What changed for Paul?

Caravaggio Conversion of St PaulOne of the fascinating questions that keeps popping up when you read the NT, is this: once he was a believer in Jesus the crucified Messiah and risen Lord …

‘What changed for Paul?’

If you are someone who is a Christian and reads the NT, I bet you have some sort of framework for answering that question – whether you have ever put it into words or not.

You can’t say ‘Nothing’ and get a pass! If nothing changed then Paul’s whole life and teaching become incomprehensible.

No, there was significant change; dramatic change if you will.

There have to be good reasons to do what Paul did …. to shift from persecutor to being persecuted; to travel all over the known world regardless of danger and opposition – and eventual death. To leave a promising career.

Did Paul repudiate his Jewish faith?

Is it right to call what happened on the Damascus Road a ‘conversion’?

How do you think Paul would have filled out a census questionnaire under the ‘Religion’ box? Would he have ticked the box ‘Jew’ or put something else in there?

Did Paul imagine being the catalyst for a new religion of Christianity, founded on, but a distinct faith from, Judaism?

Did Paul envisage the church replacing Israel? Is it right to use words like ‘replace’, ‘supersede’ when it comes to Torah / Israel? Paul was the missionary to the Gentiles who he welcomed into the people of God on an equal basis with Jewish believers. Did this mean that he had rejected Israel?

Did his view of who God is change? Did his understanding of Jesus and the Spirit change his theology of God’s identity and character? And more – how did his experience of God change?

And a big one over which ink continues to flow, what changed in his attitude the Law? On the one hand, he has some very negative things to say about the Law [Torah] that marked out the Jewish faith and revealed the will of God for his people (Gal 5:4 for example – trying to be justified by the Law means being alienated from Christ and detached from grace.) Yet on the other hand, he affirms the Law. Galatians 3:21 “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!”

Or did he only have a really tough line on some strands of Judaism of his day – like the Pharisees from which he came or the (Christian) Judaizers in Galatians trying to force Gentile believers to take on the Torah and be circumcised?

Or was Paul just inconsistent and all over the shop? (Some have said so, I don’t think so)

How significant was Paul’s own experience on the Damascus Road for explaining the dramatic life which followed? What changed there?

How did his view of the future change in comparison to his previous beliefs?

These are the sorts of questions that are the hub of Pauline studies and why books upon books continue to be written about Saul of Tarsus. But they all are a sub-set I think of the bigger question in the title of this post.

As you may guess I’ve been enjoying doing some reading on Paul. I’m just listing the questions – there are many different answers and theories as you’d expect since Paul didn’t write (as far as we know 😉 ) a detailed self-reflection journal on his ministry practice.

I hope to discuss some ideas in other posts – but for now, what do you think? Can we get a list going? What for you are the key things that changed for Paul?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The New Perspective on Paul in Pictures

If pushed, what would you say Paul’s problem with the Judaism of his day was?

How did his gospel of Jesus Christ ‘solve’ that problem?

Or in other words, what changed between him standing over Stephen’s dying body as a defender of Pharisaic Jewish orthodoxy and him preaching to pagans in Athens that they too could join the people of Israel’s God?

Or put it this way; if you are a Christian, what was your ‘salvation narrative’? Did it go something like this?

I grew up thinking God was waiting to catch me out. I tried my best to be a good person, but I always felt that I couldn’t meet my own standards, let alone a holy God’s. I felt guilty. I realised eventually that I needed something, someone, beyond myself. I couldn’t do it on my own. And I came to understand the grace of God – that he sent his Son to die my death, to take away my sin, to give me his righteousness, to give me new life and a fresh start. I realised I couldn’t earn this whatever I did, I could only accept it as a gift, through faith in Christ. I’m grateful to God for his love for me.

Or in Martin Luther’s own words

I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans … but to that moment one phrase in chapter 1 stood in my way. I hated the idea, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners …

At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.

OK, the answer to both of these narratives is justification by faith through the grace of God. The ‘question’ they are both ‘answering’ is the failure of our best efforts (works) to produce righteousness.

The NPP does not reject the legitimacy or truth or reality of such narratives – heck they are good news experiences of God’s forgiving grace.

But it does ask this; is the ‘problem’ they address (our personal senses of guilt, legalism and failure to be ‘righteous’) actually the problem that Paul had with Judaism? Or is Paul’s focus elsewhere and we have tended to read back into Paul our modern introspective spiritual struggles?

Have we tended to equate the Judaism of Paul’s day (and today) with ‘works righteousness’ – a continual and ever-failing attempt to live righteous lives under the Law? And the good news of the gospel is that you are not under Law but grace and are therefore set free in Christ?

This is a pretty negative view of OT faith is it not? And of contemporary Judaism as well.

