian in Switzerland was the equivalent of putting your brain in park or neutral. But not only does Europe suffer from this malaise. I live in the rural South, and here the church often has only marginal relevance. To be sure, people are willing to put up with it as long as it does not require anything of them. Hence, writes Trueblood, the question today is not one of whether Christian fellowships exist. Rather, the question is what kind of character these fellowships have (p. 21). I personally think this distinction is very helpful. The Gospel is not the true Gospel unless it is about transforming people, one life at a time. I deeply appreciate Trueblood’s attempt to call the church back to its militant stance, which produced “the amazing vitality of early Christianity’ (p. 28). On p. 31 he writes:

It is perfectly clear that early Christians considered Christ their Commander-in-Chief, that they were in a company of danger, which involved great demands upon their lives, and to be a Christian was to be engaged in Christ’s service.

The “service” he’s talking about is a far cry from the typical worship service or political rally one attends today. As in an army, every soldier has his or her own duty to perform.

The key words are “one another” [he writes on p. 32]. There are no mere observers or auditors; all are involved. Each is in the ministry; each needs the advice of the others; and each has something to say to the others. The picture of mutual admonition seems strange to modern man, but the strangeness is only a measure of our essential decline from something of amazing power.

Christ, says Trueblood, is organizing a genuine band of brothers, a company of the committed. Jesus wasn’t asking for people to go to church. “He was, instead, asking for recruits in a company of danger. He was asking not primarily for belief, but for commitment with consequent involvement” (p. 34). “We cannot understand the idea of of a company apart from the concept of involvement” (p. 38). The soldier’s one desire is to please their commander in everything.

The undeniable reality is that many of us today are both under-trained and uninvolved. The easiest way to undermine Christianity is to appoint someone else to do the work for us. During the American Civil War, if you had enough money you could purchase your way out of the draft and let someone else do the fighting for you. The simple fact is that we have been called — all of us — to follow Jesus Christ in acts of radical Calvary-love, not someone else’s good ideas or movements or strategies, however good we may think they are. Whether you are a Republican Matthew or a Democrat Simon the Zealot, we can all get along just fine as long as we follow Jesus and stop making our political ideals the bullseye.

The Company of Jesus is not people streaming to a shrine; and it is not people making up an audience for a speaker; it is laborers engaged in the harvesting task of reaching their perplexed and seeking brethren with something so vital that, if it is received, it will change their lives (p. 45).

This is the kind of lay ministry that I have long espoused and have argued for in my various publications. In the words of Trueblood, “…in the ministry of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, neither layman nor cleric [italics his], but all are one in Christ” (p. 62). If you share this vision of the kingdom, will you support my work? Not financially of course. Will you join me in praying for the church in North America in 2016? Pray that God will help us wake up to the political delusion that has descended upon us through well-meaning people. Pray that we start caring more about sacrificing for the country than controlling it. To me, the most basic and most difficult challenge of being a Christ-follower is what Trueblood addresses in this marvelous book. It’s becoming completely sold out to the Commander-in-Chief and living under His authority and in His love on a moment-by-moment basis. I want to encourage us to cultivate a surrendered attitude toward God. By all means, let’s express our opinion about politics. Let’s vote for the person of our choice (or not vote at all if our conscience prohibits it). But let’s never, ever forget where the hope of the world lies. Let’s obey Jesus and love others as He did.

You want security? Love each other and the world well, and your house will stand.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission.)

