February 28, 2012

Grace is not a substance

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg recently wrote on the different understandings of grace as irresistible as opposed to prevenient. After describing the difficulty that many have with "limited atonement," namely that it means "Christ’s death went for naught for those who do not repent," he goes on to suggest that prevenient grace may have a similar problem:
"What if the problem with prevenient grace is parallel? Would God extend sufficient (but resistible) grace to those he knew would forever resist and reject it? Wouldn’t that just be a waste?"
Blomberg is a fine scholar and has contributed in a variety of ways to sound biblical scholarship. Here I would raise a question, though. He seems to be speaking of grace as if it were a substance. It is something that God "extends", something that can be wasted. Many of us often speak in such ways, and I would like to hear Blomberg discuss this more thoroughly. Grace is not a substance; grace is a person. There is no grace other than the person of Jesus Christ himself. Salvation by grace means being joined in a relationship of union with Jesus such that all that is his is shared with those who are joined to him. When we think of grace as a person rather than as some other sort of thing, it is difficult to make sense of terms like "waste". Can a person be wasted?

When we begin to conceive of grace like this, we can begin to see the value of the concept of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is about the activity of God through his Spirit to draw people into a new relationship with the Father through the Son before that relationship is actually established. Wesleyans (and Arminians) tend to think of salvation in terms of a new relationship with God. This is one reason we are concerned by the idea of irresistible grace. It is difficult to conceive how an irresistible relationship, one that must be had against the will of one party, can be a relationship of mutual self-giving love. A relationship of love is one in which both parties freely desire to engage. And relationships of reconciliation are pursued before they are firmly established. Such relationships, it would seem, can be resisted.

So, prevenient grace is not about God offering a thing (or substance) to those who he knows will reject it. Prevenient grace is about the triune God offering himself and wooing his beloved into a relationship of boundless other-oriented love. Prevenient grace is not about receiving a thing; it's about receiving a person. In this light we can recast the question: would God offer himself in relationship to those who he knew would forever resist and reject that relationship? The resounding answer seems to me to be yes. Isn't that who he is? Does he not present himself to those who are at enmity with him? Does he not call out to the banquet those who refuse to come? Does he not long to gather his people as a hen gathers her chicks despite their resistance? Grace is not a substance. Grace is Jesus. And Jesus offers himself, not for us only but also for the whole world.

February 22, 2012

John Wesley on Self-Denial: A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent. To mark the beginning of this season in the Church year, here is a quote from John Wesley from his sermon on "Self-Denial,"
"The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him."
A sober reminder from Wesley that the practice of self-denial during the season of Lent is an opportunity to focus on the that which must characterize the Christian life year round.

February 21, 2012

A Narrative Theology of Penal Substitution

One common objection to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement is that it cannot be found articulated in the gospels. I find this claim to be unpersuasive, not least because of Jesus' declaration that he came to offer himself a ransom in place of the many (Mark 10:45). Further, the account of Jesus taking the place of Barabbas strikes me as a rather straightforward narrative describing how the innocent Jesus took the penalty of the guilty criminal, who walked away with his life a free man. Do not the gospel writers intend their readers to understand that what is true of Barabbas is also true of all, that the Son of God has taken our penalty in our place? This is precisely what is argued by Adam Hamilton in his book, 24 Hours that Changed the World, as he reflects on the depiction of this event in the film The Passion of the Christ:
"For an instant, Barabbas seemed to comprehend that this innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. This is one small picture of the substitutionary work of atonement Jesus performed with his death; for we, like Barabbas, have been spared, with Jesus suffering the punishment we deserve" (67).
This is not to say that penal substitution is the only way to understand the atonement. And it is true, the gospel writers do not give a systematic exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution, but what they do give us is, in some ways, more telling and more powerful. They show us through their narratives what it looks like for Jesus to bear the punishment of a single sinner. And they invite us all to place ourselves in that story. Jesus not only died in place of Barabbas, he died in place of us all.

February 15, 2012

Do You Believe in an Historical Adam?

That's the question floating around the internet as of late. The issue has been brought to our attention once again with the publication of Peter Enns' new book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins, in which Enns argues that an evolutionary worldview doesn't allow for an historical Adam. As an interesting aside, I recall one of my seminary profs suggesting alternatively that theistic evolution was entirely compatible with an historical view of Adam, because there had to have been a first human being.

The discussion of the book and the debate over the historical Adam have, not surprisingly, begun to float around the blogosphere. Peter Leithart has questioned Enns' reading of  Genesis on the one hand and his reading of Paul on the other. Pastor and author Kevin DeYoung last week posted "Ten Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam," a post in which he suggested this is a standing or falling gospel issue.

