Monthly Archives: October 2021

Halloween is Not Pagan

All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, is upon us again, along with a plethora of social media stories about the supposed pagan origins of Halloween. A quick Google search gives you countless reports of Halloween originating from an Irish Celtic new year festival, Samhain, and being connected to ancient pagan worship practices. I remember first hearing this story given by a well-meaning local pastor who visited a Christian college fellowship back in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I can understand why many Christians today have serious misgivings about Halloween. As a high school teenager years ago, I was part of the problem. When I could hear young trick or treaters walking down our street, I would put my Pink Floyd Echoes album on my turntable, and crank up the speakers to scare the kids. Halloween has indeed become a time of mischief, and the glorification of the occult.

However, if you take a closer look at history, the development of these darker traditions and celebrations popularized by contemporary Wiccan and neopagan groups actually originated in a mishmash of superstitions and religious practices that have arisen since the 19th century, primarily here in America. Contrary to the popular idea that Christians “stole” Halloween from pagan cults, like the Druids, the real origin of Halloween goes back hundreds of years prior to today’s “trick or treating,” when Pope Gregory in the 9th century instigated the move of the Western date for All Saints Day from the springtime to November 1st. This had nothing to do with the Irish Celts. If anything, the Irish more probably picked up the November 1st date from the English, as the Irish were known for celebrating All Saints Day on April 20, which is actually closer to the Christian practice in the springtime, more common in the Christian East.

Christian apologist and YouTuber Michael Jones at Inspiring Philosophy has a helpful short video sorting out fact from fiction about Halloween. For a concise and highly educational article summarizing the same, I would recommend a new blog post by Tim O’Neill at HistoryForAtheists, who specializes in debunking bad history being promoted by atheists and other skeptics.

In the meantime, have a wonderful All Saints Day (and its eve), which might better be remembered as Reformation Day!


Introducing… The Cambridge House at the College of William & Mary

What is a “Christian Study Center?”

Tracing back to Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, there is now a growing movement to establish centers for Christian study, physical presences near leading American universities, where conversations can take place to engage the secular campus with the story of the historic Christian faith. In fact, a new one is being established near the Williamsburg, Virginia campus of the College of William and Mary. It is called the Cambridge House, and I am excited to be part that movement.

According to Charles E. Cotherman, author of, To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, a “Christian Study Center” is a “local Christian community dedicated to the spiritual, intellectual and relational flourishing via the deep cultivation of deep spirituality, intellectual and artistic engagement, and the cultivation of hospitable presence. To be a study center, each of these four elements — spiritual, intellectual, relational, and spatial — must be cultivated” (Cotherman, p. 8).

What was just a few generations ago only a higher education opportunity made available to the cultural elite, has now become almost a rite of passage to adulthood, for a growing number of Americans across diverse backgrounds. The college students of today will become the social, political, business, and intellectual leaders of tomorrow. What part will Christians today have in having conversations that shape the kind of world we will live in 20 to 30 years from now?

I agree with Cotherman that Christian study centers are a vital component for connecting Christians in a local community with the world of their neighboring college campus to make those conversations happen. In the forward to To Think Christianly, Ken Elzinga, an economist at the University of Virginia, and one of the leading founders of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia, observes that what makes a “study center” unique is that it is a center, a “place having a geographical footprint.” Such a center is a “safe place” where one can bring their disagreements and doubts, to meet with the scornful Nathaniels who ask “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?,” (John 1:46) as well as the doubting Thomas’ who wonder if the resurrection of Jesus is really true.

Furthermore, a “study center” is not just about students, but it is also a place for Christian faculty and college staff to congregate, and build a wide-ranging experience of community.

Unlike the many campus ministries, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and CRU, that often require working with the local university for obtaining meeting space, a “Christian study center” is owned by a non-profit entity, to make such a space available, ideally within walking distance of a college campus. In the case of the new Cambridge House at the College of William and Mary, at 930 Jamestown Road, this new center is just a five minute walk away from the Mason School of Business, and around the corner from the student Ludwell apartment building complex.

But a “Christian study center” is more than a place for stimulating conversation, as it can be a place for prayer, and a place for meditation and study, a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of a college campus. It can also be a place for exploring one’s vocation, to help discern God’s calling for an individual or group in our world.

Finally, according to Elzinga, a “study center” is irenic, “marked by relational warmth and hospitality.” Instead of viewing a secular university as an adversary, a “Christian study center” can engage the campus environment as a partner in dialogue, to help move conversations forward, for the benefit of all, believer and non-believer alike.

As the Cambridge House at William and Mary gets established, having a book like To Think Christianly available now helps to provide the historical context for understanding why several dozen study centers are starting to pop-up across college and university towns across the country. After all, what does it mean “to think Christianly?”

Cotherman examines the history of this movement by first focusing on the story of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and the work of L’Abri, an alpine retreat center at a Swiss chalet founded by the Schaeffer’s in the mid-1950s. The Schaeffer’s were a product of mid-20th century American fundamentalism, when denominational bickering and Francis Schaeffer’s own crisis of faith led this missionary couple to establish L’Abri, which is French for “the shelter.”

Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened up their Swiss home to young people over the following decades, offering hospitality for short-term guests, as well as opportunities to work for the upkeep of the center for longer-term visitors and future staff. Edith in particular took great care to make sure dining ware placement at meals was done with excellence, with attention to detail, as conversation over meals were an essential part of the L’Abri experience. Francis had an appreciation for the history of art, providing many opportunities for conversation among philosophically inclined skeptics. This was no sterile classroom setting, but rather, a living, breathing community that put out the welcome mat for all seekers of truth.

But what the Schaeffer’s became most known for were for the talks given at L’Abri, and the informal conversations that followed, discussing the implications of a Christian worldview with respect to contemporary challenges to such faith in the 20th century. The content of these talks eventually became the substance of books published by InterVarsity Press, which led the Schaeffer’s towards giving lectures across the evangelical world.

In the early years, the Schaeffer’s L’Abri was a “faith-based” ministry, not asking others directly for funds, but rather, the Schaeffers appealed to God in prayer for the Lord to meet all of their needs. By the 1970s, as word of L’Abri spread and brought many more guests into the fold, and the “counter-cultural movement” was in fashion, Francis ‘”took to wearing beige Nehru jackets, odd linen shirts, and mountain climbing knickers” while wearing his hair long and growing a goatee‘ (Cotherman, p. 39). Through the Schaeffer’s, Christ was meeting the counter-culture!

But Cotherman’s story only begins there with L’Abri. Cotherman also chronicles the work of James Houston to establish Regent College in Vancouver, and the subsequent development of the Cornerstone house at the University of Maryland and the C.S. Lewis Institute. Begun in the late 1960’s, Houston’s work at Regent College paralleled L’Abri, but also differed in substantial ways. L’Abri was located away from university settings whereas Houston believed that study centers were best served by being located adjacent to a college campus. Houston was an academic, having done advanced degree work in geography, whereas Francis Schaeffer had no academic training beyond his theological studies. Schaeffer gained most of his knowledge of modern philosophy and art from magazines, as opposed to reading peer-reviewed scholarship found in academic books.

James Houston was concerned that Schaeffer’s L’Abri tended towards creating a type of evangelical celebrity culture and intellectual isolation, whereby a teaching “guru” like Schaeffer was the center of discussion. Alternatively, Houston believed that study centers should participate in academic discussions on college campuses, and he worked towards having a good relationship with the nearby University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, even himself teaching classes there on occasion.

Houston’s vision for Regent College was primarily oriented towards lay education, as opposed to providing seminary education for ordained clergy, thus making theological teaching available to a wider spectrum of people. Part of the early, original ideal was to offer a one-year program of study, particularly for recent college graduates to participate in, before pursuing careers in a variety of professions. By focusing on lay persons, study centers like Regent College, and others, have been able to side-step the thorny issue of women’s ordination, and have continued to improve over the years in providing opportunities for both young men and women to grow deeper in their faith and intellectual life as Christians, living out their vocations in a secular world, as well finding new ways to diversify the ethnic and racial make-up of their communal lives.

The Cambridge House, at the Crossroads, at 930 Jamestown Road, in Williamsburg, Virginia. With close proximity to the campus of the College of William and Mary, the Cambridge House is one of the newest Christian study centers.

Cotherman, to varying degrees, also tells the stories of other study centers, such as New College Berkeley, in California, and R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Valley Study Center in Stahlston, Pennsylvania. The example of R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier is particularly insightful, as it shows some of the challenges that study centers face in figuring out what type of focus each study center should take. There are a wide-variety of approaches!

R.C. Sproul had been forced to delay the completion of his doctoral work in theology at the Free University in Amsterdam, due to family emergencies. This event triggered a series of decisions that helped him to cross paths with Francis Schaeffer, and consider establishing a L’abri-like study center in Stahlston, Pennsylvania.  This Ligonier study center sought to offer a wide variety of classes and seminars aimed at providing good, intellectual Christian content, not often found in local churches, while seeking to create a hospitable environment for speakers to share their lives together with their students. In those early part of the 1970s, Ligonier attracted well-known evangelical Christian speakers to offer talks, that had a cross-denominational appeal, albeit leaning towards a Reformed theological tradition.

Ligonier was able to take advantage in the growth of technology, to get R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier content out to a wider-audience, and video-tape recording made this development possible. But as Ligonier’s influence as a study center grew, it also changed its style and focus for ministry. Opening up the homes of speakers for Christian hospitality gave way to a more formalized approach for Ligonier. In the early days of video taping R.C. Sproul’s talks, Sproul appeared nicely tanned, sporting a countercultural appeal with plaid pants, turtlenecks, sunglasses, and long hair. But by the time Ligonier moved their operations to Orlando, Florida, in the 1980s, Sproul was appearing before taped classes with a polished suit and tie look. Gone were the days when volleyball games were followed by casual meals around a dinner table, that allowed for deep spiritual conversation. Now, large, well-attended conferences were giving evangelical audiences a hefty, hearty diet of theological training for which they were starving to receive.

