Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Judgment and Justification Part 3

Sorry for the long interlude in this series. I have been quite busy over the past month. Hopefully we will be able to work our way through the rest of the series reasonably soon.

As God's people we our desire should be to live in God's presence. In the Old Testament, God's presence was closely tied to the tabernacle or temple, which, after the conquest of Canaan and especially after the building of the temple, meant that God's presence was tied to the land of Israel. Only at the temple in Jerusalem could one experience the presence of God. This is why eschatalogical prophecies like Isaiah 66 picture the Gentiles coming to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.

This ties into a recurring pattern in the way that God metes out his punitive judgment. Sin leads to judgment which results in banishment from or the removal of God's presence. The very first punitive judgment in the Bible demonstrates this. When Adam and Even sin in Genesis 3 they are told that they will die and die they do, immediately. But it is not the physical death that one expects, it's a spiritual death of separation from God. This point is driven home poignantly when we are told about the flaming sword keeping them out of the Garden where God's presence resided. This construal of judgment fills the pages of the Old Testament. One could look to the judgment of Cain or the exile of Judah for a couple of rather obvious examples. Deuteronomy 28 is also a good example. There we read the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience. Many of the blessings and curses are tied to life in the land.

Why does judgment function that way? I believe it is because of the holiness of God. We could cite Leviticus 20 as one example to prove our point. In verse 22 God says that the land will vomit the people out if the people do not follow God's laws, and they must follow them because God is holy. In this chapter it is clear that an integral aspect of holiness is being separated from sin. Thus God's judgment is an expression of his holiness, both as punishment for sin and blessing for covenant keeping (as best I can tell blessing is only bestowed by God within a covenant relationship, while both those in and not in a covenant relationship with God feel his wrath). Thus being in God's place is both where we experience God's holy and loving presence and where we experience his blessing. In fact, I believe that we can tie that even tighter. Ezekiel 9-11 makes a clear tie between judgment and the departure of God from the temple, his removal of his own presence. Thus, it is through experiencing the presence of God that we experience blessing. The land served as a conduit for the Israelite's experience of God. This explains why in the New Testament, the people of God have no land until Christ returns. We the church have been given the Holy Spirit, and we the church are the temple of God. There is no more need for land.

On a closing aside, I think that this view at least lends modest support to one particular understanding of hell, as where God isn't. While any teaching on hell beyond a bare-boned sketch goes beyond what we can say about it without speculating, at least this particular speculation about hell is grounded in a thoroughly biblical notion of judgment. It doesn't necessarily make it the correct understanding of hell. It at least means it isn't unbiblical.

In our next post we will look more at the theme of 'living God's way.'

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review: Seven Books on Ethics

This summer I took a course in Christian ethics. The first six books in this review were on they syllabus, the last I'm throwing in as a bonus because it's quite good and deserves a wider readership than it is getting.

First up is Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. I really enjoyed this book. Its major strength is its rootedness in Scripture, especially the teachings of Jesus. The bulk of the book is ethical reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. I was impressed with the exegetical skill of the authors. While I may not have agreed with every conclusion that they arrived at, there were several moments of illumination for me in the way they handled the text. I was particularly helped by the way they show that Jesus wasn't showing us an impossible ideal that we could never live up to but that the bulk of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount can be broken down into threefold transforming initiatives. One example would be Mt. 5:21-26. Mt. 5:21 represents 'traditional righteousness,' Mt. 5:22 is the vicious cycle that we get stuck in, and Mt. 5:23-26 is the transforming initiative. That is what we are called to do. They break down the entire Sermon on the Mount from 5:22 on in this manner. It is very helpful.

I also liked that Kingdom Ethics relied on virtue ethics or was similar to a virtue ethics approach at many points. It makes for a much more holistic approach to ethics. Part of this stems from my upbringing, but I have a strong distaste for purely rule-based ethics. Overall, I strongly endorse this book. It's a fantastic resource for a course on Christian ethics in colleges and seminaries. I also think that it would be a helpful aid to pastors preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. Any serious student of the Bible who is serious about character formation and able to handle meatier and more academic works would do well to pick up a copy.

