Thursday, October 29, 2015

Bible Odyssey: Parable of the Sower

The Parable of the Sower (St. James the Less Church, London)


The Society of Biblical Literature has an excellent "public scholarship" website, and I am happy to report that it just posted a page on the parable of the Sower that I contributed to the project.

The short essay hits a few major points about the parable as it is found in Mark 4:1-20, but it also includes some reception history elements, such as a note about John Chrysostom's interpretation of the parable.

The post also includes some of my pictures, such as the sculpture of the Sower parable from the St. James the Less church in London that I talk about in four blog posts last year: one, two, three, and four.

I am extremely grateful to the Managing Editor of Bible Odyssey, Moira Bucciarelli. Developing essays for Bible Odyssey is much more complicated than it appears, and she shepherded the piece from the beginning to the end, including peer reviews, copy edits, and so forth, even doing things that others may overlook (e.g., creating the links to explain words, send readers to primary texts, etc.--and others whose names I don't know also assisted in the project). She did a masterful job, and it was a pleasure to work with her.

Even if you don't go to my essay, the Bible Odyssey website is well worth a look; it is an important resource. Also recently posted, for example, is a piece entitled, "What is Reception History" by Brennan Breed.

Go take a look at the SBL's Bible Odyssey web site.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Up next: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Parables

The Class of '65

My Introduction to Religion class is reading the collection of sermons and speeches by Dr. King in the book, I have a Dream. In that light, I think I will begin a few posts about Dr. King's use of the parables in his sermons and speeches. 

On a related topic: This week Oxford College's Chaplain, Lyn Pace, brought to campus Jim Auchmutey, the author of The Class of '65, and Greg Wittkamper, the main subject of the book. Greg lived at Koinonia Farm during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his story of civil rights, persecution, and ultimate reconciliation with some of those who persecuted him is a powerful one. I recommend the book, and you can read about their visit to Oxford College here.

You can read about Koinonia Farm here.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Update and trivia

Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that the book project has been way over the word limit for a long time and that I have been working since early summer (going through the manuscript several times) to get the manuscript closer to the appropriate word count. Getting each of the five main chapters at or under 20,000 words has been the main goal.

While on my writing retreat in Chicago, I was able to get both chapters 1 and 2 to ~19,700 words. 

Today I am pleased to report that I have revised chapter 3 again and that it is now ~19,400 words. 

Now on to chapter 4, which currently is 20,438 (chapter 5, though, is still close to 23,000).

Also, some trivia: Today I checked to see from which countries the most visits to this blog come. Here is the top seven (all time) since I began the blog in December 2013:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Ukraine
  4. France
  5. Russia
  6. China
  7. Germany
Canada just missed the cut, with Poland sneaking up as well.




Friday, October 23, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 5): The Debate with John Cotton (conclusion)

Roger Williams

In addition to his arguments using the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Williams cites the parable of the Sower, just previous to this parable. That parable includes four varieties of ground upon which the true messengers of Jesus sow their message of the kingdom. He argues that the four types of ground (symbolizing various “hearts of men”) also represent people in the entire world, not just inside the church. The good soil represents people in the church, and the

proper work of the church concerns the flourishing and prosperity of this sort of ground, and not the other unconverted three sorts; who, it may be, seldom or never come near the church, unless they be forced by civil sword, which the pattern of the first sower never used (Chapter 22).

Thus the parable of the Sower similarly demonstrates that Jesus commands the church to tolerate unbelievers and not to use coercion against them. This toleration does not mean approval or acceptance of their errors, however:

The Lord Jesus, therefore, gives direction concerning these tares, that unto the end of the world, successively in all the sorts and generations of them, they must be (not approved or countenanced, but) let alone, or permitted in the world (Chapter 22).

Offenders against “the civil state and common welfare” certainly should be punished by the state (Williams includes adultery with offences “against the civil state”: “robbery, murder, adultery, oppression, sedition, and mutiny”), but Jesus’ command, “Let them alone,” means that ministers of the gospel should have no civil power or authority, and civil authorities should not be permitted to punish religious dissenters or offenders (Chapter 27).

Yet, Williams argues, the church should not be passive against these tares, such as the ones who “with perverse and evil doctrines labor spiritually to devour the flock, and to draw away disciples after them” (Chapter 19). Williams agrees that their “mouths must be stopped” but stipulates that, as Jesus taught, “no carnal force and weapon to be used against them; but their mischief to be resisted with those might weapons of the holy armory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Until Jesus returns at the end times, all such (evil) people must be tolerated, as Jesus commands: “Let them alone until the harvest.”

Williams’s treatment of the Society of Friends (Quakers) demonstrates his commitment to religious liberty. Although he emphatically denounces them (e.g., his last published work, the 1676 George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes), Williams adamantly rejected requests to help “stamp out” this new religious movement. Unlike neighboring Massachusetts or Connecticut, Williams permitted no Quaker to be fined, whipped, disfigured, burned, hanged, or otherwise punished by the government in Rhode Island (Gaustad 2005: 60, 107-108).