Is a study center a place for theological and philosophical discussion? A place where Christians and skeptics can ask their questions? A place for prayer? A place for hospitality? A place for Christian learning? The answer for each of these questions can indeed be “yes,” but each study center wrestles with trying to flesh out what is distinctive to each discrete instance of a study center. The value in reading To Think Christianly is in helping people interested in the study center movement to tie all of these things together.

All of this serves in Cotherman’s story as the backdrop for the eventual late 1970’s founding of the Center for Christian Study, in Charlottesville, Virginia, adjacent to the University of Virginia campus. The Charlottesville house has served as an intriguing model for what study centers across the country can do, in the local campus communities. Over the years, the Charlottesville house has offered residential living for students, a large library filled with Christian books and material for deeper study, quiet study areas for students as well as kitchens for providing meals and snacks, meeting spaces for prayer groups and Bible study groups, and even a Christian bookstore.

In the wake of its success, a Consortium of Christian Study Centers, originally led by Drew Trotter, was formed, and the Cambridge House near the College of William and Mary is among the Consortium’s newest members. In Virginia, the Cambridge House joins other new study centers near campuses like the University of Richmond, and Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. What will the Cambridge House eventually look like, in terms of its distinctives? All of this depends on how God moves among the students, faculty, staff, and local churches and interested individuals, in figuring out how to invest in this exciting experiment.

Check out the Cambridge House Christian Study Center today, near the campus of the College of Wiliam and Mary!


Did the Apostle Paul Condone Slavery?

Did the Apostle Paul condone slavery? Yes and no. A fuller answer requires a bit of unpacking.

In short, the Apostle Paul never comes out to explicitly condemn slavery. On the other hand, Paul deftly and implicitly undercuts the whole basis for why a person should remain a slave, or can become a slave in the first place, thus laying an axe at the root of the slavery system. Let me explain.

While done with good intentions, sometimes Christian apologists come out a bit too quick to exonerate the Bible from charges of condoning slavery. The story is actually more complex. A cursory reading of American Southern defenders of 19th century slavery should dispel that notion, as preachers who wrote tracts in support of enslaving Africans had a number of different Bible verses to choose from to make their case. Here is a short sample from Paul’s writings:

  • Ephesians 6:5: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters.” (ESV)
  • Colossians 3:22: “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.” (ESV)

Yikes. Those verses alone can make a lot of Christians today cringe.

Yet notice how the English Standard Version above uses the word “bondservant.” Who uses the word “bondservant” today? Does anyone?

Nate Parker’s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, in Courtland, Virginia, a little over an hour drive from my home. The Nat Turner tragedy is a complicated story about American history, slavery, and bad Bible interpretation. We need to be honest and clear about what the Bible says and not says about slavery.

A number of secular-minded critics today of the Christian faith will cry foul, claiming that popular evangelical Bible translations are sugar-coating passages in the Bible regarding slavery. They claim that Christians are trying to sidestep the hard truth: that the Bible sanctions slavery, and that is simply not morally acceptable for a 21st century person. Therefore, Christianity should be rejected as immoral.

As a Christian, when I hear criticisms like this, I tend to do either one of two things: One, I will stiffen up in defense of my Bible, and perhaps immediately run to some other passage, like God delivering His people, Israel, from slavery in Israel, as described in the Book of the Exodus. While raising an objection like this surely has its place, it can often come across as a “my-Bible-verse-beats-up-your-Bible-verse” approach to spiritual conversation. 

Or second, I will want to ignore the topic at hand, change the subject, or otherwise just try to fade into the woodwork, hoping that the criticism will simply go away. The problem with both approaches is that they do not fairly address the criticism being presented. Sometimes our non-believing friends are a lot more honest about reading the Bible than we as Christians are. So, we need to face the criticism head-on, and see if we can dig deeper to get at a better solution.

Political Correctness” In Today’s Bible Translations?

The vast majority of Christians today would condemn all slavery as unthinkable. But such was not so in the antebellum American South, during the plantation era. Back when I was studying history in college, reading books about early 19th century Southern (and even some Northern!) preachers defending slavery, I would rant in my dorm room that so many of my white Christian ancestors were not really Christians at all! But when I read some of those apologetic defenses of slavery, they sounded eerily like some Christian condemnations of same-sex marriage today. Charges of bigotry against Christians are not that far behind. A lot of 21st century Christians, who are familiar with the history of how some early 19th century Christians fought tooth-and-nail to defend slavery, are often left confused.

So, is it true that today’s Christians are somehow embarrassed at what is plainly in view, when we read our Bibles? Is it true that Christians are making their Bibles more “politically correct,” in order to find more social acceptance in our post-modern society?

Other Bible translations, including the venerable KJV, uses the more well-known word “slave” to translate the Greek word “doulos“. In a July, 2021 Slate article, writer Paul Rosenberg in interviewing anthropologist Samuel Perry accuses the ESV of obfuscating the actual meaning of the word “slave,” by replacing it with the more innocuous “bondservant.”

