Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Books of the Year

Since the year is winding down, I thought I would post my top five books that I read for the first time this year and the top five books published in 2009 that I look forward to reading (hopefully in 2010).

5. Reason for God by Tim Keller

I absolutely love Tim Keller, and I absolutely love this book. I found it to be the most helpful work of practical apologetics that I have encountered. Reason for God is both fair and insightful.

4. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is always engaging. Surprised by Hope is exceedingly so. This is my favorite of the handful Wright's books that I have read and should be must reading for all in the church. Christianity badly needs to regain the eschatological vision that Bishop Wright presents so that its mission has the necessary fuel and goal.

3. The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays

Now we're getting into books with a more limited audience. Ethics is a particular interest of mine. I personally found Hays method of utilizing the focal lenses of cross, community, and new creation to be a very helpful way to frame the way I think about ethical issues.

2. Church Dogmatics Vol. I.1 by Karl Barth

This is the most difficult book that I have ever read. I spent a whole month reading Barth's volume on the Word of God. Sentences are incredibly long and intricate, the subject matter difficult, and the argumentation deep and at times even opaque. However, reading Barth was very rewarding and its influence very clear. My last series of posts on hermeneutical frameworks show how indebted I am to this book.

1. Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

The choice between numbers 1 and 2 was difficult. Both of these books have hugely influenced me, but perhaps no book has influenced me more since I moved to Chicago two and a half years ago than Inspiration and Incarnation. I remember the first time I heard Enns explain the incarnational analogy; it blew me away. My faith was greatly bolstered by the way he explained that not only were the human marks of Scripture not a bad thing, they were absolutely necessary if God was to communicate meaningfully to us. I also think he's right on in his suggestion that we read the Bible Christotelically.


Now for the top five books published in 2009 that I haven't read yet but am looking forward to:

5. The Historcial Jesus: Five Views ed. by James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy

Five of the top scholars on the historical Jesus (Robert Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James Dunn, and Darryl Bock) debate Jesus identity.

4. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

I know sometimes he can be a little off-color, but I love Bill Simmons writing, he expresses himself so vividly and uniquely. And hey, I love basketball and I love comparing and ranking players.

3. Baptism in the Early Church by Everett Ferguson

The baptism debate has intrigued me for some time. Now that my first child is on the way it's time to get my feet wet (pun intended). No book is more comprehensive in looking at the doctrine historically than this one.

2. Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

I attended the Gospel Coalition conference this past April. One of my favorite talks was Keller's discussion of idolatry. It was so clear and so insightful. I can't wait to read his book length treatment of an issue that plagues us all.

1. The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton

This book could be a game changer in the Evangelical world. I went to a talk that Walton gave where he outlined his argument. I found it very convincing. We need to get past the evolution/creation impasse in a way that still honors the authority of Scripture. This book may be that way.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks IV

This will be our last post on Hermeneutical frameworks. I also will not be posting this upcoming week. I'll be going back home to Rochester, NY to spend time with our family and friends. In our last post we looked at the rule of faith as a framework within which to operate. The position we will look at today is similar in some senses, in that it allows much more flexibility than the traditional Evangelical position permits. Our fourth position goes further than the 'rule of faith' in that it seeks to place no boundaries upon the interpreter. Obviously, this seems to many to be a highly dangerous position for you could end up denying anything. However, at least those working within a reformed framework would stress that the Holy Spirit will keep them Orthodox.

Why would no boundaries be a good thing? Some have grown tired of seeing a lot of effort expended to answer objections to the doctrine of inerrancy that are raised over issues that sometimes are at best tangential to the didactic purpose of the text. They might simply ask, 'what's the big deal' over the issue related to Mark 2:26 that we have outlined in previous posts. The point of Mark 2:26 isn't to tell us who the high priest was in the time of King Saul, it is to tell us something about Jesus, to tell us about his Messianic status. The doctrine of inerrancy might be reformulated along these lines, 'in Scripture, God inerrantly accomplished his goals of communication.' In their opinion, the Bible should be used for what its purpose is, to tell us about God. Activities ranging from reconstructing history from the Bible to basing science upon it may be misguided.

Besides the potential scariness of this viewpoint, one might also ask if it runs the risk of downplaying the historical aspects of the text too strongly. After all, don't passages like 1 Cor. 15 seek to ground the central Christian confession firmly in history?

One final possible criticism is that such a redefinition of inerrancy is not permitted by the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration (i.e., that God inspired the very words of Scripture). In fact it does seem to outlaw it for even incidentals would need to be inerrant. However, they may counter by suggesting that verbal plenary inspiration does not accurately describe the mode of inspiration of Scripture, for modern linguistics has shown that individual words do not carry meaning.

Post Script: What is the best way forward?

In my opinion this last position has the most going for it. I think it seeks to honor the God who revealed himself in Scripture and understand the Bible on its own terms (this is not to imply that the other positions do not, it's more of an assertion against contrarians). With that said, I think this approach can be strengthened by utilizing the rule of faith as a help; how has the church historically handled this passage? While it shouldn't act as a box, the history of interpretation can be a faithful guide. Additionally, historical methodologies should not be thrown out the window. While no text in the Bible is 'history' in the modern sense, much of the revelatory deposit in the Bible is clearly historical and cannot be rightly understood otherwise.

Ultimately, no matter which methodology you utilize, the key thing to remember is that, 'the Lord knows those who are his' (2 Tim. 2:9). He will preserve us to the end, and I believe, keep us orthodox as we strive to know him more fully through his revelation in his word.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks III

In the last post we examined the traditional Evangelical hermeneutical method, where inerrancy functions as a key control in interpretation. As I mentioned, though, others don't take this approach. Another very common framework is to interpret using the 'rule of faith.'

Those who hold this view interpret within the 'box' of creedal orthodoxy. Scripture is still fully authoritative in the life of the church, but the way we interpret individual passages is left open as long as one does not deny the basic claims of the creeds of the early church (think Nicea or Chalcedon). Most questions related to historicity of events in the Bible are left open. Thus the boundary has been pushed out further than the traditional Evangelical boundary (inerrancy) and is also different in nature.

When working under the traditional definition of inerrancy, the text of Scripture forms your boundary. You identify its genre and then affirm everything that the text affirms. The rule of faith places the boundary in church traditions, which were based on Scripture. For that reason, some will criticize this method of interpretation, arguing that it elevates the creeds of the early church to or even above the level of Scripture. However, it response, it would be said that the creeds are based on Scripture thus the objection doesn't carry as much weight as it may initially seem to carry.

Another charge leveled against the rule of faith is that it is arbitrary. Which creeds form the rule of faith and why? Typically opponents will then point to the possible danger. If all we hold to are creedal definitions, and we can, for example, deny the historicity of almost every pericope in the gospels, then what are we left with? Haven't we eroded the supports to the bridge making it unsound? Are we left with anything that is reasonable to place our trust and hope in? With that said, most detractors of this view will realize that most proponents of the rule of faith don't go down that path, but they still worry about the slippery slope.

Let's look at our Mark 2:26 example from last post to see how one would use the rule of faith to guide interpretation of a particular text. You would have no problem with coming to the conclusion that Mark erred[1] in his identification of Abiathar as high priest. What they are bound to affirm depends. At minimum they must affirm the general thrust of the entire section - Jesus is the Messiah. All also would probably (but not necessarily) suggest that we must also affirm whatever implications this passage has on sabbath/Lord's day observance. There is openness, when using the rule of faith, to have one's understanding of the nature Scripture changed based on what one sees in the text.

[1] This is true even those within this position who accept a redefined inerrancy like Kent Sparks does. He claims that while human authors erred God didn't. He accommodated himself to an errant human witness, and basically said, 'that guy speaks for me in what he wrote.'

