March 30, 2012

Did the Father Really Turn His Back on Jesus?

For many of us the season of Lent provides an opportunity to reflect more intentionally and more carefully on the meaning and significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. Our thoughts often turn to the passion narratives and particularly to the words that Jesus uttered as he suffered. In Matthew's gospel, the final words of Jesus before his death are the loud cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Commonly referred to as "the cry of dereliction", these words remind us that Jesus suffered more greatly than we can imagine. It is a bittersweet reminder of the depth of his passionate love for us.

One common interpretation of this saying suggests that, at this very moment, God the Father abandoned God the Son. Unable to look upon the sin that Jesus carried for all of us, the Father turned his back, and the very heart of the Trinity was torn apart. This interpretation presents a variety of difficulties. What would it mean for the Trinity to essentially come apart? And is not the Father pleased with the Son? Why would he abandon his beloved at the moment of his greatest suffering? Even more, if the Father turns his back on the Son, can we trust God to be present with us when we need him the most? Jesus' cry of forsakenness from the cross clearly presents challenges both theologically and pastorally. These difficulties have caused me to wonder whether there might be another approach to this passage? Can this text be heard on its own terms in a way that is faithfully trinitarian and pastorally sensitive?

Keep reading this post at Seedbed for the pastoral implications of a biblical and trinitarian approach.
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March 21, 2012

Judas: Friend of Jesus?

Jesus is never short on surprising things to say. One such thing comes at the moment he is betrayed by Judas. Matthew 26:50 reads, "Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you came to do." Friend? Does Jesus really address the one responsible for betraying him to those plotting his cruel destruction as "friend"? What do we do with that?

Well-known preacher and teacher Thomas G. Long suggests that Jesus is speaking ironically and argues that "friend", in the Gospel of Matthew, "means something like 'Buster' and is itself no term of endearment" (Matthew, WJK, 305). He references Matthew 20:13 and 22:12 as other examples in the Gospel where "friend" is used ironically to mean something other than the way it is normally used.

Alternatively, N. T. Wright insists that when Jesus is here using the word "friend" in its normal sense. He says, "It is of course the word 'friend' that causes us to catch our breath. Friendship, for Jesus, does not stop with betrayal, even though now it is tinged wth deep sadness" (Matthew for Everyone, WJK, 2.164). He also says that the Greek sentence above translated as "do what you came to do," could be taken as a question asking, "Do you really want to go through with this?"

What do you think? Is Jesus' address to Judas as "friend" a term of ironic derision? Or might Jesus be demonstrating the ongoing and unconditional nature of his love, even for those who seek to do him harm? Leave a comment with your take on the passage.

March 14, 2012

Phoebe's Role in Rome: Further thoughts on "Masculine" Christianity

Continuing to reflect on the debate surrounding the alleged "masculine feel" of Christianity, my thoughts have several times turned to the role played by Phoebe in the delivery of Paul's letter to the Romans and, perhaps, in instructing the Romans with regard to the apostle's most famous epistle. I've put off writing on the matter, but this recent post from Mike Bird motivated me to jot down a few thoughts. Bird points to a letter of Cicero, in which the great Roman orator said:
"In these letters, indeed, I am urgently pressed by you to send answers, but what renders me rather dilatory in this respect the difficulty of finding a trustworthy carrier. How few of these gentry are able to convey a letter rather weightier than usual without lightening it by skimming its contents!" (Letter XVIII).
This comment from Cicero suggests that he expected his letter carriers to do more than deliver the mail. He expected them to be able to competently explain and answer questions about the letter on behalf of the author.

This may have implications for the way we understand the role of those charged with delivering Paul's letters to their recipient churches. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul writes:
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever way she may require from you, for she has also been a benefactor of many and of myself as well."
It looks like Phoebe was charged with delivering the letter to the Romans. And based on the evidence from Cicero, she may have had much more responsibility than that. She may have been responsible for instructuing the Romans with regard to Paul's letter, which might include offering exposition and comment on portions of the text, not least the difficult portions. Indeed, Phoebe may very well have been hand-picked by Paul himself to be the first to teach his letter in a local church setting.