The cynicism laced throughout Rosenberg’s essay and Perry’s interview critique is pretty hard to ignore.1  But Rosenberg/Perry do raise a point, as to how tricky it is to properly translate “slave/bondservant” for a 21st century English readership. The new Legacy Standard Bible, being produced by Pastor John MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary faculty, takes aim at the ESV from the opposite direction and unashamedly reinserts “slave” largely wherever the ESV has “bondservant.” So, how are we then to think of “slave/bondservant” today, when we read our Bibles?

Placing the Slavery/Bible Question in the Larger Historical Context

When I was a young believer, I often imagined that Paul was really talking about the relationship between workers and their bosses, more broadly. Well, that kind of works, but not really. Slavery was built into the very fabric of the ancient world, from the time of the Israelite patriarchs up through the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day. To be a slave in the ancient world was a dehumanizing status to have.

Part of our problem is that our 21st century way of thinking about slavery is seen through the lens of America’s tortured history of racially-based, cradle-to-grave, chattel slavery, that precipitated the crisis of the American Civil War of the mid-19th century. A better approach would be to begin with this: What was slavery like in the days of the Old and New Testaments, when compared to the horror experienced by the vast majority of today’s African American ancestors?

Much of what we know of ancient history indicates that the institution of slavery was primarily a means of erasing debt. Even in the Old Testament, voluntary servitude was acknowledged as a legitimate means of canceling certain kinds of personal debt. For example, if you were a poor ancient Hebrew, and you owed your fellow Hebrew some money, and you had no personal property available to pay off that debt, you could voluntarily arrange to offer the labor of your own hands and body, for a limited time, in order to work off that debt. In a day where bankruptcy laws were unknown, the Bible appears to be acknowledging such forms of slavery as a morally acceptable practice, within limits. In our day, when many of us get mailed credit card applications sent to us on an almost weekly basis, we become oblivious to the historical reality that getting into debt with someone else was a serious matter, where the slavery system seemed to be the most obvious solution.

Extending that notion of slavery to a more macro-level gets more complicated. In the ancient world, an entire people group could be enslaved as result of war. Wars, then and now, cost money. Even if one side is victorious, the victor must find a way to pay for military activity. Soldiers deserve compensation for their service, care for the wounded is required, etc. The victor would seek reparations from the loser, just as in more modern times, when the victorious Allied powers after World War I sought to make Germany pay for the war effort. But what if the loser of the war was so devastated by the loss that they could not reasonably pay reparations with worldly goods? This is where slavery on a mass scale came in. 

As opposed to the American history of slavery, which was primarily based on skin color, the question of race was less of an issue in ancient times. When the empires of the ancient near east world fought one another, and drove people into enslavement, the skin color differences between the victors and those conquered were largely minimal. Greeks, Persians, and even Jews, rarely differed that much in terms of skin pigment.

This more nuanced understanding of slavery partly explains why the ESV translation chose to translate the Greek word doulos as “bondservant,” a person bound in service without wages. Whether scholars agree or not agree, “bondservant” carries a lot less cultural baggage than does the typical American connotation behind the word “slave,” which is often front-loaded with concepts of race today, which were foreign to the Scriptural writers. 

Furthermore, even in our day, if you experience indebtedness to someone else, or if, for example, a friend of yours owes you money, and does not pay you back, then you know how awkward it is to have a relationship with someone who you are not “right” with when it comes to an unsettled debt. The person owing the debt feels “enslaved” to the one owed the debt. The bigger the debt, the greater the feeling of enslavement. You do not need be an ancient person, nor someone living in the Deep American South, during the Antebellum era, to know what the distortion of slavery feels like.

Nevertheless, despite all of these noted differences, one still wonders why at least the New Testament does not come out and explicitly condemn slavery as an institution. Many readers of the New Testament can still get stuck on those disturbing words of the Apostle Paul, cited above.

I know that many Christians like to then appeal to Jesus Himself, over Paul, in defense of the abolition of slavery. After all, Jesus is God in human form, and Paul was not, right? Jesus’ preaching takes priority over Paul, correct? I mean, those words from the lips of Jesus, written in red, as those “Red Letter Bibles” tell us, carries more weight, right? 

Well, that might sound convincing, until you start reading the Gospels more closely. Jesus talks quite a bit about slaves working for their masters. But Jesus himself never gives any indication that slavery is an evil institution. For example, when Jesus teaches the parable of the tenants, in Matthew 21:33-46, he indicates that these tenants beat up the slaves who work for their master. The reader does gets the sense that beating up the slaves was wrong, according to Jesus. But Jesus never suggests that there was anything specially wrong with slavery itself

Mmmm……

Pardon an expression from football that might offend Roman Catholic readers, but trying to throw a “Hail Mary” pass in making an appeal to the Jesus of the Gospel, to rescue the Bible from charges of upholding slavery, does not really work.

Instead, you need to go back to Paul if you are looking for some definitive posture that the New Testament takes on slavery. So, what else do we find in Paul?

Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People straightens out of misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Apostle Paul, regarding such topics as homosexuality, the treatment of women, and in particular, slavery.

Is Paul the Great Apologist for Slavery? The Answer May Surprise You

To get a better handle on this, I wanted to learn more from a scholar who specializes in the history of the classical period. Sarah Ruden is a scholar of the Greco-Roman classical period, who knows the cultural setting that Paul lived in better than most people. Unlike most scholars interested in Christian origins, Ruden specializes first in Greco-Roman culture, and from there takes an interest in Paul. Ruden is best known for her English translations of ancient Greco-Roman texts, who also recently released her own translation of the Gospels.2 While Sarah Ruden professes to be a Quaker, she does not expressly believe in a conservative evangelical view of the inspiration of the Bible, as being the definitive, inspired Word of God.3 But her specific area of research challenges a lot misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Bible’s perspective on slavery.

It should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul has been derided as representing the very worst characteristics of the Christian faith. As my kindly-Virginian mother told me on more that one occasion, “I really like Jesus, but I am not so sure about that Apostle Paul.” Paul has at various times been regarded as a chauvinistic hater of women, an apologist for the political establishment, a homophobe, and, for the purposes of this blog post, a callous proponent of slavery. Yet what is so intriguing about Sarah Ruden’s scholarship is that she insists that we read Paul within his own historical context, as a Jew and a Roman citizen, in an ancient era. Ruden’s work effectively works to dismiss this common negative narrative that surrounds the Apostle Paul, thus working against the grain of so many popular portrayals of his deficiencies.

In her study of Paul, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, she lays out the stark problem in understanding this most influential Apostle for the Christian faith:

We really want Paul to have been against slavery, but the evidence is galling. It’s not that he was for slavery… It’s that he doesn’t seem to have cared one way or another.” (p. 177)

That seems like an overly crass and unfair evaluation, but I get Ruden’s point. On the one hand, you can read a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 , where Paul advises; “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul at least encourages slaves to seek their freedom, if possible. Score a major point in Paul’s favor!

In comparison to the Gospels, the “Red Letters” of Jesus do not even give you that! But there is also a sense that in this passage, Paul, like Jesus, really does not condemn slavery as an institution as forcefully as many of us would like to hear today. 

Nevertheless, Sarah Ruden offers some powerful insight showing how Paul’s approach to the question of slavery, more than any other Biblical writer, has proven to be the most potential force for radical culture change, even down to the present day. In Ruden’s study of the Greco-Roman world, slaves were essentially subhuman. They were more “like pets: good treatment of them was about the master’s enlightenment, never about the slaves’ inherent equality” (Kindle location 2448). A slave was “nobody and nothing aside from his usefulness” (Kindle location 2512).

Ruden rightly points out that the most significant treatment of slavery is found in one of the most neglected books of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest of all of Paul’s letters. Most Christians and others who dislike Paul tend to skip over this tiny letter, at the very end of the Pauline corpus found in the New Testament. But in doing so, Sarah Ruden discovers a nugget of prose that shows just how revolutionary and progressive Paul really was. In writing to Philemon, Paul is telling about his relationship to Onesimus, a runaway slave who had belonged to Philemon, but who met up with Paul for support and for a sanctuary. Paul, in turn, wishes to hand Onesimus back over to Philemon, but with some extremely provocative requirements involved:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 8-16).

Among the several things to observe in this passage, we read that Paul considers Onesimus to be his “child” (son) as well as a “beloved brother.” Unlike what we see in popular Hollywood movies, like 12 Years a Slave, or The Birth of a Nation, that portray the horror of slavery inflicted on African Americans, Paul does not come across as an angry white dude, intent on returning a runaway, disobedient slave. Instead, Paul displays a tender affection for Onesimus, and wants to make sure that Philemon knows that.

True, Paul does not explicitly demand that Philemon set Onesimus free from being a slave. However, Sarah Ruden states that “Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone… The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is beyond ingenious. He equates Onesimus with a son and a brother. He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fundamental, insurmountable differences between a slave and his master into an immense joke” (Kindle location 2541). 

In the history of ancient slavery, a slave generally had no value in terms of being part of a family. Even up through the dawn of the modern era in the late 18th century, during the near thousand year period since about the beginning of Islam, Islamic raiders in ships would invade European costal towns and kidnap European Christians, and take them back to Islamic countries, to be placed in forced servitude, for the remainder of their lives. Though dwarfed by the some 12 million Africans taken to the Americas, during the colonial period, historians estimate that nearly 1 million European Christians ended up in this forgotten system of slavery, by their Islamic captors. Yet we know little of what became of these Europeans as their line of descendants were largely wiped out, during their experience of slavery. 

Certainly in the Apostle Paul’s day, the story of what happened to Greco-Roman slaves was forgotten, because of the loss of familial connections: no sons, no brothers. Ruden comments that “one of the greatest cruelties of slavery was that, having no legal family, a slave was boxed off in time, without a real tomb or recognized descendants or anything else to ensure he was remembered” (Kindle location 2550).

