March 24, 2014

Author Interview: Christian Faith in the Old Testament by Gareth Cockerill (part 2)

Here's the second installment of my interview with Dr. Gareth Cockerill on his new book Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014). If you missed part, you can read it here.

Incarnatio: There are many, many characters in the Old Testament. How do their stories help today's believers know God better?

GC: One must remember that the Bible is, first of all, about God. The Bible speaks of its many characters in relationship to the God whom it reveals. Second, the Bible is about God’s establishing a people who will live in holy fellowship with Him. The Bible’s many characters must be understood within their relationship to God and to the people of God. It is for this reason, among many others, that we need the kind of holistic view of Scripture provided by Christian Faith in the Old Testament. The “Example Principle” that I enunciate in chapter three of Christian Faith in the Old Testament is very helpful here. Basically, this principle affirms that, when Old Testament characters act in faith and obedience, they are examples for us to follow. When they act from faithlessness, they are examples to avoid. However, careful study of the Biblical narrative in order to determine how the characters are acting is crucial. It is easy to impose our own ideas on Scripture and come up with rather cheap, sometimes moralistic interpretations, such as the preacher who said that Abraham got in troubled when he went to Egypt because he didn’t take Lot or Sarah’s advice (I have no idea where that was in the text, but the preacher was urging people to take council with other godly people—like Lot?). I give extensive examples of this principle in chapter two—one of those chapters on Genesis that helps us read aright the rest of the Old Testament!

Incarnatio: Ritual worship in the tabernacle and later in the temple are central to the Old Testament but very foreign to many present day Christians. How can we overcome that distance in order to understand the significance of Old Testament worship for Christian faith and formation?

GC: Without denying the difference, I think this distance is often overplayed. It is a mistake simply to focus on a few odd details of the OT ritual/law. We need to help people get an understanding of the big picture. The whole setting emphasizes both the deep need for fellowship with God and the horrible separation that human rebellion has brought between us and God. The sacrificial ritual should make us feel the urgency of atonement that can only be provided by the giving of innocent life. There is no magic bullet here. We simply have to teach these things to people, to help them enter the world of Scripture and come into this way of seeing things. If we do not, they will have a faulty understanding of the Person and work of Christ and deficient view of salvation. One problem is simply modern prejudice—people look at things and go, “ohh, primitive.” They need to be challenged to have an open mind, to come to understand the depth that is there in these Scriptural practices. This isn’t nearly as big a problem in some parts of the world—say Sierra Leone, West Africa! I’m not so sure it need be such a problem in this age that is more open to the mystical.

Incarnatio: How should Christians relate to obscure or seemingly harsh Old Testament laws?

GC: I don’t profess to be able to answer this question in regard to every law. Some remain a mystery. However, I have made several suggestions in Christian Faith in the Old Testament that are too long to describe here in detail—I’d have to reproduce whole chapters of the book! I am referring especially to “The Pattern Principle” in chapter five. That chapter is about the continuing relevance of the Old Testament law. It makes some other helpful distinctions, such as between the “Greatest Commandments,” the “Ten Commandments,” and the “Everyday Commandments.” I have also pointed out in the book some important things about sins that incurred the death penalty. First of all, people could only enjoy the blessing God intended if the Promised Land was free from these sins. It was to be a type of the New Heaven and Earth in which no wickedness dwells. We must always remember that none of us can enjoy all that God has for his people in a world that allows sin. Second, God himself often extended mercy and did not exact the death penalty—one thinks of David, even of the whole nation beginning with the golden calf at Sinai and extending throughout the history of God’s Old Testament people. Far from being harsh, the Old Testament is one long story of God’s mercy. The death penalty showed how horrible these things were and reminded God’s people of how they destroyed the blessing of the Land. There is more on this in Christian Faith in the Old Testament.

Incarnatio: What do Christians risk when we neglect the Old Testament?

GC: I address this question at some length in the introduction to Christian Faith in the Old Testament. In brief, we risk almost everything. We are likely to have a trivial idea of God, a superficial understanding of sin, and thus a very inadequate view of salvation. Neglect of the Old Testament leads to an over emphasis on the individual, that is on “me,” something to which our age is already very prone. Without the Old Testament we are in danger of losing a true sense of the deep community of God’s people and the cosmic nature of salvation. In short, we are in danger of sentimentalizing our religion.

Incarnatio: Will we misunderstand Jesus if we don't read the Old Testament? If so, how?

GC: This question is, of course, an important sub-set of the previous question. The answer is obvious. We are liable to misunderstand him in every way! His total self-understanding, and the way in which the New Testament understands him, is built on the Old Testament—remember, the Old Testament was his and his followers’ Bible. The New Testament understand him as the Messiah of David’s line and the Son of God, the fulfillment of though greater than Moses, more than a Prophet, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Great High Priest, the Passover Lamb, the Day of Atonement Sacrifice, the one lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the new Adam, etc. He, in himself, embodies and renews Israel, the people of God. The history of that people finds its fulfillment in him, because he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. All of this comes from the Old Testament. Furthermore, these are not isolated items taken from the Old Testament. Within the Old Testament they form a coherent whole. If we do not understand the Old Testament, we simply will not rightly understand him—we will have a Jesus made in our own image.

