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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

They reject evidence that doesn't fit!

The Armstrongite/former Armstrongite reaction to my two most recent posts over at Banned by HWA have underscored for me a truism that I have been aware of for many years now: Armstrongism is a prisoner of its Fundamentalist foundations. Their narrative about the responsibility of Christians to observe the Sabbath(s) and other tenets of the Torah is impermeable to any challenges because of their beliefs about the Torah itself. For them, God gave the law to Moses, and Moses simply wrote it all down.

Thus, the starting point for the Armstrongite/former Armstrongite in the age old debate relative to the proper role of law and grace in the life of the Christian is an unshakeable faith in this belief that God is the ultimate source of all of those laws. As such, it is incomprehensible to them that the Creator of humanity would give Moses a law that wasn't meant to be universal and eternal in its application. In other words, the notion that the Torah was the work of a number of different authors and was cobbled together late in the kingdom period (and the Babylonian captivity) is completely alien to them. The Torah simply cannot be a Hebrew/Jewish invention intended just for them! Finally, the real clincher for them is the fact that Jesus Christ accepted and followed this tradition. In light of this, how can anyone say that this law is no longer binding on Christians?

The problem is that their foundation is built on sand. Although most Armstrongites appear to be oblivious to the fact, most Biblical scholars have understood for many years now that Moses was NOT the author of the Pentateuch. They point out that Moses is NEVER identified as the author of these texts anywhere within them, and that he is ALWAYS referred to in the third person. Likewise, in past posts on this blog, I have pointed out the absurdity of the notion that a humble person would identify himself as the most humble person on the face of the earth, or that he would write an account of his own death and burial! Moreover, the presence of anachronisms, inconsistencies, reprocessing of certain stories and accounts which contradict historical and archaeological findings make very plain that one person couldn't have authored the whole.

As Professor Bart Ehrman wrote in his college textbook The Bible, "The most popular solution <among Biblical scholars> to the problem of the authorship of the Pentateuch is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. In its most widespread form, this is the view that behind the Pentateuch there are actually four different written sources (all of them based on oral traditions), written by different authors, living at different times in the history of ancient Israel, with different points of view and emphases-which have been edited together into one long, five-volume work." Many scholars have associated those four sources with the letters J, E, D and P. Whether these scholars are right or wrong regarding their hypothesis about the authorship of the Torah is really immaterial to the fact which led to the formulation of that hypothesis: Moses cannot be the author of the Torah!

Moreover, Christ's willingness to fulfill the requirements of the Torah on behalf of his brethren, and his unwillingness to challenge the traditional attribution of its contents to Moses, does not constitute an endorsement of all of the notions of those individual authors. According to the New Testament narrative, Christ perfectly fulfilled what the Jews thought that God had required of them (but had never been able to perfectly observe themselves). Hence, although Christ implied that not all of those precepts had originated in the mind of God, his willingness to take them on and "fill them to the full" rendered the question of their origins a mute point. Again, for Christ, the important thing was that God's people believed that those were the things which YHWH expected of them!

In the book by Ehrman referenced above, it is also pointed out that the Sabbath was woven into "the very fabric" of the creation narrative in the book of Genesis. Ehrman went on to point out that there were actually ten acts of creation recorded in this narrative. In other words, whoever authored this account, his obvious intent was to demonstrate that God had created the Sabbath at the beginning - prior to its introduction to the Israelites and inclusion as a provision of God's covenant with them. And, more than any other thing, it is this narrative about the origins of the Sabbath which makes Armstrongites so impervious to the arguments of Sunday-keeping Christians!

This is why they are not persuaded by the obvious intent of the also anonymous author of the book of Hebrews (and NEO) that the Christian religion embraces the notion of the Sabbath principle as a rest from our own works in Jesus Christ. For them, the fact that the Sabbath was made a physical part of creation means that its physical presence can NEVER be erased. In other words, the physical observance of a seventh-day rest is eternal. Likewise, they reason that since the annual Sabbaths depict different aspects of God's plans and Christ's work, the physical observance of them must also be an eternal requirement for God's people (and, in keeping with their penchant for employing prooftexts, they would point out that the text in Leviticus says as much).

Hence, these Armstrongites (along with many of the folks who were formerly affiliated with them) are impervious to anything which suggests that Christians are no longer obligated to participate in the physical observance of the Sabbath(s). Moreover, like other Fundamentalists, anything which undermines, doesn't support or outright contradicts their narrative is to be ignored and/or dismissed. They reason that it simply HAS TO BE the way that they believe it to be (based on what was written in the Torah). Yes, that may sound like circular reasoning to you and me, but their faith in what they perceive to be the "word of God" is unshakeable. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Sabbatarian Christians vs Sunday Christians

In my last post, we established that there were two varieties of Christianity extant in the First Century - one which adhered to Jewish laws, rituals and traditions and another which did not. We observed how Christ's original apostles and his brother James came to lead and represent the Jewish branch of the faith, and how Paul came to represent and lead the Gentile branch of the faith. We also looked at a great deal of evidence which suggested the presence of tensions (and even open hostility) between the two branches at various times. Nevertheless, although the question of whether an irreconcilable breach developed between the two camps was discussed in some of the commentary which followed that post's publishing on Banned by HWA, I felt that it would be instructive for many of the former and current Armstrongites who make up my audience to directly address that topic in another post.

