Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Testament Wisdom

Should we consider the sayings and the parables of Jesus in the gospels as the Wisdom Literature of the New Testament? How are those two categories different?

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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Cultural Mandate

Lately I've been thinking a fair amount about what is referred to as the "Cultural Mandate" in scripture. Nancy Pearcey summarizes it well in her book Total Truth. She writes,

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." The first phrase, "be fruitful and multiply" means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, "subdue the earth," means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations-nothing less.

On this view, which is commonly tied to covenant theology, the Cultural Mandate given to Adam and Eve before the Fall applies in the same way to us today and becomes our motivation for honoring God through work in all disciplines and areas of life. The gospel then is more than simply personal salvation. Justification and redemption from sin is the important entry point for humans into new life and kingdom work, which seeks to bring redemption to bear on every aspect of creation.

This view clashes with a large segment of contemporary evangelical thought, especially of the dispensational variety, which rejects the existence of a Cultural Mandate (at least as applying to the church), and instead views evangelism and personal holiness as the only tasks of real value in this life. Our only goal on earth, according to this understanding, is to save as many people as possible and pursue holiness until Christ returns, when he (in the views of many evangelical Christians) destroys the old world and creates a new one. Any attempt at "culture building" or realizing the redemption of creation is ultimately futile because nothing will last except souls.*

In some ways, the two aren't so different. Adherents of both views should pursue evangelism, and even those who reject the Cultural Mandate often say that Christians can enjoy the created world, work, and pursue cultural activity, so long as it never overshadows the real work of evangelism. Still, the difference is extremely important. If the covenantal view is correct, then by focusing only on evangelism, Christians are ignoring a very large part of their responsibilities on earth. If the dispensational view is correct, Christians who pursue a cultural mandate are wasting their time with things that ultimately won't matter in eternity and distracting themselves from the real responsibility of evangelism and discipleship. Clearly, then, there's a lot at stake in how we see our responsibilities.

I've been thinking about both views in light of scriptural references to the last days, specifically Romans 8 and 2 Peter 3. At first glance, the passages seem to contradict one another. Romans 8 stresses the continuity between old creation and new creation, stating that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (v. 21). This seems to fit well with covenantal view that God will bring redemption to existing creation. 2 Peter 3, on the other hand, stresses discontinuity between old and new creation, saying that "the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved" (v. 10). So the question is, while God destroy or renew creation on the day of judgment. The question is an important one because a renewal or restoration of creation fits better with the Cultural Mandate, while the ultimate destruction of creation and all of culture seems to make the Cultural Mandate senseless. A few thoughts on interpreting these passages:
  • I think Romans 8 should control our reading of 2 Peter 3. Verse 23 of Romans 8 makes it clear that we as humans receive the "redemption of our bodies" as a forerunner of the redemption of all creation. When God redeems us, he does not annihilate his original creation, but purifies it of sin and the effects of the fall. Our resurrection bodies will be different, but still maintain continuity with our present bodies (as did Jesus's). The same is true, I think, of the larger creation.
  • 2 Peter 3 is written in response to those who deny the second coming and any change in creation. Therefore, Peter is rightly stressing one side of the Day of the Lord: judgment by God and radical discontinuity with the fallen-ness of creation upon his return. This fits with OT imagery of the Day of the Lord being a violent one of judgment and purgation.
  • Peter compares this final judgment by fire with Noah's flood. The flood, while creating discontinuity, did not destroy the original creation, but merely changed much of it. I think this gives us a reason to see the final judgment with fire in the same way.
If you haven't guessed by now, I stand pretty firmly in support of the Cultural Mandate. Based on my covenant understanding of scripture, I see no reason why the command to cultivate a culture glorifying to God would not apply to Christians in the 21st century. Rather, I see the church as renewed people taking part in the "birth pains" of this new creation that will be fully and finally achieved upon Christ's return. In addition, the Cultural Mandate simply presents a fuller, more coherent view of redemptive history. God's original creation was good and we still celebrate that goodness because it glorifies God, while working toward and longing for the day when all of creation will be set free from the effects of the Fall.

The danger for me, however, is to use the Cultural Mandate as an excuse to ignore evangelism or discipleship, pursuing the cultivation of historiography or the arts at the expense of seeking to bring salvation and sanctification to lost people. While different Christians have different tasks to accomplish, we are all still called to evangelism, discipleship, and personal holiness. The most God-exalting vision places both the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission in a wonderful balance, seeking to build a God-glorifying culture populated by an ever-growing number of renewed humans, eagerly awaiting Christ's return.

