A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (16)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: One of the big ticket issues one confronts in Paul is the notion of the bondage of sin. It leads to questions like— if before Christ everyone was in the bondage of sin, what were all those commandments about in the OT, and why were there actually people called righteous back then and back there? Was God grading on a curve in the OT, but not so much now since we have the renovating presence of the Spirit? I agree with Sanders that there is the grace of God to be found in the OT, but the question is, what effect did it actually have on God’s people. Was the good godly law inherently frustrating– it could tell them what to do, but couldn’t enable them to do it? Why then does Paul say in a remarkable passing remark in Philippians that in regard to a righteousness that came from the Mosaic Law, he was blameless!!!! Really? This sounds like no bondage of sin in Paul’s case. Or is he simply saying, I was not a law breaker, without implying his obedience to the positive requirements of love etc. was perfect? What do you think?

PATRICK: Nice easy question Ben! It zones in the vexed question of continuity and discontinuity within Paul’s theology of righteousness when compared to the OT. Sanders’s understandable reaction to forms of Protestant discontinuity, sometimes verging on anti-Semitism, led to him to so emphasise continuity that he concluded Paul’s only real problem with Judaism was that ‘it was not Christianity’. But this won’t do. While Paul is not setting up ‘failed’ Jewish legalism up against Christian grace, something profoundly discontinuous has happened. His own life is an example of radical change.

I see it as Paul re-reading the Scriptures backwards in light of Christ, telling a restructured historical-redemptive story. ‘Faith’ was always the key to justification / righteousness long before the law existed (the story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians). Nor is the law opposed to the promises of God. Its fundamental problem is that it could never justify or give life (only faith in Christ and the regenerating work of the Spirit does that). So in this sense, yes, the life under the law in the OT is temporary and partial. Those who rely on observing it are under a curse (Gal 3:10). In terms of how were faithful believing Jews in the OT seen by God, I think we need to come back to texts like Deut 6:4-5. Wholehearted love for God leads to faithful lives of justice that please God. People can only live according to the light that they have received.

On Philippians, given Paul’s strong theology of sin as a power, I take his reference to being blameless as referring to his pre-conversion life – he was exemplary in keeping the law.

BEN: You quote our old friend John Stott positively as follows (P. 143): “the love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all mankind…long enough to last for eternity, deep enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and high enough to exalt him to heaven”. I totally agree with this and take very seriously John 3.16— God loves the whole of fallen humanity (the cosmos organized against him). All this being true, it does not make sense to me at all to then also say, God has chosen and pre-determined a select number of human beings to be saved, culled out of a mass of unredeemed humanity. To me this denies the very nature of a statement like John 3.16, not least because love has to be freely given and freely received. It can’t be manipulated, compelled, or predetermined for that matter. Election of a person or a people for certain historical purposes is one thing, salvation is another. Christ, as M. Barth said about Ephesians is the Elect One, and yet Christ didn’t need to be saved— these two things must then be distinguished. Believers are saved by grace and through faith, by responding to the Gospel. They become elect only by being in the Elect One, Christ, and that again transpires by grace and through faith. What is your take on these things?

PATRICK: Yes, the study of biblical love does throw up a lot of big theological questions doesn’t’ it? I think some later systematic categories of thinking about election run the risk of imposing an artificial grid on the Bible and making it say more than it does – with unfortunate results. Like you I find it difficult to square texts like John 3:16 with God’s foreordination of multitudes to eternal judgment.

Ultimately this question comes back to the character of God. As I read the Bible, divine love is the great central thread to the whole story. The OT insists that God abounds in love. Hosea is a particularly moving example. God the betrayed lover woos back his unfaithful bride and refuses to end their marriage although he had every right to. Their love is not compelled or enforced – he is not a bullying husband. So, yes, the OT is a very particular story of God’s unbreakable covenant love for Israel, that but story is not an end in itself. Behind his election of Israel is his reconciling love for all. The big shift in the NT is how that ‘narrow lens’ is then widened to embrace all who respond in faith and repentance to the gospel of the Messiah, the Lord of all. No greater example of divine love is possible imagine than the cross of Christ.

 

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.

