December 21, 2012

The Promise of Peace: Christmas in the Wake of Tragedy

When I began preparing my sermon for last Sunday on the topic of Christmas and the promise of peace, I didn't know I would deliver it only days after what was undoubtedly one of the most wicked and satanic acts of evil to occur in my lifetime. Like many pastors, I felt the weighty responsibility to step into the pulpit and lead the people of God in reflecting biblically on the tragedy that took place on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Little sense can be made of such events that bring us face to face with the gross reality and horror of such grievous sin. But the scriptures do speak to these heartbreaking circumstances, and they speak of sympathy, faith, and hope. They speak of a day when the promise of peace will be fully realized. 

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish the sermon in its entirety, which can be found at this link. Perhaps this sermon will be a comfort to some of you.

December 14, 2012

Three Keys to Reading Revelation in the Church

To say the book of Revelation intimidates many readers of Christian Scripture is probably an understatement. The difficulty of understanding its ancient Jewish apocalyptic symbolism and imagery is only compounded by the complexity of its structure. Beyond the challenges of the text itself, there are almost as many different interpretations of John's Apocalypse as there are interpreters. We want to understand this important book of scripture, but it's difficult to sort through which guides and commentaries are more helpful and which are less. How are we to overcome all these roadblocks to reading Revelation? Where do we begin if we are interested in leading a Bible study or preaching a series of sermons on this dense book? Well, there is good news. It is possible to hear what Revelation says to the church in both the ancient and the modern world. 

Click through to read the rest of this article at Seedbed for three tips to get you started reading Revelation in your local church.

December 12, 2012

Advent and the Reality of the Kingdom

I'm preaching a series of four sermons on Luke 1-2 this Advent that focus on four promises that are kept in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This past Sunday's sermon was on "The Promise of a King". 
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).
The Old Testament is full of promises that God would one day send a special king. From the blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 that, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet," (10) to the word of the Lord to David in 2 Samuel 7, "I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom...I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (12-13). Also well-known is Isaiah 9:7, "His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore." 

When we come to Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, we tend to focus on the nature of Jesus' virginal conception. That is certainly there, and there are several good reasons that we should take it be historically accurate. But in the text itself, the nature of Jesus' conception functions secondarily in relation to the angel's message that Mary's baby will reign over the house of Jacob and sit on David's throne. That is, when we ask the question: what is the major thing Luke wants us to hear in the angel's message to Mary? The answer is that all the promises of God to raise up a king to rule in wisdom and righteousness over Israel and the nations are kept and answered with a resounding "Yes!" in birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

We commonly refer to Jesus as "Lord" and "King", and we often speak in terms of his kingdom. However, I wonder how much we spiritualize the reign of Christ in such a way that we make it out to be rather less real, less relevant to the real issues in life. I fear that far too often we look to the governing authorities, the kings of this world, to deal with the real, external, and visible problems (like poverty and the economy) and turn to Jesus for sentimental comfort with internal and invisible matters. We want King Jesus to be lord of our lives, but we don't expect him to say much (or anything) about how the powers actually run the world.

But when I read Luke I am struck by the reality of the kingdom. After Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth, she celebrates that God has kept his promise by overturning the power structures of the world: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly" (1:52). This theme continues into Acts (Luke's second volume) where we read of Jesus' ascent to the throne of heaven, an image of his kingly authority if ever there was one. The opponents of the first Christians certainly perceived that early Christian proclamation posed a threat to the power of the Roman Empire. In Acts 17:7, the believers in Thessalonica are accused of "acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus." And at the end of Acts Paul is in Rome, the capital city, waiting to declare the gospel of King Jesus to Caesar himself. If there is anything Luke wants us to understand, it is that the kingdom of God in the reign of Jesus Christ is as real, indeed more real, than any governing authority in the present age.

One thing that makes it difficult for us to remember the reality of Jesus' reign is that it is not marked by the typical things we associate with rule and authority. The kingdom of Jesus is not characterized by any palace nor capitol building. The advance of this kingdom is not made visible by missiles and tanks. Nor is it marked by national boundary. Instead, it is marked by the increasing obedience of the people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. And it is all the more real for it. 

Advent calls upon us to catch a fresh vision of the reign of Christ over all the nations. Christ is not merely responsible for reigning over "spiritual" matters while the governing authorities handle the real business of running the world. He claims lordship over every affair, and every authority is responsible to reign and govern  as stewards of the world that Christ claims his own. The responsibility of the people of God is to be constantly, if not frustratingly, reminding the world that the resurrected Jesus is King of the world. The task is not easy. It will be rejected as exclusivistic and derided as impractical. But it is our task, nevertheless, to disciple the nations by teaching them to obey King Jesus. Advent insists that nothing less will do. 

December 6, 2012

RBL Review: Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Flemming)

My review of Dean Flemming's commentary on Philippians in the Review of Biblical Literature is now available online. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean earlier this year at the Wesleyan Theological Society and seeing him again at Society of Biblical Literature. I was excited to hear about the kinds of projects he is working on and look forward to his forthcoming work. 

This commentary on Philippians will be extremely beneficial to pastors and students in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition. And interested readers in other traditions will find it useful in gaining a better understanding of the biblical basis for key elements of Wesleyan theology, the doctrine of Christian Perfection not least. There aren't a lot of commentaries out there that take an explicitly "Wesleyan" perspective. And as winner of the 2012 Smith/Wynkoop Book Award, this one is certainly worth your time. Here's an excerpt from the review that highlights the value of this commentary for the Wesleyan tradition: 
Another important issue for Flemming’s Wesleyan approach is Paul’s self-description as one of the “perfect”  (τέλειος) in 3:15. He rejects the common suggestion that Paul is speaking ironically and argues instead that the apostle has in mind the adoption of the mind of Christ. Flemming expresses his dissatisfaction with the common translation of this term with the English “mature,” which falls short of the comprehensive wholeness that Paul has in mind, a sentiment shared by this reviewer. Drawing on the writings of John Wesley, who is  well-known for his doctrine of Christian  perfection, Flemming argues for an understanding of perfection that is not static and absolute but dynamic and relative and that corresponds to Paul’s insistence on describing the present experience of some Christians in terms of perfection. This portion of the commentary is immensely valuable for its articulation of a Wesleyan distinctive that is faithful to Pauline thought and that needs to be discovered afresh among present-day Wesleyans.
Read the whole review here.