So, these are the sort of questions that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has been wrestling through for nearly 40 years. It goes back to 1977 and the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E P Sanders. This was followed up by the numerous works of J D G Dunn and N T Wright, with counterworks by people like Stephen Westerholm, Mark Seifrid, Francis Watson etc. It’s been the biggest theological revolution within Pauline studies for pretty well all that time and it’s still a hot topic.

Now you could read all Dunn’s and Wright’s books and many many more by other scholars weighing into the debate from different angles – I’m ploughing through quite a few at the moment including Tom Wright’s heavyweight (literally that is, it’s actually a joy to read) Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) which is shaped by his own take on the NPP, if also covering much other ground.

But maybe you don’t have a year of your life to read all the books on the NPP. So, for a bit of light relief I thought I’d try to summarise the main themes of the NPP in a picture.

And this is primarily descriptive – I’m not getting into criticisms and push-backs against the NPP in this post.

NPP in a picture (sort of)Now of course you can instantly see what this is can’t you?

Just in case for some inexplicable reason you don’t, it is of the mediterranean, Egypt and Israel, with the Sinai peninsula and the (admittedly a bit rough) route of the Exodus.

1. SL= Land of Slavery

‘Israel’, although not yet formed as the people of God, are under slavery. God hears their cry, remembers his promise given long before to Abraham, and sets about liberating them from Pharoah with the reluctant help of Moses.

2. EX = Exodus

God’s gracious promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many and that God would give the land to his descendents (Gen 15) is the key to the Exodus. Election comes first.

Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness [justification]. (Gen 15:6) Justification by faith comes before the Law (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians using Abraham as his model). Those who are children of Abraham are those, like him, who have justifying faith (in Jesus the risen Christ).

3. L = LAW

It is in Sinai that the newly rescued people are given the Law. The Law comes after the promise; after ‘salvation’; and after Israel is formed into a nation, the people of God. The Law was never the ‘way in’ to the covenant. Election and grace precede the Torah.

This was the big theme of Sanders’ book back in 1977; he argued from a study of Palestinian Judaism that it was a religion of grace, not legalism. He coined the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’ – Israel is elected by God’s grace into a covenantal relationship with God and is to live by and under the Law (nomos) to stay in that covenantal relationship.

For Sanders, the ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul was that it was not Christianity. In other words, both are shaped around God’s election and grace, but with the coming of the Messiah all has changed. Now Gentiles are also welcomed in by grace. Obedience to the Law no longer defines the  covenantal relationship of God’s people.

You can see how radical this is if we come back to the salvation narratives above. They both work from ‘plight to solution’; from spiritual crisis to resolution; from legalistic imprisonment to grace-filled liberation. And if this is your framework, then this will be how you tend to read Paul. Thus, the Judaism of his day was legalistic works righteousness (‘plight’) and the ‘solution’ is justification by faith through grace alone.

Sanders and most of the NPP authors, argue that what we have in Paul is actually ‘solution to plight’. And this means a radically different way of reading Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.

OT faith is full of grace, love, faith and justice. Mere external legalistic obedience to the Torah was never enough. Think Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”;  Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings”; the books of Amos and Malachi are examples where judgement comes where there is hypocrisy in Israel; where external religious ritual is not matched by relationships of love for God and neighbour.

J D G Dunn largely agreed with Sanders but developed his own take on things. The ‘works of the law’ that in the salvation narratives above tend to be equated with Jewish legalistic works,  are better understood as being the identity markers of being Jewish (circumcision, food laws, worship). The main ‘problem’ of Judaism for Paul then is that physically and spiritually ‘being Jewish’ (ethnocentrism) is not enough. It leaves you relying on the wrong thing (the Law) to receive new life. That only comes through faith in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, whether you are Jew or Gentile.

Tom Wright also sees ‘plight’ in Paul NOT as Jewish legalism, but in bigger terms as the brokenness of the world. The ‘solution’ is God’s redemptive action to renew all of creation and defeat sin and death and evil. And for Paul this all become blazingly clear when he is confronted with the crucified yet risen Messiah, who is Lord of all.

Paul’s ‘problem’ with Judaism, and particularly the Judaizers of Galatians who wanted to make Gentiles good Jews in order to follow the Messiah, is that God’s redemptive plans for all of creation have moved on. You can’t try to stop or freeze the story. To try to ‘go back’ to ‘the works of the Law’ is to seek life in something that cannot give life. The new age of the Spirit has dawned. He alone gives life and that life comes through faith in the Messiah.

There is significant continuity with OT faith (it is one story after all, the NT is built on the OT) but there has been a dramatic plot twist that has now welcomed anyone in to the people of God. Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and Col 3:11 “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”

And all of this is made possible because Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel, of Torah, who overcomes sin and death, and is the living Lord who will return to establish his kingdom over creation.

