September 12, 2014

Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter? @OfficialSeedbed #7MinuteSeminary

I'm grateful to the team at Seedbed for the opportunity to contribute to the Seven Minute Seminary series of short videos. Here's one on the biblical, theological, and pastoral importance of the Trinity.

September 9, 2014

Roundup: British New Testament Conference #BNTC2014

I've recently had the pleasure of attending the 34th British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held this year at the University of Manchester. Our hosts at the University did a wonderful job putting on the conference and are to be commended. It's always great fun to renew old friendships, make new ones, hear about new research, and participate in some stimulating conversations about all things New Testament. At many academic conferences you have the opportunity to move in and out of various sessions to catch the papers that interest you. One of my favorite things about BNTC is that everyone is encouraged to attend the same seminar group throughout the duration of the conference. The advantage is that seminar members have the opportunity to spend a couple of days reflecting together on a particular area of New Testament, which usually results in a more fruitful and less fragmented conference experience. 

I was in the Paul Seminar, which is one of the largest seminars at the conference and always has a number of world class scholars in attendance. The seminar chairs, Peter Oakes and Sarah Whittle, put together a very well-balanced combination of papers and group discussion in each of the sessions. The first session was of particular interest with a paper on divine wrath in Paul by Dorothea Bertschmann, which was followed by a panel discussion on divine wrath with Dorothea, Francis Watson, Simon Gathercole, and Michael Thompson. You won't be surprised to learn that it got a bit energetic at points, and it was certainly refreshing to hear this discussion since the wrath of God is not a subject often broached by New Testament scholars. The second installment of the Paul seminar focused on various issues relating to the ever present pistis Christou (faith of Christ) debate. Jeanette Hagen introduced some helpful evidence from 2 Corinthians, which is not often brought into the discussion, and Jonathan Tallon gave a very interesting paper on the richness of pistis and cognates in the sermons of John Chrysostom. This was followed by another vigorous open discussion. I had the pleasure of participating in the third session of the Paul seminar along with David Harvey, who gave a paper on honor and ethics in Galatians. My own contribution was titled: "Embracing Resurrection: Temporal Aspects of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 15." I'm grateful for the substantive, constructive, and charitable engagement with my argument. We followed up with an open discussion on the place of social identity in Pauline studies.I was grateful for the opportunity to emphasize that social identity readings of Paul need not be pitted against theological readings, as is sometimes suggested.

In addition to the other seminar groups, there were three plenary sessions with invited papers.. The first was a lecture by Joan Taylor on "Mary Magdalene and the Case of the Missing Magdala." She spent some time dismantling various misconceptions about Mary Magdalene's background and argued that we cannot know with certainty where Mary was from. She also made the interesting suggestion that the name Magdalene should perhaps be read with a view to its meaning of "tower" and that it might even be a personal nickname that carried symbolic significance. As Peter was known as "Rock", so Mary might have been "Tower." The second plenary was from Judith Lieu on "Marcion and the Contradictions of the Gospel." The third plenary from Simon Gathercole was called, "Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel, and the Gospels," in which he argued that the canonical gospels shared certain theological characteristics in common that were not shared by most of the apocryphal gospels, and that those common characteristics derive from the earlier regula fidei. I found this discussion particularly interesting and helpful in emphasizing what the gospels hold in common. It was something of a courageous lecture given the current trend in the guild to elevate the differences between the four evangelists over what they hold in common.

All in all, it was a fine conference. I'm grateful to have had opportunity to attend and participate. And I look forward to my next opportunity to do so. Next year will be in Edinburgh, and, as was observed a few times, it could be the first international BNTC depending on a certain upcoming vote. 

September 4, 2014

New SermonCast: "God's Reputation, Our Responsibility" @stmarkmobile #UMC

Did you know that there are basically two kinds of people in the Church? Those who like to talk about sin and those who don't. And you've probably noticed that those who like to talk about sin typically don't want to talk about their sin. They would much prefer to talk about yours. Among those who don't like to talk about sin, there are two more groups: those who don't like to talk about it and so they don't and those who don't like to talk about sin but know it's necessary. Just as a patient must be willing to have the hard conversation with a physician about the diagnosis before the pursuit of a cure can begin, so human beings must be attentive to the hard reality of our sin if we are to benefit from God's transforming grace. When we come at it from this angle we discover a trajectory that should characterize all our talk of sin, from diagnosis to cure, from sin to holiness. This same trajectory is seen in Ezekiel 36, in which the prophet declares the various ways that the people of God have profaned God's name only then to point forward to the coming gracious act of God to sanctify his people. Along the way the Israelites needed to learn what God's people must always be learning: God's reputation is our responsibility.

