Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Earth Is the Lord's... and a Beautiful Day in Chicago Can Be Miraculous

Just when I blogged in my previous post about giving up my rights for the sake of serving others, I was also reminded that I need not rupture the theological tension between an ethics of pleasure (based on what God considers good) and an ethics of sacrifice for the good of my neighbor. I was dropping my teenage son off at the Adler Planetarium last Saturday for his internship there as an astro-journalist, when I decided to stick around the area (instead of driving home) and simply enjoy the beauty of a nice sunny Chicago day (such a welcome relief after the brutal winter we had!). Walking along Lake Michigan, I enjoyed this scene: 
Photo taken with my iphone near the Adler Museum
When Paul quotes Psalm 24:1 (= 23:1 LXX) concerning his teaching on idol food in 1 Cor 10:26: "The earth and its fullness are the Lord's" (τοῦ κυρίου γὰρ ἡ γῆ καὶ τὸ πλήρωμα αὐτῆς), he reminds the Corinthians that: 1) if there is anything good in the world, it is comes as a gift from God since everything belongs to Him; and 2) therefore, we can celebrate the sovereignty of God, especially over false idols and fake gods, and receive with gratitude creation-gifts which are a sign of the Creator's grace and favor. It is also likely that Paul drew the quotation of Psalm 24:1 from the common practice in Judaism to recite this verse (along with others; e.g., Pss 50:12; 89:11) as part of the prayers voiced before a meal (see b. Sabb. 119a; Garland, 1Cor-BECNT, p. 482).
    Despite the rain all this mid-week, I was reminded this past weekend about how good the Lord is, and how beautiful the earth can be, as I took a much needed prayer walk around the sunny shoreline of Chicago. Blessings! 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Epilogue on Idol Food: An Ethics of Pleasure in Theological Tension with the Freedom of the Christian

In my last series of posts, I wrote on how Paul engages with the Corinthian church and answers their questions concerning the permissibility and non-permissibility of idol food consumption (1 Cor 8-10). There I argued that Paul, based on a theology of creation, considered all food (including what was sacrificed to idols) as gifts from the Creator to be enjoyed (Psalm 24:1 [= 23:1 LXX] in 1 Cor 10:26). Therefore, idol food bought at the market and eaten at home was not to be feared. The believer was also free to eat idol food which was served in the non-cultic setting of banquet halls at the temple. But as soon as the believer entered a cultic, liturgical setting, idol food consumption was prohibited based on the real presence of demons in the very act of pagan worship.
   Having gone to such great lengths to outline a rather nuanced ethic concerning idol food consumption, Paul then flips the entire set of instructions on its heels when he insists that "if a brother or sister stumbles, may I never ever eat meat for all eternity!" (8:13). The freedom to forsake one's rights for the love of a brother and sister in Christ trumps an ethics of pleasure and any entitlement I have for food or other material goods. 
   Last Palm Sunday (4/13), when I attended the CollegeLife worship service at North Park University, I heard a powerful challenge from Joshua Dubois, former head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for President Obama. In his address, he referenced Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (2010), from which he shared the following message: 
The mass incarceration system in the United States has created an "under-class" among a particular demographic: African American males. By "under-class," Alexander means to say: the way our current legal system is structured and the social stigma attached to those who have served prison time, many African Americans with prison records find it nearly impossible to obtain employment, housing, educational opportunities, and public benefits. They are the "under-class" because they are, in many ways, treated as less than human by people and civic systems much in the same way as our laws of segregation did during the civil rights movement of the 1960's (and hence the title: "The New Jim Crow"). 
   Many Americans, especially Christians, are simply unaware, unmoved, and even apathetic to the plight of our neighbor. The challenge to be involved, listen, visit those in prisons, minister to families whose loved ones suffer from incarceration, march with the "People Are Not Illegal" campaign (which, by the way, is supported by the Evangelical Covenant Church, North Park Theological Seminary, and their constituencies), and develop an empathy with those who swim in the structures of injustice was my take away from Josh Debois. 
Josh Debois at North Park University (Palm Sunday 4/13/14)
   This challenge is also one way of applying Paul's teaching on idol food. While I have a right to enjoy the life God has given me, I should give up those rights so that my brother and sister in Christ, or my neighbor, who stumbles over a civic system that perpetuates an under-class, can find hope and life in Christ. When there is so much need in this broken and sinful world, Christians, including myself, ought to pause and intentionally exercise our freedom not for our own comfort or pleasure, but to genuinely love and sacrifice for the sake of others.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Paul's Theological Trump Card Concerning Idol Food: An Easter Sunday Message