The implications are dramatic and shocking to Puritans like Cotton: there are no “holy commonwealths” like Puritans in Massachusetts sought to create; there are only “holy churches.” Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares actually undermines the Puritan use of Scripture to create a godly society or “New Israel” (Byrd 2002: 113). Against the commonly held view that a state-sponsored church is necessary to promote an orderly society, Williams proclaims that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state are necessary to promote order, peace, and a just society: “obedience to the command of Christ to let the tares alone will prove the only means to preserve their civil peace, and that without obedience to this command of Christ, it is impossible . . . to preserve the civil peace (Chapter 26). Christians should not promote or support or even acquiesce to religious persecution; they should instead speak fervently and prophetically against all such religious coercion.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 4): The Debate with John Cotton (cont.)

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution . . . .


Williams responds to Cotton’s argument that tares are so similar to wheat in appearance that they must designate hypocrites within the church by examining the Greek text of the parable. The word for tare (zizania) designates all sorts of weeds, so the term signifies people who are “manifestly different from, and opposite to, the true worshippers of God.” In addition, in the parable, the servants easily recognize the difference between the wheat and the tares very early in their development (Chapter 20), and Williams later insinuates that Cotton, ensconced in his “soft and rich saddle” of the city life in Boston, may not be the best judge of agricultural practices (Williams 1963: 304).

The church, Williams argues, is a beautiful garden within the sinful world but distinguishable from it. The garden of the church should remain pure with its righteous wheat, but the field of the world in which it finds itself includes sinful tares. The parable demonstrates that Christian rulers and ministers should not confuse the garden of the church with the field of the world. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to be identified as a Christian, began this horrible confusion within the history of Christendom with terrible results:

Doubtless these holy men, emperors and bishops, intended and aimed right to exalt Christ; but not attending to the command of Christ Jesus, to permit the tares to grow in the field of the world, they made the garden of the church and the field of the world to be all one; and might not only sometimes, in their zealous mistakes, persecute good wheat instead of tares, but also pluck up thousands of those precious stalks by commotions and combustions about religion . . . wrought by such wars . . . (Chapter 64).

Jesus uses the field to symbolize the entire world, not just the church, because the world is an extremely wicked place. The problem is that as soon as:

the Lord Jesus had sown the good seed, the children of the kingdom, true Christianity, or the true church, the enemy, Satan, presently, in the night of security, ignorance, and error, while men slept, sowed also the tares which are anti-Christians, or false Christians.

People like Cotton incorrectly desire to call down fiery judgments upon these people:

and to pluck them by the roots out of the world. But the Son of man, the meek Lamb of God—for the elect’s sake which must be gathered out of Jew and Gentile, pagan, anti-Christian—commands a permission of them in the world until the time of the end of the world, when the goats and sheep, the tares and wheat, shall be eternally separated from each other” (Chapter 21).

In the next post, I will discuss how Williams connects the parable of the Sower to this argument.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 3): The Debate with John Cotton


John Cotton

Williams’s theological and scriptural arguments for liberty of conscience are most evident in his ongoing debate with John Cotton, the eminent Puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When one of Cotton’s letters to Williams was published without authorization while Williams was in London, Williams published a line-by-line refutation of that letter: Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered. When Cotton angrily wrote in reply, Williams then more fully responded in The Bloudy [Bloody] Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Cotton responded with his The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and made white in the Bloud of the Lambe (1647), to which Williams responded with his The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652).

The parable of the Wheat and Tares plays a major role in their debates, because Williams believes this parable is central to Jesus’ advocacy of religious liberty. He also argues that it had been tragically misinterpreted over the centuries to justify the persecution of those believed to be heretics (Byrd 2002: 88), a misapplication which resulted in the “spilling of the blood of thousands” (Williams 2001: 55). 

Cotton argues that the field in the parable symbolizes the church. The wheat designates faithful Christians, the servants represent God’s ministers, and the tares, since they look so much like wheat, symbolize hypocrites within the church. Therefore, those tares should not be “rooted out”; Jesus commands toleration, since just as tares look similar to wheat so do these people look similar to faithful Christians. On the other hand, sinners and heretics are stubborn, prideful people who, even though they know better, rebel on purpose. They are easily discerned from Christians; Cotton compares them to “briars and thorns.” If these sinners are warned, given opportunities to repent, and still refuse to change their ways, they should be punished, either by the church by censure or excommunication or, if they corrupt others, then by the “Civil Sword” of the state (Byrd 2002: 106). Otherwise, these sinners would expose others in society to “a dangerous and damnable infection” (Williams 2001: xxxi). 


