Monday, May 31, 2010

Thompson on Truth in 2 John

In his greeting to the congregation the Elder repeats two important themes: truth (vv. 1-4) and love (vv. 1, 3, 5-6). Truth includes matters of both faith and practice, and thus designates what Christians are to believe (vs. 7; 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6) and how they are to live (vv. 5-6). Truth is the reality to which Christians are committed, and they are known by their commitment to it.

But that reality is not simply a static and objective entity or set of beliefs. We tend to think of truth as a number of abstract propositions that we are to comprehend and believe. But for the Elder, truth is a vital force that can be personified as living in us and being with us. Because it comes from the living God, truth is a dynamic power that abides with believers, enabling them to know what is true. And because truth comes from God, it exists forever and remains with the faithful, just as God exists eternally and remains in relationship with the faithful. If we could capture John's view of truth as a force that, because it is the work of God's own Spirit, shapes and empowers us, we might be less prone to think of truth as something that depends on us to preserve it. In reality, we depend upon the truth to guard us - an not vice versa - because we depend upon God. Only as the truth abides in us do we abide in the truth. But we are somewhat too quick to reverse that relationship, and put human beings in the place where God's activity and power belong.

- Marianne Meye Thompson 1-3 John (IVP New Testament Commentary Series) pp. 151-2.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Great Theologians

In recent decades, one of the biggest problems in the church has been a lack of interest in and attention to church history and historical theology. Lately we have begun to see a correction, but this correction needs to flow down to the laity as well. That is where The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald McDermott comes into play.

In this book, McDermott highlights eleven of the most influential theologians in the history of the church: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Edwards, Newman, Barth, and Balthasar [1]. Each get between fifteen and twenty pages, in which McDermott provides some brief biographical notes, an overview of some key aspects of their theology, a section detailing what the current church needs to learn from them, a short selection from their writing, questions for group discussion, and suggested further reading.

That seems like a lot to fit into fifteen or twenty pages, but McDermott does an admirable job. He selects vignettes very carefully providing background that is both interesting and/or relevant to the later sections. I appreciated the balance with which this section was written, as McDermott praised them for their strengths and positive contributions and also brought up their weaknesses (e.g., Edwards owned slaves even though he denounced the slave trade) in a respectful and constructive manner.

The overviews of their theology are where the most significant value lies. While I may have had quibbles with a point or two, I think that these were of excellent quality and form a very good brief summary to each theologians thought. I found it most impressive that he was able to be so succinct, clear, and understandable without having to resort to superficiality. McDermott also renders us a service by helping debunk some popular misunderstandings of many of the theologians he treats (e.g., Origen held many views later deemed heretical - in fact he merely suggested these views for further discussion).

The remaining sections of the book also were helpful. I think that I generally agreed with his assessment of what we need to learn from each theologian (in the case of Schleiemacher it was about what to learn not to do/believe). I appreciate his desire to make his book relevant for current readers today. The questions could have been better, in my opinion. I found them to be a bit repetitive.

One other thing I found interesting was the occasional comments made by McDermott drawing out similarities in thought between the different theologians. It was very helpful, but I was occasionally surprised by what he chose to highlight. There are several comments about divinization (also known as theosis). I wonder if McDermott was tipping his hand there on a controversial issue in Evangelical theology.

Overall I found The Great Theologians to be both engaging and informative, a book badly needed by the contemporary church, especially given its accessibility. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in theology, meaning I recommend it to all Christians. Great Theologians is a must read.

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[1] Personally, I don't think that I would have picked the same eleven as McDermott did. I probably would have swapped Newman for Wesley. That's not to downplay Newman (who I admittedly am unfamiliar with), but more to get the Wesleyan tradition represented.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Judgment and Justification Part 2

What is God up to in this world? What is his grand plan? Following my teacher, Graham Cole, I would suggest that the missio dei is to secure God's people in God's place under God's rule living God's way in God's holy and loving presence as worshippers. While we won't look at every single element of the missio dei, I want to use it as a guide for breaking up the discussion. In this post we will look at the relationship between judgment and 'God's place,' which is where we experience God's presence. This may not be the most intuitive place to start, but hopefully it will make sense by the end of the series (if not sooner).

