The World Needs More Madrasas

Shari'ah Law: An Introduction

I’ve been reading about Shariah law because I don’t want to be ignorant, and the book is very enlightening.  I have learned that there is a long history of Islamic scholarship, and that there are four or five major schools of interpretation.  Some of these schools emphasize the letter of the law, while others emphasize the intention and purpose.  All recognize the historical context in which the laws arose, and all recognize to some degree the place of reason in understanding the laws.

Professor Kamali points out some plain statements in the Qur’an that are often ignored by advocates of harsh punishments.  For example, passages prescribing amputation of a hand for thieves or flogging for adultery, are followed by the words “unless they repent.”  Who wouldn’t repent for stealing when their hand was on the chopping block?

Kamali also frequently quotes the verse “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”  He also frequently discusses issues related to gender equality, supported by laws in the Qur’an and examples from the prophet’s life.

One of the most remarkable sections of the book, to me at least, was on the “Decline of the Madrasahs.”  The last two chapters of the book discuss the need for reform and challenging issues.  The decline of Islamic schools means that a generation of young Muslims is growing up ignorant of the Qur’an and the other sources of Shariah, as well as the history of Islamic scholarship. Consequently their ignorance makes them vulnerable to ignorant fanatics who recruit them for suicide missions.

In the discussion of that issue, Kamali makes it clear that Islamic law universally condemns both suicide and the intentionally targeting of civilians.

In reading this book I was reminded of a statement of Rabbi Gamaliel,

An ignorant person cannot be pious.  [http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-6.html  — the whole article is worth reading!]

I used to think this was snobbish, and I thought of Jesus appealing to fishermen, farmers, and day laborers.  But now I realize, Jesus called people from all walks of life to follow him and learn from him.  He called them to become disciples.  Jesus taught the people of the land.  In this sense, I think it is true that a Christian who willfully remains ignorant cannot be devout.

I also think of the difficulty conservative Christian centers of learning, such as Bible colleges, have in remaining conservative.  We knew a sociologist years ago who wrote his dissertation on “goal displacement” in Bible colleges.  He studied the inevitable drift away from specific doctrinal commitments and from a narrow curriculum to broader and more liberal curricula.  Most leaders of such institutions see this as a problem.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe being narrow and dogmatic is not a virtue.  Maybe an educated person cannot remain dogmatic.  Maybe it is impossible to study the Bible (or the Talmud or the Qur’an) without raising serious questions about traditional understandings.

My colleague Wes and I went to hear a distinguished professor of genetics who has devoted his waning years to destroying something he doesn’t understand.  I asked him what background he had in the study of theology or philosophy.  He replied, “I don’t believe in fairies, so I don’t study fairiology.”

If I believed fairiology was the greatest threat to our civilization, I would study it.

Ignorance is a threat not only to civil society and peace, it is a threat to faith.  I think Hillel was right after all.

Linguistic Trivia–Translating τα σπλαγχνα

Meaghan Smith, an alumna of MCC and now working as an exegetical checker with an SIL Bible translation team in Ethiopia, was on campus today.  She spoke to my Greek class about issues in translation, and the words τα σπλάγχνα in particular in Philippians 1:8.  The words are mostly metaphorical for what we call “the heart” and refer to affection, sympathy and compassion, or other tender emotions.  That part is easy enough for translators.  In Philippians 1:8 it’s simply a matter of asking “How do speakers [of the target language] express that?

But we also got to thinking about the non-metaphorical use of the words.  Like our word “heart” ta splanchna literally refers to internal organs, but the question is “which organs?”  I have told my students (and you, gentle readers) that the splanchna are the organs above the diaphragm, i.e., the heart, liver, spleen, and so forth.  We looked it up in class this morning and found that according to Lowe and Nida, the splanchna are “the intestines.”  Have I been giving misinformation?

After class I went to TDNT and found that in classical usage the words do refer to the “nobler organs” (I find the quaint, almost Victorian expression interesting).  In fact, Homer refers to sacrifices in which the splanchna of sacrificial sheep are the heart, liver, and so forth which are cooked and eaten by the celebrants as part of the sacrificial ritual.

So maybe I was right after all?  But Lowe and Nida point to the one non-metaphorical usage in the NT, where Judas fell headlong and his splanchna burst out.  It seems more likely that the lower organs would be dislodged by a precipitous fall than the ones protected by the ribcage and held up by the diaphragm.

So now we have the question of synchronous or diachronous linguistics?  Well you have to go with the usage more contemporaneous with the source you are comparing–if there is enough evidence.  But I would still ask whether this one passage is enough synchronous evidence or not.  My one complaint about Lowe and Nida is that the lexicon does not cite any contemporary evidence outside the New Testament.