*I call this is the "fire escape mentality." The world is burning up, going under, and our only task to get as many people as possible out of it onto the "fire escape" (personal salvation).

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alabamian Delicacies

This is about five miles from my apartment. Are they targeting 6-year-olds?

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Wonderful Week

I have a very exciting week coming up. First, I picked up my good friend Dan, who goes to seminary at Gordon-Conwell, from the airport at Atlanta yesterday. He's staying with me until Wednesday. He partly came to visit me and to see my seminary, but his main justification is that...

Second, Beeson Divinity School is hosting their annual preaching conference. Our speaker will be Cleophus LaRue, the associate professor of preaching at Princeton (apparently they have an amazing preaching department there, even if their theology and biblical studies departments aren't exactly producing lots of good things to preach).

Then, on Friday I fly out to Chicago to visit my girlfriend. It should be an amazing time--I'm finally going to get to see Moody Bible Institute, where she goes to school, not to mention getting to see her for the first time in a month and a half.

It should be a very good week.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

A Very Quick Post Without Pictures or Anything Interesting

I decided it's better to write a short, lame post than never post. I think I've been feeling that I need some really nice post (with pictures!) telling everything that's been going on in my life in order to be worthy to post. And I'm not sure when that will happen. So for now, a bullet list:
  • Switzerland: I was there for about five days, visiting relatives who live in Basel, who took me skiing in the Alps for a day. Before anyone gets too jealous, the snow was really bad and it didn't come close to the skiing I did in Vail with Bethany's family last spring. I spent the rest of the time exploring Basel and the surrounding area. One highlight (to show how much of a nerd I am): Erasmus's grave.
  • Hamburg: I visited Hamburg this Tuesday solely to see The Decemberists perform live. They didn't disappoint too much, although they were much more entertaining when we saw them last year at Sokol. In addition to the show, I was able wander around Hamburg and spend a restless night sharing a room with two random, snoring middle-aged men in the "youth" hostel there.
  • Birthday: I'm now 23. The highlight of my birthday was a birthday present in the mail from Bethany. Aww :)
  • Moving?: Another birthday present was an email telling me that my contract in the Wohnheim has come to an end, probably isn't renewable, and I need to move out in 13 days. That came as a total surprise, and apparently I need to read my contracts better in the future. And learn German first in order to do so. I hope to find out Sunday whether I can stay here or not.
  • Academics: I finished up classes, getting my Scheine (papers proving I passed the classes), and am now trying to track down some archival material of Friedrich August Tholuck, related to my thesis on Charles Hodge's years in Germany. I'm also trying to finish up a scholarship application for grad school, while waiting to hear back on the status of my applications to grad schools. I've been accepted to Madison (my second choice), so I'm waiting to here back on the other three.
  • Bethany: She'll be here in three weeks! We've been planning our travels around Europe and counting down the days.
  • Reading: Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden, Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
  • Listening: The Tigers Have Spoken by Neko Case, Gulag Orkestar and Lon Gisland EP by Beirut


Thursday, February 15, 2007

An Extremely Perceptive Baptist

I am writing a paper for my church history class that will contrast sacramental theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith and one of the Baptist confessions--probably the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925. In my research, I just came across an excellent essay by G. Todd Wilson called "Why Baptists Should Not Rebaptize Christians from Other Denominations." As you read this, remember that, when he speaks about baptism's "biblical intent," he is writing in the belief that the New Testament teaches that new believers should be baptized as a symbol of joining the faith community of the church:
If we opt for that alternative [i.e., rebaptism], however, we are put in the uncomfortable position of insisting that while baptism is not essential for salvation, it is essential for membership in a Baptist church. We must also take this view in the realization that we are giving baptism a different meaning from its biblical intent, and this weakens our appeal to the authority of the Bible for our faith and practice. Furthermore, if we change the meaning of baptism, can we really insist that others are not free to do the same, even if they choose to baptize infants? (44)
It does seem that Baptists cannot logically say that both of the following are true: (1) biblical baptism is only the kind of baptism that is administered as a sign of entry into the community of faith; and (2) those who were (unbiblically) baptized as infants, but have been members of the community of faith for years, must be rebaptized before becoming members of a Baptist church. Wilson makes an excellent point that the rebaptism of (2) is not the "biblical" baptism of (1), nor can it be, by definition.

I wonder if this argument would have made any different in John Piper's recently failed attempt to admit certain infant-batized Christians to membership in his Baptist church (see here and here).