For, while it may be clear that the arguments between Torah Christians and Sunday Christians began in the First Century, it may not be as clear to us exactly when the two perspectives diverged enough that they began to regard each other as not representing a legitimate variety of their shared faith in Christ. Today, of course, we take it for granted that Sunday Christians regard Sabbatarian Christians as heretical and vice versa; but our examination of the evidence in the previous post implies that that was not always the case. Moreover, tracing the historical origins of this breach has a much more practical application than merely satisfying our intellectual curiosity about it, we intuitively comprehend that a better understanding of those events will help us to clarify our own thinking on the subject and make us more tolerant of each other going forward.

For starters, it is critical that we understand that these two branches of the Christian faith arose as a natural consequence of its expansion - NOT as some grand Satanic conspiracy of the Roman emperor and church! It is indisputable that Christ, his apostles (including Paul) and the earliest Christians were Jewish (encompassing all that that designation suggests like circumcision, Sabbath and Holy Day observances, the Temple at Jerusalem, synagogues, clean and unclean meats, etc.). After the previous post in this series, it should also be apparent that Gentile Christians did not have this background, and that the overwhelming majority of them NEVER adopted those Jewish laws, rituals and traditions.

However, just as the accounts which we have in the Christian canon demonstrate the genesis of the two branches of the Christian faith and give us a window into some of the tensions and hostilities which developed between the two camps, they also demonstrate that most of these early Christians tried very hard to tolerate and accommodate each other. Hence, the question arises: When did the breach between these two branches of the Christian faith become irreconcilable?

In attempting to answer that question, most biblical scholars and students try very hard not to project our own experiences, views and prejudices onto the people and events of the past. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we are often not successful in this regard.

At the end of my last post, I referenced a number of biblical scholars whom I believe have made significant contributions to our understanding of First Century Christianity. One of those scholars, a professor by the name of James Tabor (who was formerly associated with Armstrong's Ambassador College), was particularly helpful in summarizing many of the findings which some of our finest modern scholars have contributed to our understanding of this period of Christian history. Even so, in reviewing the same evidence, I also find myself in disagreement with some of Professor Tabor's answers to our question about the timing of the irreconcilable breach.

In his book Paul and Jesus, Tabor contended that the irreconcilable breach happened in the lifetime of the apostles (Paul, Peter, James and John). Tabor sets up his final chapter (The "Battle of the Apostles") with some remarks about Paul's views of the Torah. He concluded that "it should not surprise us that Paul ended up in a bitter struggle with Peter, James, and the original apostles, who claimed to faithfully carry on the message of Jesus." Tabor continued: "We have only Paul's side of that conflict, and his decisive break with Jerusalem is glossed over in Acts, but there is enough evidence still to piece together the story."

Is that true? Did Peter, James and Paul end their lives as "bitter rivals" - as suggested by Tabor?

While my previous post suggests my broad agreement with the scholarly narrative about the differences which existed between the Jewish and Gentile varieties of early Christianity (and the eventual triumph of the Pauline Gentile variety), I do NOT believe that the evidence points to an irreconcilable break in the time of the apostles. Once again, both accounts of the Jerusalem Council (Acts and Galatians) reflect the fact that some kind of accommodation was reached between the two branches of the faith. Moreover, I don't buy Tabor's contention that Paul's theology was so radically different (in conjunction with the evidence provided by Paul's second epistle to the saints of Corinth and James more general epistle) that it eventually proved to be the death knell for that "understanding" reached at Jerusalem. In other words, while I believe that the evidence demonstrates tensions (which on occasion bubbled to the surface as open hostility) existed between Paul and the original apostles, I don't believe the evidence supports the proposition that those differences ever provoked a clean break between the apostles.

In terms of Tabor's assertions about just how radically different Paul's theology was from the Jerusalem apostles, an example will demonstrate my departure from Tabor's narrative. Tabor asserted that Paul's understanding of the Eucharist was very different from that of the Jewish apostles. According to him, the three earliest gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) derived their accounts of the Last Supper from Paul. He reasoned that, because Paul's account of the Last Supper in his first epistle to the saints at Corinth (see I Corinthians 10:16-21 and 11:23-20) predated the finished gospel accounts by ten to twenty years. it is clear that they derived their narratives from him.

