Monday, December 26, 2011

Paul's Argument in Galatians 6:11-18

11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
 12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
 17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

In his conclusion to the Galatians Paul takes up the pen in his own hand, not so much to underscore authenticity as to draw attention to the importance of what he now has to say. This section is probably the most power packed of any in the Pauline corpus.

One last time Paul wants to go on the offensive against the Teachers. He impugns their motives, claiming that on top of being wrong, they’re insincere. The real reason why they’re making Torah observance a big issue is out of a desire to avoid persecution (note they’re given the same charge as Peter in chapter 2) being carried out by zealous Jews towards those (like many in the early church) who were soft on Torah, especially on Jewish identity markers like circumcision. If they could convince the Gentile Galatians to become Jews then, rather than being persecuted, they would be lauded and have grounds for boasting.

In vv. 14-15 we see the strong apocalyptic themes in Paul’s thought. The time for defining the people of God by Torah is a thing of the past. Torah with its inherent division of humanity into Jew and non-Jew is a thing of the past. All distinctions have been erased by the cross. The problem of the Teachers isn’t that they’re Jewish, it’s that they’re trying to restrict the people of God ethnically. ‘Here too, the irony of Paul’s critique should not be missed: the very appraisal of circumcision by which Jews typically saw themselves as marked out from the wider world (as special to God) was itself a mark of belongingness to the world in its distance from God and deserving of God’s judgment’ (Dunn 342 - emphasis original).

Paul concludes with words of blessing and a hopefulness that the Galatians will ultimately be on his side. Sandwiched in there is his wish to not have to deal with this issue again. His cruciform lifestyle was self evident and should have been all of the testimony he needed of his genuine apostleship. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Movies of the Year: 2011

I've started watching more movies over the past year, so I thought that I might put together my list of movies of the year. Much like my books of the year post it's a list of the best movies I watched this year, regardless of release date.

5. A Serious Man

This Coen brothers' film definitely has a niche audience, but I have to agree with some of the critics who thought that this movie was better than No Country for Old Men. It weaves together popular wisdom and biblical themes into a rich tapestry on which to explore the question of suffering.

4. The Silence of the Lambs

I do not like horror movies, but this movie and Hopkins performance are as good as advertised.

3. Sucker Punch

This may be the most misunderstood film in a long long time. Not only does it not suck, like it's critics claimed, but it's a phenomenal film and brilliantly told if you'll take the time to dig your teeth into it after you're done watching it. See my review and defense of the film here.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

This fall I showed my wife a few of Steve Martin's films to expose her to the best of American comedy. I had only seen bits and pieces before. After watching it the whole way through, I think I have to say that it's my all-time favorite comedy.

1. Black Swan

Black Swan is probably in my all time top ten. It's been years since I've seen a film that caused me to well up with pure delight (it's similar to how I felt about Godfather II when I saw that for the first time a few years ago). The story telling is exquisitely beautiful and Natalie Portman deserved her Oscar.

Now for the top 5 movies that came out this year that I haven't seen yet and hope to see next year.

5. Pearl Jam Twenty

Pearl Jam is by far my favorite band and this is the definitive documentary released for their 20th anniversary. It should be two hours of awesome music and great insight into the last great rock band.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Gary Oldman is an excellent actor and I love spy movies. Unfortunately I can't find a movie theater nearby showing it so I guess I'll be watching on Netflix.

3. Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

My favorite genre of movie is PG-13 action movies. Hopefully I'll catch this before it's out of the theaters.

2. Moneyball

Baseball is my favorite sport and I think that Billy Beane's insight was real. I think it should be interesting.

1. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I love the Swedish original. I love Daniel Craig. I love Rooney Mara. I'll be at the theater next weekend.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Books of the Year: 2011

This was the first full year of my daughter's life. Probably unsurprisingly, it also was probably the year I read the least. I still read enough quality, though, to have what I view as a strong list. As always, the rule here is that I must have read (finished) the book in 2011 and have not finished it in a prior year.

5. Women in the Hebrew Bible ed. Alice Bach

This book is a collection of 'greatest hits' of feminist OT scholarship. It was a delight to read. Virtually every article was interesting even if not persuasive. One essay in particular stood out, 'Genesis 22: The Sacrifice of Sarah' by Phyllis Trible. It was one of the two best essays I read all year.

