Monday, August 30, 2010

Improving the Seminary Experience

Over at Boston Bible Geeks, danny has written an excellent three part series on how to improve seminary. By and large I am in strong agreement with him. I thought that in this post I would share a bit about my personal journey to TEDS and suggest a part of my preferred solution for what churches and students can do. It may be a bit idealistic, but I still think that it may be the best way.

I grew up and went to college in Rochester, NY. During my senior year I felt called to go to seminary. After graduation I stayed in Rochester for two more years serving in the campus ministry that I had attended while in college while my wife was finishing graduate school (we got married the year after I graduated). During my time in Rochester, the conviction to go to seminary grew and my pastor, while initially unsure, came to fully endorse my decision. That period was a very fruitful time for me where I spent a lot of time doing ministry with my pastor and other leaders in the college ministry.

After my wife graduated she found a job in suburban Chicago, which was great because I wanted to attend TEDS. Financially we weren't in a position where I could enroll, even though I very badly wanted to, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It gave me time to mature and become better prepared for seminary and as important, it gave me the opportunity to get involved in a local church before I started my seminary studies. There I served in a variety of ways, some mostly invisible, and some semi-visible. Two years after moving to Chicago I started part-time at TEDS with the blessing of my current local church.

I give this brief sketch because it proved, at least for me, to be a fruitful path to take on the way to seminary, though the path taken by necessity. My experience has led me to make one suggestion for those who are thinking about going to seminary and one for local churches.

If the seminary you want to attend isn't in the city you live in, consider moving to that city years beforehand, and getting acclimated and finding a local church well before you apply for admission. First, I think that this can be profoundly helpful for your general spiritual well-being while in seminary (though it by no means guarantees it). I have seen fellow students struggle because they weren't plugged into a local church. Additionally, it gives you the opportunity to get the blessing and support of the leadership at your new church or to have them question your decision (and if someone in ministry questions your decision you should think VERY long and hard). Additionally, you hopefully will have built a relationship with at least one of the elders or pastors in your church. This will give you the opportunity to apply what your learn in the classroom, whether through discussion in mentorship relationships, or through the chance to apply what you learn in ministry opportunities. If you're firmly rooted in your local church and have demonstrated a servants heart I think that these opportunities to do more visible ministry can start fairly early in your education. And there's no substitute for experience. Some may not want to do this because they don't want to 'waste time' before getting started doing the Lord's work (I'm often fighting this battle). For some that may be a valid concern, but if you're in your 20s or early 30s you have a lot of time (and I don't think that what I outline above is a waste of it!). What you should be most worried about is maximizing what you get out of your time of preparation.

Churches need to be more invested in their seminarians. If you have someone in your congregation who is attending your church while in seminary, has been at your church for at least a couple of years, and who you think has the potential to be a good minister, then I believe that you have responsibility towards that individual. Very few aspects of ministry are more important than raising up the next generation of workers for God's kingdom. Clear your schedule to mentor them. I do not think that time is the only thing you should invest in them, though. Strongly consider providing them with financial support. Seminary isn't free and very few seminarians that I know have a surplus of money. Many scrape by making hard sacrifices to be able to get their education (fortunately, at least for now, I am not in this group). Now, I agree with what danny says in part 2 of his series, that seminarians shouldn't seek out a church that will pay them. However, if someone has been involved in the church for some time, I think it would be a great idea for the church to take initiative in offering to provide financial support.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

10 Reasons Why Paul is not Referring to His Struggle with Sin in Romans 7:7-25

In my review of Keener's Romans commentary I mentioned the helpfulness of a chart in the discussion of Romans 7 (found on p. 92) where Keener showed the problems with a common way of interpreting Romans 7:7-25. Many believe that Paul is talking about his own, current struggle with sin in that section. However, if we were to accept that reading, we have the problem of Paul contradicting what he says elsewhere. Danny asked me to reproduce the chart, so here it is below:

Rom 7:7-25 Believers in the context
Law, sin, and death (7:7-13) Freed from law (7:4, 6;8:2), sin (6:18, 20, 22) and death (5:21; 6:25; 8:2)
I am fleshly (7:14) You are not in the (sphere of) flesh, if Christ lives in you (8:9); no longer in the flesh (7:5)
I have been sold under (as a slave to) sin (7:14; cf. 7:23) Believers have been freed from enslavement to sin (6:18, 20, 22); they are "redeemed" (3:24)
Knowing right (in the law) without the ability to do right (7:15-23) Power to live righteously (8:4), not conferred by external law (8:3); contrast 2:17-24
Sin dwells in (and rules) me (7:17, 20) The Spirit dwells in believers (8:9, 11)
Nothing good dwells in me (i.e., in me as flesh; 7:18) The Spirit dwells in believers (8:9, 11)
The law of sin dominates his bodily embers (7:23) Believers are freed from the law of sin (8:2)
Sin wins the war and captures "me" as a prisoner (7:23) (Believers should win the spiritual war, cf. 2 Cor 10:3-5)
I want freedom from this "body of death" (body destined for death; 7:24) Believers who do not live for their own bodily desres (8:10-13) are freed from the way of death (8:2), in contract to those who follow the flesh (8:6, 13)
A slave to the law of sin in his flesh, vs. his mind (7:25) Believers are freed from the law of sin (8:2, cf. 6:18, 20, 22); the mental persepctive either belongs to the Spirit or the flesh (8:5-9)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bavinck on the Goal of Dogmatics

I have recently started reading the first volume of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics which covers prolegomena. I really appreciate the doxological moments that have been scattered thus far. Dogmatics isn't a purely academic discipline for Bavinck because of the nature of its subject. Below is a short snippet showing one instance in which that comes into play:
'Specifically, this then is true of theology; in a special sense it is from God and by God, and hence for God as well. But precisely because its final purpose does not lie in any creature, not in practice, or in piety, or in the church, amidst all the [other] sciences it maintains its own character and nature. Truth as such has value. Knowledge as such is a good. To know God in the face of Christ - by faith here on earth, by sight in the hereafter - not only results in blessedness but is as such blessedness and eternal life. It is this knowledge that dogmatics strives for in order that God may see his own image reflected and his own name recorded in the human consciousness' (53-4).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Romans

I don't read through many commentaries in a short period of time very often, but I was in need of a refresher on Romans to aid me in my Galatians study and Keener's commentary was brief enough to tackle in the space of a week. Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University. He's published several other notable commentaries, including one on Revelation. His newest commentary is Romans: A New Covenant Commentary (soon to be overtaken by a forthcoming Acts commentary that will be published by Hendrickson).

The New Covenant Commentary Series is a relatively new series published by Wipf and Stock. Keener is one of the editors. The other is Michael Bird. The series aims for somewhere between a popular level treatment and a mid-level commentary. Keener definitely was in that range. The commentary was written clearly and not in an academic style. However, some technical jargon is used so at least a little bit of familiarity with the discipline of biblical studies on the part of the reader would be helpful (though not required). Much of the technical information and references to primary sources are relegated to the footnotes leaving the main text highly readable. Commenting is done section by section rather than verse by verse with each chapter of Romans earning its own chapter in the commentary.

I thought that Keener's introduction was very solid, especially in how he situates it both within its Jewish and Greco-Roman setting. He most clearly displays his deftness in his analysis of the rhetoric of Romans (more on this later). There is also a good brief overview of recent clashes over Paul in the law. Keener takes a mediating position, between old and new perspectives but he definitely leans a bit towards a traditional reading. My biggest criticism of his introduction is that he doesn't put much stress on the Spanish mission as being a main driver (if not the main driver) behind Paul's writing of Romans as I believe Jewett has helpfully shown it was in his commentary.

