April 15, 2014

Rediscovering Wesley: The John Wesley Collection from @OfficialSeedbed #UMC

I was excited to see this post from Seedbed.com  this morning announcing a new project called The John Wesley Collection. The plan is to take key works of Wesley (and others that Wesley curated and published) and republish them with modern typesetting and attractive cover art in order to make the writings of the Methodist founder more easily accessible to a new generation. Here's a little more from the official announcement: 
John Wesley’s profound legacy and impact on world Christianity during and since his lifetime can be viewed through a number of lenses. The revival that arose under his leadership changed the social and political structure of eighteenth-century England as the poor and lost found hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than in revolution against the crown. The influence of Wesley’s Spirit-inspired teaching continued unabated as the Methodist movement spread scriptural holiness across the American continent and lands far beyond.
The writings represented in The John Wesley Collection resourced the early Methodists in their quest to spread the gospel by providing the intellectual and spiritual moorings for the messengers of the movement. Seedbed believes these writings are as relevant to our context today as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Consequently, we consider it a sacred calling to join with those who are recapturing John Wesley’s publishing vision for the twenty-first century.
You can find out more by reading the rest of the post at Seedbed, and be sure to take a look at this video that introduces the project. Here's a list of titles you can expect to see published, which is part of an entire website devoted to The John Wesley Collection. The first volume in the Collection is Wesley's Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on Mount, which has already been released and is available now. This and the other resources that are coming will be great for individual or group use. 

Here's why I find this project important for cultivating the renewal and spread of the Wesleyan message today. The rise of the "New Calvinism" (as it's known) has been fueled by a revival of interest in primary source texts and key historical figures associated with the movement. College students are devouring the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and others, not to mention Calvin himself. The works of Wesley that Seedbed is now making more easily available fueled the spread of early Methodism and fanned the flames of revival in England and North America in the 18th century. It may be that, as a new generation of readers discovers the primary works of Wesley, such revival will come again. Perhaps the Spirit that empowered Wesley and his bands will resurrect a "New Methodism" that embodies Wesley's passion to offer Christ and spread scriptural holiness across the land. 

March 24, 2014

Author Interview: Christian Faith in the Old Testament by Gareth Cockerill (part 2)

Here's the second installment of my interview with Dr. Gareth Cockerill on his new book Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014). If you missed part, you can read it here.

Incarnatio: There are many, many characters in the Old Testament. How do their stories help today's believers know God better?

GC: One must remember that the Bible is, first of all, about God. The Bible speaks of its many characters in relationship to the God whom it reveals. Second, the Bible is about God’s establishing a people who will live in holy fellowship with Him. The Bible’s many characters must be understood within their relationship to God and to the people of God. It is for this reason, among many others, that we need the kind of holistic view of Scripture provided by Christian Faith in the Old Testament. The “Example Principle” that I enunciate in chapter three of Christian Faith in the Old Testament is very helpful here. Basically, this principle affirms that, when Old Testament characters act in faith and obedience, they are examples for us to follow. When they act from faithlessness, they are examples to avoid. However, careful study of the Biblical narrative in order to determine how the characters are acting is crucial. It is easy to impose our own ideas on Scripture and come up with rather cheap, sometimes moralistic interpretations, such as the preacher who said that Abraham got in troubled when he went to Egypt because he didn’t take Lot or Sarah’s advice (I have no idea where that was in the text, but the preacher was urging people to take council with other godly people—like Lot?). I give extensive examples of this principle in chapter two—one of those chapters on Genesis that helps us read aright the rest of the Old Testament!

Incarnatio: Ritual worship in the tabernacle and later in the temple are central to the Old Testament but very foreign to many present day Christians. How can we overcome that distance in order to understand the significance of Old Testament worship for Christian faith and formation?

