In Which I Continue To Rant About Bad Theology On the Internet

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The picture used in the article being discussed

The picture used in the article being discussed

A few days ago, I happened to see this online article: 10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus, by Mark Sandlin. After wondering whether it was meant to be some kind of satire and looking for signs of sarcasm, I have had to come to the conclusion that it was written in all seriousness. It just sounds silly because it misrepresents Jesus so badly. What bothers me about it is that I’ve heard these exact same arguments from so many people on so many occasions. I understand that the people who say and write these kinds of things are doing so out of good intentions, genuine interest in other people’s well-being, and the belief that they are doing what the Bible tells them to do. But the Bible isn’t a handbook on social justice, and if you read it that way, you’re missing out on a lot. Furthermore, many of these arguments just aren’t supported by the Bible anyway. I’m writing this blog post in the format of a direct response, but I’m not so much criticizing that particular article as explaining why I’m frustrated by the common mindset behind it. Here are Sandlin’s ten “things you can’t do while following Jesus” and my response to them.

10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others

If the point here is that it’s impossible for government to enforce faith, of course that’s true. And if the point is that it’s immoral for the government to try to enforce faith, I agree to some extent. A theocracy based upon Biblical doctrine is a nice idea, but that’s not the kind of government we have, and we wouldn’t be doing any good if we tried to turn this country into a theocracy. But I don’t think that’s what this article is saying, given the fact that it continues, “One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion- because that’s how love works.” Really? Jesus was so humble that He didn’t care if people believed what He said? And Jesus said that free will is the same thing as love? Where does the Bible say that? I’m finding verses that say things like, “…but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”, (John 3: 18) and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Contrary to what Sandlin says, Jesus talks about freedom less frequently than He talks about belief, and when He does discuss freedom, he says things like, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) I have a feeling that’s not what Sandlin means when he uses the term “free will”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can or should try to force people to become Christians. The Bible also says that “this [faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) I am not by any means advocating for a campaign to turn this country into a theocracy. But there is no Biblical basis for the postmodern belief that religious differences don’t matter or that we shouldn’t want people who we love to come to faith.

9) Advocate for war

Jesus: An Artist's Rendition

Jesus: An Artist’s Rendition

Interestingly enough, the first actual Bible quotation cited in this article is quoted in order to disagree with it. Sandlin quotes Matthew 10:34 (although he doesn’t actually give the reference in the article), which says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He even acknowledges that there are a couple other verses that say the same thing, but discounts them because “they don’t hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking.” He doesn’t offer any such verses, so I got out a concordance and looked them up. I counted, and Jesus used the word “peace” or a form thereof 24 times in the four gospels in the King James Version. In many of these cases, it is part of the phrases “hold thy peace”, “peace be with you,” or “go in peace.” In the parable being told in Luke 11:21, the word is “safe” in most translations, and it refers to possessions, not people. Luke 14:32 also is part of a parable, and “peace” is not what the parable is discussing, as is made clear six verses earlier. Then there is the aforementioned Matthew 10:34 and the corresponding verse in Luke, and a couple verses in Matthew and Luke in which Jesus tells his apostles to bring their peace to a house that is worthy, but not to a house that is not worthy. That leaves five verses that Sandlin could have quoted. I have a feeling that Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”) is what he had in mind here. (Incidentally, the beatitudes tend to be misused; one ought to remember that a person who is “blessed” is someone who has received a gift, not someone who has earned a reward.)The others are Mark 9:50, (which ends “…and be at peace with one another”) Luke 19:42, (“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”) John 14:27, (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”) and John 16:33. (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”) There’s a big difference between “In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” and “In the world you will have peace because of me.” Jesus said the first one; He never said the latter one, and Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but the sword”) is not, as Sandlin implies, in contradiction with the rest of the Bible. Of course, war is a bad thing and should be avoided. But it happens, (Matthew 24: 6 and 7) and when it’s necessary, Christians are not compelled by their faith to oppose it.

8) Favor the rich over the poor

This one is absolutely true, and in fact Sandlin could have used Bible verses to back this one up, particularly from the Proverbs (14:21, 19:17, 31:9) and then there’s the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, which doesn’t actually include the word “poor”, but it does say “those of humble estate.” And Jesus Himself occasionally talks about giving to the poor.  I’m a little puzzled as to why the author of this article didn’t choose to quote the Bible. I rather suspect, though, that he’s hinting his disapproval at some particular law or practice in our culture, and I’m not even sure what that is, unless, of course, he’s arguing for a communist or socialist society. In that case, it’s obvious why he can’t find verses to go with that idea. Jesus wasn’t a political figure and he didn’t have a lot to say about politics except “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) which isn’t exactly a radical or controversial statement. Jesus is saying that we’re supposed to respect and obey the government, which applies to any kind of political system and has nothing to do with who is rich and who is poor.

