Weekly Bible Study Summaries

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Here are some short summaries of our weekly discussions. These are intended both to be a resource for those who have missed discussions, to see what they missed, and also as reminders for those who made it to the discussions.

May 25, 2006: On Christian Doctrine

  • The enjoy/use distinction Augustine uses sounds very harsh to us, but perhaps the language itself is an issue. We should use everything we do, whether interacting with other people or not, to grow closer to enjoyment of God. Exactly what this looks like, in practical terms, is hard to see.
  • There is a tension between using the Bible to figure out what faith is and measuring interpretations of scripture against a "rule of faith". It is understood that Augustine is presupposing a Christian audience. It is also presumed that the audience is educated and intelligent (it is expected that large portions of the Bible will be memorized and Greek and Hebrew will be studied), but at the same time he seems to write to anyone interested in reading and interpreting scripture.
  • While Augustine has a very one-track mind where all things should be done to further the ability to interpret scripture and enjoy God, he thinks that many different kinds of activity can be used for this purpose. Math, science, dancing, singing, biology, and other disciplines can and should be studied.
  • No interpretation of scripture can be true unless it promotes the love of God and the love of man. Any section of the Bible that seems to defy this in a literal interpretation should be interpreted figuratively.

June 1, 2006: Mark 1

  • The patristic commentaries on Mark included in Aquinas' Catena Aurea read a lot of symbolism into the Markan text. John the Baptist's diet of locusts and honey signifies the failure of the Jews to see the fulfillment of OT prophecies in Christ (Theophylactus); the latchet of Christ's shoe signifies the mystery of the Incarnation, which no Christian can unravel (Pseudo-Chrysostom). Which, if any, of the allegorical readings in Catena Aurea are right? What are the limits on allegorical interpretations of a text like Mark 1? How did the Fathers arrive at such readings, and how should we respond to them?
  • The Gospels do not use the conventions of history or biography: their writers emphasized certain aspects of Jesus' life and left out others altogether in order to nourish the faith of the Christian community. Larry W. Hurtado goes so far as to suggest that the author of Mark may have fabricated some details (the secrecy of Christ's early ministry, the failure of crowds to recognize Jesus as the Son of God) in order to highlight a theological truth (the Crucifixion is Jesus' key work, therefore any acclamation of Jesus as the Son of God that doesn't take the Cross into account is wrongheaded). If historicism isn't important to the writers of Scripture, should it be important to us? If a text strays from history in order to make a theological point, is historicism irrelevant? Historical and literary readings of Scripture give us different but complementary sets of information: we need not see these approaches as at odds with each other. We should be like Augustine's ideal reader of Scripture, learning as much about all realms of life (including history) in order better to understand Scripture.
  • If, as Mark aims to show, neither Jesus' ethical ministry nor His healings can show His identity as God, but rather we can only understand His teachings and healings retrospectively through the lens of the Cross, what are the aims of Jesus' pre-Cross ministry? Jesus sets an example for the Christian life. He repeatedly hammers in the change from law to grace. Every act of Jesus is a mini-Gospel. People need to see the Gospel in miniature over and over before they can wrap their minds around the idea that God would incarnate Himself to take away the sins of their souls.
  • The very first people Jesus drew close to Himself were not logicians or academics: God wanted to work in and through unlettered fisherman. This presents a challenge to graduate students and self-identified intellectuals. Jesus said only, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men," and Simon and Andrew responded to His call "at once" (Mark 1: 17-18). If "I will make you fishers of men" was the only thing Jesus said to them, and that was enough for them to follow Him, should that call be central to our understanding of following Christ? What does Jesus mean by "fishers of men"? Must we read evangelism into the call, or can we understand it more generally to mean always putting service of God and others first? The sheer speed of the first disciples' response presents another dilemma for us: our response to Christ can't look like theirs, because Christ isn't physically present. Just how the "immediately" and "at once" and "without delay" of the first disciples should inform us as we wake up for work or school 2000 years later - how vocation plays out now - is a complicated question.
  • Who is Mark's ideal reader? Does Mark, like Augustine, expect his reader to have faith from the outset? The reader of Mark has the idea that he sees more than the people involved in the story. The ironic positioning of the reader "in the know" by giving him the punchline right at the start perhaps resembles a key technique of mystery writing: the reader will experience satisfaction in figuring out Christ's identity when others remain in the dark. Mark, then, doesn't seem to presuppose a Christian reader: his text is evangelistic.
  • An interesting mental exercise for the rest of the Bible study would be to try to read Scripture as both Markan and Augustinian readers. We should ask what aspects of the text stand out to the reader who doesn't have faith and what things stand out to the reader who does.