Next up is Ethics for a Brave New World by John and Paul Feinberg. This book is significantly different in approach from Kingdom Ethics. The brothers Feinberg start out by giving an introduction to different models for ethics that is very informative. Then they proceed through the usual battery of topics, such as divorce, abortion, war, and homosexuality. The strength of this book is the sheer amount of information that it gives you. They go into great detail discussing all of the pertinent details surrounding the issues. This also is a drawback in some senses, in that the book is now 17 years old making it out of date (however the 2nd edition to be released late this year will rectify that, as it is a thorough updating of the book).

I didn't always like the way arguments were made. The book did a particularly poor job of noting which arguments they considered strong and which they considered weak. There were many times that I felt that there were significant holes in certain arguments that were never addressed. They also took some odd views at times that I disagreed with (like the death penalty is obligatory). Overall, though, the book is more helpful than not, so it wouldn't be a bad option for someone looking to get informed on various ethical debates.

Richard Hays' masterpiece, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics needs no introduction or recommendation from me. At fifteen years old it is already considered a classic in the field of New Testament Ethics, and rightly so.

Hays' book is helpful on a number of levels. First is his thorough survey of New Testament texts where he draws out the various focal points that the writers of the New Testament looked through when addressing ethics (community, cross, and new creation). I also found his survey of five different theologian's theological ethics very informative. In that section Hays was critical but fair, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

One methodological point that I was helped by was his insistence that we let each passage speak in its given mode. For example, a character in a narrative who is used paradigmatically should be used as such, and not turned into a rule. Hays' handling of each of his five test cases is excellent, even if you do not agree with his final conclusions. In particular I found his essay on homosexuality to be the best thing that I have read on the subject (though it is not a subject that I read much about). In conclusion, I cannot recommend Moral Vision of the New Testament highly enough. This should be mandatory reading for every seminarian and pastor.

Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher Wright is for Old Testament ethics what Moral Vision of the New Testament is for New Testament ethics. If I were to list out all of the points at which I found Wright helpful, I'd end up referencing half of the book, so I'll limit myself to a couple of major observations that I found helpful.

His general approach to Old Testament Ethics is to look at the big picture. The law needs to be understood within its narrative framework. A big part of the wider framework of the Old Testament is understanding what God's purposes were for Israel. They were meant to live as a light as an example to the rest of the world. Thus being moral is being a witness. Then all of the rules and laws are subsumed within that wider understanding of God's purposes for his people. One other thing I really enjoyed about this book is that individual ethics is the last chapter. It's not that individual ethics aren't important, but they aren't the primary focus of the Old Testament. Again, like Hays' work on New Testament ethics, I believe that this book should be required reading for every seminarian and every pastor. It will change the way you teach ethics from the Old Testament.

One of the special focuses of our class was the immigration debate that is currently dividing the US. We read two books from different perspectives, both by Evangelical Old Testament scholars. One was Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible by M. Daniel Carroll R. and the other was The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by James Hoffmeier. It was interesting to see the contrasting approaches that each book took. There was much less overlap than I expected between the two. One definite benefit of Carroll's book was the historical background of immigration to the United States, focusing particularly on Hispanic immigration, that he provided. Hoffmeier's book payed less attention to background issues and spent more time on the biblical text. One interesting contribution that Hoffmeier makes to the discussion is his analysis of immigration in the ANE and the Old Testament, where he shows that immigration laws did exist, were enforced, and viewed as something to be respected.

In the end I tended to side more with Carroll who took a softer stance towards illegal immigration, but both books should be read by any Christian who wants to be biblically informed on this difficult and important issue. They are both fairly brief and not technical making them accessible to a wide audience.

The final book that I'll bring up was not on the syllabus, but is an excellent work in the field of Pauline ethics, that is Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul's Ethics by David Horrell. There are many helpful aspects of this book. He spends some quality time examining Pauline ethics over the past century. In particular he focuses on the work of Hays mentioned above and also Daniel Boyarin's work. He offers penetrating critiques of each. Horrell also helpfully integrates his study of the Pauline text with recent research from the social sciences on group identity and formation. His basic contention is that we need to understand Paul's ethics within their community framework. Paul's goal was to have communal solidarity that allowed difference on matters that were not critical to group identity. This book is very academic in approach, but for those who like to tackle such works, I would strongly encourage you to check out this book (and perhaps literally check it out - from the library as it's a little pricey).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Paul's Argument in Galatians 2:15-21