First, though, we need to recognize that what we are doing in this sequence of posts is looking at how God's rule relates to all of the other elements of the God's plan. One of the key roles of a king is to judge. And judge God does, over and over in Scripture. I remember when I first put together a list of significant passages on judgment to try to incorporate into my paper, I had more than 50. Those were just the big ones! So, part of what we hope to gain from this exercise is a better understanding of God in one of the primary ways in which we are to relate to him, as our Lord.

Judgment has always been linked to the both the place where God's people live and how it is that the people get there. In fact the very first time that judgment appears in Scripture is in its neutral sense, where God is judging that his creation is good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, ). Within this creation, was a special area, the Garden of Eden, in which God put his people to live in his presence. Adam and Eve mess it up, though, through their sin. As a result, the ground, part of God's good creation, is judged and cursed (Gen. 3:17-19). Our sin has marred God's good creation.

That is not to say that all of creation is now 'bad' in God's eyes. The promised land of Canaan was also deemed by God to be good, 'So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey' (Ex. 3:8a - TNIV). The land of Israel was a good land in which the people were to live in the presence of God, with him as their king. Even though it lacks the splendor of creation prior to the fall, the land does possess relative goodness.

While God's people do not collectively reside in one land anymore, we do have a good place to look forward to. The new heavens and the new earth, the future place that God's people will possess, are never explicitly called good in Revelation 21-22, but they certainly are. The author of Revelation tries to show that the new heavens and new earth are a restoration of God's creation that if anything surpasses the original (there are at least a dozen allusions in Revelation 21-22 to Genesis 1-3). God will give us a good place where we can live enjoying his presence as his bride, in the process undoing all of the damage incurred on his creation through humanity's fall.

The key which ties this all together is the notion of the sacred space of a temple. Eden and the new heavens and the new earth are sacred spaces, the Garden of Eden is a temple (see Greg Beale's important book, The Temple and the Church's Mission). The land of Israel is the place where God builds his temple, which in its architecture and adornment harks back to Eden. The new heavens and new earth do not have a temple, 'because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple' (Rev 21:22b). Thus, tied up in the goodness of the place is God's presence. It was not coincidental that God gave the people a good land and that he had his temple built there. It is not only that God is creator that made Eden good. God's presence in them make them good and God's presence in them make them good for his people.

In the next post we will look at the theme of 'living God's way' and judgment and how that relationship affects being 'in God's place' and 'in God's holy and loving presence.'

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Judgment and Justification: Part 1

God's judgment and its related themes are a particular point of interest for me, especially when they come into contact with the justification debates. So, across several posts, we'll be looking at judgment, justification, and other related topics (I am not sure how many posts it will be in total). I wrote a paper this past semester on the theme of judgment for my intro to biblical theology class. I'll present some of my findings from that paper in this series, but I also want to use these posts to extend some of the observations that I made and also address systematic theology questions that were not germane to a biblical theology paper. One thing that I do want to stress up front is that while I have put a lot of thought into these issues, I see my proposals as being far from a final word. This is a work in progress in what I intend to be a life long pursuit. I appreciate feedback, and especially push back, because, to borrow a line from NT Wright, I am sure that a fair amount of what I will go on to say here is wrong, I just don't know which parts they are. Part of my purpose in writing here is in hopes that you all will engage in these questions with me resulting in mutual sharpening.

In today's post we will address what and why. What is judgment and why am I so interested in it? We'll take the first one first, what is judgment? We can talk about two different things using the term judgment. What probably pops into most people's minds first is judgment as a negative concept. A very common usage for 'judgment' in the Bible is as the negative counterpart to salvation. Exodus 6:6 demonstrates this clearly: 'Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment' (TNIV). Judgment can also be a more neutral concept meaning something like 'a rendering of a decision.' While not explicitly using the term 'judge' or 'judgment,' the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is a good example of judgment of the latter type. Judgment can be either/or, and it's especially the latter type that needs to factor into our discussions of justification.