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks II

In the first post in this series I laid out the four general groups into which most Christian interpreters fall on the doctrine of Scripture and how that framework affects their interpretation of texts (and vice versa). We also looked briefly at the first of these four options. Today we will look at the second option, which is the most popular among Evangelical scholars and I believe was the position of the majority of the church throughout its history (even though they generally never articulated it).

Most Evangelicals would affirm the following syllogism:

God is inerrant
The Bible is God's Word
Therefore the Bible is inerrant

Inerrancy is typically defined along the lines of, 'the Bible never affirms anything contrary to the truth' and this assumption is extended to both God and the human author.

How does this grid work in action? First, one must determine the genre of the text. The determination of the genre of the text then limits the possible interpretations. If Jonah is history, then everything in the story must be considered historical (including the fish swallowing him and Ninevah having a population of hundreds of thousands) in addition to all theological affirmations being correct. If it's not historical, then one is only bound in the area of theology. Both of these positions are equally tenable under this framework, although almost all Evangelicals affirm the historicity of Jonah and every other text that could possibly be taken as historical narrative. The big thing to see is that we have a one way street of interpretation here. The Bible is inerrant, and that controls all of our interpretation.

Some do not think that this position holds up under scrutiny. To bring up a classic example (there are many other examples that could be used), how does one deal with Mark 2:26? 'In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions' (TNIV). Abiathar was not high priest in those days. Now some have tried to get around it by saying, for example, that he was referred to as high priest by Mark because he later became high priest. While that's possible, many believe it's unlikely, and suggest that Matthew and Luke didn't interpret Mark that way, since they omitted the reference to Abiathar (assuming that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source). The most straightforward interpretation, they argue, is that Mark made a mistake and that while there are other possibilities, they are not nearly as likely.

There are two options at this point. One is to say that the syllogism above requires you to trust that Mark did not make a mistake and some other interpretation must be correct. You are even more-so required to take this stance if you assent to the standard Evangelical understanding of the nature of the inspiration of Scripture (that the inspiration extends to the very words themselves). The other option is to reconfigure our doctrine of Scripture (i.e., let what we observe in the text change our presuppositions) by redefining or rejecting inerrancy and seeing the inspiration of Scripture working in a slightly different manner. We will look at the strengths and weaknesses of two related proposals in this latter category in the next two posts.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks

I have decided not to review the final two sections of 'The Art of Reading Scripture' as they are primarily examples of how to work out methods discussed in the earlier chapters. In lieu of that discussion, I would prefer to lay out a discussion of an important set of practical questions in hermeneutics. When we approach Scripture, what questions should we consider and what are the acceptable outcomes of our inquiry? What presuppositions should we bring to the text about the nature of Scripture? How much should we let our presuppositions drive our exegesis? Is the historical critical method a valid interpretive tool? What if our exegesis drives us in a direction incompatible with our presuppositions? Can what we observe about the nature of Scripture cause us to change our presuppositions?

I think that there are four basic ways or frameworks within which a Christian can operate (other frameworks that I am aware of are incompatible with Christianity in my opinion):
  1. Whatever the Bible says must be taken literally. Historical criticism is a misguided attempt to undermine the authority of Scripture. This view is most commonly held by many Fundamentalists.
  2. The traditional position of inerrancy, i.e., after accounting for things like genre, the Bible never affirms anything that is contrary to fact. This is the position of most Evangelicals and some Fundamentalists.
  3. Scripture should be interpreted within the rule of faith. The central truths of the Christian faith cannot be undermined (the contents of the creeds of the early church), but outside of that, freedom is given to the interpreter to follow their exegesis wherever it leads. Here you will find most Catholic scholars, many mainline Protestants, and a growing number of Evangelicals.
  4. A fourth position which tries to avoid talk of limits to our exegesis because it finds externally imposed limits to be counterproductive. This group is rather small but it is populated by at least some Evangelicals.
This week we'll do a series of posts discussing these positions (each except the first which I will briefly discuss below will get one post) in relation to the questions we brought up earlier and to inerrancy.

The first position to me is the least satisfactory, so I'll only briefly discuss it. While I don't think that the historical critical method is the answer to all of our questions, all hermeneutical methods need to be able to at least attempt to reconstruct the original purpose of the book or section of Scripture. While the text can have more meaning apart from its 'original' meaning (I still find the notion of an original meaning of the text to be helpful and honestly unavoidable), whatever meaning we give the text now cannot be in conflict with the original meaning. Without historical research, this literalist approach has no external controls beyond the interpreters theological grid.

It also ignores and flattens out difficulties. What the Bible says must be taken at face value an must be true. Denying something like young earth creationism becomes tantamount to denying the faith in the opinion of some literalists (but not all). I appreciate that literalists want to take the Bible seriously, but I think it fails to account for the fact that the Bible is a product of the culture it was written in.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Philippians and Philemon

This month there was nothing that grabbed my attention in the new books section of the library, so I decided to pick up a recent commentary that came out, that of Charles Cousar in the New Testament Library series. I've only extensively used one commentary in this series before, Jonah, so I wasn't completely sure what to expect, but I was, for the most part, pleased.

The introduction to the commentary on Philippians is fairly standard. He believes that Philippians was written from an Ephesian imprisonment and thus was one of Paul's earliest letters. Fee and Bockmuehl have both claimed that Philippians is a letter of friendship, but Cousar is a bit cool on that idea, while not outright rejecting it. He does believe that Philippians is a single letter and not a patchwork of three letters as some have claimed.

Overall I found the commentary proper to be solid. Technical issues were briefly discussed and Cousar would usually give a short explanation explaining his decisions. There was little discussion of other options (he devotes a little more space to different views at 2:5-11, but even there it was somewhat sparse), which is why the commentary is as brief as it is.

One of his stronger points was on 1:18-26, I was helped by his brief discussion of the rhetoric of Paul's argument. Cousar claims that Paul was using a technique known as 'feigned perplexity' as a means of strengthening his argument. On the Christ 'hymn' in 2:5-11 he goes against most recent commentators by following Kasemann's soteriological interpretation. He makes a decent case of it, but I found O'Brien to be much more persuasive.

By far Cousar's strongest point was on, perhaps the thorniest passage in Philippians, 3:1-4. Paul's sudden change of tone is so dramatic that many have questioned the integrity of Philippians largely on the basis of this section. Cousar, in my opinion, largely puts these questions to rest. He suggests that there was no actual group of opponents in or soon to come to Philippi. The 'dogs' were set up as a negative example, countering the positive examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus in ch. 2 and Paul in the following verses.

Overall, on Philippians Cousar does a good job. He doesn't use a lot of space but fits a lot into it. Even though its brief, I would not recommend it for the lay person, it's a little too technical and also assumes a fair amount of familiarity with New Testament (especially Pauline) studies. However, for the pastor I could see this commentary pairing up well with Thielman and one or more of Bockmuehl, Fee, and O'Brien. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Cousar did not put the same level of effort into the Philemon commentary as he did for Philippians. It's extremely sparse, with the commentary proper only being five and a half pages long. There wasn't much depth of insight, I felt that most points that he made could be gained from a careful slow read through the text. That said, he still didn't make any major mistakes, in my opinion and rightly saw the stress in the letter where it lied, in the transformation of relationships and identity in Christ. 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Orienting Our Expressions of Gratitiude

Do you encourage others by thanking/praising them? Some will not wanting to avoid others from succumbing to pride. Others thank people so effusively and frequently that they seem insincere. How do you strike a balance? We are called to encourage one another. How do we do it rightly?