The uncomfortable particularity of biblical love

I’m doing some reading and writing on love and have been reflecting on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I don’t know about you, but pretty well no-one that I know or have talked to is against the idea of love.  I mean who wants to be seen as a cynical old curmudgeon or a psycho like Billy Bob Thornton’s violent predator Lorne Malvo in the series Fargo?

But push a wee bit further and questions start to emerge:

What is love?

Who or what is it that we are loving? (love always has a focus, we have to love something)

What is the outcome or consequences of our love? How is love made visible in practice?

How have ideas of love developed and changed in history?

What are the dominant popular notions of love in our contemporary western culture?

Are all religions essentially about love? Are they simply different expressions of a universal human impulse to love?

This post isn’t going to answer any of those questions! It is going to link to that last one though.

Here’s a fact about love in the Old Testament – and the Bible in general.

If love always has to have a focus, in the Shema, Israel’s love is directed at a very particular person – YHWH – not an ill defined divine reality or some sort of faceless god.

A religious pluralism that suggests that an abstract form of love lies at the core of all (or most) religions,  reduces love to a de-personalised philosophical idea.

This is very far cry from the Shema. Love for God in the Bible is love for a very specific Lord who has revealed himself in history, has chosen Israel as his people, given them the Law and the Land, and is redeeming the world through the continuing story of that nation and its Messiah.

I came across this quote by Chris Wright

.. the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God”, shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.[1]

[1] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. p.98

 

Wrighting Paul?

During a recent study break I set myself a goal of reading N T Wright’s 2 volume magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At heart it is a vast, ambitious project to articulate Pauline theology in terms of a grand unified narrative from creation, through the story of Israel, her Messiah, the promised Spirit and the new creation to come.

In such a humongous work, there are going to be positions taken and judgments reached that fail to convince other scholars. Here are a two major push-backs that have been appearing, especially from Tom Wright’s buddy Ben Witherington :

1)      Israel in Exile?

NTW has long argued that the Jews of Jesus’ day thought of themselves as living in Exile, longing for the final promised rescue by God. Witherington thinks not – the reality was far less extreme. They felt at home, even if vulnerable in their own land. Most Pharisees and Sadducees had much invested in the temple system. Better to see it in terms of Israel living under a cloud of judgement and looked forward to a better day. Wright’s exile idea ignores the Maccabean period and how for many Jews they had returned home. Yes there was something not right, but it is doubtful that the Maccabean victory was seen only as a false dawn, prefiguring return from Exile to come. The best that can be said is that some Jews saw themselves as still experiencing the lingering effects of Exile.

This seems valid criticism to me.

2)      The place of Israel in God’s purposes: one story or two?

This is the bigger pushback: NTW has Jesus ‘being Israel’ in himself; Israel is incorporated in her Messiah. He stresses how Jesus is therefore the ‘true Israelite’ who alone fulfils Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations. The whole story of the OT, from Abraham to Christ has been a story of failure of Israel until the birth of the Messiah. Now, with his coming, those who have faith in him, whether Jew of Gentile, are united and represent the fulfilled promises of God to Israel. And Israel in this sense is the whole story of the OT people of God.

Witherington doubts Jesus ‘is’ Israel. He comes to free Israel. He argues that in Romans 9-11, Israel refers to non-Christian Jews which God still has a plan to free, in and through Christ, at the eschaton. So Witherington agrees that Jew and Gentile believers in Christ are united in Christ, but he argues there is still an Israel ‘outside of Christ’. The church is the ‘ekklesia’ but Paul refrains from equating it with Israel. It is after the full number of Gentiles have been brought in, then that ‘all Israel’ will be saved – in other words, a future date when a large number of Jews turn to Christ.

Put simply, Witherington’s criticism is that NTW over-emphasises the one overarching story, where the church, in effect, becomes the fulfilled promise of a renewed Israel. Witherington says there remain two stories – that of Abraham and Moses. NTW fails to draw adequate distinction between the story of Israel (and Mosaic covenant) and the story of Abraham. Witherington puts it like this:

In other words, the story of Abraham is one thing, the story and subsequent tale of Israel is related to and dependent on the story of Abraham in various ways, but it is a subsequent story. Abraham, it should be noted, already lived in the promised land, he did not need to be rescued from bondage in Egypt. His story is not a story of Exodus and Sinai frankly. Nor is it the story of the Mosaic covenant, which Paul deliberately contrasts with the Abrahamic covenant in Gal. 4. Here I would say that Wright, for all his insightful analyses of the subplots, has one too few subplots— we need a subplot about Abraham, and we need another subplot about Israel. (my emphasis)

… Followers of Christ, not only don’t have to keep the badges of the Mosaic covenant (circumcision, food laws, sabbath), they aren’t under the Mosaic covenant at all– period!

This of course is not Tom’s view of things, but rather mine (and others), and I would say it is in some ways the most fundamental mistake Tom makes in his otherwise brilliant reading of Paul. Jesus is not Israel, he is Israel’s messiah, and as Paul says—he is ‘the seed of Abraham’ not the Israel of God.

So BW wants to highlight Paul’s radical contrast between the Mosaic and new covenant. The new covenant does NOT fulfill the old Mosaic one through life in the Spirit. So BW says that while NTW is “perfectly comfortable in saying that Paul could call any and all Christians ‘the Jew’ as well as ‘the seed of Abraham’ and ‘Israel’”, he is not. For BW, Israel still has a future – to be rejoined to the largely Gentile people of God (re-grafted into the olive tree). Witherington puts it this way,

the story of non-Christian Israel is not finished yet, and was not completed by the first coming of Jesus or his death and his resurrection. Rom.11 says otherwise. It is a story still awaiting a better resolution, when it is enfolded into the story of the ekklesia when Christ returns and ‘all Israel is saved’.

Now these two are among the most prolific and published NT scholars around, so commenting on this feels daunting – remember, these are blog thoughts being worked out! And I hope that I’ve summarised things accurately.

My amateur reading of Paul comes out more on Wright’s ‘one story’ (without necessarily being convinced about Jesus ‘being Israel’).

It seems to me that Witherington is drawing too sharp a disjuncture between how Paul links Abraham and Moses. Yes, the Mosaic covenant has come to a decisive end, but the Torah is fulfilled by life in the Spirit. Yes, the period of law (Israel from Moses to Jesus) is over and was temporary, but the law itself pointed to a broader inclusive time beyond the borders of Israel – as foreshadowed by the faith of Abraham.

I do see those who have faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile as God’s reconstituted ‘people of God’.  Repeatedly the new community of the Spirit is talked about in terms that applied to the OT people of Israel (eg temple).

Those who hold to ‘one story’, read the NT in a linear, unfolding narrative. The ‘time’ of OT Israel is complete. [This tends to mean that there is no particular special significance for the state ‘Israel’ today or the politics of the Middle East.]

Yes, Jewish people have unique and special significance since theirs is the Messiah and story of God’s OT people. And yes, it is entirely possible that Paul looked forward to a future ‘re-ingrafting’ of his fellow Jews – but they would be finding their rightful place within the one story, in which Gentiles believers are now included. The basis for inclusion would be the same as for anyone else – faith in Jesus the Christ.

 

‘No-one can force us to hate’: the courage and cost of non-violent resistance

One of the themes that Darrell Bock, who is a messianic Jew, unpacked from Luke-Acts in the recent IBI Summer Institute, was the place of Israel in the continuing purposes of God.

As this topic always seems to do, it raised some raw emotion and lively discussion. Bock is on the other side of the fence (you could almost take that literally) from Munther Issac, a Palestinian Christian who visited IBI a while ago.

But Prof Bock has been to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, has Palestinian – Christian friends, and keeps an open dialogue going on. While holding to a different theological interpretation, he actively forges relationships with fellow believers in working towards reconciliation.

All this is to link to this storyplease read it. 

This is a report from a professional secular news agency: but the heart of the story is the good news of the Prince of Peace. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that embodies the gospel more than Daher Nasser and his family.

News of reconciliation

News of love in a world filled with hate

News of hope

News of peace in a region of war

News of another kingdom

What are your reactions as you read it?

Anger? Outrage? Rage at the injustice of Israel?

Admiration?

Inspiration?

Grief?

Prayer?

Sometimes those who believe that Jesus’ words about loving enemies means not killing them are accused of being unrealistic and naive – taking the ‘soft option’ of non violence rather than the realistic option of violence in the cause of the greater good.

The Nasser family put that old canard to rest. This is the way of the Messiah who confronted injustice, evil and violence with self-giving love. It is in weakness, persecution, and even death that God’s power is, ironically, most evidently displayed.

May the Lord sustain and empower the Nasser family as they walk in the way of the cross.

 

A delightful Jewish parable

In Deuteronomy  24:19 it says

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Someone kindly pointed me to a Jewish parable, probably from around the time of Jesus, about this verse. Here it is:

A certain pious man [hasid] forgot a sheaf in the middle of his field. He said to his son, “Go and offer two bullocks on my behalf, for a burnt offering and a peace offering.” His son said to him, “Father, why are you more joyful at fulfilling this one commandment than all the other commandments in Torah?” He said to him, “The Lord gave us all the commands in Torah to obey intentionally, but he only gave us this one to obey accidentally.”

For if we obeyed this deliberately before the Lord, we would not be fulfilling the command. He said to him: It says, “When you reap the harvest of your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” [Deut.24.19]. Scripture thereby sets out a blessing.

What is interesting about this delightful story is how it sheds light on the motive for Jewish keeping of the law.

Often Christians have caricatured Judaism as being a legalistic form of works-righteousness, coupled with a rather grim sense of desperately trying to do enough good works to appease a forbidding, harsh and rather impersonal God who is busy weighing the scales of good works versus bad.

This parable tells a different story.

This was the only law that could only be fulfilled accidently. It could not be planned for; action could only follow forgetfulness! See how this Jewish man is therefore overjoyed that his bad memory has given him an unexpected opportunity to fulfil this law.

And, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an outrageous result. His offering of two bullocks was ‘way over the top’ in terms of cost. This sense of wild exaggeration is making a serious point to the listeners; Yes the law is to be obeyed in every area of life, but it is a joy and delight to obey the law.

The parable does not talk about fear as a motive for obedience. Rather, the motive for obedience is joy – the sheer joy of pleasing God and doing his will. This is obedience out of love and relationship. The parable is celebrating an unplanned and unexpected opportunity to obey another law.

How does this fit with your view of the Judaism of Jesus’ day?

Comments, as ever, welcome.  

Israel through a Christological lens (3)

BethlehemSo, does the church ‘replace’ Israel?

The charge of ‘replacement theology’ is a heavily loaded one. It is frequently equated with anti-Semitism, It is seen as denying God’s covenant(s) with Israel (especially regarding Israel’s ‘divine gift’ of the land which is assumed to be permanent) and therefore being sub-biblical at best. It is seen as arrogant (Christians better than Jews) and so on.

Sometimes ‘replacement’ theology is equated with ‘supersessionism’. The tricky bit here is that these terms need definition. Rikk Watts has a very good article on ‘Israel and Salvation’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Evangelical Theology. In it he describes Gabriel Fackre’s systematisation of at least 5 forms of supersessionism and 8 forms of anti-supersessionist theology. I’m not going to go into all them here – save to say that it’s misleading to throw terms like ‘replacement’ around without defining what it is you are talking about.

I don’t believe in ‘replacement’ theology. I do believe in ‘fulfilment’ theology. Here’s why:

The church does not ‘replace’ Israel as if ‘that story is a dead-end and now here’s a new one’. The entire NT is incomprehensible without the story of Israel. Jesus completes or fulfils that story – he is the one about whom the whole story revolves. As sketched  in the last post, themes of exodus, Messiah, Torah, land, temple, Spirit, people of God – all find deep continuity and fulfilment in the ‘Christ event’.

It is those who are ‘in Christ’ who are children of Abraham. Believers in Jesus are adopted as God’s children through the Spirit of God (Galatians; Romans). This is a reconstituted Israel – made up of anyone who abides in Jesus (to use John’s language this time). It is crystal clear that it is not sufficient to belong to Israel or to be Torah-obedient. it was not enough for Paul – it is the New covenant which surpasses the Old for it brings life (2 Cor. 3:7-17). The vital thing here is to ‘turn to the Lord’.

The language for the NT people of God is significant. The church (ekklesia) is in continuity with the qahal – the community of Israel. The outpouring of the Spirit to the Gentiles is seen as a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and to Jacob that all nations would be blessed. Paul explicitly calls the church ‘the Israel of God’ in Gal. 6:16.  There is no longer any significant spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile (Rom 10:2; Gal 3:28, whole of Ephesians) – they retain their identity and culture within the one body, but the spiritual significance of being Jewish is radically relativised. No where is this more clear than in Paul’s radical statement that

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” (Gal 6:15).

This theme of fulfilment is seen in how OT covenants find their completion in Jesus (the Christological lens). Exodus; Abrahamic; Davidic covenants are all fulfilled in Jesus. He enacts a new exodus; those in him are children of Abraham; he is the anointed king. And when it comes to Passover, the gospel testimony is startling: Jesus enacts a new Passover, offering his own body and blood to bring forgiveness in and through his death (and victorious resurrection).

And these theme of fulfilment is seen in relation to the land itself – just as it has been for Temple and Torah and people of God. The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem is of a cosmic place of reconciliation where believers from all tribes and tongues and nations enter in. Just as the physical Temple is decentered and fulfilled in Jesus himself (and indeed Jesus announces impending judgement on the temple), so the land is ‘decentered’. No longer are God’s people tied to the land, but are formed from all nations through the life-giving Spirit, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and bears fruit all over the world (Col 1:6).

What does all this mean today?

i. There is ONE covenant and ONE new humanity in Christ, made up of Jews and Gentiles, equal recipients of grace, first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles (who are graciously grafted into that one story).

ii. Torah is fulfilled through faith in Christ and a life in the Spirit. This is not replacement – but God acting to bring forgiveness and new life and holiness to the world beyond Israel as he had always promised to do.

iii. God has not abandoned Israel (Rom 11:2-6). Theirs is the original story; theirs is the Messiah. Paul longs that they would recognise him as such (Rom 11:13) – and that many will come to saving faith in the future (Rom 11:26-7). The paradox is that God has used Israel’s rejection of her Messiah  to bring the gospel to the nations.

iv. ‘Israel’ is redefined in the NT through the life, teaching and saving work of Jesus the Messiah. There is one unfolding story of God’s redemptive action in history. What has changed is that Gentiles are now welcomed in to that story and do not have to become Jews to be part of it. If the identity of the people of God in the OT was Torah and circumcision (and,  very importantly, faith in and love for God), now the identity of the people of God is faith in Christ, love of God, a life of holiness empowered by the Spirit, baptism into Christ, and the new covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper.

v. The idea that the modern secular nation-state of Israel is in some way a literal fulfillment of God’s promises to OT Israel is a fatally flawed hermeneutic that sits in flat contradiction to the consistent witness of the New Testament. For that reason alone it should be seriously questioned.

vi. Saying this is not anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or pro-Islamic! To claim that it is is just a form of spiritual bullying. There are other political and pragmatic and moral arguments that can be better made for the right of Israel to exist in peace. Just don’t distort the Bible to bolster those modern political positions when it does not. It’s bad theology on all sorts of levels.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Israel through a Christological lens (2)

BethlehemOK, what follows is a theological sketch.

‘Israel’ needs definition: I’m here talking about God’s elect people, his promise to Abraham and his choosing of Jacob and his descendants and their identity and calling to be his holy people, faithful to the covenant and Torah.

When we come to consider the identity of ‘Israel’ today, we must do so through a Christological lens. For this is how the NT is written – it is fundamentally a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Jesus is Israel’s Messiah; the king who announces and demonstrates in power the that the kingdom of God has come; his healing of the sick, raising of the dead, purifying lepers and casting out of demons are all signs that the eschatological rule of God is here in the present. Jesus is the anointed Son of God, the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel. He alone brings forgiveness and salvation.

Jesus re-enacts exodus around himself; the baptism – Spirit- temptations narrative highlights that he is God’s beloved Son are all strong echoes of Exodus:  (passing through water followed by 40 days in the desert). Jesus chooses 12 disciples; he reforms or reconstitutes Israel around himself. He is even the fulfilment of the Torah – obedience to God is measured in faithful response to his teaching. He is the one with the authority to reinterpret and apply the Torah (Mt 5-7). For John he is the eternal Logos.

Jesus explicitly announces judgement on the Temple. It would be replaced by worship centered on the resurrected Lord (1 Cor 8:6). He is one greater than the Temple (Mt 12:6). John tells of Jesus who is the temple (Jn 2:19-21). Luke records in Acts 7 how the significance of the Temple is relativised in light of the coming of the Righteous One; “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”. And in the eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the temple is not a building but the presence of God and the Lamb.

The exalted Christology of the NT reinforces the picture of Jesus, the Lord, the one greater than Solomon, greater than David, the very presence of God himself having come to his Temple in the holy city. He comes a suffering servant, to die for the world.  The entire book of Hebrews is a Christological reflection on how Jesus far surpasses anything or anyone that has come before  – including priesthood, temple sacrifices, prophets like Moses and the tabernacle.

In his resurrection, Jesus is the vindicated Son of God. It is the risen Lord who sends the Spirit, fulfilling the hope of the OT prophets like Joel. It is through faith in Jesus that the gift of the life-giving Spirit is received. Life comes in him, not through the Torah. A new community of the Spirit is formed in Christ – a community, the household of God, that stands in continuity with Israel. Those in Christ are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)  – whether Jew or Gentile it does not matter. It is the Spirit-filled community which is the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6:16).

Israel is reconstituted around the Messiah; Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slave and free are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Food laws are relativised (Mk 7:19). In other words, the boundary markers of Israel are redrawn and widened. Paul’s writings grapple with this theme in depth. Those in Christ are children of Abraham and heirs of the promise. The Torah is good but could not give life: its very purpose is fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. Its commands are kept by life in the Spirit (Rom 8:4).

So it’s clear that there are deep themes of both continuity and discontinuity from old to new covenant; issues revolving around the relationships between Israel, Torah, land, Temple, church; Spirit, Messiah.

How do you put those relationships together?

Your answer to that question will shape how you see (among other things) the status of modern day Israel.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Israel through a christological lens (1)

BethlehemThere are few issues as contentious – and where apparently Christian people lose their sense of civility, grace, logic and love – than the place of Israel in the saving purposes of God.

Last Thursday in IBI we had a visit from Munther Issac of Bethlehem Bible College. He was over in Ireland speaking at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention. In inviting Munther down to Dublin, we had no political or theological axe to grind. Christians have different political and theological views over land in the Bible and the place of modern Israel and this was an opportunity to explore and think about those differences theologically in an atmosphere of respect and civility. For as Christians, the unity of the body that we have in Christ is far greater than what we disagree about.

Munther spoke about being a Palestinian Christian, living with the reality of life in the West Bank.  He also outlined a theology of the land and of Christian identity in the NT.  He spoke with humility and a plea for fellow Christians to see beyond the assumption that modern day secular Israel has some sort of divine right to the land and to a place that is sensitive to the need for Israel to act with equality and justice.

This sort of unquestioning support for Israel, he argued, is blind to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation but also to deeper spiritual questions. The key question for followers of Jesus is not to argue about ‘divine right’ to the land but how can evangelicals be peacemakers in a context of deep division and entrenched violence? How can they love their enemies and work for justice and equality? How can Palestinians and Israelis share the land since neither are going to disappear?

The reasons behind many evangelical’s support of Israel are complex and I’m only sketching things here: a particular scheme of biblical prophecy that sees 1948 as an act of God bringing Jews back to their Holy Land; a dispensational theology that sees a separation between Israel and the church; an acute awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust; a fear of radical Islam and a political judgement that Israel needs all the help it can get to survive the surrounding hostility of the Muslim world; the strong support of the contemporary Israeli state among many Messianic believers, particularly in the USA.

So, it’s clear there is a lot going on here.

– Theological

– Political

– Religious

And for some, like ‘Jerusalem fever’ (when being in the holy city gets all too much) things begin to get all out of proportion. Some become zealous to the point of fanaticism; of not listening to others, of making agreement on these issues a test of orthodoxy; and of throwing around terms like ‘replacement theology’ as equivalent of being anti-Semitic and somehow being culpable for the rise of Islamic extremism and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East …!

So, a couple of posts will follow trying to think theologically about these things.

(civil) comments welcome.