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Tag Archives: Theology

Jesus’ brothers and sisters

The Gospel According to John, chapter 7:2-10 reads:

2 Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him. 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee. 10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.

Three times the text mentions “Jesus’ brothers”, or as the footnote states, it can be translated, “Jesus’ brothers and sisters”. Who are these brothers and sisters?

1. Literally speaking, someone’s brother or sister is a person with the same parents. Since Jesus is uniquely the Son of God (John 3:18), he cannot have any brother or sister in the literal sense. Therefore, these verses cannot be read literally.

2. Someone’s half-brother or half-sister has one parent in common. Is it possible that Joseph and Mary had natural children after Mary gave birth to Jesus? John 19:26-27 reads:

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

This action of Jesus as he was dying makes no sense if either Joseph were still alive or Mary had other children who would take care of her. So Jesus did not have a half-brother or a half-sister.

3. Someone’s step-brother or step-sister is a child of a parent from a previous marriage. Is it possible that Joseph was widowed and had children before marrying the Virgin Mary? The John 19 passage above shows this would make no sense because if either Joseph were still alive or Mary had other children, they would take care of her. So Jesus did not have a step-brother or a step-sister.

4. In some cultures such as first-century Jewish culture another relative such as a cousin may be called a brother or sister. This is the remaining possibility and must be the meaning of the passage. These brothers and sisters were likely cousins of Jesus.

The conclusion is that Jesus of Nazareth was an only child.

Hartford Appeal

The 1975 Hartford Appeal deserves to be better known. It may be viewed here. A book was written about it: Against the World for the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion by Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (New York: Seabury Press, 1976). A 40th year anniversary reflection was written by Richard J. Mouw (see here). What follows are the 13 false themes identified:

Eighteen theologians and religious thinkers from nine denominations gathered at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, Hartford, Connecticut, January 24-26, to draft a declaration in response to themes in contemporary Christian thought which they viewed as “pervasive, false, and debilitating.”

Theme 1: Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

Theme 2: Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

Theme 3: Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

Theme 4: Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

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Catholic and evangelical

The capitalized term Catholic refers to Roman Catholics, led by the Pope. The capitalized term Evangelical refers to revivalist Protestants, especially in English-speaking countries.

Lutherans are both catholic (uncapitalized) and evangelical (uncapitalized). This is sometimes called evangelical catholic, though it could as well be called catholic evangelical.

What is an uncapitalized catholic Christian?

The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’. A catholic Christian is a universal Christian. That is, one who identifies with whole Christian body throughout the history of the world. They retain traditions and doctrines that have had wide currency in the universal church, such as the liturgical calendar and the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

What is an uncapitalized evangelical Christian?

The word ‘evangelical’ means related to the gospel, the good news of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. An evangelical Christian is one who emphasizes the proclamation and sharing of the gospel, the authority of the Bible, and centrality of Christ.

Entropy here and hereafter

While the quantity of energy remains the same (the first law of thermodynamics), the quality of energy deteriorates gradually over time (the second law of thermodynamics). That is, energy tends to become less usable over time.

This is expressed with the concept of entropy, which is a measure of energy usability within a closed or isolated system (the universe, for example). As usable energy decreases and unusable energy increases, entropy increases.

Since the minimum entropy is zero, one conclusion is that the universe must have had a beginning with zero or very low entropy, like a clock that was wound up and continues to wind down. But some say that any increase in entropy is bad, which shows the imperfection of the physical universe.

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Marriage as a sacrament

The dissertation When Two Become One: Reconsidering Marriage as a Sacrament in Protestant Theology by Adam Neal is online here. What follows are excerpts from the conclusion, pp. 304-310.

This study has set out to provide a coherent presentation for why Christian theology should consider marriage as explicitly sacred, and, in particular, advanced comprehensive argumentation for renewing its place as a sacrament in Protestant theology.

In addition to building a cohesive and comprehensive textual argument in favor of defining marriage as a divinely mandated sacred institution, this study has provided substantive historical research that challenges the sacramental theology established by the Scholastic tradition to which the Reformation reacted even while assuming certain untenable definitions.

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False Gospels

The false gospel of sensitivity: Christians should always to be sensitive to other people, and never offend them in any way.

It is false because Jesus offended many people.

Matthew 15:12:  Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”

The true gospel itself is offensive. For example:

1 Peter 2:7-8: So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

On the other hand, Christians should not needlessly offend others.

1 Corinthians 10:32: Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God

Oversensitivity and lack of sensitivity are extremes to be avoided.

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Authority of the Bible

The authors of the texts that later became books of the Bible certainly did not think they were writing parts of Scripture. Yet they certainly did think they were writing texts with authority for a particular group of people at a particular time. Others realized later that the texts had a wider audience and a higher authority. In that sense, the various writings became the Scriptures over time.

One of the continuing questions then is to what extent the words written for a particular audience are authoritative for other audiences. This is commonly expressed in the question as to whether every word and sentence is “inspired” but that leads to side matters about theories of inspiration. It is better to focus on the authority of the texts.

The truth of the Scriptures follows from its authority but its authority also presupposes its truth. Those who first recognized their authority had to recognize their truth, too. The two cannot be separated.

The question then is how far down does the authority and truth of the Scriptures go? That is, are each paragraph, each sentence, each word authoritative? Are the grammatical mistakes authoritative? The apparent inconsistencies? The language if not the concepts of archaic knowledge?

It’s best to start with the literary styles and conventions of the time and place of writing. These are not those of today, and are not the way “we” would write. But we should read them in context. Variations in names and spellings were common. Different authors writing of the same events may have a different purpose and take on them, and may adopt a different chronology.

All these are not “mistakes” or “errors” – they are differences, between them or between us and them or between them and other sources. So a correct understanding requires some historical background.

This goes all the way down to the words and grammar. The languages and usages are different from ours. The idioms and forms of expression are different. Some words are obscure. Some grammar is nonstandard. The writer may be writing in a foreign language they don’t understand all that well.

These are all cautions, not criticisms. They do not undermine the authority of the Bible but qualify its interpretation. There is no reason that the authority does not go all the way down.

Some will consider this excessive. After all, what does it matter if a few geographical details are mistaken? Or if some names aren’t right? It’s not for me to say how much it matters because what really matters is whether the Bible is authoritative. If it is, then it’s not for us to limit how far down that authority goes. The text is what we have, and the text is authoritative.

Merry, marry, Mary Christmas

The word “merry” is rarely used anymore except in relation to Christmas, which reflects the jaded and conventional time in which we live. Busy people aren’t merry, though they might occasionally get plastered or fall over laughing. But in centuries past people could be merry without self-consciousness about it. The birth of a baby was a cause of joy and merriment. In times with high infant mortality, life was cherished while it lasted.

Did Joseph marry the virgin who told him she was pregnant? “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 1:20) So they lived together as if they were husband and wife. But when was the wedding? When did they become one flesh? The text doesn’t say. For all we know, Joseph accepted the social stigma of living with a single mother of questionable morals.

Who was and is Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God? The “handmaiden of the Lord”, “blessed among women”, who found favor with God. The mother of the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord, the Son of God. A teenage girl was all that. A redeemed and saved child of God, with life everlasting and a home eternal in the heavens. And the mother of Christmas, a very merry, marry, Mary Christmas.

Is God immutable or faithful?

Aristotle (Metaphysics) and Aquinas (Summa Theologica) argue for the existence and attributes of God from the observation of motion or change. Aristotle lists four kinds of motion and change: in substance, in quality, in quantity, and in place. These simple changes do not exhaust the kinds of change – even Aristotle implied there were ten kinds, corresponding to his ten categories (Physics 3.1 at 201a8–9).

More significant kinds of change have to do with interpersonal relations. For example, someone says they will do something and then changes their mind. Or someone makes a promise they are unable to fulfill. People change as they mature, which may include character or personality changes. The meaning of an action may change based on the context.

If we focus on simple changes, as Aristotle and Aquinas did, then their argument concludes that God is immutable, that is, incapable of change as if God were like something immobilized, such as a broken limb immobilized by a cast. Does that express the sense in which God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8)? No. The reason is the focus on a narrow range of change.

If we focus on the widest range of change, and God is unable to change in any of these ways, we find that God is always consistent, true to his word, has the same personality, and acts the same way. That is, God is faithful.

Numbers 23:19
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?

Deuteronomy 32:4
The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

Romans 4:21
being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

1 Thessalonians 5:24
Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.

From persistence to God

Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs of the Existence of God (2017) includes his version of the Aristotelian proof, which looks at the existence of change. There is a similar proof that looks at the existence of persistence. Aristotle, with a static world-picture, wanted to explain change. Someone with a dynamic world-picture might want an explanation for persistence. As time is required for change, so a place or space is required for persistence. Below I sketch this argument by modifying some words in Feser’s text (with page references to his book):

Persistence happens. Examples are all around us. The coffee in your cup is still warm after you step away for a minute. A leaf on the tree outside your window is in the same place it was yesterday. A puddle is the same size it was ten minutes ago. You swat a fly and miss, so it keeps buzzing around.

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