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.

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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.

 

EAI, Same-Sex Marriage and Ireland

A timely recent post related to the EAI statement on Same Sex Marriage.

Ben Witherington talks about what marriage is and isn’t. Like EAI, he supports civil unions but opposes the redefinition of marriage.

The EAI statement focused primarily on the threats posed by an illiberal secularism to human rights and a civil society. While important, this emphasis meant that while same-sex marriage was talked about as being a ‘retrograde step’ for the common good, a weakness in the argument was it didn’t really give reasons why.

Witherington gets into the ‘why’ a bit more.  He refers to an article from CNN written by three lawyers. This is Witherington’s summary of the lawyers’ argument.

First, the redefinition of marriage will undermine the marriage itself and will inevitably lead to more and more forms of ‘marriage’.

If marriage is just the emotional bond “that matters most” to you — in the revealing words of the circuit judge who struck down California Proposition 8 — then personal tastes or a couple’s subjective preferences aside, there is no reason of principle for marriage to be pledged to permanence. Or sexually exclusive rather than “open.” Or limited to two spouses. Or oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

In that case, every argument for recognizing two men’s bond as marital –equality, destigmatization, extending economic benefits — would also apply to recognizing romantic triads (“throuples,” as they are now known). Refusing such recognition would be unfair — a violation of equality — if commitment based on emotional companionship is what makes a marriage.”

Second, marriage is NOT just a ‘bond of affection’.  “The attractive civil rights rhetoric of “marriage equality” masks a profound error about what marriage is.”

“All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Witherington adds other more theological reasons of his own that have general implications for marriage in general beyond the church.  If both male and female are made in the image of God and it is together that they are complete, then gender difference matters in the marriage relationship. A father and a mother give children something that two men or  two women can’t. There is a purposeful duality to human nature.

Within the church for believers, for both Jesus and Paul, “heterosexual monogamy and celibacy in singleness were the only legitimate options for Jesus’ disciples.” Witherington argues that no Christian minister should be “advocating or solemnizing non-marriages as if they were God-blessed marriages.”

See here for Steve Chalke’s very different view on this in his own words.  He has blessed monogamous gay-unions and says

I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.

A few musings and, as ever, feel welcome to add your own:

Witherington does stress that far more than just a man and woman together is needed for a marriage to be a good one – marriage needs love for one another and for children if it is to work (and is not just all about children). Neither is he saying homosexual couples don’t love one another etc. He is saying, like EAI, that civil unions provide the context for same-sex relationships to be recognised by the state with various legal implications. But marriage by definition is a relationship between a man and woman.

I think the argument made by EAI and Witherington needs to be articulated by Christians (with grace and charity). They have as much democratic right as anyone else to make their case. They don’t of course have any automatic right for their views to be privileged.

Especially given Ireland’s recent past, getting a hearing for that case is hard work and likely to fall on stony ground. Religious views are increasingly seen as threats to tolerance, equality and diversity in an increasingly secularist society. The ‘civil right’ narrative around marriage is hugely persuasive, popular and politically potent.

Therefore, one of the greatest contemporary challenges for Christians (in Ireland / the West) is to be thinking through how to relate to a culture that is detaching itself from its Christendom past. In terms of mission, ethics, witness, citizenship and so on.

Another is how to relate with love, grace, respect and Christ-likeness to a gay community which has all too often not experienced any of those attitudes when it comes to church?

And in terms of critical self-reflection – why do Christians all but idolise marriage, the middle-class nuclear home, 2.2 kids and all that jazz? Why is it held up as the ultimate expression of the ‘good life’ ? (and I speak as someone only missing the .2 children from that description, still looking).

Does following Jesus mean being a pacifist?

Does following Jesus mean being a pacifist?

Ben Witherington says YES to this question in a personal account of his own committment to pacifism within an American culture that so often exalts war. Some clips from what he says,

Jesus, as it turns out was a hard core pacifist and he was serious as a heart attack about that non-resistance, turn the other cheek, take up your cross and be prepared to die at the hands of your enemies stuff. He was, to use an oxymoron, an adamant even a belligerent pacifist. ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword’ was his warning, and when his disciples tried to take up swords for the sake of the Kingdom Jesus not only told them ‘enough of that’ but he then repaired the damage to the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus was in deadly earnest about being the Prince of Peace …

What makes the journey of a pacifist long and hard is because of course you are swimming upstream in America, and sometimes you are swimming against a torrential flood in the other direction. You get used to being called a coward, unpatriotic (and a few unmentionable things) …

In my book, to be truly pro-life across the board, one needs to be opposed to abortion, capital punishment, and war. Period. That is to be totally pro-life. I don’t much understand what the disconnect is for people who at the same time are adamantly pro-birth, nevertheless are some of the strongest advocates for guns, capital punishment, and war. I realize that war, capital punishment, and abortion are not the same issue, but they are very much related life issues, and one’s life ethic, one’s worldview approach to them should be broadly the same, or so it seems to me …

This much I know for sure. I am proud to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and if that puts me at odds with my country’s official policies about abortion, capital punishment, or war, well then— so be it. I want to be totally pro life until the day I die. I don’t want to be like Lady MacBeth with blood on her hands which she curses again and again saying ‘out out, damned spot’ but she never can wash herself clean.

For me, part of being holy, being pure, being clean, being like Jesus, is being a pacifist. And whatever the cost, I do not regret it….and I doubt I ever will.

Comments, as ever, welcome.