7) Cut funding that hurts the least of these

Who ever said anything about government funding? The government in Judea under the Roman Empire did not, as far as I know, have any kind of welfare system at all, and there is no place in the Bible where Jesus has much to say about that lack. If He had had a choice, perhaps Jesus would have been in favor of a welfare system, but we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t
specifically say. It obviously wasn’t an important enough issue to have a place in Scripture. There’s a reason for that; the Bible is about what Jesus did for us, not about how Jesus thinks the government should treat us. Here, Sandlin finally gets around to quoting something from the Bible to support his argument: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” He doesn’t give the reference, though. I can’t actually find it, but I think that this verse was taken out of context; I seem to recall that Jesus was talking about children, not poor people. If I’m incorrect about that, I do apologize, but either way, this verse isn’t about government welfare and budget cuts.

6) Let people go hungry

Pictured: Not Jesus

Pictured: Not Jesus

Ooh, now we get a Gandhi quote! Seriously, did he not have his Bible accessible when he was writing this article? Or did he look, and realized that there’s no Bible verse that says, “And Jesus said, ‘When anyone is unable to provide food for his or her self, it is the government’s job to provide food for them.’”? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it’s just absurd to quote Gandhi in an article about what “Jesus-followers” should do. Of course Jesus didn’t want people to starve; in fact, He performed miracles on a couple of occasions in order to feed His followers. But there was nothing political in that act of providence, and He never said anything to indicate that we are required to view it as a precedent for government policies.

5) Withhold healthcare from people

When did Jesus discuss healthcare specifically? Sandlin makes this point on the basis that Jesus healed people. Yes, He did, that’s true. The author goes on to acknowledge that we cannot work the miracles that Jesus could, but says that modern health care is pretty close to a miracle. That statement is dangerous; it sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to put modern medicine and/or government funding in the place of Jesus. There’s a word for something that tries to take the place of Jesus; that word is “antichrist”, and it’s generally considered by Christians (or “Jesus-followers,” if you will) to be a bad thing. Again, I’m not denying that Jesus was in favor of taking care of people, but how do you start from that premise and suddenly insist that this means that Jesus expected the government to pay for healthcare?

4) Limit the rights of a select group of people

Okay… what “select group of people” are we talking about, and what “rights”? I agree with this statement as presented, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a subtle way to refer to some specific issue, and I’m not even sure which one. But anyway, Jesus didn’t talk a whole lot about “rights”, and an awful lot of the things that twenty-first century Americans label as “rights” aren’t discussed in the Bible. The phrase “certain unalienable human rights” comes from the Declaration of Independence, which is a very nice document and one that we, as Americans, should respect. But we ought to recognize the difference between biblical doctrine and American ideology, even where they don’t conflict and we agree with both. And even the Declaration of Independence says that these rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which is so vague that you can’t use it to really make a case for many of the political agendas that I think the author may be subtly referencing. I want to reiterate once again that I’m not completely disagreeing with the goodness of the principle, or saying that it’s totally incorrect. But this principle in and of itself is not biblical and cannot be used to support the kinds of arguments that I think are being implied here.

3) Turn away immigrants

Again, where does this come from? Sandlin lists travelers in the Old Testament and points out that “Christian heritage runs through Judaism. We are an immigrant people. Even our religion began somewhere else.” I understand the point, but where does Jesus say that a government is compelled to never deny immigration? Examples do not make a principle. If Sandlin is speaking against racial discrimination, he could build a better case by quoting any of the several verses in the Epistles that talks about Jews and Gentiles, but even then, this in no way indicates that the government doesn’t have the right to turn away an immigrant when those in authority believe that there is good reason. The current immigration issues in our country are problematic, and I personally don’t know what needs to be done, or whether a “liberal” or “conservative” approach is better.  Certainly we shouldn’t make it illegal for people to move, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any restrictions, or that we shouldn’t do anything to prevent people from sneaking across borders without the approval of both governments. It’s not an issue with only two sides; there are many different things that our political leaders need to take into consideration. The Bible doesn’t give an answer on this issue. It doesn’t specifically discuss the political aspects of immigration.