For the sake of argument, we will set aside the fact that Tabor himself admits that those three gospel accounts were derived in part from earlier sources and focus instead on his "evidence" for an alternative narrative regarding the Last Supper. He pointed out that John's gospel didn't mention the bread and the wine in its narrative about that event, and that The Didache seems to present a different understanding of the symbolism surrounding those elements. Hence, in fairness to Tabor and the integrity of our search for the truth, we must examine both of these documents to ascertain whether or not they support his narrative about Paul's Last Supper.

First, while it is true that the gospel attributed to John does not include the elements of the bread and the wine in its account of the Last Supper (see John 13), we must not forget that "Paul's elements" are an integral part of this gospel's narrative. In fact, as part of the account of Christ's message to his disciples that evening, Jesus is said to have referred to himself as "the true grapevine" (see John 15:1-8, NLT). According to this account, he went on to tell them that "apart from me you can do nothing" (the clear implication being that Christ is the vine that makes their salvation possible). Moreover, we should also remember that using grapevines and their fruit in such a symbolic manner was not foreign to either Jews or Jewish Christians as Tabor seems to imply (see Genesis 49:11 and Revelation 14). But what about the bread?

Earlier in that same Gospel, we read that Christ declared: "I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:48-51, KJV) And, lest there be any doubt that John's gospel is placing the exact same language which Paul and the other gospels employed in Christ's mouth, the account continues: "The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever." (John 6:52-58, KJV)

What about The Didache? In the section of that document dealing with the Eucharist, we read: "Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." So, we clearly have the elements of the bread and wine included in this early "Jewish Christian" account of the teachings of the apostles.

Moreover, lest there be any doubt about the symbolism being tied to Jesus Christ, these instructions were followed by a Eucharist prayer to be used in Christian worship services. We read: "But after you are filled, give thanks this way: We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen." Hence, we can see that both John's gospel and The Didache employed the same kind of language and symbolism with regard to the Eucharist/Last Supper which Paul and the other gospels used in their accounts of those events.

Well, maybe they weren't as far apart in their theology as Tabor suggested, but what about the evidence he cited from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians and James' general epistle? Let's begin our evaluation of Professor Tabor's evidence by addressing Paul's second epistle to the saints of Corinth.

However, before we address the actual language of this second epistle to the Corinthians, I would like to remind my readers that Paul was not bashful about naming names in either his first epistle to the Corinthians (see I Corinthians 1:11-12) or his letter to the saints of Galatia. In fact, while expressing his anger over a similar situation (Jewish Christians trying to require his converts to observe the tenets of the Torah) at Galatia, Paul says that he had to confront Peter over his behavior. (see Galatians 2:11-14)

Hence, as almost all biblical scholars acknowledge this second epistle to the saints of Corinth as one of the undisputed writings of the apostle, it seems odd that Paul never mentioned Peter, James and John in connection with his angry rant about "false" and "super" apostles. (see II Corinthians 11 and 12) Thus, while it is clear that the false apostles which he was referring to in this passage were Jewish Christians (see II Corinthians 11:22), it is also clear that Paul was employing hyperbolic language to defend his own apostolic office and authority. In other words, he was only interested in their claims in so far as they related to his own claims vis-à-vis the Corinthians. And, finally, if this is the evidence of a final split between the leading figures of the two branches of the Christian Church, we must insist that some explanation be forthcoming in relation to the fact that Paul was soliciting an offering on behalf of those Jewish Christians in the passages immediately preceding these. (see II Corinthians 9, NLT)

Now, we come at last to the epistle of James. First, it should be noted that most biblical scholars either attribute this writing to the brother of Jesus by that name, or some anonymous person writing in his name (and I concur with this conclusion). Hence, I would not dispute Tabor's assertion that this letter is connected to that leader of the Jewish Christians mentioned in the account of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. However, when the professor goes on to imply that the epistle's references to faith without works and controlling one's tongue was really directed at the apostle Paul, we are forced to ask where's the evidence for supposing this? After all, the author of the epistle states that he is addressing "the twelve tribes - Jewish believers scattered abroad." (see James 1:1, NLT)

In fact, it is here that Tabor's narrative about the breach demands the greatest leap of faith. He implies that James and Paul are being very careful to cover up their breach, and that other writers of the period have conspired to conceal the breach. I will simply state what others before me have observed: The claim of such an extraordinary conspiracy requires extraordinary proof! Following this line of reasoning, we are led to believe that the statement in the second epistle attributed to Peter was written to further this conspiracy. (see II Peter 3:15-16)

Finally, although the New Testament is devoid of any mention of the fate of these men, tradition informs us that Peter, James and Paul all suffered martyrdom as a consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ. Hence, while I accept much of Tabor's narrative about the differences between Paul's brand of Christianity and the one practiced by Peter and James, I simply do not believe that the evidence supports an irreconcilable breach between the men. While I see ample evidence of the tensions (and sometimes open hostility) between these men, I do not see the proof that they died enemies.

On the contrary, both from the perspective of the New Testament and the writings of the generations which followed them, it appears that the irreconcilable breach between the two branches of Christianity happened sometime after the deaths of these men. And, while I am confident that the Roman suppressions of the Jewish rebellions and subsequent persecution of them exacerbated the tensions and animosities which were already apparent between the two groups, it is clear to me that the thing most responsible for that final breach was a hardening of attitudes within the groups themselves. Over time, many of the folks within both camps simply decided that the folks in the other camp had strayed too far from the principles of their faith to continue to be regarded as brothers in Christ!

In this respect, Herbert Armstrong and his followers have been very much like the Jewish Christians still extant at the close of the First Century and the beginning of the Second Century. They have decided that they are keeping the flame of the "original" Christian Church alive, and that Protestants and Catholics are all apostates - not really Christians at all! Likewise, many Catholic and Protestant Christians see their Sabbatarian brethren in exactly the same light - heretics that cannot really be considered Christians!

However, after a careful examination of the evidence available to us, I am hopeful that modern Christians will take a page out of the playbook of those First Century Christians. I'm hopeful that the Christians of our day will remember a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians not only tolerated each other, but also sought to accommodate each other's practice of their shared faith in Jesus Christ. What do you think?

***I know that this is a long treatise, but James Tabor did write an entire book on the subject! Moreover, I don't think that anyone who is truly interested in the subject will mind the longer post (and I am willing to discuss the thesis presented here in even more detail for those who may be interested in doing so). Thank you for your time and attention!***    

Monday, June 21, 2021

Early Christianity: From Sabbath to Sunday

 I recently penned a post for Banned by HWA that was published there under the banner “Quietly Dismissing Herbert Armstrong.” In reviewing some of the commentary which the post provoked, I was struck by how some folks have continued to accept Armstrong’s inaccurate/false narrative surrounding the early history of the Christian Church. According to the Pastor General of the old Worldwide Church of God, the First Century Church universally observed the Sabbath. Moreover, he taught that the Emperor Constantine (in cooperation with the Roman Church) changed the day of Christian worship from the Sabbath to Sunday.

The reasoning behind this narrative is almost as interesting and entertaining as the narrative itself. It goes something like this: 1) Scripture clearly records that Christ, his apostles and the early saints continued to observe the Sabbath; 2) The existence of Constantine’s famous decree recognizing Sunday as a day of rest (and, by implication, worship) throughout the territories of the Roman Empire; and 3) The existence of several statements by Roman Catholics claiming responsibility for changing the Christian day of worship. Admittedly, this reasoning appears reasonable at first glance. However, while I wouldn’t dispute any of the three points which they have employed to generate their narrative, we would be remiss not to point out that these folks have ignored/excluded a whole lot of history to arrive at their conclusions about Sabbath to Sunday observance within the early Church.

It still seems foreign and strange to many Christians, but a consensus has developed over time among Biblical scholars that there were two forms of Christianity extant in the First Century (a Gentile and a Jewish variety). Moreover, the evidence for this, both within the New Testament and among other writings from the period, is pretty compelling. In the New Testament, the account we find there of the Jerusalem Council in the fifteenth chapter of Acts (and in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians) makes plain that there were real differences and tensions between the Jewish and Gentile branches of the Church. Likewise, other early Christian writings like the Didache and some of the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch underscore these differences.

When confronted with the evidence of the Jerusalem Council, many Armstrongites insist that the only issue at stake in those discussions was the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Scripture, however, clearly refutes such a notion. Now, in fairness, it is true that the whole controversy began with the insistence of some Jewish Christians that “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) However, when Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to resolve the matter, we read: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) In other words, some of the Jewish Christians were insisting that Gentile converts to Christianity had to adopt and abide by the tenets of the Old Covenant outlined in the Torah.

After much discussion of the matter, Peter reminded the assembly that God had prompted him to share the gospel with the Gentiles. (Acts 15:7) A casual reading of this account could easily miss just how important this point was in comprehending the significance of what was happening. Unfortunately, as the first eleven chapters of the book of Acts makes plain, the original twelve apostles had not fulfilled Christ’s instructions to take his message to all nations. In short, Peter and the other apostles had focused their evangelistic efforts almost exclusively on their Jewish brethren for the ten or so years following the end of Christ’s earthly ministry. Hence, it should not seem strange or incomprehensible to us that the earliest church was almost entirely Jewish in composition, nature and ritual. As such, we can see that it was completely natural for these folks to continue to observe rituals that were familiar to them (like circumcision, the Sabbath, the Holy Days, clean and unclean meats, etc.).