In A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Carson notes, while discussing on 1 Thessalonians 2:9, that Paul,
encourages Christians by telling them that he thanks God for his grace in their lives. Thus he has simultaneously drawn attention to the Thessalonians' spiritual growth, thereby encouraging them, and insisted that God is the one to be thanked for it, thereby humbling them. There is simply no way that these believers can thoughtfully listen to what Paul says and then smugly pat themselves on the back: God and God alone is to be praised for the signs of grace in their lives. Yet nonetheless they cannot help but feel encouraged to learn that the apostle himself has observed God's work in their lives and rejoices because of it (p. 87 - emphasis original).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 8 and 9

I'm actually going to skip chapter 7, 'Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age' by William Johnson because the issue is too difficult and outside of my area of 'expertise.' I would need to be much more informed about postmodern philosophy.

The eighth essay, 'Preaching Scripture Faithfully in a Post-Christendom Church,' by Christine McSpadden was a pleasant surprise. McSpadden is a priest in the Episcopal diocese of California, and if you know about what's been going on in the Episcopal church lately, you may understand why I did not come to the essay with the highest of expectations. McSpadden's advice is mainly geared towards those in mainline denominations, but I think we in the Evangelical church can gain from her insight as well. McSpadden's general hermeneutical methods are in line with the rest of of the authors of this book, so even though she does discuss hermeneutical issues throughout, I want to focus more on her homiletical suggestions.

Given the title, we can tell that the basic assumption McSpadden works from is that Christendom is over. I think this is obviously true, but what's less clear is what preaching should look like in the post-Christendom church. Even more basic is the question some ask, 'why privilege preaching?' McSpadden says that preaching still offers the most bang for the buck, it still offers 30ish minutes with a large group of people. So what should preaching look like today?
  1. Preach the basics - we're in a position where the Christian message is news again, many don't know it, so preach clearly, simply, and hospitably. Also, call for conversion, don't preach mere moralizing exhortation.
  2. Conceive of the sermon as an 'environment' for wondering, rumination, and imagination - be respectful in the way you treat questions and objections and make room for people's imagination to be captured and provoked by the story.
  3. Preach from all of Scripture - this gives us a much clearer picture of who God is. Don't duck difficult texts, and remain faithful to the text at all times. Don't critique Scripture, but allow it to critique you. Thus we are to stand under Scripture and approach the Bible prayerfully in our preparation. For, 'apostolic proclamation grew out of prayer and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; faithful preaching has the same points of origin' (p. 137).
  4. Engage the multiplicity of voices from the surrounding culture - do this in an attitude of humility, but be willing to engage the real differences that exist between Christians and others.
  5. Be compelling in your preaching so your hearers want to hear more about the Bible
Granted at some of these points McSpadden may have something slightly different in mind than an Evangelical would giving this same advice, but I still think that conceptually she is spot on (and not so greatly different than Evangelicals in the particulars). She also had a couple of practical tests for each of these points, I found them all to be very good tests, but I liked a couple especially that I want to point out.
  1. 'As you read through the text to be preached, and as you gather your thoughts on ways it might be preached, think about what creedal affirmation correlates with your ideas. Whether it is a point of the Nicene Creed, the Apostle's Creed, or the Westminster confession, think about how it supports and directs your explication. Simultaneously, think about how the biblical text gives dimensions to, illustrates, and makes sense of the creedal affirmation' (p. 131).
  2. On difficult texts: 'Examine why the text makes you bristle. What does it challenge, criticize, or propose that might be offensive? Is there an underlying, existential issue related to your own resistance that might connect with a similar resistance in your hearers?' (p. 138).
As McSpadden notes in the conclusion, preaching in today's context is difficult, but it's also a great opportunity. For many we can present the gospel to them for the first time, and hopefully we can do it in a way that glorifies God and is compelling to our hearers.

I will be brief on chapter 9, 'Embodying Scripture in the Community of Faith' by L. Gregory Jones. His essay begins by discussing the problem that we have, which is rampant biblical illiteracy. Our congregation doesn't know the stories of the Bible, and too many who do know the stories study the Scriptures at a solely academic level. For, as he notes, it's much easier to answer critical questions than to have our lives critiqued by Scripture.

As a solution, Jones suggests that we need to interpret the Bible in community, and our community is not just the community of contemporaries, but extends back to previous 'saintly interpreters.' Much of the essay looks at how Martin Luther King Jr. and Augustine interpreted Scripture. Much of his emphasis was on how these two men exemplified the way they understood the Bible through the way they lived. They had both sides, they knew the Bible very very well, which most Christians today don't. And their knowledge ran deep to the way they lived. While both of them had all of the tools of critical study at their time, they didn't satisfy themselves with that. They were transformed through their time in Scripture. Jones calls us to follow in their path, seeking to learn from God in his word and to put what we learn into practice, to love God and love others, especially our enemies.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Dangers of Proof Texting

I don't know if many of you have seen the 'Pray for Obama' bumper stickers (or have them). Scot McKnight has an excellent post on the sad irony of it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapter 6

Chapter 6 of the Art of Reading Scripture is titled, 'Christ was like St. Francis' and was written by James Howell. The main point of the essay is that if we truly understand the text, then we embody it through the way we live. While that main point is straightforward and uncontroversial, the way he makes it is very thought-provoking.

His title, 'Christ was like St. Francis,' is provocative. Normally we would put it the other way around. Howell's point in framing the title this way is interesting. In an extended section of the essay, Howell lays out many examples of ways that St. Francis imitated Christ in very literal fashion. He took Scriptures like Luke 9:3 'take nothing for the journey' (TNIV) very literally. Thus he gives us in concrete human form a later picture of what Jesus lived like. Often we rationalize our shortcomings when we compare our lives to Jesus by saying that, 'we're only human while Jesus was divine.' However seeing how the saints lived out many of the radical demands of Scripture quite literally can in some ways be more challenging to us, because they're human too. Howell suggests that we too often domesticate or spiritualize some of the radical commands of the Bible when we could and should take them quite literally.

Obviously taking the commands of the Bible literally could lead to disastrous effects, so Howell suggests that we test our embodiments against the rest of Scripture and church history.

Is this a good hermeneutical method? I think it could be helpful to a very limited extent. There certainly is a sense in which we have domesticated the Bible so that it never confronts us. However, I don't think that a literal hermeneutic is the answer. That will lead to many bad misappropriations of the Bible. The way to feel the full weight of the Bible is to read it carefully and prayerfully without skipping parts we don't like. That will give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to challenge us in ways we may be uncomfortable with.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapter 5

Today we will look at chapter 5 (I'll post on chapter 6 on Thursday) of 'The Art of Reading Scripture.' The fifth essay, by Brian Daley, is titled, 'Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms.' His main goal in this essay is to examine how we might learn from Patristic exegetical method. Daley begins by noting that for the past century and a half that we've largely ignored Patristic exegesis. The historical critical method has been dominant, and all other approaches to the text have been ignored until recently. We had thought that we could study history scientifically and come up with objective conclusions of what happened (or what the original meaning of the text was) and why. The problem is that an underlying principle of this method is that natural events are assumed to have natural causes and we, being outside the event/text, can objectively measure what happened, which is an athiestic and arrogant assumption. As post modern critiques have pointed out, we don't have the objectivity that we think we have. 'Understanding a text is precisely the event of the interpretation of horizons: the author's and the reader's...it can never be a simple mater of recovery of the objective, "original" meaning through a scientific historical criticism that is free of the concerns and commitments of the later reader' (p. 73). So, historical criticism is not all that many crack it up to be.