4. PL = Promised Land

And so to the promised land. This was the place Israel could be Israel; the place of temple, of Torah, of legal and political autonomy. This hasn’t been a big theme in the NPP – but the implications are clear. Just as you ‘can’t go back’ to the Law, so you ‘can’t go back’ to the historical period when the Promised Land belonged to ethnic Israel.


This post got longer than I intended. But hopefully that picture helps give a way in to the ‘big picture’ of what the NPP is saying.

And this leads on to questions that are very ‘live’ today:

1. If the ‘problem’ Paul faces is not primarily legalistic works righteousness, what difference does this make for Christian teaching and preaching? What difference will it make to appreciate afresh the Jewish framework of Paul’s thinking and theology?

2. Has much of post-Reformation Protestantism tended to articulate the gospel as an individualistic solution to an existential-crisis? And if it has what have been the implications?

3. What would you say continues from OT to NT faith and what is discontinuous? This is a big question. If you have full continuity and there is no need for Jesus at all. Some forms of Zionist pro-Israel theology seems to come close to this – if you hint that modern Israel is not to be equated with OT Israel you get accused of being supersessionist and anti-Semitic. But if you have a radical discontinuity between Israel and the Church, then does this mean God has gone on to plan B after abandoning plan A? Was the OT a mistake?

4. A strength of the older perspective on Paul (and there has never been just one, Luther and Calvin differed quite a bit) is a clear sense of sin, guilt, need for grace, and trust in God’s saving righteousness not our own. This was strongly connected to the idea of imputed righteousness – God counts or reckons or transfers Jesus’ righteousness to us.* This gives assurance of faith (I am righteous in God’s sight) once I have repented and follow Jesus.  This is still the most common conversion story that I hear from students, in church, in home group etc. It has clarity and also resonates with human experience. A question for the NPP is how does its insights ‘work out’ in terms of evangelism, repentance, faith and assurance?

* Tom Wright (and others outside opposed to the NPP so it is not a one-sided thing here) have questioned whether Paul actually teaches imputed righteousness at all.  It is this, more than anything else I think, that has caused the traditional Reformed camp to criticise him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

6 Points of Discussion on the Spirit with the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals

How can and should the theology and experience of the early church of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament be ‘translated’ to modern church life?

How this question is answered will play a major part in what local church Christians join. To over-simplify, Pentecostalism, and the later charismatic and Renewal Movement, is shaped and motivated by the belief that the NT experience of the Spirit – as described in Acts and 1 Corinthians in particular – should be the normative experience of the church in all generations.

Towards the end of his book, The Holy Spirit – in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today, Anthony Thiselton gathers some themes and questions together. He has said  that he prays that this book will stimulate much new thinking and discussion. In the final section he summarizes his concerns and questions, which he hopes will “open up some neglected areas of teaching, thought, and experience, and bring God’s blessing.”

One set of challenges is aimed particularly at the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals.

I hoped to write a book which would invite sympathetic dialogue with Pentecostals (with some probing questions also) and those in the Renewal Movement (also with probing questions).

So, here are the probing questions: the sub-text here is that here are the areas that Thiselton has most reservations and questions about in their praxis around the Spirit.

1)   The Trinity and the Spirit 

His point is not very clear here: filling in, I suspect that he is cautious about an over-emphasis on the Spirit, that detaches his person and ministry from the work of the Son and relationship with the Father. Where experience of the Spirit becomes almost the end itself, a sign of God’s blessing and evidence of advanced spirituality.

2)   Unity of the Spirit fosters unity of the Church

The concern here is an over-emphasis on ‘newness’ and uniqueness.  ‘We’ are the ones through whom God has chosen to bring spiritual renewal. We have the Spirit in ways others don’t. But such an attitude goes against the Spirit’s work of unity. It judges others as being less spiritual and fosters an attitude that either you work with us or you are not participating in what God is doing.

3)   Appeal to ‘new things’:

Certainly traditionalism can be spiritually deadly. [As Jim Packer wrote many years ago in Keep in Step with the Spirit, it is no great achievement to have order in a graveyard]. But taken too far this attitude can deny the work of the Spirit in previous centuries and in other churches today. It can lead to an over-emphasis on feelings and experience. Seen in some contemporary worship music with trivial and repetitive songs.

4)     Healing:

Yes God heals, but Thiselton is cautious of a form of dualism around some miraculous gifts.  He urges the development of a healthy eschatology that has room for the reality of sin and death and sickness in this fallen world. Without a now and not yet perspective, teaching on healing can foster guilt, depression and confusion. (It’s my lack of faith I’m not healed etc).

5)   Prophecy and tongues:

Thiselton concludes (and its hard to argue with him on this I think) that historically the gift of tongues has been over-emphasised within Pentecostalism. Today many Pentecostals are withdrawing from that over-emphasis (some are not). The Renewal Movement has not been so tongue-tied (just thought I’d add that wee quip in there – good eh?).

