December 18, 2008

NT Bibliography and Resources

All serious students of the scriptures should make a habit of regular reading of good books about the Bible. It is of particular importance to read books about the world in which the scriptures were written. If we are to understand the Bible, then we need to understand the Bible's world. This means spending a little time learning about the history, culture, and social structures of the ancient world. The task may sound daunting to some. However, there are numerous books now available which introduce the characteristics of the biblical world in an easily accessible style. Most would be surprised by how much they can learn by simply reading one or two books. You will be amazed at how much more understandable the scriptures are when you understand a little bit about the ancient world. Here are three books to get you started. I plan to add to these over time and will categorize them under the label NT Bibliographies. Each of these books are written at an introductory level and highly recommended.

deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

deSilva provides an introductory look at the four major concepts which identified in the title of the book. I have found the first section on ancient systems of honor and shame to be particularly helpful. deSilva's writing is clear, and he gives a number of examples to show how the cultural concepts aid in our understanding and interpretation of the New Testament.

Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.

As the title suggests, this book looks particularly at the Greco-Roman culture of the first century world. Among other topics, Jeffers includes chapters on Greco-Roman religion, cities, history, and governance. I have found the chapter on slavery in the ancient world to be very helpful as I prepared a Bible study on Paul's letter to Philemon.

Longenecker, Bruce W. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story From the New Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.

This book is a work of historical fiction organized into a series of letters exchanged between Luke (the author of Luke and Acts) and Antipas, a man devoted to the advancement of Rome and her ideals. The story is well done and gripping. When I first read this book, I couldn't put it down. This book introduces its readers to the New Testament world through the correspondence between Luke and Antipas. The reader will learn about many facets and persons of the first century world including the systems of honor and shame, the Emperor cult, and Josephus to name a few. See my review of this book for more information.

December 17, 2008

What About the New Birth?

The moniker "born again" has become an almost universal term to identify people with a generally evangelical Christian faith and perspective. It has come to have an abstract and universal application for those who have had a conversion experience to Christianity. It's interesting that this term has come be used so widely because, as a metaphor for conversion, it doesn't figure prominently in the New Testament. Given the prominence of the term "born again" in the contemporary religious scene, it is worth exploring its biblical origin and meaning.

The term "born again" is grounded in a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one is able to see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above or born anew (3). Nicodemus is quite surprised at this news and asks how one is able to be born after growing old. He adds, perhaps rather sarcastically, whether one is able to enter again into his mother's womb in order to be born again. Jesus responds telling him that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of both water and spirit (5).

This conversation raises the question: Why did Jesus choose to use birth language to describe the work of the Spirit of God to convert and transform a person? Why didn't he just use the language of conversion or tell Nicodemus about the sinner's prayer? The answer to our question comes in an understanding of Nicodemus' cultural context. As a "teacher of Israel," Nicodemus would have believed that his birth as an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, would guarantee him a place in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was understood to be the reality of God's reign most likely through a Messiah figure in which Israel would be exalted above those who had oppressed her and all the nations of the earth. Jesus chooses the language of birth precisely because it is his birth as an Israelite that Nicodemus is counting on in order to gain a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling him that his natural birth as a Jew is not worth counting on. Rather, the Spirit of God must do a work in him that is properly described as undergoing a new birth leading to a new life and a new kind of existence. To enter the kingdom of God, one must both be born of water (or of a woman) and be born of the Spirit.

So, the term "new birth" is a fitting label for those who have been converted to Christ and entered into the new life of the Spirit. It was not, however, such a universal and abstract idea in its origin. Rather, the language was chosen for the specific context in which it was used. It does remind us that, like Nicodemus, there is nothing in us that fits us for a place in the kingdom of our Lord. Instead, the Spirit of God must do a work of transformation to bring us into new life.

December 14, 2008

Rhetoric at the Boundaries by Longenecker

Rhetoric at the Boundaries: The Art and Theology of New Testament Chain-Link Transitions
Bruce Longenecker

Waco: Baylor University Press
2005, 305 pp., hardcover, $49.45

Bruce Longenecker has discovered a missing link in New Testament criticism and interpretation which he has identified as the “chain-link transition.” By carefully analyzing the form, utility, and theological significance of the chain-link interlock, Longenecker demonstrates the importance of this rhetorical transitional device and how the neglect of this construction has led to faulty interpretation of key New Testament texts. The author, who will soon be taking a new post at Baylor University, has made an important contribution to New Testament studies that will require multiple interpretive endeavors to be revisited and revised.

Because the chain-link construction has been so little known, Longenecker’s task is twofold. He must demonstrate both that the chain-link interlock existed in the ancient world and how an understanding of the device is important for interpreting texts. To accomplish the first task, the author’s method involves a “triangulation of evidence” in which he relies on three areas of evidence: (1) first- and second-century Graeco-Roman rhetorical handbooks, (2) sources prior to or contemporary with the New Testament, and (3) the New Testament itself (9). The result is three mutually reinforcing pools of data which together make a convincing case for the existence and regular use of the chain-link construction in ancient texts.

Longenecker first cites evidence for the chain-link transition from the second-century text How to Write History by Lucian of Samosata who speaks of attaching components of a narrative together like a chain. It is from this text in Lucian that Longenecker derives the term “chain-link transition.” He then cites evidence from Quintilian’s late first-century Institutio Oratoria which speaks of textual units being interwoven to strengthen one another as two people who join hands for mutual stability and strength. Longenecker believes that Lucian and Quintilian are referring to the same type of construction which he models as “A-b/a-B” where “A” and “B” are major textual units whose material interlocks across a textual boundary (indicated by “/”). The overlapping of material from two distinct units across a boundary is a distinct characteristic of the chain-link construction making it an “inter-unit” construction and distinguishing it from “intra-unit” features such as inclusio, chiasm, or alternating parallelism.

Some may object that this evidential basis is far from strong enough to conclude that something like a chain-link construction was a well known and viable feature of ancient rhetoric. Longenecker anticipates this objection, though, and points out that the widely accepted chiastic structure does not appear in the rhetorical handbooks until the fourth-century CE (9, 253). He also points out that neither Quintilian nor Lucian provide any instruction on proper use of the chain-link transition indicating that their readers were likely familiar with the form and function of the construction.

The author offers further support from his second evidential database, sources prior to and contemporary with the New Testament. Longenecker cites evidence from nine ancient sources including the Old Testament, Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, and Josephus. He notes that the presence of the chain-link transition in both Hebrew and Graeco-Roman sources suggests that the construction was not limited to Graeco-Roman rhetoric but was characteristic of wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature.

Having shown that the chain-link transition was discussed in ancient rhetorical handbooks and that the device was widely used in literature prior to and contemporary with the New Testament, Longenecker moves to his third evidential database showing fifteen occasions in the New Testament where the chain-link transition occurs. Using material from the gospel of John, Luke-Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation, he demonstrates the importance of knowing the form of the chain-link for interpreting texts and shows how commentators have often misunderstood these texts because they were unaware of chain-link constructions.

For example, Longenecker shows how discussion of the much debated Romans 7:25 would benefit from an awareness of chain-link transitions. Interpreters have been keenly aware that Paul’s statement in 7:25a, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” fits better with the content of 8:1-39 than it does with that of 7:7-25. Longenecker cites proposed solutions that suggest the text was misconstrued in transmission or was the product of scribal confusion. The author shows that such explanations are unnecessary because the transition from 7:25-8:1 is structured by a chain-link interlock and that 7:25a is not poorly located but, rather, it is the anticipatory interlock in the chain-link construction. This text which has been used as an occasion to question Paul’s rhetorical skill is actually a carefully structured chain-link transition.

Two major contributions of this volume are worth noting. First, it provides a methodological basis for further study of chain-link transitions not only in the New Testament but in the many available non-canonical Jewish and Graeco-Roman texts. Longenecker’s work was not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, it draws attention to the chain-link construction and provides the foundation for further study by other.

A second major contribution of this book is its demonstration that New Testament scholarship has been weakened by lack of familiarity with first-century rhetorical conventions. Despite recent growth, rhetorical criticism remains a small field within the New Testament guild. Rhetoric at the Boundaries demonstrates the importance of attentiveness to the rhetorical structure of New Testament texts and how a lack of awareness regarding rhetorical conventions can lead to poor interpretation. Longenecker is to be commended for drawing scholarly attention to an important but neglected phenomenon, the chain-link interlock.

