Eschatology and Advent (6) the inaugurated eschatology of N T Wright

This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.  

From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.

Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT

Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.

N. T. Wright

Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.

At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.

An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.

Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.

Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.

But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.

Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.

Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.

Thus, Wright says for Paul

“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”[1]

And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies

The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.

Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarises Paul this way

“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”[2]

And for the Gospels

“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”[3]

God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.

A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.

The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.  

This is how the NT sees things.

And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.

We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.

Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.

And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.

Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.

Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.

The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.                                                                                                                                                   


[1] Wright, PFG, 1258-59. Emphasis original.

[2] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

[3] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

The Message of Love (3)

This is the last of a couple of posts about The Message of Love, which was published this week.

A flavour of the chapters

Each chapter was a challenge and joy to research and write and gave a distinct contribution to an overall theology of love in the Bible.

Introduction

What is love? Contemporary beliefs about love. Reasons for the book.

Part I: Love in the Old Testament

Much of Part 1 explores divine love – God’s covenant love for his people. How does he respond to human failure? Divine love and judgement. Chapters 4 and 5 shift to human love: love for God (ch 4) and the Bible’s unrestrained poetic celebration of the joy of sexual love (ch 5).

1. Abounding in love, punishing the guilty               Exodus 34:6-7
2. God’s love for the outsider                                        Deut. 10:12-22
3. God, the betrayed, yet persistent lover                  Hosea 1-3
4. Love the Lord Your God                                             Deut.6:4-25
5. Erotic love                                                                     Song of Songs 4-5

Interlude

This sets the scene for interpreting love in the New Testament including the shift to agapē language.

Part 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ

Given that the sending of the Son is the climax of the triune God’s redemptive action in the world, Part 2 focuses on how the NT talks about Jesus’ mission, and particularly the cross as God’s supreme demonstration of love.

6. ‘You are my Son, whom I love’                                 Mark 1:1-15
7. God is love                                                                   1 John 4:7-10
8. Love and justification by faith                                Romans 5:1-11
9. God’s great love                                                          Ephesians 2:1-10

Part 3: Love in the Life and Teaching of Jesus

Jesus does not talk that much about love, but when he does his words carry enormous weight and profound challenge. Part 3 examines the searching demands of ‘discipleship love’ – utter commitment to Jesus; the command to love enemies; a beautiful story illustrating what wholehearted love for Jesus looks like; and how remaining in God’s love is linked to obedience.

10. The cost of love                                              Matthew 10:34-39
11. Enemy love                                                     Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37
12. A woman’s great love                                   Luke 7:36-50
13. Remain in my love                                        John 15:9-17

Part 4: The Church as a Community of Love

Love only exists in relationship with others. The majority of love language in the Bible is about the church and its calling to be a community of radical, counter-cultural love. Part 4 unpacks the searching character and supreme importance of love; the connections between humility, faith, love and the Spirit; how love is God’s weapon in a spiritual war; and how Christian love within marriage subverts the world’s assumptions about status and power. A major theme in the Bible is idolatry – where God’s people love the wrong things. A final chapter looks at a modern example – the love of money and the relentless persuasive power of consumerism.  

14. The searing searchlight of love                          1 Cor. 12:31-13:13
15. The liberating power of love                             Galatians 5:1-23
16. Subversive love: Christian marriage               Ephesians 5:21-33
17. Love gone wrong: money                                   1 Timothy 6:2b-10

Conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of themes that emerged within the chapters, outlining a biblical theology of love and the central role of the church as a community of love within his overall redemptive purposes.

Theological, pastoral and missiological questions

Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.

Divine love:

Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?

Human love for God:

Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How can the love of money be ‘de-idolised’ within the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?

Human love for one another:

Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?

My prayer is that this book will help to put love where it belongs – at the centre of Christian teaching, preaching, worship, ministry and individual experience.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (30) The Apocalyptic War

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We begin here Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor.

There are two big ideas present here: apocalyptic and the victory of God in Christ.

Both are important to get a grasp of. This post will concentrate on Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic and the next couple will then unpack the nature and scope of Christus Victor.