4. One.Life by Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is one of those people who I consider a mentor through their writings. This is a great little book on discipleship for teenagers up through people in their early thirties. I was particularly impacted by the stories he told about his interactions with students. It gave me a model to follow if and when I ever become a professor.

3. Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

This book is class Wright. While overdone in places, Wright's analysis is very insightful. It paints a very coherent picture of a Jewish Jesus and has helped me in many cases understand just what the Synoptic writers were trying to convey.

2. Galatians by James Dunn

This is hands down the best commentary on Galatians. Even if you're not a NPP person there's a ton of useful information here, and hey, it may persuade you. It did me.

1. Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison

I've always loved the work of Dale Allison. This book reminded me why. He's so attentive to detail and also integrates data from other disciplines effectively. The sections on human memory were particularly eye opening and his overall approach to historical Jesus studies seem to me to be right on track.

Now for my top 5 books that came out in 2011 that I have not yet had a chance to read but wish to.

5. Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology by John Walton
I loved Lost World of Genesis One (see review), so I think I'll like this book, which is a scholarly treatment of the same material.

4. Justification: Five Views eds. James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy

If the contributors are strong I really enjoy books that attempt to provide debate on important issues. Justification is a topic of interest for me and I like several of the contributors, especially Michael Horton, Michael Bird, and James Dunn.

3. Proverbs & Ecclesiastes by Daniel Treier

Of the commentaries that came out this year, this is the one I'm most interested in. I took a brief peek at it in the library and found it to be very rich.

2. Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright

I'm always on the lookout for books on Jesus that I can recommend to lay people. I expect that this will probably be at the top of my list.

1. Life After Death by Anthony Thiselton

I'm not too interested in hell, but I am interested in what happens to a believer when they die. I actually think this isn't completely clear in Scripture. In his intro to Paul, Thiselton in passing made a comment that he thinks Paul took what we would now call a 'soul sleep' position. Unfortunately there wasn't much discussion of it. There will be here, I assume. Thiselton also is fairly aged so it'll be interesting to get the perspective of a scholar who is closer to the end of his life than further.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: A Community Called Atonement

Last year I reviewed Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman at great length. For as long as this blog is kept running, I want to do the same for one book each year. This year's review will be of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight. If you have any requests for next year's book, leave me a comment and we can have further discussion.

It's important to read the prologue of this book. Here McKnight lays out his major goal, to which he constantly refers throughout the rest of the book. He likens our atonement theories and metaphors to golf clubs. When you play golf you need more than one club if you're going to be successful, and the Bible uses more than one image to describe the atonement. We need to find a golf bag in which we can fit all of our atonement clubs and we need to know what the purpose of each club in that bag is (xiii). In the following pages, McKnight lays just that out.

McKnight begins with the claim that the atonement is the good news of the gospel, and that it explains how the gospel works (1). He also insists that atonement must make a difference in your life, in the way you live right now (1-2). Atonement brings reconciliation and healing, and extends beyond our relationship with God to our relationship with one another. Atonement theory is practical and, 'the gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create.' While, 'the kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach' (5). These are two key assumptions that drive much of what McKnight says throughout the book. Both our preaching and our communities need to reflect the fullness of what God has done through Christ in bringing atonement.

The discussion of atonement begins in the logical, but often overlooked place, with Jesus; more specifically with Jesus proclamation of and ushering in of the kingdom. McKnight's main thrust through this chapter is that, 'any atonement theory that is not an ecclesial theory of atonement is incomplete' (9 - emphasis original), because the saving work of God brings in a just society where we experience peace (10). The kingdom is the telos of the atonement (13). The bulk of this chapter deals with several key passages in Luke-Acts illustrating the centrality of those elements of Jesus kingdom teaching.

The kingdom isn't McKnight's only starting point. McKnight starts this chapter by emphasizing the obvious; where you start determines where you'll end. If you start with wrath, you'll end up with penal substitutionary atonement (15). Others pick other starting points and end up with equally narrow atonement theories. So, in this chapter, McKnight trots out three more starting points along with kingdom (the next will bring up another three), God, humanity, and sin. Drawing on the Eastern emphasis on periochoresis, McKnight stresses that atonement brings a fourfold reconciliation between us, images of God broken by sin, and God; one another; ourselves; and the cosmos (22). The biggest problem we face is that we've sinned against God, but we need to see the full scope of our needed restoration if we're to get our understanding of atonement right (23).

