February 27, 2010

Ephesians 2:11-12; A Devotional

Therefore, remember that at one point,1 you -- the Gentiles in terms of flesh, the ones called "foreskin"2 by those called "the circumcised", a handmade thing of flesh -- that at that time,1 you were separate from Christ, ostracized3 from the people of Israel, and aliens in terms of the covenants of promise: having no hope and being without God4 in the world.
Sometimes we forget that we were the Gentiles. We were those cut off from the promises of God; aliens from the covenants made with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. It is only in the blood of Jesus Christ that we are brought near to God.

This is part of God's whole project: To redeem all of humanity through Israel. But the first stage of that was redeeming Israel, and the rest of us were set aside until Israel was ready for the Messiah to come.

We must always remember that we do not have a right to salvation and we most certainly do not deserve it. Salvation is a gift granted to us who were outside and separate from the things of God. That God had made a holy people, and then He drew us in by the powerful life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Let us sing praises to our God and Saviour, Christ Jesus!

Translation notes

1 The parenthesis here is marked out by the use of these two synonyms: 'pote' and 'keiros'. 'Pote' derives from 'pou' (meaning 'where') and 'te' (meaning essentially 'and', but usually acts as a kind of modifier), meaning "at one time" or "once upon a time", referring to a past state or a past event. It does not seem to refer to the past in general though. 'Keiros' means 'time', though it is distinct from the word 'chronos'. 'Chronos' refers to time in general but 'keiros' refers to a specific moment in time, which would make it simular to 'moment' or 'period' or 'instant'.

In this case, 'keiros' refers back to 'pote', bringing the reader back to the beginning of the sentence, giving the passage the feel that the parenthesis interrupted Paul thought to the point that he had to start his thought again. I emphasize this synonymia by repeating the subject 'you'.

2 I found it interesting that the term used here 'akrobustia' doesn't mean 'uncircumcised', as it is commonly translated, but 'foreskin'. Quite frankly, I think this makes the term more insulting, and probably represents a mocking name that the Jews used for the Gentiles. I think translating it as 'uncircumcised' makes the whole passage seem clunkier, and is unnecessarily creates a rhetorical parallel between the two terms.

3 'Apellotriomenoi' literally means "to make another/differnent" or simply 'to alienate'. I felt that ostracize as an appropriate term.

4 'Atheoi' is actually one word, meaning "without God".

February 25, 2010

A Divine Moment

What kind of faith is Christianity? Is it experiential? Many of thought so. Is it intellectual? Again, many have considered it so. The answer is of course neither and both. Christianity is primarily relational. We understand God in how we relate to Him, and the church is functional only in terms of is communal unity.

Relationships have their experiential nature. I'm writing this today because this evening I had one of those truly defining experiential moments. I've had others, but I thought this one was worth sharing, especially considering how theological it was.

I've been reading a book called Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be (which I highly recommend) and in it, it was discussing the necessary aspect of complaint in Christian worship. This is something that I've felt strongly about for some time, but this sparked me to think about it with some depth. I pondered (remember, this is meant to be as close to my train of thought as possible with words):
God is God. Because of this, He is the Lord and Master of all of the cosmos and over all of creation. As such, we have no right to come before Him and complain to Him about how He is doing things.
However, because we are now in covenantal relationship with Him, which was cut through Christ, we now have an invitation to go before the throne and complain. Indeed, God requests that He does, and it is important that we do so honestly. David was honest before God; Job was honest before God; We should be honest before God, and should not hold back in case we offend His majesty.
Marriage is a covenant. When I am upset with my wife, I tell her my feelings. I am open before her, and tell her precisely what bothers me about what she did and how it affects me. I do so because I trust her not to throw it back in my face, and because ultimately my desire is reconciliation with her. This can only happen is I openly and honestly express my perspective and reaction to what she has done. With that comes correction and restitution.
With God, to not be honest and to hold back is not to trust His response, and to prefer obedience to proper relationship. Being open doesn't mean that you believe that what you are saying is correct, but that you recognize that this is the perspective that you have, and it needs to be dealt with, and that the only way to deal with it is to go to the source, submit it, and trust that He will value your honesty and reconcile with you. It is a supreme trust.
And how good of a God He is that He is faithful to that trust! That if we come to him complaining, He'll listen and come and reconcile. He may speak from a whirlwind, or He may speak in a still small voice, but He'll come.
God loves me. He really loves me. That love is not simply an emotion, but it motivates action. He pursues me. Yes He reigns, but He really cares about me.
God, You're love is real, and true...
At this point, my thoughts really stopped being words. It was more a group of concepts sort of ramming into each, and interacting with each other: blending and merging, sort of like a conceptual kaleidoscope. I had a similar experience once contemplating the Trinity. It is like the ideas almost become pure, leaving their verbal symbols. It sounds chaotic, but when this happens my thinking is actually clearer.