Apocalyptic

Rutledge’s discussion of apocalyptic is excellent. She is well aware that a title ‘Apocalyptic War’ raises problems:

‘Apocalyptic’ is not a well understood term. How would you say the term ‘apocalyptic’ is understood in popular culture today? Maybe images of cataclysmic end of the world events come to mind? We use the term ‘post-apocalyptic’ to talk of a post-nuclear war global wasteland scenario.

‘War’ raises echoes of Christian militarism that is at odds with the way of Jesus. The world may glorify military action, but Christianity does not.

There is a paradox in the battle imagery between God and his enemies (Satan, powers and principalities) – the battle is in an unseen realm. The ‘concrete’ military images are metaphors for a real spiritual conflict, they do not justify physical war.

The Greek word apokalypsis means “disclosure” or “unveiling” or “revelation” – behind the scenes is a battle, “waged not with worldly weapons but with the spiritual armour of God.” (349) (Eph. 6:11-17).

The key to getting a grip on apocalyptic is the idea of disruption, ‘newness’, or discontinuity. God is acting from another sphere of reality to do a new thing – this ‘invasion’ is a ‘revelation’ or apocalypse.

This is God’s work – it owes nothing to human action. And so the cross is very much an apocalyptic event. It is radically discontinuous, it is unexpected, shocking and creates a new reality.

My comments – Yes, the New Testament writers later interpret the cross, in light of the resurrection, through the lens of the OT, as fulfilling God’s plan of redemption and his promise to Abraham in particular. There is a grand biblical narrative that unfolds – ‘The Drama of Scripture’ as Bartholomew and Goheen put it. Unpacking this great narrative is N. T. Wright’s greatest contribution to NT studies.

But the cross is still an apocalyptic event. There is continuity, but this continuity is only ‘revealed’ afterwards.

The cross also reveals things previously unknown about God himself – he is ‘God crucified’ to use Moltmann’s term. It is in the cross that God himself is revealed more deeply and more ‘nakedly’ than ever before – in love, judgement and profound self-sacrificial love.

Back to Rutledge –

Here is the vital center of the Christian gospel, and it is accessible to anyone seeking to know Christ. The purpose of this chapter is to set forth the New Testament picture of the crucified and risen Lord at the head of his heavenly host, and thereby to hint at the confidence and hope that this perspective affords. (353)

Rutledge takes us on a quick tour of recent developments in NT studies and particularly the ‘rediscovery’ of apocalyptic as a way of understanding the radical newness of the New Testament.

Another aside – I have recently written a chapter related to this on ‘Eschatology’ for the second edition of The Face of New Testament Studies, to be published this year, so am interested in Rutledge’s take on things here. There is a big debate going on about the place of apocalyptic in understanding the NT.

9780802875457See for example this book just published by McKnight and Modica, Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives. They include Lutheran, New Perspective, Apocalyptic and Participationist.

As so often in academic debates (!) where people mark out distinctive theologies there can be needless dichotomies created between different ‘perspectives’. No ‘all or nothing’ approach works – there is much overlap between each.

There is a distinction between ‘apocalyptic’ and eschatology.

Eschatology (eschaton, ‘end’) is not just the study of ‘last things’ (as too often it has been relegated to be) but is a theological way of thinking about the way God’s kingdom inter-relates to the created order. The two overlap and one day will be unified

‘May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

‘Apocalyptic’ is more focused on the ‘invasion’ of God’s action in the world – a pervasive discontinuity with what has gone before. This is why N T Wright is cautious about apocalyptic being overstated – he sees it as over-emphasising the disconnections between OT and NT, whereas he has spent his career arguing for those narrative connections and against Christians reading the NT as it the OT was irrelevant!

Rutledge summarises the approaches of two scholars, J. C. Beker and J. Louis Martyn.

Beker is (rightly in my view) arguing against an individualising of Paul (much debate around apocalyptic revolves around Paul) that tends to domesticate the gospel to therapeutic healing of one person at a time. The ‘battlefield’ includes this but is on a much bigger cosmic scale.