Does this mean that we can abandon it and have complete interpretive freedom? Definitely not. In the next section, Daley lays out what the interpretive framework of the early church was. They:
  1. Saw the hand of a provident God in Scripture, and they interpreted historical texts in light of that.
  2. Read the Bible as a unified narrative
  3. Interpreted the Bible using 'the Rule of Faith,' or as some put it today, interpreting within the framework of creedal orthodoxy (a la Kent Sparks). Core theological truth could not be denied, but there was much freedom regarding the interpretation of individual passages of Scripture.
  4. Recognized the diversity of Scripture, but at the same time saw the story of the Bible as being coherent, thus in their view, the Bible never contradicted itself.
  5. Primarily focused on the scriptural rather than the historical meaning of the text, meaning a focus on what the Bible meant to them in their time, not just in 'application' of the text, but its theological meaning. The more pious interpretation was favored.
In the next section, Daley looks at patristic exegesis of the Psalms and asks whether or not their way of reading the psalms might work for us today too. As Daley notes, the Psalms were adored by the early church (as they are by many today). They readily appropriated the Psalms to their individual lives, seeing the Psalms as providing the words to say to God what we are commanded to say to him elsewhere. I wonder, though, if Daley's choice of the Psalms doesn't prejudice the answer (he comes to a 'yes let's follow their pattern' conclusion) somewhat. I don't know much about Patristic exegesis, but I wonder if the way the early church used other parts of Scripture might be tougher to follow. Many of the Psalms, while being used for corporate worship, have a strong individual element. It's somewhat easy, for many Psalms, apart from the historical critical method, to appropriate the text in a valid and helpful way. I think his case may have been harder if he picked apocalyptic literature (to go on the other end of the spectrum).

In the final section, Daley asks if historical criticism has any roll to play in our understanding the Bible as Scripture. He says it still does and that its roll, 'must be to free readers from the same destructive literalism that Origen recognized as the basis of most false interpretation of the Bible - taking the apparent face value of a text so seriously, so much in isolation from the rest of the cannon, that we invest it with a meaning at odds with both its probably original sense and its traditional Christian application' (p. 87). I think this point is helpful. The historical critical method is seen here as being more defensive than anything else. It helps guard us from going in an unfruitful direction.

Daley then concludes with a plea to interpret the Bible along the lines of the ancient Christians, for the sake of the church. Biblical scholarship is not an end in itself, it has a roll, to feed preaching, to feed the feeding of the church, and that must remain our central concern.

As much as I want to agree with Daley, I must ask, though, if the 'Rule of Faith' is a good rule. But perhaps that should be the subject of another post on another day.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Early Preaching of Karl Barth

The book review for November is 'The Early Preaching of Karl Barth.' This is a collection of fourteen sermons preached by Barth between 1917 and 1920 while serving as a pastor in Safenwill, Switzerland. Following each sermon William Willimon provides us with a brief commentary. Unlike Willimon, I certainly am no expert on Barth, all I have read is the first volume of Church Dogmatics. Thus, I don't think that I am in too much of a position to engage on a detailed level with these sermons. However I will make some general comments that I hope are useful if you are thinking about checking out this book.

Because these are sermons, this book is much more accessible than Church Dogmatics, however, they do not form a good introduction to Barthian theology. What struck me most, especially in the beginning of the book (the sermons are arranged chronologically), was how much his theology developed over time. His early sermons sound, in some ways, very un-Barthian. Early on, especially before he wrote his Romans commentary, you can see the strong influence of a semi-socialist liberal Protestantism on him. As the book progresses, you see Barth progress. Several of the sermons towards the end capture one of the distinctives of Barth's theology, the complete 'otherness' of God.

William Willimon's commentaries on Barth's sermons make the book. He helpfully frames the sermons both locally (the life of Barth and his parish) and internationally (the setting within Europe as a whole). This helps give some perspective to the sermons and explains why Barth stresses some of the things he does. Willimon is also especially strong at comparing each sermon with Barth's later theology, giving you a clearer picture of how Barth's theology developed. I also appreciated that Willimon was not afraid to critique Barth's sermons, thus providing homiletical help to those who read the book.

Overall, this was a fairly interesting book. I don't think it'd be near the top of my list to recommend, but if you have a strong liking for Barth, it's worth the time to go through it. You'll gain a greater appreciation for how he grew into the theologian that he became.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 3 and 4

For those of you who were overwhelmed by the length of my last post on The Art of Reading Scripture, this post is a bit shorter. The third essay, written by Richard Bauckham is titled, 'Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story.' Bauckham begins by explaining what it means for Scripture to be a unified narrative. It doesn't mean that all of scripture is narrative, or that it has the coherence of a single author work. Rather, its coherence can be seen in the way that different books of the Bible, by different authors, interact with one another. They summarize each other, intentionally build off of one another, quote each other, allude to each other, etc. There is an attempt by later writers to show how they are continuing the story of earlier texts (this is not true only of the NT, we see the same phenomenon in the OT as well). While the whole Bible, at the human level, was clearly composed by many very different people with distinct perspectives and purposes, we can still see how the Bible is knit together as a whole.

In the second section, Bacukham's main point was to rebut post-modern criticism of the biblical meta-narrative. As most of you probably know, post-modernism claims that all claims to absolute truth are, at their essence, simply a claim to power (as is this central claim of post-modernity). What Bauckham points out is that post-modernism is just as guilty. Post-modernism critiqued the modern meta-narrative of human progress because of its oppressiveness. However, post-modernism is completely unable to resist the same pitfalls. It reinforces a dangerous consumerist individualism and ends up legitimizing an anything goes attitude that ends up leading to the oppression of the weak.

In the third section Bauckham lays out why Scripture forms is a meta-narrative, what it looks like, and why it doesn't fall to a post-modern critique. He makes a couple of strong points here. One is that the biblical story is not like modern stories, it's not about a human protagonist succeeding by their wisdom and strength, the story it tells is about God and his purposes, humans are secondary and either cooperate with or oppose God. God's will is always carried out.
The hand of God is not always seen immediately in every situation, but it is always there. He fulfills his promises in surprising ways. The story is primarily about God. Thus, the Bible never hints that humans can save the day and right all of the wrongs in the world (the myth of progress). Instead the Bible orients us around the hope that God knows what he's doing and will some day right all of the wrongs.

Bauckham also, helpfully notes, that Israel's story is rarely portrayed as a dominant meta-narrative. The story of Scripture is about God working on behalf of the weak and powerless. And there's also the incarnation and death of Jesus, a self-emptying and submission to humiliating death for the sake of others. Thus, if properly understood, the Christian story can never be used to justify oppression.

The fourth essay, written by David Steinmetz is titled, 'Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction and the Construction of Historical Method.' The main problem he addresses is that while traditional exegesis is willing to read the earlier parts of Scripture in light of the latter, historical criticism thinks that doing such is anachronistic. Steinmetz deals with this issue beautifully through an analogy.

He argues that in some ways, the Bible is like a detective novel. When one reads a detective novel from the front cover to the back cover, much is missed and misunderstood until you get to the end. In the finale, the detective helps tie together all of the seemingly disparate clues (and things you didn't even realize were clues) into a complete narrative that tells the story of the crime. The earlier parts are only correctly read in light of the conclusion. Thus reading 'backwards' not only isn't anachronistic, it's the only correct method. Obviously there can be anachronistic ways of reading earlier texts in light of later texts, but doing such isn't necessarily anachronistic. In fact, as Steinmetz sagely points out, all historical reconstructions do this. His final paragraph summarizes most of the essay well, so I will quote it at length.

I am inclined to think that biblical scholars who are also Christian theologians should worry less about anachronism and more about the quality of the second narratives they have constructed. I can well understand why biblical scholars are wary of a traditional exegesis that ascribes to characters in the Bible, especially characters in the Old Testament, an explicit knowledge of finer points of Christian theology. Such knowledge would have been impossible for them at the time. But I do not have to believe that Second Isaiah had an explicit knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to believe that he was a part of a larger narrative that finds its final, though not sole, meaning in Christ. Like many of the characters in a mystery novel, Isaiah had something else on his mind. But the meaning of his work cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of his explicit intention. Viewed from the perspective of the way things turned out, his oracles were revealed to have added dimensions of significance that no one would have guessed at the time. It is not anachronistic to believe such added dimensions of meaning exist. It is only good exegesis (p. 65).