GC: Without denying the difference, I think this distance is often overplayed. It is a mistake simply to focus on a few odd details of the OT ritual/law. We need to help people get an understanding of the big picture. The whole setting emphasizes both the deep need for fellowship with God and the horrible separation that human rebellion has brought between us and God. The sacrificial ritual should make us feel the urgency of atonement that can only be provided by the giving of innocent life. There is no magic bullet here. We simply have to teach these things to people, to help them enter the world of Scripture and come into this way of seeing things. If we do not, they will have a faulty understanding of the Person and work of Christ and deficient view of salvation. One problem is simply modern prejudice—people look at things and go, “ohh, primitive.” They need to be challenged to have an open mind, to come to understand the depth that is there in these Scriptural practices. This isn’t nearly as big a problem in some parts of the world—say Sierra Leone, West Africa! I’m not so sure it need be such a problem in this age that is more open to the mystical.

Incarnatio: How should Christians relate to obscure or seemingly harsh Old Testament laws?

GC: I don’t profess to be able to answer this question in regard to every law. Some remain a mystery. However, I have made several suggestions in Christian Faith in the Old Testament that are too long to describe here in detail—I’d have to reproduce whole chapters of the book! I am referring especially to “The Pattern Principle” in chapter five. That chapter is about the continuing relevance of the Old Testament law. It makes some other helpful distinctions, such as between the “Greatest Commandments,” the “Ten Commandments,” and the “Everyday Commandments.” I have also pointed out in the book some important things about sins that incurred the death penalty. First of all, people could only enjoy the blessing God intended if the Promised Land was free from these sins. It was to be a type of the New Heaven and Earth in which no wickedness dwells. We must always remember that none of us can enjoy all that God has for his people in a world that allows sin. Second, God himself often extended mercy and did not exact the death penalty—one thinks of David, even of the whole nation beginning with the golden calf at Sinai and extending throughout the history of God’s Old Testament people. Far from being harsh, the Old Testament is one long story of God’s mercy. The death penalty showed how horrible these things were and reminded God’s people of how they destroyed the blessing of the Land. There is more on this in Christian Faith in the Old Testament.

Incarnatio: What do Christians risk when we neglect the Old Testament?

GC: I address this question at some length in the introduction to Christian Faith in the Old Testament. In brief, we risk almost everything. We are likely to have a trivial idea of God, a superficial understanding of sin, and thus a very inadequate view of salvation. Neglect of the Old Testament leads to an over emphasis on the individual, that is on “me,” something to which our age is already very prone. Without the Old Testament we are in danger of losing a true sense of the deep community of God’s people and the cosmic nature of salvation. In short, we are in danger of sentimentalizing our religion.

Incarnatio: Will we misunderstand Jesus if we don't read the Old Testament? If so, how?

GC: This question is, of course, an important sub-set of the previous question. The answer is obvious. We are liable to misunderstand him in every way! His total self-understanding, and the way in which the New Testament understands him, is built on the Old Testament—remember, the Old Testament was his and his followers’ Bible. The New Testament understand him as the Messiah of David’s line and the Son of God, the fulfillment of though greater than Moses, more than a Prophet, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Great High Priest, the Passover Lamb, the Day of Atonement Sacrifice, the one lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the new Adam, etc. He, in himself, embodies and renews Israel, the people of God. The history of that people finds its fulfillment in him, because he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. All of this comes from the Old Testament. Furthermore, these are not isolated items taken from the Old Testament. Within the Old Testament they form a coherent whole. If we do not understand the Old Testament, we simply will not rightly understand him—we will have a Jesus made in our own image.

