Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sermon Audio - Setting His Face Towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56)

Last Sunday I preached again at my home church. You can find the audio here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

International Survey on Biblical Literacy

I came across this article on a survey by the Catholic Biblical Federation and carried out by GFK Eurisko, described as a "sociological survey of sociological attitudes towards the Bible in various nations." Here is summary of some of the key findings, taken from the first article linked above:

• The United States has by far the highest level of its adult population that claims to have read at least one passage from the Bible in the last year (75%) and to have a Bible at home (93%), but it doesn’t score better than anyone else on tests of basic Biblical literacy. For example, large numbers of Americans, just like people in the other eight countries surveyed, mistakenly thought that Jesus had authored a book of the Bible, and couldn’t correctly distinguish between Paul and Moses in terms of which figure belongs to the Old Testament.

• Even within highly secularized nations such as France, the U.K. and Holland, broad majorities report a positive attitude towards the Bible, describing it as “interesting” and expressing a desire to know more about it.

• Broad majorities also describe the Bible as “difficult” and express a need for help in understanding it – suggesting, according to the authors of the study, a “teaching moment” for the churches.

• Fundamentalists, or those who take a literal view of Scripture, do not know more about the Bible than anyone else. In fact, researchers said, it’s readers whose attitudes they described as “critical,” meaning that they see the Bible as the word of God but in need of interpretation, who are over-represented at the highest levels of Biblical literacy. In other words, fundamentalists actually score lower on basic Biblical awareness.

• In virtually every country surveyed, those who take a “critical” view of the Bible represent a larger share of the population than either “fundamentalists” or “reductionists,” meaning those who see the Bible simply as literature or a collection of myths and legends. In the United States, “fundamentalists” are 27 percent of the population, “critics” 51 percent, and “reductionists” 20 percent. Interestingly, both Poland and Russia have a similar share of “fundamentalists,” despite lacking the strong Evangelical Protestant tradition familiar in the U.S.

• There is no apparent correlation between reading the Bible and any particular political orientation. In other words, it’s not the case that the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely they are to be a political conservative or liberal.

• Aside from the United States, there’s broad support in most nations for teaching the Bible in public schools, suggesting that large numbers of people attach cultural importance to the Bible even if it’s not part of their personal belief system. (The different result in the United States, according to researchers, flows from America’s unique tradition of church/state separation, in which families and churches rather than public schools have been the primary carriers of religious instruction).

• There no longer appear to be major differences in Biblical reading patterns and Biblical familiarity between countries with Catholic majorities and those with Protestant majorities, suggesting that, in the words of Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy, the president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, the Bible has become “the ecumenical book of all believers.”

There is a lot here to digest, and apparently this is only an interim report that covers the northern hemisphere. Results for the southern hemisphere will also be compiled. But the information available leads me to the following reflections.

1. Despite having a higher percentage of people actually reading the Bible, those in the US do not have a better functional literacy. I could suggest a variety of causes, but the bottom line is that this observation alone demands that the church must do a far better job of helping people see how the Bible fits together. This trend is only getting worse; biblical literacy among those entering Bible colleges is on a fast track downward with no sign of abating.

2. The fact that a large percentage of people remain interested in the Bible is an opening for the church to focus its preaching and teaching on the Bible. But we must do so in a way that is faithful to the text. We need to help people see what God said to his people and the world then AS WELL AS what God is saying to his people and the world now. If one of these elements is lacking we are not being faithful.

3. Broad majorities expressing that the Bible is difficult to understand would suggest opportunities for the church to explain how the Bible fits together. I have seen this myself with both Christians and non-Christians. Especially here in the US, people have bits and pieces of the Bible, but have little if any understanding of how the whole Bible fits together. It is one of the most rewarding things I do in ministry to help people see how the Bible is one unified story running from creation to new creation with Christ as the centerpiece of redemptive history.

4. Without having more detail on how they define "fundamentalism" and "critical" it is hard to know how to interpret the comment that fundamentalists actually score lower on biblical literacy. The way it is described here makes me suspicious at the least.

5. As with the last point, without seeing further definition of the terms "fundamentalist," "critical" and "reductionist" I can't comment beyond noting the interesting fact that the percentages are the same in the US and Russia.

6. I am not surprised at the lack of correlation between Biblical literacy and specific political persuasions. For the Bible to effectively shape one's politics in any meaningful way, it would have to form the worldview of a person. Short of that, people will easily read their own political beliefs into the Bible.