But Thiselton offers a warning to those in the Renewal Movement over prophecy. He sees the possibility of a replay of the Donatist controversy (I assume he means where division within the church is caused by one section claiming for itself particular purity of doctrine and life over against the compromised wider body).

He argues prophecy needs to be seen more widely than only prophetic word and inspiration. He sees a place for thought, reflection and teaching within prophecy rather than some form of instantaneous revelation from God.

He is cautious for example about the practice of someone using a ‘picture’ in their mind for guidance in public worship. He wants to root prophecy in the story of redemption of what God has done, not subjective pictures.

6)  Baptism in the Spirit:

The Renewal Movement is not tightly tied to a particular theology of ‘baptism in the Spirit’.

The real question here is for Pentecostals and their historic elevation of this experience as a normative ‘second blessing theology’, evidenced by speaking in tongues.  Thiselton wishes Pentecostals would abandon this theology as exegetically indefensible and unnecessary. Yes God can and does give particular experiences of the Spirit post conversion – but don’t make it normative and don’t call it Baptism in the Spirit.


These are good questions for debate and discussion. It will be interesting to see if and how Pentecostals and people in the Renewal Movement engage and respond to Thiselton’s work.

These sorts of questions also form I think a good basis for believers who are seeking to build understanding and robust unity across ecclesiastical and theological boundaries. A unity that is not based on pretending we don’t have differences but addresses and explores those differences within a deeper committment to working together. I’m thinking here of Evangelical Alliances for example that seek to build bridges between Renewal, charismatic, Pentecostal and ‘mainstream’ churches and organisations.

And I said in an earlier post, I also wish he had had more to say to ‘mainstream’ churches and their desperate need of reform and renewal in their theology and praxis of the Holy Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Global inequality: some mind boggling statistics

Some mind boggling statistics from a report by Oxfam called Working for the Few: political capture and economic inequality.

The one that I found hardest to conceptualize is that the wealth of 85 INDIVIDUALS equals that of 3.5 BILLION people.

Others include:

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion.That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

These trends reflect the rise of a plutocratic elite class of the global mega-rich; largely detached from any political accountability.

I recently caught a fascinating and rather depressing radio documentary about London. Like other top global cities, it is becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to live in the city. Families with long roots in localities are being forced to move out due to spiralling property prices. Massively rich global investors are distorting the market in London and places like New York, San Francisco and others. The result is that these cities are beginning to struggle to have the necessary workers actually to run the city – nurses, teachers, service industry, etc

A piece of the Oxfam report: –

Extreme economic inequality is damaging and worrying for many reasons: it is morally questionable; it can have negative impacts on economic growth and poverty reduction; and it can multiply social problems. It compounds other inequalities, such as those between women and men. In many countries, extreme economic inequality is worrying because of the pernicious impact that wealth concentrations can have on equal political representation. When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich, while economic and political inequalities continue to rise. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’
The response here in Ireland and Europe to the financial crisis of 2008 on is a good example of how the response of the elites is to favour the rich (the banks, the financial system) at the massive expense of taxpayers who did not cause the crisis.

The moral and democratic deficit at the heart of the European enterprise, where unelected bureaucrats in the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Commission now hold political power over locally elected governments, may eventually undermine the whole project.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

On inappropriate sharing and spiritual progress

I don’t tend to blog too much about personal stuff – isn’t a middle-aged parent, teacher, elder, and man (!) supposed to have his life together? To have answers, not lots of questions? To be a model mature Christian, walking in faith with no great struggles or conflicts?

Occasionally in a class on the Holy Spirit discussing the Christian life or something related, I may say something like I struggle with anger, lust, greed, faithlessness, envy, worry or some such thing (the  list could keep going here but there is such a thing as inappropriate sharing).

More than once a reaction from students has been ‘Oh no, don’t tell us that. I thought when I get to your age I’d be over such things.’

Now this is somewhat amusing; amusing for its bluntness – like watching Up in the Air last night with my daughter where 23 yr old Anna Kendrick says about George Clooney, ‘Oh no I don’t think of him like that at all, he’s old‘. (no comparison with George Clooney intended!)

But it’s also revealing of an expectation that the Christian life should, or will, get easier. That at some point, we reach a plateau where we can relax a bit, dump a lot of baggage, rest from the fray, and walk easily ahead on a new level.

Now one reaction to this can be to wonder wherever did such an idea come from?

How can Christians, of all people, who are supposed to know a bit about the realities of sin and the daily need for God’s grace, ever swallow such hokum?

How, if we look at ourselves with ‘sober judgement’ and see the swirling mixture of ambitions, fears, resentments, self-reliance, judgementalism, pride etcetera, can we imagine that we will be free somehow of our very human and fallen nature in this life?