March 20, 2014

Author Interview: Christian Faith in the Old Testament by Gareth Cockerill (part 1)

United Methodists are having an important and, at times, lively debate over the way we interpret and appropriate different parts of scripture, not least the Old Testament. The debate over how we approach scripture has emerged as part of conflict over differing understandings of human sexuality and has focused most recently around posts from Adam Hamilton and Bill Arnold. The questions under debate are important, and I want to draw attention to a new book from a Wesleyan scholar that has potential to guide us in learning how to read the Old Testament scriptures. The book is Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Kindle) by Gareth Cockerill, Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He blogs at From Mangoes to Mechizidek. Dr. Cockerill is a friend and colleague, and I'm excited about this book because I think it has potential to significantly deepen Christian engagement with the Bible that Jesus and his first followers read, prayed, and lived. I conducted this interview before the posts from Hamilton and Arnold were published. So, you won't see direct engagement in explicit language they use. Nevertheless, Cockerill's book is dealing with the very same issue and will function as a reliable guide. I've divided the interview into two posts. Part 1 follows. Check back early next week for part 2.

Incarnatio: Why should the average Christian embrace serious study of the Old Testament?

GC: One way to answer this question is to refer to the sub-title of this book—The Bible of the Apostles. The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and of his first followers. Can we, then, afford to neglect it? To read the New Testament without the Old is like reading only the last chapter of a novel. Christ understood his own mission as the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises, history, longings, and message. Christian Faith in the Old Testament shows how each part of the Old Testament looks forward to and finds fulfillment in the Christ of the New. Let me quote from the introduction to my book, where I discuss this subject at length: when we neglect the Old Testament 
“we end up with an anemic view of Christ, a superficial understanding of the atonement, and an individualistic view of the church. Our God shrinks because we no longer see the majesty of his creation, the grandeur of his work in history, or the glory of his salvation in Christ. We have little basis for social ethics. We live in rootless isolation because we no longer see ourselves as children of Abraham and part of the people of God, stretched out across history and on its way to glory. If we do not have The Bible of the Apostles, we will not have the true apostolic faith” (page 13).
Incarnatio: You've spent considerable time serving as a foreign missionary. How did that experience affect your work on Christian Faith in the New Testament?

GC: I am sure that my nine years in Sierra Leone, West Africa, have had a profound impact on this book. I began my time in Africa as chaplain and Bible teacher for more than four hundred students at Kamakwie Boys Secondary School. The school was taught in English, which was a second language for all those who attended. Most students had no understanding of the Bible’s big picture. Some didn't even know the Old Testament from the New. I began to work hard at putting the Bible’s message together in a way that would be clear and understandable for them. As time went on, I found that it was difficult to adequately address either the animistic or the Muslim world view without a solid knowledge of the Old Testament and the way in which it was fulfilled in Christ.

Incarnatio: You've given a significant amount of energy to working on the New Testament book of Hebrews. How has that work prepared you to write this book on the Old Testament?

GC: Anyone who studies Hebrews must wrestle with the way in which the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and with its continuing relevance as Scripture. After all, Hebrews begins by affirming that the God who spoke in the prophets has now given his final self-revelation in one who is his Son. All that follows in Hebrews can be seen as the development of this premise. As the introduction to my NICNT commentary on Hebrews shows, I have found Hebrews approach to the Old Testament both coherent and relevant to contemporary practice. The writer to the Hebrews is confident that, when examined on its own terms, the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Thus I would say that there are three ways that study of Hebrews has enriched Christian Faith in the Old Testament. First, Hebrews’ own understanding of the Old Testament has informed my thinking. Second, Hebrews has encouraged me to examine the Old Testament on its own terms and to see the many ways in which it points forward to fulfillment in Christ. Third, study of Hebrews has led me to look at what other parts of the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the Reformers say about the continuing relevance of the Old Testament. I have tried to present the insight that I have gained from these sources simply, clearly, and coherently in Christian Faith in the Old Testament.

Incarnatio: You devote two chapters to Genesis and six chapters to the other 38 books of the Old Testament. Why did you decide to put so much emphasis on Genesis?

