Friday, 9 October 2015

Winds of Change at CoG7

Jason Overman and Calvin Burrell, current and past BA editors
If anything is a "mother church" to the squabbling sects that remain from the dissolution of the Worldwide Church of God, it has to be CoG7, the Denver-based Church of God Seventh Day.

CoG7 (or CG7, whichever acronym you prefer) is an enduring remnant of the movement that also produced the Seventh-day Adventist church. The SDAs went forth to become the multi-million member denomination that brought us corn flakes and Ben Carson. CoG7 settled for a more modest trajectory.

CoG7 has had its own issues over the years, but it would be fair to say that they've been settled without a fraction of the melodrama that characterises its bickering daughter churches. Today, just as they did during Herbert Armstrong's early ministry, they still publish The Bible Advocate magazine.

The church is now seeing new leadership emerge. Loren Stacey is the new president of the General Conference following the retirement of Whaid Rose, and Jason Overman has become editor of the BA after Calvin Burrell's many years at the helm. A smooth and peaceful transition? Imagine that!

CoG7 is a fundamentalist Sabbatarian body, it's true, and I expect that would be reason enough for many of us to not take it seriously. But it also demonstrates an openness and accountability that stands in marked contrast to similar and related groups many readers of this blog will be more familiar with. Without an authoritarian top-down structure it provided what could have been a benign and unifying model for the re-structuring of the post-Armstrong WCG. That the Tkach cabal chose to ignore that option and instead pretend to have some kind of "episcopal" form of government is perhaps the most damning indictment of the so-called reforms that eventually led to its re-branding as Grace Communion International.

In his "State of the Church Address" at the recent General Conference, outgoing president Whaid Rose reflected back on the denomination as it was in 1998 (he was appointed in '97).
I assured the membership that there are no plans to throw out the Sabbath and Ten Commandments. There are no plans to bring about organizational ties with the Worldwide Church of God.
Rose's retirement should, one would hope, not go unnoticed by Joe Tkach, who should have stepped aside years ago. One doubts he will take the hint though, and there's little indication that he has put in place a workable transition plan.

There have been times in the past when CoG7 must have felt upstaged by its precocious offspring. In the end however it has demonstrated the staying power that has eluded its desperately troubled daughters and granddaughters.

The Beck New Testament - the original

This is the fourth in a series on obscure Bible translations. I've restricted the candidates to those I've been able to personally acquire and examine.

William F. Beck. The New Testament in the Language of Today (also known as An American Translation). Concordia, 1963.

I grew up with William F. Beck's The New Testament in the Language of Today. In fact it was the first modern language translation to take a place alongside the KJV in the family home. The reason was simple; Beck was a Missouri Synod pastor and his New Testament bore the hallowed Concordia imprint. Reason enough for it to be promoted in our Lutheran congregation.

These days I regard the Missouri Synod with jaundiced eyes, and view anything published by Concordia with deepest suspicion. But these were the 1960s, and the Seminex crisis was still on a distant horizon.

The thing is, Beck came up with something quite fresh and straightforward. It is certainly conservative, like its creator, but both simple and contemporary in language. It leans (sometimes heavily) toward a Lutheran understanding of key passages, but doesn't wear that bias on its sleeve.

A sample from Galatians 3: 19-20:
Why, then, was the Law given? It was added to arouse transgressions until the Descendant would come to whom the promise was made. And it was given through angels in the hands of a mediator. A mediator deals with more than one, but God is one.
Beck's NT was later expanded to include the Old Testament in 1976, noted for its "Christocentric" treatment of passages thought to prophesy of Christ. Published posthumously, it was later to morph into the God's Word Translation, in the process shedding its identification with the Missouri Synod and Concordia and moving into the larger evangelical marketplace. In my view it suffered through a ham-fisted attempt at improvement.

Against my better judgement I'm still fond of the original Beck's NT. But to complicate matters there's another even more obscure Beck NT, and one that's very different from this one. That'll be next up in this series.