December 8, 2008

Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

I'll be delivering the second speech tonight of a two part series on "Faith Working Through Love" (Gal 5:6) prepared for my "Communication as Christian Rhetoric" class. The first speech was on faith and was entitled: Christian Faith: It's Object and Content. Here is the second speech on love.


Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

When last we met, we examined both the object and content of Christian faith. We discovered that the object of Christian faith is none other than the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We also learned that the content of Christian faith is nothing less than the gospel, the word of faith, the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. But we must remember that the scriptures do not speak of faith in isolation from love as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” So, he thinks of them together, as two parts of one whole. So, we must ask, if Christian faith is constituted by belief in the universal lordship and resurrection of Jesus, then how does such faith relate to love? If Christian faith is directed toward the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what does it mean to speak of that faith working through love?

First, we should observe that if Jesus is truly lord, then he sets the standards for how we live and behave. Jesus himself made this very claim when he declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Our Lord himself commands us thus, “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded. So, if Jesus is Lord of the world, then he sets the standards for human behavior.

But what is the standard? What is it that Jesus has commanded? Well, we do not have time this evening to look at all Jesus commanded. But we do have time to look closely at one commandment in particular. In John 13:34, Jesus is recorded as saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” He goes on to say, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 15:35). So, Jesus set the standard for Christian behavior and interaction during his own ministry with his original disciples. The standard is love. Therefore, if we believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, then Jesus sets the standards for our behavior. And the standard he has set is love. So, faith works through love when take the lordship and commandments of Jesus seriously and love one another. Further, Jesus says that our love for one another is to be a defining characteristic of the Christian community. They will know that we are his disciples and that he is our lord by our love for each other.

But what does this love look like? We can talk about love in the abstract. But what would love look like if we put some flesh on it? Well, once again Jesus provides the answer to our question when he says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34). So, Jesus himself not only commands love, but he exemplifies it as well. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love another.” There are numerous examples to which we could look to see Jesus’ own example of love. But tonight I want to draw your attention to a single event at the end of his ministry.

You will know the story well. It was the night on which Jesus was to be betrayed. After supper, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray knowing fully the events that would transpire that evening and on the following day. As Jesus went into the garden he knelt before the God of Israel and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It seems that he was so deeply anguished that the small blood vessels in his forehead burst and blood ran down like sweat. After praying, he found his disciples sleeping and warned them to pray so that they would not share in the coming tribulation that he would face. Then going a second time to pray, Jesus cried out to his father, “If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Once again Jesus found his disciples asleep, unfaithful even at this crucial moment. Returning again into the garden he prayed for the final time, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Despite the unfaithfulness of his closest friends, Jesus did not waver in faith or faithfulness, but set his face towards the cross trusting in the God he knew as Father prepared to offer himself in a single great act of love. And even as the mob came to take him away, Jesus reached out to heal the wounded ear of one who sought to harm him. And when he hung on the cross, with thorns pressed into his scalp, spikes piercing his hands and feet, his flesh barely hanging on from the scourging, this holy one interceded before God for the very ones who were torturing him to death. What does love look like? It looks like the Lord who offered himself for his sleeping disciples. What does love look like? It looks like the one who was betrayed and still worked to heal his captor. What does love look like? It looks like the man on the cross who even at the point of death cared more for the needs of his persecutors than for his own. What does love look like? Love looks like Jesus. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34).

But how are we to love like that with such other oriented and selfless love? Are not we like those sleepy disciples who were more concerned with their heavy eyes than their Lord’s anguish? How are we to love like that? We are not able. Not unless he does something both for us and in us. Not unless he both sets us right and fills us with his own Spirit transforming us into the likeness of his own holy image. Only in power of the Spirit of God given by the Lord Jesus Christ will we ever be able to love like that.

In conclusion, then, what does it mean to speak of faith that is made effective through love? It means that the gospel, the content of faith, is also our standard of behavior. It means that the Risen Lord in whom we believe sets the rules for how we live. It means that Jesus not only commands but exemplifies and, by his Spirit, enables us to love others as he has loved us. Faith that works through love is faith in the crucified Lord which is then manifest in cruciform love.

December 5, 2008

Election in Romans 11: The Salvation of the Hardened

In the early verses of Romans 11, Paul makes a distinction between two groups within the historic people of Israel: the elect chosen by grace (5, 7) and the rest who were hardened (7). Quoting the Old Testament, Paul goes on to say of the hardened that, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear," and, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent" (8-10). These verses are regularly troubling to Arminians. When taken out of context they seem to assert some manner of unconditional election and predetermined condemnation where God chooses some some for salvation and hardens others leaving them to their tragic fate. However, when read in context, such a system cannot be sustained. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul goes on to invite the question as to whether the falling of these hardened ones means that they have fallen ultimately, "have they stumbled so as to fall?" (11). His answer is an emphatic, "Absolutely not!" The Apostle to the Gentiles then explains God's ultimate purpose in his hardening a part of Israel. Their hardening was the means to the end of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the covenant people of God (11). Paul then begins to entertain the possibility of the re-inclusion of these hardened Israelites by saying, "Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (12). Now it must be stressed that Paul is not here speaking of the elect. He distinguished between "elect" and "hardened" in v. 7. The hardened then became the subject of his discourse throughout vv. 8-12. Thus, our understanding of election must be articulated in light of Paul's eagerness to consider the salvation of the hardened non-elect. He goes beyond mere speculation as the chapter progresses. He goes on to speak of an olive tree with natural branches that were broken off and a wild olive shoot that was grafted in (17). The branches that were broken off must be the hardened non-elect Israelites of v. 7. They certainly cannot be the elect remnant because the remnant was kept by God not broken off (4-5). Paul helpfully explains why they were broken off - because of unbelief (20). Then, after warning the Gentiles that they might suffer a similar judgment if they do not persevere in faith (20-22), Paul declares that those hardened non-elect Israelites will be grafted in again on the condition that they do not persist in unbelief (23). Paul is asserting not only the possibility but the certainty that some of the hardened non-elect will ultimately be grafted into the new covenant people of God on the condition of belief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whatever our understanding of election is, if it is to be biblical, then it must be able to take on board (1) the conditional nature of election and, therefore, (2) the possibility of salvation for the hardened non-elect. At the risk of anachronism, Paul would have made a great Arminian. Or, more appropriately put, classical Arminians make for good Paulinists.

November 30, 2008

Therapeutic Church Slogans

During my holiday travels in recent days I observed a number of signs in front of churches with slogans that publicized a characteristic which the church apparently wanted to make known about itself. Here are three that caught my eye: 1) "where Jesus heals the hurting," 2) where we help people get back to God," and 3) "got problems?" You may be wondering what these have in common and why I found them so interesting. Well, they all seem to have in common a focus on the therapeutic. They say to the passerby, "If you've got a problem, come here to get it fixed. We are the problem fixing people." Now there may be nothing wrong with this. And I agree that the church is the place where God intends to redeem and transform people. However, I must ask, is therapy to be our central word of proclamation? Is the church to be identified by its therapeutic services? Is this what we should put on the sign out front? Personally, I would like to see a sign that reads, "First Church of This Town...Where Jesus Is Lord," or "First Church of That Town...In the Sure and Certain Hope of the Resurrection of the Dead." These seem to me to be more central to the church's identity and its core proclamation. Are we the therapy people or the gospel people? I may be wrong, but I am concerned that these instances are indicative of a larger trend in evangelical churches.

It is not the church's job to meet every little perceived problem that everyone thinks they have. It is the church's job to tell people that they don't actually know what their real problems are, namely sin and death. And it is the church's job to faithfully proclaim the one who is able to deal with these problems. Problems are part of life and anyone who thinks that being a Christian will fix their problems is bound for a rude awakening. Just ask the Apostle Paul who was stoned and lived to tell about it. If anything, being a Christian invites problems. It was Jesus who said we would have trouble. The church's job is not to fix felt needs and perceived problems. The church's job is not primarily therapy (of course this doesn't mean that faithful Christians cannot be therapists...certainly they can). The church's job is faithful proclamation of the gospel about God's Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins according to the scriptures and was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.