7. The wording of the last observation about countries with Catholic and Protestant majorities having little difference sounds fishy to me. But even if we take it at face value, the most likely explanation in my mind is that Catholics have made modest gains at best while Protestants have regressed significantly. In other words, this is not a point for the Catholic church to rejoice about so much as it is a point for the Protestant church to lament.

It would have been nice to know within the huge category of "Protestant" how evangelicals fared, but the sad news I would not be confident of a significant difference. By God's grace we must resolve to understand the Bible well ourselves and communicate it to others in a way that enables them to encounter Christ and be transformed by him.

HT: Bayly Blog

Friday, May 23, 2008

Understanding the Bible Christologically

In the latest issue of The Tie, the magazine of Southern Seminary, there are several articles on Reading the Bible Christologically. Worth particular attention are the articles by Wellum, Hamilton and Powlison. You can access the online pdf version free here.

HT: Jim Hamilton

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Online Resources by Doug Moo

As some of you know, I had the privilege of doing my doctoral studies under the supervision of Doug Moo, who served for many years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and for the past eight years at Wheaton College in the Graduate School. I wanted to make you aware of his website: Originally this site began as a place for Doug to sell his photography, which is quite impressive on its own right. But more recently he has added a wealth of some of his own articles, writings, etc., which can be found here. You will quickly notice that his main areas of emphasis have been in Pauline studies (especially on Romans and Paul's view of the Law) as well as several articles on the interpretation of 1 Tim 2:11-15. It is a great blessing to the church that these articles are now being made available in PDF files. I encourage you to take advantage of these great resources.

Lord willing, in the years to come we should see additional publications from Moo including but not limited to: commentaries on Colossians/Philemon (Pillar; due out in the next 6-12 months), Galatians (Baker Exegetical) and Hebrews (not sure which series). He is also slated to to do a Pauline theology as well as continue his research in the area of a theology of creation and its relationship to environmental issues.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"The Radiance of the Son" (Luke 9:28-36)

On May 4 I preached at my home church (Christ's Covenant Church) on Luke's account of the Transfiguration (9:28-36). They have now posted the audio here. Rest assured, even though the title says the sermon is by "Dr. Mark Harmon" it is in fact me preaching; to my knowledge the actor does not have a Ph.D. (UPDATE: They have now corrected it; thanks Kirsten!).

Continuing on the lighter note, this was the first time I had preached since our church changed the service times back in January. The service times used to be 9:00-10:30 and 11:00-12:30. But in January they were changed to 9:00-10:15 and 10:30-11:45. Unfortunately when I got up to preach in the first service, my brain defaulted to the old service times, and I preached until 10:30. I was even priding myself on "landing the plane" on time by finishing exactly at 10:30. This was despite the yellow post-it note on the pulpit with the revised service times staring me in the face during the entire sermon. After the service one of the elders graciously reminded me of the new sermon times, and I sheepishly acknowledged my goof. An amusing but humbling experience!

So the people in the first service got bonus material (about 10 minutes worth!). It appears the audio they have posted on the web is the second service version, which is still about 38 minutes.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Helpful Thoughts on Considering Ph.D. Studies

Sean Michael Lucas, Chief Academic Officer and Associate Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary, provides some helpful thoughts on how he responds to students who approach him about pursuing Ph.D. studies.

HT: Justin Taylor

Monday, May 05, 2008

Early Christian Mission by Eckhard J. Schnabel

Early Christian Mission

Early Christian Mission

by Eckhard J. Schnabel
InterVarsity Press - IVP, 2004
xliv + 1,928 pages, English
Cloth, 6 x 9
ISBN: 0830827900
List Price: $90.00
Your Price: $62.91

This two volume set by Eckhard Schnabel is a remarkable achievement. I finished working my way through the nearly 1,600 pages of text, and despite the length found myself enjoying it immensely. Schnabel's goal is to provide a full study of the early Christian missionary movement through the first century. The original version of the book was written in German under the title Urchristliche Mission in 2002. This English version published in 2004 by IVP "corrects mistakes, revises some arguments and expands the information at several points" (p. xxvii). It is thus a unique blend of history, exegesis, theology and praxis rolled into one.

The work is composed of an introduction and seven parts with a total of 35 chapters, which when spread over 1,588pages of text makes for some incredibly long chapters. In what follows I will try to give a very brief summary of each part.