However, in the letter of Philemon, the Apostle Paul changed all of that. Paul cut at the very heart of the ancient slavery system, by declaring his affection for Onesimus and challenging Philemon to do the same. For if Paul were to merely ask Philemon to set Onesimus free, it would not have helped Onesimus very much in a culture that regarded slaves, particularly runaway slaves, as nobodies. By asking Philemon to take Onesimus on as a family member, as Paul did, this act of treating Onesimus as a human being, and not subhuman, effectively turns the whole rationale behind the slavery system on its head.

What Sarah Ruden fails to mention in her analysis of Paul is the Old Testament ground for Paul’s radical call for discipleship. In the Law of Moses, while provision was made for slavery of Hebrews by other Hebrews, in the case of eliminating debt, for a set period of time, and non-Hebrews could be held as slaves in perpetuity, the Law of Moses also prohibited the Hebrews from enslaving their fellow Hebrews in the same manner as enslaving non-Hebrews

In other words, according to Torah, Jews were forbidden to enslave fellow Jews in the same manner the pagan Greco-Romans would enslave one another. Why? Because a fellow Jew was like family. There were like sons and brothers. 

Under Paul’s new Gospel message, the implications were clear in Paul’s mind. Now in the era of the Risen Jesus, the message of Christ has gone beyond the borders of covenant Israel, to include the Gentiles, for those who have faith in that Risen Jesus. Now, we can call Jew and Gentile as brothers and sisters (sons and daughters) together in Christ, including both slave and free (Galatians 3:28). By calling Onesimus both a son and a brother, Paul considers the runaway slave to having the same status as a fellow Israelite under the Law of Moses. 

The message is as subtle as it is profound. In not mounting a full scale frontal attack on the institution of slavery, Paul was not one to directly challenge the social order. Instead, Paul takes an indirect, yet more radical approach, of undercutting the very conditions by which one is made a slave in the first place. As the Gospel goes forth, inviting all to place their faith and trust in Jesus, more people are added to the family of God. But since the most dehumanizing form of slavery is forbidden of family members, the whole system of chattel slavery is set on notice. As Ruden puts it, Paul “turns his sermonizing into a bomb, presses down the detonator, and walks away, leaving glittering fragments of absurdity in place of the conviction that people solve problems” (Kindle location 2657). God has declared a new family order of things, and Paul has been entrusted with the message of that declaration, to be given to all peoples. Kaboom!!

An Implicit Argument, Found in the Bible, that Rejects Slavery

As a side note, some Evangelical Bible scholars have tried to make the case that Christians should apply a redemptive-movement model of interpreting the Bible, such as found in William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In other words, instead of getting too hung up on the actual thoughts of Paul described in the Scriptural text that tend of embarrass us today, Christians should seek to best understand the spirit behind the text, so that we might arrive at a new ethic that moves beyond the static literalism of certain statements made by Paul. Critics of this thesis argue that such a hermeneutical model of reading Scripture is unsustainable, as similar redemptive movement models have been used in recent years to justify same-sex marriage and transgender-based ideologies. Furthermore, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic does not seriously enough take into the consideration that the New Testament is ultimately the definitive commentary on the Old Testament.

Yet when it comes to slavery, my reading of Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People convinces me that there is enough substance in the subtext of Paul’s argument in Philemon that makes Paul into a compelling advocate for the elimination of the slavery system, albeit through an implicit means. A problematic redemptive-movement model is not necessary when it comes to dealing the death blow to slavery.

Proof of this can be seen in the history of the early church itself. The aftershocks of Paul’s letter to Philemon have been felt down through the centuries. As historian Tom Holland tells us, Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest and influential of the early church fathers, was an outspoken critic of slavery as being against the very concept of what it means to be created in the image of God. Ruden herself observes that as the Christian faith grew throughout the Roman empire, the slavery system almost entirely disappeared, as those early Christians, within just a few hundred years after the closing of the New Testament, chimed in with Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnation of slavery. True, feudalism eventually replaced slavery in the medieval era, but this was nothing like the chattel slavery system that was revived hundreds of years later by European slave traders, who sought to take advantage of conquered African tribes, in hopes obtaining greater wealth from the New World in the Americas. Many centuries before William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and 20th-century activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Christians like Gregory of Nyssa were paving the way towards a slave-free society.

If anything, it was the utter failure of the Christian church, in the era of the African slave trade, to properly interpret the Bible responsibly, that led to the false justification of the slavery system, during the colonial era (for more on that, read this critique found on Veracity). It was as though the slave-holding Christians during the colonial era became totally disconnected from the witness of Gregory of Nyssa, hundreds of years earlier.

