Monday, October 23, 2017

Tradition Preserves Orthodoxy

As I've grown older I've come to see that not all of the fruit of the Reformation is positive. The emphasis on sola scriptura, particularly has had serious effects. In 1994 Wayne Grudem published his systematic theology text book. It has been a standard text used in Bible colleges and seminaries across the US for decades. In this text he promotes a doctrine of the Trinity that is essentially Arian. Why did this not become a big deal until 2016? How could heresy have been taught in countless Bible colleges, seminaries, and churches with almost no one noticing? You can find isolated cases of push back earlier (like my teacher, Graham Cole back in 2010 - note while Evangelical he is also an Anglican) but no widespread outcry came until last year! It's easy to see how this can happen in the Evangelical movement because the sola scriptura principle has developed in such a way that the tradition has been ignored almost across the board. Over the past few years I've read a lot on the Trinity in Augustine, the Lombard, Aquinas, and others. After reading them and then going back and reading Grudem, the unorthodoxy of his views are obvious!

The whole situation is very ironic because Evangelicals see themselves as the bastion of orthodoxy in opposition to both the Catholic church and liberal Protestant denominations. But, on arguably the most central doctrine, it's the Evangelical movement that has a lot of unorthodox pastors and teachers, and they didn't even know it! More respect for the tradition (i.e., a more Catholic approach) would have stopped this much, much sooner.

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I take Scripture seriously, and that I really want to take it on its own terms and hear God speak through it. Certainly there is time for overthrowing tradition, and even a doctrine like the Trinity may legitimately need to be rethought. However, most times are not that time and the great tradition of the church can serve as guard rails to help us think rightly about God. We're not the first smart Christians in the history of the church, nor are we the first godly ones. Let's use our great heritage to our advantage! If nothing else we will know when we're deviating from what we has been handed down through the centuries and do so cautiously. I write this hoping that my Evangelical sisters and brothers can learn from this and get to know the richness and depth of the tradition of the church.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-4

You can read the text here.

This is one of the more challenging passages in the letter. Thiselton, as usual was extremely helpful, and what I write hear is roughly in line with his comments.

The Corinthians had a problem.  The church had factions supporting different teachers. These factions were competing for status and claiming superiority. Paul's speech, in opposition to Apollos' (presumably) was rather unimpressive by the rhetorical standards of the day. He certainly wasn't the type of teacher who would help the Corinthian Christians get ahead in the eyes of the world.

Paul dubs this way of thinking as infantile and opposed to the ways of the Spirit. He wants them to grow up and act their age so he can build on the good foundation that he and other teachers had laid. Until the Corinthians were ready to give up their status seeking (one thinks here of Jesus' words, 'the first shall be last') they were never going to grow into all that God desired for them.

One point I was tempted to make on my initial pass through the text was that Paul was advocating that there is a more advanced teaching that went beyond the gospel message, or that the gospel is just a basic message for salvation. When considering the entire context of the letter I don't think that's what Paul has in mind. The issue he's opposing is status seeking which does seem to involve supposed special experiences of the Spirit, given some of the latter chapters. Additionally, some of the teaching in the letter is very 'meaty' and not the core proclamation of the story of Jesus. Why give them what you just said they weren't ready for?

Monday, October 9, 2017

1 Corinthians 2:6-16

You can read the text here.

Paul continues his discussion of the nature of the message of the cross and its relationship with the world. The Corinthians need their world view to be reshaped by the message via the agency of the Holy Spirit.

God's wisdom is of a different sort than the wisdom that they knew before following Jesus. It's insight into the way things really are and who is really the king in opposition to what the powers pursue and believe to be true.[1] If the powers had understood that self-sacrifice was the way to true glory, and that God was truly working through Jesus to bring peace and glory they would never would have crucified him. While they may think they have the glory, it's the ones who follow Jesus who actually will be glorified in the end![2]

We know the truth, but only because we, as the church, have the Spirit who reveals it to us. It is only through God's Spirit that God can be known. Once we have his Spirit we evaluate everything differently, and through the Spirit we can know and possess God's blessings.

To the ordinary person, who is not indwelt by the Spirit, God's gifts don't seem to be worth much. It would seem to them better to have power the way the rulers do than the "weakness" of cruciform Christ-likeness. But they don't have what the Christian community has, an ongoing connection to Christ via the Spirit. That communal connection changes everything about how we see reality.

This is Paul's goal, to bring the Corinthians back together. The mind of Christ is their joint possession, and isn't something that only the "spiritually elite" have. The community has it, so they need each other.[3]

[1] With both Thisleton and Ciampa and Rosner, I believe the identification of the powers as human powers with some degree of evil influence to be likely.

[2] Ciampa and Rosner make this point really well.

[3] The mind of Christ must be a community possession, shared as a community, otherwise bringing this up would just exacerbate the problems of lack of unity and status-seeking.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5

You can read the text here. Throughout I am deeply indebted to Thiselton's marvelous treatment of this section.

As we had seen earlier, the Corinthians were having trouble with factionalism. The antidote, in Paul's mind, is a reminder about the gospel they had received. Paul preached a powerful message, but only to those who saw it that way, to those who were transformed by it. Most did not see it that way. The message of a crucified Messiah seemed like the message of a failed Messiah to the Jews. To the Gentiles it sounded like a sure way to humiliation, not to an elevated status. But that wasn't God's way of seeing things, and that's all that matters is how God sees things. For the Corinthians, Paul's proclamation was a transformative event, one that should change the way they see and evaluate things. God subverts the ways of the world because he does not value what they value. The power of his love overcomes the folly of worldly pride.

