Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Mark 10:18, Why do you call me good?

Monday, September 1, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Mark 10:18, Why do you call me good?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

//Every now and then this verse comes up in a conversation.  It’s from the gospel of Mark, a gospel that is often gritty, giving Jesus a more human face than the other three. In this verse, Jesus seems to be denying that he is good … and certainly denying that he is God.

Seldom will a conservative Christian read this verse straightforwardly. Instead, they see Jesus as presenting a sort of puzzle. “You say I’m good? Well, there’s only one who is good, and that’s God. So what does that make me?”

It’s interesting to me that Matthew, who wrote his gospel with Mark in hand, was equally disturbed by the ramifications of this saying. Matthew did not hold to a high Christology; he never imagined that Jesus was God in the flesh. Yet Mark’s story nevertheless disturbed him. He couldn’t accept Mark’s wording, in which Jesus claimed not to be good, but he also couldn’t think of Jesus as God. So what did he do?

He changed the wording just slightly, toning down the message. Be sure to read this verse in a more accurate translation than the King James, and you’ll see the difference:

And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

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Book review: Calvin for Armchair Theologians

Sunday, August 31, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Calvin for Armchair Theologians

by Christopher Elwood

★★★★

This is another book in the Armchair Theologians series provided to me by Logos Bible Software for review. I found this one just a little more dry than other books in the series–more of a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation–but it did warm up nearer the end. For someone looking for a quick intro to Calvin, his life and very basic theology, this is a handy little book.

In some ways, Calvin gets a bum rap. Followers through the years have taken his tangential findings on election and turned them into full-blown predestination theology, a way of thinking that many Christians find utterly repulsive. Calvin also was a product of his times, so his hard-line stance against what he considered heretical ideas was not out of place for his era. His actions, such as burning opponents at the stake, today might raise a few eyebrows but Christianity has evolved. His insistence that curiosity which leads to questioning church doctrine garners a special place in hell doesn’t jibe with today’s inquisitive liberal scholars.

But Calvin didn’t consider himself a theologian; he felt that theology was “faith seeking understanding.” Is God really the cause of pain and suffering, as Calvin’s detractors often concluded from his doctrine? No. Have faith, Calvin would say. Somehow, from God’s point of view–which is far above ours–all things work out for good. Besides … we, as poor sinners born in iniquity and corruption, transgress against God’s holy commandments without end, yet God in his grace has chosen us. Well, some of us. The rest are predestined for hell.

Calvin was a dedicated Christian; of that, I’m convinced. He honestly felt his understanding of God was not harsh, but soothing. His legacy has become so complex, his ideas battered around so much, that we have lost sight of the God-fearing man he was. So, pick this little book up and get to know him better.

Westminster John Knox Press, © 2002, x pages

ISBN: 978-0-664-22303-8

Reviewed on Logos Bible Software

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Exodus 20:26, Beware the Stairs!

Saturday, August 30, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Exodus 20:26, Beware the Stairs!

‘Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.’

//In Israel in the temple courtyard was an altar for sacrifice. Have you ever seen pictures of this altar, artists’ imagination of what it must have looked like? Have you ever seen a picture without stairs going up the altar?

One wonders if all these renditions of the Temple are accurate. Presumably, the priests–who wore robes, not slacks–were not to approach the top of the altar by stairway. It was apparently immodest, too much risk that their nakedness be exposed to those below.

Is there a lesson here for Christians today? Should we ban stairways in public buildings?

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Exodus 32:14, God Repents

Friday, August 29, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Exodus 32:14, God Repents

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

//Here’s the story: Moses goes up on a mountain to talk with God, and while they’re busy up there, Israel turns to idolatry. Their leader and their god have gone missing, so a golden calf becomes their new god. When God quits talking to Moses and notices what is going on down there, he threatens to destroy everyone by fire.

But Moses talks gently with God, appealing to God’s reputation and sense of honor. If God gives in to his wrath, says Moses, the Egyptians will hear about it and God will lose face.

So God repents. He’s not happy at all about it, but he tells Moses to go ahead and lead them into the promised land.

Now let’s talk about heaven and hell. To hear some tell it, eternal fiery torment awaits anyone who finds God distant and chooses another deity. But if Moses could talk God out of vengeance once, can it be done again? Might the point of life be that we would spend our lives in prayer, begging God to be merciful, to turn away from the evil he has planned?

For those who believe in hell, this would seem like a worthwhile pastime.

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Proverbs 10:15, Wealth is our Fortress

Thursday, August 28, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Proverbs 10:15, Wealth is our Fortress

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor.

//It’s easy to feel this way, isn’t it? If I just had a little more money, I’d be safe and all would be well. My fortress would be impregnable. I fall into that line of thought at times, as I’m at the point in life where I’m saving frantically for my own retirement.

But a few chapters later, we find a different opinion. Note that this verse starts out identical to the first but then changes direction:

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall too high to scale. –Proverbs 18:11

So we have a delicate balance. Wealth can provide protection, but can also be the source of pride, leading to downfall.

Luckily, wealth is something I’ll never have to worry about.