McKnight's final batch of three starting points are eternity, ecclesial community, and praxis. The core of this chapter can be summed up in this quote, 'Atonement is the work of God to create and ready his people for just these things: union with God and communion with others in a place of perfection, with a society of justice and peace and above all worship of the lamb of God on the throne' (27). Life here and now is supposed to be lived in light of this future reality, to be lived as if it really is true (25). Individuals benefit from atonement, but always in the context of a community (27). And the communities that God creates bring atonement, it is the task of the church to perform atonement (28-31).

Now that McKnight has given us a well-rounded picture of the different elements that need to be held together in our atonement theology, he moves onto addressing different atonement metaphors. The discussion begins with a discussion of metaphor and what it means to call atonement theories metaphors. He cites Vanhoozer,
any given theory of atonement is "not a set of timeless propositions, nor an expression of religious experience, nor grammatical rules for Christian speech and thought, but rather an imagination that corresponds to and continues the gospel by making good theological judgments about what to say and do in light of the reality of Jesus Christ" (36-7 emphasis McKnight's).
Another key point that McKnight makes is that we understand metaphors by indwelling them, not by dissecting them (37). The reason why metaphors are used is because they are so effective at pointing to another reality, to a reality beyond themselves. They're a lens that we look through to see the thing (38).

McKnight then goes on to evaluate penal substitution and its critics, offering three concerns with what he sees as distortions that come from some proponents of the theory. The two main points that he makes are these, we need to make sure we don't present God as being in conflict with himself as if his love and holiness opposed one another (41-2) and second that we need to recognize that it is one metaphor among others that Scripture gives us. '[A]dvocates of this theory run the risk of playing the game of golf with one club' (42). McKnight issues a challenge to those who oppose penal substitution as well, saying that they often caricaturize the theory (40).

The sixth chapter continues to extend some of his earlier discussion about the need to start at the right place to get the end result, in the process deepening his earlier discussion on humanity and sin. In what follows McKnight addresses the three key moments of the atonement; the incarnation, crucifixion (which is the central key moment), and the resurrection.

We will highlight how McKnight handles one of these themes. Since it's Christmas let's opt for 'incarnation,' which 'means identification for the sake of liberation' (55). Jesus becomes what we are and in the process creates a people around himself (57). This happens through our union with Christ. Union with Christ is central to McKnight's entire atonement theology. Wisdom, sanctification, redemption, and justification all flow to us because of our union with Christ (59-60). The incarnation is crucial for union with Christ to take place. The central passage for McKnight is Phil 2:5-11, the passage he calls, 'the most complete statement of the atoning work that we can find in the entire New Testament' (60). Here we see how Jesus entire life of selfless service atones for sinful people (60). It's an atonement that draws us into the very life of God and calls us to live in accordance with Jesus example (60).

The next three chapters discuss how four of the churches most important 'theologians' discussed atonement. Chapter 11 examines Jesus' understanding of his death, looking at the Last Supper. McKnight stresses that the Last Supper 'storified' Jesus death for his disciples (83). Jesus dies during Passover, not on Yom Kippur. That fact gives shape to our understanding of the atonement. "Jesus' act at the Last Supper declares that his death is atoning, that his blood is like the Passover blood, that his blood absorbs the judgment of God against sin and systemic violence, that his death will save and liberate his followers from their own sins, and that his death will create the new covenant community around him" (86).

Next, McKnight looks at Paul, sketching his doctrine of justification. Building off of the work of N.T. Wright, justification is defined as, 'the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham' (93 - emphasis original). In contrast to the Reformers, McKnight emphasizes that justification is not about how one gets into God's family. It simply is a declaration that this has taken place (93). Point (b) is critical to properly understanding justification. It helps us move beyond an individualistic understanding of what happens at justification. Additionally, it opens the door to justification being effective in the believer and communities now, having moral impact (97-8).