November 28, 2012

Incarnating the Righteousness of God: Richard Hays on a Controverted Phrase

The meaning of the apostle Paul's phrase "the righteousness of God" (Gk. δικαιοσυνη θεου) has been the subject of much controversy in recent years. Does it refer to justification? To God's own attribute of righteousness? God's covenant faithfulness? His saving righteousness, perhaps? One verse from Paul that, for various reasons, complicates the discussion is 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here's the distinguished Richard Hays on that passage:
The eschatological transformation of the community explains Paul's extraordinary affirmation that the purpose of God's reconciling work in Christ is "that we might become the righteousness of God" (5:21). He does not say "that we might know about the righteousness of God," nor "that we might believe in the righteousness of God," nor even "that we might receive the righteousness of God." Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God: where the church embodies in its life together the world-reconciling love of Jesus Christ, the new creation is manifest. The church incarnates the the righteousness of God.
This is from Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), p. 24. Thoughts?

November 13, 2012

Review: The Lost World of Genesis One (John H. Walton)

The lines of the creation-evolution debate are boldly and firmly drawn and few plausible arguments have been made that carve a promising path forward. But with The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Kindle edition), John H. Walton provides just such an argument. Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Walton's evangelical credentials are substantial. In this book, he offers a reading of Genesis 1 that aims to take seriously both the trustworthiness of scripture and the original intention of the biblical author yet does not commit him to the view that the universe was created some 6,000 or so years ago.

The thesis of the book is that Genesis 1 is not (nor was it ever intended to be) an account of the material origins of the universe. Instead, he argues, it was intended to be an account of the functional origins of the universe. That is, Genesis 1 is not about how or when God made the stuff of creation but about the function God intends for the created order. 

This distinction will be very challenging for modern minds to grasp, if only because the notion of creation has primarily to do with the creation of materials. Walton argues, however, that ancient near eastern people understood the concept of creation in a very different way; namely, they thought of creation in terms of its God intended function. This is not to deny that God made all things or that he made all things out of nothing. No ancient Hebrew would deny that. It is simply to say that Genesis 1 is not about the creation of the material world. And, Walton insists, an ancient Hebrew reader would never have thought it was. 

So, what does it mean that Genesis 1 is about the creation of the functional origins of the cosmos? Walton argues that the creation narrative in Genesis 1 was intended to be an account of how God established the functions of his cosmic temple. That means that God intended the creation, which he had already made at a previous and undisclosed time, to be his own personal dwelling place, his own temple. And the events on the six days of creation are his work to establish the functions proper to that sacred dwelling place, not least the climactic moment when those who bear the divine image are placed within the temple. 

The reason this book is so important is simple: if Walton is right, then Genesis 1 makes absolutely no comment on the present day creation-evolution debate. Evolution is about the material origins of the universe; according to Walton, Genesis 1 is about the functional origins of the universe. To suggest that Genesis 1 provides an alternative account of the material origins of the universe against evolutionary theory is simply to make a category mistake. Genesis and science are making statements about two altogether different matters. Walton's contribution is to give us a serious and literal reading of Genesis that does not contradict modern science.

Throughout this book, Walton insists that he is firmly committed to the truthfulness of Genesis 1 and the original intent of its author. Unfortunately, I suspect many committed to a young earth may write Walton off as compromising scripture for the sake of science. To do so, however, will be a failure to take seriously the argument he is advancing. Indeed it is Walton's obvious love for scripture and his conviction that it speaks truly that led him to produce this interpretation that values so highly the authorial intent of the Bible. One may argue with his exegesis, but no one should suggest that he is not taking the text of scripture seriously.

Quite the page turner, this book is compelling both devotionally and academically. And if you are one of the many who struggles because you hold a high view of scripture and yet find many theories of modern science compelling, then this is the book you have been waiting for. You won't be able to put it down.

November 7, 2012

Review: Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Dever & Gilbert)

Books on preaching abound. And those of us who make a regular practice of reading such books must sift through the available volumes to decide which ones merit our attention and which do not. Full of homiletic wisdom and insight, Preach: Theology Meets Practice, co-authored by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, most assuredly falls in the former category.

The subtitle of the book is reflected in its three-part division: Part One: Theology, Part Two: Practice, and Part Three: Sermon Transcripts. Recognizing that the monologue sermon is scandalous in a culture saturated with images, Part One is a carefully composed and rigorous defense of Christian preaching. The argument is grounded in the basic observation that the God of the Bible is a speaking God. His word gives life to his people, and, as a result, his people are in desperate need of hearing his word. As the proclamation and explanation of the word of God, faithful preaching is, therefore, a necessity for the life and health of the people of God. Anyone interested in why Christians have, for centuries, engaged in and sat under preaching will find this part of the book valuable. And it is not written for pastors exclusively. Lay persons interested in what is supposed to be happening when your pastor preaches week after week will also enjoy and appreciate this part of the book. 

Taking up the topic of "Practice", Part Two includes chapters on what to preach (5), sermon preparation (6), structure (7), delivery (8) and review (9). I found this part of the book especially helpful, and have modified the way I prepare sermons as a result of reading it. I also particularly appreciated the section on application and have incorporated elements of the authors' method into my own work. 

Part Two would have been stronger had the topics of chapters six and seven been reversed. The discussion in chapter seven, which briefly introduced the parts of the sermon and their functions, would have led nicely into chapter six, which discussed the process of moving from biblical text to finished sermon. With the way these chapters are ordered in the published version of the book, the reader is instructed on how to prepare each part of the sermon before actually being introduced to the nature and function of those parts. This is no reason to pass over this valuable book. Simply know that chapter six will make more sense once you've read chapter seven; or, perhaps, simply read them in reverse order.

Part Three models the weekly sermon review process (introduced in chap. 9) in which each of the authors participate on Sunday evenings after they've preached. Two sermon transcripts are included, one from each author, along with comments, both charitable and critical, and feedback from the other. This final part of the book helpfully illustrates much of what has been taught in the first two parts. And, given that most preachers do not engage in a weekly review of their homiletic work, this section should prove interesting and instructive to many. Regular affirmative and corrective sermon review could go a long way in improving much of our preaching. 

This book is not just for preachers. Those who listen to preaching will better understand its necessity and importance. Those who do preach will learn and grow as practitioners of their homiletic craft. This is my new favorite book on preaching, and I am happy to commend  it to you.