June 8, 2006: Mark 2

  • The story of the healing of the paralytic raises interesting questions about personal and corporate faith. The faith in the passage is a faith of community and brings with it everything (forgiveness, healing) we normally associate with personal faith. Is a view of faith as primarily personal tenable? What is the conection between personal and corporate faith?
  • The story also presents the coupling of spiritual and physical healing. The story connects a physical act of pre-cross ministry (the healing) with an act of atonement which points forward to the all-important cross. We look back to the atoning act of the cross and are presumably to act in the world in a similar manner. The cross is a pivot point for both types of action. Bede's five causes for suffering are satisfactory, or unsatisfactory to us in varying degrees.
  • Jesus actively seeks controversy in the passage; here is a Jesus who confronts us directly. His actions are very purposeful.
  • Hurtado mentions that 'most scholars' consider the Eucharist to have its roots not only in the Last Supper, but also in communal meals such as the one Christ eats with sinners. (This is something to look into). What does this mean for modern communion practices, e.g. who is allowed to participate? How does this passage reflect on how or how much we interact with non-Christians. If we approach the table with divisions among us we do not fully understand the table.
  • Jesus's physical presence is something very special. We live in a time when we look back to the work of Christ, presently experience the Holy Spirit, and look forward to Christ's return. The disciples are not to fast while the bridegroom is present, but their later fasting is foretold. What does fasting mean for us? An act of remembrance or mourning, a spiritual discipline, a community witness for distinctness and solidarity with the poor, 'fasting of goodwill', a regular practice, reserved for particular occasions (at our own discretion!?)?

June 15, 2006: Mark 3

  • Mark 3 gives us several pictures of following Jesus: the crowds who scramble after His healing and whose clamor is largely responsible for Jesus's notoriety, the disciples who are described in Mark 3 as specially chosen to conduct the same basic activities as Jesus (preaching and driving out demons) but who throughout Mark oscillate between faithful association with Jesus's ministry and an obtuse failure to understand Jesus, the unfaithful disciple Judas, and Jesus's family, who appear not to follow Jesus. Where are we as twenty-first century Christians to position ourselves with respect to all of these pictures of following Jesus?
  • Jesus's healing of the man with the withered hand in the temple is a very confrontational move. Indeed, up to this point in the text we have encountered several instances of Jesus inciting those around him. But to what extent is Jesus intentionally provocative? Jesus is so fundamentally different from the world around Him that we might productively think of Him, not only as intentionally provocative, but also as causing a dramatic disruption that can't be helped: He causes eddies in the water around Him wherever He walks; dramatic things simply happen because His nature is so radically different from that of the world around Him.
  • A key Markan narrative technique is to begin one story and then insert another story before bringing the first story to a conclusion. Mark 3 presents the first instance of this technique by sandwiching the conflict over Jesus's exorcisms between the story of how Jesus's family responds to His ministry (3:20-20). This narrative technique resembles the frame story, a convention of postmodern narratives, and parallel stories, a convention of Shakespearean drama. One effect of the Markan Story Sandwich is to highlight similarities between the stories or to position one of the stories as the interpretive key to the other.
  • The Church Fathers go to great lengths in the Catena Aurea to try to show that the family construed as rejecting Jesus (3:21, 3:31-35) is not His biological family.

June 22, 2006: Mark 4

  • The Parable of the Sower. It seems as if the focus of the parable is to describe Jesus’ ministry and the ministry that awaits the disciples in the near future and about spreading the Kingdom of God rather than a description of salvation itself. Therefore when Jesus speaks of the different types of soils he is referring to the various types of receptivity that one encounters when preaching the gospel.
  • What is the purpose of parables? This question arose when we see that Jesus takes time to explain the significance of the parables to his disciples away from the general public. Why do the parables tend to be obscure and difficult for people to interpret? Could it be that Jesus wanted to induce curiosity in order for the audience to desire to re-visit the parable, to study it in depth? It is clear that for now Jesus chooses to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom of God to his disciples so that they may later on spread their knowledge to others . In time, the secrets of the Kingdom of God shall be reveled once Christ’s mission is complete after his sacrifice and resurrection.
  • The secret of the Kingdom of God. The secret is not a secret because it is hidden but because it is of divine origin requiring divine assistance through the Holy Spirit in order to fully comprehend it’s importance and significance.
  • Hurtado mentions that once again Mark brings up the question of Jesus’ identity. Is the term “Son of Man” deliberately ambiguous? Mark’s purpose is to once more provoke his reader to question who Jesus is.
  • Jesus calms the sea. His divinity is made clear to the reader in this account when the troubled disciples awaken Christ in the middle of a storm. Christ does not pray before calming the sea, to invoke external power, instead with words of authority he commands the sea to be still to the astonishment of his followers.
  • The Parable of the Growing Seed. Is Jesus the sower or is man intended to be the sower? Hurtado is inclined to believe that here the sower is meant to be man to point out our role in building up the Kingdom of God. The emphasis of the parable is to show how God is the one primarily responsible for the manifestation of his Kingdom. This should serve as encouragement for us, his disciples, in that despite of how effective or not our efforts may seem to spread the Kingdom of God, it will prosper because ultimately it is God who allows it to be fruitful.