In summary of both essays, we can read Scripture as a unified narrative. In fact we must, and the later revelation, Jesus Christ, is the key to the entire narrative. We must remember, though, that the story is first and foremost about God, though we do play a roll as well. The nature of the story and of the one whom the story reveals should safeguard us against using it as a means of oppressing the weak or those who dissent.

Up next will be the first two chapters of the second part (A Living Tradition). Lord willing I will post on these on Tuesday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Giving thanks for the misguided who cause us grief

I was inspired both by Pastor Dave's reflection on Paul's various introductory thanksgivings at church this past Sunday and the fact that Thanksgiving is this week to write a few reflections throughout the week on selected thanksgiving's of Paul. Today's reflection comes from 1 Corinthians 1:4-9:
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (TNIV).
Paul had to write a difficult letter to Corinth. The church was badly fragmented, it tolerated gross sin, misunderstood spiritual gifts, and some of its members were trying to use the gospel as a means to improve their social status. One would think that with so much wrong that there might not be anything to be thankful for. Paul, though, is ever gracious, and still finds much to give thanks for. Whenever Paul prayed for the Corinthians, he thanked God for them, because even they, with all of their faults, were pictures of God's grace. God had clearly and decisively moved in their lives. Even in areas where they struggled, in their understanding of the charismatic gifts, Paul still sees positives, because he still sees God moving in their lives.

What is our attitude towards those in the church who cause problems for us? How do we pray for those who are misguided in their walk with God? How often do we give thanks to God for them and for the ways we see God's grace operative in them? Why does it matter?

It's not about thanking God for them for the sake of thanking God for them. Following Paul's pattern helps orient our attitude towards them in a way that is gracious and loving, in a way that is fair and balanced. I find it way too easy to slip off into a mode that seeks to confront problems and challenge people in a fashion that doesn't appreciate the transformation that God has already begun in their lives. Every Christian is a testament to the grace of God. We need to remember this because it will help us ground our prayers (and possible advice/counseling) in true love for the individual.

We also need to see that we are no better than them. We are messed up sinners, just as badly in need of God's grace; and we haven't conquered sin yet either. Praise be to God that he sent his Son to die for us all, that we might have forgiveness and be progressively sanctified as we experience life in union with him.

The Art of Reading Scripture: Chapters 1 and 2

I am grouping my review of the first two essays together, because they both impinge upon the question of how Scripture is to be used inside the church. The second chapter, 'Scripture's Authority in the Church' by Robert Jenson is the more basic of the two essays, so I will begin the discussion there, and then move to Ellen Davis' essay.

The easiest way to describe Jenson's essay is that in many ways it is an outworking or application of Barth's understanding of Scripture . Jenson makes five main points in his essay:

  1. The only meaningful way for a Christian to read Scripture is in a Christian way (pp. 27-29).
  2. Each passage of Scripture is to be read for its contribution to the grander narrative that Scripture tells (pp. 29-30).
  3. We can only read Scripture as characters within the narrative of Scripture (pp. 30-34).
  4. Our reading of the Old Testament must assume the presupposition that it is Christian Scripture (pp. 34-36).
  5. The authority of Scripture is something to experience through soaking in it, all of it, including the parts that are difficult. This is to be done in community (pp. 36-37).
There were a couple of very helpful points that Jenson weaves through his essay. First, while he attempts to downplay his criticism at times, his proposal is in direct opposition to the historical critical method. This is most clearly drawn out in point 3 and in a different manner in point 4 (and this also props up the validity of point 1). Jenson, rightly, sees a very strong connection between us as the church now and the early church. The point he makes next is interesting. As a result of our participation in the same corporate body, we too are inside the narrative of Scripture. He compares us to characters in the final act of a play. We have a will and consciousness, but only as members within the grand narrative that the author of the play, God, has written. Thus, since we do not stand outside Scripture, but within its story, this, in Jenson's opinion places limits on the way we read the Bible. Thus, he believes that coming to Scripture to answer questions that are not the main concern of the Bible (e.g., to learn about the history of Israel), is absolutely wrong-headed.

While I think that it's helpful to think of ourselves as participants in the story that unfolds in God's word - especially since it makes Scripture immediately relevant - I do not think that his conclusion follows. Even though we are inside the text, and even though we cannot place ourselves in the position of detached observer of the Bible and its story, we can still do the descriptive task, even though its not the main point of Scripture. Being uninvolved is not a requirement for accurate explanation of events (perhaps I am missing his point here, though?).

The other direction he develops his seeming dislike of the historical-critical method (or at least certain misuses of it) is very fruitful. The way we read the OT must be Christian in nature; specifically, if the second member of the Trinity is the Word of God, then it is right to read the OT in a Christotelic manner (to borrow the term from Peter Enns). In fact, reading all of the Bible as being about Jesus is the only correct way to read Scripture. I think that this is very helpful in explaining why it is not problematic that God would inspire the New Testament writers to violate the seeming 'literal sense' of OT passages that they allude to or quote. While some of their readings may make us uncomfortable, they are not seeing something that isn't there when they see a portion of the OT as pointing to Jesus, because Jesus is the end or goal of the OT, and the OT points to Jesus because Jesus is the incarnate word of God.

Ellen Davis' essay, 'Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church' was a very fruitful read. Her main thesis was that, 'teaching Christians to read the Bible confessionally means equipping them to do three things: to read with a primarily theological interest; to read with an openness to repentance; and to read with an understanding of the Old Testament witness to Christ' (p. 10).

In the first main section, on reading with a theological interest, Davis rightly decries that the Bible is often read too historically, and thus too narrowly. The task of teaching, both for pastors and for seminaries is, 'to impart the information and the conceptual framework, but even more, the imaginative skills for wondering fruitfully about the ultimate facts of life' (p. 11). Here I agree fully. We need to regain our wonder for the Bible and for the God who has given it to us, for he is wonder-ful beyond compare. Regaining that wonder will help us to push aside the idols that distract us from true worship.

In order to regain that wonder we not only need imagination, but we need to expend more effort on understanding Scripture. Davis again wisely points out that we need to understand the Bible and its symbolic world much better, and to do this we need to spend more time in it, reading slowly. She suggests that the best way to slow down is to read the Bible in its original languages. Not only is this harder, but it also forces you to wrestle with many ambiguities that are flattened out by English translations. Becoming unsettled by the unfamiliar will then open us up to hear God speaking to us afresh through his word. This is critical, we too often come to Scripture looking for proof texts, to reassure ourselves of what we already believe to be true, which, as Davis points out, is sinful. We need to approach God's word in humility, being willing to learn from the diversity of the Bible, being willing to be moved by God into a greater and more holistic repentance.

Next Davis moves to discussing the need for Christians to spend more time in the Old Testament. This was argued in a surprising but very helpful way. It's easy, especially if one only reads certain portions of the NT, to get the mistaken idea that the Bible is about us. Reading the OT helps us correct that mistaken perspective; the entire Bible is about God not about how we get saved. This becomes very clear when one reads the Old Testament. 'From a biblical perspective, salvation is a subcategory of revelation - or better, salvation is a consequence of revelation fully received' (p. 21).

In her final section, Davis discusses reading Scripture in conversation with Jews. Here, quite understandably and rightly, Davis stresses the need for repentance for how Christians through the centuries have interpreted the Bible at the expense of the Jewish people. She suggests that we engage in interpreting Scripture with Jewish partners. At the same time, she warns, we must not downplay the major differences that we have in how we interpret Scripture.