Why do I care about judgment and justification so much? First, I think that they're (especially judgment) central to the biblical witness. If you were to excise every passage dealing with judgment, you'd be missing a very large portion of your Bible. Second, honestly, is because it's so controversial. There are a lot of views on judgment and especially on justification (and I have no intentions of interacting with many of them, just a select few). How could something so central be understood so variously? Third, I think that our understanding of justification and judgment have sizable doctrinal and practical implications, some of which we will explore at the end of this series.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Galatians 2:11-14: The circumcision group

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (TNIV)
There's an important issue that we need to wrestle with in this passage, and it's the question of whether or not the people from James and the circumcision group are the same group. I am not inclined to think that they are. The ensuing discussion is drawn from Longenecker's commentary pp 73-5.

In verse 12, we are told of Peter's fear of 'the circumcision group.' There are three main options for who this 'circumcision group' is. They could be (1) Jewish Christians who claim that circumcision is necessary for Gentiles, they could be (2) Jewish Christians generally, or they could be (3) Jews generally. The Greek behind 'circumcision group' more literally is 'the circumcised ones.' The TNIV's wording shows that its team of translators opted for number 1. Longenecker, however, has convinced me that option 3 is actually the best choice.

There are two major reasons that he gives that I think together are somewhat decisive. One, is that when Paul uses the term 'circumcised' in the prior section, he's referring to Jews generally. This is in keeping with Paul's typical usage of this term. Second is that there seems to be no conceivable reason for Peter to fear a group of Jews when he was one of the leaders of the Jewish church and had been open in fraternization with Gentiles (see Acts 11).

On the other hand, we can suggest a plausible reason why there may be fear of the Jews at large. In the 40s and 50s there was a 'rising tide of Jewish nationalism in Palestine and its growing antagonism towards any Jew who had Gentile sympathies or who associated with Gentile sympathizers' (p. 74). To take Longenecker's point and run with it, it's very possible that Jews back in Jerusalem were getting increasingly intolerant with the Jerusalem church (remember, Christians were probably still involved in synagogues and the temple at this time). This meant that the mission to the circumcised was probably getting more difficult (as Longenecker points out) and it may be that there was growing persecution. Thus the church in Jerusalem and subsequently the Jewish Christians in Antioch may have taken a pragmatic approach for the time being. They knew that Gentiles didn't have to become circumcised, but for the sake of the gospel mission, and/or out of love for believers in Jerusalem, they may have pushed for Gentiles to follow Jewish dietary laws and get circumcised even though they knew that it wasn't required in an absolute sense. This seems to me to be the type of extenuating circumstance that could lead Peter to act against his earlier agreement (and act against what he believed as the term hypocrisy suggests he did).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book Review: The Living Paul

This month's (actually this is April's - you'll get a second one this month) book review is The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle's Life and Thought by Anthony Thiselton. Thiselton is one of the world's foremost theologians, and is especially known for his work on hermeneutics. He has also written a major commentary on 1 Corinthians which is my personal favorite on that book.

In chapters one and two, Thiselton addresses barriers to properly understanding Paul. The first chapter shows that Jesus and Paul aren't at odds, Paul didn't start a new religion that didn't care about Jesus apart from his death and resurrection. Iin fact shows that there was a lot of overlap between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul. The second chapter deals with the use of apocalyptic language. Often we don't recognize this aspect of the Pauline epistles. Here, Thisleton is especially helpful in showing the apocalyptic element of Paul's thought as well as how it can help us better understand the way that Paul believed God works in us an in the world. The concept of 'new creation,' which is an act of God worked in us, was key for Paul, especially in his ethical teaching. 'For Christians the new creation becomes the decisive and transforming dimension of their lives. Whereas much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul's preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is why we easily miss some of the sheer excitement of the gospel' (15). This chapter was a top notch presentation of Pauline apocalyptic. It was clear, concise, very balanced, and pastoral.

