December 1, 2015

Initial Thoughts on Paul and the Gift by John Barclay #PTG @eerdmansbooks

I've recently begun working through John Barclay's highly anticipated new book Paul and the Gift. And at 582 pages (not counting bibliography and indices), it is quite a tome. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK. He has given a decade to researching and writing this book, and the quality of his research and argumentation is evident from the first page. Rather than waiting till I've finished to review it here, I thought I'd offer impressions and reflections along the way. After all, a full review would likely be somewhat lengthy for a single blog post. Instead, think of the series as a travelogue for a long journey. That said, let's be off.

First, the book is a study on the concept of grace in the letters of Paul. It is titled Paul and the Gift because the Greek word for "grace" is charis, which was the typical way to speak of a gift in the Greco-Roman world. Barclay argues that any Pauline theology of grace should be understood in light of the ancient context of gift-giving. That argument is rather straightforward and not all that surprising; that is, until we dig deeply into context of gift-giving in the ancient Mediterranean world, which takes us to the next reflection.

Second, the giving of gifts in the Greco-Roman period was radically different than the giving of gifts in the modern period. This is the argument that Barclay makes in chapter 1. We tend to think of gift-giving as something that is done out of sheer gratuity with no (or at least very few) strings attached. We often think in terms of "pure gift" or "free gift." Giving a gift to another person places no obligation on that person to reciprocate the gift. And when we come to the language of gift/grace in the New Testament, we read that language in light of our present day understanding of gifts - freely given, freely received. The problem, Barclay argues, is that our contemporary attitude toward gifts is substantially different than the attitudes toward gift-giving in the world of Paul and his contemporaries. In Paul's day, gifts were part of a culture-wide system of reciprocity and came with many a string attached. To give a gift was to place the recipient under obligation. This, of course, has implications for choosing the recipient of a gift, because you would want to make a gift to someone who could fulfill the obligation placed upon them. Typically, then, gifts were given to people in relatively similar social situations. To receive a gift was to receive the message that the giver considered you a person able to reciprocate the gift. Such a gift creates a social bond, because it is a way of recognizing the value or worth of the recipient.

Some implications of this should be clear even before getting to the exegetical portions of the book. What would it do to our theology of grace if the gift of God in Christ comes with strings attached? What if receiving the gift of grace puts us under obligation both to honor God and to obey him? There are implications for pastoral ministry, too. How many sermons have we heard that declare grace to be a "free gift" or a "pure gift" that depends on nothing in us and requires nothing from us? Working out the particulars of these questions will have to wait, but you see the importance of reading Paul's language of grace/gift within the context of Greco-Roman gift-giving.

Third, the scope of this book is remarkable. It is not merely a study of Paul in his context; it is also a reception history of Paul's theology of grace beginning with Marcion and proceeding through Augustine and the Reformers before moving to modern interpreters including Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and those associated with the New Perspective on Paul, E.P. Sanders not least. This reception history is followed by an extended section on "Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism," in which the diversity of Jewish views on grace are considered. At this point, you are 300 pages into the book, and you are just getting the New Testament exegetical portions which focus primarily on Galatians and Romans. Here's the point: Barclay has produced a methodologically robust study that deals with Paul in his context, through history, and in our contemporary context. And he is only focusing in depth on two letters. Imagine the possibilities of digging into the other Pauline epistles. Might there be a follow-up volume in the works?

Fourth, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I'll be brief here because I've only thus far read the introductory and concluding statements on Barclay's interaction with the NPP. Here's what he says to expect: E.P. Sanders and other advocates of the NPP argue that Judaism in Paul's day was a religion of grace. Barclay responds by arguing that "Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same" (6). His point is that the NPP has given us a picture of Judaism that is insufficiently diverse. Paul was one voice in the middle of a debate on the nature of grace. Sanders made the mistake of reading different attitudes toward grace onto the Pauline texts without considering the extent to which Paul and his contemporaries might agree that God acts graciously toward his covenant people even though they disagree on the particulars of that grace. If this argument turns out to be successful, it will be a big problem for the NPP. I'm eager to dig into the details of that one, and I'll be interested to hear responses from NPP advocates.

I'll finish by saying it is very tempting to skip ahead to certain parts of this book that relate directly to my current research. And I may very well do that in order to keep my work moving at a good pace. Nevertheless, the quality of this volume makes me what to read it carefully cover to cover. So, even if I skip ahead, I'll be certain to go back and catch up anything I may have skipped over. There is much to be learned here.  

November 18, 2015

Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope's revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn't altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked: 
My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?
The Pope's off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here's the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here):
To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”—“Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.
Always refer back to baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.
I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.
Four questions come to mind. 
  1. Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope's recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend's comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord's Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that "the Lord is present" regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say. 
  2. Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn't forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It's almost as if he's saying, "This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord's table?" Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
  3. What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord's Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope's answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord's Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity. 
  4. What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter. 

November 9, 2015

New @SoWhat_Podcast: Mary, the Creed, and the Virgin Birth

Be sure to take a listen to the latest edition of the So What? Podcast. We are continuing our movement through the Apostles' Creed, and this episode is devoted to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus. What's the point? What's at stake? Why does it matter? So what? Take a listen and let us know what you think. And be sure to follow, we've got a great interview with a special guest coming up soon.