This part of the essay seems to stand in tension with Jenson's. Can we learn theologically from Jewish interpretation? Perhaps we can, perhaps we can be stimulated to readings of individual texts that we may not have otherwise seen, and perhaps it will help save us from further anti-semitism. However, in terms of understanding the grand narrative of Scripture I think I stand firmly in Jenson's camp; only a distinctively Christian reading of Scripture is of ultimate value to the Christian.

All in all, these two chapters help provide a conceptual framework that we can move forward with. We must read the Bible slowly and carefully, canvassing the whole Bible, the Old and the New, letting it speak in its diversity, seeing ourselves in the story, but first and foremost seeking to understand what it teaches us about the Triune God and his ways in this world, and thus responding to it in repentance and love for God.

Look for the next installment on chapters 3 and 4 on Friday.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Art of Reading Scripture: An Introduction

When I posted last week that we'd be starting The Art of Reading Scripture by reviewing chapters 1 and two on Monday I didn't realize that there would be so much in the introduction and nine theses that I would need to write a separate post about them. However, a separate post that introduces the book would be beneficial, so we'll embark upon that now.

The first thing to note is that this book is the work of a group of contributors that extends beyond just Richard Hays and Ellen Davis. It is the work of a collection of scholars from diverse disciplines (OT, NT, systematics and historical theology) and two practicing ministers.

In the introduction, Hays and Davis lay out four very important questions to consider (pp. xiv-xv):
  1. Is the Bible authoritative for the faith and practice of the church? If so, in what way?
  2. What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible?
  3. How does historical criticism illumine or obscure Scripture's message?
  4. How are traditional readings to brought into engagement with historical methodologies, as well as feminist, liberationist, and post-modern readings?
Hays and Davis don't think that these questions have easy answers (I am inclined to agree), in fact they state that they believe that properly reading Scripture is an art, 'a creative discipline that requires engagement and imagination' (p. xv). As they note, this is both good and bad news. Contrary to what many in the church (both conservative and liberal) may think, if Scripture reading is an art, its hard to do well, like every other art. There needs to be a recognition of the difficulty and a substantial investment of time and effort in reading Scripture. The good news is that approaching God's word this way enables us to see the potential for opening it up in a way that is compelling and beautiful (without eliminating the notion that a particular reading can be right or wrong). Since we believe God to be compelling and beautiful we should seek to display him as he really is. 'Our readings will produce such beauty precisely to the extent that they respond faithfully to the imaginative power of God, to which the Bible bears witness' (p. xvi).

It's also necessary to note that, as artists reading Scripture, we are not on our own inventing radical readings. There is a long line of stimulating faithful interpretation of and living out of the Bible in the history of the church that we should use as our aides.

As an upfront summary of their answers to those four questions, Hays and Davis propose 'Nine These on the Interpretation of Scripture.' I won't rehearse these now, even though they're extremely interesting. Instead we will go through the essays first to see what help they provide and then consider the theses at the end and see if they are helpful to answering those four, difficult questions.

What are your thoughts? Does describing reading Scripture as an art make you uncomfortable? Is it liberating? Promising? I personally like the idea, as long as it is practiced within proper limits (perhaps that is the roll of the historical-critical method). I think it will help us regain a sense of wonder at who our God is and what he, has done, is doing, and will do in the world. I am interested to see how the various contributors further this idea.

As a semi-related post script, danny has written an entertaining post at Boston Bible Geeks poking fun at a bad hermeneutical method.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How Jude Dealt with Division, In Canonical Context - Part 2

Earlier in the week I randomly picked Risto Saarinen's commentary on Jude in the Brazos Theological Commentary series, and found it to be very enlightening. In a previous post I commented that Jude's approach to those influenced by the false teachers (and possibly to the false teachers themselves) was one filled with mercy. That claim is true, but what I failed to see is how Jude substantiates it.

Saarinen points out, as did Bauckham, that when Jude discusses OT and deutero-canonical texts discussing God's judgment (vs. 5, 9, 14), that Jesus is the one coming to judge. The move that Saarinen makes at this point is worth pointing out:
The Epistle of Jude performs its christological rearrangement of Jewish texts in a manner that is clear and provocative. The Lord, who saved a people out of Egypt and will come to execute a judgment on all, is Jesus Christ...When Jesus Christ is portrayed as a judge in this manner, on the one hand, he takes the traditional roll of divine judge. On the other hand, due to the intracanoncial attribution, the very event of final judgment also receives new, christological aspects that reflect the new rule of the gospel. The theme of mercy exemplifies this new rule (pp. 220-1).
Thus, Jude's merciful approach in dealing with those who were straying receives its impetus from the christology underlying his argument. Jesus is the divine, merciful judge, and like him, our primary posture should be one filled with mercy, extending the hand of grace and love to the straying.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


In the next month or two I hope to start a new study on baptism.

I know Everett Ferguson's book, Baptism in the Early Church is supposed to be excellent. I also know about the different systematic theologies out there. What else is there? What are some books, or parts of books that were helpful to you? I want to read a wide spectrum, so I'd like to get a diversity of view points and to mix in plenty of older works with the newer ones.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

N.T. Wright on the Sacraments

NT Wright delivered a few talks at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in 2007 on the Sacraments. They're well worth listening to. One thing he said in 'Part Two' I think is particularly worth reflecting on:

'Of course God welcomes us as we are, but God's welcome never leaves us as we are. Thank God. God's inclusiveness is always a transforming inclusiveness and that is precisely what baptism is all about.'

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This Blog's Direction

This is a note about the upcoming direction of this blog. One conclusion that I believe God has been driving me towards lately is to see that there are inadequacies in the historical-critical method. While beneficial in many ways, the historical-critical method is not the be all and end all in terms of biblical interpretation. In fact its quite inadequate for producing robust theology. While not abandoning the historical-critical method all together, I want to try to achieve a more theological reading of Scripture. To this end I want to read and blog through three recent books on the interplay of Scripture and theology.

First will be The Art of Reading Scripture by Richard Hays and Ellen Davis.

Second will be The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer.

Third will be Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Studies by Markus Bockmuehl.

After that I hope to test out what I learn on the book of Galatians. I invite you to join me on this journey, and read along. Lord willing, I will make my first post on the first chapter or two of Hays and Davis on Monday 11/23.

Commentary Reviews: Philemon

There is an overabundance of excellent commentaries available on Philemon, especially of more advanced commentaries. Regrettably, I had to omit several outstanding commentaries from my arsenal. So, just because I don't review Dunn, Harris, Wilson, or Fitzmyer doesn't mean I don't think they're worth consulting. It just means that I didn't have the time to incorporate all of them into my study, and given the audience of my studies, lay Bible study leaders at my church, it was best to omit commentaries that are more technical in nature.

With that said, my favorite commentary, without question, was Doug Moo's in the Pillar series. I originally read through it about a year ago and I wasn't overly impressed. This time around, when I really dug into it, I found it to be extremely helpful. One thing I liked was that he confined most of his discussion on the issue of slavery to the introduction. This is a good move because the issue of slavery is not a primary in Philemon. His conclusions on slavery also were more satisfying than those of the other commentators that I read. In the commentary proper Moo does an excellent job of following the argument and discerning Paul's rhetorical strategy. You can tell that he is a very seasoned interpreter of Paul, and his experience is a huge plus. His introductions to each section, which are prior to the verse by verse notes also are top notch.

I also found this commentary to be a little more advanced than some in the Pillar series. Moo works through the text, very methodically, verse by verse, phrase by phrase, explaining in a very fair manner the different exegetical possibilities. His conclusions are sound and well supported. For most pastors, who have an average grasp of Greek, Moo's commentary is at just the right level of thoroughness and difficulty. It will be a great aid in preaching or teaching through the text of Philemon. 5 stars out of 5.