How, if we look around at the pervasive reality of fallen Christian leaders, can we be naive enough to think that those who are a bit older and more experienced are somehow less prone to spiritual failure?

Why are we so easily seduced by the idea that there is some sort of silver bullet to the Christian life? Is this longing what lies behind so much investment in some Christian circles of the necessity and possibility of a special transforming spiritual ‘event’ that will revolutionise your life for good?

But another reaction is to acknowledge that those students are right.

A mature Christian should show signs of spiritual transformation; there is something wrong about an adult who is still acting like a child.  1 Timothy 3 is pretty unambiguous about character qualifications for leadership:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

And recall that Timothy was ‘young’ – the issue is maturity in Christ not age per se. And mature believers are to set an example:

set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 1 Tim 4:12

And without making this post too much longer, the NT is pretty clear on what I think can fairly be called a high expectation of spiritual progress.

For Paul, the Christian knows the experienced reality of the Spirit. The ‘new age’ has dawned to which Christians belong – rather to the age of the flesh which is passing away (Roms 6-8).

What Jesus and the Spirit have effected, the believer is to participate in – to ‘walk by the Spirit’ and so not live to the flesh (Gal 5). Christians are to ‘put off the old man’ (Col. 3:5, 8, 9; Eph 4:22, 25-32; 5:3-5). And in such walking by the Spirit, the Law is fulfilled (Rom. 8:4).

So where does this leave me sharing my failures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Descendit ad inferna (3) theological and pastoral questions

Catherine Ella Laufer’s book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead is a great example of how to use a narrow lens (the descent clause in the Apostle’s Creed) to magnify and expand a plethora of profound, important and controversial theological questions.

Whether you agree with where she ends up, she integrates the historical story of the descent clause and critical theological analysis with aplomb.

What she does do is raise big questions about hell, justice, grace and love. Christians need to be thinking about these things because these are big public questions floating around post-Christendom cultures.

What are your answers to these questions?

1. What is your theology of hell, universalism and the justice of God?

Can humans endlessly resist the redeeming love of God? Who will have the last word?

Rob Bell [she never mentions Bell, I’m just bringing him in as a conversation partner] had an empty hell as a strong possibility, but he had too central a place for absolute libertarian free will to say with any certainty that hell would be empty. If anyone was there, it was determinedly self-chosen and wasn’t God’s doing.

Similarly Laufer tends to distance God from hell rather than have an emphasis on the retributive justice of a holy God against evil and sin.

For me there is simply too much in the Bible about God’s retributive judgement of sin and evil to believe in universalism. Sin and evil aren’t just ideas, they are child soldiers, torture, rape, violence, exploitation, ruthless greed, hatred of the Other, cynical disregard for the poor and vulnerable, arms traders dealing in death,  ad infinitum …

She isn’t as strong as Moltmann on universalism but is sympathetic to his universalist image of God’s transforming grace emptying hell.

At one moment she says

‘If he [Jesus] has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete.’ (189).

This is optimistic universalism, not dogmatic universalism.

But this is vague on the basis of such salvation ….. how does each and every soul come to share in the complete work of Christ?  Is it some sort of endless post-mortem opportunity to come to faith? How does this fit in with very ‘terminal’ images of judgement in Revelation 20 and the final destruction of all forces of evil, death and sin? Where does the atoning work of Christ come in?

Yet she also speculates that the presence of God in heaven will be hell for the wicked. ‘The only hell is the hell of our own making’ (203)

I’ve a couple of problems with this. First, it seems to contradict her optimistic universalism. Second, it is proposed as a possible solution to the impasse between biblical texts that point to both universal salvation and eternal punishment.  I’m not convinced that Hitler & co experiencing heaven as hell actually solves the impasse. Hell still exists and God is still ‘on the hook’ for making possible the existence of hellish experience.

Linked to this is a second big question:

2. In the midst of suffering, what sort of God do you believe in ?

Christianity does not believe in a distant transcendent deity. I found Laufer really helpful here on the pastoral implications of how the descensus clause speaks of the real human death and suffering of the Son.

We do not suffer alone. Christ is with us. Laufer gives examples:

Heidelberg Catechism Question 44:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,  on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

Bonhoeffer: ” Only a suffering God can help”

Luther: In Christ’s descent to hell, we can know our hell is defeated

Pannenberg: ” But since Jesus dies, no one who lives and dies in communion with Jesus and in trust in him need die this death any more.”

Moltmann of course wrote The Crucified God and is opposed to notions of an apathetic God. Laufer quotes him in History and the Triune God as saying ” … the Son of God who died forsaken by God, helped me … in a messy concentration camp in 1945, tormented and forsaken by God ..” (123)

Laufer goes as far as arguing that ‘God’s presence in the grave’ is the controlling motif of the gospel. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, she argues, is the place to begin gospel proclamation in a broken and fearful world.