October 20, 2015

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I'm excited to share with readers that I've recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles' Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God's only Son and our Lord. I'm grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I'm very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here's the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

October 15, 2015

Here's My New 7 Minute Seminary: Is Sin Essential? #UMC @OfficialSeedbed

Is sin essential to human experience? What if it's not? What if Jesus died so we could stop sinning? What if full human life is a fully holy life? What if becoming human means becoming holy?

October 13, 2015

Turn Up the Heat: #PlannedParenthood is on the Ropes (#DefundPP #ProtestPP)

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Planned Parenthood has decided to stop "taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue." For those who need a translation of this "newspeak" into the language of everyday folk, they plan to stop selling baby parts. Here's the report: 
Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it is immediately stopping taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue for medical research, an attempt to tamp down controversy that has led to Republican investigations in Congress and efforts to end federal funding.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a letter Tuesday to the National Institutes of Health that the organization’s affiliates will no longer accept any reimbursements for costs associated with procuring tissue from abortions. Fetal tissue has been provided by affiliates in California and Washington state, and the Washington clinics haven’t been taking any money for it, she said. The Oregon affiliate has been providing placental tissue for reimbursement. Planned Parenthood didn’t disclose the amount it will forgo with its new policy.
What this means, of course, is that Planned Parenthood is on the ropes. The investigative videos released by The Center for Medical Progress have hit the nation's largest abortion provider. They've hit them hard. So hard that the abortion giant appears willing to give up a rather lucrative aspect of their business in order to survive. Planned Parenthood is doing this in an effort to satisfy critics and get the public and Congress off their backs. 

We must remember, however, that selling baby bodies is not Planned Parenthood's greatest sin. Their greatest sin is killing babies. Their unjust business model is a murderous one, and it involves the murder of the most vulnerable people in our society at that. The fact that they intend to stop taking money from selling the pieces of their victims does not mean that they are off the hook. They are still treacherous. We must continue to stand against their slaughter of the innocents

This is a good time to remember the principle of pursuit. In battle, when your opponent retreats, you don't give them time to regroup, replenish, and gather new strength. Instead, you give chase. Pursue. Go after them. Strike harder and with increasing intensity. Finish the job. Win the battle. Planned Parenthood is trying to put out the fire, which means it's time to turn up the heat. 

September 25, 2015

Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace: What's the Difference?

The question was put to me over lunch earlier this week and not for the first time. So I thought it worthwhile to post here a few reflections on the difference between the Reformed doctrine of common grace and the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.

What is Common Grace?

The easiest way to clarify the difference between common and prevenient grace is to consider them both in relation to salvation. Common grace does not lead to salvation; prevenient grace does. In Reformed theology, common grace is not saving grace and is not regarded as part of soteriology (i.e., theology of salvation) or the order of salvation. Instead, according to Berkhof, it was developed in response to questions like these:
How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How can we account for it that sinful man still "retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior"?...How can the unregenerate still speak truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives? (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.1.).
In short, how can sinful people who live in a fallen world do anything good or virtuous? The answer, from the perspective of Reformed theology, is common grace. Here's Berkhof again, common grace 
curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men" (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.4.)
So we might say that common grace is that which keeps the effects of sin in check to some degree and makes possible human culture and civilization.

It is essential, however, to understand  that in Reformed thinking common grace is distinct from special (or particular and saving) grace. Common grace does not save people from condemnation; special grace necessarily effects the salvation of the elect to whom it is given. Berkhof points to several further distinctions between common and special grace Common grace is given indiscriminately to all people; special grace is limited to the number of the elect. Common grace never removes the guilt incurred by sin; special grace always does. Common grace doesn't renew human nature; special grace changes the inner person. Common grace is resistible; special grace never is.

What is Prevenient Grace?

While common grace is not considered saving grace, prevenient grace may very well lead to salvation, though not necessarily so. In Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, prevenient grace is simply the work of God in a person's life that precedes conversion and prepares that person to freely receive the gospel. In Reformed thinking, common grace is not part of the order of salvation; in Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, it is. At the risk of oversimplifying the order of salvation, prevenient grace leads to justifying grace, which leads to sanctifying grace and then glorifying grace. I'll hasten to add that since we Arminians see grace as resistible, it follows that prevenient grace need not always lead to justification and final salvation. Prevenient grace is not effectual. It does not effect salvation as the Reformed understand special grace to effect salvation. Rather, prevenient grace prepares the human heart to believe the gospel and be saved, but prevenient grace can be resisted. To summarize, if you can look back and see the work of God drawing you to Christ prior to your conversion, that is prevenient grace. 

I should add that Wesley and Arminius had somewhat different views of the extent of prevenient grace. Wesley thought prevenient grace extended to all people in some degree in order to mitigate the effects of original sin. If I understand correctly, Arminius thought prevenient grace came specifically through the preaching of the gospel to free the hearts of those who hear to respond freely to the good news. Both saw prevenient grace as part of the order of salvation. Both understood it to be resistible. They differed on the scope and perhaps the means. 