Hope you are having a glorious Easter Sunday! Blessings! Consider it good timing, or Providence, but my wrap-up post on idol food fits well with the theme of Good Friday and Easter. I want to end this series of posts on what I consider Paul's understanding of true freedom: not doing what I want, but forsaking my rights in order to serve my brother or sister in Christ. In fact, this ethic of freedom trumps Paul's previous instructions on the permissibility and non-permissibility of idol food consumption.
    In what is probably the most provocative statement made by Paul in 1 Cor 8-10, he exclaims: 

  • "Therefore, if food stumbles (σκανδαλίζει) my brother [and sister], may I never ever eat meat for all eternity!! (οὐ μὴ φάγω κρέα εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) in order that I do not cause my brother [or sister] to stumble" (8:13). 

Not only does Paul employ the strongest negative formula to describe "never ever eating" (the double negative οὐ μὴ + the subjunctive φάγω) but he also adds the striking phrase "for all eternity" (εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). 
    He later explains the basis for this radical ethic through three interlocking texts (lexically, the chain links which interlock the texts are highlighted in blue and green): 

  • For while I am free with respect to all (ἐλεύθερος ... ἐκ πάντων), I have made myself a slave to all (πᾶσιν ἐμαυτὸν ἐδούλωσα), so that I might win more people (1 Cor 9:19)
  • Just as I try to please all people with all [that I do] (πάντα πᾶσιν ἀρέσκω), not seeking my own benefit but that of many (τῶν πολλῶν), so that they may be saved (σωθῶσιν). 11:1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor 10:33-11:1)
  • And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all (πάντων δοῦλος). 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom (λύτρονfor many (ἀντὶ πολλῶν)" (Mark 10:43)
In this radical move, both rhetorically and theologically, Paul turns to the ransom saying of Jesus (Mark 10:44-45) and presents the following thesis: Though he is free to eat idol food at the temple banquet halls or at homes, he will not do so on the basis of love. He surrenders his freedom to eat what he wants so that he is free and blameless to love those who, given their past association and participation in idol worship, might be tempted to return to pagan idolatry if they see other Christian believers eating at a temple (8:10-13). 
   If we can imagine a modern-day group of Christians who decide to give up drinking—not because they feel it is inherently dissolute, but because someone in their small group has a past addiction to alcohol and with it is tied to a system of fallen values that can ruin his or her life upon returning to it—we can then begin to understand why Paul would rather never eat meat again than cause another to stumble (σκανδαλίζει; 8:13).
   So if you have been journeying with Christ throughout this passion week, imagine being at the foot of the cross and seeing the Son of God give himself fully as a ransom for our sins. If Christ gave himself to us fully, how can we not give ourselves fully to Him! But our response to the cross and resurrection does not stop there.
   The risen Lord comes to us and says: just as I have given myself to you fully on the cross, I want you to give yourself fully to your brother and sister! Become a servant of all (πάντων δοῦλος)!" True freedom is not doing what I want to do, or following my own desires, but giving up my rights, even the joys of eating inexpensive high quality food at a cheap price at the market, for the sake of the other. I give up the good pleasures of creation from a good Creator so that I can sacrifice for, and serve, those in need. This is the kind of life for which Christ died and rose to grace us with. God forbid that we sell the gospel short by not living our lives as servants of all! Blessed Easter everyone!    
See ch. 7 "The Reality of Freedom in Christ"
If you want to read more on idol food and being a servant of all, I refer the reader to my essay on Christian freedom (co-written with Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom) in ch. 7 of the above book: Living Faith (2010). For a more technical treatment, but worth every minute you spend reading it, please see the article by Seyoon Kim, “Imitatio Christi (1 Corinthians 11:1): How Paul Imitates Jesus Christ in Dealing with Idol Food (1 Corinthians 8–10).” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13 (2003) 193–226. In the article, Dr. Kim does the textual work of connecting the ransom saying of Jesus with Paul's idol food exhortations, convincingly arguing that the former is the basis for the latter. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Tribute to Courage on Tax Day