2) Devalue education

Sandlin says this based on the use of the word “wisdom” in the Proverbs, which isn’t really a valid point because “wisdom” is not synonymous with “education”.  Perhaps that’s splitting hairs a little, but once again, what does this have to do with government funding? The author’s assertion is making the assumptions that a) education is the responsibility of the government and that b) more funding automatically means better education. Both of these are debatable, and neither of these is something that Jesus talked about.

1) Support capital punishment- execution

Christ on the CrossThis is the worst part of this list, and what makes it even more horrible is the fact that it comes in at number one. It isn’t the sentiment itself that I mind so much. Although the Bible doesn’t say anything against capital punishment, in theory there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a country deciding not to use that particular authority. But the argument that Sandlin gives has nothing to do with the authority of the government or with the Bible. It starts by saying, “Jesus died by execution. He was an innocent man.” For just a moment, it looks like there’s finally something in this article that sounds like Christianity. Here we finally have a mention of Jesus’ death on the cross, and even a hint that the purpose of his death was sacrificial. But that’s not where this article is going. It goes on to say that it’s unloving to kill, and ends, “It’s time to stop the government-sanctioned killing.” Is this article really telling us that the message we’re supposed to get from Jesus’ death is that capital punishment is bad? Instead of seeing what Jesus has done for us, we’re supposed to see a reason to criticize our own government? Instead of receiving forgiveness of sins and salvation, we’re supposed to receive motivation to push for the abolishment of a law we think is “unloving”? This isn’t just ignoring the cross; it’s using the image of the cross to cover up the purpose of the cross!

I know that there are Christians on both sides of any social or political issue who see Christianity as a reason for their position, and I know that both Republican Christians and Democrat Christians often have a tendency to mix religion and politics. Sometimes, that isn’t even such a bad thing, because it’s true that religious morals should cause us to do good things in our lives, including the areas where politics are concerned. But when we use faith to inform our political and moral values, and when we use the teachings of Jesus to explain these values, we need to make sure we’re actually agreeing with those teachings, not just manipulating them and mixing them with clichés and Gandhi quotes in order to say whatever will justify our political beliefs. And, even more importantly, something is wrong when we think that Christianity is just about politics. It’s horrible and frightening when people can talk about their “Christian” faith without mentioning Christ and his crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins. It’s even worse that law and gospel have gotten so lost that people can actually talk about the crucifixion without seeing salvation and grace there. Jesus came to die for your sins, people! If Jesus’ teachings inform your political opinions, that’s a good thing, but don’t let your political opinions redefine Jesus!

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Cotton Candy: A blog post in which I rant about bad theology on the internet

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Not naming names, but...

Not naming names, but…

No matter how many times I hear or read it, it always takes me by surprise when someone claims that personal bible study means picking a verse, meditating on it, and determining what that verse means for you in your life. But that’s something that people say a lot. In fact, what I just typed is fairly close to a direct quotation from something I saw online just the other day. I wonder where that idea even comes from in the first place, because it is just so obviously problematic.

First of all, why is it supposedly a good idea to deliberately take something out of context? That is inevitably going to create misunderstandings. You can make the Bible say pretty much anything if you just pick random phrases without taking into consideration what the whole passage is saying. I mean, technically the Bible says that there is no God. (Psalm 14:1. Look it up.) That’s obviously an extreme example, but it just goes to show that taking words out of context risks manipulating their meaning. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with memorizing specific Bible verses or even putting them on T-shirts and bumper stickers and wall decorations. But make sure they mean what you think they mean, and do that by reading the Bible, not by soul-searching and self-reflection. The human mind is no substitute for the Bible, and it can’t offer the context for a Bible verse the way that surrounding Bible verses do.

When I googled "Bible study inspiration" to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

When I googled “Bible study inspiration” to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

And why do we think that we’re supposed to decide for ourselves what a Bible verse means specifically for our own individual lives? What’s wrong with the idea that a Bible verse means the same thing regardless of who’s reading it or what’s currently going on in their life? Maybe there’s some comfort in the notion that God has things to say to specifically address your various life problems as they occur, but there’s greater comfort in the notion that God’s word and His gifts are constant and consistent regardless of the changes and difficulties that each individual faces throughout their life. The good thing is, that’s what happens to be true, as promised in Psalm 102, for example. There are zillions of other places in the Bible say that God and/or God’s word don’t change, but I’m not going to make a list here because I can hear some reader somewhere wondering how I can quote a list of individual Bible verses after writing the previous paragraph. (Although, incidentally, I would have looked up the entire chapter instead of the individual verses, just to make sure I wasn’t taking them out of context. Admittedly, another reason that I’m not doing that is because this is a quick and slapdash blog post, not a time-consuming and carefully-written one.)