One more point of clarification is necessary. Prevenient grace is not substantially different from justifying or sanctifying grace. They emphasize different points in the same journey of salvation by grace through faith. The terms have to do with process and chronology; they are not different sorts of grace. 

Two Different Graces?

I think people tend to confuse common grace and prevenient grace because both have the lost as their object. Otherwise, they have little else in common. They are fundamentally different concepts that address fundamentally different questions. Common grace answers the question of how fallen people can do anything that is not thoroughly wicked. Prevenient grace answers the question of how fallen people can be prepared to respond freely to the gospel. 

In the end, Reformed theology seems to posit two substantially different forms of grace - one effective to salvation and one not. The problem, as I see it, is that this divorces grace from the work of Christ, which Berkhof acknowledges with regard to common grace. To be fair, he rejects the suggestion that there are two substantially different forms of grace by arguing that common grace is not attribute of God while special grace is. But if this is the case, why create confusion by calling it grace? Arminian theology successfully provides a coherent understanding of God's grace: there is only one grace, and it leads to and finds its fulfillment in Jesus and union with him.

September 24, 2015

Here's My New 7 Minute Seminary: The Doctrine of Sin (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here's my latest contribution to the Seven Minute Seminary series at This one is on the Doctrine of Sin and touches on a variety of relevant issues. What is the difference between Original Sin and Total Depravity? Does Total Depravity mean we are as bad as we could be? What are the pastoral implications of the Doctrine of Sin? 

Check out my other Seven Minute Seminary contributions:

August 21, 2015

If We Do Not Repent (#PPSellsBabyParts)

Many of us thought it couldn't get worse than seeing a medical doctor swill her wine and crunch her croutons while speaking of "less crunchy" ways to dismember and murder a baby while still in utero. Then we saw video of Planned Parenthood employees digging through pie plates full of dead baby parts looking for the bits that would get the best price. Again, we believed it simply could not get worse. But we were wrong. Dead wrong. With the release of the seventh video exposing the barbarism of Planned Parenthood and its business partners, it got worse. Much worse. Now we know of the cruel violence done to a little boy with a beating heart outside the womb. They cut his face in half with a pair of scissors in order to harvest his brain and sell it for cold hard cash. His heart was beating. He had been born. He was alive. He was murdered. This cannot be denied. 

We know about this treachery because one of the guilty ones has come forward. In video #7, Holly O'Donnell, a licensed phlebotomist and former procurement tech for StemExpress, told us all the depraved and debased details. Make no mistake. She is no mere a witness or whistle blower telling us what she saw. As Doug Wilson observed, she is confessing her sins. She was a participant. She has blood on her hands. And yet she is seeking absolution. By confessing her sin to a global audience as part of the Planned Parenthood exposé, she is racing with all her might toward restitution. She wants to make it right. She wants to be clean. She wants it bad enough that she's willing to tell the world her greatest sin. The good news is that the blood of Jesus Christ is able to wash the blood of the unborn from her hands. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. 

My point here is simple: the confession and repentance of Holly O'Donnell stands as a model of the confession and repentance that we the people of the United States must humbly make. She is showing us what we as a nation have to do. We must confess our sin. We must acknowledge our guilt. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. We must do it, as a people, as a nation. And if we do not, we deserve every bit of judgment that God sees fit to pour upon us. To be sure, we already deserve it. But God, in his great mercy and love, is at this time giving us an opportunity to see the evil that our nation has legalized, funded, and executed. He is giving us an opportunity to repent and sin no more. What we do know is that even now the souls of more than 50,000,000 preborn slain surround the throne of the God and of the Lamb crying out, "How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?" What we do not know is how long they've been told to wait.  

July 27, 2015

Sales get negotiated. Reimbursements? Not so much. #PPSellsBabyParts

You've probably seen the second undercover video of a senior Planned Parenthood executive haggling over the price of aborted baby parts (if you haven't, scroll down). Word is there are more such videos yet to be made public. In the second video, Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood's Medical Directors Council, is seen negotiating the price of pieces from aborted babies. During the conversation Gatter suggests $75 as an appropriate price for organs. The actor posing as a buyer responds that she would expect to pay $100. Not sure why this didn't tip Gatter off to something strange. How often does a buyer raise the asking price? Gatter must have been blinded by greed because she went for it and at the end of the conversation even suggested that, if $100 is too low, they could always bump it up. After all, as she said, "I want a Lamborghini." 

Here's the point. Planned Parenthood can say that this is about reimbursements all they want. But reimbursements happen when you get paid back for the actual and documented costs of whatever it is you are doing, which, of course, means that reimbursements are non-negotiable. If you want to be reimbursed, you present the receipts or vouchers that show your costs, then you get paid for those exact numbers. No bartering involved. What Dr. Gatter says in the video is different because it sounds like she is trying to find the market price for baby livers. She's haggling. And when haggling comes into the picture, it sounds a lot like a sale is being negotiated, which is why so many of us don't believe it when Cecile Richards tells us that Planned Parenthood is not profiting from the sale of organs from aborted babies. But who can blame them? Everyone knows a Lamborghini costs an arm and a leg.