Fell upon this cartoon, and thought that I would share it. It is a tribute to an undervalued virtue in today's world: courage!
In the Roman world, ἀνδρεία was the word for courage in Greek, and one of four cardinal virtues which characterized the educated citizen. There was a unity among these virtues so that they informed one another. Courage (ἀνδρεία), for example, was the power to do what was just and right (δικαιοσύνη) with wisdom (φρόνησις) and self-control (σωφροσύνη). So courage was not so much wrestling with alligators (where is the wisdom there?!), or doing our taxes (where is the justice?), but having the moral resolve to do what is right, and see it through to the very end. May we all have more courage to do what is right in God's eyes throughout the daily challenges of life, and somehow get our taxes done in the process! Happy Tax Day! 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Matthew Henry Is Not a Good Go-To Commentary for Theology Students

As I am neck-deep with papers to read this entire week, I thought I would make a short remark on the commentaries that seminarians sometimes use as resources for their papers. Taken from an advertisement of the interdisciplinary conference focused on the writings and ministry of Rev. Matthew Henry by the University of Chester, England (July 14-16, 2014), here is a following description on the scope of Rev. Henry's life and work: 

Matthew Henry (1662–1714) is remembered today by two major groups of scholars: by historians as a leading figure among early eighteenth century dissenters, and brother of the diarist, Sarah Savage; and by theologians and biblical scholars for his Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. This monumental work, which had already been published in 25 different editions by 1855, is used widely even today in print and online versions. Yet Henry’s famous commentary is by no means the only expression of his engagement with the Scriptures. Amongst his 30 further publications, most of which were published in the final years of his life (and many of which were later republished with extracts from his letters and diaries by Sir John Bickerton Williams), his many sermons and works on Christian Piety (including the still popular Method for Prayer, 1710) are saturated with Henry’s peculiarly practical approach to the Bible.

Did you catch the date? Matthew Henry was a pastor in the 18th century. This fact alone should raise up some red flags for those using his commentaries on the Old and New Testament for research papers in a seminary or Bible college classroom setting. 
In my NT2 class, I often remind the students that while there might be a plain logic and meaning to Scripture, the (post-)modern reader does not necessarily have immediate access to them. We always have to "mind the gap" between the ancient author and the interpreter of the Bible today, that is, the historical-temporal, cultural, lexical, rhetorical, and experiential gap that a good historian attempts to bridge so the radical edge of the gospel does not get lost on our current generation of Christ followers. 
    Rev. Matthew Henry was a wonderful English Presbyterian pastor for his time, and certainly his insights on the word of God continue to inspire many pastors in our day and age. However, as a resource for exegetical papers, his commentaries fall short. They are simply uninformed of the many archaeological and textual break-through's which have change the way we view the New Testament world, let alone, how we interpret the New Testament text. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls alone (beginning in 1946) and how the library at Qumran changed the way we describe 2nd Temple Judaism should give us enough pause to consider sources which take this information and apply it towards reading Paul's letters and our New Testament books more precisely in their ancient contexts. 
   So always check the date for your sources, and know who your commentators are, before depending on them for your work and preaching. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Presence of Christ at the Lord's Supper and Pagan Sacramentalism