GC: This is a very understandable question. The answer lies both in the nature and importance of Genesis and in the purpose of Christian Faith in the Old Testament. None can deny the crucial importance of Genesis. All would acknowledge that the first eleven chapters establish the framework for the rest of the Bible. The Patriarchal narratives in chapters 12-50 are also crucial. The rest of Scripture is about God’s fulfilling his promise to Abraham given and passed on in these chapters.  As the beginning of the people of God, the patriarchs and matriarchs embody and set the course for the history of God’s people to come. In brief, Genesis is crucial because the “beginning” is determinative for all that follows. Second, although Christian Faith in the Old Testament gives an overview of the Old Testament, it is not simply an Old Testament survey. Its aim is to show people how to read the various parts of the Old Testament, how the parts fit together, how they point to fulfillment in Christ, and how each part is relevant for today. Simply put, the emphasis given to Genesis prepares us to read the rest of the Old Testament correctly.

Part 2 of the interview will go live early next week. Check in to hear Dr. Cockerill discuss other issues including the importance of the Old Testament temple for Christian worship and what we do with obscure and seemingly harsh Old Testament laws.

March 17, 2014

What can St. Patrick teach us about Christian Perfection?

Whether using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity or running the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick is known for many legendary and even fanciful acts. But as Philip Freeman observes in his biography St. Patrick of Ireland, "The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends" (xvii). Patrick left us two documents - one letter and a short autobiography - that shed a great deal of light on his life and his passion for the gospel, missions, and the people of Ireland. Patrick's missionary zeal is particularly remarkable when the trauma of his childhood is taken into account. 

Some may be surprised to find that Patrick was not originally from Ireland. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. Kidnapped at the age of fifteen, he was ripped from his bed in the middle of the night, bound, and taken by ship to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Though his father and grandfather were members of the clergy, Patrick himself was not a believer. He found, however, that captivity transformed him into a praying man. He further found that the more he prayed, the more he believed in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. After six years of grueling slave labor, Patrick managed to escape and survived the perilous journey home to Britain where he was reunited with his parents. There is a strong sense of divine providence that governed Patrick's life. According to Freeman, "No one taken by Irish raiders had been known to return alive. No one had ever escaped from Ireland" (44).

A Surprising Call

Perhaps the single most striking thing about Patrick's life is his eagerness to return to the land of his captivity in order to preach the gospel and plant churches there. This is where I think Patrick's life is of particularly helpful as we reflect on the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Once home, Patrick began to discern through a series of dreams that God was leading him to seek religious orders and return to Ireland as a missionary and pastor to the very people who had consigned him to a life of slavery. When you read Patrick's account of his calling and his commitment to return in ministry to Ireland, the strength of his single-minded commitment is clear, especially in light of the opposition he received from his family, friends, and other clergy. He would offer his life in obedience motivated by love for God in love for the Irish. Patrick's singular focus resonates strongly with Wesley's formulation of holiness.

Christian Perfection as Enemy Love

When Jesus commanded his followers to "be perfect", he did so in the context of his teaching on love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus' exhortation to be perfect is not referring to some sort of absolute perfectionism. Instead, the perfect command is specifically an imperative to love enemies and pray for persecutors. In short, when Jesus says be perfect, he means love your enemies. Jesus illustrates the point by saying that God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, the point was clear that God gives what is necessary for life to all without regard to their relative goodness or wickedness. When the people of God express love to those who would do them harm, they are obeying Jesus' command to be perfect.

A Perfect Model

Patrick's desire to love his former captors out of obedient love to God was a shock to his contemporaries. He wrote in his Confession that his fellow clergy did not understand why he wanted "to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God" (§ 46). Nevertheless, Patrick was unreservedly set apart to his calling. He writes: 
"Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name...There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God's debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God" (§§ 37-38). 
If you want a model of obedience to Jesus' command to be perfect by loving enemies, you need look no further than St. Patrick of  Ireland.