July 6, 2006: Mark 6

  • In his Treatise On Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards argues that each and every Christian must have balance in every aspect of life: a Christian cannot just take care of the bodies of people he helps; he must also minister to their souls. But what about specialization and vocation? How do we reconcile Edwards' call to a holistic view of the person with, for example, Paul's theology of the Church as a body with different members performing different specialized tasks? Perhaps we should look for balance within Christian community and use Edwards' point to emphasize the importance of reliance on community.
  • Edwards presents a holistic model for looking at people and their needs. Edwards' argument that Christian ministry must strike a balance between physical and spiritual help exactly parallels a pattern in Mark's representation of Jesus's ministy, which links spiritual and physical needs in symbolic ways. For example, in the healing of the paralytic man (2:1-5), Jesus first forgives the paralytic and then heals the body that symbolizes the soul's imprisonment in sin.
  • Edwards argues that we shouldn't show preferential love to some but should give a "symmetrical" amount and kind of love to all: we should avoid "disproportion in the love of some, in its exercises towards different persons". He thus presents a view of love that contrasts markedly with Augustine's, who argues that if we have enough resources to help only one person, and we encounter two who need the help, we can do nothing more just than to draw straws to determine who will receive the resources. Augustine's notion of what constitutes just love relates to the idea that our primary responsibility of love is toward those with whom God has put us into immediate proximity (family, friends). Jesus's repeated trips into Gentile territory and healings of Gentiles (cf. chapters 5, 7) present an answer to the question of love posed by Edwards and Augustine.
  • According to the NIV translation of Mark, Jesus "could not do any miracles" among the Nazarenes and "was amazed at their lack of faith" (6:5-6). This passage addresses the question of what is faith by showing us what kind of faith "works". We have seen examples of poor faith so far in Mark (e.g. the crowds that follow Jesus for his notoriety). This passage suggests that right faith is asking who Jesus is, asking who is the person of Jesus Himself. The Nazarenes don't ask about Jesus's identity, but about the forces that this normal man has somehow acquired from outside himself: they ask "where did this man get these things" (6:2). We can compare the Nazarene reaction to the rejection of Jesus as working under the auspices of demons (3:22) which also fails to ask about Jesus's person and instead attributes his power to an outside force. The main thrust of the Jesus's encounter with the Nazarenes is that faith, work, and healing go together always.
  • In Mark 6:8-11 Jesus instructs his disciples to rely on the hospitality of strangers during their ministry. This method contrasts with that of Paul, who emphasizes the fact that he makes his own living so as not to be a burden to the churches he ministers to (1 Thess. 2:9). The writers of the Catena Aurea interpret Jesus's instruction in various ways. One Catena writer argues that the disciples thereby set an example for the poor: they proclaim a lifestyle of poverty in order to reconcile the poor to their condition. Another argues that they set an example for the preacher to trust totally in God to provide material goods. What does responsible reliance on God look like?

July 13, 2006: Mark 7

  • The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning Jesus's disciples higlights a conflict between traditions of men and commandments of God. Does the story give us clues for what role tradition should play in our faith? Perhaps there are criteria for good traditions. The story may be a call to respect the basics of the faith while dealing with traditions that have been piled on top of them.
  • In the discussion of what makes someone unclean Jesus notes that all evil comes from within a person. How do we reconcile this with the numerous demon stories found in Mark's gospel? Those stories have led us to see a strong connection between the physical and the spiritual aspects of Jesus's ministry; does Jesus's statement change our outlook on this?
  • The encounter with the Syrophonecian woman raises interesting questions about faith. She seems to be rewarded for her persistence, and even her rhetorical skill in arguing with Jesus. How much does she really understand the metaphor about the Jews and Gentiles that Jesus presents? Does her example of persistence lend a good example for faith?
  • The healing of the deaf mute is an interesting contrast to previous healings by Jesus. Jesus seems to use some of the 'magic' techniques that Hurtado has earlier pointed out are noticeably absent from his healings. (Hurtado points out that Mark, by translating the word 'Ephphatha' deliberately diminishes any appearance of magic in the scene.) Is this healing an example of a very intimate encounter with Jesus?