The first time this conceptual kaleidoscope happened the concept of the Trinity was simply made plain to me. In this case, God's love was just before me. I could see it; feel it. All of it's parts and depths were there. It began to feel like God was holding me in His arms: not in a literal way, but definitely in a tangible way. I don't think I can describe it better than that. It was just me and Dad: and it was good. VERY GOOD. I would've been content to just stay there if Esther didn't tell me that it was dinnertime (she actually could tell something was happening with me).

I don't know if I can say much more than this. It was what it was, and I will hold it in my heart. I pray that you all may have a similar experience.

February 20, 2010

Ephesians 2:10; A Devotional

For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared for us to do.
The beautiful thing about this verse is how close one feels with God when thinking that He has shaped us with His own hands. Many times we wonder why God would love us so much. Well, for much of the same reason why I still have some art projects I made in 6th grade. It isn't the quality of the piece, it is its relationship with me. Likewise, it is our relationship with God that causes God to love us so.

But it is also important to remember the context. Overall Paul is comparing faith to works, where faith is the means of salvation instead of what humans would expect: works. So why does Paul take the time to celebrate good works in this verse? After all, that is precisely what he is doing.

The reason is simple. He is describing works as the goal instead of the means. Faith is the means of salvation; works are the goal. We are saved and reborn so we can do the good works of God. This recalls Genesis 1:27-28, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." When we were created, we were, in part, delegated authority here on earth to subdue it and take care of it. We were to be God's vassals; His representatives here on the Earth to keep it beautiful.

It is therefore not surprising that even now, when He restores us to righteousness and cleanliness, He also restores us to purpose. We are called to live out His decrees, and put things in order here. So we are created for good works, and recreated for good works. But we are not recreated by good works, and that is his point.

February 14, 2010

Ephesians 2:8-9; A Devotion

For you see it is from grace that you have been saved through faith; not from yourself. This1 is a gift of God, not from works so that none may boast.
Ah yes, we are all familiar with this verse. I think it is important to understand what Paul's theology is here really. It is important to note that the basic clause of the first sentence is "you have been saved through faith". Everything else in that first sentence, and even the entire above passage, relies on us understanding that this is the basic view that Paul has about the salvation process. Indeed, the fact of salvation by faith isn't even Paul's point; it is Paul's assumption.

Paul's point is that the fact that salvation is through faith instead of works is something worth celebrating. It is the fact that salvation is through faith instead of works that is a gift from God, and the cause of any boasting being void. When we remember that God has the sovereign right to decide upon what terms He is going to base salvation, and then realize that humans would expect it to be based upon works (hence every man-made religion doing so), we can then recognize how gracious it is for God to base it upon something as simplistic as faith!

And faith here doesn't simply believe mentally believing something. It is talking about utter reliance and trust on Christ. This is why it is impossible to boast about faith, because the very nature of faith is relenting our own power and abilities. It is saying, "I give up. Christ, You do it." Who can boast in that?

