Monday, June 29, 2009

Science Links

Something different, just because...

=Experts Warn of 'Terminator'-Style Military-Robot Rebellion
Sometimes I think scientists need to watch more movies.

=Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe
Things that make you go "holy crap!"

=What Makes Earth Special Compared to Other Planets
A survey of the amazing coincidences that make Earth great. If you don't believe they're coincidences, ... well, neither do I.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Blast from the Past on Theology

There is a segment of evangelicalism today that dislikes theology and theological orthodoxy and loves the church fathers. This is for them:
Let us keep in mind the sayings of the Lord and the letters of the apostles. They have both told us beforehand that there will be heresies, and in anticipation have given us warnings to avoid them. Since we aren't surprised that they exist, we shouldn't doubt that they are capable of doing shameful things. ... Heresies today won't tear apart the church by their perversion of doctrine any less than the Antichrist will persecute her by his cruel attacks (except persecution makes martyrs, but heresy only apostates). ... For the Apostle Paul says, "prove all things; hold fast that which is good." He considers heretics "not approved" and urges people to turn away from them.
-Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


=Have you heard about Moral All abortion news, all the time. Morbid, yes, but useful.

=On a related note, did you see Penelope Trunk's unexpectedly pro-life piece on abortion "for your career?"
"You don’t need to get an abortion to have a big career. ... It doesn’t matter whether you have kids now or later, because they will always make your career more difficult. There is no time in your life when you are so stable in your work that kids won’t create an earthquake underneath that confidence. ... There is little certainty. But there are some certain truths: It’s very hard to have an abortion. And, there is not a perfect time to have kids."
It's hard to read at times, but I recommend the whole thing.

=Complete shift in topic: Resurrection Probably Reported in Same Year It Happened (HT: STR)

=Let's cap off this heavy stuff with something light: Star Wars' Cantina song on the harp. Seriously.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Blast from the Past on the Atonement

There are those today who teach that both concern for personal salvation and the idea of substitutionary atonement were products of the Reformers. Mmm hmm...
"[God] sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.

"But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?

"O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!"
-from the Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter IX.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 3

The origin of the gospels

We continue Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels? by looking at three chapters that have closely related content.

When were the Gospels written?
Roberts offers dates for the composition of the Gospels that are later than many evangelicals would give, but he said early on he would use material that the broader scholarly world can agree on. He says the earliest we should expect Mark to have been written was AD60, with Matthew and Luke 65 or later, and John 75+. The dates you see more commonly are probably 3-5 years later for each of those.

Even though I think those dates are all unnecessarily late, they are not catastrophically so. These dates – even the more common ones – are within reasonable lifetimes of witnesses – so the second generation of the church could not just start making things up as both the older disciples and opponents were still around to correct the record.

It’s also worth noting that the Gospels were written well after Paul’s writings. Though there may be much in the Gospels that is hard to believe, the hardest to believe of all is the resurrection which was being taught in Christian circles by at least AD50 (c.f., 1Cor 15) and probably many years before.

What sources did Gospel writers use?
When the Gospels writers did their work, where did they get what they wrote down?

Luke mentions other writers and claims to have carefully investigated everything – suggesting he examined written documents and talked to witnesses, those “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Roberts uses this to launch into two kinds of sources: written and oral.

The written sources lead us to the so-called “two-source” hypothesis where Mark and “Q” plus other material were used to construct Matthew and Luke. And Mark is believed to have been constructed of earlier material too. This means there were earlier written sources that are closer to the events in question than the canonical Gospels.

As for the oral sources, we know within 20 years there was an oral tradition being passed down (again, e.g., 1Cor 15). If fact, we should expect a strong oral tradition because theirs was an oral, not a literary, culture – they were used to remembering things that were said. This oral tradition takes us back closer to the events of the Gospels than the canonical records.

Did early Christian oral tradition reliably pass down the truth about Jesus?
But what should we make of this oral tradition? How reliable is that? Wouldn’t that be open to corruption? And what about evolution due to misunderstanding or misremembering the tradition?

The latter is the “Telephone” objection: We’ve all played the game where everyone whispers a sentence down the line until it is garbled beyond recognition. Critics claim this is what would have happened to the Christian oral tradition.

But this objection is weak for a number of reasons:

1. “Since they did their work in community gatherings, if they got the story substantially wrong, the community in which they functioned would hold them accountable for their mistake” (p73).

2. The early Christians thought Jesus was more than a mere teacher, His words were “uniquely true and more important than any other ideas in the world” (e.g., Matt 7:24, Mark 13:31), motivating them to remember what He said and to transmit it accurately (p74). And “…so much in the oral tradition about Jesus does not reflect the needs of the early church” (p78).

3. The words of Jesus seem to have been designed to be memorable.

4. Unlike “Telephone,” the rules of the game were designed to maximize accuracy, not errors.

“Sometimes you’ll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the Gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus’ mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it did not happen” (p77).