Well, I wouldn’t go all the way with her there, the gospel is the good news of the victory of God in Christ over sin and death and Jesus is the risen Lord. It is more than Jesus died our death.

But neither is it less than the good news of the immeasurable self-giving love of God who ‘died for our sins’.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Descendit ad inferna (2) ‘Heaven may be hell for Hitler’


In the promo video for Love Wins, Rob Bell asked a very old question – what about those who die outside of faith in Jesus? Are they all damned to hell – even people like Ghandi?

Over 40 years ago Wolfhart Pannenberg also asked

‘What is to happen to the multitude who lived before Jesus’ ministry? And what will become of the many who never came into contact with the Christian message? What. Finally, is to happen to the people who have certainly heard the message of Christ but who …. have never come face to face with its truth? Are all these people delivered over to damnation? (The Apostle’s Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (London: SCM, 1972) 94. Quoted in Laufer 201.

What Pannenberg did, and Rob Bell did not, was to turn to the descensus clause in the Apostles’ Creed to begin to answer his questions.

Laufer raises this because Pannenberg gives answers similar to those she is arguing for in Hell’s Destruction (clue in the title here).

Laufer (following Pannenberg) suggests that the conquest of death in Jesus points to the universal scope of salvation. It is universalism that ‘answers our demands for justice’ yet at the same time affronts our desire for right punishment for evil. (201)

What way is there around this impasse?

Laufer argues that Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection ‘proclaim that Christ has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and has been raised from thence.’ To believe that any are left behind seems to her to be ‘a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s death, descent and resurrection’

She does not deny the reality of hell. But hell here is reinterpreted to mean an experience of our own creation. Everyone will end up in the presence of God but “if one has lived one’s life in hate, in cruelty, in total opposition to love, then to be in the presence of perfect Love may be to experience hell. Truly ‘heaven may be hell for Hitler’ and his ilk.” 201.

This has echoes of, but is different from, C S Lewis’ image of the doors of hell being locked on the inside. Both have hell as self-chosen separation from God that leads to just (self) punishment.

N T Wright cautiously suggests something similar in Surprised by Hope: those who choose darkness eventually become so consumed by that choice that they lose their humanity of being made in the image of God. God’s just judgement collides with self-destructive choice.

It is, Laufer argues, what Eastern Orthodoxy has always said: God does not condemn the wicked to hell, but the wicked perceive the presence of God as hell while the righteous experience his presence as light, warmth and love.

She links to Moltmann’s universalist ideas that ‘through his sufferings Christ has destroyed hell’. Human will will not have the last word for no-one will be exempt from God’s redeeming grace.

I guess you could say that this is another way of saying love wins.

‘May we say that, as Christ descended to Hades and was raised from there, releasing the captives, so he will continue to be present in Hades until all are released, for he loves all?’ (206)

I’ve read these pages several times and it seems to me there is an unresolved tension in what Laufer is proposing. On the one hand, hell as an experienced reality exists (eternally in heaven?) for the impenitent. On the other hand, there’s a full-blown universalism that God’s love and grace conquer all and hell is empty. (The latter emphasis being much the stronger).

Comments, as ever, welcome

Descendit ad inferna (1)

What do you make of the creedal statement that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’? A bit weird and rather irrelevant; something to be safely ignored as a bit of a diversion from other more important doctrines? Ever heard a sermon on this ‘descensus’ clause?

The idea that Jesus, after his death, ‘descended to the dead’ is found in two Western Creeds, both written in Latin: the Apostle’s Creed (probably mid 4th C) and the Athanasian Creed (probably mid 5th C).

The Latin inferna meant the underworld, the realm of the dead or Hades (equivalent to Sheol in Hebrew). Later translations said that Jesus ‘descended to hell’, but the more accurate way of putting it is that he ‘descended to the dead’.

Catherine Ella Laufer’s very good book on this is Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The NT texts from which the idea is derived are fascinating and often contentious. She surveys the evidence:

1 Peter 3:18b-20a: He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd Cent) was the first to link this passage with Hades. There has been little consensus on it ever since and especially whether it is talking about Christ descending to the dead at all. While there is long tradition linking it with descent, the sway of modern scholarship is that it may actually be referring to his ascent the ‘lower heavens’, the place of imprisonment for fallen angels. The cosmology here being a series of ‘heavens’ from the lower to the higher.

1 Peter 4:6: For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Another text that has spawned a myriad of interpretations. She comes down on Dalton’s view that is refers to the normal preaching of the gospel to those who have since died – fitting in with Peter’s context of a suffering marginal and persecuted church.