15 "We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. [1] So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ [1] and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

17 "But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn't that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God [1], who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (TNIV)
Here Paul continues the argument he made in the last section, explaining on theological grounds why Peter's behavior was so problematic. In verses 15 and 16 Paul affirms a basic point of agreement between them that he can use as a starting point for the rest of his argument. Both Peter and he know that it is only by the faithfulness of Christ in his death that one becomes part of God's people. Works of the Jewish Law do not contribute to one's justification. Peter knows that one doesn't need to become a Jew, to live like a Jew including being circumcised and following kosher food laws to be part of God's people. Through the cross God acted to break down the barrier between Jew and Greek showing that Abraham's family was meant to be a worldwide family. All one needs to do is believe to enter that family. At the end of verse 16 Paul alludes to Psalm 143:2 to provide Scriptural proof for his point. No one can keep the law well enough to please God anyways. Christ's work is necessary because of our sin.

In the following two verses Paul deals with the charge that would have been leveled against Jewish Christians who ate with Gentiles, namely that eating with sinners means that you condone sin (Jesus was similarly accused when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes). Paul turns that around and claims the opposite, putting pressure on his opponents. If one of the main purposes of Christ's death was to expand the people of God to a multi-ethnic family, then doing anything to build divisions along ethnic lines, like forcing Gentile converts to follow the law would be an act of sin.

Paul continues on the offensive in the last three verses. His core claim is that requiring law observance invalidates the work of Christ to break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. All who are in Christ have died to the need to follow the law because they have been co-crucified with Christ. We have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection which frees us from the bondage of sin and thus makes the law no longer the primary means of grace to keep us in good covenantal relations with God. The grace that keeps us in God's family is the grace we receive because of Jesus death on our behalf.

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[1] There is some uncertainty here about the meaning of the phrase rendered by the TNIV as 'faith in Christ.' Many interpreters opt for the 'faithfulness of Christ.' Both are grammatically possible. See Fee (84-88) for a strong defense of the traditional rendering and Longenecker (87) for a concise argument in favor of the latter option. In this particular instance it seems to depend on how repetitive you think Paul is being. Is he expressing the same exact idea in three separate instances in a very short space in 2:16? Fee counters by claiming that it is precisely this repetition that makes the rhetoric effective. What's not commonly looked at is how Paul's allusion to Psalm 143 may help clear up the difficulty. There salvation is clearly based on God's own faithfulness just one verse prior to the one Paul cites. That plus the unlikeliness of the repetition very tentatively pushes me toward the 'faithfulness of Christ' as being the best translation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Recommended Bible Study Resources: NT for the Lay Bible Study Leader

A friend of mine at church recently asked me for help building a his personal library. I thought that it would be helpful to post my recommendations here as well. This first of two posts will cover New Testament study resources geared towards the lay Bible study leader. They have, in my opinion, sufficient detail for really engaging the text, but not too technical so as to limit their utility for someone without formal training. I don't claim to have examined every commentary for any book at this level, but I do believe that each of these would be a very helpful to a lay person putting together a Bible study. I also tried to select commentaries that are priced reasonably but occasionally I did recommend slightly more expensive commentaries. This page will be periodically updated as I read commentaries I haven't checked out before or as new ones are published. I will also add in some additional books that are not commentaries as time goes on.

NT Introduction and Theology:
Introducing the New Testament Its Literature and Theology - Paul Achtemeier, Joel Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson
New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel - I. Howard Marshall

Commentaries (series abbreviations in parenthesis are defined below):
Matthew (NAC) - Craig Blomberg
Mark (NIVAC) - David Garland
Luke (NIVAC) - Darrell Bock
John (IVP) - Rodney Whitacre
The Book of Acts (NICNT) - FF Bruce
Romans (NCCS) - Craig Keener (review)
First Corinthians (INT) - Richard Hays
2 Corinthians (IVP) - Linda Belleville
Galatians (NIVAC) - Scot McKnight
Ephesians (NIVAC) - Klyne Sondgrass
Philippians (NIVAC) - Frank Theilman
Colossians and Philemon (TNTC) - N.T. Wright
1-2 Thessalonians (IVP) - Greg Beale
1-2 Timothy & Titus (IVP) - Philip Towner
Hebrews (NIVAC) - George Guthrie
James (NIBCNT) - Peter Davids
1 Peter (TNTC) - Wayne Grudem
2 Peter & Jude (IVP) - Robert Harvey and Philip Towner
1-3 John (IVP) - Marianne Meye Thompson
Revelation (NIVAC) - Craig Keener