It should also be remembered, though, that Gentiles had no such traditions, and that most of them were wholly unfamiliar with Jewish rituals and practices. In the account of the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts, however, Peter points out that God had also chosen to give the Gentiles his Holy Spirit “even as he did unto us.” (Acts 15:8-9) He went on to point out that the insistence of these Jewish Christians that Gentiles adopt Jewish forms did not make sense in light of this fact. “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” he asked. (Acts 15:10) The clear implication being that Christ had fulfilled the requirements of the law on their behalf, because NONE of them (the Jews) had ever been able to do it!

In the account, James agrees with the points that Peter has made. He affirms that it was God who decided to offer salvation to the Gentiles through Christ, and he went on to remind the assembly that this had been prophesied to happen long ago. (Acts 15:13-18) As a consequence of these facts, James concluded: “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (Acts 15:19-21) Notice that James specifically delineates only four items from the entire Torah which Gentile Christians should be required to observe and goes on to suggest that Moses already has enough adherents among the Jews!

Moreover, once again, the summary of the account makes plain that the assembly was dealing with a much more comprehensive question regarding the relationship of Gentile Christians to the requirements of the Torah than the simple matter of circumcision. The opening to the letter which the assembly sent to the Gentile Christians informing them of their decision makes this plain. We read: “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment…” (Acts 15:24) And the letter’s conclusion makes plain that the assembly has adopted James’ “sentence” regarding their obligations to the requirements of the Torah. We read: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.” (Acts 15:28-29)

Hence, for the author of Acts, the rather substantial question of whether or not Gentile converts would be required to observe the tenets of the Law, was settled amicably and in short order. From Paul’s perspective, however, the question had never been completely and finally resolved – there were still plenty of Jewish Christians out there who believed that their Gentile brethren should be required to follow the same observances which they had followed all of their lives (and which they continued to follow as Christians).

This is made very clear in Paul’s letter to the saints of Galatia. Nevertheless, in comparing Paul’s perspective on what had happened at the Jerusalem Council, it is important to remember the context of Paul’s remarks. In short, Paul was extremely angry that Jewish Christians had had the audacity to contradict his teachings to the Gentiles. He opens the epistle by claiming his incredulity at the thought that any of his Galatian Christian converts would fall for this message (that they were obligated to observe the tenets of the Torah). He wrote: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)

Remember, Paul saw himself as the “Apostle of the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:13) Moreover, he believed that the message which he had brought to the Galatians had been given to him via a special revelation from Jesus Christ, and he made clear that he did not appreciate those Jewish Christians invading his territory and imposing their brand of Christianity on his converts! (Galatians 1:8-12) Paul then proceeded to give the Galatians a brief summary of his personal history in the Jewish faith and his interactions with the pillars of the Jewish Church after his conversion to demonstrate that those contacts had not made any significant contributions to his message. (Galatians 1:13-24) Now, of course, those folks had made significant contributions to Paul’s knowledge about Christ and his teachings (the notion that they didn’t is frankly absurd), but we must remember that when he wrote these things Paul was extremely angry with those Jewish Christians who had interfered with his work among the Galatians.

After he had vented some of his anger and frustration, Paul proceeded to give his account of what had transpired at the Jerusalem Council. He wrote that those “who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.” (Galatians 2:6-10)

In this respect, the two accounts (Acts and Galatians) of what happened at the Jerusalem Council are the same: Both accounts suggest that some kind of accommodation between Jewish and Gentile Christians was reached as a consequence of that assembly – to live and let live. In other words, Paul understood that agreement to allow Jewish Christians to continue to observe the tenets of the Mosaic Law and to permit Gentile Christians to ignore them.

For Paul, however, the intrusion of those Jewish Christians among his sheep in Galatia had not only violated the understanding reached at the Jerusalem Council, it had also underscored the flawed premise of the theology of those Jewish Christians. He wrote: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:16-21)

Thus, as Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles resulted in more and more conversions, we can see that tensions grew between the two branches of the Christian faith. In short, Jewish Christians must have felt the pressure of those greater numbers of Gentile Christians within the Church – that the proportion of Christians observing the tenets of the Mosaic Law continued to shrink. And we have all seen the tensions which America’s changing demographics has produced within our own population – So, it shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine similar group dynamics playing out within the early Church!

Thanks to the writings of the First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, we know that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It would be hard to overestimate the devastating impact which those events would have had on the Jewish portion of the Church. As Jewish Christians continued to observe the tenets of the Mosaic Law and were in the habit of worshipping at the temple and in synagogues, it is highly unlikely that the conquering Romans would have made any distinction between those Christians and their Jewish brethren. In other words, Jewish Christians were scattered and persecuted by the Romans after those events in 70 CE (just like other Jews).

