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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Using God As An Excuse To Hate

Humans are ingenious at using God to justify some of their vilest impulses and behaviors. It is one of the great ironies of our history as a species that what so many of us recognize as the ultimate good (God) has been employed to provide a rationale for the perpetration of so much evil. In fact, down through the ages, more wickedness has been wrought in God's name than has been attributed to any other single justification that we can imagine. Take just a moment to consider the wars that have been fought on God's behalf, the genocides and murders which have been performed in his name, the slavery/oppression and racial prejudice that has been justified as being a part of his will, the violence against children and women which has been justified as a component of honoring and obeying him, the theft of resources and destruction of our natural environment which has been justified as being ordained by him, and the abandonment or shunning of family and friends which has been attributed to putting God first. Indeed, when we face the mountain of human misery and hatred which has been ascribed to God, it's a wonder that there aren't more atheists among us!

Moreover, unfortunately, these human notions about using God as an excuse for our wickedness have found there way into the collection of writings which we call the Bible (the Judeo-Christian Scriptures). In the book of Genesis, man's dominion over women, land, resources and other creatures is assured by Divine appointment. As for God's people, we are told that it was God's will that the Israelites eradicate whole peoples (commit genocide) in the course of their acquisition of the lands which God had promised to them. In those same writings, slavery is not only permitted - it's regulation is also codified in the "Law of Moses." Parents are given permission to beat and stone their children (Indeed, they are informed that it is their duty to do so when disobeyed or disrespected). Even in the New Testament, it is possible to carve out numerous justifications for paternalistic, misogynistic and other antisocial behaviors. Those same Scriptures have also been employed by Christians to justify excommunicating/disfellowshipping/shunning their brothers and sisters in Christ and to abandon or shun family members who do not share their views. (Laying aside the abundant evidence of errors and contradictions within Scripture, I believe that the existence of the passages just noted provides us with the most compelling evidence that Fundamentalist and Literalist attitudes toward Scripture are unsustainable.)

Although it can be entertaining to watch Fundamentalists twist in the wind in their attempts to reconcile those dark views of God with the positive image of him which they attempt to project to the world, there are some theological realities which simply cannot be finessed. God is either love or he isn't (I John 4:8, 16). While I would argue that theology cannot be reduced to mathematical precision and doesn't have to conform to the scientific method, it also cannot dismiss or ignore logic or refuse to supply some kind of legitimate rationale for its defense.

Hence, if God is love, then he cannot simultaneously be hate (the two are opposite extremes on an emotional continuum). Likewise, if Paul's definition of love is valid (see I Corinthians 13:4-7), then God cannot be impatient, unkind, jealous, prideful, rude, irritable or unforgiving. If Jesus was correct in his distillation of the Law into two foundational components (love of God and neighbor), then Paul was correct in his declaration that love fulfills the Law (see Romans 13:8-10). God is either a respecter of persons, or he is not (see Romans 2:11). God wants all of humanity to be saved, or he does not (see I Timothy 2:4). It is either impossible to separate us from God's love, or it is possible (see Romans 8:35-39). In other words, if we can qualify these statements, then we have effectively rendered them meaningless in the broader context of our theology! Stated yet another way: To avoid cognitive dissonance and the undermining of our Christian theology, God would NEVER command or condone genocide, racial hatred, murder, excommunication/shunning or any other kinds of antisocial behavior. Thus, ANY attempt to justify our antisocial behaviors by assigning them to God or his will must be judged to be inconsistent with sound theology, entirely self-serving and blasphemous!    

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Out of the Mainstream

Numerous posts and articles have wrestled with the phenomenon of religious and political extremism within Armstrongism, but many of us who have experienced/observed it firsthand continue to be dumbfounded by its imperviousness to reason or change. This post will explore that phenomenon and attempt to explain why it has been such a pervasive and persistent phenomenon among the followers of the teachings of Herbert W Armstrong.

Unfortunately, most of the discourse on this topic heretofore has focused on particular teachings/doctrines and why they are wrong/heretical/extreme. Now, while I myself have followed this formula in times past (and continue to see the value in challenging some of the more outrageous components of the ideology), I think that a better understanding of the phenomenon is possible only by focusing on Armstrong's attitudes toward traditional concepts of religion, science, history and education. In other words, if we can focus on what motivated some of those bizarre ideas/teachings, we have a much better chance of wrapping our minds around the phenomenon and coping with it.

What am I talking about? I'm thinking about Mr. Armstrong's contempt for traditional/mainstream notions and authorities. For HWA, traditional Christianity wasn't just wrong about a few of its teachings - those folks weren't really Christians! They had been deceived by Satan and corrupted by their acceptance of PAGAN notions and traditions. Scientists weren't just wrong about evolution - NONE of their findings could be trusted because they failed to accept "revealed" knowledge. Historians couldn't be trusted because they leaned on their own understanding of flawed human sources. In similar fashion, higher education had to be regarded with suspicion because of their humanist and liberal biases. In short, Armstrong wasn't just skeptical of mainstream authorities, ideas and traditions - For him, they were reliably wrong and flawed!

Indeed, what Armstrong and his followers never seemed to be able to acknowledge (or come to grips with) was the fact that: when you purposefully REJECT the mainstream, you place yourself outside of the mainstream! By definition, this makes them susceptible to extreme views. After all, extremism has been defined as "activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a person or group far removed from the ordinary." (see Beyond Intractability: Dealing with Extremists by Bartoli, Coleman and Burgess) In other words, you can claim that you're right and they're wrong, but it is impossible to claim that your views are ordinary or mainstream if they are not shared by the majority of the folks within the society of which you are ostensibly a part (e.g. if the majority of experts and people say that wearing face masks is appropriate in the face of a pandemic, then you can't claim to be in the mainstream if you refuse to wear one).

The article from which I lifted that definition of extremism also offers some great insights into understanding this phenomenon. The authors go on to point out that extremism is grown in the soil of "adverse conditions" (e.g. basic needs are not being met - whether those be physical, emotional or spiritual). They go on to show how extremism can be "constructed" by leaders (like HWA) who are willing to capitalize on those adverse conditions. Bertoli and Coleman also point out that extremists love to justify their extreme positions by underscoring the fact that they are right (they are on the side of God and righteousness), and everyone else is wrong (on the side of Satan and evil). In a related point, the authors underscore the fact that "extremism is a rational strategy in a game over power" (extremism is a great advertising/evangelizing tool and it unites your folks against the perceived enemy). And, in a point which anyone who is familiar with Armstrongism will especially appreciate, the authors point out that extremism is often a product of "apocalyptic, eschatological (end-of-life) ideologies" (the evil mainstream will be defeated and our group will be vindicated and glorified). Finally, Bertoli and Coleman make clear that "extremism is a pathological illness" which is self-reinforcing and tends to destroy one's humanity over time (the ability to empathize with outsiders and be compassionate toward them).

In conclusion, Mr. Armstrong's attack on mainstream institutions set the stage for the religious and political extremes adopted by his followers. His ridicule and wholesale rejection of Traditional Christianity made his followers particularly susceptible to the language of right-wing politicians about the "lamestream" media, and their aversion to science and the "liberal" institutions of higher learning. In short, it is clear to me that the foundation for the religious and political extremism of Armstrong's followers was laid long ago in his relentless attacks on the wisdom of humans (for him, wisdom in this context was an oxymoron). From my perspective, the fact that his followers swallowed this basic approach/attitude "hook, line and sinker" goes a long way toward explaining both the extremism and its imperviousness to reason. It also permits them to entertain the delusion that they are the sane/rational/mainstream folks, and the rest of us occupy the REAL extremes! What do you think?


Monday, July 26, 2021

A Company of Nations

One of the linchpins of Herbert Armstrong's identification of the United States and Great Britain as the modern manifestations of Israel is found in the thirty-fifth chapter of the book of Genesis. The "prooftext" reads as follows: "And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins..." (Genesis 35:11, KJV) For Armstrong, "a nation" implied the single greatest nation in the history of the earth (the United States), and "a company of nations" suggested a great commonwealth of nations led by Great Britain. For him and his followers, those promises could never have been fulfilled by any other nations in the history of the world!

Indeed, this verse continues to be the foundational "prooftext" for the Armstrong Churches of God up to the present day. In their article Does the United States Appear in Bible Prophecy?, the United Church of God underscores the fact that: "God specifically told Jacob that through him would come 'a nation and a company of nations' (Genesis 35:11)." They go on to point out that "The promise of national expansion beyond Canaan into a great nation and company of nations was never fulfilled in biblical times by the Israelites." According to the article, this promise devolved onto the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh; and they go on to reference the forty-eighth chapter of Genesis (verse 19) to prove it. They conclude: "Descended from Ephraim was the group of nations that formed out of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, the British Empire...Out of this power came the British-descended countries of the Commonwealth of Nations—Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand." What of Manasseh? They conclude: "From Manasseh came the great single nation. Its people dwelt with the Ephraimites in Great Britain until it was time for their separation through westward colonization and a war for independence—the American Revolution, by which came the formation of the United States."

For the sake of this argument, we will overlook the license which they employ in their interpretation of greatness, and their complete dismissal of the fact that God's promises to the patriarchs were clearly tied to a particular piece of real estate in the Middle East (see Genesis 15). Instead, we will focus on those all important phrases in United's principal prooftexts (Genesis 35:11 and 48:19): "a company of nations" and "a multitude of nations" respectively.

First, it should be noted that these promises are directly/purposefully associated in Scripture with God's promises to make Abraham "fruitful" and to "multiply" him. In other words, whatever these promises entail, they are intimately connected to God's promise to make Abraham's descendants like the stars in the sky or the sands on the seashore in numbers.

Now, according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the Hebrew word translated into English as "company" is "qahel" - meaning "assembly, company, congregation, convocation" (especially in a religious context). In similar fashion, the same source informs us that the Hebrew word translated into English as "multitude" is "melo" - meaning "fulness, handful, mass, multitude." In both cases, the English word "nations" is a translation of a Hebrew word that means nations or peoples (especially Gentile ones). Hence, to suggest that the original Hebrew predicts a "commonwealth of nations" frankly stretches linguistic credibility to the breaking point!

In fact, the sense of the original Hebrew wording suggests an assembly of folks from all of the kindreds of the earth. In other words, the language used in these passages once again points to these promises finding their ultimate fulfillment in and through the Messiah (tying it back into the promise that all of the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham). Indeed, the English word "commonwealth" suggests a republic or a collection of republics - a much more narrowly defined connotation than that implied by the original Hebrew in these verses.

Is it possible then that these verses refer to Israel and all of the other peoples of the earth who will be saved through Jesus Christ? In fact, isn't that interpretation much more plausible than suggesting that the United States and British Commonwealth are the modern manifestations of Manasseh and Ephraim (especially in light of all of the historical, linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence which refutes such a conclusion)? Don't we really have to stretch the language in these verses (and their context) to make them identify the U.S. and Britain as Israel?

Monday, July 19, 2021

I believe Paul wrote those epistles!

In his book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, Bart Ehrman talks about the range of scholarly opinion regarding the authorship of the New Testament epistles attributed to Paul. He wrote: "There are three groups of Pauline letters (also known as epistles): (a) the Pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus - most scholars are reasonably certain that Paul did not write these; (b) the Deutero-Pauline epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians - there are more debates about these three, but the majority of scholars still think Paul probably did not write them; and (c) the Undisputed Pauline epistles - that is, the remaining seven, which everyone more or less agrees Paul wrote. These are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon." (p. 316, Oxford University Press, 2018).

Now, while I do not dispute Professor Ehrman's characterization of the scholarly opinion on this subject, my own evaluation of the available evidence has convinced me that all of the disputed epistles of Paul were indeed authored by the apostle. Nevertheless, my respect for Ehrman (and the scholars who share his views) demands some justification for the fact that I've reached different conclusions. However, before moving on to those justifications, I would also like to state that most of the treatises that I looked at which defended Pauline authorship of the disputed epistles were not very convincing or useful to me in reaching my own conclusions on the subject.

Indeed, instead of an objective evaluation of the available evidence, I found that most of the defenses of Pauline authorship were premised on the scholars' Fundamentalist beliefs about Scripture and took on the guise of traditional apologetics. For me, concluding that Paul wrote these epistles demands that one be open to the possibility that someone else may have authored them! In other words, if one is predisposed not to entertain their arguments in favor of an alternative authorship for these epistles, their arguments cannot be given the same weight as the views of the scholars which they are challenging. After all, an argument that is based on the belief that Scripture is without error or contradiction is by its very nature an exercise in circular reasoning! "Paul must have authored these epistles because Scripture says that he did" is simply NOT logically sustainable as an argument.

Broadly speaking, the arguments against Pauline authorship of the disputed epistles can be summarized as 1) obvious departures from the language of the accepted epistles (vocabulary, grammar and style), 2) the presence of teachings which appear to contradict or refute those presented in the accepted epistles, 3) the presence of concepts or teachings which appear to be anachronisms (belonging to the era after Paul's death), and 4) the presence of passages which appear to be flagrant attempts to copy Paul's style and teachings. Now, while it is useful to understand the kinds of evidence which Ehrman (and others) have employed in reaching his/their conclusions and to evaluate them collectively, it is also important that we give specific examples of how these broad categories apply to the individual epistles being considered. Hopefully, this treatise will do both (general and specific).

First, in addressing those issues related to language (vocabulary, grammar and style), it is important that we understand that Scripture itself informs us that Paul did not personally write most of the epistles attributed to him with his own hand. For instance, in his letter to the saints of Rome, we are informed near the end of the epistle that someone named Tertius wrote the letter for Paul (see Romans 16:22). Likewise, in his first letter to the saints at Corinth, we are informed that only the greeting was actually penned in Paul's own handwriting (see I Corinthians 16:21). Moreover, at the very beginning of the epistle, we are informed that it was co-authored with someone named Sosthenes (see I Corinthians 1:1). In similar fashion, his second epistle to the saints of Corinth was co-authored with Timothy (see II Corinthians 1:1), his epistle to the Philippians and Philemon were also co-authored with Timothy (see Philippians 1:1 and Philemon 1:1), and his first epistle to the church in Thessalonica was co-authored with Silas and Timothy (see I Thessalonians 1:1). In Paul's letter to the Galatians, we read: "Notice what large letters I use as I write these closing words in my own handwriting (see Galatians 1:11, NLT). Thus, according to Scripture, NONE of Paul's "genuine" epistles were solo projects.

As for the disputed epistles, the second letter to the saints of Thessalonica and the one to those of Colossae also claim to be co-authored (see II Thessalonians 1:1 and Colossians 1:1). Interestingly, only the Pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) and the letter to the Ephesians fail to mention any other contributors to the compositions. Hence, as the epistles themselves indicate that there were a number of hands involved in the process of actually writing these epistles, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there would be numerous differences in vocabulary, grammar and style among them! Indeed, based on the internal evidence provided by the epistles themselves, I would be more suspicious if we didn't find these differences among the various writings!

Next, Ehrman confronts us with the evidence that the disputed letters sometimes contradict Paul's teachings in his "genuine" epistles. Before we get into a particular example of this phenomenon cited by the professor, I think a few general observations are in order here. First, as brilliant as the Apostle Paul appears to have been, it is inconsistent with his having been human to imagine that his mind never harbored any contradictory thoughts, views or precepts. Indeed, for me, the propensity of humans to be irrational and inconsistent is one of the primary arguments against the acceptance of biblical inerrancy! Moreover, I have never personally met anyone whose views did not evolve over the course of his/her lifetime. In other words, I believe it is much more unlikely that Paul's theology would have remained static over the entire course of his ministry/lifetime (his experiences within both the Jewish and Christian faiths certainly suggest otherwise). And, in light of the experiences of all Apocalyptic Christians over the last two thousand years in confronting their own mortality, it seems highly unlikely to me that Paul never had to confront the likelihood that he wasn't going to live to see the return of Jesus (especially relative to the various persecutions which we are told he had to endure). In other words, reality almost certainly served to modify some of Paul's views as he lived his life.

Having said all of that, Ehrman cited what he considered to be glaring proof  of these contradictory teachings in the epistles addressed to the Colossians and Ephesians. According to Ehrman, Paul refuted the notion that Christians had already experienced the resurrection in the fifteenth chapter of his "genuine" epistle to the Corinthians. From my perspective, Paul appeared to be underscoring the fact that there would be a yet future and literal resurrection and how that would work. At any rate, it is clear that Paul was discussing the future resurrection and transformation of the Christian dead. Ehrman contends that the author(s) of these two epistles (Colossians and Ephesians) was/were teaching that Christians were currently experiencing Christ's resurrection - thus contradicting the teaching in his "genuine" epistle.

In Colossians, we read: "When you came to Christ, you were 'circumcised,' but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. (see Colossians 2:11-13, NLT) It is clear to me that the author is talking about death and resurrection in symbolic terms - NOT in the literal sense. In other words, when the believer comes up out of the waters of baptism, he/she will experience a new life in Christ.

Indeed, the continuation of the thought into the next chapter makes the symbolic nature of the language plain. Continuing, we read: "Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world." (see Colossians 3:1-7, NLT)

Similarly, in Ephesians, we read: "Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus." (see Ephesians 2:1-6, NLT) Again, for me, the differentiation between the symbolic vs the literal resurrection is clear. Nevertheless, if this isn't convincing enough, Paul employs very similar symbolism and language in his "genuine" letter to the saints at Rome.

In Paul's epistle to the Romans, we read: "Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus." (see Romans 6:2-11, NLT) Thus, after a careful review of all of the texts cited by Ehrman, I am just not seeing the contradiction. Indeed, for me, the teaching in Colossians and Ephesians appears to be entirely consistent with the teachings in I Corinthians and Romans!

The third argument that Professor Ehrman employs against Pauline authorship of these epistles is the appearance of apparent anachronisms in the texts - things that properly belong to the years after Paul's death. For Ehrman, the most glaring example of this kind of anomaly is found in the letters to Timothy. In particular, the professor sees the well-defined nature of leadership positions and church organization implied in the author's remarks to Timothy as belonging to a later period of Church history. However, the writings of the "Church Fathers" (Clement, Polycarp and Ignatius) from early in the Second Century suggest that Church leadership and organization were already well-developed by their time. In other words, their writings suggest notions about these things that had already been in place for many years and had achieved wide acceptance within the Christian community (usually associated with the passage of time). Hence, it is not hard to imagine that, as Paul confronted heretical teachings and discord within the numerous congregations which he had founded, the apostle would have taken an active interest in developing a structure and leadership to combat those problems and help to protect his precious "children in the Lord." In fact, it is inconceivable to me that Paul's thinking wouldn't have evolved over time in an attempt to confront and rectify these continuing kinds of problems.

Finally, the last argument employed by Ehrman against Pauline authorship of these epistles appears to me to be the weakest of the four. He challenges what he considers to be flagrant attempts to copy Paul's language, style and teachings. The professor's favorite example of this kind of anomaly is found in the second epistle to the saints of Thessalonica. For Ehrman, this epistle simply sounds too much like Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians! In this context, I'm not sure why the professor doesn't have the same problem with Paul's second letter to the saints of Corinth (many of the same issues addressed in the first letter are revisited in that one). Moreover, I would think that we would expect a letter to the same congregation (same people and problems) to elicit similar language and a discussion of some of the same topics which had been previously addressed.

Ehrman, however, uses this similarity between the two letters (I and II Thessalonians) to pivot to his argument of dissimilarity. He points out that the author of the second letter cautions the congregation against supposing that Christ's return was imminent. After all, in the first letter, Paul had warned the congregation to stay alert because he didn't want them to be caught off guard. Perhaps, the difference between the two letters in this regard might be explained by the presence of false prophets and the fact that some people in the congregation had apparently given up on this life (were refusing to work)?

For me, there are a number of additional points which argue against attributing these epistles to someone other than Paul. First, most of these epistles are very personal and address very specific problems relative to the parties being addressed. One would expect a forger to avoid such details and attempt a more general approach. Second, these letters are referenced and quoted rather extensively in the Second Century suggesting that they had been in circulation for sometime prior to this. Third, it is evident that Paul and his writings were revered by Early Christians, and the strong impulse to preserve them is demonstrated by the fact that they are available to us in 2021. And, finally, the recognition by both the ancients and modern scholars that pseudepigraphal writings from this era do exist suggests the ability to differentiate between them and the genuine articles.

I have acknowledged that Moses could not possibly have authored all of the material in the Torah. I have also refuted the Fundamentalist and Literalist view of the Bible in numerous posts on this blog over the years (there is no personal vested interest in maintaining Pauline authorship of these epistles). Moreover, I have lauded Professor Ehrman's work in other areas in previous posts. In fact, my favorite book in the New Testament canon is the anonymous book of Hebrews (we don't know who wrote it). Hence, I think that my claim of being open to wherever the evidence led on this subject has some credibility. For me, the evidence which Professor Ehrman presented simply did not convince me that Paul is not the author of the books attributed to him in the New Testament canon. What do you think?


Sunday, July 18, 2021

The "Real" Jesus

Many of those who are familiar with the now defunct Worldwide Church of God will recall the book of that title by Garner Ted Armstrong. In The Real Jesus, Mr. Armstrong attempted to demonstrate that the Jesus Christ of the Bible was very different from the one portrayed by most of traditional Christianity. Indeed, as a consequence of almost two thousand years of extrabiblical portrayals of Jesus (in literature, art and music), there did seem to be a legitimate case to be made that the "real" Jesus had been so obscured by all of those works as to make him almost unreachable in our times. Moreover, at about the same time that his book was published, there began to be an increasing number of folks who questioned whether or not an individual named Jesus of Nazareth had ever even existed!

From my perspective, both of those views of Jesus Christ were/are extremely naïve. It is hard to take someone seriously who swallows the biblical narrative about Jesus hook, line and sinker; but it is also hard to entertain a thesis which ignores or dismisses so much evidence. One approach seeks to rescue Jesus from the extrabiblical myths and legends which have arisen about him, and the other seeks to totally discredit the notion that there was such a person! Both approaches, however, would have us believe that there has been a massive conspiracy to distort the truth of the matter! I've said it before: Humans tend to love the extremes.

Personally, I think Professor Bart Ehrman has taken a very scholarly and logical approach to the subject of "The Historical Jesus." In his book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, Ehrman devotes a whole chapter to the subject. In it, he immediately confronts the elephant in the room - that there are "problems with our sources." He also quickly acknowledges the dearth of non-Christian sources available to us (brief mentions by Pliny, Tacitus and Josephus - which was rendered less useful by the tampering of Christian scribes). Nevertheless, Professor Ehrman reminds us that we do have Christian sources in the guise of four gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) from the First Century which can (and do) provide us with some historically reliable material in the hands of a competent scholar.

Professor Ehrman wrote that "Historians who have wanted to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus have therefore had to avoid two extremes in dealing with the Gospels. One extreme is to ignore the problems and pretend the Gospels are all perfectly accurate, historically trustworthy, biographies of Jesus. They are not that. The other extreme is to throw up your hands in despair and declare that we can't know anything about the historical Jesus. That is not true either. These Gospels can be used as historical sources; but they need to be used carefully, following rigorous methodological principles. When these principles are followed, it becomes clear that we can indeed say some things about what it is Jesus really said, did, and experienced." (p. 304, The Bible, Oxford University Press, 2018)

Earlier in his book, Ehrman also did an excellent job of looking at the sources used by the anonymous authors of our canonical gospels and persuasively demonstrated that both Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark. Like other scholars before him, he also concluded that Matthew, Luke and John all relied on other older sources (written and oral) for significant portions of their accounts. Ehrman listed the four criteria which scholars like him apply to those gospel accounts to extract historically credible information as demanding: 1) Antiquity, 2) Independent Attestation, 3) Dissimilarity, and 4) Contextual Credibility.

Using these criteria, the professor tells us that there are a number of things which we can know about the historical Jesus. According to Ehrman, Jesus was a practicing Jew who hailed from Nazareth (a very poor and backwater town), and that he was baptized by John the Baptist. Ehrman also informs us that Jesus' preaching and teaching was firmly rooted in the tradition of an apocalyptic prophet. Moreover, using his scholarly criteria, Ehrman informs us that we can be very confident that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans. The professor, of course, takes no position on the those elements of the gospel accounts which must rest entirely on the premise of faith for Christians (e.g. the virgin birth in Bethlehem, the miracles and the resurrection). Elsewhere in the book, Ehrman also makes plain that Christ was almost certainly born in the year 4 BCE and died in the year 30 CE.

Hence, from an historical perspective, Bart Ehrman demonstrates that we can know some things about the real Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Christian claims about the man are to be believed or not is a matter of personal opinion. For me, in addition to the historical facts which Ehrman underscored in his treatise, I also believe that Jesus of Nazareth was/is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, the Son of God and the Savior of humankind. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The New Covenant

As NEO has skillfully articulated in two posts over at Banned by HWA, the Armstrongist notion that Christians are obligated to observe the tenets of the Old Covenant as outlined in the Torah is wrong. Both posts elicited a number of interesting comments from Armstrongites in defense of their attempts to observe those laws. And, while their primary prooftext is Christ's statement that he didn't come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-19), another comment caught my eye as expressing one of the foundational notions of their beliefs in this regard.

The anonymous commentator asked: "Where are the terms of the 'New Covenant' spelt out in all this detail you talk about?" He/she went on to say, "I don't see it." In other words, Armstrongites have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that anything was wrong with the terms of the Old Covenant, and they can't seem to get their arms around the fact that anything needed to be changed. At any rate, I was struck by his/her blindness to the fact that the terms of the New Covenant are discussed in a number of places in the writings we refer to as the New Testament.

In his response to the commentator's question, NEO nicely summarized this fundamentally flawed Armstrongist notion regarding the terms of the New Covenant. He wrote: "There is an argument current among Armstrongists that I have encountered several times before. It goes like this. There is no covenant language in the NT. There are no laws in the NT. There are no terms in the NT. Hence, the NT must be all about the OT and the OT is still in force." NEO went on to point out: "The Sermon on the Mount contains a implementation of new litigation. It contains behavioral requirements just as the OT contained behavioral requirements. There are outcomes in the NT just as in the OT. There is a quid pro quo in John 3:16. And Jesus said "Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." Apparently Jesus thought that he had inaugurated something new and it was complete enough to be called a testament. Every time you take the Eucharist you sign up to this."

In addition to NEO's excellent musings on the subject, the folks over at Christianity.com did a pretty good job of answering the question What Is the New Covenant in Jesus Christ? by citing some of the actual scriptures which answer that question. However, before listing a number of those verses, they provide this summary of the New Covenant's terms: "The New Covenant is the promise that God makes with mankind that He will forgive sin and restore communion with those whose hearts believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant, and His death on the cross is the basis of the promise. He defeated death by His resurrection and restored life for those who believe in Him."

I have also included a few of the scriptures which they cited as an integral part of their answer:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." ~ John 3:16

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." ~ Luke 22:19-20

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." ~ John 14:6

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”      ~ Jeremiah 31:31-34

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." ~ Hebrews 8:6-8

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. ~ Hebrews 8:13

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. ~ Hebrews 9:15

Who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. ~ II Corinthians 3:6

And to the above list, there are a few additional verses which I think are pertinent to answering the question:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." ~ Matthew 22:37-40

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." ~ John 13:34-35

"As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 'These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another." ~ John 15:9-17

"Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." ~ Romans 13:8-10

So, that anonymous commentator may not have been able to find the terms of the New Covenant that NEO was writing about, but the above list provides a good start for the rest of us! Moreover, even without the above scriptures, common sense dictates that the very designation of "new" suggests a difference from that which formerly existed - the "old." And, when we're talking about the provisions of a covenant, the designation of "new" implies that the "old" has been abrogated. This, however, is the very point that causes Armstrongites to stumble! The Torah has not been abrogated, but its status as an active component/provision of the current covenant between God and "His" people has been rescinded. As NEO and I have pointed out, Christ summarized and expanded the spiritual principles that underpinned all of those dos and don't which belonged to the Old Covenant and made THAT part of the terms of the New Covenant.  

Sunday, July 11, 2021

One of Many?

I have on a number of occasions remarked about my respect for the biblical scholarship and work of Bart Ehrman. And, while his textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction is an excellent guide to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, it also provides us with some excellent examples of how reasonable people can look at the exact same evidence and arrive at different conclusions. One such instance stood out to me when I was reading that book, and it inspired this post.

In the seventeenth chapter of Ehrman's book (The World of Jesus and His Followers), he told a story about a "remarkable" individual from the First Century. Ehrman wrote: "From the beginning, his mother knew that he would be no ordinary person. Prior to his birth, a heavenly figure appeared to her announcing that her son would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. The boy was already recognized as a spiritual authority in his youth...As an adult, he left home to engage in an itinerant preaching ministry. He went from village to town with his message of good news...He gathered around himself a number of disciples who were amazed by his teaching and his flawless character. They became convinced that he was no ordinary man but was the Son of God...At the end of his life, his enemies trumped up charges against him, and he was placed on trial before Roman authorities for crimes against the state." (Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 239)

Ehrman probably correctly assumed that most of his students would conclude that this narrative was about Jesus Christ of Nazareth. However, in dramatic fashion, the professor finally reveals that the narrative is about one Apollonius of Tyana (a pagan holy man and teacher). He went on to point out that Jesus and Apollonius weren't the only supernaturally ordained teachers/miracle workers extant in the Greco-Roman world of this period. Ehrman concluded: "Even though Jesus may be the only miracle-working Son of God that  we know about in our world, he was one of many talked about in the first century." (Ibid., p.239)

Later in the same chapter, Ehrman points out two "other Jewish miracle-working sons of God." (Ibid., p.248). Once again, the point being that these individuals were common to the Judaism of this period. The clear implication being that the claims about Jesus of Nazareth were not extraordinary and would not have excited much interest within the context of his own times.