fortune tellerThe only way to pretend that God’s word is subjective and relative, meaning different things in different situations, is to imagine that it is as vague and empty as a fortune or horoscope, which are ultimately meaningless because they are constructed with a deliberate attempt to be completely flexible.  I had written a pretty long paragraph about internet apps that give daily “personalized messages from God”, but I deleted that because I suppose someone could argue that I was building a straw man there; I doubt that many people actually believe that those kinds of randomized computer-generated messages are divine. But the idea that God sends you a new personalized message via the internet every day isn’t much different than thinking that the actual Bible shifts its meaning to reflect your changing circumstances and emotional needs. God’s word is better and more versatile than a “personalized” message or fortune because it actually is universally relevant without having to vary its meaning at all.

What results from a self-reflective method of reading the Bible is cotton candy theology. In the search for emotionally meaningful advice and words of comfort, the reality of sin gets ignored. People take the beautiful and life-giving words of forgiveness and salvation out of context and forget about their own sinfulness in the first place. Then Jesus’ death on the cross loses its significance, and thus the gospel becomes watered down as well. Now the law looks like a flexible and vague set of strategies to make your life better or to make you a cooler person, and the gospel looks like a cheerful and vague reminder that God cares about you. This is the cotton candy theology; nothing is left but overly-processed sugar, air, and a little pink food coloring to keep people interested. (That food coloring can take the form of emotional worship music, inspiring testimonies, fun church youth group activities… If it sounds cool and is supposedly religious but doesn’t have Jesus in it, it’s just food coloring.)

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it's good because people buy it, right?

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it’s good because people buy it, right?

My question is this: Why settle for fluff and air when we can have something substantial and important to say by acknowledging the reality and seriousness of sin? Why settle for weak artificial sweetener if we can have the true sweetness of the gospel by remembering what Jesus did for us on the cross? Why settle for artificial pink food coloring when we can have the genuine blood of Christ in the sacrament? And why settle for cotton candy by narrowing our study of God’s word when we could have cake by reading and trusting the whole Bible?

Stuff That Isn’t in the Bible

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Five in the morningMistakes

“You are worth dying for.”- Jesus

You are worth dying forFor the sake of not being mean, I’m not going to specify where I saw this or who put it there. (Although I am rather hoping that they will see this blog post and realize that my objection to it went beyond the fact that it involves ending a sentence with a preposition.) The context where I first saw it isn’t actually a relevant point, because this phrase can be found in many places on the internet, and it would seem that it’s something of a cliché in the internet Christian community. As great as it is that many people use the internet to talk about religion, the problem with the internet Christian community is that it tends to be dominated by clichés.

The problem with this particular cliché is that it attributes a quotation to Jesus that isn’t actually from the Bible. One must always be careful when putting words in Jesus’ mouth, and when I say that one must be careful, I really mean that one shouldn’t do it. Paraphrasing is a dangerous thing when the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting is not clearly made. That’s true in academic writing and it’s true when talking about God.

I’m not saying that paraphrasing is bad in general, because it isn’t. As an English major who is used to writing a lot of papers, I can’t deny that there is definitely a place for paraphrasing. If I tried to deny that, I would earn the disapproval of many professors. Sometimes, paraphrasing is the most efficient way to make a point, especially when you’re trying to express a simple idea by referring to a text that discusses multiple ideas and therefore uses complex language. Sometimes, it’s the best way to draw together two related ideas that come from different texts. Paraphrasing is often necessary in order to have an opportunity to use your own writing style and voice, and it’s the only way to show your professor (or any other reader) that you actually understand what you’re saying and have put thought into your topic. Some of those reasons to paraphrase can definitely apply to talking about the Bible, and others may or may not, depending upon the context. But, just as in any form of academic writing, it’s always important when talking about Jesus to distinguish between an actual quotation and paraphrasing.

The idea behind this particular cliché paraphrased quotation is obviously to express Jesus’ love for us, which is so great that he willingly sacrificed himself to pay for our sins. That’s a good idea to express, and it’s Biblical and true and important. The problem is that it isn’t really what that phrase is saying. It’s way too easy to equivocate on the word “worth”. Actually, I’m not sure that even counts as equivocation, because the misunderstanding is what the expression is actually saying, and the intended meaning requires redefining words a little.