August 3, 2006: Mark 10

  • Jesus raises the bar with his statements about divorce. Is divorce ever appropriate given Jesus's statement that it is a sin? We should keep in mind that as Jesus raises the ethical bar he also is soon to provide the sacrifice necessary for dealing with sin.
  • The concern with divorce may spring in large part from a desire to protect women, those most vulnerable in marriages of the times. The following passage deals with children, the most vulnerable in society. What does it mean to be 'as a little child'? Hurtado suggests that Mark refers to the social position of children as those who are completely dependent on those around them. In the same way we are to come to God in complete dependence.
  • In the story of the rich man, how do riches inhibit his search for eternal life? Is it an undue concern with money that is the problem, or is wealth in and of itself problematical. Looking to the previous passage, perhaps wealth keeps one from coming to God in full dependence.
  • The healing story that closes the chapter is the last such story in Mark. Jesus does not comand the healed man to be silent. Is this because this miracle is closest to Jesus's work on the cross?

Summary of Alisdair MacIntyre, "The Virtues in Heroic Societies," from After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984): 19-28.

P. 19: Every culture has stories about a vanished heroic age. The Homeric poems from around the 7th century B.C. are one example. Whether such ages actually existed or not, they provide the moral background of a culture. Cultures have transcended this background, but only partially so. Therefore, it is worthwhile to examine the heroic age in order to understand our own origins.

P. 20: The values in a heroic society are predetermined by a person's place in that society. A person knows his role by her or his position in structures of kinship and household. A place in society comes with certain debts and obligations, and all members of a society have a clear understanding of what actions are required to pay off this debt. In a heroic age, a person his defined solely by these actions.

The Greek word for virtue is aretê, or "excellence." Aretê is a quality, such as speed, courage, skill, that manifests when a human _performs_ a socially required action. Therefore, virtues and courage cannot be separated from kinship and friendship. Virtues require a larger social network in order to exist.

P. 21: The fact that virtues are embedded in a social group also means that kûdos, or glory, is simply a recognition of an individual's excellence by his or her household or community. Just as virtues require a larger community to be displayed, a larger community requires virtues in order to sustain itself. For example, courage is a crucial ingredient in friendship, because we can only rely on a friend if we know that he or she is courageous. Fidelity is also a prime virtue in friendship.

P. 22: In summary, in the Heroic age, virtue is always tied to a social structure. There are no questions about morality in the abstract.

Without society, there is no morality; in the heroic age, we are only defined by our place in society. All foreigners, therefore, have the same status, that of "alien/guest".

A common theme in heroic society is that _death awaits all_. In addition, someone might display an uncontrollable outbursts of passion, or there might be accidents that no one can control. But one important social role is to scry and accept our fate.

P. 23-24: In Heroic narratives, one's character is revealed only in incident and action. There is no self-detachment in a heroic age; the heroes are unable to view their own culture from an outside perspective. Moral questions are always tied to a local and social situation. Heroes feel a social debt, but may not be able to explain or articulate it.

The _poet's_ job, by contrast, is to provide such an explanation that the heroes cannot. The poet illuminates this structure that undergirds society. Whether such a society ever actually existed remains an open question.

P. 25: The Heroic age might serve as a reminder that we can only possess virtues if they are part of some tradition. The modern viewpoint of virtue, in which our moral values come through our free choice, would be utterly incomprehensible in a heroic society.

Death in the Homeric age is an unmixed evil. Burial rites, which frequently play a significant role in epics, allow a community to restore their integrity after the death of what was part of the community. The slave, in Heroic societies, is merely one step from death.

P. 26: At the same time, however, death is the end that awaits all heroes. It is the job of a poet to see the broader end that the heroes cannot. The poet sees that winning can be a form of losing (as when Achilles makes peace with Priam and returns Hector's body), and that losing can be a form of winning (as when Gisli and his companions defend themselves from bounty hunters).

P. 27-28: At a deeper level, to be virtuous is to pay one's debt to death. Nietszhe viewed the heroic age as one of bare self-assertion and the rule of the strongest. MacIntyre argues that Nietszhe was mistaken. The heroic age was one of an assertion of a social role, not a self, and as it is part of our past, it still informs our concept of morality.