October 29, 2012

Guaranteed Appointment Redivivus: A Few Reflections on a Major Decision

The big news in United Methodism over the weekend is Judicial Council (JC) Decision 1226, which declared legislation passed by the 2012 General Conference (GC2012) that would have ended the so-called guaranteed appointment (GA) to be "null, void, and of no effect." The basic argument in the decision is that the changes are unconstitutional because they violate the third and fourth restrictive rules which, respectively, perpetuate the intinerancy and safeguard clergy rights to trial and appeal. The argument is that doing away with security of appointment would "destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency" and remove the rights of clergy to trial and appeal. Some are pleased with the decision; others are not. I won't take time now to repeat what I've said before about this issue. Instead, I'll offer a few reflections (in no particular order) on the decision and the early reactions to it.
  • We already have a way of exiting ineffective clergy. I say that because the relevant paragraphs in the Discipline which provide clergy with accountable security of appointment specify that only an "effective elder" who is "in good standing" shall be appointed (par. 334; cf. par. 337). So, if an elder is not effective, then he or she is not guaranteed an appointment. Paragraph 334.4 also specifies that elders who fail "to meet professional responsibilities" or do not "demonstrate vocational competency or effectiveness" forfeit their right to an appointment and an official complaint against them can be made. One of these "professional responsibilities" is "continuing effectiveness" (par. 334.3.c), and the Board of Ministry and the cabinet have the authority to define effectiveness (par. 334.4). So, conceivably, an elder who is ineffective could be removed from an appointment and formally charged with failing to perform the work of ministry. The point is that, despite the language of GA, we do not have the absolute guarantee of an appointment. We have an accountable security of appointment. And there is already a process in the Discipline for removing ineffective elders. The question is not whether we have a way of removing ineffective elders. The question is whether we will make use of the process we already have.
  • General Conference (GC) would do well in the future to ask for counsel from experts in our denomination's constitution and from the JC during (and even early in) the legislative process. With this decision, the two most significant acts of GC2012, namely the restructuring plan and the removal of GA, were overturned for unconstitutionality. If someone had asked the JC whether removing GA was constitutional early in the process, we might have saved a lot of time, energy, and resources. If legislative body and the judicial body worked together rather than being pitted against one another, the process would be more efficient.
  • The JC is being (and will likely continue to be) criticized for not considering and taking into account the will of GC2012. We should note carefully and respectively that the role of the JC is not to consider the will of the GC as weight in favor or against a decision. In this case, it was the will of GC2012 itself that was under review and whether or not that will was within its constitutional boundaries. Rejecting or accepting the will of GC2012 is precisely what the JC was asked to do, and rejecting the will of GC2012 is, evidently, what the JC took to be the right decision.
  • This decision is a good reminder that, while GC is the only body that can speak on behalf of the UMC, the GC has neither absolute nor unilateral authority to so speak. Even GC has accountability. The authority of GC is checked by the JC. Sometime the GC speaks mistakenly (or unconstitutionally) on behalf of the UMC, and the JC is responsible to correct such mistakes.
  • It is not quite clear to me how the removal of GA might destroy the itinerancy. So, if someone could clarify that in a comment, I would appreciate it.
  • I tend to agree with JC that removal of GA undermines the right of clergy to trial. If an elder can be exited from the itinerancy without a trial (which is, I think, what the legislation was trying to do), then it would seem that the fourth restrictive rule has been violated.
What do you think? Do agree or disagree with JC Decision 1226? Leave a comment and tell me why.

October 23, 2012

Understanding the Little Apocalypse: Three things to remember about Matthew 24


Matthew 24 (along with its parallels), like other Jewish apocalyptic, is remarkably difficult to get a handle on. Much could be said about it. With this post, I want to raise three points that should be near the beginning of any effort to interpret this challenging passage.
  1. Everything Jesus says is his answer to the question raised by the disciples in 24:3. And their question is primarily looking for a bit of explanation with regard to Jesus' apparently surprising prediction that that the temple will be destroyed (24:1-2). This means that the passage should be read as the context indicates; namely, Jesus is answering a question about the timing of the destruction of the temple. The signs and symbols should be taken first to point to this reality. Whatever else they may or may not point to, the destruction of the temple is the thing that gets this little apocalyptic discourse started.
  2. Sometimes "coming" does not mean "second coming". The disciples compound their question about the destruction of the temple with a question about Jesus' "coming" and about "the end of the age." I tend to think that these are three aspects of a single event. That is, when the temple comes down, Jesus will be vindicated both as true prophet and God's anointed king, which will likewise bring an end to the present evil age and usher in the age to come, the age of God's kingdom as manifest in the rule of the Messiah. Let me explain. When we read the word "coming" in the Bible, our default interpretation is to take it to mean the second coming of Christ. But consider the plausibility of the disciples raising a question about what we think of as the second coming of Jesus. Were these men expecting Jesus to be crucified and killed by the Romans? No. Were they expecting him to be buried in a tomb only to be resurrected by God on the first day of the next week? Once again, the answer is no. They certainly were not. Thus, if they were not expecting his death and resurrection, we can likewise infer that they were not expecting him to go off to heaven for an unknown and rather lengthy period of time only to return again sometime later. The idea of crucified messiah was not on their radar. Neither was the idea of a messiah who disappears for more than two millennia in order that he may come again a second time. Their question could not have possibly meant that. They must have meant something else when they asked bout the "sign of your coming". The question is: What?
  3. The "end of the age" does not mean the end of time or the end of the world. Jewish thinking in Jesus' period was commonly characterized by the idea that history was divided into two periods of time. There was "the present evil age", which referred to the period during which the Jewish people were under the rule of foreign oppressors (which was, at that time, the Roman Empire). This evil age would come to an end when God delivered his people from their oppressors. The evil age would give way to the second period of time known as "the age to come". This coming age would be marked by the rule of God's anointed (Messiah) king and the flourishing of God's people. When the disciples ask about the end of the age, they are not asking about the end of history; to the contrary, they are asking about the end of Roman oppression and the beginning of an age in which they enjoyed God's forgiveness, freedom, and blessing.
There are unhelpful interpretations of Matthew 24 aplenty. I suggest that we can guard against straying down such an abominable path by keeping these three things in mind. As indicated, there is much, much more to be said. But these three items must be the starting point to interpreting the "little apocalypse".

October 17, 2012

Book Giveaway: Spirituality According to Paul by Rodney Reeves

I've got an extra copy of Rodney Reeves recent book Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ (IVP) to give away. Reeves is professor of biblical studies at Southwest Baptist University. Here's the publisher's description:
Spirituality often evokes images of quiet centeredness, meditative serenity and freedom from life's pressures. It’s become a chic commodity, with its benefits evoked by images of sunrises and secluded retreats.
Contrast the apostle Paul, who promotes a cross-shaped spirituality for fools making their way though life's trials. Paul realized that images of crucifixion, burial and resurrection would never be popular images of the spiritual life. So he encourages his fellow travelers, who are spiritually united with Christ, to "follow me as I follow Christ."
As he explores this ancient spiritual path, Rodney Reeves probes our understanding of what Christian spirituality should be. And to illuminate its transformative power, he gives us living illustrations of what it means to follow Paul as he followed Christ. Here is a book that joins a deep understanding of Paul with a pastoral and spiritual wisdom born of experience.
Here's how you enter to win a free copy of this book:
  1. Post a recommendation with link to Incarnatio (or to your favorite Incarnatio post) on your blog, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or other social media platform. Posting a link to multiple social media sites and mentioning this book giveaway will only increase your chances of winning. And subscribing in the sidebar to the right to receive Incarnatio by email will boost your chances also.
  2. Leave a comment on this post indicating on which sites you recommended Incarnatio and whether you subscribed to receive posts via email. Include a link to your posts (remember to make them public) so they can be verified. On Facebook, click on the time stamp of your post for to get the link. On Twitter, expand your post and click on "details".
I will (subjectively) judge the winner taking into account the creativity and quality of your recommendation. I'll announce the winner next Monday and message him or her on Facebook or Twitter (a good reason to include links to your recommendations) to request your mailing address, and then I'll drop the book in the mail. The contest is limited to the lower 48 United States to keep postage down, but feel free to recommend Incarnatio even if you live elsewhere.
 