Contemporary discussions of Christian perfection digress all too often into debates over whether one can stop sinning and be truly perfect, though we forget that John Wesley rejected any language of "sinless perfection". If you could ask Wesley what he meant by Christian perfection, he would tell you that it is a heart of pure intention overflowing in love for God and others. Patrick's singular devotion to the call of God to love his enemies provides a concrete example of Wesley's doctrine. Nothing would stand in Patrick's way as he put all his energy into fulfilling the law of love, not only for his friends, especially for his enemies. 

March 5, 2014

Tertullian on the Sign of the Cross #AshWednesday (HT: @scotmcknight)

I came across this quote this morning while reading Scot McKnight's book Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today:
At every forward step and movement,
at every going in and out
when we put on our clothes and shoes,
when we bathe,
when we sit at table,
when we light the lamps,
on couch,
on seat,
in all the ordinary actions of daily life,
we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].            -Tertullian, De Corona, chap. 3
Talk about a great quote with which to begin Ash Wednesday, a pleasant (and providential!) surprise, indeed.

Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy's earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I'm grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I'm unpersuaded by Balcomb's rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 

Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles' Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb's assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church's liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the "Creed raises far more questions than it answers." Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I'm reminded of the chapter entitled "If you don't get it, you've got it," in Mark Galli's Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ's coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb's worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, "Our Lord's Summary of the Law," in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles' Creed, "One of the wonderful features of the Apostles' Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures" (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church's liturgy has historically used "Our Lord's Summary of the Law" alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you'll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb's essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb's critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.

First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, "It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him." Well, if by "believe" you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It's easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 

Second, Balcomb's insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn't really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it's no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith - faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 

Do we need the Creed?

Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb's argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let's not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages. 

February 25, 2014

Andrew T. Lincoln Interview on the Virgin Birth (@eerdmansbooks)

Eerdman's has recently posted this interview with Andrew T. Lincoln on his new book Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. Here's the video:



Here's the description from the publisher's website: 
This engaging book enables ordinary Christians to understand and give honest expression to the problems surrounding the virgin birth — a concept that many Christians are not sure how to handle.
Andrew Lincoln's Born of a Virgin? begins by discussing why the virgin birth is such a difficult and divisive topic. The book then deals with a whole range of issues — literary, historical, and hermeneutical — from a critical yet positive perspective that takes seriously creedal confessions and theological concerns.
As part of his exegetical investigation of the New Testament texts, Lincoln considers the literary genre and distinctive characteristics of the birth narratives as ancient biography. Further, he delineates how changes in our views of history and biography decisively affect any traditional understanding of the significance of an actual virgin birth. He also explores what that means for the authority of Scripture and creed, along with implications for Christology and for preaching and teaching from the birth narratives.
Whether or not you agree with the arguments and conclusions, it's important to remember that Lincoln is not simply running the old line that "miracles don't really happen; so we can't believe in a virgin birth." The book does not grow out of anti-supernatural presuppositions but is an effort to hear the New Testament on its own terms. I find particularly interesting the argument that "seed of David" language refers specifically to patrilineal descent and indicates that the writer thought Jesus to have been conceived in the normal means. Also, the question of whether Jesus can be said to stand in solidarity with human beings if he doesn't have a human father is intriguing. I'll be curious to see how scholarly reviewers handle these issues and others. 

February 19, 2014

Review: Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not @IVPAcademic @ScotMcKnight

Does the New Testament offer a critique the empire of its day? Of ours? These are some of the many questions under review in the recently released Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Paper, Kindle). The book is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and has received a lot of attention since its release. And well it should; it combines, after all, two topics of perennial interest - religion and politics. The book is an evaluation of what has come to be known as empire criticism, and it is composed of contributions from a number of New Testament scholars, several of whom are also engaged in pastoral ministry. I'm excited about this opportunity to offer a review and grateful to the team at IVP for sending along a review copy. We'll start by defining the field of empire criticism. Then we'll take a look at the content of the book before concluding with a few reflections on the usefulness of empire criticism.