Ephesians 4:9: What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions (or depths of the earth)

A descent is in view here, but from where and when? Is the descent the incarnation, or a descent into Hades after death or something else like the descent of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost? Tertullian and Irenaeus and others go for Hades, as do Reformation voices. Other patristic and later voices go for incarnation – Theodore of Mopsuestia (5th Cent) and many modern interpreters. I’d go for incarnation but as Laufer says, the jury is still out.

Acts 2:24-27:But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead [Hades],
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Peter applies Ps 16:10 to Christ – through the resurrection he is not abandoned to Hades and thus fulfils the prophecy of David. Jesus is shown to be God’s anointed Messiah. This implies that Jesus had been in Hades [Sheol] and God had raised him up. Or could it suggest Jesus is freed from death and the fate of going to Hades? (Laufer does not include this possibility).

Matthew 12:40:For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

What is the sign of Jonah to which Jesus refers? Is it an allusion simply to the grave? Is it a reference to a limited time in Sheol before resurrection? It seems to be likely to be the latter – Jonah’s own experience is of going to Sheol (2:1, 6). This verse is so far the best evidence for Jesus’ descent to the dead.

Romans 10:6-7: But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Paul is quoting Deut 30:11-14 which talks about the nearness of the word of God which is not ‘beyond the sea’ nor ‘up in heaven’. The depths of the sea was a place of chaos and death, synonymous with Sheol [Hades]. Does this suggest Paul believed that Jesus descended to Hades? The evidence is thin here – Paul’s stress is on the nearness of the word for all who believe that the resurrected Jesus is Lord. He likely isn’t making any point about the descent of Jesus to the dead.

So there is some limited NT evidence that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’ but you wouldn’t be wanting to wager your house on it.

It is a strong theme in Patristic writings, the ‘harrowing of hell’, the idea that at his resurrection and ascension, Jesus rescued and took with him the saints of the old covenant who had been in Hades. This is a major theme in Eastern Orthodox theology.

Laufer traces the history and meaning of the doctrine through this period into Medieval theology, the Reformation and up to contemporary debates. Along the way, all sorts of fascinating stories and characters emerge, as well as significant theological issues such as hell, conditional immortality, universalism, theodicy and so on, discussed in reference to people like Calvin, Barth, Balthasar and Moltmann.

She argues that

‘the descensus clause is essential to Christology, specifically to the doctrine of the incarnation. If we are to affirm that in Christ God became truly human, then we must affirm not only that Jesus was born and died but also that he descended into Hades, that is, he shared in the state of being dead that is the ultimate consequence of being human. He was incarnate to death. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘that which He has not assumed He has not healed’.  (2-3)

While there is limited biblical support for Christ’s descent, it is not absent. And more, she proposes that without the descent of Jesus to the realm of the dead we are left with an incomplete incarnation and the possibility of a pseudo-resurrection. Jesus is not really ‘one of us’ in other words, the Apollinarian heresy rewritten.

I’m not altogether convinced by the necessity argument: the NT emphasis is on the fact that Jesus, a real man, really died ‘for our sins’ and was really raised from the dead. It doesn’t seem essential theologically to his full humanity, real mortality and real resurrection that Jesus had to descend to the realm of the dead. But I can’t see huge objections to the descent clause either – as long as it is understood as the realm of the dead [Hades] rather than ‘hell’.

Laufer summarises it this way: it is in Hades that Jesus suffers separation from the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to his right hand. At the resurrection “the souls of the faithful departed share in Christ’s resurrection life in the communion of the saints but await the fullness of the resurrection of the body at the parousia.” (190).

In other words, the victory of God in Christ witnessed at the resurrection, affects the faithful dead who are brought into the presence of Christ as he ascends from the realm of the dead. This gives hope for all who die in Christ – they join this communion with Christ prior to the future resurrection.

So her closing words on the implications of this neglected doctrine,

We can truly sing the words of the eucharistic affirmation, ‘dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life’, for our hope is in the atoning work of Christ our Saviour who, for us and our salvation, not only died and rose, but also descended to the dead. (213)

Genes, God and Determinism

Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge has just written the latest Cambridge Paper on Genes, God and Determinism. How about this for good opening paragraph in which he says that the Third Reich borrowed its sterilization legislation from the USA.

Read and download the rest of the paper for free here 

For more than half a century (roughly 1880–1940) it was widely believed that heredity determined race, class, mental health, and intelligence. Eugenic legislation ensured the compulsory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of ‘physical and
mental defectives’ in the USA, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. As late as 1940, an academic review writer declared that feeble-minded people should be prevented from reproducing because feeble-minded families ‘are largely characterised by
promiscuity, desertion, illegitimacy, crime, unhappiness, ill health and other associated pathological conditions’.2 The writer was in no doubt that genes determined ‘feeble-mindedness’ and its associated pathologies. The Third Reich borrowed its sterilization legislation from the USA.3 The most extreme application of eugenics led to the gas ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Today such attitudes and practices are rightly viewed with horror. Surely the kind of genetic determinism that nurtured eugenics is a thing of the past? Yes and no. Today’s genetic determinism is more of a creeping, insidious, back-door kind of influence, absorbed by a process of cultural osmosis from the media, by the abuse of genetic language in daily speech, and unfortunately also from the inaccurate statements of some academics.