Key (Here I tried to link to the publishers page here when possible)
INT: Interpretation
IVP: IVP Commentary
NAC: New American Commentary
NCCS: New Covenant Commentary Series
NIBCNT: New International Biblical Commentary on the New Testament
NICNT: New International Commentary on the New Testament
NIVAC: NIV Application Commentary
TNTC: Tyndale New Testament Commentary

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: According to Plan

My apologies for not posting much lately. Taking a summer class has utilized virtually all of my free time. The review that follows is a lightly edited version of what I wrote for my biblical theology class at seminary. Hopefully my posting frequency will increase soon. :)

Graeme Goldsworthy formerly was professor of Old Testament, biblical theology and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible is one of many monographs that Goldsworthy has published, which also include Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation, and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.

Why do we need the discipline of biblical theology? This is the question that Goldsworthy tackles in part one of the book. Correctly interpreting the Bible is a difficult task, and the meaning and significance of nearly every passage of Scripture is contested. The goal of biblical theology is to adjudicate some of these disputes by, ‘looking at one particular event in relation to the total picture’ (21). Biblical theology assumes the unity of the Bible and attempts to help us see how a specific passage fits into that unity (23).

In part two, Goldsworthy explains how to do biblical theology. He begins in chapter two by outlining the four major approaches to theology; systematic, historical, pastoral, and biblical theology (30-2). As he notes, biblical theology is a subset of exegetical theology (32). Exegesis can be understood as seeking to answer four basic questions; ‘what is the text,’ ‘what is the source of the text,’ and ‘what is the meaning of the text,’ and ‘how did the text come to be recognized as uniquely revelational and authoritative’ (33-5).

The next chapter discusses how we know, by comparing and contrasting three different kinds of knowing; secular humanism, theistic humanism, and Christian theism (37-44). Goldsworthy comes down squarely in the third camp. ‘Either we work on the basis of a sovereign, self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that we accept as true simply because it is his word, or we work on the basis that man is the final judge of all truth’ (44).

In chapters four and five, Goldsworthy builds off of chapter three, examining the goal (knowing Christ) and source (the Word of God) of theological knowledge. Part of the work of the new birth is to renew our minds so that we can correctly think about and draw conclusions from God’s word (48-9). Thinking correctly about the Bible means that we will recognize that the whole Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – is the word of God and reveals Christ, the Word of God (52-4). Goldsworthy sees the christocentricity of the Old Testament being far more pervasive than just a few proof texts, the Old Testament as a whole is about Jesus (53). It’s not about Jesus as clearly and obviously as the New Testament is, but that’s because revelation is progressive. Not everything about God’s plan of redemption was revealed at once. God unfolded it in stages through history (57).

The sixth chapter and seventh chapters delve into the question of the nature of the word of God and the method of biblical theology. In some respects these are the most important chapters in the book. A misstep here could skew all of your results (that includes missteps on both the left and the right). Goldsworthy begins in chapter six by identifying the relationship between Jesus and Scripture. Jesus, ‘sums it up, brings it to fulfillment and interprets it’ (59-60). Jesus and the Bible are both the word of God, but in different senses. Then Goldsworthy goes on to explicate the similarities between Jesus and Scripture via the incarnational analogy. Both are the divine-human word of God (61-3). The Bible is inspired and infallible, but, at the same time, it is a product of particular human cultures (63). Next Goldsworthy explains that Jesus is the climax of revelation. Revelation in the Old Testament is only partial (63-6). The chapter ends with a discussion explaining how Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament works. Old Testament promises are not fulfilled in a literalistic manner, nor are they merely fodder for ahistorical allegory (67-9). Christ’s fulfillment is typological where, ‘fulfillments correspond to and develop the promises’ (68).