Now, while I accept Ehrman's historical narrative about the First Century, I think that the evidence he offers in this chapter demonstrates something other than the point he was trying to make. For me, the fact that there were a great many of these messianic preachers wandering around the Roman Empire of the First Century underscores the unique nature of Jesus and his followers. Outside of scholarly circles, how many folks have heard about Apollonius, Simon of Perea, Judas the Galilean, Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa? Obviously, NONE of those other spiritual leaders of this era had anything even approaching the lasting impact that Jesus Christ had on planet earth. If Jesus was merely one of many, then how do we account for the fact that billions of humans in 2021 know his name and are familiar with his teachings? How do we account for the complete failure of the polytheistic religions of the conquerors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome) and the absolute triumph of the God and Scriptures of a persecuted and powerless group of nomads?   

Friday, July 9, 2021

Turning Hearts?

Back in March of this year, Banned by HWA posted a piece by me entitled Why must your son be so disrespectful of you and your religion? In the post, I took my father's CGI "friends" to task for bringing to his attention everything I write about Armstrongism, CGI or Pastor Bill Watson. I thought that it would shame those individuals into refraining from causing him distress, but apparently a few of those fine folks continue to delight in stirring the commode!

A few days ago, I received a notification that my brother had left a nasty comment about something that was posted on Banned on May 26th of this year: Church of God International's Civil War Over Covid-19. When my brother informed me about it, I asked him why he was commenting on something which had been posted over a month ago. He informed that some of my father's church "friends" had brought it to my dad's attention, and that it had upset him so severely that he couldn't catch his breath (my father is chronically ill). Moreover, my brother went on to inform me that my father would not be attending his wedding reception because I was planning to attend!

After hanging up the phone with my brother, I couldn't help but think about two verses at the end of the Old Testament which Herbert Armstrong and the old Worldwide Church loved to quote. You probably already know the ones I'm referring to: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." (Malachi 4:5-6) More proof that that verse had/has absolutely NOTHING to do with Armstrongism! Yeah, they're turning hearts, but they obviously aren't turning them in the right direction!

Unfortunately, my family's rupture over Armstrongism is NOT unique in this regard. Even a cursory review of the comments and posts of those who have left Armstrongism over the years will demonstrate this sad reality. Indeed, when we survey the broken marriages and families directly attributable to Armstrongism, it is hard to imagine a more disastrous record with regard to interpersonal relationships, families, Christian love and fellowship - the very things which they are supposed to represent and protect! Moreover, many of these folks have the audacity to turn on their critics and accuse them of causing dissension and disunity (talk about the pot calling the kettle black)!

And let's not forget that this particular splinter (CGI) claims to be very different from the Worldwide Church of God and to have moved beyond the teachings of Herbert Armstrong. If that is truly the case, then why do they keep repeating so many of his mistakes? Why do families like mine continue to suffer the recriminations and heartaches that were so much a part of Worldwide's legacy?

Now, while those "friends" probably (hopefully) didn't intend to inflict this kind of damage on my family, we (me and my loved ones) must all live with the fallout of their pathetic attempt to exert pressure on me through my dad to silence my criticism of their church. And, just for the record, on the other side of that wreckage, it didn't work! In fact, I am more motivated than ever to point out just how destructive and harmful Armstrongism has been to so many people.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Happy Birthday America!

On the occasion of the two hundred and forty-fifth anniversary of our formal declaration of independence from the United Kingdom, it is appropriate to reflect on the history and current circumstances of our nation. It has been said by some that the United States of America was founded by Christian men on Judeo-Christian principles. Others, however, have disputed that characterization and have underscored the secular nature of the government that the Founding Fathers put in place. As with most things, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

While it is true that most of the Founding Fathers were Christians (and that the ideas/philosophies which motivated them were squarely based in the Judeo-Christian tradition), it is also true that they were products of the Age of Enlightenment (and that many of them practiced what most modern Evangelical Christians would characterize as a very liberal form of Christianity). To be clear, while Thomas Jefferson had a high regard for Scripture, he was NOT a Fundamentalist or a Literalist.

Moreover, we must not forget that many of these very brilliant and religious men were also slave owners, capitalists and consummate politicians. Hence, in our evaluation of their character and work, it is important not to get lost in sentimental nostalgia and acknowledge that (like all humans) they had strengths and weaknesses. In other words, we can respect their extraordinary accomplishments without deifying them!

And, while we can certainly understand what motivated our forefathers to think of themselves as God's chosen people and to regard this land as a kind of new Promised Land, we must not forget that they took this land away from the Natives and enslaved their African brethren to build their "shining city on a hill." Hence, there is much to celebrate on this anniversary of our founding, but there is also much that has transpired which can never be a source of pride or a reason to toast.

In the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, God evaluated a nation by the character and behavior of its people and their leaders (religious and political). In other words, a nation stood justified or condemned before God based on the degree to which they adhered to his principles. Moreover, the Apostle Paul once wrote to the saints at Corinth that if we would take the time to examine ourselves we wouldn't have to fall under God's condemnation. So, that being the case, how have we (the people of the United States) done in living up to the principles that all humans are created equal and are entitled by God to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Finally, as Christians, we should also remember that Christ and his apostles warned God's saints to never forget that their primary citizenship was in God's Kingdom. While they repeatedly reminded their followers about their financial and political obligations to the Roman Emperor and his representatives, they also stressed the fact that their responsibility to follow Christ's teachings must take precedence over all of their earthly obligations. Hence, while it was certainly appropriate to participate and take pride in their identity as citizens of Rome, they must never lose sight of their overarching allegiance to Jesus Christ.