November 10, 2008

Christian Faith: It's Object and Content

I'm currently in a class called "Communication as Chrstian Rhetoric." We are assigned two speeches to be delivered in the class. The first speech is to be on faith while the second is to be on love drawing on the idea of faith working through love in Gal. 5:6. Here is the manuscript from my first speech delivered earlier tonight.
“The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Such a declaration raises at least a few important questions. To who is this faith directed or to what? What is the content of this faith? How is this faith defined? What sets this faith apart from any other faith? And what does it mean to say faith works through love? After all, isn’t faith personal while love is something that is directed towards another?

As Christians, it is important for us to be clear about the object and the content of our faith. This is especially the case in the present day because faith has become something of a buzzword. We’ve just finished an election season last week. We’ve seen presidential candidates interviewed by preachers. We’ve seen the candidates both associate and dissociate themselves with other preachers. We’ve heard them speak about their faith albeit generally vague. Faith is a buzzword and it seems that in our day, it’s more important to have faith than to be clear about the object and the content of that faith. So, what is Christian faith? To who is Christian faith directed?

When Paul the Apostle wants to talk about the origins of Christian faith, he goes all the way back to Abraham who is the “father of all who have faith” (Rom 4:11). And he keys in on two things. Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. The creator God who gives life to the dead is the object of Abraham’s faith.

You see, Abraham had a problem. He and his wife Sarah had no children, and they were too old to have children. This is a problem because, for Abraham, when he dies, that’s the end of his name, the end of house, the end of his heritage. His property will go to a slave in his home, and he will be forgotten because there is no one to carry on his name. So, what is it that makes Abraham so special? Paul says that Abraham believed a promise. He believed the promise of God that God would give him a family. Now talk about unlikely. Paul likes to point out that Abraham was one hundred years old. He was as good as dead. His wife too was elderly and barren. But instead of wavering, Abraham glorified God. He grew strong in his faith and he believed that God could do what he said he would, namely bring life out Abraham’s dead old body. For Paul, this is the paradigm, the model of Christian faith. Christian faith is faith in the creator God who raises the dead.

Now you and I live in a period of history where God has revealed more than he had revealed to Abraham. The God who raises the dead has given us a concrete demonstration of his power to give life to that which was dead. The creator God has made himself known in history in Jesus of Nazareth who was handed over by the Jews to be crucified by Romans. They put him on trial and put him to death. But the Creator, the one who is able to give life to the dead, the one that Jesus knew as Father, reversed the decision of the court by raising Jesus from the dead. So, you see, to believe in the God who Abraham believed in, to believe in the God who raises the dead, is to believe in Jesus, the one who was dead but now lives. Christian faith is faith whose specific object is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Now if the object of Christian faith is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what is the content of Christian faith? What is the central proclamation, the gospel that Paul says is the power of God for salvation to those who believe? What is the message, that when believed, leads to salvation?

Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a description of his gospel. He says that the gospel is about God’s son, who is descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4). So, the gospel has to do with Jesus’ descent from David, a king of Israel, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which confirms his Messianic status as Son of God. The gospel has to do with Jesus’ kingly descent and his resurrection from the dead.

This is confirmed later in the letter to the Romans when Paul articulates the “word of faith which we proclaim” (10:8). He says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). This, then, is the word of faith, the gospel, and the central Christian proclamation: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. The crucified and risen Messiah Jesus is Lord of the world. Paul says believe that and you will be saved.

So, to this point we have seen that the object of Christian faith is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God, who by his Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. We have also seen that the content of the word of faith, the gospel, is Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

Now someone is going to ask why this is important. After all, I’ve simply defined Christian faith. Who is to say that some other faith is not valid? Why is Christian faith any better or more important than any other faith?

The answer to such an objection is that the gospel, the word of faith, is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith. The gospel itself is God’s power for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). Well what does that mean? Well, sometimes an example is helpful in trying to understand the scriptures. In 1 Thes. 1:5, Paul says, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When Paul preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, the Holy Spirit went to work powerfully to convict them of sin. So, why is it important to be clear on the content of the gospel? It’s important because the proclamation is the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit goes to work to convict of sin and draw people to the Father through the Son. We need to be clear about the content of the gospel so that we can be faithful preachers of the gospel. We need to be clear on the content of the gospel so that we do not distort the gospel and strip it of its power because we think we know better than the Spirit. This is important because sometimes we are tempted to tweak it because we think if we can phrase it just right, then we can hook ‘em. But our job is not to tweak the word of faith. Our job is to be faithful preachers of the word of faith. When we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, the Spirit of God goes to work in power to convict and convert. We must be clear on the content of this word.

So, some will respond that you’ve got your faith and I’ve got mine. The problem is if it isn’t Christian faith in the Lord Jesus and the God who raised him from the dead, then it isn’t saving faith. In fact, Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that if it is not resurrection faith, then it’s futile faith. And we are still in our sins. So, when Paul says that the only thing that matters is faith working through love, he has in mind a very specific kind of faith.

So, the call for us today is a call to clarity, boldness, and faithfulness: clarity in the object of faith, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, clarity in the word of faith, Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, boldness in our proclamation of that word, and faithfulness in our proclamation of that word despite opposition which will try to relativize faith. There will be voices which proclaim alternatives. Our task is to be faithful to preach the good news: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

November 8, 2008

The Problem with Open Theism: A God Who Cannot be Trusted

I'm tired of Open Theism. For those who may be unaware of what this nomenclature refers to, Open Theism is the view that God knows all of the past and all of the present but only has 99.9% knowledge of the future. The argument is based on Biblical texts that speak of God's seeking to know something. Proponents also argue that if an event has not yet taken place, then there is nothing for God to know.

The position comes from an honest attempt to try to justify authentic human freedom when it comes to decision making. Open Theists fear that if God has knowledge of future events and human choices, then the choice is already made and the human being has no authentic options to choose from. She must simply do what God already knows she will do. Unfortunately, this fails to see that foreknowledge does not imply predetermination. Few, if any, in the history of the church have argued that God's foreknowledge results in his determination of human choices. Neither Calvinists nor Arminians hold such a view. Calvinists believe that God's foreknowledge is a result of his decree not a result of human choices. Arminians believe that foreknowledge is simply knowledge of free human choices. So, neither side has classically affirmed that foreknowledge equals determinism.

The problem with Open Theism is that it creates a God who cannot be trusted. If God's knowledge is at all limited, then how does God know that God is God. Perhaps, the one we worship as God is the mere creature of some higher power or deity. Perhaps the one we worship as God is simply under the illusion that he is God being deceived by this malevolent higher power. If God does not have full knowledge of the future, then he cannot be trusted to return in the person of Christ to raise the dead and perform the final work of new creation because, for all God knows, there may be some other more powerful God that will thwart the plans of the one we worship as God. God is trustworthy because he knows what he will do. So, one implication of Open Theism is that it opens up the possibility of polytheism. To limit God's knowledge is to undermine his trustworthiness and to make so-called Christian faith futile. If God's knowledge is not exhaustive of every possible future event, then faith gives no assurance and it may be the case that the one in whom we place our faith is powerless to save us.

November 5, 2008

Abortion and the Apostolic Voice

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Romans 12:1

One of the most important issues challenging us today is whether a woman has the right to terminate the life of her unborn baby. Faithful Christians regularly call for the child's right to life, and rightly so. However, perhaps we could approach the issue from another angle as well, from the angle of sacrifice. For Christians, at least, our bodies are not our own. If Jesus really is Lord, then he sets the rules for what we do with our bodies. When the Apostle Paul appeals to the Roman Christians by the mercies of God, he is calling up everything he said in the first eleven chapters of the letter. By his mercy, God has forgiven your sin. By his mercy, God has given you right standing and brought you into his family. By his mercy, God has joined you to Christ. By his mercy, God has given you his own Spirit to transform your character. By his mercy, God will glorify you raising you from the dead to give you the cosmos. How will you respond to such mercy? Paul's answer...offer your body to God. This is clearly applicable to the abortion debate. It is, of course, clear that we cannot expect non-Christians to submit to such an expectation. Those who deny the Lordship of Christ cannot submit their bodies to him unless he justifies them and begins to transform them by his indwelling Spirit. However, what if Christians stopped calling so much for our rights and started offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice? What if we offered our mouths to God? Our hands? Our eyes? Our conduct? What if we were to live such radical lives of living sacrifice to God that when one of our little girls gets pregnant outside of marriage or unexpectedly or, God forbid, by force, her first tendency will be to offer her own body as a living sacrifice to God for the sake of the child she carries because she has learned that this is just what Christians do? It is right to speak about the rights of the child. But we ought to expand our witness and our behavior to testify to the universal lordship and supremacy of Jesus as we respond to his mercy by offering our bodies to him.