Hence, it is easy to see how Paul’s version of Christianity would have been in the ascendancy for the last thirty years of the First Century. In other words, by the close of that century, the vast majority of Christians were of the Gentile variety (not observing the tenets of the Mosaic Law). However, while it’s easy to imagine those circumstances, there is other evidence extant that the Gentile branch of Christianity had become the dominant variety by the close of this period. In short, there are other Christian writings from this period which support this narrative of what was happening within the Church. Unfortunately, many lay Christians are not only unfamiliar with the contents of these documents – they are completely unaware of the fact that they even exist!

There is a document know as The Didache (a Greek word for a teaching or doctrine) which was probably written late in the First Century and was purported to represent the teachings of Christ’s apostles (see earlychristianwritings.com). The Didache opens with a discussion of the way of life in juxtaposition to the way of death, and it expounds upon Christ’s teaching regarding the two great commandments (love for God and neighbor). The document also discusses the early practices of the Christian Church regarding things like baptism, fasting, prayer and the Eucharist. Moreover, the document’s commentary about the organization of the Church (or rather the lack of discussion of a well-defined structure/hierarchy) makes plain that it came from this primitive era of Christianity. For our present purposes, however, the most important feature of The Didache is its insistence that Christians assemble on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) for fellowship and worship. In other words, the document takes it for granted that this is the proper day for Christian worship – there is no mention of the Sabbath!

Likewise, we have the writings of Ignatius of Antioch from late in the First Century and early in the Second Century to support this historical narrative about the two versions of Christianity. In his epistle to the saints of Philadelphia, Ignatius wrote: “But if anyone preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him. For it is better to hearken to Christian doctrine from a man who has been circumcised, than to Judaism from one uncircumcised. But if either of such persons do not speak concerning Jesus Christ, they are in my judgment but as monuments and sepulchers of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men.” (See earlychristianwritings.com) For Ignatius, any Christians who were teaching the saints that they had to observe the Jewish law were clearly heretics.

In his epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius wrote: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace.” Later in the same epistle, he wrote: “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God.” (See earlychristianwritings.com)

Writing sometime in the middle part of the Second Century, Justin Martyr also provided us with evidence of what was happening within the Church during this early period. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr wrote this about Christian worship in his time: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (See earlychristianwritings.com) In other words, by the middle of the Second Century, it was considered standard practice for Christians to gather for fellowship and worship on Sunday!

As we have seen from both the biblical and the historical narrative, the Armstrongite narrative regarding the history of Sabbath to Sunday observance is false. The reality is that the vast majority of Christians had been observing Sunday for hundreds of years by the time that Constantine made his famous decree. In effect, the emperor was merely offering official recognition of what was already the practice of most of his Christian and pagan subjects. Likewise, the observance of Sunday by most Christians was already well-entrenched by the time that the Roman Church had acquired the power to enforce its authority over other Christians. Hence, the narrative that Constantine and/or the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday is shown to be a fiction pure and simple!

**Although I do not wish to convey the impression that I agree with all of the conclusions reached by these biblical scholars, I think that the works of folks like Gerd Ludemann, Bart Ehrman and James Tabor offer some interesting and helpful insights into this period of Christian history (Sorry, I'm not in the habit of name dropping, but scholars do offer some helpful insights for those of us who are truly desirous of understanding this critical period).


Monday, June 14, 2021

A Bad Analogy: The Bible As A Jigsaw Puzzle?

Banned by HWA has pointed out the continuing fascination of many Armstrongites with Herbert Armstrong’s magnum opus, Mystery of the Ages. For many of us who have escaped the clutches of the cult, however, that book is now regarded as “Exhibit A” in the case against Armstrongism! In the book, Mr. Armstrong purports to reveal seven “mysteries” which have been hidden in plain sight in the pages of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures for about 1.900 years! For Herbie, the Bible was a coded book – a giant jigsaw puzzle just waiting for the right person to come along and put the pieces together to reveal God’s picture (and he believed that person was him).

In the “Author’s Statement” at the beginning of the book, Armstrong explained: “The revelation of these mysteries was lost, even to the Church of God, although the revelation of them has been preserved in the writings of the Bible. Why, then, has the world not clearly understood? Because the Bible was a coded book, not intended to be understood until our day- in this latter half of the twentieth century. I learned, in this night-and-day study, why it is the most misunderstood book, even though it is the world’s best-seller. The full explanation or truth of any one subject is seldom made complete and clear in any one passage. Other portions, factors, or phases of the subject are usually contained in one or several other passages in other parts of the Bible either in the Old or New Testament. A true and full understanding of this subject is profitable only when these perhaps several other passages, scattered throughout the Bible, are put together.”

He continued: “I learned that the Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle - thousands of pieces that need putting together - and the pieces will fit together in only one way. Then the picture becomes crystal clear to the one willing to believe what God our Creator says. This present book merely puts the many pieces of the great puzzle together so they can be clearly understood.”

