The Bible and Culture

I have been posting a large variety of comments of response to this ongoing book review, some of which seem to have ignored that I am reviewing this book seriatim– taking it Chapter by Chapter. It is the purpose of this review to give you a good critical analysis of how the book comes across, as one is in the process of reading it.

But let me point out here one truly over-arching problem with the way this ‘provocative’ book is set up— Claims made by the authors, especially in strident form in the text, cannot be taken back or adequately qualified in minute footnotes that few people are able and fewer are willing to read. In other words, the very format of this book is not only not reader friendly at all , it is unintentionally deceptive, and leaves all kinds of unqualified impressions if one sticks to the text. The point is this– don’t make categorical and strident claims in the text that then die the death of a thousand qualifications, most of them in tiny footnotes. This is just misleading.

And one more thing to be clear about, before we get to the chapter on the Sermon. I am indeed a historian of early Christianity, including the period up to and including Constantine, as anyone who has read various of my works including NT History and the Living Word of God and the Gospel Code, will know. For example I and Dr. Warren Smith of Duke will be leading a doctoral seminar here the next two weeks on ‘The Early Church Fathers and the Formation of the Canon”. None, and I do mean, none of the books relied on in ‘Pagan Christianity’ are even on the reading list for this course. The sources relied on are either too outdated, or are not up to speed on the state of discussion of the subject matter. And I must say it is a total mystery to me why Barna and Viola would rely on Will Durant, who was anti-Christian in his analysis of early Christianity, and frequently very wrong, as he read early Christianity through the synthetic ‘history of religions’ sort of approach that one finds in the ‘Zeitgeist’ movie– yikes! It is a mystery as why he comes in for regular use in this book.

One more fact about me since some of the blog posts relative to this book asked— I am also a historian and theologian of the English Reformation, having taught 18th-20th century Methodist history and theology for some 20 years, including at Duke. So when I say, this book is poorly researched when it comes to church history, I am not kidding, and I am in a position to know. It really is. It is actually a bit better when it comes the Biblical material. Having cleared the air on those subjects lets get down to the core of what the argument is in the chapter on the Sermon and on the Pastor.

Let’s start with the usual flamboyant claims that tend to be made in the text of this book, especially near the beginning of chapters—

“The stunning reality is that today’s sermon has no root in Scripture. Rather it is borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith.” (p. 86).

Then comes the qualifications—

The authors claim that the point here is not that there is not preaching in the Bible but that the modern sermon is miles apart from what we find in the Bible. The major differences enumerated are –today it’s a regular occurrence, delivered by the same person, to a passive audience, in a cultivated form of speech. It is assumed or partially argued that none of this is true about real Biblical preaching or proclamation. In fact, they are for the most part wrong on all all four issues.

To bolster this claim the authors point out that OT preaching by prophets was sporadic and extemporaneous and open to audience participation. Of course this ignores that what went on in the OT tabernacle and temple was highly scripted, did indeed involve recitation of pre-existing Words and instructions from God, and as the book Psalms makes clear there was music, liturgy, specific hymn tunes, and a choir director. Prophets in the OT are seldom depicted as being involved in worship, never in in home group meetings, and regularly in the public– including in the king’s court. What is said about spontaneous utterances of prophets in such social settings is really of little or no relevance to the discussion of ‘in church’ Christian preaching, teaching, or prophesying because of the difference in function and social purpose and setting.

The authors then concede that there was proclamation based on Biblical texts in the synagogue, but they argue ‘anyone could deliver a message or preach if they wanted to’ in the synagogue. So far as we can tell, this is in fact historically false. Firstly, only men were allowed to speak. Secondly only Jews or God-fearers would be allowed to speak. Thirdly, the elder or president of the synagogue, or sometimes the long standing members of the congregation would normally decide who could speak and invite them to do so (see for example Acts 13.42— Paul was invited by the synagogue attendees to speak further on these matters at the next Sabbath service in Psidian Antioch). The point is, you had to be invited to speak, you couldn’t just barge into the synagogue and do so as it had an order of worship. And let me say at this point that the historical evidence we have is clear enough that this pattern of worship was adopted and adapted by many early Christians, especially in the predominantly Jewish Christian congregations. But even in largely Gentile congregations we see the adopting of the Jewish ‘elder’ office for Christian purposes as the Pastorals make clear.

It was at p. 88 in the book where I was ready to pull all my hair out. Here, and in subsequent pages consuming much of the rest of this chapter the authors try to argue that ‘rhetoric’ was something pagan later imposed on Christian discourse and preaching, but that it is no part of what we find in the NT. This is entirely historically false. The speeches in Acts are in fact summaries of speeches, and they are in fact rhetorical masterpieces, crafted according to the rhetorical outline of how an effective and persuasive ancient speech should be delivered and carefully edited by Luke (see my Acts commentary).