Earlier entries in this series:

Spanky Speaketh

Another issue of Tomorrow's World, another rant by Roderick "Spanky" Meredith. This time the old boy is laying into (you might even say spanking) "all Protestants".
As a former Protestant with many family members still Protestant, I feel compelled to warn you of a soon-coming disaster! Most of the Protestant churches will not even exist a decade or two from right now!
Wow, talk about qualified to comment! Just look at that first sentence. Half the readers of this blog share those credentials. And look, a wee prophecy: most Protestant churches will be gone in twenty years. How come?
Millions of Protestant church members are voting with their feet and getting out. They are becoming Roman Catholics.
Millions? Really? It gets dumber as it goes on.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic church appears to "stand" for a few things! And millions of confused people out there "searching for something"—anything of real substance—are slowly but surely beginning to look at the original "mother church" of Protestantism as a place of religious safety. Many observers realize that the perceived stability of Roman Catholicism is making it more and more attractive to former Protestants, who have grown tired of their own denominations "waffling" on so many issues. Students of Bible prophecy will not be surprised to see hundreds of thousands and even millions returning to their "mother church" in the next few years!
Poor old Rod, he seems to have missed all the news about Pope Francis. Hardly the hard-line pontiff needed to match up with the blood soaked Great Whore of Revelation.
My friends, millions more in this horribly confused world will soon turn to the Roman Catholic church.
Yup, there are those millions again, though I have to say there isn't yet much sign of my neighbours suddenly charging off to mass on Sunday morning. But Spanky knows this because he's got it all worked out based on a miraculous misunderstanding of the apocalyptic genre - and a bone-headed nineteenth-century exegesis of Matthew 24, Daniel and Revelation. Rod explains it thus.
They simply do not study their Bible with the care and attention they would apply to a book on history, mathematics or quantum physics.
Now there's your problem Roderick. The Bible is multi-genre ancient literature, and you'd have to be a complete moron to think you could read it like a text on history (!), mathematics (!!) or quantum physics (!!!)

Rod Meredith, noted authority on almost everything

On a bilious roll, Spanky drags out his authorities to impress us; Alexander Hislop's Two Babylons and "noted Protestant theologian" William Chillingworth.

Earth to Rod; Hislop's Two Babylons - first published in 1853 - has been thoroughly debunked. All you had to do was check out the Wikipedia entry if a bit of your own investigation was too much to ask.
Scholar Lester L. Grabbe has highlighted the picture presented by Hislop, that Nimrod is equated with Ninus is based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion, however his book remains popular among some fundamentalist Protestant Christians and among Jehovah's Witnesses, with The Watchtower frequently publishing excerpts from Hislop until the 1980s. 
The book's thesis has also featured prominently in the conspiracy theories of racist groups such as The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord and other conspiracy theorists. [Wikipedia]
Rod should recognise Lester Grabbe's name. Lester began his academic career at Ambassador College, in the years since acquiring an international reputation in the field. Lester well knows what Rod refuses to see. Rod however would apparently prefer to hold hands with the nice people at The Watchtower and assorted conspiracy nuts.

If you thought Hislop was a bit on the dated side even for Meredith's reading list, William Chillingworth is even more antique. And not so "noted" really, as nobody much has heard about him for several centuries; he died in 1644!

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of irony in ballyhooing a "wake up call" to Protestants when you're relying on scholarship that hasn't been current for up to 350 years?

Rod is as welcome to an opinion on other churches as anyone else, and there's no doubt that he's splendidly accomplished at spotting splinters in other people's eyes, but perhaps he should beware of the boomerang-like properties of careless predictions. For all Francis' popularity, he will be doing well to simply shore up current Catholic membership in Western nations. And even given a growing irrelevance in the eyes of many, those pesky Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans are likely to be around for a very long time. Much longer one suspects than Mr Meredith's own tiny group, the Living Church of God. And would it be terribly cruel to point out that the original Meredith sect, the Global Church of God, imploded only a few years after it was founded?

None of which will stop similar tonsil-rattling rants by Presiding Evangelist Rod in upcoming issues of Tomorrow's World, which given the mouldering quality of his library resources might more properly be called Yesterday's World.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Invisible Feast

The annual Feast of Tabernacles - celebrated by thousands in the various spin-offs from the Worldwide Church of God - is now over, and brethren are resuming their regular lives after eight days in attendance at hundreds of feast sites around the world.

What's fascinating this year, for the first time, is the almost complete lack of interest from local media. Usually you could count on at least a couple of stories appearing in the religion pages of newspapers, especially those close to where the feast was being hosted. After all, lots of people arriving in town for a major convention - and one with a funny name at that - is bound to arouse a little curiosity. Or not. Last year was sparse, but the nice folk at the Deseret News at least noticed. This year... almost nothing.

If anyone can provide a link to a story that bucks that trend, please send it in. Could it be that the Churches of God have now finally slipped into terminal irrelevance as far as the rest of the planet is concerned? If so, what does this say about the effectiveness of the media promotions - print, television and web - that the larger splinters throw bucketfuls of tithe dollars at?