This is precisely what Arland J. Hultgren claims in his recent commentary on Romans:
"Phoebe would have had a role to play at Rome that is not mentioned explicitly, but which is implied. As the one person entrusted with the letter to Rome, she was also entrusted by Paul to comment on anything in the letter that would not have been understood, making her the first commentator on and exegete of the letter. In addition, she could supplement the actual contents of the letter, filling in any gaps and informing the Christian house churches in Rome as needed concerning Paul's views and plans in more detail" (Paul's Letter to the Romans, 2011, p. 569).
This strikes me as a significant difficulty for the complementarian position that women were barred from ministries of proclamation and teaching in earliest Christianity, a view which forms part of the basis for the claim that Christianity has a masculine character. If Paul chose women to represent him in his absence for the all-important task of explaining persuasive documents like Romans, which contained essential exposition of his gospel and on which he may have thought the future of his missionary activity to depend, then the claim that women were not allowed to teach in the assemblies seems difficult to sustain, and a part of the evidential basis for the suggestion that Christianity has a masculine feel disappears. In what sense might Christianity have had a masculine character if women were charged with teaching Paul's letters in the earliest churches? Once again, we have an example of how Paul rejected and subverted the extreme patriarchy of the Romans Empire by choosing a woman for a position of strategic leadership in the church gathered in the imperial capital itself?

March 13, 2012

Reclaiming Revelation

Having written recently on the importance of Revelation for recapturing an eschatology of hope, I was excited to see this post from friend, pastor, and eschatologian Chad Brooks on "Reclaiming Revelation in the Year the World Will End."  Chad writes:
Unless you have been under a rock for the last month, one of the revolving themes in culture this year are predictions regarding 2012 being end of life as we know it. Various television channels, movies, blog posts, and even respectable news outlets are giving attention to the phenomenon.
As pastors, those who teach the word of God and lead faith communities, we need to be engaged in conversation within the wider arena. If the end truly belongs to anyone, it belongs to the church of Jesus Christ. The core truth of Christianity thrusts itself towards the idea of a singular event, called the eschaton, in which the good and righteous will prevail and God recreates this earth. This truth stands as the anchoring hope of the Church, and no book deals with this truth more expansively than the book of Revelation.
Read the rest of the post at Seedbed to discover two entry points for reclaiming Revelation for the church. Find more from Chad at Outside is Better.
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NB: For those who read Chad's post and are now wondering, the answer is yes. The course number for Dr. Mulholland's class on Revelation really is NT 666, which means the number of the beast will forever be on my official academic record.

Image: Icon of the Apocalypse of St. John (c. 16th century)

March 8, 2012

Infanticide & Idolatry

The shocking news this week  is that two (so-called) ethicists have published a paper in which they argue that the killing of newborn babies is morally acceptable because infants are not "actual persons" and "do not have a 'moral right to life.'" The article, titled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics, has recieved enthusiastic and extensive criticism. I thought about joining the voices of critique to argue for the notorious wickedness of this outlandish proposal, but such critiques abound. So instead I offer this reflection from the scriptures.

The kings of Judah are categorized in scripture in terms of whether "they did what was right in the sight of the Lord" or not. Two of the kings whose reigns were marked by wickedness stand out. Ahaz and Manasseh are infamous for their idolatrous burning of sacrifices to false gods. They engaged in their idolatry in an area south of Jerusalem known as the valley of the son of Hinnom, and as a part of their worship, they burned their own sons as human sacrfices to pagan deity (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). Because of their evil, that valley was considered cursed and became the place where the people of Jerusalem burned their garbage, a place marked by stench and full of worms, where the fires never cease to burn.

This valley shows up in the New Testament as well. By the time of Jesus that same place was known as Gehenna, and it continued as cursed ground fit only for burning rubbish. The valley dump is further significant because it became one of Jesus' metaphors for hell, a place so important to avoid that it would be better to lose a hand, foot, or eye than find yourself in that place of curse (Mark 9:42-48). This valley was the source of now common images for perdition: unquenchable fire, never-dying worms, and all.

Now this does not give us any sort of fully articulated doctrine of hell, nor is that the point. But it is quite startling to discover that when Jesus went looking for a terrifying image of damnation, he chose that very place where two Judean kings sacrificed their sons in idolatrous worship to false gods. It is a startling and disturbing diagnostic of our culture when two professional ethicists publish a peer-reviewed article calling for the morality of the sacrifice of our children to the pagan gods of economics and convenience. We are swamped in idolatry and folly befalls us.
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Image: Jonathan Fitch/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