Martyn’s themes are drawn together by Rutledge this way:

  • The cross/resurrection is new thing (apocalypse), which calls into being a new reality
  • There is discontinuity between OT and NT – law, Israel, Messiah etc are reinterpreted. The key idea here is there was NOT a nice tidy progressive narrative

    “it was a dramatic rescue bid into which God has flung his entire self’ (Martyn, 355 Rutledge)

  • God acts in the world from ‘outside’ –

‘The Christ event is … the invasion of this world by Another’ (356)

  • The cross confronts hostile forces – is it God, humanity and the Powers. There is a war, there are enemies to be defeated.
  • The scope of apocalyptic is ‘bifocal’ – it holds the tension between the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and the age to come – of New Creation.

9780801098536Other voices in this discussion include Philip Ziegler who since Rutledge’s book has published Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology.

The big theme of this focus on apocalyptic is how the cross/resurrection and gospel itself is no human philosophy or religious scheme of thought – it is, at heart, almighty God’s revelation of himself within his creation.

This is why, I argue, Paul so often talks of the gospel as a ‘mystery’ that has now been revealed. A mystery that absolutely no-one saw coming.

What are some pastoral implications do you think if God is absolutely ‘other’ and has chosen to reveal himself and win his victory over sin, death and the Devil in an utterly unexpected way?

 

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (24) modern objections to self-sacrifice

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish Chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. Again, there is far more here than I am commenting on, this simply gives a flavour of the discussion.

Some of the themes unpacked are:

  • Sacrifice in the book of Hebrews
  • The lamb of God
  • The story of Abraham and Isaac – a theological interpretation of sacrifice and substitution
  • The temple veil and the mercy seat
  • The Greek word hilasterion – does it mean ‘propitiation’ (the barrier lies within God himself, hence a sense of somehow satisfying God’s wrath) or ‘expiation’ (an action aimed at removing the barrier of sin that lies between us and God). Rutledge denies neither, coming down on expiation as the primary cause of the atonement and propitiation as a secondary result.

The idea of self-sacrifice today

But the topic we are going to zone in on is Rutledge’s discussion of modern attitudes to self-sacrifice.

This blog has had regular discussions of contemporary consumerism as a theological issue and form of modern idolatry. Rutledge is spot on in her description of our Western consumer society as unheralded in human history, ‘it is like nothing the world has ever seen before’ (271).

The fragmenting of social ties and a culture of instant everything, has, she argues, resulted in an emptying out of ‘any sense of the value of sacrifice in ordinary life’ (271)

So you agree with this? Is it too strong? Are not many millennials searching for significance and a worthwhile cause precisely because of the emptiness of our all-embracing consumer culture?

Women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment

But Rutledge’s main discussion is on women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment. By this she refers to a reaction by many women thinkers, arising out of women’s experience, that they have been the sex expected to bear a disproportionate burden of sacrifice.

“Many women have been conditioned to think that they have no choice except to be ignored, patronised, exploited, and abused. This has been disabling for women, profoundly so in many cases, and it is part of the work of the church in our time to rethink this whole matter. (272)

My comment – there is some echo of Nietzsche here and his critique of Christianity as weakness, representing life-denying death and nothingness.

The central objection, Rutledge says, is that sacrifice has functioned, and been valued, as a means of denying fulfilment to women. It has resulted in women being subordinated and disempowered. This is religion of repression and is far from the authentic teaching and life of Jesus (273).

We will never get past this hurdle if sacrifice is thought to be a form of weakness and abject self-suppression. (273)

Sacrifice as an alternative mode of power

The alternative Rutledge proposes sounds surprising

The way to rethink sacrifice is in terms of power (273)

But she means by this a ‘good’ sense of power, rather than ‘bad’ (suppression). Jesus lived a self-sacrificial life that embodied ‘an alternative mode of power’ (274)

Here we get to the paradox of the cross. It is in apparent ‘weakness’ and sacrificial self-giving that the powers of Sin and Death are confronted and overcome.

Paul particularly, sees Jesus’ death as an ‘apocalyptic confrontation with the forces of the enemy’ (274). Jesus’ giving of himself is the ultimate ‘weapon’ in the war.

If I can bring in love here – the same paradox is in play. I have a section discussing this same point. The battle is not won by taking on Sin and the powers on their own terms – it is won by ‘the alternative mode of power’. Love is God’s weapon in the war.

And I wonder how different the history of Christianity would be if those who bear Christ’s name really believed this rather than trust in the weapons of the world to effect ‘peace’?

Rutledge quotes Hebrews 2:14-15 to make a similar point – it is in death of the Messiah that the battle is won. This is the upside down model of power in God’s economy

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

‘True power is best seen in a life willingly offered as sacrifice for the sake of others’ (275)

And where Rutledge is so good is in preaching mode where she sets out a vision for this alternative way of being in the world for the people of God today. It is worth repeating what she says in full;

Such a life, rightly understood, is uniquely empowering because it is aligned with the self-giving God in Jesus Christ. Wherever there are gracious acts of unselfishness, there are the signs of God’s kingdom of remade relationships based on mutual self-offering. Even in this old world ruled by Sin and Death, who would want to live a life of utter selfishness? To show any kind of care for others at all, some sort of sacrifice is necessary every day – to be magnanimous instead of vindictive, to stand back and let someone else share the limelight, to absorb the anger of a teenager in order to show firm guidance, to be patient with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, to refrain from undermining a colleague, to give away money one would like to spend on luxuries, to give up smoking, to bear with those who can’t give up smoking – all such things, large and small, require sacrifice. What would life be without it? (275)

Sacrifice for the ungodly

Yet, even this is not the last word. The paradox of the cross goes further … summarised in these two texts:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  1 Peter 3:18

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

The deepest paradox of the cross is that the righteous dies for the unrighteous.

It marked Jesus’ life and this means ‘constant identification with death on the part of his followers’ (277).

This is what C S Lewis called ‘deep magic’.  It is the most revolutionary idea imaginable. It is the way God does things.

What does ‘identification with death’ mean today? What really ‘costs’ you to follow Jesus? And how is this sacrifice, paradoxically, life-giving?

Next we move to chapter 7 on ‘Ransom and Redemption’.

How important is love? (7) Luther and love

aliandnino

The question behind this post, and this mini-series, is how important is love?

If it is essential and important, what are implications for discipleship? For preaching and teaching? For holding each other accountable for lives which show tangible evidence of transformation? For prioritising the fact that authentic Christian faith ‘works’ – it is seen in lives of love and good works?

For facing up to, and confronting, the heresy of lovelessness in our lives and in our churches?

In the first post of this mini-series on the importance of love we talked about how, in some strands of post-Reformational Protestantism, love and works have been relegated to secondary importance behind the issue of primary concern – justifying faith.

But, as Stephen Chester argues [‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’] this relegation of love and works does not originate with Luther (or Calvin). Indeed, Luther was at great pains NOT to separate faith and love.

Some quotes from Luther (drawn from Chester’s article).

Look out for how he connects faith with love and good works.

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts.”  Table Talk, 1533.

“Therefore he who hears the Word of God sincerely and clings to Him in faith is at once also clothed with the spirit of love, as Paul has said above, ‘Did you receive the spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith’ (Gaiatians 3:2)? For if you hear Christ sincerely, it is impossible for you not to love Him forthwith, since He has done and borne so much for you.”

“[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

True faith “arouses and motivates good works through love … He who wants to be a true Christian to belong to the kingdom of Christ must be truly a believer. But he does not truly believe if works of love do not follow his faith.”

“Paul is describing the whole of the Christian life in this passage [Gal. 5]: inwardly it is faith toward God, and outwardly it is love or works towards one neighbour. Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.”

