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.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Theology in Action: Theology Builds Communities

Why did Paul write his letters? Surely it was not to dispense information solely for the purpose of the cognitive consumption of individuals in the communities he was writing to. That is to say, Paul had way more in mind than instructing us in doctrinal things that we must cognitively assent to, to be saved. Every part of every letter he wrote was written with the intention of constructing healthy Christian communities. That should cause us to ask, 'what roll does theology play in building community?'

One interesting proposal comes from chapter 3 ('Reading Paul: Myth, Ritual, Identity and Ethics') in Solidarity and Difference by David Horrell (which is backed up at length with arguments from the social sciences on group formation and identity - an excellent read that I highly recommend) where he argues that theological statements should be seen as identity-descriptors and group norms needing to be affirmed constantly, not indicative statements to be held as true or false (p. 94).

While I don't agree with Horrell completely, I think he's on to something. I would rephrase his conclusion to say that theological statements are not purely indicative statements to be held as true or false. They additionally function as identity descriptors and group norms which have massive implications on the way we live. This means that both what we believe and how we act defines who we are as a group. It controls who is considered inside and outside (conformity also impacts the rolls that one can take in the group as more important rolls require greater conformity to group norms).

I believe, though, that the relationship between boundary defining doctrine and boundary defining behavior is much closer than we might initially think. In addition to being facts to be believed, doctrines are ethical imperatives (I think this is in generally consistent with Horrell's point, although he may waver at extending it as baldly as I am). They are realities to be lived out. No doctrine can be said to be understood if it is not lived out. But what does that look like? What does it mean to live out a doctrine and how does it build community? We'll answer that in a post later this week when we look at an example of living out a specific doctrine, namely imputation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Helpful Perspective on Growing Old and Dying

In the book, The Word Leaps the Gap, there is an excellent article by Richard Hays titled, 'The Christian Practice of Growing Old.' He has some excellent insight on the New Testament's answer to the problem of death. He argues that Jesus' resurrection affirms God's firm, resolute commitment and faithfulness to his creation, us as humans and creation as a whole. Our bodies will one day be redeemed when we are resurrected like Jesus was, which means that what we do with our aging bodies matters. Also, Jesus resurrection, which overcame the power of sin and death should give us hope and take away our fear of dying. Hays goes on to say that,
In such confidence inspired by the New Testament's testimony, we are set free from the paralysis that the fear of death produces in our culture: we need not deceive ourselves with costly amusements that distract us from the truth of our mortality and foster the illusion that we are immortal. Likewise we are set free from the frantic urgency to forestall death at all costs: we need not grasp at life or harness every medical technology at our disposal. We can look death in the face without fear, because we trust in the promise of the resurrection. This means that the practice of growing old can be characterized by a sober confidence, no matter what trials and complications we face. As Christians we are people trained to die. We have been trained for this from our childhood by focusing, week in and week out, on the story of the cross and resurrection. We need not avert our eyes from our own death, for our identity is grounded in the crucified Messiah who has gone before us through death and resurrection (p. 663 emphasis mine).
I am still in my youth, but this has hit home with me. I can't say that I've trained myself well to die; I fear growing old and dying. But what is there to fear? We have one who has gone before us, providing us the certainty that we too can pass from death into abundant life.