I went to the “Pen Church” this morning. Here are some items:
A. We saw a brief video about Memorial Day. In the background was a speech by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan said that many of us see soldiers as wise old men, but he noted that the people who went to war were boys. Not only did they give up their lives, Reagan said, but they also gave up the lives that they could have had: as fathers and grandfathers. That made me appreciate the gravity of their sacrifice. And, in saying “appreciate,” I am not necessarily supporting all the wars in which they fought: some may have been necessary, some not. I do honor their willingness to sacrifice, but the video also convinces me that we should only enter war as a last resort.
B. The pastor was continuing his series about becoming a “Velcro Christian”: having a faith that sticks. In today’s sermon, he talked about the importance of Scripture reading. He brought up a variety of considerations: how today’s generation has more access to Scripture than previous generations on account of new technology; how Scripture can be a comfort to people; how there are different ways to do one’s quiet time (i.e., morning, evening, when riding the bus, whenever one feels inspired, etc.); and how Scripture is like a plumb line, showing us where we are crooked rather than straight (and he showed a picture of a plumb line beside a wall, which illustrated its function). In talking about the plumb line, he seemed to make biblical correction look so simple: we read the Bible, it corrects us, and we change. That can be the case sometimes, perhaps more effectively if we focus on one character defect at a time (or, more accurately, one manifestation of a character defect at a time) rather than allowing ourselves to be inundated with the Bible’s demand for perfection.
C. The pastor quoted the NLT rendering of Romans 12:2, which reads: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of the world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
The pastor was saying that we should relax and “let” God transform us. When I got home, I checked the Greek on my BibleWorks to see if there is any merit to his point. Well, the Greek does use the passive: be transformed. Does that not imply that someone else, namely God, is doing the transforming? I did not check every use of the passive verb in Greek, though, so I do not know if passive verbs always exclude activity on the part of the agent.
I started Geoffrey R. Treloar’s The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond. On page 19, Treloar discusses three evangelical approaches to sanctification in the nineteenth century. According to Treloar, the Reformed and Wesleyan approaches advocated struggle against sin, and Wesley was more optimistic about the ability of believers, with God’s help, to eradicate sin from their heart in this life. A third approach was that of the Keswick movement. It was basically a “Let go and let God” approach: stop struggling and rest in God’s power to remove sin from your life. According to Treloar, this conception spread to different countries and gained influence within evangelicalism, albeit against opposition.
What the pastor said this morning reminded me of Keswick, even though the pastor did seem to acknowledge that we play some role in our sanctification: we have to “let” God transform us, and such factors as trust, reading Scripture, drawing closer to God in prayer, and yielding to the Holy Spirit’s correction are significant in this. Still, he was presenting sanctification as more of a relaxing process than some Christians do when they depict it as a struggle.
Incidentally, one can draw parallels between Jimmy Swaggart’s “Message of the Cross” and the Keswick movement. To quote a description of Swaggart’s book, The Message of the Cross:
“The message in this book is personal and addressed to every believer who has tried to live for God but failed. It was written for those who were told by elders to just try harder to overcome sin. It’s for the people of God who trust their own abilities, strengths, and talents because they don’t know how to trust God. Read this apostolic revelation from God to Brother Swaggart and how it changed his life and ministry. In these chapters, he shares God’s prescribed order of victory though faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, which is the story of the Bible. Learn how the Holy Spirit works within the parameters of the finished work of Christ to help believers gain victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil.”
This article here is an attempt to refute Swaggart’s message. I did not read it in its entirety but skimmed here and there.
I have encountered both approaches within Christianity: look to God and let God transform you, on the one hand, and keep trying hard and virtue may become second-hand, on the other hand. Many combine the two approaches, in some manner: the Holy Spirit works, and yet our efforts are important, too.
D. The pastor was arguing against those who would point out that daily quiet times are now possible due to the printing press and new technology, but that Christians and devout people prior to those inventions did not have quiet times. Why, then, emphasize daily quiet times as essential for Christian growth?
The pastor referred to a scholarly view that Jesus’ family may have had its own scroll of the Torah. What he said reminded me of John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which I recently discussed in a post. Sailhamer contends that there is a shift towards individual piety in the course of the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 15:1 commands that the Israelites are to hear the Torah every seven years. By contrast, Joshua 1:8, which marks the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible, and Psalm 1, which marks the “Writings” section, exhort individuals to meditate on the Torah day and night. Sailhamer refers to a scholarly argument that the Book of Psalms was intended for individual piety, and he presents a picture of exilic and post-exilic Jews as literate.
There is debate within scholarship about how literate Jews were in Jesus’ day. My post here rehearsed arguments against widespread Jewish literacy back then. A commenter referred me to Alan Millard’s Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, which argues for more widespread literacy. Josephus in Against Apion 1.60 and 2.204, and Philo in “On the Embassy to Gaius” 115-116, affirm that Jewish children in the first century were taught the Jewish laws; Josephus even mentions education in letters. But, as Chris Keith asks on page 77 of Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, how typical was this? “As we will see,” Keith says, “it is far more likely that Josephus and Philo reflect only the status of the privileged few such as themselves, and universal literacy was nowhere near a reality for Second Temple Judaism as a whole.”
Was there still individual piety, then? Perhaps one could argue that Joshua 1:8 and the passages in Psalms about meditating on Torah are about what leaders should do, not what every Israelite is expected to do. Joshua 1:8 is an instruction to Joshua, the leader of Israel, and the Book of Psalms is largely attributed to King David. And Deuteronomy 17:18-19 commands the King of Israel to write out a copy of the Torah so that he might obey it. And yet, Psalm 1 seems to say that men who meditate on God’s law prosper: that means more people than leaders and kings, right?
One can make a case that there could be individual piety, without widespread literacy. Keith questions the assumptions that “‘most Jews’ drew a direct line between Torah-observance and literate skills.” Jews could have heard the Torah in the synagogue and meditated on what they heard.
And yet, Deuteronomy 6:9 commands Israelites to write God’s laws on the door-frames of their houses. Does that imply widespread literacy?
Anyway, I am writing myself into a pit, so I will stop here. If you want to comment, please focus on the last three items. I am not really interested in reading comments about how churches are wrong to honor Memorial Day.