November 4, 2008

Holiness in the 21st Century

I was privileged to attend an academic conference this past Saturday on the future of the holiness tradition. The conference was a project of the Francis Asbury Society and funded by an anonymous donor with the theme of "understanding and communicating Christian holiness in our day." Attendees were invited from the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary, Asbury College, and the Francis Asbury Society, and each faculty member was allowed to invite a student who might be interested in the future of the holiness movement. The keynote speaker was Dr. Graham Walker, President of Patrick Henry College, who presented a stimulating paper called "These Perverse Times: A Diagnostic." Dr. John Oswalt, Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary, delivered a paper on "Holiness and the Scriptures." Dr. Paul Vincent gave a paper on "Holiness and the Nineteenth Century: Our Problem or Our Promise." Each session was followed by discussion and interaction with the speaker. After the last paper, we divided into small groups to discuss some of the issues that had been addressed during the day. The conference concluded with a large group discussion led by Dr. Oswalt and a time of prayer. Overall, I found the conference to be very fruitful, and I learned a lot about the holiness tradition. Having been quite eager to get involved in a group like this, I was very excited to be a part of this meeting. I am encouraged and look forward to seeing how our Lord works through the holiness tradition as it continues to grow and flourish in the coming days.

Photo: Statue of Francis Asbury

November 2, 2008

Abortion and the Prophetic Voice

Ezekiel 16 paints a sublime portrait of the Creator God's love for his chosen people. This God expresses his love saying, "I pledged myself to you and entered into covenant with you...and you became mine...I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. I adorned you with ornaments" (8-11). This poetic expression of God's passionate adornment of his beloved people is moving. There is, though, an interesting detail earlier in the chapter which is not to be overlooked. The word of Lord through the prophet says, "As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born" (4-5). I find it fascinating anc comforting that the metaphor chosen by God to express his love to his people is that of an unwanted, unloved, and left for dead newborn. The one whose cord was not cut, who was left unwashed, abandoned by her parents, and thrown in a field to die, this is the one that the Lord chooses for himself to raise up as his own making her the object of his covenant love. When God wanted to express his passionate love and loyalty to his people, he chose language not altogether unlike a partial birth abortion. Evidently, God loves babies that no one else does.

October 31, 2008

Jim Wallis, Abortion, and the Prophetic Voice

Christianity Today published an interview with Jim Wallis in May of this year discussing a number of his views on issues like abortion, marriage, and poverty. When asked about his position on abortion Wallis answered, "The abortion debate has really gotten very stale. It's a symbolic battle that takes place mostly only in election years...But the abortion question is real. It's a moral issue. The number of unborn lives that are lost every year is alarming. It's a moral tragedy..." (53). It's good to hear Wallis concerned about the abortion question. However, the interviewer goes on to ask about Wallis' advocating of a prophetic voice on social issues such as abortion comparing it to Wilberforce's battle against slavery(54). Wallis answers, "I don't think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That's my judgment. People make the mistake of defining prophetic by politically left and right categories, and that the further left or right you are, the more prophetic you are. They're not biblically prophetic; they're politically ideological" (54).

Now, I agree that poverty is an important issue. Clearly Jesus spent a lot of time with poor people and those on the fringes of society. However, I can't imagine how anyone can think that the outright slaughter of innocent babes is not the moral equivalent of slavery. If Wallis wants to talk about the prophetic voice, how about this? If you were to do a word study on the idea of hell in the gospels, you would find that one of the words rendered as hell is Gehenna (e.g. Mark 9:43). If you find that interesting enough to track down the meaning of Gehenna, you would find that Gehenna was the valley south of Jerusalem where two Judean kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, burned sacrifices to a false god. They even burned their own sons as sacrifices to Molech (2 Chron 28:3, 33:6). Because of this, the valley was cursed and became the Jerusalem garbage dump. It was a place where the flames never went out and the stench of burning garbage never ceased. This was Jesus' image for hell. His image for eternal destruction was the burning pile of garbage on land that was cursed because Judean kings sacrificed their children there. How's that for the prophetic voice? Sometimes I think we are so calloused that I wonder if we would know the prophetic voice if it were shouting in our faces? The slaughter of defenseless children is most clearly the subject that the prophetic voice is concerned with. That is not to say that poverty is not an important issue. It is to say that poverty is not a bigger issue than abortion. The wholesale slaughter of 50 million unborn children in last 25 years is the precise subject and content of the prophetic voice. It's the sort of thing that Jesus would use as a metaphor for judgment and destruction.

October 25, 2008

Justification and Hebrew Syntax

Genesis 15:6 is a central text for the Christian doctrine of Justification. When Paul developed his understanding of Justification in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, he appealed to Genesis 15:6, "Then he (Abraham) believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." This verse seems straight forward enough. However, the proper interpretation of this verse and Paul's use of it have been hotly debated. An important element of the debate lies in the meaning of "it," which in the Hebrew is attached to the verb as a third feminine singular suffix. John Piper has argued in detail that in Paul's use of this verse in Romans 4 the "it" refers to God's own righteousness which is external to the individual and which is received by faith (Counted Righteous in Christ, 69). Piper's exegesis is nuanced and is worth considering. He does deal primarily with Paul only mentioning Genesis 15:6 in passing. The other side of the debate suggests that the "it" refers to Abraham's act of believing. Abraham believed God and God credited that act of believing as righteousness. This seems like the most natural way to read Genesis 15:6 to me. The nearest antecedent to "it" in the text certainly appears to be Abraham's act of believing. Genesis 15 is not really concerned with God's righteousness. Rather, Genesis 15 seems concerned with finding a righteous person. Regardless of one's conclusions though, it is the case that the doctrine of Justification turns on the meaning of a third feminine singular Hebrew pronomial suffix. I have a professor who says that preaching is in the syntax. Genesis 15:6 demonstrates that doctrine is in the syntax also.

September 28, 2008

Irenaeus on Romans 1:17

Perhaps foremost among the debated passages in Romans is this quote from Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17, "The righteous one from faith shall live." The dominant position since the Reformation has been that "the righteous one" is a sinner justified by faith in Jesus. Over the last twenty years, though, a number of scholars have argued that "the righteous one" is actually Jesus. The arguments are complex, and I don't intend to get into them here. I do, however, find it interesting to look at what the ancient commentators have to say regarding debated passages, and I recently came across this passage in Irenaeus' On the Apostolic Preaching:

"In the same way, we, believing in God, are made righteous, for 'through faith shall the righteous live'; so 'the promise made to Abraham came not through the Law but through faith.' Since Abraham was made righteous by faith, and 'the Law is not laid for the righteous,' likewise, we are not made righteous by the Law, but by faith, which receives testimony from the Law and Prophets, and which the Word of God offers us" (1.35).

With the majority position, Irenaeus clearly sees "the righteous" in Romans 1:17 as the guilty sinner justified by faith. He takes Abraham to be the first to whom this justification was reckoned and all who believe in the God revealed in Jesus to be likewise justified. I do not always agree exegetically with the ancients, and I do sometimes go back and forth considering both sides in this particular case. I must say, though, that I often find the views of those who understood Paul's Greek much better than I to be quite persuasive. It is also comforting to find oneself in agreement with what has been taught in the church for nearly two millenia. That said, I presently find myself leaning towards Irenaeus' understanding of "the righteous."

September 26, 2008

Sunday and the Sabbath

Like many Christians, I grew up with a general understanding of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. I perceive this position to be rather widespread having encountered it in both personal experience and primary source historical documents. Lots of people refer to Sunday as "the Sabbath." Over the last couple of years, though, I have begun to change my mind. The process overall has been very gradual with several crisis points along the way. I think the shift began with texts like Colossians 2:16-17 where Paul lumps the Sabbath in with other Jewish holy days saying that they lack substance being only a shadow of what is to come, namely, Christ. This text did not make or break the issue for me. It simply lodged a certain amount of uncertainty in my mind regarding the relationship between Sunday and Sabbath. Another crisis moment came during the course of a class in Methodist history when the professor distinctly instructed us not to refer to Sunday as the Sabbath in our discussions or in assigned work. Sunday is not the Sabbath, he claimed; it is the Lord's Day. By this time I was accustomed to not thinking of Sunday as Sabbath. So, this was not problematic for me. In fact, I found it somewhat humorous.