CrucifixThe problematic word here is “worth”. “Worth” is an expression of value, and value is generally understood to be a property of the thing being valued, not the person by whom the thing is valued. To say “you are worth dying for” is to imply that the “you” being addressed has inherent worth and is worthy in and of him/herself. This is contrary both to Lutheranism and to Christian doctrine in general. It is important to understand that our worth and worthiness are not the reason that Christ died for us, they are a cause of the fact that Christ died for us. In and of ourselves, we are not worth anything, and we certainly are not worth something as valuable as the life that Jesus sacrificed for us. If this cliché included the prepositional phrase “to me”, that would help a little, but there’s still something wrong with the fact that “you” is the subject of the sentence while Jesus is being pushed into a little prepositional phrase. Yes, it’s true that there are many Bible verses where the word “you” is the subject, but that’s different because every Bible verse is surrounded by a large and rich context. (That is, the Bible) A religious cliché that doesn’t come from the Bible has only an implied context, so if it doesn’t stand on its own, it’s in danger of saying something it really doesn’t mean. (Or at least, we really hope that’s not what it actually means.)

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

Even though the intended meaning behind “You are worth dying for” is a Biblical idea, the accidental meaning is directly anti-Biblical because it contradicts Romans 5:6-8, which says, “ετι γαρ Xριστος, οντων ημων ασθενων ετι, κατα καιρον υπερ ασεβων απεθανεν. μολις γαρ υπερ δικαιου τις αποθανειται; υπερ γαρ του αγαθου, ταχα τις και τολμα αποθανειν; συνιστησιν δε την εαυτου αγαπην εις ημας ο θεος, οτι ετι αμαρτωλων οντων ημων, Xριστος υπερ ημων απεθανεν.” Or, in other words, (English ones) “For Christ, when we were still without strength, according to the right time, for the ungodly he died. For rarely for the righteous will one die, yet for the good man, perhaps someone would even dare to die, but God commends his love for us that, we being sinners, Christ died for us.”

(As a side note, I confess that about 70% of the reason for my recent inclination to use Greek words on my blog is that it makes me feel clever, even though I realize that there’s a big difference between knowing something and knowing how to look something up. But it’s worth noting that about 7% of the reason for my use of Greek words is that Greek is just awesomer than English, and the other 23% is that quoting Bible verses in Greek is more accurate because the New Testament was in Greek in the first place. And I think that those are both valid reasons. As another side note, I would like to acknowledge the likelihood that I may have made a mistake in the preceding paragraph. As yet another side note, I would like to point out how excited I am that I only had to peek in the King James a little bit to figure out what the Greek of Romans 5:6-8 is in English. And, yeah, I think that’s enough side notes for now.)

I hadn’t really thought ahead to how I was going to finish this blog post, and now it’s morning and it’s time for me to do daytime stuff, so I’m just going to leave it there.  The end.

A Good Friday Blog Post with Greek Words in It

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Jesus' arrestI noticed something fascinating and awesome during the Good Friday service today. It was in the Passion reading from John 18 and 19, and the particular verse was John 18:8, when the chief priests and officers have arrived in the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Twice, Jesus asks them who they are seeking and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” John 18:8 is Jesus’ response the second time. In the ESV, the verse reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’” The bit that made me notice something fascinating and awesome was the “let these men go” bit. I remembered hearing on Worldview Everlasting, my favorite youtube addiction, that there’s a certain Greek word that is often translated “forgiven” that can also be translated as something along the lines of “sent away” or “separated”, among other things. (Which is really interesting, because it means that the phrase “your sins are forgiven” is equivalent to “your sins have been sent away”)

Even after much searching, I have failed to find the Worldview Everlasting video in question, and I actually don’t remember exactly what it said or which verse it quoted. (Although I think it may have been Matthew 9:2) I did, however, find the Greek word in question.  It is αφίημι and the various forms thereof. For example, the last phrase of Matthew 9:2, “Your sins have been forgiven” in the ESV, is “αφίενταί σου αί αμαρτίαι”in Greek.  αφίενταί, according to a certain library book, is the present passive third-person form of αφίημι.  And the beginning of Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (in the Lord’s Prayer) is “καί άφες ημίν τά οφειλήματα ημων.”  άφες  is the second-person imperative active form of αφίημι. I have here in front of me a book that has approximately a bajillion examples of places where forms of αφίημι are found in the Bible, with a variety of different English translations depending upon the context. The point is that it is indeed a word that means forgive/ let go of/send away, etc.

