Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

You are what you love 4 : Anti-seeker-service Christianity

9781587433801Chapter 4 of Jamie Smith’s You are What you Love focuses is ‘The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship’

The argument should be familiar by now: Christian worship is about re-calibrating hearts. We don’t do that with information but with reforming desire through embodied liturgy shaped by the biblical story line that inscribes that story into our hearts.

He wants the Scriptures to ‘seep into us’ through the intentional, communal rituals of worship (84)

There is unique imagination-forming power in the communal, repeated, and poetic cadences of historic Christian worship

The goal is for God’s word to be the orienting centre of our imagination and desires – working on a subconscious level, engaging the body as well as the mind.

A biblical vision for humanity is discovering what it is to be truly human – to engage in the process of becoming like Christ, the perfect image of God. This happens from the inside-out, via the Spirit whose work and objective it is to restore the image. This renewal involves a change of character – a character of wisdom and love and maturity.

But this renewed character has a bigger context – to take up  our role as a character within God’s bigger narrative. This is our telos, our purpose – to become like Jesus. This is what it means to be fully human.

It is this gospel plot that we have constantly to recalibrate our lives around. Christian worship should be about capturing our imagination because we are aesthetic creatures

Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. (91)

We need worship to captivate us. Inspire us. Setting a vision of what could be – what will be. Regular Christian worship locates us in this grand story. The aim is for this story to become so engrained that it becomes the way we think, and feel, and act in the world.

This storied worship has 4 chapters:

GATHERING: a call to worship. We are being called into God’s holy presence, not the other way around. We are being called to confession of sins week after week. To recognise constantly how our desires become disordered and twisted.

Without weekly confession what is Christian worship?  What messages are being communicated if our need of forgiveness and need of reforming our desires and lives is not central to our meetings?

LISTENING: we gather to hear God, not ourselves. To hear the gospel, to hear his Word. To hear how to live.

COMMUNING: we meet with God and with each other in worship. We come to eat the Lord’s Supper together – to commune with Him and with his body the church. This is profoundly counter cultural – here is no hierarchy, no division, no social or political or economic boundaries.

SENDING: In worship we meet with the Triune God, are re-formed in Christ, counseled by his Word, and nourished by  bread of life. We are then sent out into the world to look after God’s creation and to make disciples of all nations. To invite others to find their true  purpose and identity in becoming fully human in Christ Jesus.

It is this training in narrative that is at the heart of worship says Smith.

He addresses some questions here – look for this narrative in your church’s worship. Try to be part of the solution to improve things. If absolutely necessary and as a last resort it might be you go worship elsewhere. Why? Because “the future of orthodox, faithful, roust Christianity hinges on the renewal of worship.” (101)

What Smith is writing here is anti-seeker-service Christianity. It’s an appeal for ‘full-on’ embodied, sacramental, sacred, reverent, ‘culturally-other’ Christian worship. Willow Creek this is most definitely not.

But it’s also an appeal against the sort of background I come from – a branch of Protestant Reformed Christianity that, following the logic of the Reformer’s suspicion of Catholic fusion of grace and nature, developed into a ‘disenchantment’ with the world; a caution about the full implications of the Word become flesh; God mediated in human form; that “creation itself is charged with the Spirit’s presence” (101).

This led within Presbyterianism to (in my opinion) a sort of rationalist theology embodied in starkly simple worship; a dominating focus on the mind –  ‘right doctrine’ and the Word preached; all within a rigid formality and relationally cold context. (This is broad brush historical deveopment, not a descripion of every local Presbyterian church! Where things are improving, I think it is by overcoming these hurdles)

Smith quotes Charles Taylor in calling this ‘excarnation’ – the opposite to incarnation.

And here’s a controversial and interesting prediction from Smith below – what do you think? Is he right? Do we need to ‘go back to the future’ when it comes to our churches and the structure of our worship? Or is he being naive and idealistic about what Christian worship can achieve in terms of being paradoxially ‘attractive’ by being counter-cultural?

And does this impact physically as well? For example in our local context we are thinking about a new church building, which would be our first, so we have a ‘blank slate’ . I imagine for Smith the choice of design is of major importance since a building speaks of a ‘liturgy’ in and of itself. What sort of choice would you go for? A ‘culturally relevant’ church building or an ‘ancient’ and ‘culturally-other’ traditionally historic one? How much does local context shape that choice? (Smith is writing in an American one).

I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle – well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk.

