Wednesday, August 17, 2016

End of Summer Review/Update

The school year is now upon us and I'll definitely not be posting the next two months. This summer didn't quite go to plan so I didn't get to do the blogging I was hoping to do. Specifically I was planning on blogging through 2 Thessalonians, but that didn't happen. It may happen late in the fall, but we will see. I may instead decide to pick up a different Pauline letter (perhaps 2 Corinthians). This is my last year of school  and by the fall of next year I should be back on a more regular blogging schedule.

A lack of blogging was not from a lack of productivity (although I'm sure my Pokemon Go playing did cut into my reading time a little bit). I've had a interesting summer learning about Medieval Christianity and specifically focusing on Peter Lombard and Thomas Aqunias. They'll both be featured in my next paper in Exploring the Christian Way which I hope to publish here in late January of 2017. 90% of the reading and 80% of the writing is done for that paper. I'll say in advance I definitely think the Medieval period gets treated unfairly by Protestants, in particular, I thoroughly enjoyed what I read of the Lombard. He was a very gifted theologian.

Finally, I have to express my extreme disappointment in the news that came out today, that Eerdmans was withdrawing three commentaries by Peter T. O'Brien over plagiarism. I owned both his Philippians and Ephesians commentaries. I will be following the refund process with Eerdmans and disposing of my volumes. Even though I believe them to be valuable resources (though not irreplaceable), O'Brien should pay a price for his dishonesty. I applaud Eerdmans for their integrity in this case.

Monday, May 16, 2016

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

You can read the text here. This is the final post in my brief foray into 1 Thessalonians.

The opening verses of this closing section are a little tricky. Who is Paul talking about? Is he thinking of leaders in the church or not? Certainly nothing in the text forces it to refer to leaders. In some senses it's hard to imagine there being formal leadership in place given that Paul had to leave so quickly after founding the church in Thessalonica and that he wrote this letter soon afterward. However, that may be because we're in a different situation where there's never a church comprised solely of new Christians. That question is hard to adjudicate. One wonders how important the question really is when Paul's comments clearly cover anyone performing certain functions.

In any regard, Paul tackles the topic of mutual edification,[1] beginning by urging the Thessalonians to show appreciation for the service of those in the community who teach and care for them. Paul's location outside the community makes this exhortation easier to make. He also is concerned that no one in the community make life difficult on those trying to build up the community, so he encourages the community as a whole to engage in ministry aimed at helping the weak and disorderly[2] become productive and not destructive members of the community. And when one does act destructively, forgiveness and generosity must ensue so that no cycles of evil and unforgiveness are formed.

The community is Paul's focus throughout this passage so we should avoid an unnecessary narrowing of focus in making vv. 16-18 about personal exhortations. Paul is trying to hammer home the need for persistent prayer by and for the community that rejoices in all that God has done for them.

His last major exhortation surrounds prophecy. Clearly from passages like these, 1 Cor 14, and Acts 11 it's clear that prophecy was a common phenomenon in the early church. It is no surprise that there were abuses of it and that Paul felt the need to lay groundwork. Prophecy was a good thing and benefited the community and should not be muzzled. However, after hearing the word it is the responsibility of the community to sift the message keeping the good and discarding the bad.[3]

Paul closes with a blessing and a few final comments as is appropriate given the overall friendly tone of the letter and the previous section. In its essence, the blessing is about the spiritual wholeness of the church, which again is fitting given the previous exhortation. The end result being vindication for those who participate in the holy body when Jesus returns.[4]

Thankfully, Paul requested this letter be read to the whole congregation which must have played a role in its preservation, bringing God's grace not only to the Thessalonians, but to as as well.

[1] That is Malherbe's way of summarizing verses 12-15.
[2] Disorderly or disruptive would be a better translation than idle according to Malherbe, Fee, and Gaventa.
[3] Gaventa makes this point very well.
[4] Fee draws out very helpfully where the text is addressing the community as a whole and as individuals.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Exploring the Christian Way - Prolegmonea - Bayesian Statistics as Foundational to Theology

Finally, I feel that I am prepared to write a full blown prolegomena where I explain my method for developing theology. Reading Stanley Hauerwas' The Work of Theology and Lewis Ayres Nicea and It's Legacy has helped me sharpen my thinking. It's not that I have adopted their methods so much as they have stimulated my thinking in fruitful ways, while I won't discuss them explicitly, I think their contribution is worth mentioning.