The other point is that John 18:8 is in that list. (Or at least, it’s presumably there somewhere; I can’t actually find it at the moment, and I am hereby acknowledging that, just in case I’m wrong that it’s a form of the same word.) According to the internet, in the Greek, John 18:8 reads, “απεκριθη Ιησους, Ειπον υμιν οτι εγω ειμι. ει ουν εμε ζητειτε, αφετε τουτους υπαγειν”, except that I left out all of the accent marks and stuff because I’m too lazy to deal with them. (Also, some things, like the breathing marks over leading vowels, don’t appear to exist on Microsoft Word. That’s annoying.) The part that the ESV translates “Let these men go away” is the part that says “αφετε τουτους υπαγειν” in Greek. (Incidentally, τουτους is a pronoun, not a noun, so wouldn’t it make more sense for the English translation to be “Let them go away”?) αφετε is evidently the second-person imperative form of αφίημι. That’s not speculation; I looked it up to be sure, and that is indeed what the plural second-person imperative of a Greek verb is supposed to look like.

So, to make a long story short, I have spent the last few hours using various books and internet resources to verify that the Greek word used in John 18:8 was indeed the word I thought and hoped it was. A better and much quicker way to verify this would have been to ask Pastor before I left church, because the fact that I don’t actually know Greek rather holds me back from knowing what stuff means in Greek. But, y’know, on Good Friday we’re supposed to leave church in silence, so that’s what I did.

crucifixThe interesting point that I have thus far failed to make is that it’s cool that the word used in John 18:8 is the same as the word translated “forgive” because of the reason Jesus was being arrested, and then crucified. At the moment of his arrest, Jesus told his captors to forgive/let go his disciples, rather than arresting them too, just as, through his death on the cross, Jesus forgave/let go us from our sins, rather than condemning us for them.

The point of all this, in summary, is that forgiveness and salvation come through Christ’s sacrifice. Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at here.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 24

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Disclaimer: After I finish the long quotation from Genesis, the end of this blog post is just some things that have occurred to me regarding this particular Bible passage. I’m not trying to claim that what I’m saying here is official doctrine or that my thoughts constitute theological truths. In fact, since the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible (which are extensive and very awesome) don’t make these connections, I’m willing to accept the possibility that they aren’t valid. It is entirely possible that I’m really stretching things and that it’s just plain wrong to take these things from this text. If anyone reading this has anything to say, particularly if it involves quoting Bible verses or good biblical commentary, your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Rebekah at the wellGenesis 24 is the account of how Abraham sent his servant back to his native land to find a wife for his son Isaac. The chapter begins with the conversation between Abraham and the servant, and then the servant sets off on the journey. Starting at verse twelve, here is the text as quoted from the ESV (English Standard Version):

And he [Abraham’s servant] said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink’, and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord has prospered his journey or not.

RebekahWhen the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” She added, “We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” Then the young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. As soon as she saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” So the man came to the house and unharnessed the camels, and gave straw and fodder to the camels, and there was water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.” He said, “Speak on.”

[Verses 34- 49 are spoken by Abraham’s servant and repeat everything from the previous 33 verses. Then Rebekah’s father and brother agree to send Rebekah back with Abraham’s servant, and they all eat together. The next day, Rebekah and the servant depart, and Rebekah marries Isaac at the end of the chapter.]

This is what I find really interesting about this passage: Abraham’s servant recognizes Rebekah as Isaac’s bride because of the words she speaks (“Drink” and “I will water your camels”) and the water she gives, in the same way that Christians can recognize the true church by the words it speaks (the Bible) and the water it gives (Baptism). In fact, the reason that Abraham’s servant has to take this trip in the first place is because any potential brides in Isaac’s current homeland belong to pagan religions, which is to say that they’re associated with false churches.

I'm reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it's a cool sign.

I’m reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it’s a cool sign.