One other trivial issue.  A couple weeks ago Michael Halcomb was asking for onomatopoeic expressions in Greek.  I have always thought σπλάγχνα made an interesting sound, but I’m not quite sure it qualifies as onomatopoeia.  Did Judas’s noble or ignoble organs go SPLANCH! when he hit the rocks at the bottom of the cliff?

These questions are just curiosities, thought don’t really affect the meaning or translation of the passage in Philippians.  But I had a professor once who said you might learn something useful as a by-product of pursuing things not so obviously useful.

Next time I will return to more edifying thoughts–more honorable, pure, and noble themes–when I return to the Epistle to the Philippians.  In the meantime I’m interested in what some of my linguistically inclined friends think.  How would you translate σπλάγχνα?  Is it a good case of onomatopoeia?

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

Introduction to Philippians

Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi for three main reasons:

  1. As a Newsletter to inform them about his circumstances and his decision to send Epaphroditus back to them.
  2. As a Pastoral Letter to encourage them to be strong in their faith in spite of opposition, to have confidence that Paul is in God’s hands and whatever happens will advance the cause of Christ, to be united by being humble and thinking of others.
  3. As a Thank-you letter for a gift they sent him.

The most likely setting is the house arrest in Rome, as described in Acts 28.  Paul is under constant guard by Roman soldiers, but he is free to receive guests.  In this way Paul continues his ministry of teaching and writing letters.  He also has a unique opportunity to share the Gospel with Caesar’s Imperial guard.

Philippi is on the main highway going east from Rome, about 800 miles. Despite the distance, there was evidently quite a bit of communication back and forth between Paul and the community of believers.  The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to deliver a financial contribution to Paul’s ministry and to stay and serve as his personal attendant.  His duties would include doing mundane things like going into town to buy groceries for Paul, paying the rent on Paul’s house, arranging meetings with church leaders in Rome, and helping Paul in other ways.

When Epaphroditus arrived he brought Paul news of the congregation back in Philippi.  The news was mostly positive, but Paul learned of a few problems: There were some quarrels among members, in particular two women named Euodia and Syntyche.  There was also anxiety about Paul’s fate and also some concern for their own future if their founder was to be condemned as a criminal.  They were also experiencing some opposition from their neighbors.

Epaphroditus became seriously ill while with Paul.  When the church back home heard about it they became anxious for him.  When he learned of their concern it broke his heart.  Paul prayed for him, and God graciously healed him, but now Epaphroditus was now desperately homesick so Paul made the decision to send him home, bearing Paul’s letter in his hand.

Paul’s mission to Philippi is described in Acts 16.  There were evidently fewer than 10 Jewish men living there when Paul arrived.  Women played a prominent role in the society of Macedonia (the region of which Philippi was the most important city).  Women formed the core of the church and continued to have leadership roles in the church.  A girl whom Jesus delivered from demon possession through Paul’s ministry, Lydia, a wealthy business woman, and the Philippian jailor’s family are the first people described in Acts as becoming followers of Jesus.

The city of Philippi was founded by Philip, king of Macedon and father of Alexander.  Later it became a Roman Colony and was settled by retired Roman soldiers.  Influenced by their soldier neighbors, the people of the city were strong, independent, ambitious, and patriotic.  Emperor worship and recognition of the gods of Rome would be a part of civic life in the city, creating tension between the Christ followers in the city and their neighbors.

The letter was preserved by the early church because of Paul’s importance as the Apostle to the Gentiles; and so it was incorporated into the New Testament Canon.  Although it was written to one specific church, it has significance for followers of Christ at all times and places.

Philippians is one of the most positive and joyful letters in the Bible.  It doesn’t teach positive thinking in general, but confidence in Christ.  It is not wishful thinking, it recognizes suffering and opposition but also expresses confidence based on what Christ has already accomplished and on what he has in store for those who love him.

In Philippians we see Paul’s personal devotion to Jesus Christ and Paul’s Christology.  Jesus is the one who left a position of equality with God to become a servant and die for us on the Cross.  He is also the one who was exalted and given the “Name above every name” and the one to whom every knee will bow.  For Paul he is the meaning of life and the hope beyond death.

As Christians live out their life of faith and gratitude to Christ they experience confidence through facing opposition, they experience fellowship with Christ through suffering, and are daily filled with joy.

Notes on Philippians

I haven’t been too active lately on this blog, but I decided to get back into it by posting my notes on Philippians, which I hope to begin doing tomorrow. I’ve started several projects that I’ve never finished–I’ve kept them on the back burner though, and someday I will get back to it–due to interference from my day job. But this time I think I will complete the project, because I’m doing it for a class I’m teaching this semester and have to keep up.

It will be something in between a full-scale commentary and random notes. I have a few insights and opinions on the epistle that I think may be helpful to others. Anyway, it is helping me to clarify my understanding of this little jewel of an ancient Christian letter.

What is heresy?

Strictly speaking, a heretic is one who causes divisions in the church by teaching an aberrant doctrine in an attempt to draw followers after himself.  A person who privately holds some views or entertains discussions on issue not considered orthodox is not a heretic until he becomes divisive about it.

What is heresy? One definition would be a doctrine that has been condemned by a council.  The Fifth Ecumenical Council is often thought to be a condemnation of universalism, because it condemns the teachings of Origen by name.  But the specific issue was Origen’s belief in the preexistence of souls; it was his belief that these souls would be restored to their original state that was condemned by the council.

The Council never condemned universalism universally, in all its forms.  The Council never mentioned Gregory of Nyssa who taught a form of universalism but whose theology was otherwise orthodox.  In fact Gregory is still considered on of the greatest fathers of the church.  (See Robin Parry’s discussion)

On the other hand, the council of Orange specifically condemned the teaching that God predestines anyone to evil:

We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.

Historians say this statement was specifically directed toward those who teach “double predestination,” i.e., the belief that some have been ordained by God to reject his grace.  They of course did not condemn Augustine by name even though many believed this was implied by his teachings.  Otherwise the council of Orange fully supported Augustine against Pelagius.

Still, by the standard of church councils, we have to admit that universalism per se has never been condemned as heresy, but the doctrine that often passes by the name of Reformed theology has been given the official anathema.

Ernest Tubb, Hank Jr., and others had a country song a few years back, “I Guess We Should Have Left Him Alone and Let Him Sing His Song.”  One line keeps ringing in my mind (it sounds better when I can hear the tune),

If we don’t like the way he sings, who’s gonna cast the first stone?

The Government Takeover of Capital Punishment

If we want to follow the biblical law for capital punishment of murderers, the execution must be carried out by the victim’s next of kin.

The murderer shall be put to death . . . The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death (Numbers 35:16-19).

In the ancient world, to avenge a murdered relative was considered a sacred duty and honor.  In Rome, young Octavian had the obligation to avenge his uncle Caesar’s death–he was Caesaris ultor.  In Hebrew the word was goel.  The goel had other roles as well, but that of avenging murder was considered an essential service.

The laws in the Torah brought due process io an ancient social reality.  Previously the goel would take vengeance summarily; but the Mosaic regulations required a trial, and there could be no conviction without two or more witnesses.  Further, capital punishment could be avoided if there was not proof of premeditation.  But if premeditated murder was established, there was no substitute for execution at the hands of the goel.

The Torah provisions of due process stopped the cycle of bloody vengeance.  They were a great advance over the practices of the ancient world.  But I don’t think we want to copy the Torah provisions for capital punishment exactly in our world.  Those provisions were given to Israel as part of her civil law while living in the promised land.

The laws were based on important principles and the principles have value for us.  Life is sacred and there is no substitute for a human life except another life.  Vengeance is dangerous and the impulse to vengeance must be brought under control through a fair legal process.

I have no bleeding heart for murderers.  I pray for God’s grace, to help me resist my desire for vengeance, but compassion for vicious criminals does not come natural to me.  I understand the impulse toward vengeance.  But I cannot support capital punishment.

I wouldn’t really want to go back to the principle of direct vengeance by the next of kin.  But I also realize that state sponsored execution is a totally different thing.  Three simple reasons convince me to support life in prison without parole for murderers, rather than execution:

  1. Under the best of circumstances, our legal system makes mistakes.  Recently in Kansas a man was exonerated nearly thirty years after being convicted of rape.  He was awarded over 7 million dollars to compensate for the mistake.  The money might be some consolation for the lost years, and the state has given him back the rest of his life; but there is no giving back a life wrongly taken.
  2. Under normal circumstances, the government is run by politicians and the legal system is run by politicians.  Prosecuting attorneys are either elected or appointed by elected officials.  Attorneys play to win, and if that means suppressing evidence or coercing confessions, that sometimes happen.
  3. Under the worst circumstances, politicians use the power of death to silence their enemies.  I don’t know that it has ever happened here, but I know it is happening in Iran today.  Why would we want to be associated with governments like that?  Why would we want to give our government that kind of power?