In my opinion, these assertions about the Bible being a “coded book” and being “like a jigsaw puzzle” are the keys to both understanding the phenomenon of Armstrongism and disproving its teachings. Sure, we can go through all seven of the “mysteries” and demonstrate how this or that statement doesn’t mesh with Scripture. It is, however, much easier to show that Mr. Armstrong’s foundational analogy (the Bible as a puzzle) is deeply flawed and was the basis for all of the erroneous teachings contained in his writings (including Mystery of the Ages). The “plain truth” is that Mr. Armstrong’s analogy is a bad one!

If the Bible is a jigsaw puzzle, then why are there so many different ways of putting it together? Mr. Armstrong said that the pieces only fit together one way, but the reality of the number and variety of interpretations of that book makes a mockery of that notion. What happens when we find a piece in Mr. Armstrong’s puzzle that was misplaced (or are Mr. Armstrong’s followers suggesting that his writings are inerrant?)? Is it possible that Herbert Armstrong put the pieces together based on his notion of what the finished picture should look like? What happens when we find extra pieces – pieces that don’t fit into Armstrong’s mosaic? And what about all of those generations of Christians who didn’t put the puzzle together – the ones who lived before Mr. Armstrong figured it all out?

The fact is that Mr. Armstrong’s notions about using proof texts to demonstrate the validity of some teaching is NOT a reliable or even desirable way to interpret Scripture. Like many modern Christians, Mr. Armstrong’s approach to biblical interpretation was grounded in a Fundamentalist and Literalist view of Scripture. And, although most of those “Traditional” Christians would understandably distance themselves from what they perceive to be the “heresies” of Armstrongism, the fact is that the underlying premise which they all share is based entirely on flawed HUMAN reasoning! In short, the notions that Scripture never contradicts itself, is free of any error, should always be understood literally and interprets itself are ALL based on false assumptions (which also contradict what those writings have to say about themselves).

The human reasoning behind this method of interpretation goes something like this: 1) Since God inspired the writings which we call the Bible, He is the real author of everything contained in them (the role and contributions of the human authors is thus minimized or eliminated altogether); 2) Because God is infallible, everything in Scripture must also be infallible; 3) Since God is not the author of confusion, Scripture must never offer contradictions, inconsistencies or alternative interpretations; 4) Hence, there must be only one correct way to understand each passage of Scripture (which must harmonize with what other passages dealing with the same subject teach us).

The flaws inherent in this line of reasoning should be immediately apparent to all of us: 1) Scripture was always a joint venture between human and Divine (and the human part of that equation is NOT infallible); 2) God’s infallibility is a Divine trait which is not transferable to humans (even to those acting under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit – witness your own experiences as a Christian); 3) God may not be the author of confusion, but humans are pretty good at it; 4) Hence, it is illogical to assume that there must be only one correct way to understand each passage of Scripture (and it isn’t necessary to impose a harmony on those passages which doesn’t exist in reality).

In short, the image of a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered over a table does not mesh very well with the reality of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The truth is that better analogies are available to us in describing the Bible.

Given the variety of the styles and perspectives expressed by the human authors of Scripture, an art museum is probably a much better analogy for understanding the Bible. The museum is a harmonious whole in that it is a collection of artistic interpretations of various subjects/themes. It is also possible to see the inspiration of the artist in every piece and to understand that each work will mean both similar and different things to each and every person who is viewing them. Moreover, we know that interpreting and appreciating the various works of art is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of the artist, who/what influenced them and the times in which they worked.

For others, comparing the Bible to a tree may be more meaningful. It is certainly consistent with what is revealed in those writings (and with what many of us have experienced of them) to compare them to a living organism. Like Scripture, these folks may see the tree as a single organism, but also understand that each leaf is unique and different. Likewise, they may equate the addition of branches and growth rings over the lifetime of the organism as being analogous to the way that Scripture came together over time. In similar fashion, the way that trees are damaged over the course of their lifetimes by storms, animals, insects, fungi and other things may have profound meanings for these folks relative to their understanding and experience of the Bible.

At any rate, we should all be able to see that the jigsaw puzzle analogy doesn’t hold up well under closer scrutiny. Scripture has meant many different things to many different people down through the centuries, and the notion that there is only one correct way to put it all together is frankly absurd!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Failure of Christian "Leadership"

In my brief lifetime on this planet (I'm 60), I've witnessed a number of very public failures of many so-called leaders of the Christian Church. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you've heard about how many Catholic priests have sexually molested and abused children, men and women over the last fifty years and beyond. A friend also recently forwarded me a couple of articles dealing with Russell Moore's revelations about sexual abuse and racism within the ranks of the ministry of the Southern Baptists. Banned by HWA continually reminds us of the failures (past and present) within the ranks of Armstrongism. We are reminded too of the dramatic fall of Jerry Falwell Jr last year, and the equally sensational fall of past televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker. And let's not forget the fantastic personal fortunes which some of these "pastors" have accumulated as a consequence of their ministries (e.g. Joel Osteen).