“As the sun shines by necessity, if it is a sun, and yet does not shine by demand, but by its nature and its unalterable will, so to speak, because it was created for the purpose that it should shine so a person created righteous performs new works by an unalterable necessity, not by legal compulsion. For to the righteous no law is given. Further, we are created, says Paul, unto good works … it is impossible to be a believer and not a doer.” Dialogue with Melanchthon, 1536.

“believers are new creatures, new trees; accordingly, the aforementioned demands of the law do not apply to them, e.g., faith must do good works, just as it is not proper to say: the sun must shine, a good tree must produce good fruit, 3 + 7 must equal 10. For the sun shines de facto, a good tree is fruitful de facto, 3 + 7 equal 10 de facto.”

So, for Luther, love and good works, while never an effective cause of justification, are a constituent part of justification. You cannot have justifying faith without the accompanying presence of love and good works. Faith will work in love de facto.

Luther is at great pains to develop a theology where love and works are integral to saving faith – not an additional optional ‘add on’.

Contrary to how works have been treated with suspicion or even hostility within some later post-Reformational Protestantism, Luther (and Calvin) take great care to integrate love and works within their doctrine of salvation.

How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

How Important is Love? (4) lovelessness as heresy

This is Calvin and Hobbesa fourth of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the third post we looked at one verse, Galatians 5:6 where ‘faith working love’ is the only thing that counts.

Staying with Paul, below is just a snapshot of other texts that, together, show how love is absolutely core to his theology and experience, and that the whole fabric of the Christian life is made up of love.

A couple of comments before those texts. In the New Testament, perhaps even more than today in the West, new communities of believers in Jesus were socially revolutionary. No-where else in the ancient world would you have Jews and Gentiles, slave owners and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, not only mixing together but worshiping together on a ‘level playing field’ where all were one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

Love is the only thing that could hold such communities together then, and it is the only thing that can hold diverse communities together today.

A question: are Christians known, first and foremost as people of radical, other-focused love? Are churches known for being communities of love? Is love the first thing that people associate with followers of Jesus? With you and with me?

If not, why not? And what can be done about it?

Given the importance of love (see below), ‘lovelessness’ is not just an ‘unfortunate reality’ of church life, it is actually heresy in action. It is a denial of the very purpose of salvation and the work of the Spirit. It is a sign of counterfeit faith that is worth nothing at all.

Love in Paul

Love is the goal or purpose of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit

  • The purpose of Christian freedom from the flesh is to ‘serve one another in love’ (Gal.5:13).
  • The ‘entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Gal.5:14, cf Rom.13:8-10).
  • The Spirit ‘produces’ love in believers’ lives as they keep in step with him (Gal 5:22-26)
  • It is through the Spirit that believers experience God’s love (Rom.5:5).

The love of God has been most supremely demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross (Rom.5:8).

God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes.1:4; 2 Thes.2:13, 16; Rom.1:7; 2 Cor.13:11, 14; Eph.1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2; Col.3:12).

Nothing in all creation will be able to separate them from his love expressed in Jesus (Rom.8:37-9).

Believers are to act in love for each other (1 Thes.4:9; Rom.14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph.4:2, 15-16; Phil.2:1-2; Col.2:2).

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul teaches that all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.

At the close of 1 Corinthians he simply commands ‘Do everything in love’ (1 Cor.16:14).

In Ephesians 5:2 Christians are commanded to ‘walk in the way of love’

In Colossians 3:14 they are to ‘put on love’ on top of a list of other virtues.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul includes himself in the exhortation to ‘put on faith and love’.

Paul often expresses his deep love for his communities (e.g., 1 Thes.2:8; 1 Cor.16:24; 2 Cor.2:4, 11:11; Phil.4:1).

Husbands are to love their wives (Eph.5:25; Col.3:19).

Paul prays that believers’ love would grow (1 Thes.3:12; Phil.1:9)

He is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes.3:6; 2 Thes.1:3).

He is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil.1:16).

He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col.1:4, Philem.1:5, 7)

He prays that the Lord would direct their ‘hearts into God’s love’ (2 Thes.3:5).

Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).

All this is why I like to call Paul ‘the apostle of love’.