He argues that notwithstanding developments in contemporary genetics, “we should resist rhetorical narratives that portray humans as helpless pawns of their genes and their environments.”

The peculiar joy of reading good theology

never finishedFor the last few weeks I and some others at IBI have been swimming in module descriptors, programme documents, programme specifications, aims, learning outcomes, assessments, bibliographies, skills mapping charts …..

All this to do with the considerable challenge of (re)designing and developing undergrad and postgrad theology degree programmes that will come under scrutiny by external experts who will assess whether they are worthy of university validation so we can launch the new degrees next autumn.

A whole bunch of documents (something like 300 pages) went off today. But I don’t want to blog about the challenge of theological education – maybe another day.

As a celebration, and before the next round of things to do, I indulged in that most amazing luxury: actually taking up a theology book and reading. Just for a wee while incase it all became too much. Note, dear reader, the delicious irony of being so consumed with writing theology programme documents  etc, that little or no time is left actually to be reading, let alone writing, theology.

The book is one I have to review for a journal (and is overdue – those documents again). It’s by an Australian Anglican priest called Catherine Ella Laufer and is called Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s descent to the dead (Ashgate, 2013).

I doubt that I would have searched this book out if it hadn’t arrived in the post. And I don’t actually want to blog on what it is about (also maybe for another day). All that needs to be said is that it’s a well written, thoroughly researched and probing piece of historical theology that I am now very much looking forward to getting into.

Let’s just say that Love Wins it ain’t.

What I do want to do is to post some musings on the sheer pleasure of reading good theology.

I’m adding those two words, ‘good theology’ to that sentence because I confess that Christian theology is what I enjoy reading most. I love fiction as well, but it’s theology that tends to trump everything else (is that a qualification of nerdishness?)

And ‘good’ in this context doesn’t mean ideas that I agree with. Nor does it mean ‘evangelical’ or ‘reformed’ or ‘conservative’ or some such narrow ‘orthodox’ qualifier. Nor does it mean policing the boundaries of right belief, on high alert for bad theology.

So what does ‘good theology’ mean?

The following are some rather random starters for five. If you have your own definition feel welcome to share it. I’m trying not to define ‘good’ by contrast to what is ‘bad’ – it is too easy to think of lots of examples of bad theology! So, if you join in, try to keep to positives ….

1. Good theology means writing that is robust; arguments that are well grounded, researched and developed.

Not necessarily neat and tidy, in fact most likely not since life is not neat and tidy. But theology that persuades and appeals, that engages and makes you think afresh. I want to learn when reading theology. And you learn when your own paradigms are jolted a bit rather than just being butressed by being told what you already know.

2. Good theology knows its own limits.

I guess you could say that good theology is suffused with humility. In exploring the divine, it knows that, while much has been revealed in Scripture and in the richness of Christian tradition and history, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. It is aware that all theology is provisional; it does not have all the answers and has much to learn from people of faith and of none. In this sense, good theology is God-focused and grace-filled. And yes, this means I am arguing that good theology emerges out of a living faith.

3. To qualify as good theology, it also has to be well-written.

There has to be a pleasure in reading the text that draws you in to the conversation through creative and attractive prose. Good theology flows out of learning and research, but that ‘data’ has to integrated into someone’s life and mind and thought in such a way that it is expressed clearly, without artificial complexity or academic pretentiousness. A good writer can be understood!

4. Good theology probes questions of depth, meaning and significance.

It has a seriousness since it is dealing with issues of justice, truth, love, reconciliation, suffering, sin and redemption. The world we live in is a serious and unjust place, and good theology engages with the world as it is. It has a deep awareness of humanity’s brokenness and a compassion for the tragedy of the human condition. Good theology will be constructive theology.

5. Good theology is shaped by the gospel.

That gospel revolves around the incarnation, life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension and future return of the Messiah of Israel, God’s Son, Jesus Christ who sent the Spirit of God at Pentecost.

If that narrative is the spine giving shape to the entire Bible, then good theology will emerge out of a dialogue between that gospel and myriad other stories from which we construct meaning and significance for our lives. Good theology, in other words, while drawing on two millennia of Christian thought, will be in constant engagement with other theologies.

For example, it will offer eschatological hope in the midst of liminality, despair and death and it will confront the powers that appear to rule this world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.