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Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 in Book Excerpt | 0 comments

Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

To the north, outside the city, an army of wooden crosses clamored mutely for Josiah’s attention, every one of them displaying a crucified captive. Most of the victims now were dead, although some still contorted painfully with each attempt to tease air into their lungs. When the Romans needed crosses, they yanked the carcasses down and tossed them in heaps for the dogs to scavenge. Crucifixion filled the Roman need for intimidation, and now, few dared to venture outside the walls of the city to gather herbs. Josiah watched another escape attempt, a young man no older than he. He saw the Roman guards catch the man and strip him naked, then brutally whip him with thongs beaded with iron balls and sharpened bone, just large enough to tear the skin, until they bludgeoned all of the fight out of him, and his screams turned hoarse—a familiar sight. The Romans then spread the young man on a cross, driving spikes through his hands and feet. They raised the cross and dropped it into a prepared hole, steadied it in the ground, and left him there to die. Some victims died in hours, while others struggled for days, wishing for death. But all of them departed this world the way Jesus led, sharing in his agony outside the walls of God’s holy city.

Josiah’s stomach churned; he could watch no more of this suffering. He turned away from the wall and made his way back to the other side of the courtyard, minutely preferring the dismal scene inside the city. Below, starving hordes of people made civil law impossible. Uprooted from their tent sites in the north of the city, the visitors now did their best to survive in the streets of Old Town to the south, still unable to return home. Vacant eyes stared back up at Josiah, devoid of life even before death arrived. Our skin was black as an oven, because of terrible famine, the prophet Jeremiah had written. Josiah watched as a young family trudged up the stairs to the courtyard and, ignoring the Temple, stumbled instead over to the cattle pens, where the priests kept animals for sacrifice. There, they began to gather dung to eat—some put in containers to carry out; some eaten before they left the pens.

(Editor’s note: Yes, this war of 70 AD really happened and is recorded in history. This is the destruction, the gehenna (translated in many Bibles as “hell”) that Jesus warned Jerusalem about.)

–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 21, by Lee Harmon

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Book review: Wine and the Word

Monday, August 25, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Wine and the Word

by Kurt Senske

★★★★

This little pocket-sized book was well worth the read, even for someone like me who knows nothing at all about wine.

More than anything else, the book is the expression of one connoisseur’s appreciation for the enjoyment of wine and its rich heritage. But Senske, being Christian, lifts the experience into the realm of religion. Senske finds in good wine some remarkable, unexpected metaphors.

The direction Senske went was not all what I expected. He pays only minimal homage to biblical themes such as the Lord’s Supper (the blood of Christ) and the Messianic Age (the promise of wine’s abundance in the world to come).  Instead, he focuses more on inspirational comparisons  of vineyards, winemaking and wine appreciation with our walk with God. You cannot finish the book without feeling an appreciation for this part of God’s creation, and thus better understand why the Bible contains so many positive references to vineyards and to wine.

Creative Communications for the Parish, © 2014, 127 pages

ISBN: 978-1-889387-76-5

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2 Samuel 7:16, David’s Throne becomes God’s Throne

Sunday, August 24, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

2 Samuel 7:16, David’s Throne becomes God’s Throne

And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.

//The four books of Samuel/Kings and the two books of Chronicles cover much the same time period and tell many of the same stories. But Chronicles was written a couple hundred years later than Samuel/Kings. It therefore sometimes portrays a little different perspective. Consider today’s verse, in which King David is promised in the book of Samuel that his dynasty (his house and kingdom) would continue forever.

Except that it didn’t. Oops! The Davidic kingdom didn’t last much longer than the date the words were written. So what to do about this promise?

The author of the Chronicles rewrites this story to emphasize not David’s kingdom but God’s kingdom, like this:

But I [God] will settle him in mine house and in my kingdom for ever: and his throne shall be established for evermore. –1 Chronicles 17:14

David’s dynasty is thus allowed to perish, while the slightly-rewritten promise remains intact.

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Genesis 9:25, Canaan’s Destiny

Saturday, August 23, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 9:25, Canaan’s Destiny

And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

//The Bible tells us the story of a disgruntled nation of slaves (Israel) who escape from Egypt and head to a promised land named Canaan. There, they encounter inhabitants in their way. So what do they do? They slaughter them, in a shocking genocide that apparently has God’s blessing.

Now read today’s verse. It is a precursor to the conquest, cursing Canaan. Except that it’s not cursing a nation, but a person…the father of the nation named Canaan. The descendents of this person, then, become rightfully exterminated when God is ready to move his people into the land of Canaan.

Who is Canaan the person, who cursed him, and what did he do that was so evil? He was the son of Ham, the grandson of Noah, and he did nothing wrong. One day, Noah drank a little too much and flopped down in a drunken, naked stupor in his tent, and his son Ham happened to stumble in inadvertently seeing Noah’s nakedness. So what does Noah do? Why, he curses Ham’s son Canaan forever, naturally.

It is, of course, a mythical story written to justify the invasion of Canaan after the fact.

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John 20:29, Blessed are the Blind Believers

Friday, August 22, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

John 20:29, Blessed are the Blind Believers

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

//This is a curious passage of scripture. John’s Gospel had just finished relaying the story of how Jesus appeared to the Twelve, materializing before them in a locked room. But once isn’t enough; the Gospel then repeats the story eight days later, with a twist. This time, the apostle Thomas is with them, who becomes a scapegoat for a lesson Jesus wants to teach. That lesson is that while Thomas believed only after seeing Jesus, true blessing comes to those who could believe without seeing the risen Jesus.

The passage is probably an add-on, not original to the Gospel, and meant to inspire readers of the Gospel after the original witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection had all passed on. Blessed are the new believers, for they are able to believe without seeing Jesus.

Of course, this contradicts the rest of the Gospel by missing the point relayed many times earlier: that believing in Jesus is how one sees him. Yes, the Thomas story surely is an add-on by a later writer, abducting John’s spiritual Gospel for his own literal resurrection beliefs. More about this in my book about John’s Gospel.

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