The more I studied the history of earliest Christianity, the more I saw the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord's Day as two very distinct days. For one thing, the first Christians were Jews. It seems likely that they observed both the Sabbath on Saturday and the Lord's Day on Sunday. Peter and John still went to the temple for prayer (Acts 3:1). They probably also observed the Sabbath. Even though these practices were maintained for a period, Christians developed the early and widespread practice of worshipping on the first day of the week as a celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Paul customarily attended the synagogue on the Sabbath not necessarily primarily to worship but to proclaim the word of the Lord and to evangelize (Acts 13:42-44; 17:1-2 18:4). It is not hard to imagine the earliest Christian Jews observing both the Sabbath and the Lord's Day. Eventually, the Lord's Day eclipsed the Sabbath in significance such that Paul could tell the Colossians not to let anyone condemn them for not observing it.

The most recent critical moment in my thinking on this subject came this last week when considering with some classmates the meaning and significance of the Sunday as the day of resurrection. The most important point is that the first Easter Sunday is the first day of God's work of new creation. I emphasize work because this is in direct contrast to the Sabbath. God did not rest on Easter Sunday. Quite the opposite, he went to work raising Jesus from the dead on the first day of the new week. Like Genesis 1, Easter Sunday is the first day of the week, and it is a day of work. Except this time, the project is not creatio ex nihilo. It is a making new of the old, it is kaine ktisis, new creation. Jesus' dead body was transformed, renewed, and given new resurrection life. This is the most important work ever. It is the climactic work of God to initiate his project of new creation. This is where the distinct difference between Sabbath and Sunday is most clear. Sabbath is about rest; Sunday is about work! On the Sabbath Jesus rested; on Sunday God raised him from the dead!

Of particular interest is that early Christians would get up before dawn to worship on Sunday, the first day of the ancient work week, in order to celebrate the Lord's Day before going off to work. They did not celebrate the resurrection on the Sabbath. Nor did they associate Sunday with rest. They associated it with God's work of redemption and new creation. I propose, then, that Christian worship on Sunday was originally a challenge, and perhaps even a subversion, of both Gentile and Jewish ideals. It subverted the Gentile work week by beginning the week with a special day to celebrate the worship of the creator God who was active in Jesus Christ doing new creation. Non-Christian Gentiles found it peculiar that the Christians would worship before going to work. Sunday worship also challenged the holy day of Judaism. While not abolishing the Sabbath, the Lord's Day quickly eclipsed the Sabbath as the most important day of the week. The Sabbath may have been a reminder of God's rest after his previous creative work. But the Lord's Day was, more importantly, a celebration of God' new creative work. Sabbath and Sunday stand for two the two fundamentally different realities of rest and work.

This does not mean that Christians are not permitted to observe the Sabbath. However, if they are to observe it, then it's significance should be maintained and it should probably be observed on the appropriate day of the week, Saturday. It should be practiced as what it is, a reminder and celebration of God's creative work and his rest afterward. It should probably also be seen as a day of rest in preparation for the celebratory work coming on Sunday, the work of new creation and the celebration of our Lord's resurrection. It must also be remembered that the Sabbath is not required of Christians. As Paul said, "Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:16-17). As far as I can tell, this is the only place where Paul seems to specifically revoke one of the ten commandments. Sabbath observance is not something required of Christians. It is part of the Mosaic Covenant, not the New Covenant of Christ. If a Christian wants to observe Sabbath, it must not be required of those who do not.

It is important to maintain the distinction between the Lord's Day and the Sabbath. They stand fundamentally for two different realites. Both are important, but they are different. Sabbath is about God's rest after his work of creation. Sunday is about God's work of new creation after his Sabbath rest. As my history professor declared, Sunday is not the Sabbath!

September 13, 2008

Luther and Wright on the Gospel

I was recently flipping through Michael Bird's The Saving Righteousness of God and came across this quote by Martin Luther on the content of the gospel, "The gospel is a story about Christ, God's and David's Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell" (69). This is particularly fascinating given the Protestant frustration over people like N.T. Wright articulating the gospel like this, "for Paul 'the gospel' is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord" (from "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire"). Wright and others do indeed challenge certian Lutheran interpretations of the scriptures. However, it would seem that both Luther and Wright agree on the basics of the gospel that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, is Lord of the world. Perhaps this common ground can provide a foundation to move forward in the search for clarity concerning the content of the gospel.

August 23, 2008

Yeah...But Which Context?

As a seminary student I hear a lot about contextualization. It has become something of a buzz word in contemporary evangelicalism. Generally, when someone talks about contextualization as it relates to Christianity they are referring to the idea that the Christian message must somehow be made culturally relevant to people today. We are thousands of years and half a world away from the world of the Bible. So, how do we make the Bible relevant to today's world? This is the question that contextualization addresses. It is not a question without merit. I have no intention of denying the importance of helping people to think about the scriptures in a fresh way. But I want to use the issue to turn the question the other way. Instead of asking how we can relate the Bible to our culture, I propose that we should just as often ask how we ourselves can relate to the culture of the Bible. The first question is one that moves from ancient to modern times. The second is one that moves from modern to ancient times.

My concern is that we get so caught up with trying to make the Bible relevant or meaningful in our modern context that we all too often forget to try to understand what the Bible meant in its original context. Or we do not expend the necessary energy to understand the Bible in its original context. Every serious student of the scriptures should make a life long habit of studying the world in which the scriptures were written. We are bound to misunderstand the text if we do not also understand its original context.

I realize that the person with a family and a job will not be able to devote time to extensive and detailed reading in the social context of the ancient near east and Hellenistic world. However, this does not mean that attention must never be devoted to these periods. We find time to read novels or watch sitcoms. Should we not also find time to read history? Especially considering that it is the history of the world in which the Bible was written.

That the average career and family man cannot devote full time study to the text and its social context also indicates the importance of a pastor who devotes significant time to such study. It is the pastor's responsibility to faithfully preach and teach the scriptures. But how can he do this if he does not understand the world in which the sacred texts were composed? The faithful pastor must also be something of an historian as well. The pastor who spends sufficient time preparing to preach or teach by reading good commentaries will accomplish this. A good commentary will always bring the historical and social context to bear on the interpretation of a text. I fear though that all too often the pastor tries so diligently to relate the text to his congregation that he neglects the task of relating the congregation to the text. It is amazing how clear some difficult passages become when the social context is considered.

This means that the faithful preacher will have to read some history. For example, the pastor preaching in Romans should grapple with its social context which occupies the final four chapters, a full 25%, of the letter. Who are the two groups called upon to welcome each other in Romans 14? What is the relationship between Paul's ethical exhortation to these particular people and the theology in chapters 1-11? Why does the letter come to its final climax in calling the Jew and Gentile to glorify God together? How do these questions relate to Paul's pending mission to Spain? These questions can only be addressed through reading in the social context of Christianity in first century Rome. Unfortunately, the social context of Romans Christianity has been widely neglected in the interpretation and the preaching of Romans.

The importance of understanding the historical context of the text also means that the preacher should read the books Paul was reading. This may mean wrestling with Aristotle who may have coined the term "natural/carnal man" (Gk. psychikos anthropos) used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:14. It appears that the term did not originally refer to man at his worst but to man at his best, supremely educated and contributing positively to the state and to society. Paul appears to be saying that the best the Graeco-Roman world had to offer is not able to understand the things of the Spirit of God.

The issue of contextualization, then, may not always be an issue of moving from ancient to modern. Rather, it is often an issue of the reverse, moving from modern to ancient. The preacher is particularly responsible for making sure that his preaching is consistent with what was actually happening when the preached texts were written. The thorough preacher will be able to relate the congregation to the text as well as the text to the congregation. The movement goes both ways.

August 5, 2008

Circumcision and Faith

I read the introduction to Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (eds. Schreiner and Wright, B&H, 2006) this morning. The authors make this statement:

"The view of paedobaptism affirmed by the Reformed tradition is fraught with inconsistency: as evangelicals they believe that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, but as paedobaptists they give the sign of that faith (baptism) to those who have not excercised faith (infants). It is primarily this theology that we are trying to correct in this book" (7).

Having not yet read the rest of the book, it would be inappropriate to argue against the claim that paedobaptists inconsistently give the sign of faith (baptism) to those who have not excersized faith (infants). However, it is appropriate to raise an important question for reflection as the coming argument is considered.