How do we know anything? The leap forward that was the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was that realized that we needed more than Scripture and Tradition to discern theological truth. Reason and experience were viewed as additional authorities and we needed a "formal method" to adjudicate between these sometimes conflicting authorities. I think it was a nice try, but we can do better. As an aside, many would argue that Scripture alone is our highest authority, but in practice I don't think anybody actually always let's Scripture overrule the other three (who thinks slavery is ok?). Other authorities overrule Scripture at least some of the time. Let's turn to my formulation next by discussing how we gain knowledge in the general case, and then moving on to theological knowledge.

I would argue that we have three basic sources of knowledge: expert testimony, experience, and mathematics or logic. These sources work independently of one another to our own peril. The mathematical component is most often ignored formally, even though people subconsciously function in a probabilistic fashion (e.g., this is more likely than that)  Ideally, all three sources should formally work in concert, and I believe, with a growing number of statisticians, that Bayesian Statistics can draw on all three sources of knowledge to build the best approximation or estimate of the truth that also provides the best gauge of the level of uncertainty involved in the estimation process.

Let me briefly, and as simply as I can, explain Bayesian Statistics and what makes it so powerful, then I will apply the essence of the approach to theological knowledge. It will be easiest to explain by contrasting it with classical or frequentist statistics. Classically, if you wanted to know, say, how many people supported a particular presidential candidate, you would collect data by asking people. If 45% said they would vote for candidate X, then that would be your estimate for the percentage of all likely voters who would vote for candidate X in the election. Then based on how many people you asked, you would come up with an estimate for your error (e.g., +/- 4%). How accurate is your estimate? How likely is that to be correct? You have no way of knowing. You may have gotten a very good sample and you could be very accurate. You may have gotten a lousy sample and may be way off. What you can do is repeat the study repeatedly and see how you do. The theory is that 95% of the time your result will be within your margin of error (assuming it's a 95% confidence interval).

Bayesian statistics comes at this very differently. Before you field your study you elicit priors. What this means is that you ask experts what percentage they think will support candidate X and what the possible range of likely values is (or use previously published data). So an expert might say, 'I think 50% will support candidate X and I think it's almost certainly between 40% and 65%.'  You pool your expert opinions to form a prior distribution that encapsulates their beliefs about the truth as well as the uncertainty involved.

Now you collect your data just like you would have before but you combine the expert opinion with your data to get your final estimate. Generally, if you have a good expert, this method will result in more accurate estimates because it will pull your bad or even just mediocre samples away from bad results towards the truth. Your prior information will have very little effect on your estimates when the data are in agreement with them. However, the agreement you have will result in more confidence in your results. Additionally you can now say that with, say 95% probability my result is between two values (a much stronger statement than that about margins of error) and typically that interval will be shorter than if you only used your data using classical methods. However, we need to be careful to make sure that we cover the full range of possible outcomes with our prior. Otherwise your inference can be pulled unhelpfully away from the truth.

Hopefully this discussion was not confusing and you can start to see how one might apply it to the work of theology. We have data that we collect and we have priors. I would argue that we should see our experiences of God as data. We may have these experiences through the Bible, in prayer, service of others, conversation, etc. God speaks to us in many ways. We experience God speaking to us and we come to know him and understand his priorities as he speaks. However, if we're wise then knowing God isn't a solo effort. We seek expert opinion to protect us from improper inference and give us assurance when we're on the right path. This is where we need to elicit priors.

Our priors are expert witnesses from the past and present. The foremost expert witness are the witnesses to God's revelation in the past. This includes Scripture and the great theologians of the church. They heard God speak to them and they wrote as they understood. As a text has been influential over time it should be accorded a heavier weight. Additionally, we need to include secular disciplines when constructing our prior. This would include, but not be limited to, the biological sciences, physics, philosophy, sociology, and history.

Now it may seem odd that I include Scripture as a prior when I include our experience of God through the Bible as data. I need to make a very important clarification here. I do not believe that God speaks directly through Scripture, i.e., it is not God's Word or possessing divine ontology. However, when we read Scripture, it can come to life and become God's word through the agency of the Spirit. When I refer to Scripture as a prior I am referring to the historical voice of the apostle, prophets, poets, and others who wrote and edited the texts we find in the Bible. Thus historical study of Scripture is critical, but not necessarily to hear God speak. It's to calibrate what we believe we hear God saying when we encounter him. Though, certainly we can here God speak as we study historically. However, what we experience through the study and the actual historical reconstructions are not the same thing. The same applies to reading the works of the great minds of the history of the church.

How do we combine all of this to form our prior? We weight our expert voices according to their degree of expertise on the subject. We also need to make sure to cull from a wide variety of experts. In theology, it means we need to hear from a variety of voices in terms of era, geography or race, denominational affiliation, and when possible, gender.

What, then, is proper theology? It's proper data analysis. The less data you have the less confident you can be in your data analysis. We need to recognize that speculative theology, like the doctrine of the Trinity is just that, speculative, and realize that we have a lot of uncertainty surrounding our doctrinal formulations because we do not have access into the divine interrelationships. Where we have more data, for example, the fruitfulness of women ministers, we can have more certainty.

Hopefully this is informative about the way I will be pursuing my theological project, Exploring the Christian Way of Life, and is provocative. One thing lacking from a lot of theological discussion is a sense of uncertainty in the results. Hopefully I can model proper humility in the process. If nothing else, we will be following a formal framework that models the way people behave implicitly anyways.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Orphan Black: I Don't Think Shay Killed Delphine

The big mystery at the end of season 3 of Orphan Black is the identity of the murderer of Delphine. They are off screen so it must be someone we have seen before. I've heard it suggested that Shay is the killer. Granted her military roots, I don't see it. I suspect it's a clone. Note only that, it's one we've seen before.

Image of Krystal taken from:
Yeah, that's right. I think Krystal could be the killer. The rest of the post will establish that there's far more than meets the eye with Krystal and that she is not trustworthy. From there I will suggest why she fits as a potential killer of Delphine.

When we first actually meet Krystal, Delphine and Dr. Nealon converse about just how naive she is. Dr. Nealon declares her, 'not one to pierce the veil...' But when we meet her with Felix, she clearly has pierced the veil significantly. She's noticed a pattern in her life that is abnormal and she's written about it in a notebook with the Castor symbol on the cover. Of course Felix doesn't recognize it, but we the audience do. In fact, she doesn't begin to spill the beans about her trauma with Castor until Felix asks his suspicious question to try to steal her identity. She's not dumb and is more than capable. And Dr. Nealon certainly knows that if he's been overseeing her monitoring. Felix grasps it a bit, but doesn't realize that she may have caught on to him, Most importantly, Dr. Nealon already convinced Delphine that she's naive so he can execute his and Rachel's plan.

After Felix leaves, Dr. Nealon shows up at her nail salon. Clearly she's never met him, but he has a task for her. Now what did he say to get her to go along with his plan? Presumably he could have offered her answers to all of those questions she seemed to have from her journal (which Felix never really read by the way, it's more than possible that she's not naive at all) as well as a way to get back at those trying to steal her identity. That's plausible motivation. However, I think more has to be at play here. There's no way a Leda clone could just end up with a Castor emblem on her notebook accidentally (and it clearly predates her known encounter with Rudy and Seth). She must have some sort of ties to Castor or perhaps directly or indirectly into Neolution (we know Neolution is still guiding Castor and Leda from a distance). Either of those possibilities would provide stronger reasons for her cooperation with Dr. Nealon.

As an aside, I want to ask about the first time we see Krystal, to her earlier encounter with Castor. Why was her monitor killed? Was it perhaps a ploy to get rid of a monitor that she was having some sort of issues with? Was it helpful for Dr. Nealon and Rachel? Who knows, but it's pretty convenient. Why would Castor try to kidnap her? They needed a fertile clone, which she presumably isn't. And how likely is it that they would actually get stopped? It's too hard to believe. Add to that, when Seth rescues Rudy it almost seems like Rudy knows when to expect him. And Dr. Nealon is the one who finds out that they escaped. Again, how convenient. Did Marion set the whole thing up?

We next see Krystal lying on a hospital bed under sedation in Dyad. When she wakes she acts hysterical (in character) and she wants Delphine to think that Dr. Nealon abducted her and drugged her to take Rachel's place. It's all misdirection and Delphine has no idea. Rachel was long gone and Krystal was in on it. The question, is, when Dr. Nealon shows her Rachel on the screen, does Delphine understand that Krystal was in on the ruse? I think it's more likely than not, Delphine is quite sharp.

I tried to get a sense for who Delphine's shooter was by watching the brief glimpse we get repeatedly. I think it's too hard to tell. The shoes are very loud for men's shoes, but I don't know how much we want to press the details, and some men's shoes can be pretty loud. Obviously it's someone tied to Neolution. The only person we know has ties to anyone in Neolution is Krystal. Yes, she may seem too weak to be a killer, but Helena, Beth, Sarah, and Alison all had it in them (granted Alison's and Sarah's ties to death were not cold blooded). Cosima certainly is fierce and Rachel certainly has no issue with violence even if she would never pull the trigger herself. Why do we dismiss Krystal?

To go back to Shay. It's certainly possible she could be the killer. We know she can handle a gun and Delphine's last words, 'what will happen to her?' mesh nicely with that hypothesis. However, it does not rule out anyone else. Delphine's time of having to love all of the sisters was over since she was no longer in charge of Dyad. She could go back to just loving Cosima. That is the most natural thing for Delphine to ask for her last question. I also want to note that there is no surprise on Delphine's face as she's about to be shot, just disdain. Given that she has just given Shay a vote of confidence, I would expect more surprise from Delphine. Disdain is a very natural response if the killer is Krystal.

I realize this is a speculative argument, but any argument at this point is speculative. But given the evidence we have, I think there's a stronger case to be made for Krystal than for Shay or any other person, for that matter. Her ties to Neolution must run deep. Otherwise it's hard to imagine Dr. Nealon and Rachel betting so much if they didn't know her cooperation was in the bag. I can't wait til next season to find out for sure.

Monday, January 25, 2016

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

You can read the text here.

Through Timothy, Paul had heard that the Thessalonians had some anxiety about those in their congregation who had died before Jesus returned.[1] Paul issues the Thessalonians some reassurance. There is no disadvantage to those who died prior to Jesus return. They will join with Jesus when he returns just like those who are still alive will.[2] They will not miss out on the resurrection. Jesus himself confirms this. Grief is ok, but not grief without hope. The language Paul uses is perhaps a bit odd, talking of meeting Jesus in the air. At the core it's an expression of the fact that Jesus is not mere human king. His kingdom includes and transcends that.[3]

Paul moves on in the next section to give them further comfort via eschatology. His goal is to reinforce what they already know because it is critical and to further comfort them.[4] Paul affirms, Jesus is coming back some day, and it will happen suddenly. It also won't be a pleasant return for everyone as some will experience his wrath.[5] The Thessalonians, however, have nothing to fear. They are God's children and live in a manner worthy of their status. Paul encourages them to continue to live out their identity and to live...'in light of the certainty and unexpectedness of that Day's coming.'[6] It will be a day of their vindication, a day that will begin a blessed eternity living under the rule of the divine King rather than the rulers of this world. In the meantime they will be protected in part by their lives of faithful love for God and one another and their resolute expectation in Jesus' salvific activity on their behalf. Critically, it is a message that the Thessalonians are to remind each other of, that way they can persevere even when the going is tough.

[1] This concern makes most sense to me if 1 Thessalonians is very early. If it had been 15-20 years since Jesus ascension, then this concern would be odd since surely many Christians has died before his return. Of course this causes problems with Acts' narrative, but I agree with Campbell that Paul's own letters deserve priority when dating the letters. Campbell's date (argued for on other grounds) between 40-42 is plausible.

[2] I don't want to make too much of this, but it's interesting that Paul doesn't say that they're in heaven with God after they die.

[3] Drawn from Gaventa.

[4] Fee is very helpful in drawing out the theme of comfort in 5:1-11.

[5] If only Paul was more explicit here about who will receive wrath. At minimum it appears to be their Roman overlords and those who wholeheartedly invest their system. Fee suggests it's those who are making life difficult for the Thessalonians, which is true probably true as well.

[6] Malherbe p. 289.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Thank You Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi, and Jenna Coleman

In 2012 and 2013 I was fairly frustrated with the state of Doctor Who. There were several good episodes that would come out each year, but the drop off from the Davies era was massive. Many of the characters were poorly written and Moffat had a penchant for writing himself into corners (Matt Smith's finale was brutal). I went as far as calling for the BBC to go in a different direction. I didn't think that Moffat had what it took to be the show runner for Doctor Who.

In 2015 (and to a lesser extent 2014) Moffat has changed my opinion of him as a writer. This past season was nothing short of excellent. Now, a great deal of credit belongs to Peter Capaldi. I don't see how anyone can objectively prefer Matt Smith to Capaldi unless they just really like Smith's schtick. His superiority is obvious in how much better he and Jenna Coleman work together on screen. Coleman was excellent this year and Capaldi is in the same tier as David Tennant, Tom Baker, and Patrick Troughton. Is there any way that Matt Smith could have delivered this speech anywhere near as effectively? No way.

Back to Moffat. This season lacked the frequent deus ex machina moments that littered the Matt Smith era. This season in particular was well crafted and a cohesive whole. It had great high moments like the Capaldi speech. The first five minutes of the season premier were the most tension inducing moments of any episode of Doctor Who since David Tennant stared down the Vashta Nerada in the Silence in the Library. The classic series and the Davies era got some nice treatment. The show regained a sense of cosmic scope.

In closing let me say, thank you Steven Moffat. I'm glad you've stayed the course. You gave us an excellent season of Doctor Who and I hope you can follow it up with a few more!


Image taken from:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

You can read the text here.

Paul now transitions into more direct exhortation and encouragement of the Thessalonians. They were doing well, but that does not mean that Paul didn't have a further challenge for them. They had seen from Paul and his associates what a lifestyle that pleased God looked like. He wants to focus on two particular areas in this section, presumably because they were at least partially an issue for his converts.

The first topic Paul addresses is sex. Given the nature of the culture he lived in, he is particularly aiming his advice at men. They need to be able to control their sexual urges and limit sex to being within marriage, abstaining from any of the other outlets accepted by their native culture.[1] The reason behind it all is because of their identity and their calling. They have been drawn into Christ by the Holy Spirit and must live in accordance with the nature of that Spirit which is within them.[2] Rejecting a lifestyle of holiness, of which sexual holiness is a component, would amount to a rejection of God and his authority. Presumably part of the reason why Paul focuses on this particular issue is the opportunity for distinctiveness that it offered to his converts.[3]

Paul then moves on, but first he reminds them again that he is encouraging those who, by and large are doing well. Paul is so confident about his disciples that he can affirm that they have learned about love from God, presumably through their intense experience of his love for them.[4] The second area Paul wants to address is their relationship to money and responsibility. Political ambitions should be suppressed.[5] They should live and work quietly, but they must work. Rejecting work and living off of the support of others in the community would not be loving. It would be taking advantage of their love. Second it would work to destroy their witness to the outside world.

[1] This passage makes it obvious that the Thessalonians were a Gentile congregation.

[2] Both Gaventa and Fee are very helpful in drawing out this point in their own ways.

[3] It also was a very Jewish position. If Nanos et. al, are right in that Paul's goal was to incorporate the Gentiles into the Jewish people as Gentiles then it makes sense that a lifestyle of sexual permissiveness needed to end. Sexual immorality was the issue besides idolatry that Jews most commonly criticized the Gentiles for.

[4] So Gaventa.

[5] Assuming Gaventa and Malherbe are correct. This verse provides the clearest biblical evidence against Christians seeking political power.