But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heavens. It will be “ancient” Christian communities – drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence – that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing … Because when the thin gruel of do-it-yourself spirituality turns out to be isolating, lonely, and unable to endure crises, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. (102)

 

Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian life (6) Tara Beth Leach

The penultimate chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by Tara Beth Leach on ‘A Symphonic Melody: Wesleyan-Holiness Theology meets New-Perspective Paul’

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

This angle is an interesting one – Wesley’s concern for holiness – entire or perfect sanctification worked out in a Christian life motivated by pure love for God – immediately makes connections to themes within the NPP.

We’ve seen consistently in chapters so far common strands emerging: – ecclesiology across all boundaries, a new community marked by love, the role of the Spirit in creating and empowering believers to live the Christian life; a theology shaped by a radical and revolutionary new interpretation of the biblical narrative in light of the Apostle’s own experience.

Beth Leach sketches the contours of Wesley’s theology of original sin, prevenient grace, justification, sanctification, holiness and love. The discussion reminds how classically Reformed Wesley’s theology of justification is – leave out prevenient grace and there is no real gap here between the Arminian and Calvinist takes on Paul. Our works cannot save us; we are under the judgement of the law; faith is the only condition for justification, an act of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through whom sin is atoned for and the sinner declared righteous.

The distinctive emphasis of Wesley was how he tied justification together with the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed Christian life. It was not only guilt that is dealt with in Christ, it is also the power of sin. And so Wesley developed his – how would you put it? – positive? optimistic? confident? unrealistic? Pauline? – theology of the Christian life. A theology that taught and expected a life of holiness and love, empowered by the Spirit and marked by changed desires and priorities within.

I’ll put my cards on the table here and say, whatever you might think of Wesley’s version of a ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit (fine to have an Aldersgate experience but just don’t force a personal experience into a theological grid to impose on others), his passion, desire and conviction that God is in the business of spiritual renewal and change is far closer to Paul than a theology that one that talks a lot about being ‘saved’ and yet has little expectation of the power and presence of God in the subsequent Christian life.

Beth Leach maps Wesley’s holiness theology onto Paul’s vision for the Christian life, emphasising the latter’s corporate context. Her chapter doesn’t get into critical analysis of Wesley or the contemporary holiness movement, but she hints at the major problem within holiness spirituality and within Old Perspective soteriology – that of individualism. (I’d like to have heard a response to the criticism that Wesley mirrors the Old Perspective tendency to individualism, flowing out of an overly dominant justification theology that tends to flatten Paul’s wider narrative framework). The challenge for both is the Apostle’s call to what she terms a ‘Symphonic Melody’ – where it is only together that the orchestra can play beautiful music, each member needs the other. She concludes this way ..

Beethoven did not write his Overture from Egmont with one instrument in mind, but he also didn’t create it so that every instrument would sound exactly the same. Beethoven wrote the symphony with all the instruments in mind and for each instrument to shine in its unique way …. The beauty of music happens when the ensemble comes together in one unifying voice. In the very same way, our Creator and King did not create the redemptive narrative with one person in mind, but the goal has always been for a holy people. The beauty of it all is when the people gather as one voice; this is when holiness happens.(177-8)

Amen to that lovely image.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian Life (5) Scot McKnight ‘ecclesial life’

Scot McKnight’s chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is on ‘the Ecclesial Life’. 

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Scot hones in on how deeply and profoundly Paul’s vision for the Christian life is a corporate one. He’s come at this angle through his Kingdom Conspiracy where he ties kingdom and church together more tightly than many, influenced by George Eldon Ladd’s kingdom as God’s dynamic rule, have been used to.

His agenda is to convince that Paul’s vision for the Christian life is one that needs to be recaptured and re-imagined by the church (the American church in particular is Scot’s focus). Why? Because American evangelicalism he argues has been thoroughly conditioned by the ‘old perspective’ – which despite strengths has led to some damaging distortions. Scot puts it like this;

The download for the American church about the old perspective’s approach to Paul entails these elements: Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul was a legalistic, works-righteousness religion; the God of the New Testament is a God of free grace, and we cannot earn our way with God since salvation is a gift; all humans are in need of grace and salvation, which come to us through Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death; and the gospel relieves the existential crisis of guilt for the one who ceases striving and comes to rest in God’s all-sufficent grace. Some old perspectivists see the ultimate and universal triumph of grace, but they are still more or less operating out of an old perspective on Judaism and Paul. (127-8)