October 15, 2012

Review: Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction

Questions about death and what may lie beyond are always with us, and the mystery of the unknown has given rise to more than a few theories. With Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, Terence Nichols provides a biblically grounded, historically rooted, and carefully argued account of the Christian understanding of what awaits us after death.
 
The first two chapters introduce the reader to the various attitudes toward death and afterlife in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish texts. He concludes that ancient Hebrew texts generally show belief in some sort of ongoing personal existence after death in Sheol (or the underworld), but these concepts were vague and lacked detailed expression. As time passed, Jewish texts became increasingly, though not exhaustively, characterized by belief in bodily resurrection. Nichols finds extensive evidence in the New Testament for early Christian belief in future bodily resurrection, and he accurately identifies this as transformed physical life in God's new creation. He helpfully resists a strong duality between heaven and earth suggesting that afterlife is the consummation of choices made in the present.
 
After laying out the biblical material, Nichols investigates the meaning of death and afterlife in key thinkers in Christian history (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin). He demonstrates that each one affirmed the resurrection of the body as the Christian hope, even if each one understood resurrection in somewhat differing ways. The strength of the study to this point is the demonstration that from its earliest history, Christianity has come at questions of death with a firm vision of the resurrection of the body.
 
Chapter four brings a shift from historical theology to a presentation of contemporary scientific challenges to afterlife and the soul. This chapter will be particularly useful to those unfamiliar with these recent and varied challenges to the historic Christian view. Chapter five begins the author's response to the challenges by appealing to testimonial evidence of those who have had near death experiences (NDE) and argues that such experiences cannot be accounted for by physicalist denials of an immaterial soul.  
 
This leads Nichols to a discussion of the soul (chapter 6) in which he describes the different approaches to the body-soul relationship (physicalism, substance dualism, holistic dualism). Nichols argues for a form of  holistic dualism that he calls "subject-in-relation". This means that the soul and body are, in this life, an integrated whole but that the soul can still survive bodily death and carry forth personal identify to the resurrected body. The soul, he believes, is a subject that stands in relation to the body, others, its environment, and to God. Thus, it exercises its powers through the body, but the body also influences the soul. So, causality goes in both directions. Particular powers of the soul include free choice and the ability to relate to God. Nichols thinks of the soul as a "bridging principle" for humans to relate to God (132). By this he means that a bridge is needed for the world of spirit to interact with the world of matter. As physical creatures, human beings need a means of relating to God, who is understood as pure spirit. The soul fulfills this bridging role as a non-physical aspect of human life that allows us to relate to a spiritual God.
 
I do find this bridging role to be somewhat problematic in that it seems to slide into an unnecessary contrastive dualism. If our non-physical souls can interact with our physical bodies, why should we think that a non-physical God is unable to likewise relate to physical creatures? Further, it's not clear how an immaterial soul successfully bridges the gap between God and humanity. As David Kelsey points out, when we concieve of the difference between God and humanity in terms of the difference between the Creator and the creature, then it's not clear how a created soul relates to an uncreated God, even if both are immaterial (cf. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 1:255-56). Instead, following Kelsey, I think we can say that God lovingly relates to those he creates in the very act of creating them, our physicality is no barrier to God's determination to relate to us. Indeed, in the very act of creating, the immaterial God lovingly relates to his physical creation.
 
Nichols goes on to articulate a case for belief in resurrection despite arguments to the contrary (ch. 7). He gives a chapter to "Justification and Judgment" in which I found little with which to disagree, even though Nichols is writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. He describes justification as "forgiveness of sins, through faith in Christ" that "should lead to the inner transformation that comes from the outpouring of God's love in the hearts of believers" (160). He describes that transformation in terms of sanctification through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He does say that justification is "completed by sanctification" (160), but this doesn't seem to conflate the two, and, while sympathetic to the Canons of the Council of Trent, his view strikes me as somewhat more Protestant than Tridentine.
 
Nichols does argue for the historic Roman Catholic view of purgatory in chapter nine. I would like to take more space to present and evaluate this interesting, though flawed, argument. But this review is already rather long for a blog. So, I hope to follow-up with a post devoted specifically to interacting with Nichols' view on purgatory.
 
The final chapter presents a vision of dying well, which Nichols describes as "dying into God" (187). This involves a deeper surrender of ourselves to God as we move toward death, the supreme trial of our lives.
 
All in all, I found this book very interesting and very helpful. The apologetic value of the book is high in that it summarizes and introduces readers to the significant difficulties for those who reject (whether for scientific or other reasons) the historic Christian understandings of the soul and the resurrection of the body. It also does an excellent job of drawing a vision of a future with a hope, and a path for the journey through death. I am happy to commend it.

September 28, 2012

Report: HTR will not run article on Jesus' wife fragment

Dan Wallace has reported that the Harvard Theological Review will not run Dr. Karen King's article on the Coptic fragment that is being referred to as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife". It appears that a number of Coptic scholars have found the authenticity of the fragment to be highly questionable. I've withheld comment on this issue so far, choosing to sit back and watch the sensationalism play out. Since we're on the issue, though, I'll say that even if the fragment were judged authentic, it would give us absolutely no credible evidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. First, it's a fragment of papyrus containing only fragments of sentences. And without complete sentences, we have no way of knowing just what is being said. The infamous sentence fragment could have said anything, even something like: "Jesus said, 'My wife is the one who does the will of my Father," which wouldn't be all that surprising. Second, the document is alleged to be from about the fourth century, which means that even if we did know how its sentences were finished, it is far enough removed from the time of Jesus that whatever it did say wouldn't weigh heavily in a historical reconstruction of Jesus' life. And none of that matters if it is indeed a forgery, which appears to be the case.

September 27, 2012

Just in case you forgot

In case you forgot that Christianity is "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," here's a little gem from Friedrich Nietzsche to jog your memory:
"When we hear the ancient bells growling on Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! this, for a Jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son. The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed - whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions - is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous intervention; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function of the ignominy of the cross--how ghoulishly all this touches, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed" (Human, All Too Human, 113)?
As it is written, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

September 21, 2012

Roundup: 2012 British New Testament Conference

I recently attended for the first time the British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held at King's College London. Here are a few brief reflections on the experience.
 