UCG Feast site, Last Great Day in Sevierville, TN: did anybody notice?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Revealing Paul's Gospel

"If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong."
Francis Crick

Paul en route to the 3rd heaven: "Is one of you blokes called Moroni?"
James McGrath has a short but intriguing post up about Paul and his gospel. An excerpt:
It is interesting to reflect on something that Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. He emphasized that his message, his gospel, is not of human origin.
What is his gospel? He doesn't tell us in so many words, and although we may be able to deduce what it is from his letters, I think this is worth noting, and not considered often enough.
His gospel, the message he proclaimed, is something he says emphatically was of divine origin. And that is something he never had written down.
Whatever Jesus might have meant by "gospel of the kingdom", it's clear Paul's understanding is, to use the mildest of descriptions, somewhat expanded. Not only that, but uniquely his.

In fact, the consistent message Paul gives is, follow me, me, me.
Paul an apostle - sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father... Gal 1:1a
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Gal 1:11-12 
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Cor. 11:1 
But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we have proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! Gal 1:8
And yet, despite making grandiose claims for himself and his gospel, Paul - as McGrath notes - never actually gets down to spelling it out in his letters. An oversight or a strategy? At best, to put things as positively as we can, it's implicit rather than explicit.

Grandiose personal claims you say? Surely not humble old Paul?
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ [a round about way to refer to himself] who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows - was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 2 Cor 12:2-4
How's that for a claim for legitimation via revelation. But, sorry folks, y'all don't have sufficient clearance to hear the details, but take it from me, I know stuff you poor schmucks have no idea about - and I ain't telling.

This gospel, says Paul, didn't come down the chain of authority from the other apostles, the guys who knew Jesus up close and personal. No, it came by revelation. To Paul. Just Paul. Specifically Paul.

Just as Joseph Smith had things revealed to him, and the prophet Muhammed. Ellen White had the gift of prophecy bestowed on her. I once chatted with an elderly lady in the Dugger faction of the Church of God who confided, with all due humility, that God revealed "wonderful things" to her. Indeed, she'd been permitted to actually behold the sea of glass mentioned in Revelation 15:2.

It's not hard to be sceptical about Joseph Smith's claims (unless you're a Mormon), or any of the others. But Paul? Surely not Paul?

Then again, why not?

James McGrath writes: "And so what we have from Paul are his own writings, and what he insisted was not merely his own creation he did not write down."

Now there's a conundrum.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

"Old Earth Creationism"

Tim Widowfield has a provocative entry up on Vridar about "Old Earth Creationism", with special mention of James McGrath.

McGrath is seen as the bĂȘte noire of the kind of mythicism-friendly perspective that's promoted on Vridar, and with good reason. Dr McGrath is anything but tolerant of Jesus mythicism, comparing it (unjustifiably in my opinion) to Young Earth Creationism and any number of other regressive fringe movements. The tone of debate has been acerbic from the get-go... arguably with both sides equally short tempered.

Putting aside the mythicist/historicist conflict for a moment, maybe it's useful to take a few deep breaths before a further stouch is ignited over "Old Earth Creationism".

The first point I'd want to make - at the risk of oversimplifying a complex set of developments - is the difference between European Protestant Christian thought on evolution and belief, and the American experience. American fundamentalism was a reactionary movement that took fright at the rational approach that was emerging in European Christianity at the turn of the last century. The enemy wasn't, at least directly, science; it was the spectre of fellow Christians accommodating the post- Enlightenment knowledge then emerging about our world. This process was already well underway in mainline denominations.

The second point is that while this European tradition retained great influence even after the First World War, following World War II there was a huge shift. German theologians in particular were seen as dubious and discredited - it's easy to understand why - and the progressive momentum that had been built up was swept aside. Into the vacuum came the neo-orthodox theologians. Bultmann was ditched for the thin gruel of Karl Barth and his disciples who firmly rejected what they called "liberal theology". While they were certainly not fundamentalists themselves, their theology served to facilitate a return to the kind of myopic Bible-first mindset which then abandoned the field - especially among lay people - to the bottom feeders. Southern Baptist hell-fire and guilt evangelist Billy Graham, for example, was welcomed as a respected voice of Christianity well beyond the borders of the United States.