James McGrath has responded to DeYoung with his own post entitled, "Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam," in which he comments on what he takes to be the problems with each of DeYoung's arguments. And to come full-circle, Enns himself has jumped in with his two cents on DeYoung's post.

What do you think? Do you believe in an historical Adam? Does an evolutionary worldview rule out any conception of an historical Adam? Or can you reconcile the two? Or does it matter? Must the Bible be reconciled with science? If so, how? How does this question affect the way you read Paul? What is at stake in this debate?

February 14, 2012

Book Notes on Paul

The good folks over at Religious Studies Review have made a couple of my book notes available for viewing free of charge. The first one is on Joseph Plevnik's What are they Saying about Paul and the End Time? This is a very helpful book if you are looking for a survey on important issues in the study of Pauline eschatology. The second is Michael Trainor's Epaphras: Paul's Educator at Colossae. Trainor puts social networking analysis to work to propose a portrait of Epaphras as an intimate coworker of Paul who carried on an authoritative teaching role for the Christians in the Lycus Valley. You'll have to click-through to find out what I think about them. Typically, RSR requires a subscription of one sort or another to view publications online. So, I'm not sure how long these will be available.

February 7, 2012

An Eschatology of Hope

The new issue of The Princeton Theological Review is now available online and contains my article, "Toward an Eschatology of Hope: The Disappearance of the Sea in Revelation 21:1 and its Significance for the Church." In describing his vision of new creation, John says that "the sea is no more." This essay interprets that statement in light of Jewish symbolic associations with the sea. In Jewish literature, the sea was commonly associated with that which is antithetical to God's purposes and to his people. So, the eschatological elimination of the sea is a image of hope that God will one day deliver creation from all that is antagonistic to his purposes. I conclude the essay with three tasks in which the Church must engage in order to regain and promote a firmly hopeful eschatology. Here's a preview:
We have seen that, when read in light of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the disappearance of the sea in Rev 21:1 paints a symbolic picture of a day to be longed for, a day when God will remove from the created order all that is evil and antithetical to his purposes and to his people, a day when creation will emerge from its sorrow into the bliss of God's manifest presence. This is a day of hope, and in the Apocalypse of John, it is that day for which the faithful around the throne and upon the earth await with eagerness. And yet, we live in a day when much of the church is highly influenced by the anti-creational theology of the best-selling Left Behind series. Many Christians have been thrice duped by the triply-failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. Even more recently, Pat Robertson pointed to the August 23, 2011, earthquake in Washington, DC, as sign of God's coming judgment. It would seem that bookstores and the airwaves are seldom short of end-times paranoia and pessimism. Such well-known and highly publicized eschatology is damaging to the Church in its poor handling of scripture and the unnecessary mockery that comes when Camping-like predictions fail to be realized. The remedy to this problem is for the Church to articulate a thoroughly biblical eschatology of hope with an optimistic view of the future that God will draw the nations to himself and one day bring full and final renewal to all that he has made. The question before us then is this: In light of the scriptural vision of new creation, how do we regain an eschatology of hope? In an effort to move toward such eschatological renewal, I propose three essential tasks. These three are certainly not intended as an exhaustive list but as key elements necessary for the stated goal.
Read the whole thing here (scroll down to p. 49). 

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February 1, 2012

I (Withdraw my) Commend(ation of) the Komen Foundation

The big news today is the Komen Foundation's reinstatement of Planned Parenthood's eligibility to receive grant funds. Komen appears to have caved to pressure from a variety of fronts and has issued an apology for their previous action toward Planned Parenthood. Their flip-flopping means, of course, that I must withdraw my earlier commendation. I lament that America's largest abortion provider will continue to receive funding from Komen. I commend Russell Moore's comments on the issue posted at Christianity Today, "The Pink Ribbon and the Dollar Sign: The Wrong Lessons to Draw from the Komen-Planned Parenthood Debacle."

UPDATED: February 3, 2012
__________

The web is aflame with commentary on the recent news that the Susan G. Komen for a Cure Foundation has ceased funding Planned Parenthood because the nation's largest abortion provider is now under official governmental investigation. Komen, the nation's largest breast cancer awareness organization, has withdrawn over $600,000 in grant funds from Planned Parenthood because of it's policy to avoid partnerships with organizations under investigation. You can find the story in various places; so I'll not rehash the details here.

Komen has faced both praise and criticism for this move, and I raise my voice to commend them for halting their funding of the company that profits from the unjust slaughter of unborn human babies. Any work that Planned Parenthood may do that actually benefits the health of women is undermined by their unapologetic war of unprovoked aggression against those in our society who have no voice of their own. To the Komen Foundation, I hope that this break is permanent and that your work from this point forward is increasingly effective. There are certainly other outlets and organizations that work for the health of women which will benefit from your support. I hope other Christian leaders will voice their support for the Komen Foundation to build their resolve to maintain their current position.