The third and fourth chapters of the book seek to set out a Pauline chronology in which Thiselton deftly interweaves material from Acts and the undisputed Paulines to lay out a brief history of the apostles life and thought. Here he informs us for the first time of a seeming ambivalence towards Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals, which is an issue he brings up continually as if apologizing every time he refers to him. As best I can tell he sees Colossians as probably authentic, possibly Ephesians, and less likely the Pastorals, but he never takes a firm stance.

Chapters five through seven detail Paul's understanding of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, and seek to show how you can see trinitarian thought nascent in the writings of the apostle. One of my favorite portions of these chapters was his discussion of Jesus Lordship. "When Paul focuses on the Lordship of Christ, his view of Christ is primarily one of relationship rather than 'titles'" (46). It's mainly about the way in which Jesus relates to us and to the rest of creation. The later creeds with their assertions about Jesus' ontological status are certainly true, but that's not what Paul was getting at, primarily, when he called Jesus 'Lord.' Here, again, Thiselton was at his best. Even though each of these chapters were brief, his insight was penetrating.

Thiselton describes Paul's anthropology in chapters eight and nine. Here he looks at what it really means for us to be human, including discussing what it means for us to be made in God's image and explaining the meaning of important terms like, 'mind,' 'soul,' and 'spirit' among others. There is also a helpful discussion on sin, where Thiselton stresses that sin is not just 'missing the mark,' committing discrete misdeeds, but sin is a state involving alienation and bondage.

Chapter ten lays out Paul's understanding of the cross. Here Thiselton stresses that the cross was central for Paul, and that it was a sacrifice of substitution and also of participation. The eleventh chapter was on justification. This was one that I felt was a bit confusing at times. Justification is a particularly hot button issue in Pauline scholarship so Thiselton spent a lot of time focusing on framing the debate and making comments about it. While it's helpful, at times it made it difficult to understand his exact view (Danny makes this same criticism on this chapter in his review). I would have much preferred that this chapter was more independent and that he just told us what he thinks clearly and concisely like he does in the rest of the book.

Thiselton expounds Paul's understanding of life in the church in chapters twelve through fifteen, covering the nature of the church, the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and ethics. I found each of these chapters to be very helpful, especially in how they drew out the communal aspects of Christian life.

The sixteenth chapter covered eschatology. I especially enjoyed when summarizing Wittgenstein Thiselton showed how to properly connect eschatalogical expectation with ethics. 'Expectation is not a mental state...Expectation...consists of appropriate conduct or behavior in a given situation' (138). Living in expectation isn't about sitting around waiting for Jesus to return, it's about living in a way that's faithful to him as the soon to return Lord.

In the last chapter we get a fast and furious summary of suggestions on how Paul might agree with some aspects of post modernity but is totally at odds with others. Thiselton gives a brief overview of postmodernity and then spends about a page each interacting with about a half dozen of the most influential post modern thinkers. I think that this chapter should have been an appendix rather than part of the book proper as it's far beyond the scope of knowledge of even the most informed lay person.

There's much to like about Thiselton's work. Most of the time he is clear and concise, and despite the short amount of space he avoids superficiality. I also appreciated that Thiselton wrote with a theologians perspective. At several points, he helpfully showed how modern theology has appropriately or inappropriately developed Paul's thought.

My biggest complaint with Thiselton's work isn't the content, it's that he has somewhat missed his target audience. Even aside from the the chapters on justification and postmodernity I felt that the book overtly interacted with scholarship too much. I think that the majority of lay people would miss out on a fair amount by not knowing much about the scholars and debates that he frequently cites. Only the most studious lay person will be able to keep up. I would be hesitant to use this book in a teaching setting in the local church.

For pastors with a seminary education this book could prove to be a helpful introduction, or even a reintroduction to Paul as a sort of brush up on what they learned in seminary. The other niche for this book would be in a seminary class or graduate seminar on Pauline theology. There it would be an excellent textbook where each chapter could be fleshed out in more detail.

Overall Thiselton has done a very good job summarizing Paul and his writings. He has much to say that is insightful and practical and does a lot with very little space. I think that for a limited audience The Living Paul could be a very beneficial addition to their library.