1. One of the main reasons academics attend conferences is to renew old friendships and make new ones. This being my first trip to BNTC, I was engaged in much more of the latter than the former. I was excited to meet quite a few other Ph.D. candidates and hear about their research. It was also good to put a face to many who I've never met but whose books and articles I've read. One highlight was having coffee with N.T. Wright, whose work has been particularly influential on me. Our discussion focused more on the joys and challenges of living in both academic and ecclesiastic worlds.
 
2. On a related note, while BNTC has no confessional requirements, there were many present who are active in the church and see their work as service to the church. Given my own conviction that the divide between church and academy is unhelpful, it was very encouraging to meet not a few who are committed both to rigorous scholarship and love for the church.
 
3. Attendees at many academic conferences commonly hop in and out of seminars to catch individual papers that are of interest to them. BNTC was the first conference I've attended at which participants are encouraged to remain in the same seminar for the duration of the conference. It will be no surprise that I attended the Paul seminar. There were a number of good papers, and having the same group together in each session gave the conversation coherence and allowed opportunity for summary comments on what was learned and on what fruitful work might emerge from the discussion.
 
4. There were four plenary sessions, some of which I found helpful. I particularly appreciated that one of the plenaries was devoted to a panel session on the state and future of British New Testament studies. Not being resident at my University, this conversation helped me to gain some perspective on the discipline of which I'm a part.
 
All in all, I had a very good conference and look forward to future opportunities to attend and participate.

September 5, 2012

A Perfect Translation? Reading Philippians like Wesleyans

I've got a new post up at Seedbed on Paul's self-description as "perfect" in Philippians 3:15. Here's the intro:
The third chapter of Philippians is important to Wesleyans for a variety of reasons, not least because Paul includes himself within a group he calls "perfect" (v. 15). Now that statement is probably surprising enough that you are already flipping through your New Testament to fact check my claim. Let me tell you what you'll find. Unless you have the old King James or the New American Standard Version, you are unlikely to find the word "perfect" in your English translation of Philippians 3:15. It will most likely be rendered along the lines, "Let those of us then who are (spiritually) mature…" The nearest use of perfection language is a few verses earlier in 3:12 where Paul unambiguously insists that he most certainly has not been perfected. But here's the thing: the Greek adjective that is typically rendered "mature" (teleios) in 3:15 has the same root as the verb rendered "perfected" (teleioō) in 3:12. So, in verse 12 Paul declares that he has not been perfected, and in verse 15 he places himself within a group he describes as perfect. Have I got your attention? Let's talk about what's going on in this passage and why I prefer the language of perfection over maturity when translating Philippians 3:15.
Read the rest at Seedbed.

September 4, 2012

The Entertainment Factor: Why So-Called Cable News is Bad for Us All

The way we receive information affects us more than any of us realize. Whether sign language, printed word, or screen-based, the medium through which we get any sort of content shapes our sensibilities and preferences. And with the speed of technological advance, it's difficult to keep up with the way changing media forms affect us. I've had an increasing interest in these sorts of issues in recent years, and just last night I was reminded how important they are.
 
I seldom watch cable news, but yesternight I found myself taking in a program that will remain nameless, though I'll offer the slight clue that my own surname is unfortunately in the name of the show. (You'll understand why I say "unfortunate" if you continue reading.) There they were; three floating heads before me on the screen, their comments undecipherable because each was shouting in order to be heard above the rest. And despite the surprising volume each was embarrassingly able to produce on national television, no one was heard; neither dialogue nor debate was had; and all of us who tuned in wasted approximately two minutes of our lives.
 
I've had an increasing concern over this sort of thing for several years now. But earlier this year I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and he explained everything to me. Postman recognized that different media forms are biased towards particular types of content. For example, as a medium for communication, smoke signals are not biased towards careful, logical, and rational discourse. They are a good medium for the type of communication for which they were intended, but you wouldn't do philosophy or theology through the medium of smoke signals. Alternatively, the printed word is biased toward extended rational discourse and provides a good medium for the exchange of ideas and debate. Amusing Ourselves to Death was primarily about how televised media is biased toward entertainment and how its increase has affected our society, but his conclusions are applicable (and likely magnified) with the variety of screen-based media that surrounds us today. Postman argued that screen-based media (like TV or iPads) is inherently biased in favor of entertainment and against rational discourse. And here's the kicker: the biases of these various media forms shape our sensibilities. So, if we immerse ourselves in books, our own sensibilities and biases will be towards extended rational argument. If we immerse ourselves in screens, then our sensibilities and biases will be towards entertainment. If it's not entertaining, we become bored and uninterested.
 
The attempt to use a particular media form against its natural bias leaves us rather unsatisfied. You can do extended rational discourse on a screen, but the content resists the bias of the media. Postman makes his point by pointing to C-SPAN. It has plenty of extended rational discourse, but it makes for really bad TV, and no one watches it. So, everything that comes at us across a screen is subject to the biases of the medium. Thus, given that all screens are biased towards entertainment, anyone who wants to use screens as a medium has to make it entertaining in order to be successful. The result (and the problem) is this: when you make the move to do entertainment, you sacrifice serious and thoughtful rational engagement. Entertainment is quick and loud and flashy. Serious engagement requires extended attention, thoughtfulness, and careful critical engagement. This is why cable news is so popular. Over the last several decades our society has become increasingly biased towards entertainment due to the increasing proliferation and domination of screen-based media. So, the news folks have gotten into the entertainment business, because that's what everyone wants and that what advertisers will pay for. The so-called news is now flashy and colorful. There is shouting and song. Segments last only a few minutes, which is, of course, plenty of time for a panel to deal seriously and thoroughly with the major issues of the day.
 
Postman argued that all this causes us to lose the ability as a nation to engage in serious talk about serious business. This is what he meant by "amusing ourselves to death." We've surrounded ourselves with screens and subjected ourselves to their bias toward entertainment which has resulted in our sensibilities being conditioned towards entertainment. So, if something is not entertaining, we are bored with it and pay it no attention no matter how important it might be. The result is the degradation of public discourse and eventually the bumfoozling of society as it spins toward its uninformed though fully entertained end.
 