March 20, 2014

Author Interview: Christian Faith in the Old Testament by Gareth Cockerill (part 1)

United Methodists are having an important and, at times, lively debate over the way we interpret and appropriate different parts of scripture, not least the Old Testament. The debate over how we approach scripture has emerged as part of conflict over differing understandings of human sexuality and has focused most recently around posts from Adam Hamilton and Bill Arnold. The questions under debate are important, and I want to draw attention to a new book from a Wesleyan scholar that has potential to guide us in learning how to read the Old Testament scriptures. The book is Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Kindle) by Gareth Cockerill, Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He blogs at From Mangoes to Mechizidek. Dr. Cockerill is a friend and colleague, and I'm excited about this book because I think it has potential to significantly deepen Christian engagement with the Bible that Jesus and his first followers read, prayed, and lived. I conducted this interview before the posts from Hamilton and Arnold were published. So, you won't see direct engagement in explicit language they use. Nevertheless, Cockerill's book is dealing with the very same issue and will function as a reliable guide. I've divided the interview into two posts. Part 1 follows. Check back early next week for part 2.

Incarnatio: Why should the average Christian embrace serious study of the Old Testament?

GC: One way to answer this question is to refer to the sub-title of this book—The Bible of the Apostles. The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus and of his first followers. Can we, then, afford to neglect it? To read the New Testament without the Old is like reading only the last chapter of a novel. Christ understood his own mission as the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises, history, longings, and message. Christian Faith in the Old Testament shows how each part of the Old Testament looks forward to and finds fulfillment in the Christ of the New. Let me quote from the introduction to my book, where I discuss this subject at length: when we neglect the Old Testament 
“we end up with an anemic view of Christ, a superficial understanding of the atonement, and an individualistic view of the church. Our God shrinks because we no longer see the majesty of his creation, the grandeur of his work in history, or the glory of his salvation in Christ. We have little basis for social ethics. We live in rootless isolation because we no longer see ourselves as children of Abraham and part of the people of God, stretched out across history and on its way to glory. If we do not have The Bible of the Apostles, we will not have the true apostolic faith” (page 13).
Incarnatio: You've spent considerable time serving as a foreign missionary. How did that experience affect your work on Christian Faith in the New Testament?

GC: I am sure that my nine years in Sierra Leone, West Africa, have had a profound impact on this book. I began my time in Africa as chaplain and Bible teacher for more than four hundred students at Kamakwie Boys Secondary School. The school was taught in English, which was a second language for all those who attended. Most students had no understanding of the Bible’s big picture. Some didn't even know the Old Testament from the New. I began to work hard at putting the Bible’s message together in a way that would be clear and understandable for them. As time went on, I found that it was difficult to adequately address either the animistic or the Muslim world view without a solid knowledge of the Old Testament and the way in which it was fulfilled in Christ.

Incarnatio: You've given a significant amount of energy to working on the New Testament book of Hebrews. How has that work prepared you to write this book on the Old Testament?

GC: Anyone who studies Hebrews must wrestle with the way in which the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and with its continuing relevance as Scripture. After all, Hebrews begins by affirming that the God who spoke in the prophets has now given his final self-revelation in one who is his Son. All that follows in Hebrews can be seen as the development of this premise. As the introduction to my NICNT commentary on Hebrews shows, I have found Hebrews approach to the Old Testament both coherent and relevant to contemporary practice. The writer to the Hebrews is confident that, when examined on its own terms, the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Thus I would say that there are three ways that study of Hebrews has enriched Christian Faith in the Old Testament. First, Hebrews’ own understanding of the Old Testament has informed my thinking. Second, Hebrews has encouraged me to examine the Old Testament on its own terms and to see the many ways in which it points forward to fulfillment in Christ. Third, study of Hebrews has led me to look at what other parts of the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and the Reformers say about the continuing relevance of the Old Testament. I have tried to present the insight that I have gained from these sources simply, clearly, and coherently in Christian Faith in the Old Testament.

Incarnatio: You devote two chapters to Genesis and six chapters to the other 38 books of the Old Testament. Why did you decide to put so much emphasis on Genesis?

GC: This is a very understandable question. The answer lies both in the nature and importance of Genesis and in the purpose of Christian Faith in the Old Testament. None can deny the crucial importance of Genesis. All would acknowledge that the first eleven chapters establish the framework for the rest of the Bible. The Patriarchal narratives in chapters 12-50 are also crucial. The rest of Scripture is about God’s fulfilling his promise to Abraham given and passed on in these chapters.  As the beginning of the people of God, the patriarchs and matriarchs embody and set the course for the history of God’s people to come. In brief, Genesis is crucial because the “beginning” is determinative for all that follows. Second, although Christian Faith in the Old Testament gives an overview of the Old Testament, it is not simply an Old Testament survey. Its aim is to show people how to read the various parts of the Old Testament, how the parts fit together, how they point to fulfillment in Christ, and how each part is relevant for today. Simply put, the emphasis given to Genesis prepares us to read the rest of the Old Testament correctly.