However, it would not be fair to throw every European-based Christian in colonial America under the bus. Sarah Ruden’s Quaker tradition held a strongly anti-slavery position by the late 17th century, throughout the colonies. Even in Virginia, where the African slavery system first took root in the North America, Christian opponents to slavery would seek to evangelize the African slaves, with the hope that they might be baptized, as it was part of British policy that it would be wrong to enslave a fellow baptized Christian. As a result, defenders of slavery would then discourage Christian missionaries from evangelizing their African slaves. It was not until 1667, decades after the first Africans landed at Jamestown, when the Virginia assembly eventually passed a law that explicitly ruled that even Christian baptism did not allow for a slave to obtain their freedom, thereby making it more difficult to get rid of the slavery system.

A lot of the contemporary distrust of the Bible stems back to the ugly stain that the American slavery system has left on Christian history. Sarah Ruden’s exploration into the world of the Apostle Paul has reminded me that the original New Testament context, within the period of the early church, tells a much more balanced story.

Evangelical theologian and reviewer Peter Leithart observes that Sarah Ruden’s book is “one of the best defenses of Paul,” in an age where Paul is often perceived to be an embarrassment to the Christian faith, in comparison to Jesus. Ruden offers other provocative defenses of Paul, with respect to Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts, as well as Paul’s treatment of women. Ruden does not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture, as she holds to the critical consensus, that only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul are indeed authentically Pauline. Interestingly however, as an academic critical scholar, she still comes to many of the same conclusions regarding Paul, that are agreeable with historically orthodox perceptions of him. 

A final word of warning here, for potential readers of Ruden’s book:  Paul Among the Peoples is not for the faint of heart. Her quotations of Greco-Roman poets of the day demonstrate just how crude, bawdy and degrading Greco-Roman pagan culture could be. Plus, there are moments where she tends to psychoanalyze Paul a bit too much. Sure, she humanizes Paul, but she does so at the expense of diluting the divine character of the sacred text at times. But the best benefit in reading Sarah Ruden, despite her wide embrace of the more liberal, critical end of historical criticism in New Testament scholarship, is in showing just how much the writings of the Apostle Paul completely re-oriented the world of ancient Greco-Roman culture, and continues to impact the world today.

Circling back to those difficult passages in Colossians and Ephesians, towards the beginning of this blog post, it helps to read more of the text, to see just how revolutionary Paul was, in challenging the status quo of his day. Simply consider what we read in Colossians (which parallels Ephesians 6:5-9):

  • Colossians 3:22-4:1 (ESV) Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

First, note how bondservants/slaves are not simply to obey their earthly master, but that they are to fear the Lord, to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” As opposed to the pater familias tradition of Greco-Roman culture, that Sarah Ruden describes with such unease to our modern ears, which put the male head of household in complete autocratic rule over slaves, to do anything they want with them, Paul argues that ultimately bondservants/slaves are to serve the Lord instead. Secondly, Paul does not let slavemasters get off of the hook for one minute, urging slavemasters to treat their bondservants/slaves “justly and fairly,” which undermined the dehumanizing practice of the Greco-Romans.

Do I wish that the Bible had been more explicit in condemning slavery? Sure, I do. But when we read the Bible within its historical context, and in particularly take a closer look as to how Paul’s strategy worked in trying to persuade Philemon to welcome the runaway slave, Onesimus, we get a far more liberating picture of the message of the New Testament.

 

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For a helpful video that briefly summaries some of the arguments found in this blog post, I would recommend the following video by Dr. Matthew Hall, at Southern Baptist Seminary:

Notes:

1. See this thorough and excellent YouTube video rejoinder by Bible Study Magazine editor, Mark Ward. Mark Ward’s YouTube channel is “Bible Nerdy,” but entertains just as well as it educates. The Slate article goes onto rightly observe that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible does have a definite complementarian bent to it, emphasizing the distinct roles that differentiate men and women, in contrast with other translations, like the Common English Bible (CEB), that favors a more egalitarian approach, that tends to see male and female in more or less interchangeable terms, particularly when it comes to leadership offices in the church. The Slate article also suggests that the ESV was “compromising” by putting together a special translation of the ESV to the Gideons, that kept more “KJV-friendly” verses in the Bible, which is overly-simplistic. The KJV is outdated in many ways, but the ESV has always sought to stand within the tradition of the KJV. So, the idea that the ESV is simply “marketing” the Bible to appeal to a particular audience is really a cynical way of looking at Bible translations. Kudos to Mark Ward for his work in expose the flaws in the Slate article. 

2. Here is a delightful nugget of insight that Sarah Ruden has in reading the Gospels, which is simply too good to ignore: Matthew 15:26-27 is part of an episode where Jesus meets a Canaanite women (i.e. not a Jew, but a Gentile), where the woman cries out to Jesus for him to help her. The NIV renders Jesus’ response and the woman’s rejoinder like this, ‘” He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”’ The problem with this type of translation is that it makes Jesus sound very severe and serious, even condescending towards the woman. But Ruden rightly notes that the word for “dog” used by both Jesus and the woman is not what many Christians typically think. Most Greek dictionaries will translate this directly to English as “little dog,” which is better, but Ruden says that there is more to it. Instead, Ruden says that Jesus is being playful here, as the word is better rendered as “little doggie.”  That sounds less seriously spiritual, but it is more accurate. The NIV could have been improved with the following, for Jesus’ statement: ““It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little doggies.”  That sounds a lot less harsh, and more tongue in cheek. What a wonderful insight Sarah Ruden gives to the passage.

3. For those unfamiliar with a “conservative evangelical” view of the Bible’s inspiration, a short of way of putting it is that conservative evangelicals believe that the Bible is not only written by humans, it is also written by God. There is an essential divine/human character to Holy Scripture. More liberal scholars, who adhere to what is typically described as the “historical critical method,” mainly emphasize the Bible as a human work of literature. Sarah Ruden herself even says that she is trying to lay aside the idea of the Bible as being “sacred” in order to get more at the humanity of the text. But why the dichotomy? Why not do scholarship with the Bible that reads it as both divine revelation AND as human literature? While the “historical critical method” can help at times to reveal certain blindspots in how to read and interpret the Bible, which sometimes happens with conservative Christians, one must be careful to understand that historical criticism inherently takes an anti-supernatural bias contrary to biblical revelation. Thankfully, Sarah Ruden focuses most of the time on using the “good” side of historical criticism, when doing her work, which is extremely rewarding and helpful to the church. Conservative Christians have a lot to learn from her.  


William Lane Craig on the Historical Adam

William Lane Craig is often regarded as the most prominent living Christian philosopher on the planet defending the Christian faith today. However, a recent article that Craig wrote for the magazine First Things has resulted in a firestorm of controversy.

Craig, the founder of the apologetics ministry, Reasonable Faith, and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University and Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, has recently published a book regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 more broadly:  In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. His essay at First Things summarizes his thesis, and Craig concludes that the Adam and Eve of Genesis are both historical and mythological figures in the Bible, and Craig also concludes that Genesis 1-11 is an example of the literary genre of mytho-history found in the Bible. Furthermore, Craig argues that Adam and Eve go back to a common ancestor shared between modern humans and Neanderthals, between 750,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. Craig’s view can be quickly summarized in this 4-minute linked YouTube video.

Dr. Owen Strachan, Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary, has taken Dr. Craig to task at his Substack blog, describing Dr. Craig’s summary view as being “tortured.” According to the Substack blog, Strachan believes that Craig is not sufficiently nor clearly affirming the historicity of Adam and Eve.  The controversy provides an illustration at just how divided Christians are over the question of human origins, as it corresponds to the teaching of the Bible. This is not a new development, as such controversy extends back even to the days of Jesus.

Some Christians, such as Reformed apologist James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, and one of the most capable Christian debaters today, hold largely to a presuppositionalist approach to Christian apologetics, where one begins one’s apologetic method with an assumption, or presupposition, that exists as revelation that can not be refuted. This is different from an evidentialist approach to Christian apologetics, that William Lane Craig tends to follow, urging Christians and non-Christians to “follow the evidence wherever it leads” towards the discovery of truth. Interestingly, White is not consistent with his own apologetic method, as White comes across as holding an evidentialist position when defending the reliability of modern Bible translations, in contrast with the presuppositionalist approach taken by KJV-Onlyists (see the comments in this linked Veracity article), who only view the King James Version of the Bible as being THE one-and-only divinely preserved version of the Bible. Nevertheless, James White gives his own broadly framed critique of William Lane Craig in this linked YouTube video, selected from one of his Dividing Line podcast programs. White’s critique here is a bit “off-the-cuff” but it can give you a flavor as to how different Christians approach apologetics differently.

Many Christians are convinced that the truthfulness of the Christian faith hangs and falls on the historical narrative of Adam and Eve. Others view Adam and Eve as merely metaphorical symbols representative of the story of humanity more broadly. Is there a common ground solution to be had here?

What makes this issue so challenging to navigate is that while many Young Earth Creationists, and even some Old Earth Creationists, will make an appeal to the beliefs of the earliest Christians among the early church fathers, in support of their views, the question of relating history and metaphor together is far from simple even among the early church fathers, when it comes to interpreting Genesis 1-11.

For example, even Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, and perhaps the leading apologist for Scriptural faith in his day, had serious reservations about the literal interpretation of the “days” of Genesis, as well as the creation of Eve materially from Adam’s rib, and this was well over 1800 years before Charles Darwin ever came on the scene, well before the age of modern science!! Philo would later become a major influence upon Christian bible teachers in the early church.

In the following YouTube video, Protestant theologian Gavin Ortlund offers a friendly rebuttal to Owen Strachan’s critique of William Lane Craig, by focusing on the complex views of Saint Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian in the Western church, dating back to the early 5th century. After that, I have linked to a YouTube interview by apologist Sean McDowell with William Lane Craig about his new book. The Ortlund video is 15-minutes long. The Craig interview with McDowell is an hour long.

I would be interested in any Veracity reader feedback on any of this content. For further reading, I recommend the work of Joshua Swamidass in finding a peaceful solution to the controversy surrounding the historical Adam and Eve. For a deeper dive into the content of William Lane Craig’s book, you can follow this series of interviews with New Testament scholar Ben Witherington starting here.

 


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