What is empire criticism?

For several decades some New Testament scholars have devoted significant energy to analyzing the extent to which the New Testament critiques or subverts the Roman Empire and the Imperial Cult. They tend to point out that some of the most important titles for Jesus (e.g. lord, savior) were first used by the Caesars. The word "gospel" was used to describe Caesar's birthday and conquests before it was used to describe God's power for salvation through the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. The question is this: by using this sort of imperial language with reference to Jesus, does the New Testament subvert or perhaps even critique the Roman Empire? To be sure, the emperor was not accustomed to sharing his titles. By attributing these titles to Jesus, the early church was insisting, to paraphrase one well-known scholar, that "Jesus was the reality of which Caesar was only a parody." Those who are favorable toward empire criticism will want to nuance their arguments in a variety of ways, and the specific claims are certainly more detailed and complex, but that should give you a general sense of the argument. So, McKnight and Modica explain empire criticism as referring
"to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of the New Testament writings...empire criticism asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages of the New Testament" (16-17).
That said, there are some passages in the New Testament that seem to portray Jesus a direct challenger to the claims of the emperor (e.g. Acts 17:7). Other passages, however, seem to suggest that early Christians should lay low, live their lives, and do their best to stay off the imperial radar (e.g. Romans 13:1-7). But this apparent range of attitudes is what makes the questions so interesting. Otherwise, we wouldn't need a book evaluating this thing called empire criticism.

What's in the book?

The first two chapters orient the reader to the field of empire criticism by surveying the ancient context and the contemporary debate. If you are going to raise the question as to whether the New Testament takes on the Roman Empire, you need to know something about the Roman Empire. David Nystrom opens the book with an excellent and accessible survey of Roman ideology, religion, and the imperial cult. Chapter two by Judith A. Diehl surveys some of the key scholars who have advanced the discussion both in terms of historical study and contemporary appropriation. The rest of the book is comprised of studies on individual books of the New Testament: Joel Willits (Matthew), Dean Pinter (Luke), Christopher W. Skinner (John), Drew J. Straight (Acts), Michael F. Bird (Romans), Lynn H. Cohick (Philippians), Allan R. Bevere (Colossians), and Dwight Sheets (Revelation). The contributors each offer thoughtful evaluations of their assigned texts and interact carefully with those who advance empire critical readings of the texts. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, the consensus among the contributors seems to be that while a critique of Caesar and his regime crops up from time to time, it is by no means the primary interest of the New Testament authors. From the standpoint of content, the book would have been stronger had it included a response essay from a scholar more sympathetic to empire criticism.

What's the verdict?

While I might quibble over this or that point, I stand in general agreement with the editors: "We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi" (212). We might say that the New Testament is not about the Roman Empire, but it does sometimes apply to the empire. The apostles and the early church were not out to overthrow Caesar; they had bigger fish to fry. As Paul himself wrote, "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). The New Testament writers were concerned with the powers that lay behind the abuses of Rome and of all oppressive regimes. This shows up with more force in some passages than in others. I tend to read Revelation as dropping a rather severe blow on the Empire, but only because the beast-like Empire was a manifestation the dragon's power, and the ultimate goal of Revelation's critique is the strengthening of persecuted churches. In the end, the New Testament is about the overthrow of sin, death, and Satan; and when that conquest is fully implemented, the only empire left will be the good and righteous Empire of Christ. The editors and contributors of Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not do an excellent job of drawing our attention to this all-important focus of the New Testament. 

January 21, 2014

Will God Destroy Our Bodies?