Furthermore, Paul’s letters and Hebrews, and 1 Peter, and indeed most of the rest of the so-called epistolary literature in the NT are oral documents meant to be dramatically delivered out loud and they are indeed structured in good rhetorical form. There is nothing purely spontaneous about them, if by spontaneous one means lacking conformity to known pre-existing rhetorical patterns. I have demonstrated this at great lengths in my socio-rhetorical commentaries, but you need not take my word for it. You can consult hundreds of scholars from around the world who have done the in-depth analysis of what we find in the NT, and they have come to the same conclusion. I would commend to you the important work of Averil Cameron on Early Christian Rhetoric who demonstrates at length that during the entire period of the first five centuries of Christian history Christians
who spoke in Greek or Latin used rhetoric and rhetorical structures to form their discourses, sermons, homilies, evangelistic messages and so on. This includes the NT writers.
One more thing. The Church Fathers for whom Greek was still a living language were perfectly clear about the fact that Paul and the author of Hebrews and others were all using rhetorical patterns, forms, and devices. Read for example the superb work on John Chrysostom by Margaret Mitchell entitled The Heavenly Trumpet published by Westminister/J.Knox. The Greek Fathers not only knew Paul and Luke and others used rhetoric– they molded their own preaching on the previous Christian examples found in the NT canon!

The sermon is not an invention of Protestants over the course of the last five centuries. No one who has actually read the sermons of Chysostom or Ambrose or Augustine or a host of other Church Fathers could ever make a silly assertion like that. And furthermore, I would stress once more, the use of rhetoric already was in play in the Diaspora synagogues, which is one of the reasons why Paul’s rhetoric was sometimes well received, at least initially in such synagogues. The writers of the NT are almost without exception Jews, not former pagans, and almost without exception they use not only the Greek language they had long since learned but the Greco-Roman rhetoric that was a part of elementary education all over the Empire, including in Jerusalem!

The burden of the chapter on preaching is that modern preaching harms the church by making a particular individual the center of attention, making the audience passive, and stifling the gifts and graces of a large majority of folks. Of course this can happen, but in fact my experience is quite the opposite. Good preaching and pastoring enables the gifts of the other members congregation, it does not disable them. Good preaching and teaching points away from the vehicle to the source– God, of course.

But the problem with the main thrust of this chapter is it is based on the unBiblical notion that anyone should be able to teach, preach, prophesy on a regular basis ‘in church’. This is false–only some have the gift of teaching, preaching, or prophesying. If you bother to read the gift lists in 1 Cor. 12 or in Romans or in Ephesians, there are specific gifts parceled out by the Spirit to specific persons, not to everyone. Look for example at the form of the rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12.29-30. The Greek is emphatic using the double negative— ‘not all are apostles are they?’ [answer no] ‘not all are prophets, are they?’ [answer no] not all are teachers are they? [answer no]. And the reason for this is not because someone is stifling the priesthood of all believers (which, once more, has nothing to do with who are leaders and who can be teachers in the congregation). Its because only those gifted and graced by the Spirit and recognized by the church as having such gifts should be doing those things on any sort of regular basis. Period. James says with good reason that not many should desire to be, and presumably not many should engage in teaching, especially if they haven’t been learning first!

The very reason Paul silences the women in 1 Tim. 2.8-15 is because they need to be quiet and learn before they teach. When Paul says “I am not now permitting [these aforementioned high status well dressed] women to teach or to usurp authority over men” he is making very clear what ought to be happening in worship when it comes to the proclamation of God’s Word. It is not intended to be a dialogue, and as Paul says ever so clearly in 1 Cor. 14.33b-36– if you have questions (in this case for the prophets), ask your husband at home.

A Dialogue is not Biblical preaching. It never was, and it never will be. It is of course true that sermons were from time to time interrupted both in the synagogue, and elsewhere. But such things are seen as interruptions in the text, unplanned, unexpected, and often inappropriate outbursts, and as Paul says in 1 Cor. 14, no one should barge in and interrupt a prophet when he is speaking God’s word. That’s inappropriate. This is precisely why the wifes are to ask their questions at home. They are interrupting the prophesying part of that Corinthian worship service.

The whole point of saying ‘the spirit of a prophet is controlled by the prophet’ is that there is no need to spontaneously speak what one thinks God has said to you. One can wait, even if there is a congregation with many prophets.

On p. 100 we are told that 1 Cor. 14.26 and 31 say that teaching is supposed to come from everyone. First of all 1 Cor. 14.26 is a descriptive statement, not an imperative or a mandate. Paul is saying that in chaotic Corinth, everyone was trying their hand at everything. Paul does not condone this, indeed he spends no little time in 1 Cor. 12 telling them that the Spirit distributes different gifts to different person ‘as the Spirit decides’.