In Romans 4:11, Paul tells us that, "[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he ws still uncircumcised." Interestingly, Paul here connects faith and circumcision. Abraham himself was justified before God by faith. Abraham's circumcision was a sign of the righteous declaration received from God on the condition of his faith. As Douglas Wilson says in his book To A Thousand Generations, "his was a case of believers circumcision" (74) because Abraham received the sign of his by faith righteousness after the fact of his faith. In Abraham's case, the sign came after the thing signified.

However, Abraham went on to circumcise his children and his physical descendents did the same. Why did they do this? Because God commanded them to and to do it on the eighth day after the birth of the child (Gen. 17:12). God commanded Abraham to give his eight day old descendents the mark which Paul says was a sign of the righteousness had by faith. These questions must be raised: Why did God command Abraham to give his sons a sign of righteousness by faith before they had any righteousness by faith by virtue of their infancy? Did the circumcision of Abraham's descendents signify something different from Abraham's own circumcision? Why, in the case of Abraham's descendents, did the sign (circumcision) precede the thing signified (faith-righteousness)? Did Abraham, under the commandment of God, inconsistently give the sign of faith (circumcision) to those who had not exercized faith (infants)? It is even more interesting that the sign of righteousness by faith was given to those who did not have righteousness by faith especially considering the fact that many of Abraham's descendents would never come to faith at all despite the fact that they bore on their bodies the sign of that faith.

Let me emphasize, I am not presently arguing against the thesis of this book. I haven't read the argument yet. However, the thesis of this book immediately raises the above pertinent questions. Perhaps the authors will be able to supply adequate answers to these important questions.

Paul: Apostle of God's Glory in Christ by Thomas R. Schreiner

I've just finished reading Tom Schreiner's Pauline theology, Paul: Apostle of God's Glory in Christ (IVP, 2001), and I must say that I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Schreiner's style is engaging; his scholarship, impressive; his evangelical passion, refreshing. The book is not without shortcomings, but, all in all, I found it to be both an informative and pleasurable read.

Schreiner's central claim is that the foundation of Paul's theology is the "centrality of God in Christ" (18). The conversation in which this volume takes part has heard a range of voices arguing that the center of Paul's theology is anything from justification to reconciliation, apocalyptic, salvation history, or the fulfillment of God's promises. Schreiner argues that to emphasize any of these important Pauline themes to the neglect others is to do injustice to Paul's theology and to the God whom Paul preached revealed in Christ who is himself the justifier, reconciler, revealer, savior, and promise giver. I think Schreiner is essentially right in his thesis, and his work in this book demonstrates the cogency of his claim.

The book champions a number of strengths. First, unlike many Pauline theologies, Schreiner uses all thirteen of the letters attributed to Paul to conduct his inductive study of Paul's theology. Authentic Pauline authorship of six letters claiming to be from Paul has been widely disputed by a significant number of scholars. Many of these arguments suggest that the disputed letters are theologically inconsistent with the so-called authentic Paulines. One of the major contributions of this volume is the demonstration of broad theological consistency across all thirteen of the Pauline epistles. It is easy to see how scholars who emphasize a particular theme (e.g., justification) as the center of Paul's theology might conclude that the letters which do not emphasize that them are not authentically Pauline. Schreiner shows, though, that if the foundation of Paul's thought is the glory of God in Christ, then all thirteen letters are easily seen as flowing from the same pen.

Another important contribution is Schreiner's claim that Paul's missionary vocation was formative for his theology. Paul's missionary vocation has been regularly neglected in studies of his theology. Schreiner emphasizes the fact that it was Paul's God given vocation to preach the gospel of Christ that energized his mission and helped shape his theology. Understanding Paul as a missionary helps the reader to understand his letters as pastoral wisdom given to particular churches to ensure their faithfulness to Christ.

Unfortunately, Schreiner reads Paul through Calvinistic lenses which leads him into several misreadings of important themes in Paul's letters. One of these misreadings has to do with Paul's theology of election. Schreiner rightly points out that Paul's theology of election must be understood in light of the Old Testament scriptures (237), and he rightly notes that "Israel was God's elect people on whom God placed his favor and love" (237-238). However, Schreiner forsakes the corporate categories of election of the Old Testament scriptures for unconditional individual election. He supports this argument by appealing to various texts, not least of all Romans 9:10-13 where God chooses Jacob and not Esau. The following objection may be made to reading this text as individual election to salvation. Paul is quoting Gen. 25 and Mal. 1. Both of these texts clearly have a corporate or national entity in view. God says to Rebekah, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other and the elder shall serve the younger " (Gen. 25:23). And in Mal. 1:2-3 The prophetic word, "I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau," is directed to the people of Israel. Categories in the Old Testament texts from which Paul quotes use corporate categories. Schreiner argues against corporate categories on the grounds that, "the attempt to divide groups and individuals is logically flawed. Groups are made up of individuals" (245). While groups and individuals cannot be entirely separated, there is a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament, proselytes who were formerly outside the elect community could enter into it while original members of the covenant could commit apostasy and suffer the curses of the covenant being cut off from their people. We see that the elect community could remain while the individuals within the community could change. As a unit, Romans 9-11 contains the most quotes from the Old Testament in any Pauline passage. The Old Testament understanding of election cannot be discarded when interpreting this text.

Schreiner's understanding of election is logically related to other misreadings of Paul's letters. For example, he also affirms that "Genuine faith is always persevering faith," (272) against the idea that true believers can commit actual apostasy (cf. 277). I do not have time to interact with this claim in detail, but I will note that Paul regularly warns the faithful about the possibility of judgment for faithlessness (Rom. 11:17-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-14). He even appears to note the possibility of his own apostasy (1 Cor. 9:26-27). Schreiner takes these warnings as a means of God's effectual grace to give true believers the gift of perseverance (287-288). In my view, this seems to undermine the reality of the warning.

Again, I must say that I enjoyed this book immensely. I find Schreiner to be a joy to read even when I disagree with him. This book is a good introduction to Pauline theology from the Calvinistic tradition within Protestantism. However, it should not be read as representative of, or even consistent with, the majority of the history of Christian thought. Many biblically minded and Christ exalting believers have read the scriptures quite differently. For this reason, Schreiner's work must be read critically. The book has a great deal to offer, but the reader should be aware of its significant shortcomings.

August 3, 2008

The Lord of the Table

"You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealously?" 1 Cor. 10:21-22a

The Apostle Paul offers relatively little reflection on the Christian practice and significance of the Lord's Supper in his letters. If not for 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 we wouldn't know any of Paul's thinking about Communion. The above verse is Paul's first mention of the Communion meal and it comes as Paul is warning the Corinthians about the danger of apostasy or falling into destruction (1 Cor. 10:12-14). It is in this context that Paul brings up "the cup of blessing that we bless" and "the bread that we break" (16). He says that the cup is a "sharing in the blood of Christ" and the bread is a "sharing in the body of Christ" (16). The cup seems to indicate fellowship with Christ through the New Covenant in his blood (cf. 11:25) while the bread appears to indicate the fellowship and unity in the Church, the body of Christ. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (17). So, we might say that the meal involves both vertical participation with Christ and horizontal participation with the Church. To partake at the Lord's table somehow involves both fellowship with Christ and fellowship with his Church.

Paul goes on to use the Lord's Supper to create distinction between Communion and the cultic meals which were held as part of worship to pagan gods. Paul does not acknowledge the existence of other gods and actually declares that when the pagans sacrifice, "they sacrifice to demons and not to God" (20). It is at this point that we encounter the verses italicized above. You cannot go eat at Jesus' table and then go eat at the table of demons. Now we modern folks may read this and think little of it. After all, I don't know anyone who sacrifices to idols and eats at the table of demons. However, this injunction could be particularly troubling to a craftsman in first century Corinth. In the Greco-Roman world, one had to be a member of a trade guild to obtain material with which to work. This would include material like lumber or metal. Each trade guild had its own patron deity and the guild meetings would involve a meal in honor of the deity. The reason this would be a problem for Christians should be clear. Paul is saying that you cannot come to the Lord's table on the first day of the week and then go off to the table of a false god on the second day of the week. Even if that is how you obtain the material you need to practice your trade and provide for your family.