Marianne Meye Thompson's commentary in the Two Horizon's series is a very interesting commentary. In the commentary proper she achieved the goal of the series, to produce a theological reading of Scripture. I was very encouraged and edified by it. The essays following the commentary were mostly good, especially the ones on 'The New Humanity.' When reading the commentary proper, one can see how she weaved the results of most of these essays back into the notes. The final essay, on 'How Do We Read Scripture?' is very thought provoking and all theologians and pastors should wrestle with it. Even though I probably wouldn't place the same stresses she does in interpreting Scripture, I think Thompson picks up on the most helpful strands of the post-modern critique of the way we traditionally have interpreted Scripture. Readers of all levels will benefit from Thompson's work, but pastors especially will as this is the best commentary I've seen in its engagement with the theology of Philemon. 5 stars out of 5.

I really like the concept of the NIV Application Series, I just find that too often, the individual commentaries are not as well executed as I hope. This is not the case with David Garland's commentary on Philemon. I am a big fan of Garland's commentary on 2 Corinthians so I had high expectations for this commentary, and he delivered. This commentary has two major contributions, first, Garland poignantly draws out, moreso than the other commentators I read, the corporate dimension of the letter, that Paul, by including the entire house church in the correspondence, is expressing his belief that living the Christian life is a community endeavor.

The other helpful aspect of Garland's commentary was his lengthy section on slavery. Even though it runs the danger of making it seem like slavery is the main point of the letter, in this series, I think it is appropriate to deal with it at length, which he does in the appropriate section, 'Bridging Contexts.' It's a very helpful introduction geared towards the lay person which will help them understand what slavery was like in the Roman empire. I do think at times, though, that Garland does push his conclusions a bit far related to the issue of slavery and perhaps pushes the text further than we can actually go. I also would say his sections on the 'Original Meaning' are just adequate, and the lay person should supplement this commentary with the work of N.T. Wright and the pastor should pair it with Moo's commentary. Even with that said, Garland bridges the gap between the ancient context to ours magnificently, so I feel that I can highly recommend this commentary to readers of all levels, 4.5 stars out of 5.

The Tyndale series is a little unique in that it primarily seeks to lay out the original meaning of the text but is geared towards the laity. Hence, I usually skip it, because there are other commentaries out there that do the same thing (lay out he original meaning) but at much more depth. Sometimes, though, the author of the commentary is so good that you have to read it, even though it will probably be a bit sparse for your liking. That is the case with N.T. Wright on Philemon. One thing that surprised me, is that I didn't find myself desiring a lot more detail, but perhaps this should not have been a surprise. N.T. Wright is known for doing a lot in a short space. There also were times where he simply said things better than anyone else did, such as in his comments on vs. 17-20. I highly recommend this commentary as well, especially to any lay person studying Philemon. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Peter T. O'Brien is my favorite commentator on the New Testament, so I fully expected to fall in love with his Philemon commentary, the way I did with his works on Ephesians and Philippians. This wasn't the case. This certainly wasn't a bad commentary, but it wasn't outstanding. He is at his most helpful in the 'form/structure/setting' section of the commentary, especially, as one might expect, when discussing the introductory thanksgiving. These sections helped me orient my reading. However, the 'comment' and 'explanation' sections were weak in my opinion. They contained helpful information, especially on grammatical issues, but I did not see the depth of thought in this work like I did in his other commentaries or the commentaries I reviewed earlier in this post. It's solid, but I wonder if there might be better advanced commentaries for the study of Philemon. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Philemon and Slavery, In Canonical Context

Slavery is probably the main issue on the conscience of most people when reading Philemon. This is a bit unfortunate. The main thrust of the book is about how relationships are configured in light of our union in Christ with fellow believers. I would also say that my earlier post on the example of imputation to be a far more central lesson to draw from Philemon than any conclusion that we draw from this post. However, given the history of the church and the present state of society, it is necessary to discuss the issue of slavery in Philemon and the wider context of Scripture.

One of the biggest 'problems' for the Bible is its seeming acceptance of slavery. The Old Testament seems to have different voices on the issue. At points it goes as far as prohibiting Israelites from enslaving other Israelites (Lev. 25:39-43). At other points it shows an understanding of the status and value of slaves that is no different than that of other Ancient Near Eastern nations (Ex. 21:28-32). The New Testament is radical at points, suggesting that in Christ there is no slave or free (Gal. 3:28), but at other points it seems to reinforce the status quo (Ep. 6:5-9).

Ephesians 6:5-9 comes at the end of a section called 'the household code,' where Paul regulates the life of the Christian household. Marriage is dealt with at length, first. Second is parent-child relations, with slave-master relations being third. In each of these issues, Paul reinforces the cultural norms of the time, submission from the member lower in the hierarchy to the member higher in the hierarchy (see O'Brien p. 402). While not endorsing or promoting slavery, this text, and others like it, certainly doesn't condemn it. Why? Aren't slave/free distinctions erased in Christ? In Philemon, doesn't Paul urge Philemon to free Onesimus? Is Paul an inconsistent thinker?

In addition to these challenges, there is a desire (albeit a very noble one), to claim that Philemon shows that institutional slavery is wrong. It does no such thing. In Philemon, Paul deals with the issue of a single relationship between master and slave. The same Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians as well, so he clearly didn't make the leap that some interpreters want to make. Philemon is silent on the issue of institutional slavery. With that said, I do believe that we can argue from the Bible against slavery, but I would suggest arguing from a different text, Genesis 1:26-27, that human beings are created in the image of God, and thus to subjugate another human being, whether through slavery or other means of repression, is a sinful violation of a fellow image bearer and an implicit denial of that truth. And closely related I believe that, using the model Richard Hays developed, of looking at ethics through the lens of the concept of 'new creation,' applied not only to Christians but to the redemption of all of creation also causes us to move away from slavery and towards support of freedom. [1]

But we still have a 'problem. Why don't we see clear movement in the New Testament towards the abolition of the institution of slavery? The best answer I saw in the commentaries was from Doug Moo (p. 370-378). He suggests several possibilities that together help explain the phenomenon which I will paraphrase below:
  1. Slavery was so much a part of the world in its day that, as an institution, it would almost have escaped the notice of early Christians (p. 371).
  2. 'Freedom' or 'liberation,' was not the obvious good that it is to us in the modern world. It was not racially based nor were all slaves of low economic status, some raised their status through slavery (p. 371).
  3. The Christian movement was too small to make a difference and more importantly, the category of social action did not exist as they were not in a democracy, but an empire (pp. 371-2).
  4. Earthly realities were less important than eternal spiritual realities, however this is not to suggest that the transformation of earthly realities was unimportant (pp. 372-3).
Again this accurately explain the phenomenon, but it's not totally satisfying. For example, point two is often argued but it does have a weakness. Why couldn't Paul have ordered slave owners to manumit slaves in a way that was beneficial to them? Why not turn them all into hired hands?

What do we do, is the 'problem' solvable? I think that we need to remember that the purpose of the Bible isn't to directly answer all of life's questions. God wants us to think hard about how to live out his Word in the way most consistent with what he has revealed in it within our contemporary cultural context. I would suggest that fighting for the abolition of slavery is more consistent with Scripture in our context than being permissive of slavery's continuance. We must draw the conclusion that Paul and other New Testament authors did not draw.

On a related note, the issue of slavery in the New Testament shows us, in a crystal clear manner, that applying Scripture isn't a matter of finding a proof text for the issue we're investigating. Applying God's word is hard work and in some rare cases we me even need to cut against the grain of seemingly clear implications of our proof texts if they conflict with the outworking of the central tenants of our faith. The human authors of Scripture were not omniscient and did not always apply God's revelation in the same way they might have if the Bible were written to 21st century American society. The Bible was, and this is not a bad thing, a product of its cultural situation. Thus, while initially Moo's suggestions as to why the New Testament does not condemn slavery may not seem completely satisfying, they are. Why should we demand that New Testament authors answer the question of slavery with a modern answer, especially when the question we are asking does not parallel the situation of the New Testament world in many ways?