Introduction - here Schnabel addresses methodological issues. Noteworthy in this section is the extensively detailed chronology he provides, covering the birth of Jesus (4 B.C.) to the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (113 A.D.). It may be the most detailed one I have come across yet, covering Jewish, Roman and Christian events.

Part I: Promise - Israel's Eschatological Expectations and Jewish Expansion in the Second Temple Period - Schnabel enters the debate of whether a Jewish mission to the Gentiles existed during the STJ period. Although recognizing universal elements within the OT (esp. Isaiah), Schnabel sees no compelling evidence for an actual Jewish mission to the Gentiles. "There are no statements by Jewish or Roman authors that force us to conclude that there was an active Jewish mission among Gentiles. Judaism had neither a missionary theory nor organized missionary activity before the first century A.D." (173).

Part II - Fulfillment - The Mission of Jesus - The ministry of Jesus himself is seen as the fountainhead of the early Christian mission. Schnabel concludes that Jesus could have easily visited the 175 towns/villages of Galilee during his ministry; as a result almost everyone of the approximately 200,000 people living in Galilee would have heard of Jesus. The same holds for most of the 500,000 Judeans, including the 100,000 inhabitants if Jerusalem. Although Jesus did not initiate contacts with non-Jews, Gentiles or polytheists, he did not avoid such contacts either. He did teach of a time when the promises of salvation to the Gentiles would come to fulfillment, which laid the foundation for the early Christian mission to the Gentiles. Jesus' commission to his disciples began a new phase in the history of the people of God in which the universal and international dimensions of God's promises in the OT were coming to pass.

Part III - Beginnings - The Mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem - The beginnings of the early Christian mission flow from the events of Easter and Pentecost. Jesus carries out this mission initially through the life of the Twelve in Jerusalem. The leadership of the Jerusalem church remained with the Twelve until 41 A.D. when a transition was made to a council of elders with James the brother of Jesus as first among equals. This was prompted by the persecution of Herod Agrippa I, who executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter. At this point history suggests the Twelve dispersed in various directions for international mission work.

Part IV - Exodus - The Mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth - The Hellenistic, Greek speaking Jewish Christians of Jerusalem took the lead in proclaiming the consequences of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the identity of the people of God. Torah was no longer the center of Israel's relationship to Yahweh, the temple is no longer the central place of God's presence and the land of Judea is no more special than any other piece of land. Upon the martyrdom of Stephen these Hellenistic-Jewish Christians spread the gospel in various areas outside of Judea. Peter himself engaged in Gentile mission, and more permanently left Jerusalem in 41 A.D. to engage in further mission work. Jewish Christians also proclaimed the gospel in and around Judea as evidenced by the growth of local churches in various villages and towns.

Part V - Pioneer Missionary Work - The Mission of the Apostle Paul - After a description of Paul's background, Schnabel deals at length with Paul's conversion, extensive missionary work, and eventual imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome. He agrees with early tradition that Paul was released to engage in further mission work only to be re-arrested and executed in Rome in the mid to late 60s. Paul saw his primary calling as a pioneer missionary and worked with many coworkers in his efforts.

Part VI - Growth - Consolidation and Challenges of the Early Christian Churches - There appear to have been several centers of the early Christian movement: Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. By the end of the first century the church continued to grow and expand through the gradual process of personal evangelism of believers and intentional missionary efforts. The early missionaries used the spoken (and occasionally written) word to expand the reach of the gospel. After exploring 17 proposed reasons for the successful growth of Christianity, he holds that it is the work of God himself.

Part VII - Results - The Identity, Praxis and Message of the Early Christian Mission - This final section is the "payoff" of the laborious research offered in the previous six parts. Schnabel offers important insight into the self-understanding of the early Christian missionaries, their praxis and message. He concludes with a chapter of reflections on the implications of his study for missionary work in the present day.

Although few will have the time and patience to wade through the entirety of the two volumes, pastors, missionaries and scholars alike will want to have them on their shelves. The extensive bibliographies and indexes make it possible to dip into various sections with profit. Schnabel provides extensive treatment of the various cities the early Christian missionaries entered, which would serve as helpful background when doing work in Acts or on the life of Paul.

Schnabel is to be commended for this breathtaking achievement. The breadth and depth of scholarship in seemingly every area he addresses is nothing short of amazing. Early Christian Mission promises to be the standard treatment of the subject for decades to come.