That’s something I noticed while ago that I thought was cool, but this morning it occurred to me that the order of events in this account could be significant, too. First comes the part about the water, then Rebekah and her brother invite the servant into their home, then they talk things over and agree that Rebekah will marry Isaac, and then Abraham’s servant eats the food that Rebekah’s family provides. (The Lutheran Study Bible does have a note that points out that it would have been customary for the guest to eat before such a discussion, but in this case, it was important to the servant to get that matter taken care of first.) Likewise, Christians enter the church through baptism; baptism can occur even before a person makes a conscious decision to enter the church. (In this case, my opening disclaimer doesn’t apply. It is official doctrine in the Lutheran Church that infant baptism is valid because baptism is a gift from God that does not require a deliberate decision to accept Jesus. It is something that the church can give to us even before we have the knowledge to recognize what we are receiving in baptism.) However, when the church offers us food, (Holy Communion, aka The Lord’s Supper, aka the Eucharist, etc.) before we partake in this meal, we should be sure that we’re in the right place and that we are in agreement with the congregation with whom we’re eating. In the case of Abraham’s servant, that means negotiating the betrothal before accepting dinner. In the case of communion, that means two things. First, unlike baptism, communion isn’t something that should be offered to babies or to people who have not yet been instructed in the church’s teachings. Second, it’s an argument for close communion (aka closed communion), which is the practice by which a congregation only offers communion to members or to visitors who believe the same thing. (Basically, that means members of another congregation of the same denomination.)

Matthew 6The English major part of my brain is wondering if there’s something metaphorical to say about the camels. It seems important that Rebekah is so attentive to them, offering them water and then assuring Abraham’s servant that her family has plenty of straw and fodder for the camels, even though he hasn’t specifically asked about that. Obviously, Rebekah was a generous and caring hostess, but if there’s a parallel to be drawn here, I’m going to guess that it’s along the same lines as what Jesus says in Matthew 6: 25-34. (See accompanying picture) If the camels stand for something, they stand for Abraham’s worldly possessions, and the fact that they are well provided for stands for the fact that, by God’s grace and love, our worldly needs are met, in addition to the forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that God has already given us.

The end. I reiterate that comments, corrections, and additional remarks are welcome and requested.

Symbolic Logic in the Bible

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Earlier in the semester, when my logic class first got started on symbolic logic, I didn’t like the idea that a conditional statement (If A, then B) is automatically true if the antecedent (A) is false. The only way a conditional statement can be false is if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. “If A, then B” obviously is false if, in actuality, A is true and B isn’t. That makes sense, but it didn’t seem right that A and B could both be false and the conditional statement could still be true. Once we got into proofs, it made a little more sense, but it still seemed like a fairly abstract concept. If A is false, why does it matter whether or not B would be true if A were true?

1 Corinthians 15:17But then I remembered a very important conditional statement where both the antecedent and the consequent are true. ‘Tis 1 Corinthians 15:17, and it goes like this: tilde A horseshoe thingy open parentheses B dot C close parentheses. Or, to quote it directly, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Saint Paul goes on to tell us that A is true: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” (1 Corinthians 15:20a)  Still, even though the antecedent (Christ has not been raised) is false, it is significant that if it was true, then B and C would both be true.

Christ is RisenActually, it kind of seems like we’re supposed to take the negation of the consequent as an implied premise. (That is to say, the people at the church in Corinth already knew that their faith was not futile and that they were not in their sins.)According to the rules of logic, specifically according to the rule called Modus Tollens, if the consequent is false, then the antecedent must be false. So the truth of A isn’t actually a separate premise, it’s the conclusion of a valid argument. Here it is, written as a logical proof.

Mark 16:16Just for the fun of it, here’s another bible verse written as a premise in symbolic logic:  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:16.

Peace, Love, Jesus

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Last week, I wrote this blog post, and while I was writing it, I decided that there were other things I wanted to say that weren’t really part of the point I was making there. In the final paragraph, I alluded to the other things I wanted to say, but I decided to write another post about it another day. Today is another day.

I go to a Methodist college, and it has really emphasized to me just how much difference there is between denominations. I realize that, just as not all Lutherans are the same, (the ELCA and the LCMS really don’t have a whole lot in common aside from the fact that they both have L’s in their names that stand for the word ‘Lutheran’) not all Methodists are the same, and I can’t make generalized assumptions about what all Methodists believe. I can say, though, that there are specific Methodists who believe certain things that are just not biblical. In fact, one of these beliefs is the idea that the Bible isn’t really completely reliable because it supposedly contains contradictions and is flawed by human error and inaccuracy. There’s no way to respond to that; you can’t really have a meaningful discussion when the person with whom you’re talking doesn’t acknowledge the validity of the ultimate primary source. I’m not entirely clear on what it is that these people trust above the Bible. Their own fallible human logic? Fallible human science? Televangelists? Or, worse yet, their own emotions?

This is not a very complete summary of Christianity

It seems like various denominations of Christianity (and, unfortunately, some congregations in other denominations) like to put their personal opinions of Jesus ahead of biblical teaching. They like the Bible verses that talk about loving people and peace and stuff like that; everyone likes love and peace. If you isolate a bunch of happy, positive, loving, and peaceful bible verses like John 15:9, Romans 8:38-39, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22-23, (and so on) you can paint a very pretty picture of Jesus and Christianity. As a bonus, you also get a handy guide to how to live a good, moral Christian life. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Morals are good, and it’s right for people’s morals and values to be determined by religion. It’s just that basing all of your beliefs on a few bible verses and ignoring others results in missing the big picture, and missing the big picture results in distortions in the little pictures.

For example, a certain guest speaker once told my class that Jesus’ main message and mission was social acceptance. After all, the Bible tells us that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, healed the sick, and cared about the poor. The conclusion that he drew from this was that Christianity is about being non-judgmental, helping the poor and needy, and love and peace and stuff. Apparently, he thought that any times when Jesus wasn’t particularly docile (Matthew 10:34, Mark 11:15-19, etc.) were examples of biblical self-contradiction and inaccuracy, because how could Jesus be anything other than peaceful and affectionate towards humanity? The goal of this discussion was to lead into a political agenda in favor of increased government welfare, support for Obamacare, liberal economics, acceptance of things like homosexuality, and love and peace and stuff. Not only do I politically disagree with that agenda, (except for the love and peace part) I also think it’s absurd to claim that Christianity necessarily supports those things. Regardless of what you think about Obamacare, you can’t say that Jesus put a very strong emphasis on the issue of health insurance. Regardless of what you think about welfare programs, you can’t say that Jesus put a very strong emphasis on government funding for welfare. When Jesus talked about the government, he mostly said things like “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), which doesn’t really align him with either of the major parties in current American politics. The Bible has more to say against homosexuality than it has to say in favor of welfare programs, which is already a flaw in the peace-love-and-liberal-politics perspective on Jesus. But, more to the point, this particular guest speaker was using these ideas about social acceptance to bash the more conservative Christian perspective of sin, which is that the Bible means what it says in Romans 3:23 (For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) and in the first part of Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death). Jesus didn’t say that sin was okay; he said that it was forgiven. He didn’t talk about tolerance; he talked about grace and forgiveness. Even if you can somehow read through the gospels without seeing that, it’s quite explicit in the aforementioned verses in Romans, the beginning of Ephesians 2, and various other places in the epistles, not to mention the Old Testament.

I think that John 14:27 is saying a little more than this.

But this view of sin and salvation was contrary to the points that this guest speaker was trying to make, so I did not exactly endear myself to him when I pointed out that Jesus always said “Your sins are forgiven” when he healed people, and in many other situations as well, so doesn’t that indicate that Jesus saw sin as something serious that required forgiveness? If I had thought it through a little more and if I’d had time right then to look up a few specific Bible verses, I could have done a better job of making the point, but what I did say was already enough to mess up his argument.  (To be honest, he had some cause to be annoyed with me because I had called him out on something else he had said not long before. He had pointed out a self-contradiction in the Bible that wasn’t a contradiction at all when the verses were kept in their contexts. He had quite affably admitted that I was right and then gone on with his talk, while all of my classmates, who had long since characterized me as the quiet one who never talked in class, wondered what I thought I was doing arguing with a respected authority in the Methodist community.) No longer affable, the guest speaker coldly informed me that when Jesus said “Your sins are forgiven”, he wasn’t talking about literal sins and literal forgiveness. What he actually meant was more along the lines of “Your physical infirmities which society views as being indicative of sin have been removed, thereby allowing you to be accepted in society.”

So there you have it. All that stuff about grace and forgiveness and salvation is really just a metaphor for social acceptance. It kind of makes you wonder why Jesus bothered to die on the cross. What was he doing there if he wasn’t paying for our sins? He’d already told us about how much we should love and accept each other, so how much good could it do to die a horrible and violent death? Yes, he did rise from the dead again and keep on saying stuff after that, but what does death and resurrection have to do with the message of being nice to other people? Couldn’t he have done that without dying?

Pictured above: Love

Or here’s another idea. Maybe, the Bible verse 1 John 4:8 (God is love) doesn’t mean ‘social acceptance and being nice to everyone and stuff like that’ when it says ‘love.’ Maybe it has something to do with the very next verses, 1 John 4:9-10, which say “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world  so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” And maybe this is also related to verses like John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”. And maybe that’s the most important point in Christianity and the most significant message in the Bible.

It’s interesting the way the Bible stops contradicting itself when we stop randomly redefining words like ‘love’.