The Lord’s Supper and Worthiness

8:14 AM In Greek 2 class this past week we talked about the Lord’s Supper because I had included the Greek adverb “worthily” (and its antonym) in our vocabulary for the day. (Isn’t it so unlike me to go on rabbit trials in class?) I stressed that there’s a world of difference between an adjective (“unworthy”) and an adverb (“unworthily”). You will recall that the Corinthian church was behaving rather badly when they came together to share the bread and the cup. Paul quotes Jesus’ own words after Jesus had broken the bread: “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” Paul’s point is that we come to the table, not to remember our sins, but to remember our Savior. And yet how many of us can attest to being asked whether or not we are “worthy” to partake of the elements that day? We are requested to have a time of introspection to see whether or not we feel worthy enough to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Boy are we good at complicating the ways of Jesus. I have nothing at all against a time of introspection, or a time of confession, but that need not be left for the Lord’s Supper. In fact, Jesus never invited anyone to His table. His words are a command in the imperative mood: “Do this in remembrance of me.” As I said, we do not come to the table to remember our sins but our Savior. This focus, unfortunately, is often blurred. Remembrance is at the heart any true observance of the Lord’s Supper. Through the bread and the cup we participate in Christ. So the service is a communion as well as a commemoration. Our common participation in the meal is a sign of our fellowship and unity. Indeed, the earliest Christians took the bread and the cup as part of a communal meal. As I argued in my book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, there is much to be gained by this practice. Fellowship is a vitally important aspect of the Lord’s Supper. Rather than the pulpit being the center of attention, the elements (Christ and His death!) are. As we partake with others, we are united with Christ as one body. That’s why there is only one table of the Lord. There’s not one table for the rich and another for the poor; one for slaves and another for the free; one for Jewish Christians and another for Gentile Christians; one for the educated and another for the uneducated; one for men and another for women; one for Calvinists and another for Arminians; one for clergy and another for laity; one for homeschool families and another for families whose children attend public school. The entire focus is on Christ, on whom we feast together. That’s why I called my chapter on the Lord’s Supper “Christ-Centered Gatherings.” It is Christ we celebrate! “This is our Servant-King-Savior. This is our Senior Pastor. And now He calls upon us to follow Him. Yes, we will follow You, King Jesus!” The closer our relationship with our Head, the better we will be able to spur one another on in the Christian life. We should go to every church gathering not just thinking, “What can I get out of it?” or even “What can I contribute to it?” but “How can I acknowledge what Jesus has done for me?” One way to do this is by lifting Him up and giving Him central place every single time we gather, as He commanded us to do. Jesus never commanded His followers to observe Christmas. He never told us to celebrate Easter. He said, “Keep on doing this in remembrance of Me.” Unless the entire church has been directed back in remembrance of the cross, no true Lord’s Supper has taken place.

For more, please read Howard Marshall’s classic essay Some Considerations Regarding the Lord’s Supper Today. I am fully convinced that God is big enough and good enough to lead us back into a biblical observation of His Supper.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Linguistics and Interpretation

8:15 AM I’m taking a scheduled break from writing. (Okay, okay, so I didn’t really schedule in this break. I’m really a pretty spontaneous guy.) Anyhow, I’ve got a couple of thoughts roaming around in my brain right now — not that there’s anything earth-shattering about them. First of all, I argued in our LXX class this week that if anyone should be interested in linguistics — the art and science of how language works — it should be students of the Bible, and especially students of the biblical languages. Not all would agree, of course. To some, linguistics remains a “secular” science, one that can hardly be “evangelicalized.” Not surprisingly, I’ve been taken to task for suggesting that biblical scholars have much to gain from the science of linguistics. But when I study Paul, I do not see him despising or excluding the world of creation from his theology. A dualistic tension between faith in God and the scientific perception of the nature of creation has no place in his thinking. God was responsible for creating heaven and earth, and He made all things good (Gen 1:31). Far from being a threat to modern exegesis, I believe the facts show that the immense problems facing modern exegetes are sometimes best resolved when they are treated from a linguistic point of view. The discourse structure/theme of Philippians is a case in point (see my Novum Testamentum essay called The Discourse Structure of Philippians: A Study in Textlinguistics). Hence Paul’s juxtaposition of worldly and divine wisdom in 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16 need not be construed as a contrast between faith and reason. What Paul is fighting against in this passage is not science per se but man-made religion and hubris. Translated into modern diction, though all human endeavors can clearly become futile and hostile to the honor of God, they are not necessarily evil.  I’d like to think that my students would be open to learning a thing or two from modern linguistic science. If you would like to as well, there are a number of places where you can start. My own Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek will give you a basic overview of the field, while Logos has bundled numerous resources that will help you dig a bit deeper (Studies in New Testament Greek). If you take me for Greek 3, we take a linguistic approach to exegesis and work though some of the major works in the field. Steve Runge’s On eclecticism in linguistics is also very helpful. Listen, some trends in biblical studies, like some fashion trends, are questionable. I suspect that you, like me, are cautious about new approaches to anything. Still, there’s some good work being done today by New Testament scholars in the field of linguistics, and I’m fairly sure you can benefit from being exposed to it.