So therefore, this week, let us be conscious to look to God to be our strength (as we always should). Let us rely on Jesus to be our Saviour and Lord. Let us trust in the Spirit to provide our strength and support. Let us depend completely on Yahweh, and remember Him in all our ways.


Translation notes

1 The word 'touto', which means 'this', is neuter in the Greek. It is important to note that if it referred to the word 'faith', it would match that word in gender (which would be feminine). Because it is neuter, it would refer to the entire last clause. Therefore, it is salvation through faith that is a gift.

February 10, 2010

Distinctive vs Core Doctrine

One thing that I have noticed within the Arminianism/Calvinism debate is that the concept of "Central Doctrine" is thrown around a lot, often pejoratively. The question is what is the main tenant which defines Arminianism or Calvinism? Such a question is actually quite relevant in any theological discussion, but I've seen it come up the most in A/C.

However, I think the concept can be answered in two quite distinct ways. I've differentiated these two ways of answering this by the terms 'distinctive doctrine' and 'core doctrine'.

Core Doctrine

A position's core doctrine is that belief or set of beliefs which are foundational for that position. It is the doctrine that every other doctrine within the system is based, and that idea about God, humanity, and the world that the position is attempting to protect. For instance, within Creationism, the core doctrine is the infallibility of Scripture. For Pentecostalism, it is the power of God being manifestable in the world.

It is important to note that this doctrine may not actually be distinct at all. Indeed, there are times when one's opponents hold to the exact same doctrine (as we will see in C&A). What defines a core doctrine isn't how unique it is, but how important it is.

For instance, in Calvinism one can identify two core doctrines. The first being God's sovereignty. Do Arminians believe in God's sovereignty? Of course, but that is what much of Calvinism is trying to protect. The second is monergism: only God is involved in salvation. Again, there are other versions of monergism out there, but protecting that idea is central in Calvinism.

For Arminianism, again, we can identify two. The first is God's goodness. Calvinists believe in God's goodness, but the Arminian is the one who is more intent on protecting that idea. The second would be the univerality of the atonement.

In both these cases, the second one I mention is based on the first. That's really more coincidence, but there you have it.

Distinctive Doctrine

A distinctive doctrine, or defining doctrine, is that belief or set of beliefs that is unique to a particular position that allows you to identify it. They may not actually be the most important elements in the system, and may not be central to a person's spirituality at all (though sometimes they are). It is merely what differentiates it from other positions, like the Petrine authority of the Pope in Catholicism, or speaking in tongues being the initial evidence of baptism of the Holy Spirit for Pentecostals.

The distinctive doctrine of Calvinism is Unconditional Election (that's right, not determinism). If you believe in Unconditional Election, you're basically some form of Calvinist (for me, I would consider Amraldyianism a mild form of Calvinism). Everything in the Calvinist position either builds up the concept of Unconditional Election, or is necessarily concluded from it.

The distinctive doctrine of Arminianism is prevenient grace (that's right, not free will). If you believe in prevenient grace, you're basically some form of Arminian. Everything in the Arminian position either builds up the concept of prevenient grace, or is necessarily concluded from it.

February 6, 2010

Ephesians 2:6-7; A Devotional

And also with Christ1, God has raised us up and sat us down2 in the celestrial realms by Christ Jesus so that within these coming times3 He has shown, in His kindness,4 the overwhelming5 riches of His graciousness6 over us by Christ Jesus.
Because these devotions are based upon my translation of the text, I discovered that not only was it nearly impossible to keep up with it around Christmas time, but that once I lost track of it, it was difficult to start up again. So, I am sorry that I haven't been attending to this for a month.

When looking at these verses it is important to remember what came before it, since we are actually in the middle of that action here. It is important to view this section of Ephesians as 'action', for the first few verses of chapter 2 set up the context (we are sinners who deserve the wrath of God), but then, in verse 4, God acts through Christ. This action is nothing less than taking these sinners who deserve His wrath and exalting them to glory through transformation (verse 5) and now given authority to rule beside Him.