August 25, 2014

New SermonCast: "What Jesus Wants for His Church" @StMarkMobile #UMC

What do you want in a church? It's a common question with almost limitless answers. Traditional. Contemporary. Liturgical. A church with ministries for children. Ministries for youth. Seeker. Missional. The way we answer reveals a lot about our understanding of the Church. There's another question that we need to ask, and this one is even more important: What does Jesus want for his Church? This question is important because it shifts the focus from our desires to Jesus' desires. This question highlights the reality that Jesus is the head of his body, which is the Church, and he calls the shots. In this week's SermonCast, we dig into Ephesians 4:10-16 in order to explore this all-important question. As we do, we will find that, when it come to his Church, Jesus desires mature disciples. And he's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Listen here.

August 19, 2014

New SermonCast: "Gospel Precision, Gospel Power" Romans 1:1-7, 16-17

Gospel precision matters. That's one reason Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. He needed to clear up some potential misunderstandings of the gospel, because gospel precision produces gospel power. Here's the logic. If the gospel is "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), then an imprecise gospel means reduced power. So, this SermonCast digs into the content of a precise gospel that proclaims the lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as a call to faithful obedience. We also explore the power of the gospel to transform lives and energize world mission. Want to hear more? Just click here to listen.

August 11, 2014

New SermonCast: "Big God, Great Plans" Eph 1:3-14 #UMC

What do you think of when you hear the word "God"? Believe it or not, different people have many different ways of thinking about God. We don't all have the exact same notions about what God is like or who God is. Sometimes our understanding of God is too small. Sometimes our understanding of God hinders knowing God. Sometimes people think of God as a cosmic cop just waiting to bust you for breaking his law. Others think of God through the lens of their experience with an abusive or absent father. This is why it is important to understand that our perception of God will shape our expectations of God. If we have a diminished view of God's character, then we will expect him to act as small our our perception. So we need a big vision of a big God. And that's just what we get in the opening chapter of Ephesians. This week's SermonCast is an invitation to a bigger vision of a bigger God with big grace, big plans, and big glory. 

August 8, 2014

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right: Grace, Progress, & the #UMC (@DrewBMcIntyre)

Do evangelicals have a double standard when it comes to sexual ethics? That's the claim made by Drew McIntyre in a post on authority in the sexuality debate. Drew mentioned me in a Tweet about the post. His main point is that conservatives and evangelicals are not taken very seriously when they appeal to scripture to oppose same sex practices because they do not take seriously what scripture says about other sexual sins like adultery and divorce. That is, evangelicals look the other way when someone in their church when a man cheats on his wife but get all hot and bothered when two men show up together. This is a double standard, and nobody like a double standard.  Drew and I have discussed this issue before, and I think we stand in basic agreement. A couple of ideas came to mind as I read, though, so I thought I'd share those here. I'm not disagreeing with Drew's main assessment, but I would want to put a couple of things slightly differently. Here goes. 

Grace never looks the other way

In the course of his argument, Drew suggests that evangelicals have long stalled over one question in particular. He writes: 
"The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?"
I would urge caution in putting the question in a way that suggests evangelicals have extended grace to adulterers and divorcees by compromising on and ignoring something that scripture clearly forbids. In the Bible, adultery is always condemned, and divorce is condemned in most circumstances. (Even in cases where scripture allows for divorce, it is never seen as good, right, or God honoring.) Ignoring sin is never a grace-filled way of dealing with that sin. When one of my children sins against another one, it is grace to lovingly discipline and teach them to confess their sin and seek reconciliation with the one they have wronged. It's not fun and often tries my own patience, but this sort of instruction is a means of grace to help my kids grow in Christ likeness. To ignore their sin and give them the impression that their errant behavior is acceptable would be sin against them on my part, as would losing my temper and dealing harshly with their sin. Either path would only lead them further into the destructiveness of sinful habit. Ignoring sin is never grace. If the cross teaches us anything, it should be that the triune God never ignores sin. He would take the weight of the penalty on himself rather than ignore our transgression. Grace always deals with sin and never looks the other way. Any attitude among evangelicals that does look the other way on some (but not all) sexual sin is cowardice, not grace.