This reactionary form of Christianity was now exported on an unprecedented scale to other parts of the world, infected with fundamentalist presuppositions; witness the rise of Pentecostalism and the "prosperity gospel". In Europe, where the established churches had understandably lost credibility due to their pathetic response - or lack thereof - to the rise of fascism, the new populist memes quickly gained ground, appropriating terms like 'evangelical' to themselves.

It follows then that it's not quite correct to say that Christians of a liberal, progressive or radical persuasion today are just trying to backtrack, or indulge in devious apologetic moves. Nor is it exactly fair to lump those who fully accept evolution in with Genesis gap theorists of the Scofield Reference Bible variety - they are very different things. A label like "Old Earth Creationism" confuses categories horribly.

Which isn't to say that Tim hasn't made some telling points. The BioLogos statement he quotes, for example, seems facile and compromising. Progressive Christianity of the Sea of Faith variety, for example, is very different from that kind of dogma.

To be clear, I'm absolutely not trying to be an apologist for any kind of theism, or atheism for that matter. But theologies, like philosophies, can be subtle beasts. It doesn't hurt to acknowledge that.

Monday, 28 September 2015

F. F. Bruce's Expanded Paraphrase of Paul

This is the third in a series on obscure Bible translations. I've restricted the candidates to those I've been able to personally acquire and examine.

F F. Bruce. An Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul. Paternoster Press, 1965.

Paul's letters constitute the deepest and perhaps murkiest part of the New Testament, and the various conflicting reconstructions of Paul's gospel are legion. F. F. Bruce was perhaps the most gifted evangelical scholar of his generation, and this was his attempt to clear things up for the modern reader. He began the project in 1955, paraphrasing Galatians for a youth Bible conference. He completed the task around 1961.

Bruce's paraphrase isn't anything like the more modern paraphrases most of us are now used to - think The Message, The Living Bible or (if you're an Adventist) The Clear Word. Bruce is much more measured in his approach. Call me old fashioned, but I quite like that.

Alongside his own expanded translation Bruce reproduces the text of the Revised Version. Not the RSV of the 1950s, but the RV of 1881, the British predecessor to the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901. It's an interesting choice.
Of all English translations of the New Testament, the one which reproduces most accurately the nuances of Greek grammar and follows the idiom of the original as closely as possible without doing excessive violence to English literary usage - the translation which is therefore at the farthest remove from an extended paraphrase - is the Revised Version of 1881. (p.9)
I dare-say Bruce would shudder at the though of something like Eugene Peterson's The Message. I know I do!

Reading through the introduction I was pushed up the learning curve with a new term. What word would you use to describe someone who paraphrases? My guess would have been paraphraser, but Bruce's term of preference is paraphrast. It sounds as though it might be a ripe and seedy insult for someone of dubious affections, but according to Chambers Dictionary both are quite acceptable. Live and learn.

Given that this is an older work, and Bruce's popularity among conservative Christians (he was of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion) it's not surprising that he dates all of the epistles, including the Pastorals, to before 70 CE. Galatians is placed first at c.48, and the Pastorals between 62 - 65.

Likewise Bruce accepted the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) - sort of.
Into the critical question of their origin and composition we need not enter here, save to say that those who find it difficult to accept all three in their present form as letters written or dictated directly by Paul might consider the suggestion that they represent the posthumous recension of several pieces of Pauline correspondence and other fragments, together possibly with notes on his oral instruction on church order. (p.286-287)
A sample from Philippians 3:17-19 under the subhead "Warning against Libertines".
Follow my example, one and all, my brothers and sisters. Pay heed to those who conduct themselves according to the pattern which we set you. I say this because, as I have often told you before and tell you now with tears, there are many who conduct themselves otherwise. They are enemies of the cross of Christ; their end is perdition; their god is material satisfaction; they boast about things of which they ought rather to be ashamed; their minds are set on earthly things.
The last time this volume saw the light was a 1981 reprint, so it's another search through the second hand stacks (which is where I located my copy). The benefit of this book is the insight it gives into how a sincere and cautious scholar made sense of the prickly apostle's writings. I'm not sure he managed the trick, but then I'm not sure anyone else has either.

I intend to resume this series in a week or two with the following obscurities.
  • William F. Beck. The New Testament in the Language of Today. Concordia, 1963.
  • Norman A. Beck. The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction. Fairway Press, 2001.
  • Kleist & Lilly. The New Testament: Rendered from the Original Greek with Explanatory Notes. Bruce, 1954.
  • John Henson. Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures. O Books, 2004.