The implications of this framework for understanding the Christian life are these says Scot:

  • an individualistic understanding of Christian living (an Augustinian anthropology)
  • personal redemption, happiness now and eternal life when we die
  • living out of grace not works
  • mission is getting people saved
  • social justice tended to be secondary
  • ecclesiology tended to be an add on
  • an inherently supersessionistic approach to the OT and Judaism

The NPP starts at a different place. For Scot it goes like this:

  • Paul is not set over against Judaism – he is still a Jew (Acts 23:6) – a Jewish Christian / Christian Jew
  • He is articulating a re-framed theology of God’s people – Israel expanded to include Gentiles (he has a good conversation here about what is supersessionism – in some sense all Christianity is)
  • The focus of the NPP is primarily ecclesial, the Old Perspective was primarily soteriological
  • The conflict, for Paul, is one vision of Judaism (narrow, exclusive) over against another vision of Judaism (broad, radically inclusive) as that which fulfils and expressed the saving purposes of God.
  • Justification is not an accusation against Judaism’s works righteousness, but an inclusive framework that embraces all who have faith in Christ

Scot sketches a third alternative, advanced by Mark Nanos and others, that really what is going on with Paul is a developing theology for Gentiles. Where the Torah continues to apply in full for Jewish followers of Jesus, but is adapted and toned down for Gentiles: a sort of two covenant process. Many of Paul’s letters do not apply to Jewish Christians – they are for Gentiles. The contrast with the Old Perspective could hardly be more stark:

It doesn’t take genius insight to see that the post–new perspective has nearly turned the old perspective inside out and upside down. Instead of a law that had to be abrogated, we have a law that has to be followed (by Jewish and gentile believers); there is no thought here of a works righteousness but of a grace-shaped election formed through a covenant God made with Israel, and the whole Christian life is about the Torah and, for gentile believers, Paul’s teaching about how gentiles who are not given the Torah are to live. (136)

But Scot’s position is that the NPP is more historically accurate to what the NT teaches in light of a better understanding of first century Judaism. And that Paul’s over-riding concern was a theological and exegetical interpretation of the OT in light of Christ that grounds the people of God, Jew and Gentile, as the seed of Abraham.

The force of Paul’s radical vision is felt by gaining a glimpse of the highly stratified social hierarchies of the 1st century: Scot references the work of Peter Oakes on Pompeii, Richard Ascough et al on associations in the Greco-Roman world. Where hierarchy, status, reputation, gender, political connections – these were the lifeblood of Empire – and the small but proliferating Christian groupings (the ekklesia) were a political and spiritual threat to the established order.

It is Paul’s ecclesial ‘obsession’ that shapes his practice – the church is the locus of God’s mission –  texts used here are Colossians and Ephesians. This is light years away for so much individualistic and egocentric evangelical spirituality. It is also, Scot points out, a challenge to the segregated American church.

I wish here to say the really important thing: there is virtually nothing about inner spirituality, about personal spiritual formation, about individual transformation, or about everything that shapes so much of how we teach the Christian life in the American church. Of course, Paul expects them to be transformed and to get sanitized from the ways of Rome, but his focus is so ecclesial that all things individual are folded into God’s mission to form a new kind of community, the ecclesia. I want that to be emphasized: for Paul the church comes first, and the individual’s Christian life is part of the growth and sanctification of the local church. I don’t think Paul’s vision entailed getting individuals sanctified and therefore improving the church. It was groupthink before personthink. It was We before Me. (144)

And, as with many of the other writers in the book, Scot shifts to the Spirit as the origin and empowerer of this ecclesial vision. And this is not an inward pietistic my intimacy with God sort of spirituality – it is robustly other focused, within a risky boundary breaking community of ‘differents’.

And this is why love is at the core of the Spirit’s work and Paul’s understanding of the Christian life. See Gal. 5:6; 5:14; 5:22; 1 Cor 16:14; Col 3:14.The only way the church can work, the only way the Christian life can work, is through love. Scot closes with a brief 4 fourfold definition of love:

1. Love is rugged commitment – God’s covenant love. ‘Love decides in advance to be committed to someone whoever they are.’

2. Love is being ‘with’ someone: God commits to be with his people – in the wilderness and later in the incarnation and in the future in the new creation.

3. Love is advocacy for a person: ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’

4. Love is transformative – for the person’s good: God’s agenda is a holy loving people, fit for his kingdom.

Such love is often demanding and hard; it calls us to love those deeply unlike us. And it is, Scot concludes, in that fellowship of love that we learn to live the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life (1) Bruce Longenecker

It was a privilege to write a chapter for The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica and published by Baker Academic last month.

I’m not going to post about my own chapter save to say it was a hugely enjoyable and personally rewarding writing project. And to be surrounded by exalted company like JDG Dunn, NT Wright, Bruce Longenecker, Lynn Cohick, Timothy Gombis, Scot and others is a bit surreal.

Now, I guess I might be a tad biased but I really do think it’s an excellent book. The fresh angle here is how the (now not so) New Perspective on Paul helps in developing an integrated understanding of the apostle’s theological vision. Or, to put that differently, he isn’t writing abstract systematic theology, his overriding concern in his letters is the moral transformation of those under his pastoral leadership. It’s theology written that ‘Christ might be formed’ in individuals who have come to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Each author was given a general remit to unpack the connections between the NPP and the Christian life. The result is that as you read the book, a fascinating group of themes begin to emerge. The big question at the back of them all is how does Paul the Jew, – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel?

What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

I’m going to post on a few of the chapters.

The first is Bruce Longenecker’s terrific essay on ‘Faith, Works, and Worship: Torah Observance in Paul’s Theological Perspective’.  

At times, Paul’s contribution to Christian theology has been conceived simply in terms of establishing that Christians are free from having to do anything since they enjoy eternal salvation in the heavenly world of perfect glory by means of their faith in Christ. But Paul did not expect the Christian to live a life devoid of “good works.” He did not think that Christian activity jeopardizes the eternal destiny of the “soul.” Doing good is not, in fact, foreign to Paul’s view of the Christian life. As we will see, Christian activity is an essential component of Paul’s theologizing about God’s engagement with the world. (48)

The activity of the Christian life includes, says Longenecker, self-giving love, empowered by the Spirit. It means ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ – and this includes economic burdens (see his book Remember the Poor for more).

But it’s the background context in which the Christian life is lived that Longenecker brings out wonderfully well.

Two themes highlight the ‘opposition’ or forces arrayed against God and those who would follow him:

  1. Weapons of mass destruction’ – by which he means covetousness, self-interest, hatred, jealousy, envy, strife. “For those beyond the boundaries of Christian community, Paul imagines a world permeated by a destructive moral ethos.”
  2. ‘Cosmos Grabbers’ – by which Longenecker means the powers of Sin and Death – powers that reign like cosmic overlords. These powers are ingrained in fabric of the world and manifest themselves chaotically throughout humanity’s all too destructive existence.

Where these forces produce disunity and disharmony, Paul has come to experience and see that God’s agenda in Christ is to bring peace, unity and harmony not only for his (Jewish) people but for a new humanity consisting of both Jew and Gentile.

But in contrast to the healthy unification of distinct groups that Paul perceived in Christian communities, the stoicheia of the world bastardize God-ordained diversities, transforming those diversities into relationships of destructive disharmony, rather than offering creative possibilities of self-giving. (59)

This united new community, the body of Christ, is not an end in itself but exists to worship God, its creator. A people of joyous praise to the glory of God the father (Phil 2:11)

So it is in and through love and self-giving communities that a spiritual battle is being fought out. Living the Christian life is

an inspiring vision, but it is also a challenging one, since it places Christian lifestyle and corporate practice front and center on the eschatological battlefield. (62)

For Paul, works of Torah could not contribute to this battle. It is the Spirit who empowers believers to life the Christian life. And this is why he resists wholeheartedly any attempt to insist that works of Torah be imposed on new believers. To try to make Gentiles become Jews is another form of ‘centrism’ that leads to division not to unity.

And here’s his challenging conclusion. It’s worth reading more than once:

Stripped to its core, then, what Paul was ultimately fighting for when he wrote “not by works of Torah” was nothing other than cruciform self-giving as the overturning of self-interestedness, itself the product and foothold of cosmic powers opposed to God’s program for the world … Paul maintained a vision of those in Christ as a collection of diverse people, united in worship of the One who created distinctly varied identities, whose challenging corporate life can be sustained only through the power of the Spirit, who enlivens other-regard in transformational patterns replicating the self-giving of the Son of God.

Reading this is it hard not to be struck by the massive importance of unity and self-giving love within the church for the apostle Paul.

What, do you think, would Paul make of the contemporary church? In how it fights destructive spiritual forces with the weapons of love and unity? In how it overcomes ethnic and cultural boundaries that so divide the world we live in?