The point here is that there is only one Lord, and his name is Jesus. To come to his table is to announce your singular devotion to his lordship. The Communion table is an affirmation of the supremacy of Christ everywhere and in everything. To go eat at another table, or at the table of demons, is to deny the supreme lordship of Christ.

This should also be troubling to thoughtful Christians who perceive that the modern Church is often fighting for a place at any number of tables while forgetting the centrality of our Lord's table. We want our voice to be heard. We want to be heard at the school board, but we don't want to declare that Jesus is lord over our children's education. We want to be heard at the city council meetings and we want a place at the lobbying table to make our voice heard in Congress. But we don't want to remind the governing authorities that Jesus is lord and that they are his servants (Rom. 13:4). We just want to get our turn to vote. The problem is that when we run off to sit down at any old table in order to be heard, then we are implicitly denying the lordship of Christ. Some might respond by saying that we cannot positively impact society if we don't get involved in the conversation. I'm not saying that Christians should not be involved in the conversation. I am saying that we should not play by their rules. We do not have to choose between bad and worse. Sometimes making our voice heard means walking away from the table when everyone else at the table denies the supremacy of Christ.

It is only when we forsake our Lord's table that we lose our voice. The Church should make its prophetic voice heard in society by sitting only at the table of our Lord and refusing to be seated at any table where Christ is not seated at the head of the table.

August 1, 2008

Arminians, Scripture, and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are sometimes characterized as believing that a true Christian can commit apostasy and fall irreparably away from grace and salvation. This, however, is not an accurate depiction of Arminian theology. There certainly are Arminians who hold the view that a true believer can commit real apostasy, but there are are also many who identify themselves as Arminians and believe that God will guard and keep all true Christians enabling them to persevere to the end. In the latter view, perseverance is a demonstration of authentic saving faith. Both views are consistent with other affirmations that all Arminians hold in common including total or radical depravity, conditional election, unlimited atonement, and resistible grace.

It may help to know that the discussion over perseverance within Arminianism goes all the way back to the Reformation and can be seen in one of the earliest and foundational documents in the Arminian tradition. The Five Articles of Remonstrance, written in 1610 by followers of James Arminius, outline the Arminian opposition to unconditional predestination. In describing the Arminian belief in the grace given power of the Christian to successfully strive against temptation, the fifth article states,

"But whether [those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith] are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered to them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind" (emphasis mine).

This statement is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the Arminian commitment to biblically grounded doctrine. To depart from biblical authority is to depart from authentic Arminianism. Second, it demonstrates that Arminians have historically acknowledged the tension in Scripture over the issue of perseverance and have made room in their ranks for both positions. The Remonstrants were not primarily interested in opposing the budding Calvinism of the Reformation. They were first and foremost interested in rightly understanding and faithfully teaching Christian Scripture. This commitment to the Bible yielded a tension within the Arminian tradition which reflects a tension in Scripture, and, thus, there is room within Arminiasm for those who believe in the final perseverance of the saints and those who believe in the possibility that a true believer may commit real apostasy.

Critics of Arminianism should take note of this distinction in their characterizations of Arminian theology. Fairness in debate requires good will and a faithful attempt to properly portray the position of those who disagree. Describing Arminian theology narrowly as believing that one can fall from grace is a misrepresentation of the Arminian tradition.

I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) who resist the Arminian label because they believe in the final perseverance of the saints and have heard Arminianism defined narrowly as including a belief in real apostasy. It is important for Arminians to be clear that there is room in our camp for both positions. On occasion, I will hear someone referred to as a "two point Calvinist" indicating that they believe in total depravity and perseverance of the saints. In response, it is important to note that a two point Calvinist isn't much of one. In fact, a two point Calvinist makes for a fine Arminian.

July 30, 2008

Election in 1 Thessalonians

In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul declares his knowledge of God's divine choosing of the Christians in Thessalonica, "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (4-5). Paul's statement of God's election of the Thessalonian Christians is clear. He does not say that he merely thinks or suspects that God has chosen the Thessalonians. No, Paul and co-authors declare their knowledge of God's choosing of the Thessalonians. They point to the power of God displayed in the preaching of the gospel which resulted in conviction of sin.

This bold statement of God's electing purposes is particularly interesting in light of what Paul says in chapter 3. Having heard that his Thessalonian converts were experiencing some sort of tribulation or persecution, Paul says that, "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain" (5). Paul here expresses his fear that the Thessalonians had succumbed to temptation and forsaken the faith which would have made his evangelistic work among them empty. If they did not stay the course, his would would have been in vain. Paul conveys a deep sense of worry and concern over the state of Thessalonians' faith.

This is so striking because it doesn't seem to fit with what Paul says about the Thessalonians in 1:5. If Paul is so confident that God has chosen the Thessalonians, why is he so fearful that they may forsake the faith? These texts demonstrate that we cannot simply conclude that God's electing of the Thessalonians ensures their final perseverance. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of God's choosing (ekloge), he cannot possibly think of it as unconditional. If Paul really thought that the Thessalonians had been chosen unconditionally, then he would have no reason to be concerned about their faithlessness. Rather, we must conclude that Paul understood God's choosing of the Thessalonians to be conditional upon their continued perseverance in faith. In Paul's mind, one can be chosen by God and still potentially fall away.

July 18, 2008

Why is the Gospel Good News?

In a series of recent posts I have been defending the position that Paul's gospel is most basically understood as the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by the Romans, has been raised from the dead by Israel's God and exalted to a place of supremacy as Lord of heaven and earth. This argument is based primarily on two Pauline texts, Romans 1:3-4 and 2 Timothy 2:8-9, where Paul provides some of the specific content of his gospel. The argument is strengthened by the historical use of the Greek word euangellion (gospel) which was an announcement about the reign of a new Caesar, Caesar's birthday, or an important military victory.

The position that Paul's gospel is the news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead has come under criticism as of late. John Piper has recently charged that, "The announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the imperial Lord of the universe, is not good news, but is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution" (The Future of Justification, Crossway, 2007, p. 86). The aim of this post then is to answer this criticism by answering the question, "Why is the gospel of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection good news?"

1. The announcement of Jesus' Lordship is good news because it is the means of grace prior to conversion which brings conviction of sin and draws the guilty one to repentance and the obedience of faith. As in previous posts, Acts 2:36-37 is instructive. After vigorously proclaiming Jesus' resurrection, Peter brings his Pentecost sermon to a climax with the announcement that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. Luke then says of the hearers that they " were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other disciples, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" These men were guilty of handing Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans. Surely these guilty ones have blasphemed and rejected both the God of Israel and his Son. However, the announcement of Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is used by the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and enable repentance and faith. In this case, the announcement of Jesus as imperial Lord of the universe was the power of God for salvation.

2. To say that Paul's gospel is not the announcement of Jesus' Lordship is simply to ignore the first century meaning of the word euangellion. Sure, Paul can take a word and fill it with new content, and that may be what is happening when Paul adds the idea of resurrection. No one was saying that Caesar had been resurrected. Paul doesn't really seem to change the fundamental concept of euangellion though. Euangellion appears twice in the first three verses of Romans. If anyone would have understood the historical meaning of this word it would be the members of the church in ROME! Paul does not then go and change the meaning of euangellion to something other than a royal announcement. No. He says exactly what a first century Roman might expect him to say. He announces the new king saying that the gospel is about God's Son who is descended from Israel's very own King David. This claim gives Jesus a royal lineage far older than that to which any emperor could appeal. At this point Paul is right in line with the historical meaning of gospel. He then adds the news about Jesus' resurrection. This is not a departure from the basic idea of gospel as royal announcement because it means that Jesus is the Son of God (Rom 1:4). The addition of resurrection may be new content to gospel, but it does not change the basic usage of the word as the proclamation of a king.

3. The message of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection is good news because it means, at long last, that a fully righteous and just human being is Lord of the world and that death has been defeated.

4. The news about Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is good news simply because Paul says so. It is, after all, the good news about God's Son, descend from David (Lord/Messiah) and raised from the dead (Rom 1:3-4, cf. 10:9).

I am not denying that Paul can flesh this out differently on any given occasion. I am arguing that this basic message about Lordship and resurrection is the gospel. Paul certainly brought the doctrine of justification into his preaching on occasion as is the case in Acts 13:38-39. However, Paul has already announced that Jesus was raised from the dead (30) and was made Israel's Messiah (32-33). However, Paul did not mention justification at the Aeropaegus (Acts 17:22-31). And, as we have seen, Peter did not address justification in Acts 2. So, the basic gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. This is good news because it is the means of grace. It is good news because gospel means royal announcement. It is good news because death has been defeated and the only righteous fully human being is Lord of the universe. And, last but certainly not least, it is good news because Paul said so.