Here is the second quotation, which, I think, stands alone:

In this same regard it is interesting to compare our practice of baptism with our emphasis in the Lord's Supper. In baptism we have focused upon the form and letter, but in the Lord's Supper our concern is with the spirit and substance. We have held firm on the mode of immersion, but we have ignored the "one cup" and "one loaf" so vitally significant to the meaning of the Lord's Supper in the biblical account, not to mention that we also substitute grape juice for wine. Our rigidity in baptism is so different from our freedom regarding the Supper, and this marked inconsistency deserves attention. The integrity of our Christian symbols is at stake. (45)
I would encourage believer-baptists and infant-baptists alike to read the entire article, if possible. Here is the bibliographic information:

Wilson, G. Todd., “Why Baptists Should Not Rebaptize Christians from Other Denominations.” In Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Baptism and the Lord's Supper, edited by Walter B. Shurden, 41-47. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1999.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

True Story

When I was in elementary school, I was involved in AWANA, which is something like an Arminian, Dispensationalist, Christian version of the Boy Scouts. Every year, we had a handbook that we tried to work through, and we earned patches and awards and stuff for memorizing Bible verses and completing projects out of that handbook.

One year, I finished my handbook a little early, and, to be productive, I opted to take written tests over what I had learned that year. One of the questions was a multiple choice that said, "Christ died for _________." After some long thought, I marked "those who put their faith in him." Instead, the answer was supposed to be "the whole world."

When I talked to my AWANA leader about it, I explained, "Well, it only works for those who believe," but she didn't budge. Interestingly, I never really heard about Calvinism until I was a senior in high school, and I didn't come to accept the doctrine of Limited Atonement until late in my junior year of college, but only after I believed in the other four points of Calvinism.

Funny what kids learn by memorizing Bible verses.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Science and Scripture

The New York Times had a fascinating article on its front page today:
KINGSTON, R.I. — There is nothing much unusual about the 197-page dissertation Marcus R. Ross submitted in December to complete his doctoral degree in geosciences here at the University of Rhode Island.

His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

But Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

He likened his situation to that of a socialist studying economics in a department with a supply-side bent. “People hold all sorts of opinions different from the department in which they graduate,” he said. “What’s that to anybody else?”
And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

Read the rest of the article here. It's a new wrinkle (or a wrinkle of which I have been unaware) in the creation vs. evolution debate.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Household Baptisms

If you read this blog often, of if you know me (actually, I suppose that the only people who read this blog are those who know me), you know that I have only recently come to believe that God intends for Christians to baptize their infants. Before November 15, the date of my "conversion" on this matter, I was a committed Baptist for about a year. Before that, I wrestled with the arguments for and against infant baptism over the course of another year.

During the two years when I was agnostic on this, and then when I was a Baptist, I largely dismissed the relevancy of the household baptism accounts that we read in the book of Acts. Essentially, I considered that both sides were arguing from silence, because I processed the debate in terms of whether infants were actually present or not. So, I assumed that the paedobaptists were arguing, "Surely there must have been an infant at one of those household baptisms!" And, of course, there is no Bible verse that says, "And then they baptized all of so-and-so's household, which, by the way, included one infant." Because this is an argument from silence (which Baptists are quick to point out), I felt that the evidence from household baptisms was irrelevant at worst and inconclusive at best.

Only after I became a paedobaptist (which happened for different theological reasons) did I come to the realization that I had completely misunderstood the terms of the debate--in fact, I was shocked to find out that I had been dealing with a credobaptist caricature of the paedobaptist arguments from household baptisms. My error was that I did not understand that paedobaptists were arguing from the definition of the word "household."

When Luke wrote the book of Acts, he didn't just pick a word out at random to describe how the early church administered the sacrament of baptism. "Household" is a word with a long history among God's people. Specifically, God had told Abraham to circumcise all those who were born in his "house." Even in the New Testament, there is every reason to believe that one's "household" included that person's children (see 1 Tim. 3:4-5).

If Luke had intended to speak of baptism in a way to exclude the infants of believers, wouldn't it be counterproductive to use the word "household" in reference to those who were baptized? How could that not have caused incredible misunderstanding in the early church, since the natural understanding of "household baptism" would mean baptizing one's infants, since "household circumcision" had always meant circumcising one's infants?

More pertinently, why don't we read anything about such a misunderstanding--and about the apostles' correction of this misunderstanding!--in the book of Acts or in early church history documents?