Part 2 of the interview will go live early next week. Check in to hear Dr. Cockerill discuss other issues including the importance of the Old Testament temple for Christian worship and what we do with obscure and seemingly harsh Old Testament laws.

March 17, 2014

What can St. Patrick teach us about Christian Perfection?

Whether using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity or running the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick is known for many legendary and even fanciful acts. But as Philip Freeman observes in his biography St. Patrick of Ireland, "The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends" (xvii). Patrick left us two documents - one letter and a short autobiography - that shed a great deal of light on his life and his passion for the gospel, missions, and the people of Ireland. Patrick's missionary zeal is particularly remarkable when the trauma of his childhood is taken into account. 

Some may be surprised to find that Patrick was not originally from Ireland. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. Kidnapped at the age of fifteen, he was ripped from his bed in the middle of the night, bound, and taken by ship to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Though his father and grandfather were members of the clergy, Patrick himself was not a believer. He found, however, that captivity transformed him into a praying man. He further found that the more he prayed, the more he believed in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. After six years of grueling slave labor, Patrick managed to escape and survived the perilous journey home to Britain where he was reunited with his parents. There is a strong sense of divine providence that governed Patrick's life. According to Freeman, "No one taken by Irish raiders had been known to return alive. No one had ever escaped from Ireland" (44).

A Surprising Call

Perhaps the single most striking thing about Patrick's life is his eagerness to return to the land of his captivity in order to preach the gospel and plant churches there. This is where I think Patrick's life is of particularly helpful as we reflect on the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Once home, Patrick began to discern through a series of dreams that God was leading him to seek religious orders and return to Ireland as a missionary and pastor to the very people who had consigned him to a life of slavery. When you read Patrick's account of his calling and his commitment to return in ministry to Ireland, the strength of his single-minded commitment is clear, especially in light of the opposition he received from his family, friends, and other clergy. He would offer his life in obedience motivated by love for God in love for the Irish. Patrick's singular focus resonates strongly with Wesley's formulation of holiness.

Christian Perfection as Enemy Love

When Jesus commanded his followers to "be perfect", he did so in the context of his teaching on love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus' exhortation to be perfect is not referring to some sort of absolute perfectionism. Instead, the perfect command is specifically an imperative to love enemies and pray for persecutors. In short, when Jesus says be perfect, he means love your enemies. Jesus illustrates the point by saying that God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, the point was clear that God gives what is necessary for life to all without regard to their relative goodness or wickedness. When the people of God express love to those who would do them harm, they are obeying Jesus' command to be perfect.

A Perfect Model

Patrick's desire to love his former captors out of obedient love to God was a shock to his contemporaries. He wrote in his Confession that his fellow clergy did not understand why he wanted "to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God" (§ 46). Nevertheless, Patrick was unreservedly set apart to his calling. He writes: 
"Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name...There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God's debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God" (§§ 37-38). 
If you want a model of obedience to Jesus' command to be perfect by loving enemies, you need look no further than St. Patrick of  Ireland.

Contemporary discussions of Christian perfection digress all too often into debates over whether one can stop sinning and be truly perfect, though we forget that John Wesley rejected any language of "sinless perfection". If you could ask Wesley what he meant by Christian perfection, he would tell you that it is a heart of pure intention overflowing in love for God and others. Patrick's singular devotion to the call of God to love his enemies provides a concrete example of Wesley's doctrine. Nothing would stand in Patrick's way as he put all his energy into fulfilling the law of love, not only for his friends, especially for his enemies. 

March 5, 2014

Tertullian on the Sign of the Cross #AshWednesday (HT: @scotmcknight)

I came across this quote this morning while reading Scot McKnight's book Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today:
At every forward step and movement,
at every going in and out
when we put on our clothes and shoes,
when we bathe,
when we sit at table,
when we light the lamps,
on couch,
on seat,
in all the ordinary actions of daily life,
we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].            -Tertullian, De Corona, chap. 3
Talk about a great quote with which to begin Ash Wednesday, a pleasant (and providential!) surprise, indeed.

Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy's earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I'm grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I'm unpersuaded by Balcomb's rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 

Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles' Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb's assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church's liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the "Creed raises far more questions than it answers." Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I'm reminded of the chapter entitled "If you don't get it, you've got it," in Mark Galli's Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ's coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb's worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, "Our Lord's Summary of the Law," in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles' Creed, "One of the wonderful features of the Apostles' Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures" (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church's liturgy has historically used "Our Lord's Summary of the Law" alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you'll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb's essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb's critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.

First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, "It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him." Well, if by "believe" you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It's easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 

Second, Balcomb's insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn't really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it's no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith - faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 

Do we need the Creed?

Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb's argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let's not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages.