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.

 

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 (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.

Sundays in Mark (70) the death of Jesus and the Temple curtain

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

This week we return to Mark 15:38 and the death of Jesus and the decisive spiritual significance of the moment of Jesus’ death as witnessed by the tearing in two of the Temple curtain.

Have you (like me), always been taught that the tearing of the temple veil was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies – and this was symbolic of the dividing wall between man and God being abolished at the death of Jesus?

Reading around this a bit, its seems that this theory is pretty shaky. There was a second, outer temple curtain separating the sanctuary from the forecourt. This was in full public view when the doors were open. And, according to Josephus, this was a magnificent thick curtain, 80 feet high and portraying the entire heavens.

The tearing from top to bottom of this curtain is dramatic and irreversible. It is a public sign, but of what? A strong case I think can be made that Mark has in mind here a parallel to ‘the heavens being torn open’ at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9). Just as the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission, his death marks the climatic end. There is a ‘tearing of heaven’ at both.

The tearing simultaneously acts as a visible sign of judgement on the temple. Jesus’ mission has been confrontational all the way through. He had already warned of the coming destruction of the temple, a fate bound up with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. The death of the Son of God is intricately bound up with the fate of the temple.

The story of Israel is not ending. But with the death of Jesus, it begins a remarkable new chapter that will change broaden and redefine the people of God. The temple stands as the nation’s  great ethno-centric symbol, the dwelling place of their God. But its days are numbered. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, but not only of ethnic Israel. As the resurrection is about to show, he is the Lord of ALL.

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”