Alright, now let’s talk about the letter to the editor that’s been making the rounds on the ‘net. You can read about it here. The letter gives a very realistic glimpse into a slice of America many people are perhaps unfamiliar with. The only question I would ask is, Do we see the face of Jesus in the homeless and refugee population (Matt. 25:34-36)? Few things capture the spirit of Christ better than the way we welcome the stranger into our midst. After all, God is a God who is beautiful not because He’s cutesy and looks like Santa Claus. He’s beautiful because He adopts into His family His enemies and then lovingly transforms them from the inside out. Personally, I think I’ve had enough of cries for vengeance/caution/national security to last me for at least a couple of million years. Let’s try taking the teachings of Jesus seriously and loving our enemies and then watch what God can do. If you share this vision of the kingdom, will you join me in praying for the Syrian refugees who come to our country, praying that God will use us Christians to follow the example of Jesus and be willing even to give our lives for the sake of the gospel? Yes, I know that this model of transformation I’m calling for doesn’t exactly fit the politically-oriented paradigm of modern social conservatism. But if significant numbers of Christians were to engage in this kind of sacrificial service, I believe that the church could have a transforming impact on our culture that social activists could only dream of having.

Anyway … like I said, I’m taking a break from writing and my “schedule” says I need to get back to it. Trying to write a book about my life is not an easy thing, so keep me covered, will you?

And start studying linguistics!



(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Reading Hebrews in the Good News Bible

8:06 AM I was reading Hebrews 1 this morning in the Good News Bible (TEV).

book jriririroiroParts of it are truly outstanding. The translators render “Thou are my Son; today have I begotten thee” as “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” Great so far. And then there’s this footnote on v. 8: “or, God is your kingdom.” The text of the Good News Bible, of course, reads “Your kingdom, O God, will last forever and forever!” The confusion here stems from the Greek: Is theos nominative or vocative? The translators have taken it as a vocative (correctly, in my view), but at least they note the alternative. Good for them. But here’s what puzzles me. Notice that they begin a new paragraph in verse 4.

book hbeyeueieieThis is impossible. It contradicts the Greek text. Verses 1-4 are all one long sentence in the original. Making a new paragraph in verse 4 is just not empirically possible. It’s completely illogical — like asserting “married bachelor.” This sort of inconsistency drives me nuts. (People sometimes tell me I’m too OCD about these kinds of things but it’s part of my temperament.) I really, truly, sincerely believe we can do better. And yet, these kinds of oversights are hardly exceptional. Am I hereby trying to make a case for the study of Greek? In one sense yes. But at least you can compare other English translations before arriving at your conclusion as to the paragraph structure of a New Testament book. Again, I deeply appreciate the translators who produced the Good News Bible. When I was a teenager I literally could not put this book down. The text was readable, and the line drawings were fantastic. But our focus should always be on faithfulness to the text as the Holy Spirit inspired it — and this includes matters of syntax and structure, not just words.

Finally, as an aside, I had to smile when I realized (again) how Hebrews is placed after Philemon in our English Bibles. This wasn’t always the case. In our earliest manuscripts, Hebrews comes after Romans or between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. (Both codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus place Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians.) In other words, Hebrews assumed a prominent position in the Pauline letters at an early date. It was only in the fourth century that Hebrews began to consistently appear after Philemon. My point is that, according to the earliest manuscript evidence, Hebrews was an integral part of the Pauline collection. David Trobisch, who is an acknowledged expert in all things canonical, has argued that the placing of Hebrews after Philemon was a distortion of the original canonical edition of the New Testament. (See The First Edition of the New Testament, p. 25.)  Needless to say, these facts are not sufficiently heeded by today’s New Testament students, in my opinion.

All of this is relevant to our LXX class, because one of the earliest questions we will face is: “Which books should be included in the Septuagint?” It’s necessary to raise this question because there is no one indisputable “Septuagint” but “Septuagints” (plural). Ralhf’s edition of the LXX even contains the Song of Mary from Luke 2!

9781938434730mThink about this: If Hebrews is genuinely Pauline, this would change everything about the way we interpret Paul. Hebrews would be included in our New Testament theology books, and when we wanted to study, say, Paul’s view of church leadership, we’d have to include such passages as Heb. 13:7 and Heb. 13:17. The undeniable reality is that questions of canon and authorship matter. Of course, both sides demonize the other. Proponents of Pauline authorship are dismissed as obscurantists, while proponents of Hebrews’ non-Paulinity are accused of succumbing to the spirit of the age. But why should we tolerate this kind of judgmental divisiveness? Maybe we need another conference on campus to discuss the issue!

Anyhow, that’s my take on Hebrews for today. The fact is, all of us have biases and presuppositions. Many issues we have never personally studied. We tend to rely too heavily on the work of others. I know I do. So whether or not you espouse the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, prayerfully consider looking at the evidence yourself before making up your mind.

And do be patient with me when I chase rabbit trails.

Peace out,


(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

The Jesus Paradigm: A Book that will set you on a downward path