This is why the unnamed cable news show hinted at above would be more properly titled "The Entertainment Factor". That is, after all, what it is - the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling. And there is, of course, spin. But the spinning is not what we expect. We expect political spin, which is certainly there in abundance. But the stronger spin, the more cunning spin, indeed the more dangerous spin, is the entertainment spin. When the most serious issues of the day are spun in order to entertain, then those all-important issues are trivialized, and the result is that we eventually lose our ability to engage is serious talk about serious issues. And the real tragedy, as Postman recognized, is that we don't care. We are entertained; so everything is okay.
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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

August 28, 2012

Once More, Unbelief and Falling Away: Evidence from Hebrews

Yesterday, I pointed to the role of unbelief in Romans 11 as it relates to a person's being cut off from the people of God. But that chapter is not the only place the language of unbelief shows up in a discussion of falling away. The book of Hebrews contains an important passage as well, and it's not the one you might expect. Arguments from Hebrews that believers may fall away are often based on the so-called warning passage in 6:4-6. However, the presence of the language of unbelief in 3:12-19 is relevant as well:
"Take care, brothers, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving (Gk. apistia) heart that turns away from the living God (3:12)...So we see that they [the Hebrews] were unable to enter [into rest] because of unbelief (Gk. apistia, 3:19)." 
Several features of this text are relevant to the role of unbelief and its relationship to falling away.
  1. As in Romans 11, the unbelief of the Hebrew people is the basis of the exhortation to the Christian community to persevere in faith. This means that multiple New Testament authors saw Israel's unbelief as analogous to the potential situation in which Christians might fall into unbelief. It may also suggest continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God, since the new are liable to the same danger as the old.
  2. The passage is directly addressed to the Christian community and presupposes belief in the God revealed in Jesus. The explicit addressees are "brothers", a common descriptor for members of the visible community of believers in the early Christian movement. In 3:1, the term "brothers" is qualified by the phrase "holy partners in a heavenly calling", which emphasizes the author's understanding that they are true believers. The addressees are warned not to turn away from God, which suggests that they are presently oriented toward God in contrast to those who are rebellious.
  3. Turning away from God is directly correlated with an unbelieving heart (apistia). This suggests that the author saw it as a real possibility that believing Christians might return to unbelief and turn from God, thus falling away from membership in the people of God and falling away from participation in the saving work of God; thus jeopardizing their entrance into God's rest.
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August 27, 2012

Eternal Security? How do you fall away?

In a couple of recent posts (1, 2) I've reflected on the language of security and falling away in the New Testament. When the suggestion is made that a believer can indeed fall permanently and to his detriment from grace, the question is commonly raised as to how this happens. What does someone have to do fall away? How does a person move from justification to condemnation? Following on from my last post, I'll focus my comments on Paul's discussion of the matter in Romans 11.
 
The starting point must be the comparison that Paul draws between God's attitude toward unbelieving Israel and his audience in Rome. My previous suggestion that a believer can indeed fall to their peril is based on this comparison in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that Israel was broken off for unbelief; thus, his warning to the Romans, "if God did not spare the original branches, perhaps he will not spare you" (11:21). For the apostle, believing Gentile Christians are liable to the same fate as Israel, namely God might cut them off. The comparison between the Roman church and Israel is developed through a contrast between the faith of the Romans and the unbelief of Israel, "They (Israel) were broken off because of their unbelief (Gk. apistia), but you stand only through faith (Gk. pistis)" (11:20). The explicit contrast of Paul's Greek is somewhat muted in the English translation of "unbelief" vs. "faith" simply because English doesn't have a negative word using the root "faith". The Greek apistia vs. pistis is much stronger, and a more literal translation would say that Israel was "broken off because of their afaith (or unfaith?), but you stand only through faith." This is enough to highlight the fact that, for Paul, if a person can move from God's favor into condemnation, it is conditioned on whether or not that one continues in faith in Christ. The logic is quite clear. If it is through faith that we are united to Christ and brought into a state of reconciliation with God, then our unbelief would mean the breaking of our union with Christ, which would also mean that we no longer partake in the blessings of our former union.
 
Paul's understanding of the contrast between faith and unbelief becomes increasingly clear when we consider Romans 4:20. Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes, "No unbelief (Gk. apistia) made him doubt the promise of God, but he was empowered by faith (Gk. pistis) giving glory to God." Note the again the strong contrast between apistia and pistis. Abraham's righteous standing before God is conditioned on his belief in the promise of God (4:21-22), and the opposite of this by-faith-righteousness is unbelieving condemnation. In Romans, Abraham is the prototypical Gentile believer, because he believed and was justified prior to his circumcision. So, faith in the crucified and risen Christ incorporates even a Gentile believer into Abraham's family, which is defined around the Messiah. In contrast, unbelief cuts a person off from this family. This is precisely what Paul says happened with ethnic Israel, and in his thinking it is a danger to believers in Rome. Thus, his exhortation to continue in the kindness of God, which is conditioned on perseverance in faith, in order to avoid being cut off (11:22).
 
Returning to the initial question regarding how one falls away, we can say that the condition for being cut off from the people of God is unbelief or a cessation of faith in Christ. He does not here raise the issue of evil works as a means for falling away, though he would certainly assert that evil works are the product of unbelief. This makes sense in light Paul's larger soteriology. If a person is justified by faith, then falling into unbelief would necessitate falling out of justified reconciliation with God. One might say that this is all hypothetical for Paul, and that a true believer will never fall into unbelief. The problem with that suggestion is that Paul doesn't seem to be dealing in hypotheticals. His argument is based on the very concrete and historical example of God's action to cut off unbelieving Israel. Cutting off, he insists, is the grievous consequence of unbelief. For Paul, it appears to be a real possibility that a justified true believer could fall into unbelief and be cut off from the people of God.

August 21, 2012

Eternal Security? My Crucial Verse

Everyone has particular passages of scripture that shape their reading of other passages of scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we create a framework for reading the Bible (or any document) where we prioritize certain parts of it. We take one portion as a lens for reading the rest. This may seem suspect at first, but it's not. It's simply part of how we read and interpret texts. Any idea in any text only has meaning in relation to other ideas in that text. This hermeneutical reality has a long standing history in the church. For centuries, theologians have suggested that we allow the clear and straightforward parts of the Bible to guide, inform, and shape our reading of the less straightforward, less clear, and downright hard-to-get parts. This is how it works; we might as well be up front about it.

When it comes to the so-called doctrine of eternal security (or the perseverance of the saints), the crucial passage for me is Romans 11:17-24, especially verses 19-21. I formerly held the view that true believers cannot ultimately fall away, but my view was never exegetically grounded. It was motivated more by the psychological comfort of knowing I was indeed eternally secure. But the trouble with textually ungrounded psycho-therapeutic theological constructions is that they sometimes encounter texts that chop the safety net into little bits and pieces, which is what happened when I read Romans 11:19-21:
"You will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you" (NRSV, emphasis added).
There are two aspects of these verses that forced me to change my view on the perseverance of the saints. First, Paul is explicitly speaking to people who "stand by faith." That is, we are dealing with believers here. And we know from what we've already read in Romans that those who have faith in Jesus are justified and have been reconciled to God (3:21-26). They "have peace with God" (5:1), and for them there is "no condemnation" (8:1). Second, Paul tells these justified, reconciled, peace with God having believers that the possibility exists that God might "not spare you." Yes, that's right. Paul compares these baptized and believing Chrstians to unbelieving Israel (the natural branches) and declares that, if they, like Israel, fall into unbelief, they will not be spared. There it was. I couldn't escape it. My therapeutic theological safety net had been decimated.