Thus, in the humble opinion of this American, while we have much to celebrate on this important day, we also have much to contemplate and regret.  Humility and repentance are certainly Godly virtues and are things to be embraced by all TRUE Christians. Our forefathers accomplished some wonderful things (things that are worthy of celebration), but we must also never forget that there is unfinished work to do. On an individual and collective basis, we have not reached perfection. We cannot rest on the accomplishments of our ancestors, we must strive to finish the work which they began and to correct the mistakes which they (and we) have made along the way. In other words, when we enjoy our cookouts today and watch those fireworks tonight, let us also remember that we have miles to go before we sleep - MILES TO GO BEFORE WE SLEEP!

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Death of Dottie

Most of the posts which appear on this blog deal with God and the theology which surrounds that entity, but I have published a few posts over the years which describe in some shape, form or fashion how I personally relate to these topics. This is such a post. For several weeks now, I have been dealing with my grief over the loss of a beloved family pet. Her name was Dottie, and we loved her very much.

Now, I'm aware of just how self-interested and self-important many humans are in relation to the other living things which share this planet with us. For them, humankind is so much more important than any of those other lifeforms as to render them almost invisible. Who has time for household pets when humans are starving and coping with horrific issues like disease, slavery and violence? For these folks, taking a moment to comment on the passing of a pet chicken is a huge waste of time and attention. And, after all, he did just say chicken - we aren't even talking about a beloved dog or cat. In other words, an animal which ranks far below the aforementioned "normal" objects of human affection!

Nevertheless, I do believe that Dottie was deserving of my love and attention, and the grief which I have experienced as a consequence of her passing was real and merited. Dottie enjoyed being held, petted and told how pretty she was. She enjoyed her daily walkabouts, being fed dandelion greens and wild strawberries and running after my grandchildren. She would get excited when she spotted one of us in the yard and start clucking and pacing in her coop. Unfortunately, Dottie was also extremely jealous of our neighbor's dogs. When she was out of her pen, if she happened to spot me petting on one of them, she would immediately run toward the offending dog and try to attack them! (I had to save the dogs on several occasions, but my scolding never seemed to deter her from repeating the scene over and over again.)

And then, last month, she was gone suddenly. Dottie had survived the deaths of the other five chickens who had begun their lives with me as chicks under a brooder lamp in my basement. She had survived five Illinois winters and an attack by a hawk, but a stray cat figured out a way to get into her house one night and violently put an end to her life. And, yes, I do understand that Dottie's death was not the equivalent of a human child taking its last breath in its mother's arms because of inadequate food or medical care, but it wasn't nothing. And that awareness brings to mind a question: Does that disparity between the child and Dottie mean that my pet's final breath was the end for her, but not for the child?

Although the Genesis account of creation is a beautiful and meaningful narrative, I worry that it has made too many of us insensitive to the other lifeforms which share this planet with us. The fact that we belong to separate creative acts, and that humankind was given dominion over all of those other lifeforms, sometimes has the effect of inflating our sense of our own importance and diminishing theirs. Moreover, for too many individuals, the poetry and symbolism of that Genesis account has replaced or obscured the scientific narrative of how life on this planet became so diverse.

Science teaches us that all of the life on this planet (including us) evolved from a common ancestor. The Bible teaches us that God is the source of all of the life on this planet. Hence, in both accounts, our origins have ONE source! In other words, we share a common origin with all of the other lifeforms on this planet. Not to mention the fact that we share this planet with each other and depend on each other in ways too numerous to mention. Like it or not, we are inextricably linked to each other!

Unfortunately, our English translation of the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, sometimes obscures the fact that those writings do not support many of the notions which we believe distinguish us from those other lifeforms. For instance, did you know that the Hebrew words for living, breathing things is used to describe both humans and animals? In other words, in the original Hebrew, a human's breath is the same as the breath of a lion, dog or chicken!

Moreover, this concept of the same breath/life inhabiting the breasts of both man and beast is not just implied in the language of the Hebrew Old Testament - it is also explicitly stated in the book of Ecclesiastes. We read there: "For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return." Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, English Standard Version This leads the author of the book to ponder: "Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?" Ecclesiastes 3:21, English Standard Version

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ taught his disciples: "That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds! Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things? Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?" Luke 12:22-28, New Living Translation

At first glance, Christ's statement appears to support the narrative that humans are so much more important than plants and animals. However, when we stop and contemplate what Christ was saying, we see that God also cares about ravens and lilies. Yes, humans are more important to God, but Christ makes very clear here that God cared about those other lifeforms too! In similar fashion, Christ also revealed to his disciples that God is aware of the death of a single sparrow (see Matthew 10:29).

I don't wish to be misunderstood - I'm not advocating for the acceptance of the notion of a pet heaven. I do, however, think that the author of the book of Ecclesiastes was asking the right question: Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? It may never happen, but the thought of seeing and holding Dottie again someday does bring a smile to my face!