Paul goes on to remind them further, that they are a mixed group. While a few of them may have been of high status, most of them weren't. God did not bestow grace upon them because they were worthy of it, but because of his love for them. Grace did not depend on status, but in the long run, status will depend on grace. By being in Christ the Corinthians get to share in his victorious status, a status which only comes through union with him because he paid for it by redeeming us, which then undercuts all pride.

This is the background for why Paul preached as he did in Corinth. He was not trying to get a following for himself as one skilled in rhetoric. He preached in a manner faithful to the message, and he did not try to emphasize anything but the message of Jesus, the crucified Lord. He did not want their allegiance to Jesus to rely on anything he brought to the table, but to rely solely on the work of the Spirit to give them eyes to see reality the way God sees it. All of the power came from the Spirit of Christ, otherwise the centrality of Christ would have been compromised and the footing of the Corinthians new found allegiance would have been shaky.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

You can read the text here.

In the next section Paul addresses one of his major concerns in the letter, one which he has already hinted at, namely, unity. The issue here isn't theological, so when Paul says he wants them all to be in agreement, he isn't talking about some doctrinal issue. The word has more political overtones. He wants them to all take the same side, or be on the same team, working towards a common goal.[1]

The Corinthians had been at odds with one another. They had split into factions that magnified one spiritual leader or another.[2] No matter how great the teacher, s/he is not to replace Jesus as the one to follow. Schism elevates the teacher over Jesus.[3] Our unity is in Jesus, not in a teacher or person. Same with our status. It is God who confers our status as co-heirs with Christ. It is a status that is given freely and makes relative all other statuses that we possess.

Paul's role was to preach the gospel of Jesus, and not in a way that sought to get people to follow him over others, and certainly not in a way that took the focus off of Jesus and put it on himself and what he could do for the Corinthians.[4]

[1] Thiselton hammers this point home.

[2] See Thisleton's very lengthy excursus on the different factions. In the end we really don't know much about them.

[3] I know that Paul is not referencing doctrinal differences, but most new denominational movements started as a following of a charismatic and gifted individual, and to that extent are under the condemnation of this text.

[4] In terms of them attaining status by patronizing and following a gifted teacher.

Monday, August 21, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

You can read the text here. For those following along at home, for this series I'll be leaning on the commentaries of Thiselton and Ciampa and Rosner. I'd love to be wrapped up by the end of June, but no promises.

Paul opens the first extant letter we have between him and the Corinthians by mentioning his calling by God to his apostleship.[1] Paul has been called, just like them, for a purpose. Paul's calling is to be an authoritative representative of Jesus, theirs is holiness. The Corinthian call is the same call that goes out to all Christians everywhere: to be holy in Christ. After all they and we are God's church, not the church of any particular personality. Jesus was their Lord. These are the two foundations of unity, belonging to God and holiness. As Thiselton notes, this picture minimizes notions of autonomy of the local church. All churches are part of a whole.

Paul is grateful for the work that he has seen carried out in the Corinthians. They have been given the Spirit as a seal of union with Christ. Through the Spirit they have experienced an abundance from the Father, an abundance we call grace.[3] The Spirit manifest in concrete ways for the Corinthians, in knowledge and speech.[4] These gifts have a purpose: making the Corinthians holier while they wait for the return of Jesus so that they will receive a favorable verdict on that day.[5] The gifts are also a sign that God is with them collectively, helping them and guiding them collectively, to give them peace and comfort that they will collectively attain life in the age to come.

This passage is very powerful in the way it emphasizes the non-individualistic nature of the Christian life. We are not saved alone. We are not even independent churches. We are integrally part of a whole due to our union with Christ. So how do we deal with the challenges this non-independence creates? Stay tuned!

[1] There is disagreement between Thiselton and Ciampa and Rosner on whether or not Paul's claim to apostleship is a claim to authority.

[2] Ciampa and Rosner push back against understanding 'sanctified' in moral terms. They stress the root meaning of being 'set apart.' I don't see this as an either or. Being set apart can both be in terms of status but also in terms of quality.

[3] To use Barclay's very useful taxonomy, the perfections of grace on display in this passage is are superabundance, efficacy, and, subtly, incongruity.

[4] Though Thiselton does push back against this, I think it is likely that Paul has in mind the issues he addresses later in the letter related to knowledge and tongues.

[5] Thiselton prefers to put it as 'unimpeachable' over blameless, which I find helpful.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Another Personal Update

About 2 weeks back I finished up my Masters of Applied Statistics, so that means that I will have a lot more time on my hands. This will mean a significant increase in posting to this blog. I am going to start a series on 1 Corinthians much the series I had done on Paul's Thessalonian correspondence. I would expect a post most weeks, even if not quite weekly. I'll also do occasional book reviews. These won't be at quite the same regularity as they used to be for two reasons. First, my wife is no longer a professor, so I don't have library access anymore and have to buy anything I want to read. Second, most of my reading will still be focused on the Exploring the Christian Way of Life series.

The timing of finishing school is good for me in that regard. By early next year I'll be up to Karl Barth who will be followed by Balthasar. Reading those two will take an inordinate amount of time. If I am able to complete a review of their Christology by the end of 2018 and finish my fourth paper, that would be an accomplishment. The next paper, which will focus on modern theologians and current Christian experience and movement of the Spirit, will take another six to nine months. Then I plan to edit all five papers into a cohesive whole (including a thorough rewrite of the first two) issuing a pdf hopefully by the middle of 2020.

Thanks if you've stuck with this blog and me though there hasn't been much content the past three years. I hope and pray it provides nutritious food for thought and conversation.