This passage seems to me so straightforwardly clear that it cannot be seriously taken any other way. (Yes, I know many take it other ways). To make Paul's declaration that God might not spare these believers to mean that believers, once they have believed, can never fall into condemnation requires exegetical gymnastics of olypmic proportion. This verse hit me so hard and so fast with its stunning clarity that it became my crucial verse. It changed my mind and now shapes my reading and reflecting on questions of perseverance. Everything else is viewed through this lens.
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NB 1: I'll point out the fact that this passage comes at the climax of the larger Calvinist go-to passage of Romans 9-11. I would argue that this is a really good reason for not supposing that Romans 9 means what Calvinists take it to mean. Whatever Paul thinks about God's purposes in election, he also envisions the real possibility that one can be a member of the people of God and fall away.

NB 2: I'm not saying that everyone who holds to some form of the perseverance of the saints is doing so for the sake of psychological comfort. That's just what I was doing.

August 20, 2012

Eternally secure; provided that

The debate over eternal  security among various stripes of evangelicals is unlikely to go away any time soon. Some assert that upon conversion believers are guaranteed their salvation cannot be lost. Others disagree by claiming that believers can fall from grace. One of my professors who takes this view is fond of saying, "No one is eternally secure until they are securely in eternity." Both sides argue that their view accurately interprets the biblical data. Interestingly, these two variant perspectives come together in scripture in surprising ways. Take 2 Peter 3:17, for example:
"Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position" (NIV, emphasis added).
Did you catch that? Fall from your secure position! It would seem that Peter can speak of both security and falling away in the very same breath. We might be inclined to ask what sort of security this might be if one can indeed fall from it. But that's just it. In this passage, security is not a matter of being once saved and thus always saved. The language of security is here used to describe the believer's position, but that security is not understood by the author as something that cannot be lost. So, Peter understands security differently than proponents of the doctrine of perseverance. Perilous error appears a real possibility. The believer is secure provided that he does not fall. Language about security can be one of those places where we bring our presuppositions shaped by our theological system into the interpretation of the text. Sometimes it may even be the case that we presuppose a certain idea of eternal security to give ourselves a doctrinal safety net. However, texts like this one undermine such a view. This case provides a good example of allowing scripture to define its own terminology rather than importing our own systems and presuppositions onto our reading of scripture. In 2 Peter 3, security of salvation in this life is conditioned on steadfast faith in the promise of the Lord.
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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

August 16, 2012

What does Church have to do with Kingdom?

I just started reading a little book called Church Membership: How the World Knows who Represents Jesus by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway 2012). The foreword by Michael Horton has a nice summary of how Christ's redemptive work relates to the visible church:
"Christ rules us in order to save us and saves us in order to rule us. Unlike the rulers of this age, Jesus doesn't ask us to shed our blood for his empire; he instead gave his own life for his realm. Then he was raised in glory as the beginning of the new creation, and now he is gathering coheirs into his kingdom who belong to each other because, together, they belong to him. The visible church is where you will find Christ's kingdom on earth, and to disregard the kingdom is to disregard the King" (15).
If the visible church is the place where the Kingdom of God becomes visible, then covenantal membership in a local church is instrumental for the visibility of the kingdom. A timely word in a day when church membership is often under-emphasized or left unmentioned altogether.
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August 8, 2012

Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

In light of my previous assessment of the debate over Michael Licona's comments on the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53, I was pleased to see the publication by Southeastern Theological Review of this roundtable discussion between Licona, Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Kruger, and Charles Quarles, in which Licona's rather controversial view was fairly evaluated by the participants. I was particularly encouraged with the tone of discussion and the general agreement that the issue is not inerrancy but hermenteutics. Despite some disagreement on how to take Matthew 27:52-53, the participants do a good job of articulating the relationship between authorial intent and interpretation, a relationship which Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler failed to take on board in their critiques of Licona. This roundtable discussion is an excellent example of how evangelical scholarship and peer review should be conducted. I am unaware of any apology to Licona from either Geisler or Mohler, but in light of this roundtable discussion, I think there should be an increased call for such an apology from both for their inflammatory and misdirected critiques of Licona's work.

July 26, 2012

Written Before the Foundation of the World? Translation Matters

I got a few interesting comments on Facebook and Twitter recently when I wrote that I find it increasingly humorous to run across what seem to be theological biases in published standard translations of the Bible, and I must say that it's not always so humorous. Some questions of translation could go either way; others should not be handled so poorly. So, I thought I would point to another verse where there is almost always an unhelpful discrepancy between the original and the published translations.

The ESV renders Revelation 13:8b like this: "everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain." This translation suggests that the action of having one's name written (or not) in the book of life took place "before the foundation of the world." The NRSV, NAS, and NLT each handle this verse in a similar way. This translation has a certain Calvinistic odor about it suggesting that one's fate is unconditionally predetermined before the dawn of creation. Arminians (like myself) don't appreciate that too much precisely because we think it maligns the character of God. Why would a good God condemn any of his creatures, if he has the power to save them without doing harm to their will? Arminians insist that he would not. In the case of Revelation 13:8, the Greek text does not support the Calvinist view.

In the Greek syntax of Revelation 13:8, the prepositional phrase does not modify the verb rendered "has not been written" (γράφω); instead, it modifies the substantive participle translated "who was slain" (σφάζω). So, a proper translation would read: "everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world" (cf. the NIV). You can easily see that the Greek makes no comment on the timing of when one's name is or is not written in the book of life. The emphasis is altogether different. The emphasis is on God's eternal commitment to reveal himself as the one who is self-giving sacrificial love in the person of Jesus, the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 says nothing about individual or unconditional predestination; it says that God is unconditionally committed to the cross, and he is committed to it from eternity.