Williams responds that any such persecution is a perversion of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus clearly says that the field represents the world (Matt. 13:38), not the church, and the tares symbolize all sorts of dissenters, separatists, heretics, and even non-believers in society, not Cotton’s hypocritical sinners within the church. The wheat plants are “children of the kingdom” who must co-exist in society with the followers of Satan until the end of the world. The servants denote messengers or ministers of the church, and the crucial point is that Jesus’s parable commands Christians to advocate religious liberty and oppose any coercive policies of the state concerning religion, even when it concerns “heretics and pagans” (Byrd 2002: 117). Jesus warns against civil persecution of those deemed as heretics, because it is impossible in this fallen world always to distinguish between God’s people and those opposed to God. The “weeds” will be collected when Jesus returns, and then they will receive the punishment they deserve at the hands of God, not by human beings. Like Jesus commands, it is better to allow the wheat and tares to coexist in the world until he returns than to risk the damage that uprooting the sinful ones would do.

The analysis of this dialogue/debate will be continued in the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Writing Retreat at The Chicago Cenacle

The Courtyard at The Chicago Cenacle

I just returned from a brief writing retreat at The Chicago Cenacle Retreat & Conference Center. My private retreat was a chance to work in almost complete solitude to begin to finalize the book manuscript. 

I am grateful to Sister Judith for facilitating my stay; it was fantastic. I accomplished all my editing goals while there: Focusing on the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2. Chapters 1 and 2 are now both under 20,000 words, which qualifies as a minor miracle, I suppose--facilitated by the helpful suggestions of my editor, Bryan Dyer.

I was able to work in solitude from morning to night in the Cenacle Center (it was even warm enough to do some work in the courtyard, pictured above), as well is in nearby coffee shops (I highly recommend the coffee shop of the Bourgeois Pig Cafe), on a bench overlooking Lake Michigan, and on a bench in the Palm House of the Lincoln Park Conservatory (all within ten-minute walks of the Center). The change in settings helped keep me focused on the manuscript.

I highly recommend the Center to anyone looking for a place to do a retreat; it was a place of solitude and peace in the midst of a large, busy city. Plus it is in a fantastic location.

The downside is that I could not spare the time (or money) to go to Wrigley Field to catch one of the Cardinals/Cubs playoff games. Plus my team lost; so now I'll be rooting for the Cubs.

Back to Roger Williams and the parables tomorrow. 

P.S. I forgot to add a word of thanks to my sister, Rev. Nancy Gowler Johnson, and to my brother-in-law, Father Jerry Stookey, for recommending The Chicago Cenacle to me.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 2)

Roger Williams


Just kidding. I meant this one:



The "real" Roger Williams

Emory University's fall break starts later today. We only have Monday and Tuesday off next week, but that will give me time to finish some things on the weekend and focus completely Monday and Tuesday on the final (I hope) edits of the book. I am grateful to Bryan Dyer, my new editor at Baker Academic, for his helpful feedback. 

Since I will be focusing exclusively on the book early next week, I probably won't continue this series on Roger Williams until Wednesday or so.

Back to Roger Williams:


Williams was born in England around 1603. After serving as an apprentice to the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke, Williams earned a scholarship to Cambridge University, studied to become a minister, and then served as chaplain on the estate of William Masham from 1628-1630. Pressures to conform to the Church of England increased after Charles I ascended to the throne in 1625, and Williams almost left with the Massachusetts Bay colonists to immigrate to North America in spring 1930 (Chupak 1969: 39). Williams and his wife did leave for the colony on December 10 of that same year on a ship that brought supplies and reinforcements (Davis 2004: 6).

The governor of the Bay Colony, John Winthrop, welcomed Williams’s arrival, calling him “a godly minister,” but things soon changed. When Williams was offered the prestigious position of teacher in the Boston church, he refused, because the church had not separated from the Church of England (by that time Williams advocated separation from the Church of England, not merely the reforms for which non-separatist Puritans advocated, including the Pilgrims in North America; see Gaustad 2005: 3-4). A number of other controversies followed and, in 1635, Williams was ordered to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams made his way south, bought some land from Narragansett Indians, and founded a settlement that he named Providence, which a few years later, along with other nearby settlements, was chartered as Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations. Notably, the charter issued by Charles II in 1663 decreed that the colony would have “full liberty in religious concernments” (Gaustad 2005:70). Rhode Island thus became a refuge for all types of dissenters—believers and non-believers.

Many Puritans in New England envisioned themselves as a “New Israel” and interpreted some Hebrew Bible texts about ancient Israel as applying typologically to them (Gordis 2003: 125), including the idea that God would bless or punish the “New Israel” for obedience or disobedience to God’s will. Church and state were thus interdependent, and the state was responsible, for example, for compelling, by force if necessary, conformance to religious obligations.


Williams disagreed strongly with identifying anything but the church with a “New Israel” and argued that the church should utilize only spiritual weapons (e.g., Scripture, prayer, and persuasion) not physical ones (e.g., a sword). Ancient Israel and its “National Religion” was a unique phenomenon in history, Williams declared, with Jesus proclaiming a different way: Jesus refused to use violence and the new covenant he inaugurated means that neither the state nor the church could use violence or religious coercion (Williams 2008: 29).


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