Why? Why all of these spectacular failures? I believe that these failures are directly attributable to some false notions that these leaders and their flocks have absorbed over their years as Christians.

Perhaps the most important of these is the notion that pastors/ministers/priests are entitled to more respect, honor, wealth, power, deference and Divine forbearance than other Christians. In other words, these guys are special. God reveals things to them that "He" doesn't reveal to the average Joe. God wants these people to dress in fine clothes, live in beautiful houses and receive the respect and adoration of their flocks. And, when they sin, God is more willing to overlook their failures because of the work they are doing for "Him." So many of these folks and their sheep have swallowed hook, line and sinker the notion that pastors/ministers/priests are part of a spiritual elite that rightfully stands above everyone else in the Church!

They have forgotten (or rejected) the notion that Christ saw leadership as being a servant of others. They have forgotten that Scripture teaches that MORE is expected of leaders, not less! They have forgotten that God expects them to lead by example and makes plain that "His" leaders are NOT supposed to impose burdens on others which they are not willing to shoulder themselves. They have forgotten that God said that they were entitled to make a living off of their ministry, but that "He" NEVER envisioned anyone getting wealthy off of the gospel! They have forgotten that the mantle of leadership was designed to help and assist others, and that God NEVER intended for it to be viewed as an entitlement or office of prestige.

Yes, Scripture informs us that God has worked through individuals in times past, but it was always intended to accrue to the benefit of the people at large - NEVER to the individual being so used! Moses was commissioned to give the people of Israel God's laws and lead them into the Promised Land. And, when he failed to give God all of the credit for what was accomplished, he was punished by not being allowed to himself enter that Promised Land! Likewise, Christ and his apostles were persecuted and killed because of their service to God's people. John wasn't given the Revelation of Jesus Christ for his own glory and aggrandizement - He was given a message for God's people. Individuals have been used to serve God and "His" people - They have NEVER been commissioned to serve their own interests!

Finally, as was related on Banned by HWA, there is only ONE mediator between God and humankind: Jesus Christ - no one else is necessary! The Holy Spirit imparts its gifts to everyone who receives it! Yes, some folks love titles, recognition, praise, glory and monetary rewards, but God demands humility and service. Do any of our modern leaders compare to Paul and Silas? And, yet, Scripture informs us that the Bereans were diligent to verify that what they were speaking was the truth! Hence, it is high time that Christians disabuse themselves of these false notions about leadership. If we don't, we should all get ready for more spectacular failures and greater antipathy from those outside of the faith! 

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Uses of Scripture

Fundamentalists love to quote II Timothy 3:16. In fact one would be justified in observing that this verse is exhibit one in proving that their devotion to the supremacy of Scripture is justified. Unfortunately, this verse does not actually do what they want it to do (demonstrate the truth of Sola Scriptura, that God is the ultimate author of all Scripture, and that the Bible is inerrant).

As has been addressed in past posts on this blog, inspiration suggests the influence of God's Holy Spirit on the human authors of Scripture - that God breathed on them. This does NOT in anyway imply that the human authors of the Bible were merely acting in the capacity of scribes - taking Divine dictation. Rather, it implies that God had a role in what was written down by those human authors. After all, God's Holy Spirit influences, leads, pulls and prompts - it does NOT dictate and control!

But what about the rest of that verse? Let's take a closer look at the actual wording of this very abused scripture. In the King James Version, we read: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." The New International Version renders the same passage: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." Hence, we see that Scripture is useful for (1) formulating teachings/instructions/the precept itself, (2) reproving/rebuking/providing evidence, (3) correcting/improving/restoring righteousness and (4) instructing/educating/training someone to be morally upright. In other words, the author of this passage saw Scripture as a useful tool for a Christian to employ in being a better Christian! (And let's not forget that the only Scriptures available to Christians when this epistle was written were the ones which we now refer to as the Old Testament).

It is also important to take note of what this passage does NOT say. It DOESN'T say that Scripture is a useful tool for explaining scientific phenomena, providing a reliable historical record, serving as the definitive guidebook on human biology or psychology, or functioning as the final authority in everything related to God! The passage DOESN'T state/suggest/imply that Scripture is superior to Science. This passage also DOESN'T state/suggest/imply that Scripture is the only tool available to us for understanding God (If it did, it would be contradicting other scriptures which suggest that studying creation itself is useful in achieving a better understanding of God and "his" purposes.

In other words, so much for this being the primary "prooftext" for Fundamentalists! And, finally, trying to establish the authority of Scripture by quoting those same Scriptures is an exercise in circular reasoning. The real evidence that Scripture has any authority whatsoever is to be found in the experiences of the people who use it - Is it actually helpful with the things listed here and elsewhere in those documents?