When going forward means going back

That sets up the next point. If grace means dealing with sin rather than ignoring it, then the answer is not to ignore what scripture says about one action because we've already ignored it on other actions. We do not now compromise on same sex practices because we've already compromised on adultery. Two wrongs don't make a right. Few have put the principle more clearly than C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity
"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man" (Bk. 1, Ch. 5).
If evangelicals have taken the wrong road by compromising on biblical sexuality when it comes to adultery and divorce, then it is not progress to likewise compromise on same sex practice. The answer is not to continue down the wrong road; it is to go back and take seriously all of scripture and seek to apply it to the Church and ourselves for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. If evangelicals want to answer Drew's question, it means confessing and repenting of the sin of cowardice and gracelessness. It means being faithful to all of scripture, not just our favorite bits. Sometimes going forward requires turning around.
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Image: manostphotos via freedigitalphotos.net

August 7, 2014

Center for Pastor Theologians Announces Third Fellowship (@CenPasTheo)

I was pleased to learn that the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) is growing and has begun taking applications for a third fellowship. If you don't know about CPT, it is group composed primarily of pastor scholars who are committed to writing robust theology from the context of local church ministry. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter. This is from the CPT website:
The CPT is an evangelical organization dedicated to assisting pastor-theologians in producing and studying biblical and theological scholarship for the ecclesial renewal of the theology, and the theological renewal of the church. At present, the primary mission emphasis of the CPT is the CPT Fellowships, made up of a broadly diverse and select group of pastor-theologians. Each Fellowship gathers annually for a three-day theological symposium where Fellows collaborate together on various theological projects (both personal and corporate).
The ultimate aim of the CTP is the renewal of the Christ’s Bride, through the advancement of a robust, Christ exalting ecclesial theology.
Before the modern period, theological writings were largely produced by scholars who were also serving in the trenches of daily ministry. Think Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Calvin, and, of course, Wesley. The most important theology in the history of the Church has been written by bishops and pastors. The publication of theology by academics who are not necessarily writing from an ecclesial context is a fairly recent move. That is not to say that academic theologians do not have a very important role. They certainly do! Many academic theologians produce immensely helpful scholarship that is interesting and helpful, and for that I am grateful. The point is that the rise of academic theology has come with a decrease of ecclesial theology - robust theology written by those in local church ministry settings That decrease means that there is a gaping hole in the discipline of theology. We read little serious theology written by local church pastors, and the Church is impoverished for it. The best case scenario would be rich theology written by pastors and academics. Right now there are far too few pastors writing these kinds of books. 

This is why I'm grateful for CPT. They are working to bring attention to this lack and to fill the gap by cultivating ecclesial theology - robust theology written by pastors. So, if you are interested in applying for the third fellowship, you can find the information at the CPT blog. What CPT is doing is an essential component of healthy Christianity, and I'm glad to see they are growing and making room for more pastor scholars to engage in a vocation of writing theology from the Church. That is something to celebrate.

August 4, 2014

New SermonCast: "Growing into Salvation" 1 Peter 2:2-10 #UMC

Much of the time we think of salvation in the past tense. We focus in on that moment when we first experienced God's reconciling grace, whether a prayer, an altar call, or some other crucial event. Acknowledging and giving thanks for the work of God in our lives in the past is good and right. The grace that comes at conversion is the essential beginning of life in Christ. But we sell ourselves short if we don't give equal or greater attention to the saving work of God in our lives now and in the future. In this week's SermonCast, we take a look at Peter's metaphor of birth and growing up as a way of thinking about Christian discipleship. When we think of following Jesus in terms of being born and growing up, we affirm the importance of God's work in our past, but our attention is also drawn to what God is doing now in preparation for the future. Peter wants us to understand that salvation is bigger than our past. Salvation transforms our present and our future. 

July 30, 2014

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)

I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 
If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle.
The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:
I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.
For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.
I'm grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I've been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.

Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I'm not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 

Again, I'm grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I'm grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I've aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I'm not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other.