We do not live in an oral culture, and our memories seem to get more unreliable all the time. (I can barely remember by own phone number these days.) That leads us to be skeptical of the abilities of past cultures to remember large amounts of material, but even in our time there are those – in other cultures – who can and do commit large amounts of material to memory:
“The idea of early Christians memorizing substantial traditions about Jesus may seem unrealistic, … but consider the following contemporary analogy. All Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an. But many go on to memorize the entire book, which contains more than 80,000 Arabic words. … What enables a Muslim to memorize the entire Qur’an? … [T]he greatest motivation of all … is the belief that the Qur’an contains Allah’s own words. To memorize the Qur’an is to internalize the very words of God. In a similar vein, the early followers of Jesus had both the ability and the motivation to pass on oral tradition with accuracy” (p80-1).
So what should we make of all of this? The first-century dating of the four Gospels, “combined with their use of earlier oral traditions combined with early Christian faithfulness in passing on these oral traditions, add up to a convincing rationale for trusting the Gospels” (p81).

The book in blog form: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?

The rest of this series:
Part 0, Part 1, Part 1.1, Part 2

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bible Study Links

Currently I'm working on lectures for a class I will be teaching at work. And I'm way behind schedule. Fortunately, once these are done, I should be able to reuse them for years.

In the meantime, I hope y'all will enjoy the fruits of some other folks' labor:

4The Right-Brain Thinker’s Guide to Bible Study: 10 Creative Steps

415 Tools for Exegetical Research

4Compare Scripture to Scripture (with specific advice on using the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Master

Jesus Christ
God incarnate
Prophesied of old
Worker of miracles
Among the multitudes
Died for our sins
Rose in victory
Appeared to many
Ascended to heaven
Interceding with the Father
Preparing a place
Returning to judge

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 1.1

The Manuscript History

I want to briefly double back on our trip through Can We Trust the Gospels? to elaborate on a point that apparently wasn’t as clear as I thought.

I wrote that we can be confident that there were no significant changes in the Gospels early on because “…unless someone was actually able to track down and destroy all the originals, any changes in the Gospels would show up in the manuscript history. No changes like that appear.”

Vinny responded: “We don’t see the changes in the manuscript data from the first 100 years because there is virtually no such data.”

It took me a while to see that Vinny, and perhaps others, weren’t clear on what I was saying. (Sorry, everybody.) So let me go into a bit more detail.

Propagating Changes
When a document is copied by hand, it’s almost certain that a mistake will be made. And sometimes changes aren’t “mistakes” but intentional. Either way, once a change has been made to a text, there is a fork in the manuscript (ms) chain.

Both the original ms and the one with the change will be copied later. Each copy of the original will, hopefully, transmit the original message intact (though in reality there will be other errors).

Each copy of the changed ms will contain that change as well as any other errors.

As the copies are copied, we will see two groups form. The first will be based on the ms that was not changed; the second will be based on the corrupted text.

In the case of Greek NT manuscripts (mss), the two major families are the Alexandrian and Western textual traditions. At some point in the distant past, there were changes on one side of the Mediterranean than didn’t occur on the other; we see that by comparing the mss.

Protecting the Text by Criticizing It
When textual critics compare the various mss of the NT, they try to work backwards to determine what the originals probably said.

Though we might be tempted to say that we can’t see back beyond that 100 year gap between the autographs and the oldest extant mss, that’s not entirely true.

If someone making a copy of Matthew in 102AD inserted something – a story, a miracle, a phrase – there would be copies of Matthew that didn’t have the insertion. Though we would have neither the corrupted nor uncorrupted copies, we would see the change in later mss – the “children” of those earlier copies.

Modern textual scholars would be able to see this corruption. And they would do their best to filter it out by comparing with all the other mss.

Our Modern NT Text
I’ve never seen evidence of any great period of creativity and liberty with the NT text, but I can’t say I spend a lot of time pouring over Greek manuscripts.

But I can say that those that do are very certain about what the vast majority of the NT is supposed to say. Those parts that are really uncertain do not affect anything important. As Roberts put it, “If you actually took out of the Gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible” (p34-5).

This has been a brief and oversimplified look at this topic. For a slightly more detailed look, I recommend An Introduction to Textual Criticism. A broader collection of references can be found at NTGateway.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Myth of Christian Divorce

For whatever reason, I’ve seen a resurgence of talk about American born-again Christians divorcing at the same rate as non-Christians.

It’s a terrible scandal that should shock us into re-examining how we approach life, morality, and religion.

And it may not be true.

Here’s the short version:

Barna’s group explains how they determine who is “born-again” and “evangelical” for the purposes of their surveys. It involves how they answer certain questions:
“Born again Christians" are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

“Evangelicals" meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.
Anything missing there? Yep. One simple question can quickly separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak: “Do you regularly attend church?

Many people in this country know the “right” answer to all of those questions, yet they don’t allow Christianity to affect their lives. John MacArthur said, “they don’t love the Word of God.” He’s probably right.

A few years ago Christianity Today ran an article describing people who love Jesus but hate church. They’ve had bad experiences with the church or simply don’t like to be told how to live. They know how to answer the questions to be “born-again,” maybe even “evangelical,” according to Barna, but they don’t let those alleged beliefs change how they live.

In their defense, lately Barna & co. has started talking about “Casual Christians”:
A Casual Christian can be all the things that they esteem ... and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best.
These are the people who live just like every other American. We can’t say for sure who’s “really” saved, but among those who obviously take their faith more seriously, divorce (among other ills) is not as common.