Chapter seven, the last chapter in part two, delineates how one does biblical theology. Biblical theology starts with the gospel, which he defines as, ‘the word about Jesus Christ and what he did for us in order to restore us to a right relationship with God’ (73). From that starting point, Goldsworthy suggests attempting a three step approach to each passage. We must examine the literary form, historical record and the theology of each passage we study (73-75). Since Christ is center of God’s revelation, he must be kept at the center of our approach to Scripture. He closes by introducing some framework to help guide us through the rest of the book, a framework which helps us see how the Bible finds its unity in Christ.

In part three we see biblical theology in action. Goldsworthy begins by unpacking the gospel. From there he moves through the plot line of the Bible covering creation, the fall, redemption in the Old Testament, different aspects of life under God’s rule in God’s land, the exile and return, and finally the new creation. Most of the chapters are synopses of what happened at that point in redemptive history integrated with a discussion of how God’s redemptive action was shown. At the end of each chapter is a brief summary, a chart showing the progress of redemptive history thus far, a study guide, and a select bibliography.

Because of constraints of space I will select just one chapter to outline at greater depth as representative of the way Goldsworthy does biblical theology. In chapter twenty one, Goldsworthy covers the return from exile. He begins the chapter by giving a very brief overview of what happens in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and a brief description of the prophetic hope of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Daniel: The people are coming back into the land, but they do not get what they long for. The promised new covenant has not yet come into effect and the temple is embarrassingly poor so they continue to look to the future (195-6). This drives Goldsworthy to make a keen observation, namely, that the Old Testament is an unfinished story (197-8). The chapter is concluded by rehashing the main plot from the beginning of Old Testament history to here, stressing the lack of fulfillment in the Old Testament but also with an eye towards the fulfillment of these themes in Christ in the New Testament.

Part four gives us a brief snapshot at how one might attempt a biblical theological approach to studying two themes; knowing God’s will and life after death.

Goldsworthy’s work has much to commend to it. I will highlight a few items that were particularly helpful for me and note a couple of minor criticisms. The discussion of the nature of Scripture in chapter six was especially balanced. Goldsworthy avoided the pitfalls of liberal skepticism which sees the Bible as unreliable and a conservative fundamentalism that insists upon a literalistic approach to Scripture. I have long found the incarnational analogy to be a very helpful tool for understanding why the Bible looks very human on one hand and so clearly God breathed on the other (even if Goldsworthy and I would perhaps work out the details differently).

His biggest strength is his ability to unify the entire message of the Bible under one umbrella of the themes of promise and new creation (77). While those are not the only themes that he develops or that tie together the whole Bible, they certainly do deserve the priority that he gives them. God’s relationship with individuals and Israel as a whole is consistently centered around covenants. New creation is an end of God’s for all of creation. While new creation is not the ultimate goal of what God is doing, I do not think that he developed that theme enough in relation to the Old Testament. Discussion of the creation/new creation theme in the sections dealing with the Old Testament would show more clearly how the story of Israel and the story of the church coheres. This weakness does not mean, though, that Goldsworthy was not successful in showing the unity of God’s purposes as revealed in Scripture. He was successful on many levels. I think that a useful book could have been made even more useful with greater attention paid to new creation.

One element of his end of chapter summaries in part three that was especially beneficial to this reviewer was the charts. These diagrams show, at each stage of redemptive history, who God is, who his people are, the sphere of God’s saving activity, and the manifestation of the kingdom of God at that point in redemptive history. They enable the reader to easily grasp the progressiveness of God’s plan and form a good summary that can be used for quick reference.

Part Four could have been a bit more detailed. The sketches Goldsworthy presents would probably aid the pastor or someone with at least some formal theological training. I do not believe that the average lay person (who certainly is part of the intended audience of this book) would find it practically useful. It’s a little too difficult at times. Most lay people I know, for example, would have a hard time with point two under his suggested approach for ‘Knowing God’s Will.’ Goldsworthy does realize that it’s hard, but the method he suggests requires a fair amount of training in exegesis.

Overall, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible is an excellent introduction to biblical theology. The book bypasses technical jargon and never weighs down the reader with unnecessary detail making it truly introductory. At the same time, the breadth of material covered in such a short space is vast, making it truly a biblical theology. These two strengths should enable it to have a long life in the classroom. If one were to teach an adult Sunday school course on biblical theology, she or he would be wise to consider Goldsworthy’s book for that setting as well. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible should be in the library of every church and on the shelf of every serious student of Scripture.