[1] Hays model suggests using a set of lenses to look through when formulating Christian ethics: 'cross,' 'community,' and 'new creation.' While Hays work is open to critique, his work on New Testament ethics is widely regarded as one of the best in its field.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Theology in Action: Imputation

As I mentioned in this post, I wanted to give an example of what it looks like for theology to be lived out. I selected imputation for two reasons, one convenient in that I came across it in my study of Philemon, and the other intentional in that I wanted to pick a doctrine that seems esoteric.

First let's begin by explaining imputation. The main idea of the doctrine of imputation claims that an exchange took place between us and Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, he bore the wrath of God that we deserve so that if we have faith in him we no longer have to face God's wrath. Here's where imputation comes in: our sinfulness was credited to Jesus as if he had sinned ('God made him who had no sin to be sin for us' - 2 Cor. 5:21a TNIV). Our sin was counted as if it was Jesus sin which, since Jesus paid the penalty for our sins means that our sins are wiped away. The imputation part of this, again, is our sins being credited to Jesus. This is not enough for us to be accepted before God, though. All we are at this point is morally neutral, thus another imputation must take place. Jesus moral righteousness is credited to our accounts, and now we see all of 2 Cor. 5:21, 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' (TNIV). Through our union with Christ in his death and resurrection, his righteousness is counted as our righteousness, thus when God looks at us he sees the perfect record of his Son. In summary, the doctrine of imputation teaches that our sinfulness was credited to Jesus and his righteousness was credited to us, which allows us to be reconciled to God.

What does that look like? I would argue that Philemon 17-19 gives us a picture of how Paul lived out imputation: "17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self." (TNIV).

Paul's goal was to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. There were hurdles that had to be overcome before this could happen. Onesimus had fled Philemon and thus wronged him by being absent for at least a few months and thereby incurring the cost of lost labor (and perhaps the hire or purchase of additional slaves). It's possible too that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon to finance his journey to Rome. Thus Onesimus has a substantial debt that he owes Philemon. This is an obstacle to their reconciliation. That does not stop Paul, though. In verses 18 and 19 we see Paul, in a legally binding manner, absorb the debt that Onesimus owes Paul. He is willing, like Christ, to pay the penalty on behalf of another. Don't forget that Paul was in prison at the time, so if Philemon asked Paul for payment, it would be very difficult and very costly to pay.

On the flip side, Paul knows that he has a strong relationship with Philemon. He knows that Philemon loves him and would be overjoyed to see Paul (notice in vs. 22 Paul asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him). Paul had been of great benefit to Philemon and was his father in the faith. What Paul does in verse 17 is ask that Philemon see Onesimus as he would Paul. Thus Paul's positive record is being imputed to Onesimus.

One big thing that the doctrine of imputation teaches us is of the costliness of Christ's sacrifice for us to reconcile us to God. We too, like Paul, are ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20). Also, like Paul, our ministry of reconciliation is not solely about reconciling others to God (though this is primary). We are to work for the reconciliation of one to another even if it's at great cost to ourselves, especially when division exists between fellow believers. We must be willing to absorb penalty and pain and use our positive influence to repair damaged relationships.

Philemon 8-25

We decided to split Philemon into two sections, so this will be the last post of my verse by verse notes, but like Jude, stick around for a few posts on the theology of Philemon and commentary reviews.

8-16: Paul's main goal is to reconcile Onesimus to Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon's slave who had run away from his master. Somehow, he came into contact with Paul, who was under house arrest in Rome.

There are four distinct instances in this passage where we see Paul attempting to smooth things over with Philemon. He does this when:
  1. He informs Philemon of Onesiums' conversion (vs. 10).
  2. Paul refers to Onesimus as his son, stressing the relationship that Paul has to Onesimus (vs. 10).
  3. He stresses Onesimus' new found usefulenss (vs. 11, 13).
  4. Paul calls Onesimus 'his very heart' again stressing the intimacy of relationship (vs. 12).

8-10: Here Paul starts to get into the heart of the matter. What should Philemon do with Onesiums? Paul, as an apostle, has the authority to command Philemon to take the course of action that Paul feels is best. However the apostle does not do that for two reasons. As we saw last week, Philemon exemplifies Christian love, so Paul has confidence that he will do the right thing. Second, Paul wants this to be an opportunity for Philemon to grow in his love, and following a command does not give the same opportunity for growth that allowing Philemon to act of his own initiative in following the Spirit allots. Thus Paul is testing the depths of Philemon's love.

The big thing to see in these verses is that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus must be transformed because they are now brothers in Christ.

11: Here Paul is making a play on words, 'Onesimus' means useful. The stress again is on the transformation of Onesimus from unbeliever to Christian.

12-14: Paul decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon, even though he wanted to keep him. While under house arrest Paul couldn't go anywhere, so having someone dedicated to him who could meet his needs as well as carry information to and fro would be of huge advantage to him. Apparently a very close relationship developed between Philemon and Paul. Paul calls him his very heart, which could be rendered 'self.' This phrase paves the way for vs. 17.

Here, Paul also gives the first hints of Philemon's obligation to Paul, who was probably directly involved in Philemon's conversion. Paul wants Onesimus to be freed so he can go back and continue serving Paul, but he doesn't want to force that decision on Philemon, even though Philemon owes him.

15: Paul has a strong view of the providence of God. We see here that he implies that perhaps God was behind Onesimus' flight with the end being Onesimus' salvation. This is reminiscent of Jospeh's statement about his brothers selling him into slavery in Genesis 50:20, 'As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today' (ESV).

16: The ESV handles the translation of this verse best, 'no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.' Paul isn't simply looking for Philemon to free Onesimus to come back and serve Paul, he badly wants to see reconciliation. Paul's statement here is revolutionary. He's implying that our relationships with fellow believers are grounded in the reality of our union with Christ and with one another. Onesimus' status as a Christian overrides his status as a slave, thus he is a brother to his master. This kind of close, familial relationship between master and slave was frowned upon in the ancient world, which is not surprising, since a master-slave relationship inherently implies an unequal relationship. So Paul seems to be implicitly suggesting that Philemon manumit Onesimus.

17-18: This is the climax of the letter. Here Paul acts like Christ in reconciling Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon loves Paul and has a very positive view of him. Paul asks that that same love and positive view be extended to Onesimus. Not only that, Paul is willing to pay any debt that Onesimus may have incurred by his absenteeism. The main point, which I make at greater length here, is that Paul is willing to go the distance in bringing about reconciliation, even if it's very costly to himself.

19: In this verse Paul legally binds himself to pay for the Onesimus' damages if Philemon does not forgive them.

20: Paul badly wants to see them reconciled. Just as Philemon has refreshed God's people in the past, Paul wants to see Philemon act out of love by reconciling with Onesimus and treating him as an equal in Christ.

21: This verse is interesting. Paul has been careful to not command Philemon, but to encourage him to act out of love. Why would Paul say that he's confident of his obedience? Paul has made clear that, even while not specifying what Philemon should or should not do in this situation, there is a correct range of responses, loving responses. What Paul is saying here is that he is confident that Philemon will follow Paul's hints and that the Holy Spirit will direct Philemon to act in a maximally loving way, and the preservation of this letter is attestation to the fact that Philemon probably did.

22: Paul hopes to be released and wants to visit Philemon. This is not as much of an imposition as it might seem to us, since the privacy of the home was not a sacred ideal like it is far too often today.

23-24: Here we have a list of coworkers of Paul, perhaps Philemon knew them, he certainly would have known of them.

25: If Philemon is to do the right thing, he must be filled with grace. For it is only by the grace of God that we can act graciously towards one another, especially when they don't deserve it by human standards.