Even if I don't completely understand the theology behind infant baptism (I'm still working through a lot of issues), I think that the mention of household baptisms in the book of Acts is the "smoking gun" that puts the weight of evidence largely on the side of paedobaptism. Far from being irrelevant or inconclusive, the accounts of household baptisms have become one of the biggest factors in my being a Presbyterian.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Modern Apostles

For whatever reason, I have always been disinclined to consider anyone living today as an "apostle" in the biblical sense. I suppose my main concern lies in the Catholic idea that every pope has apostolic authority, equal to Jesus' twelve disciples (minus Judas, plus Matthias), Paul, and Barnabas (see Acts 14:14). Instead, as a traditional Protestant (unless, of course, I have always misunderstood what it would mean to be a "traditional Protestant"), I have always understood the things in the Bible relating to the apostles--especially the "apostles' teaching" of Acts 2:42--as being specifically related to the apostles who lived in the first century. In other words, I have believed that no one has been an apostle since those fourteen apostles died out.

I am currently rethinking that understanding based on Ephesians 4:11-16, where Paul lists four offices that Jesus gave to the church "to equip the saints for the work of ministry...": apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. Of course, few have any problem considering evangelists and pastor-teachers as legitimate offices in the church today, but what about the prophets and the apostles?

Most Protestants (especially the Puritans and their descendants) would say that anyone who proclaims the word of the Lord--that is, anyone who preaches the Scriptures--should be considered a modern prophet. This doesn't mean that preachers are getting new revelations from God (as did Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc...), but that the office of the prophet is now taken up by proclaiming the message of God's word given to his Church in the Bible. Christians of a more Charismatic bent might argue for an understanding of prophecy that includes personal revelations from God (i.e., revelations for individuals or for a single church, but not for the entire Church of Jesus Christ), but I don't think that such an understanding of "prophecy" is necessary for thinking that God still gives his church "prophets."

So what about apostles? My recent thinking has followed an analogous path to my understanding of prophets and prophecy: although there are not any apostles with the same level of authority that Paul or Barnabas or the Twelve had, we might still consider those who stand in the tradition of the earliest apostles to be modern apostles. So, we can possibly consider missionaries and church planters--those whom God gives the spiritual authority to begin a church--as apostles, even if we deny that they have authority over the entire Church in the way that the earliest apostles had that kind of authority.

Modern prophets, then, do not stand upon their own authority to proclaim new messages from God, but rather, they stand upon the authority of the original prophets and proclaim the (old) messages that God gave those prophets. Similarly, modern apostles would not be sent out ("apostle" means "someone sent forth/out") to lay the foundation for a radically new work of God, but would stand in the authority of the first apostles and continue their work.

This, I think, gives us (or at least me) a good understanding of the offices of the church in a way that draws a clear distinction between modern apostles and the original apostles, but that also makes what Scripture teaches about apostleship relevant to Christians living today.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

There's a First Time for Everything

This morning at 5:56 a.m., I heard what sounded like a gunshot outside my window. I told myself that it was probably a car back-firing or something (at 5:58, I heard a car drive away), and I didn't see anything when I looked outside, but I had a nagging concern what I heard might have been something really bad. So, after deliberating about five minutes about whether I was being stupid, I went ahead and called 911 to report what I had heard.

My cell phone background turned a color I had never seen before (pink), and the words "Emergency Call" flashed across the LCD screen. After a brief conference with the 911 operator (which brought back many a memory from watching "Rescue 911" during my childhood), he assured me that they would send a police officer to make sure that everything was okay. I don't think I was ever scared, but I did have an odd sort of adrenaline rush during the whole thing.

Who knew Alabama would be so exciting?

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Wisdom of Christianity

This morning, I visited Briarwood Presbyterian Church, the founding church of the PCA denomination. It was a bit too big for my taste, but it was a wonderful church. I was privileged to see the sign of the New Covenant given to three more covenant infants, and, for the first time in my life, I sang the Gloria Patri (I'm 22 years old--how sad is it that I've never sung that before now?).

The sermon was on Psalm 1:4: "The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away." Of course, the pastor preached that verse in the context of the entire psalm. He mainly emphasized, though, the utter foolishness of living a life that amounts to being the chaff that will be blown away and burned.

I thought the sermon was a wonderful example of what I urged in my last post, because he did not merely preach that Christianity is correct (though it certainly is that), but that it is wise. Those who delight in the law of the LORD are firmly planted like trees by a river, whose leaves and fruit are constantly in season, prospering in all they do. With the five short words "The wicked are not so" (three words in the Hebrew) the psalmist declares that the wicked will never know the joy and abundance and prosperity of the righteousness; rather, the wicked will be worthless, fruitless, desolate, and blown away.