You cannot exegete 1 Cor. 14 in isolation from 1 Cor. 12 which is indeed prescriptive about who can and should do what. And this brings us to 1 Cor. 14.31. Paul is talking to the prophets of this particular congregation, not everybody. As the rhetorical questions at the end of 1 Cor. 12 make ever so clear, Paul doesn’t think they all are, or should be prophets. In 1 Cor. 14.31 he says to those who are legitimate prophets, who can and ought to behave like genuine prophets that “you can all prophesy in turn…”

It is not difficult to prove this does not mean absolutely everyone. You will remember that Paul said in 1 Cor 11 that a woman could pray or prophesy (if she has the gift) if she had her head covered. Then in 1 Cor. 14 he tells some women they should simply be silent and listen to others prophesying and ask their questions at home. Which women would those be? Clearly not the same women referred to in 1 Cor. 11 whom Paul has endorsed as prophetesses. We could go on down this path but this is sufficient.

Not all are called to teach or preach or prophesy. But it is true about prophets in particular that they may receive a late word from God, not pre-conceived, which they may feel led to share. This does not in any way suggest that all communication in a home church meeting like this should be spontaneous, because frankly prophesy is not the same thing as preaching or teaching, both of which normally require preparation and grounding in God’s Word. The amalgamating of preaching and teaching and prophecy is a mistake, and not all of these gifts of speech are meant to be used ‘spontaneously’ or by just ‘anyone’.

And this brings us to an important point. I have no problems with mutual exhortations, family sharing, and the like. There is a time and place for everything, and I think home groups and Bible studies are excellent times for such things. The problem of course with home groups is that they do not fulfill the mandate of Jesus to his disciples be ‘a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid.’ He might as well have said ‘a church hidden in a suburban home can’t be found’.
If you are meeting hidden in the suburbs in a home with no sign posting and no open invitation to one and all to come and join you, and no public evidence that corporate worship or a Christian meeting is happening there, you are not fulfilling the prime mandate to invite people into a public and personal relationship with God through coming into the living presence of God in worship in public. You just aren’t.

My point would simply be that what Viol
a and Barna are describing is a vital part of fellowship, and certainly not the focus of worship. Worship in the Biblical sense focuses on God and not mutual interchange and discussion. And since preaching is an essential part of worship, it too deliberately depends upon and fosters the environment of listening. Very different is a text like Col. 3.16 and it also provides no mandate for the ‘everyone should be able to do everything’ philosophy.

What the Greek of that Col. 31.6 sentence says is that in fact by singing we are in an indirect sense instructing one another and sharing wisdom with one another. This is a verse a Methodist is bound to love, but what it is not about is the gift of teaching in the normal sense, which Paul makes clear only some have. He is saying here that the music, and all those who share in it have a pedagogical function. This is a good thing to bear in mind since too often we see music as simply an affective thing, not cognitive. Notice as well the reference to ‘psalmoi’ here, which were part of the OT liturgy, being pre-set, pre-written songs that required knowing the tune, and indeed having a choir director according the book of Psalms itself.

Heb. 10.24-25 says nothing about everyone being teachers or preachers or prophets in the congregation. It does say we should all encourage and spur one another on to maturity in Christ. That is of course true but irrelevant if the issue is ‘who should regularly and normally teach, preach, prophesy in the church meeting’. Notice that Heb. 13 reminds us that all such persons referred to in Heb. 10.24-25 need to be paying attention to, respecting, and listening to their leaders.

In short, early Christian meetings were periodic in nature, hence the reference to the first day of the week in both 1 Cor. 16 and Rev. 1. Only some persons had the gift of teaching, preaching, or prophesying– not everyone should try to do such things, because not all had such gifts. Thirdly, only prophecy, so far as we can tell, was normally and regularly something ‘spontaneous’, and preaching whether in the synagogue or in the church was not simply prophesy. It involved an exposition of pre-existing Words of God.

It is interesting that we find both Paul and Peter using the exact same catena of OT Scriptures to preach about Christ as the stone of stumbling and the keystone. This cannot be an accident. It means that there were pre-set collections of texts used not only in the synagogue, but by Jewish Christians in synagogue and church settings as the taking off points for preaching. This was an early form of the lectionary.

Fourthly, the NT is full of evidence of rhetorical skill and structure. There is nothing very spontaneous about the preaching summaries in Acts if by spontaneous one means ‘not reflecting pre-existing rhetorical patterns and styles of argument’. This is simply false. Rhetoric is certainly not something that was imposed on Christian discourse out of paganism, and after the church had become largely Gentile. It was already used in the Diaspora synagogue and smart Jewish Christians who spoke Greek, like Paul and Peter continued to use it in those and other settings in the Roman world.

In short, the chapter on the Sermon falls far short of making its case, and indeed has so many misstatements and errors of fact as well as interpretation, that even if we just use it as a conversation starter, it should come with warning. WARNING: THE CONTENTS IN THIS CHAPTER SEEM TO HAVE SETTLED INTO THE NOTES IN SHIPMENT. DON’T TAKE THE STATEMENTS IN THE TEXT AT FACE VALUE BECAUSE THEY WILL BE SEVERELY QUALIFIED LATER, USUALLY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE.

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