That's what several standard Bible translations would have you think. The verse in question is 1 Corinthians 6:13a, and it turns out that a decision of punctuation makes all the difference in two contrasting understandings of Paul's attitude toward the human body. Let me illustrate by showing you four different translations of this one verse. Pay close attention to the quotation marks included (not by me but) by the translation team.
"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food"-- and God will destroy both one and the other (ESV).
You say, "Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food." (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them) (NLT).
"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. (NRS)
You say, "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both."  (TNIV).
Did you catch that? Each of these translations agree that Paul is quoting a slogan original to the Corinthians, but they disagree on the extent of the quotation. The first three close the quote before the assertion that God will destroy both stomach and body; the fourth closes the quote after that claim. To their credit, the translators of the NRSV include a footnote saying that "the quotation may extend to the word other." But the question remains. Whose view are we faced with? Should the claim that God will destroy the body be attributed to Paul or to a group of Corinthians?

The problem arises because the Greek in which Paul wrote did not have quotation marks; so the translators have to decide where to close the quote when rendering it into English. To make this decision they must consider the verse in its immediate context and in light of all Paul's letters. In this case, the decision about punctuation is really a decision about interpretation and how we understand Paul's anthropology. What does Paul believe to be the destiny of the human body? Punctuation matters.

In this case, I would argue that the TNIV gets it right. The next verse tells us Paul's view of the future of the believer's body, "God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power" (NRSV). For Paul, the future resurrection of the body is an argument against the libertine attitude of appetite indulgence among some of the Corinthians. The body (and its parts) will be resurrected in a manner analogous to that of Jesus. That means that physical (though certainly transformed) bodies will arise from their graves. The corpse of someone who is in Christ will not be destroyed; it will not even remain a corpse. To the contrary, it will be made alive again by the power of God. It seems to me unclear how we can describe that as destruction.

Paul has more to say about death and resurrection in chapter 15 of the same letter, where the language of destruction comes up again, but not with regard to the body. Paul says that, at the coming of Christ, death is the thing that will be destroyed when the bodies of believers are raised from the dead (15:26). Death is the enemy of Christ, and Christ will destroy his enemies. The final enemy that Christ will destroy is death itself. We might say that, as the nails spring loose from the coffins of those who belong to Christ, the final nail will be hammered into death's own coffin. 

Paul fills in the picture later in the same chapter by saying that the presently mortal and perishing body will be overcome with immortality and imperishability (see especially vv. 50-55). The body will be transformed, not destroyed.  I see no way that this transformation could plausibly be construed as destruction; it is the opposite of destruction. 

This evidence weighs strongly against an interpretation (or punctuation!) of 6:13a that attributes to Paul the belief that God will destroy our bodies. Destruction is defeat. Resurrection is victory. Destruction is what happens to death. Resurrection is what happened to the body of Christ, and it's what will happen to the bodies of those who belong to Christ. 

January 8, 2014

@TandTClark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament

I've been reading up on Social Identity Theory (SIT) as of late and on its use as a framework for reading the letters of Paul. So, I was naturally very excited to learn about the new T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity Theory in the New Testament (Kindle Edition) The book is edited by J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker, who bring together over two dozen scholars to explore the various ways SIT has been applied to the text of the New Testament. With 29 chapters and over 650 pages, this "handbook" has plenty to keep you busy. It will be essential reading for students and scholars who want to get a handle on the range of approaches in applying SIT to the New Testament. 

The book is divided into two major sections. The first deals with methodological issues and opens with a chapter introducing the reader to SIT and its usefulness in reading the New Testament. This is followed by chapters that discuss SIT as it relates to matters like social history, ethnicity, ritual, letter writing, and narrative, to mention a few. The second section moves from method to practice by presenting a number of case studies that apply SIT to individual texts. If you are like me and find it very helpful to see finished examples of how a method might be applied to a text, then you should find the chapters in section two immensely helpful. The studies take up representative passages and issues from most divisions of the New Testament including the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, the General and Johannine letters, and Revelation. So, no matter what sub-discipline of New Testament studies you are interested in, there is likely something relevant to be found. 

As a critical method for reading the New Testament, SIT is here to stay. This volume is a guide to which interpreters will turn for years to come. I certainly expect to turn to it again and again.