It is important to remember that part of humanities purpose is to rule over creation with God (Genesis 1). The redemption through Jesus Christ is as much to do with restoring God's created order as it is about saving us, for God loves all His creation. Here we see God, not only restoring us to be the kinds of people that He intended us to be, but to also restore us to purpose as well.

But I want to emphasize how Christocentric this is! We are sunezoopouesen, sunegeiren, and sunekthisen! Sun- means with, and emphasizes that all these actions (being made alive, being raised up, and being sat down) are not simply down to us, but done with us. We were made alive along side Christ, who was made alive on the third day. We are raised up beside Christ who has ascended. We are sat down into places of authority as Christ has been given full authority. Everything we are given, we are given because it was first given to Christ, and therefore it has been given to us through Christ. We are attached to Him, and are fully dependent on Him for everything.

But all of this glory is meant to be held in contrast to what we deserve, which is nothing. Indeed we deserve His wrath. It is only through recognizing this juxtaposition that we can see the overwhelming riches of His graciousness. This is the fundamental Christian vision of humanity: that we are worthless undeserving sinners who God has designed for great things, and who God has redeemed for His purposes.

Translation notes

1'sunezoopouesen' from verse 5 and 'sunegeiren' and 'sunekthisen' here in verse six all have the same prefix: 'sun', which means 'with'. Therefore, we are 'raised up with' and 'sat down with' in the same sense that we are 'made alive with'. I added the "with Christ" in the beginning because the distributing the "with Christ" through the sentence messes with the flow.

2The juxtaposition of 'sunegeiren' and 'sunekthisen' forms the rhetorical device known as anaphora (repetition of an idea, in this case 'with') in both the senses that the words have the same prefix and ending. However, this didn't flow as powerfully in the English because I couldn't do it using prefixes, thus loosing the cadence of the phrase. Instead, I've attempted to retain the same rhetorical effect by instead using antithesis (hence up and down).

3 This section is kind of interesting if we look at all of the time elements to it. 'Aion' means eternity, but can also mean age or epoch (i.e. long stretch of time). It is also plural, so we are already thinking ages, rather than eternities. The participle of 'to come' (hence 'coming') is in the present tense, thus implying that this ages are indeed arriving right now. But the phrase 'coming ages' implies the future, not the present, for if these ages, or times, were present, then they wouldn't be coming, but arriving. However, the verb 'to show' ('endeixetai') is actually past tense. Therefore, that which God wants to demonstrate, He already has, though who He is demonstrating it to is only just arriving.
The way in which these temporal elements play together in our minds creates a picture of vivid immediacy, and yet I believe it is lost in many of the translations. I've attempted to bring this out more by making sure the verb is past tense, and using the wore 'these' instead of 'the' to emphasize the present tense sense of the participle.

4The Greek word 'chrestotes' means primarily goodness, in the terms of usefulness. There is a strong connection in the ancient mind between morality and practicality, and connection that we would be wise to recover. Thus, 'chrestotes' refers to God's practical kindness and goodness toward us.
I should also mention word order. In most translations, the phrase "in His kindness" comes after "the riches of His grace". I put it before because I think the other way is clumsy in the English.

5The Greek word 'huperballon' etymologically breaks down to 'overthrown' or 'overcast'. Thus it means that it goes far beyond what is necessary. I used to the term 'overwhelming' instead of 'surpassing' because I wanted to retain the preposition 'over' later on in the sentence, and 'overwhelming works better in with this term. This is why translations using 'surpassing' also translate the preposition 'ef' to 'through', 'in', or 'toward'.

6I went with 'graciousness' here over 'grace' because the idea of graciousness is more general, and thus works with the word 'ef' (or 'epi') better. We can get an image of graciousness passing over us like a great blanket, or like the wings of a mother bird over her chicks. The English word 'grace' is more aptly employed to refer to a persons character, or a particular act, rather than one's overall action toward us, I think. Still, both are completely justified by the Greek.