The last chapter in this section showcases Irenaeus and Athanasius. McKnight selects these theologians of the early church because of their emphasis on recpaitulation, which he considers to be the bag that holds the clubs. Christ recapitualtes, or sums up, Adam's life, Israel's life, and our own in both an exclusive sense (standing in our place doing what we cannot) and an inclusive sense, incorporating us into his life. Here McKnight works along lines similar to Michael Gorman, emphasizing theosis - a theory which contends that by our union with Christ we, while remaining distinct from God, participate in his very life (103).

In chapter fourteen McKnight moves to summary. His central theme is, 'identification for incorporation' (107). Jesus identifies with us and incorporate us into his death and resurrection (107). Identification grounds the atonement with the purpose of incorporating us (108-9). The rest of the atonement theories work out different pieces of this concept of identification for incorporation (110-4).

Unfortunately I have run out of space to provide but the briefest of summaries of the last major portion of the book. The title of the book is 'A Community Called Atonement,' meaning in part that atonement is something that the community does and brings. McKnight explores several different avenues under the heading of praxis, looking at a wide range of issues of worship, community, and external mission. These themes are looked at to help us see how we can both experience and bring atonement here and now.

Overall I was very pleased with McKnight's work. In many ways it brought clarity to my own thoughts on the subject. There were three aspects in particular that I thought were important. First, I think it's critical that we play with a full set of clubs. I have seen far too many Christians (both on the left and right) emphasize one aspect of the atonement to the neglect of the others. These have the effect of presenting an imbalanced portrait of God. I found McKnight's proposal, that we need to have more than one starting place for our discussion to be so helpful in guarding against that mistake. If, for example, you start your atonement theory at the fall then you're going to have a narrow understanding of the atonement. McKnight integrates themes and texts very, very well.

Second, I thought McKnight's discussion of justification was rich and broad. McKnight's view is very nuanced and helpfully develops N.T. Wright's work. It also was short, and that's a good thing. There's so much more to the atonement than justification. My only wish here was that it had been later in the book, after he had introduced the 'identification for incorporation concept' so that he could present it as an alternative formulation to double imputation.

Third, it is wonderful that one third of the book is devoted to matters of praxis. If we do not ultimately live as agents bringing atonement to the world, if we do not experience the effects of atonement now, and if we do not live in hope of the culmination of God's atoning work then the previous discussion does not matter. We need more scholars and theologians to write these kind of books. We need them to be written by scholars because we need to read the best work that has the most rigorous research behind it. We need practical books because it's too easy for many of us to make our theology a point for debate not a pointer for how to live.

I do have one criticism and one point that I would have liked to have seen developed more fully. I'll begin with the latter. In his discussion of resurrection, McKnight explains how God is at work creating a transnational people (72). The work of Christ erases distinctions that divide and puts everyone on an equal playing field before God. I felt McKnight's treatment of this topic was far too brief. It could be argued to be the central theme of several of Paul's most important letters (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians). It only gets about half of a page. A neglect of this theme permeates large swaths of the church and we needlessly create division among ourselves and claim superiority over others for a variety of reasons. Unity is at the heart of the gospel and the atonement. Unity is a matter of first priority. I would have liked further discussion here.

Also, as McKnight has noted in King Jesus Gospel, the gospel can't be equated with atonement. The gospel saves, but that does not mean that we should equate gospel and atonement as McKnight does on the opening page of the book (he discusses his shift from this approach in the King Jesus Gospel - see my review). The gospel is the story of Jesus. It includes his life (especially his public ministry), death, and resurrection. To be clear, McKnight's understanding of the gospel is far from transactional in this book, however he still defines the gospel too narrowly.

These criticisms are minor. I found A Community Called Atonement to be an excellent discussion of atonement that hits its target audience (pastors). It's neither too long and dense nor too short and superficial. A Community Called Atonement is theology come to life, as McKnight not only explains what atonement is but tells us how to live it. It is a timely call and challenge to all who have inadequate atonement theologies. Will we listen and bring atonement to this world?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Correcting Erring Saints, In Canonical Context

 1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. 
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (NIV)
Here in Galatians 6:1-10 Paul explains how to deal with erring saints. They are to be restored with gentleness. How do we square this with his attitude towards the Teachers, as well as his stance in 1 Corinthians 5, or Jesus words on this subject in Matthew 18? What model is to be the primary model for dealing with sin in the community?