July 20, 2012

Lincoln on the Sufficiency of the Gospel

I will begin preaching through Colossians on Sunday, and I've been consulting a few commentaries in preparation. I'm taking the opportunity to work through one commentary by my teacher, Andrew T. Lincoln, who contributed "Colossians" to The New Interpreter's Bible (vol. XI, Abingdon, 2000). One of the strengths of the book are the theological and pastoral reflections at the end of each section of commentary. Reflecting on the opening paragraphs of Colossians, Lincoln has this to say:
"There is a host of different ways in which contemporary believers can be tempted to feel that the basic gospel message is inadequate and that it needs to be supplemented by additional religious rites or disciplines, more sophisticated knowledge, or some compelling experience, if they are to be accepted by God or to reach their full potential as human beings. They need to hear that, although the gospel has riches that are yet to be fathomed and implications for all areas of life that are yet to be explored, there is no inadequacy about its basic message. They need to know that the hope that is at the heart of it and inseparable from the person of Christ is secure and that such hope is the potent incentive to a life of faith and love" (594).
Colossians deals throughout with the believer's tendency to add knowledge, experience, or discipline to the work of Christ, and that tendency has yet to be done away with. We all need to hear afresh the sufficiency of Christ and the good news that tells of his death and resurrection that works powerfully within us.

July 19, 2012

Involuntary Retirement Recommended for Bishop

The big news this week in United Methodism (aside from episcopal elections) is the vote of the South Central Jurisdiction's Committee on Episcopacy to involuntarily retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe. You can find the details in this report from The United Methodist Reporter. The committee is concerned about Bishop Bledsoe's administrative abilities, even though, he insists, that the statistics show growth and vitality in the North Texas Conference during his time as bishop there. The South Central Jurisdiction will vote this afternoon on whether to accept the recommendation of the Committee on Episcopacy to involuntarily retire Bishop Bledsoe? This appears to be an unprecedented move that raises a variety of questions.

Does a Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy have the authority to involuntarily retire a bishop? Is this an implication of the General Conference vote to end guranteed appointment? How does this shape the future with regard to the accountability of bishops? What do you think? What other questions are raised by this action? How will this shape the future of United Methodism? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

July 17, 2012

The Dual Focus of the Resurrection

What is the significance of the resurrection? According to J. Christiaan Beker:
For Paul, the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and its "bodily" character are crucial. The historicity of the resurrection signifies its eschatological-temporal significance, that is, it is a proleptic event that inaugurates the new creation. The "bodily" character of the resurrection manifests the resurrection as an event that not only occurs in time but also signals the "bodily" ontological transformation of the created order in the kingdom of God. Therefore, the resurrection of Christ is both crucial and yet provisional. It is crucial because it marks the beginning of the new creation; it is provisional because it looks forward to the consummation of that beginning.
From Paul the Apostle: The triumph of God in Life and Thought (Fortress, 1980), 159.

July 5, 2012

Why Read Revelation?

I'm teaching a Bible study on the Book of Revelation this summer and am thus reading a variety of resources to prepare. One that I'm enjoying very much is Mike Gorman's (a fellow United Methodist!) Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Cascade, 2011). One of the challenges to reading Revelation well is the abundance of outlandish interpretations that distract us from the central figure and message of the book, namely Jesus and his call to faithful discipleship despite the challenges and hardships that inevitably arise from living such a life in the midst of a fallen and rebelling world. While reflecting on his theological and missional approach to the Apocalypse, Gorman gets to the heart of this issue:
Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world. That is, like every other New Testament book, Revelation is about Jesus Christ - "A Revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev 1:1) - and about following him in obdience and love. "If anyone asks, 'Why read the Apocalypse?', the unhesitating answer must be, 'To know Christ better.'"
It's easy to lose sight of the reality that the Revelation is a revelation of Jesus. Any responsible reading of John's great vision will insist on keeping this fact properly in front of us.

July 2, 2012

Theology, Ethics, & the Imitation of Christ

I always enjoy it when New Testament scholars write theology for the Church:
"Paul sees the community of faith being caught up into the story of God's remaking the world through Jesus Christ. Thus, to make ethical discernments is, for Paul, simply to recognize our place within the epic story of redemption. There is no meaningful distinction between theology and ethics in Paul's thought, because Paul's theology is fundamentally an account of God's work in transforming his people into the image of Christ."
"The distinctive shape of obedience to God is disclosed in Jesus Christ's faithful death on the cross for the sake of God's people. That death becomes metaphorically paradigmatic for the obedience of the community: to obey God means to offer our lives unqualifiedly for the sake of others. Thus, the fundamental norm of Pauline ethics is the christomorphic life. To imitate Christ is also to follow the apostolic example of surrendering one's own prerogatives and interests."

June 28, 2012

Comfort and Affliction: The Dual Message of Revelation

I used to be afraid to read Revelation at night. That's right. What with all the horsemen, bowls, plagues, and beasts, I simply couldn't read it for fear of being beset with nightmares. Like many, I grew up with a loose pre-millenial dispensationalist undertanding of the Apocalypse, not because I was seriously working in the text (I could barely read it), but because it was simply in the air. I thought the message of Revelation was basically this: you better hope you get raptured before the beast shows up. It wasn't that I was deeply committed to this reading of the book; I just didn't know there were options.

About seven years ago, when I began studing the Bible and Church history with significanly increased seriousness, I discovered not only that there were alternative approaches to reading Revelation, but that my default approach was a relatively recent historical development and that it was not firmly based on a careful reading of Revelation (or any part of scripture for that matter). But if Revelation isn't about flying away to escape the horrors of the coming beast, then what is it about?

Simply put, the message of Revelation is twofold. First, it is a word of encouragement and hope calling persecuted Christians to persevere. Second, it is a warning of judgment for those who would oppress and persecute the Church, and included within this second element is a warning to those within the Church who think they can compromise with the oppressors to maintain their comfort and avoid hardship.

In terms of encouraging the Church, Revelation reminds her that her God is both faithful and sovereign. It declares that the God who created the world is also the God who is in the process of creating it anew. It is a reminder that the people of God are the followers of Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr and the slaughtered lamb who now lives and reigns forever. It is a word of hope that despite every evil effort of the beastly nations to kill off the Church, the people of the lamb are the people of the God who raises the dead. He will vindicate them. And those who conquer, even when conquering means dying, will become the final dwelling place of the Living God and the Lamb. 

It is a word of warning for those who would seek to oppress the people of God and manipulate the world for their own ends. It is a warning to the beastly nations and their leaders who prop themselves up as lords and masters of the world. It is a declaration to them that they are but a parody of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the slaughtered lamb has and will triumph over the regimes of all who oppose him. Included here is a warning for those who think they are faithful followers of the lamb and yet collude with the enemy embracing its values, perspective, and activity. You cannot be a citizen of Fallen Babylon and the New Jerusalem at the same time.

To adapt a well-worn phrase about preaching: the message of Revelation is one of comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable. To the afflicted faithful: Persevere. Your God will vindicate you. To the comfortable compromisers: Beware. God will undo you.

Reading Revelation is no longer a fear to me. It is now always an experience of joy and hope. I love the Apocalyse, and I turn to it when I need to be encouraged and uplifted. The message of Revelation is not one of fear. No, for the followers of the Lamb, it is a message of hope.