July 10, 2008

Prevenient Grace in the Early Church?

Prevenient grace is that grace which God gives a person prior to their conversion. Prevenient simply means "preceding." Prevenient grace is a key distinctive of classical Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Opponents of this doctrine charge that it is unbiblical because the term or idea of prevenient grace does not appear in scripture. I grant that the term does not appear in scripture, but this doesn't mean that it is unbiblical. "Trinity" doesn't appear in scripture either, but it is a distinct and unique test of historic Christian orthodoxy. I do not grant that the concept or idea of prevenient grace is absent from scripture. It appears in John 6:44 where Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." The concept of preceding grace appears also in Acts 2. Peter had just preached his Pentecost sermon when Luke tells us that, "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" (37). To say that they "were cut to the heart" is to say they came under divine conviction for their sins against Jesus in handing him over to the Romans. This is clearly prior to their conversion because Peter answers their question saying, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (2:38). They had not yet received the Holy Spirit so they had not yet been born again, but they had come under conviction and were being drawn to seek reconciliation with God. This is clearly grace which precedes conversion. Thus, Roger Olson can say that prevenient grace, "is the powerful but resistible drawing of God," which may not be a biblical term, "but it is a biblical concept assumed everywhere in scripture" (Arminian Theology, IVP, 2006, p. 159).

The concept of prevenient or preceding grace may also appear in some early non-canonical Christian literature. The Didache (or "Teaching") is a document from the first or second century which provides insight into a variety of early Christian ideas and practices. It isn't scripture, of course; however, it is quite telling as to the belief and praxis of the early church. In giving instruction regarding fairness towards household slaves, the author says, "for he comes not to call men with respect of persons, but those whom the Spirit has prepared" (5:10). We must be careful not to read too much into this brief statement. But it does seem to affirm a belief that God's Spirit goes to work to prepare people for conversion prior to their hearing the call of God. The objection might be raised that this "call" is something subsequent to conversion because the slaves are said to, "hope in the same God" (5:10). This objection is not necessarily the proper reading though. The statement regarding God's call is substantiating the earlier statement that God is over both master and slave (5:10). Thus, the exhortation to fairness may be grounded in the principle that God calls and saves both free and slave with no thought of their social status. If so, then the calling is subsequent to the preparing work of the Spirit. We may have here an early non-canonical witness to the concept of prevenient or preceding grace.

June 14, 2008

Naming God?

Some of the mainline Protestant denominations have struggled with the issue of God language as of late. Out of fear and frustration that the biblical and traditional name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is fueling oppressive and hierarchical patriarchy, some have proposed alternate language for describing God. In 2006, a study group in the Presbyterian Church (USA), while not denying the traditional language used of God, suggested alternative language such as:

Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation, Dove of Peace
Speaker, Word, and Breath
Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River
Giver, Gift, and Giving
Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, Storm that Melts Mountains
Rock, Cornerstone, Temple
Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier

These alternatives are problematic for a variety of reasons. First, none of these names are clearly trinitarian. That is, none of them adequately express Christianity's triune theism. How do we know that the Rainbow, Ark, and Dove share the same divine essence or substance. Inasmuch as Christianity affirms a triune God, a God who is at once both one and three, these descriptions are not uniquely Christian. They constitute a short step to tritheism, the worship of three gods.

Second, the proposed alternatives often describe God in relationship to creation. One may wonder why this is problematic. Names that describe the Triune One in relationship to creation are to be distinguished from the name that describes God as he is in himself, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier describe God as relating to fallen creation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit properly name the God who is distinct from the creation. Before anything else existed, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Third, the alternative suggestions generally describe functions of God rather than names for God. God certainly speaks, but God is not "speaker." This is something God does rather than who God is. In contrast, Father and Son do not describe something that God does or a manner in which God functions. Instead, Father and Son describe the eternal relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. This is closely related to the second point above because it involves a glimpse into who God is essentially. It is also important to point out that the functions described do not generally refer to only one person of the Trinity. All three persons of the Trinity are understood as involved in creation, redemption, and sanctification. In contrast, Father describes the first person of the Trinity exclusively. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit.

Lastly, some of the proposed alternatives involve simile which is not appropriately used as a personal name. To make the point, I might be said to be like a bull in a china shop. But that doesn't mean I should be addressed as such, "Hey, bull in a china shop..." Similarly, God is like a rock, but God is not a rock. We must beware of proposed alternatives for naming God which illegitimately exalt simile to the level of a proper name.

Much more could be said here. But I think the point is made. We must be very careful in how we go about naming God. Some have so much reverence for the divine name that they do not even say it. I think God has given us a name because he desires to be known by name, but we could probably learn a lot from those so reverent. Let me also be clear that I'm not saying these suggested alternatives are illegitimate as helpful similes, metaphors, or symbols which might help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of how God relates to us. Each option should be evaluated in light of Scripture as to its usefulness in thinking about God. My point is simply that there is a difference between a name and function or comparison. God has given us a name and God has given us descriptions. We must be careful to discern between the two.

May 30, 2008

The Gospel Never Changes

I get a little worried when I hear people talk about contextualizing the gospel. If, by contextualization, we mean merely that we change ourselves by means of self-sacrifice, then that's okay. Paul himself claimed to be all things to all people. It's important to note that Paul is the one doing the changing here; not the gospel. If, by contextualization, we mean that we have to change the content of the gospel, then that is not okay. In fact, it's apostasy. Paul said that if even he himself or an angel from heaven preach a gospel contrary to what he proclaimed, let that one be anathema, cursed (Gal 1:8). There is only one gospel.

The gospel transcends time and culture. The good news that the crucified and risen Christ Jesus is now the Lord of heaven and earth is relevant to all people everywhere. It is always a summons to the obedience of faith no matter the context. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first century, the gospel is the same. Whether in Jerusalem, New York, Mexico, Darfur, or India, the gospel is the same.

Why is this so important? Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith and because in the gospel, God's righteousness is revealed (Rom 1:16-17). To change the content of the gospel is to strip it of it's power. Indeed, it is to strip it of that which makes it gospel in the first place. To change the content of the gospel is to make it no gospel at all!

For these reasons Christians must be absolutely clear about the content of the gospel. It is of first importance (1 Cor 15:3). No matter who you are or where you live, The Jesus who died for our sins according to the scriptures is Lord, and God raised him from the dead!

The Gospel from Jesus to Paul

I've spent some time looking at the gospel according to Paul. It is also important to ask about the gospel according to Jesus. Did they preach the same gospel?

In Matthew 4:23, Jesus goes throughout Galilee preaching, "the gospel of the kingdom." In three out of the four times "gospel" appears in Matthew, it is described as the "gospel of the kingdom (9:35; 24:14; cf. 26:13). In Mark's gospel, Jesus proclaims the gospel of God saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news" (1:15). What is the gospel of the kingdom? It is important to remember the meaning of gospel in the first century. The Greek euangelion (gospel) referred to a royal proclamation which constituted a summons to allegiance. Rome's gospel was, "Caesar is lord." In this light, Jesus' message is quite striking. Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, the gospel of God. His first century hearers would have heard in this a claim that God was becoming king and required faithful allegiance. Jesus' gospel was a royal proclamation about a kingdom that was drawing near.

But how does this relate to Paul's gospel? We saw in a few previous posts that Paul was preaching a gospel about a kingdom as well. He basic announcement was "Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead" (Rom 1:3-4; 2 Tim 2:8, cf. previous post). Paul and his fellow Christians were even charged with acting contrary to the decree of the emperor proclaiming another king named Jesus (Acts 17:6-7). If Jesus' gospel was about an approaching kingdom, Paul's gospel was about an inaugurated kingdom. Their gospel's are essentially the same; both are about the kingdom of God in Christ. The only difference is one of chronology. Jesus' preached the coming kingdom of God and inaugurated it with his death and resurrection. Paul preached the kingdom of God which had been inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection.

Thus, it is illegitimate to claim that Paul and Jesus had different gospels. Both of them were proclaiming a new kingdom, the kingdom of God in which Christ reigns and there is hope of resurrection.