March 6, 2012

Schweitzer's Significance

It is impossible to study the history of New Testament scholarship for long without encountering the work of Albert Schweitzer and being confronted with his importance for the discipline, especially with regard to Pauline studies. And sometimes you come across such remarkable praise of a person's work that it is striking and makes the point more clearly than you've heard it made before. Reading Robert Jewett's Paul's Anthropological Terms last night, I came across just such praise and thought I would share it here. Jewett says,
Schweitzer's extraordinary thesis throws light on almost every aspect of Paul's theology. It accepts and makes sense out of the Pauline understanding of the body in a way which no earlier interpretation could match. That it has been so little accepted and emulated is due in part to the utter strangeness of the conceptions which he sets forth; modern man does not appear to possess the philosophical assumptions to grasp such ideas of somatic unity. And this is what stamps Schweitzer's interpretation as a contribution of the highest order, because it grasped and interpreted thoughts so completely alien to those held by the exegete himself. But it is not the mere strangeness of the ideas which convinces one that Schweitzer has made a vitally important discovery; rather it is the fact that he can follow the clear sense of Paul's argument in crucial passages..." (Leiden: Brill, 1971, p. 215, italics mine).
Jewett does take exception to some aspects of Schweitzer's interpretation of Paul, but he goes on to say, "Under no circumstances however are the insights of his exegesis of the σῶμα (body) concept to be cast aside simply because of these difficulties. His work on this problem remains a beacon of light of historical exegesis" (p. 216).

So, Schweitzer's treatment of the text was supremely brilliant. However, the presuppositional narrow mindedness of the guild caused his work to be under-appreciated. High praise, indeed, along with some thinly veiled criticism.

March 5, 2012

Wrap-up from the Wesleyan Theological Society

I've been a member of the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS) for several years but only attended the annual meeting of the Society for the first time over the weekend. We met in Nashville on Friday and Saturday. I had a great time renewing old friendships and making new ones. I was also glad to meet in person several people with whom I've only had electronic or social media communication. It was a fun and memorable weekend. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Noble quotes - One person who made it a memorable meeting is Dr. Thomas Noble, who presented a very interesting paper in one of the Systematic Theology sessions. At the conclusion of the session, after a discussion on, among other things, whether God can truly desire something that he knows will never be, Dr. Noble stood up and admonished us all that these discussions of how God knows things, while interesting and valid as an academic interest, are entirely beside the point. "We simply do not know," he said, and suggested that such speculation was not all that helpful in the ongoing all-important task of doing theology for the Church. His comments were well said and appreciated by many.

Dr. Noble was at it again in the plenary session later that morning. Dr. Amos Yong of Regent University presented a paper called, "A Heart Strangely Warmed on the Middle Way? The Wesleyan Witness in a Pluralistic World." The paper was largely a comparison of the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian perfection with some strands of Buddhism. The paper fell in line with typical calls for inter-religious dialogue and listening and was not terribly impressive, not least in its misuse of the term "middle way." The best part came in the Q & A time when Dr. Noble stood, walked to the microphone, and simply asked, "Did Elijah come on too strong on Mt. Carmel?" He was referring to Elijah's mockery of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Laughter emerged from several sections of the room, and Dr. Yong appeared somewhat taken aback. He gathered himself and answered, "Yes." Yong further said that the biblical and historical traditions often came on too strong. A telling answer, indeed. As an aside, I'd be very interested in hearing a paper sometime on the topic: "Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: A Biblical Model for Inter-religious Dialogue." Sounds like a winner to me. What do you think?

2. Shelter from the storm - Another memorable moment came in the midst of a rather severe storm that ravaged the region. I am grateful that we were safe throughout. The tornado sirens sounded during the afternoon session on Friday while I was in a session listening to a fascinating paper by Mark Olson. When the sirens went off, we were instructed to move into a hallway for safety and shelter. After we gathered in the hall, having nothing else to do, Mark continued his paper and took questions on it afterwards; all right there in that hallway. I'll not soon forget the experience.

3. Paper presentation - I delivered a paper in one of the sections on Biblical Studies entitled, "Did Paul Think he was Perfect? Christian Perfection and Its Eschatological Context in Philippians 3:15." The paper was aimed at offering some exegetical grounding for the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian Perfection (or Entire Sanctification). I was pleased that the paper was well received. The Q & A time provided some fascinating conversation, and a few people even stayed around after the session to discuss the paper and its implications further.

4. A warm heart - Several times throughout the conference, I was struck by how many participants approached their work as a spiritual discipline and a service to the Church. Several of the papers that I heard and many of the conversations I had contained elements of this concern. Academic meetings don't always have this feel. It warmed my heart and encouraged me deeply.