As for rhetorical analysis, some have admittedly pushed their analysis of rhetorical elements of Paul's letters (and other New Testament texts as well) too far, causing some to question the validity of the approach. Keener is much more measured. He doesn't seek to force Romans as a whole to fit into a rhetorical pattern and any neat classification. What Keener does is to draw attention to parallels in Greco-Roman rhetoric (with primary sources cited) between Paul's construction of phrases, sentences, or paragraphs when significant. Similar parallels are also drawn on the many occasions when Paul argues in a distinctively Jewish manner.

Scattered throughout the commentary are excurses and practical application sections called 'Fusing the Horizons.' Some of these were gems, especially his section on homosexuality. He gave a brief overview of homosexuality in Jewish and Greco-Roman society, after which he situated Paul in that context. Additionally he discussed some similarities and differences between their cultural attitudes and practices and our own.

Several of his treatments of individual chapters were outstanding. Particularly noteworthy in my estimation were his treatment of chapters 2, 7, and 12; especially chapter 2. I think that many commentaries get too mired down in debates over judgment by works and questions over who it is that keeps the law that they miss (or fail to emphasize) what Paul's main point is: God's impartiality in judgment between Jew and Gentile. Keener doesn't make that mistake. Instead he situates the complex debates on justification and the identity of the law keepers within Paul's larger argument.

Throughout the commentary Keener sprinkles tables. These tables provide a visual presentation of a comparison of the current section under discussion with other parts of the letter. These tables were so helpful, especially in his discussion of Romans 7:7-25. There he showed 10 statements from Romans 7:7-25 that would contradict what Paul says elsewhere if we were to understand them as referring to Paul's present struggle with sin.

My biggest disagreement with Keener is that I think he's still stuck a little bit too much within the 'old perspective on Paul' at times on matters of Paul and the law and justification. I question where he places him emphasis. I would have made his secondary points more central (justification in relation to covenant membership) and his central points (justification by faith opposing legalism) a little more secondary.

Overall, I think that Keener has written a knockout of a commentary. He does an excellent job of nailing down the main points of Paul's argument and situating the letter in its ancient context. I think that there may be some real advantage to reading shorter commentaries such as this one. It's much easier to see the forest. If the rest of the New Covenant Commentary Series reaches the bar that Keener set then we will have an excellent little series that will be of much help for busy pastors and lay people. I give Romans: A New Covenant Commentary 5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: Keeping God's Earth

Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for providing me with a review copy!

One of the hot debates today is over the extent to which we humans are negatively impacting the global environment. Many Evangelicals find themselves uncertain of where the evidence points. They think there's probably a problem but aren't sure how big it is and even if there is a problem, they're not sure how the Bible might guide us towards a solution. It's for this group (in which I would have included myself) that Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective is written.

The book starts with an introduction and an essay on the environment and eschatology. Then, four major ecological issues are tackled: cities, biodiversity, water, and climate change. Each of these four sections has two articles. The first is written by a leading Christian scientist in that field assessing the problem and the second is written by a biblical scholar providing the theological backbone necessary to help us address the issues raised in the prior essay (this was a very helpful format). The book closes with a concluding essay that synthesizes some of the conclusions drawn earlier and with an afterword that clarifies what it means for humankind to have dominion over creation.

Gauging by the level of the essays, the book is best geared towards the studious lay person, pastor, or student. The only exception may be Noah Toly's essay on 'Cities and the Global Environment.' I found that it was unnecessarily advanced at times given that the vast majority of those who read this book will generally be unfamiliar with environmental science (as I am). In fairness he did define technical terms when he used them, but their usage combined with his academic writing style made his essay harder work than necessary to get through. Overall, though, each of the essays did an excellent job of distilling their material in a nuanced, lucid, and accessible manner.

One helpful angle that many of the essays took was to show how the environmental crisis impacts human well being and the social justice aspects of many of our ecological problems. In particular, the essays that focused on science showed how often the poor get the short end of the stick, especially related to pollution of their environment and their inability to access safe water in many parts of the world. Another strength was the way the essayists attempted to undermine the strong current in pockets of Evangelical thought that believes that because we were given dominion over the earth that we can do with it and its inhabitants as we please. Our role as image-bearers, as God's representatives on earth, is to be an extension of his beneficent rule, and that being just rulers in the biblical sense requires that we look out for the vulnerable.