Sorry for the delay between posts, but I have been scrambling now with the indices to the Seyoon Kim Festschrift and my taxes (the first a joy; the 2nd a real pain). But back to idol food. 
   Continuing from my last post on the topic ("Idol Food Is No Idle Business at Corinth"), I want to begin this post with the following photo of a relief (ca. 1st century AD) taken at the National Museum in Athens during the winter Greece trip in January. It illustrates well the real presence or epiphany of daemons and gods at the meal: 
Photo taken by Max Lee at the Athens Museum © 2014
In the above photo, the god Dionysios (outlined in yellow) along with his entourage (i.e., satyrs outlined in orange) epiphany before a young man (a poet; center) along with his consort (left) while he is reclining at the dinner table. The idea that daemons and gods could appear before their followers and join them in the cultic feasting which took place at the religious festivals, or even perhaps simply around the symposium or banquet, is clearly pictorialized here in this relief.
    In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addresses three such possible settings (i.e., banquet halls of the temple, the temple cult, and homes) where a believer might encounter idol meat and gives a different set of admonitions for each occasion. However, it is important to note that while the superstitious believed that gods like Dionysios could epiphany in any of the above settings, Paul did not. Paul thinks there is a danger of the real presence of demons in only one of the settings which the Corinthians might find themselves participating within. And Paul is arguing against an elitist group at Corinth who thinks demons do not exist at all, who argue that any setting is fine to eat idol food, and that worrying about demons betrays ignorance not wisdom. 
    In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (and 10:23-30), Paul agrees with these elitist members of the congregation (known as “the Corinthian  wise” or “the  strong”)  that “an  idol is nothing” (8:4). He agrees with the strong that they have the freedom to eat meat sacrificed in a pagan temple as long as they are doing so in the banquet halls (which is something like the cafeteria in a church building) and not before an actual idol in the inner sanctuary as a part of a worship service. In the latter liturgical setting (see 10:1-22), Paul is quite clear that no Christian should eat idol food as part of pagan veneration because “you cannot participate in the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (10:21). There are real demonic and spiritual forces at work in a cultic act of pagan worship, and the believer is urged to flee every form of idolatry (10:14). Citing the folly of the Israelites during their wilderness journey and reflecting upon those Old Testament  texts that narrate their apostasy (Exod 32:7; Num 11:4; 21:4-9; 25:1-9), Paul warns against a communion with demons that can cause the whole church to stumble. 
   [The third situation that Paul addresses is the case of idol meat sold in the marketplace and served in people's home (1 Corinthians 10:25-30). This was already discussed in the previous post].
   If there is a real presence of a demon or deity at pagan worship (10:20-21), the demon is not present in the material that is being sacrificed; otherwise even if it switches location to the marketplace, Paul would still prohibit it. It's the same material wherever it goes. In other words, to use Christian theological categories, Paul would still have a problem with idol food sold in the market if it was somehow "transubstantiated" (= the meat was ontologically changed/tranformed) by being offered to an idol at the temple. But since Paul has no qualms about idol food in either the banquet halls (8:1-13) or meat sold in the marketplace and brought home (10:25-30), it is in the social and cultic setting of the temple liturgy, among the pagan worshippers, that the real presence of a demon/deity is experienced. Not in the elements themselves.
   This does seem to have implications for the Lord's Supper, against which Paul draws a contrast: “you cannot participate in the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (οὐ δύνασθε τραπέζης κυρίου μετέχειν καὶ τραπέζης δαιμονίων; 10:21). If the real presence of the demons acts as a theological foil against the real presence of Christ in which believers participate (μετέχειν) at the Lord's table, then we have the one text in the New Testament that might possibly point to a sacramental understanding of the Lord's supper. Having always thought of communion as an ordinance, not a sacrament, I have to say that this is somewhat disconcerting and steps on my Baptist sensibilities (in a good way). I'm not saying I have changed my mind on sacramentalism but if there was a text that could change it, this would be it! 
   However, if the Lord's supper is a sacrament in the sense that Christ is present at the communion table, then the real presence is not from the elements themselves, but following Calvin, in the worship and fellowship of Christian believers as we participate in the act of breaking bread and drinking of the wine. The Spirit of the Lord is present among the body of believers. Can the presence of Christ be with the elements (i.e., consubstantiation) vs. in the elements (i.e., transubstantiation)? Hmmmm... I'm going to have to think about consubstantiation some more. No comment for now. But there is one more theological trump card Paul plays concerning idol food. But this will have to wait until the next post. 

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. [Note: while I focused on sacramentalism, this exercise will have a different focus] 2) Now go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about pagan cultic practices/offerings in a pagan Greco-Roman temple. 3) Interpret 1 Cor 10:14-22 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: what did eating part of food sacrificed to idols symbolize for the pagan worshipper? Why would Paul find such a practice objectionable? How does understanding how pagan temples operate give you insight into Paul's own message/exhortations in 1 Cor 10:14-22? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.