The pastor did not appeal to pithy apologetics, nor did he attempt to lay out an elaborate, precisely accurate theological explanation for what he was saying. He simply commended the utter wisdom of living a life according to the fear of the LORD, meditating constantly on the law (the Hebrew word "torah" = instruction) of the LORD. Then, he exposed the depraved foolishness of living a life of seeking the council of the wicked, of standing in the way of sinners, and of sitting among scoffers. One way of living leads to a truly abundant and prosperous life; the other leads to worthlessness and death.

Please do not misunderstand me--apologetics and theology have their place, and a very important place at that. Their place, though, should propel us to live wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD, delighting fully in the instruction for living that God gives us. Unless the intellectual aspect of our studies pushes us into virtuous, wise living, it is worthless.

My point is not that we should quit studying, but that we should be ever aware of God's goal for our studying: wise, fruitful, and prosperous living. What we study should convince us further of our great need for Jesus Christ and make it all the easier for us to entrust our lives to him more completely.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Wisdom Literature

This summer, I read the book Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present by Gerald Bray (incidentally, Dr. Bray was my professor this January for my Puritan Spirituality class). This line, more than any other in the book, has had me thinking since I read it:
The modern tendency to regard Proverbs as a collection of useful but rather boring advice, Ecclesiastes as the work of a jaded humanist and the Song of Songs as a piece of erotica shows how little the Wisdom tradition is understood or appreciated nowadays, in sharp contrast to earlier times, when these three books were regarded as among the choicest in the whole Scripture. Literal interpretation has removed these books from everyday church use, and they have almost ceased to be a part of the canon for all practical purposes. (p. 160)
So, what should we make of the Wisdom Literature that God gave to his people?

As I have been thinking about this, I have been wondering if we Christians are too interested in a narrow conception of "truth." When modernism rolled onto the scene, claiming scientific ability to get to the bottom of every mystery in the universe, its first task was to rid the world of "superstitious" things like Christianity. So, we Christians responded in kind: we began to direct much research toward rationalistic fields such as textual criticism (trying to get the Hebrew and Greek texts as close to the originals as possible), archaeology (trying to get definitive proof that biblical events happened in just the way that biblical writers portrayed them), and apologetics (trying to use logic and reason to demonstrate the truth of Christianity, essentially beating the scientific naturalists at their own game).

Now, these things are all good in themselves, and we have made tremendous advances in these fields. The problem, though, is that Christianity now tends toward being an intellectual, scientific philosophy rather than being a life built upon the fear of the Lord through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, when we evangelize, we often (consciously or unconsciously) try merely to persuade people of a certain number of facts about God and about Jesus. When we make disciples out of our converts, we generally try to stuff them with Christian information.

Of course, I would be a fool if I said that I were the first to point this out. Many have become so disillusioned with this intellectual-only approach to Christianity that they have rejected the intellectual part altogether and insisted that Christianity is totally about "relationships," both with God and with other people--these are the postmoderns and the emergents. In response, some Christians have reacted by an even greater emphasis on biblical exegesis, theology, and teaching-heavy preaching. I find myself in the latter category.

But what of wisdom? In my Old Testament Survey textbook, in the section on the book of Job, John Walton writes:

An interesting contrast of focus can also be seen in modern lists of God's attributes. They often emphasize omniscience (knowing everything) instead of infinite wisdom. They tend to focus on omnipotence (being all-powerful) perhaps at the expense of sovereignty (control and maintenance). (p. 338-39)
I wonder if both intellectual, modernistic Christians as well as relational, postmodern Christians need to grow in their understanding of God's wisdom. Instead of trying to evangelize and disciple so that people merely give their intellectual assent to Christian theology, or instead of trying to reduce Christianity to its lowest common denominator, we Christians should give a renewed emphasis to our study and interpretation of Wisdom Literature.

I am becoming increasingly persuaded that one of our biggest needs as a Church is to seek Jesus Christ in order to gain wisdom rather than facts, virtue instead of narrow dogmatism, and the fear of the Lord instead of flawless theology. This doesn't devalue truth, but rather heightens its value because it puts truth in its right context. Furthermore, this doesn't devalue relationships, but finally gives us a framework within which we might understand what exactly our relationships should look like.

So, instead of doing yet another scientific study of the book of Romans or a fuzzy reflection on Jesus' friendships in the gospels, let's read and study and pray through Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. We might not only discover why the early Church and the Old Testament Hebrews were so enamored with these books, but we also might come to know God in ways in which we find ourselves desperately lacking.

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