Most of the theological essays are fairly reserved in the conclusions they give. They serve as a good starting point for further reflection and leave implementation up to the individual. The eschatological focus of Doug Moo's and Christopher Wright's essays were particularly helpful (all in all I thought Wright's was the standout of the collection). I especially appreciated how Wright used eschatology to ground environmental ethics in the mission of God. If redeeming the cosmos is one of God's goals, then it must be one of our goals too, and it must be a goal that we pursue in its own right, not just as a subsidiary goal to evangelism.

Overall, Keeping God's Earth is a much needed resource for the ongoing discussion of environmental ethics. When you are done reading it you will be convinced of the centrality of creation care to the mission of God's people. For far too long we have sat on the sidelines or even fought against policies that would promote the health of the environment. Keeping God's Earth is an excellent resource providing us with the theological grounding we need to bring God glory by fulfilling our roles as image bearers exercising his benevolent kingship over all of creation and participating in his mission of redeeming all of creation.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Galatians 3:1-5: Fee on the Centrality of the Spirit

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by your observing the law, or by your believing what you heard? (TNIV)
Something critical that many commentators miss in Galatians is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. As expected, Gordon Fee is an exception (Hays and McKnight pick up on this theme, too, to a lesser extent). Fee's discussion at one point was so helpful that I'll quote it at length,
...[A]long with many other passages throughout the corpus, this appeal to "reception of the Spirit" as evidence of entry into the Christian life demonstrates the crucial role that the Spirit plays not only in Christian conversion itself but also as the singular "identity mark" of those who belong to Christ. After all, at issue throughout is proper evidence of identity. What uniquely distinguishes God's people, marks them off as inheritors of the promises made to Abraham? The agitators are urging circumcision, probably on the basis of Gentile inclusion in the covenant with Abraham in Gen. 12:3 and 17:4-7, 12. Paul argues for the Spirit. As the question makes certain, for Paul the Spirit alone functions as the seal of divine ownership, the certain evidence that one has entered into the life of the new aeon. As such, even though Paul's expressed contrasts for his present purposes are between "hearing of faith" and "works of law," the ultimate contrast is between life under law (= slavery) and life in the Spirit (= adoption as children), as 4:1-7 makes clear and 5:13-6:10 will further amplify. The Spirit alone distinguishes God's people in the new covenant.

Fourth, the entire argument comes aground if the appeal is not also to a reception of the Spirit that was dynamically experienced. Although Paul seldom mentions any of the visible evidences of the Spirit in contexts such as these, here is the demonstration that the experience of the Spirit in the Pauline churches was very much like that described and understood by Luke - as visibly and experientially by phenomena that gave certain evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God. Not only is this the clear point of the rest of the argument in vv. 4-5, but also such an understanding alone makes the present rhetoric possible at all. Not only so, but such an experienced reality best accounts for the way that Paul picks up the argument about life in the Spirit in 5:13-6:10. Many of the difficulties moderns have with the latter passage - and its promises - lie with the general lack of appreciation for the dynamically experienced nature of life in the Spirit in the early church (106-7).
I think that this forms a wonderful summary of what's going on in the body of Paul's argument from 3:1-6:10. What I found most helpful is that seeing the centrality of the Spirit in Paul's argument demonstrates that the letter is all about the how and what of the people of God. The Spirit is mentioned explicitly in five sections, the current one (3:1-5), in 3:14, 4:6, 4:29 and 5:16-6:10. The thing to notice is the way the Spirit is talked about in relation to us. Except for the final section the Spirit is directly linked either to our status as the people of God or is used in a relational/familial metaphor. This shows that Fee's conclusion is right on, that Galatians is about how we can tell who the people of God are and as Fee also points out, this is what ties the closing parensis to the rest of the letter, and in fact makes it integral, for if you have the Spirit than your life must show evidence of it.