We will start with this text. There are three main emphases. Correction is to be restorative, it is to be done gently, and it is to be done humbly. While this text doesn't focus so much on the mechanics, it does provide a framework within which to act. It's not a manual, it's a list of virtues to embody. For those who love virtue ethics, this is the text for you.

Second, we will consider Matthew 18:15-20. This passage is much more like a manual, do this and if it doesn't work then do that, and so on. This is probably the standard text in evangelicalism for how to enact church discipline. And I understand why, because it's clear cut. We like easy to follow rules. The problem is that this text often gets implemented without paying any attention to our current Galatians passage. Yes, go ahead and follow the steps on this list, but make sure it's done with gentleness. Much seems to be done in haste to deal with sin quickly and decisively. Why?

Well probably because of the impact of 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul rips the Corinthians for their failure to deal with a major, open sin issue. It's important to a key point about this text, though. The issue is with the Corinthians because they didn't do anything. It's not that they were slow and careful in dealing with the problem. In fact, they practically encouraged it! And the guy seemed to show no sign of remorse. Paul's concern is that the Corinthians won't do anything about the matter. They won't go through the last step of Matthew 18 and finally remove the unrepentant individual (notice vs. 5 does show some concern for the individual) from the community. 1 Corinthians 5 is not ordering swift and decisive action, as it might appear to be at first glance. It's simply upbraiding pure inaction and the attitude that sin doesn't matter.

So what does a well rounded understanding of correction look like? First it needs to be stressed (because of how commonly we have erred here) that it needs to be done in gentleness and humility. The whole goal of discipline isn't expulsion, it's restoration. Second, sin matters. The community is called to be holy and needs to take that calling seriously. Gentleness isn't the lack of correction, it's the spirit in which correction is to be performed. Finally, there's a clear protocol to follow. Don't expose sin publicly unnecessarily, but deal with it in a discrete and firm manner.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Galatians winding down, next up?

There's now one section left to cover in Galatians to finish up the letter. A while back I had mentioned that I would be tackling John next. Well plans have changed. I've decided that I want to start a long term research project that you'll probably read a lot more about in the future on this blog (if you keep reading it of course). The next book up will be Song of Songs.

I'm just starting a study sexual ethics, particularly focusing on the relationships between sex, identity, and power. This will probably be a long study that will take years if the Lord gives me the energy and desire to see it to completion. To start I'll have a dual focus. First will be to look at how the Bible gives positive shape to our understanding of sex, sexual ethics, and sexual identity. Song of Songs becomes an obvious starting point here. The second starting point will be to seek to gain a better understanding of gender in the Bible. How 'gendered' are the biblical texts and how does that 'genderedness' affect the content and presentation? I do believe that the Bible is the word of God, but I believe that it is the word of God to a particular people in a particular point in history. I do think that we need to account for that particularity. How to best do that is something that I am still uncertain of and will be one of the fun elements of doing this study.

Here's where I think that feminist theology can be a critical help, or at least a certain brand of feminist theology. Feminist theology, much like the Latin American liberation theology that it comes from can be oh so helpful, showing us our own biases as well as biases that affected the biblical texts, as long as it doesn't seek to turn the tables and replace one hierarchy with another with women at the top (as noted by Alice Bach in the introduction to Women in the Hebrew Bible xv). 

So, along side Song of Songs, you will probably see some posts on Proverbs 1-9 and Proverbs 31 as I examine Old Testament perspectives on women and gender (drawing this idea from the fascinating article by Carol Newsom titled 'Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9 in Women in the Hebrew Bible). Though, initially this will probably be a smaller focus.

Why do I want to tackle this topic? Mainly I want to understand myself better and grow in holiness. I'm honestly not totally sure what sexual holiness means precisely (beyond a few obvious prohibitions like adultery or watching porn) or how to best pursue it. Some of the hyper-avoidance methods that have been popularized strike me as both unhelpful and potentially demeaning or even dehumanizing to others. Yet clearly boundaries can still be helpful.

Sex is everywhere. Living in early 21st century culture certainly has shaped my understanding of sex drastically. It's changed the way I see the world and probably changed the way I interact with women in ways I'm not aware of. Perception isn't neutral (more on this in a future post). I want to shape it so that I can live in a way that is pleasing to God and hopefully learn from and provide resources to others journeying with me.