Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another Personal Update and On This Blog's Future

I know it has been quite some time since I have posted. Over the summer I began taking graduate courses in Applied Statistics. In the spring I intend to apply for the master's program at Colorado State University (distance). If they don't admit me then I'll do the certificate program. The masters degree would finish in 2018 and the certificate at the end of next year.

Of course that hasn't left me a lot of time for study, so I've had to prioritize. I've focused almost exclusively on papers for my Exploring the Christian Way of Life project and will continue pursuing that focus while I'm in graduate school. I have recently completed the second major paper and will post it in three or four parts in early January. Until I'm done with school, posting will be very sporadic, my apologies, and I am grateful to those of you who continue to read.

I haven't read much outside of things related to my forthcoming paper, but right now I am reading Framing Paul by Douglas Campbell. It's his attempt to build a chronological framework for studying Paul based first on Paul's epistles. As always, his work is methodologically rigorous and enjoyable to read. One particular point he makes that needs wider notice is the poor use of statistics as it relates to style in assessing authenticity. Most studies are very very naive statistically and not really very useful. As someone who has some background in statistics, I completely agree.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Book Reaction: Paul and the Faithfulness of God

I am calling this a book reaction, not a book review because this won't be a proper review. I don't have the time or energy to write a proper review of Wright's mammoth monograph on Paul. A proper review would talk many, many blog posts (see Witherington, Ben who, at the time I began writing this was on post #24). However, after investing much time and energy working my way through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and given the importance of the book, I decided to share some very brief thoughts.

Why should you read Paul and the Faithfulness of God? First, if for no other reason, you should because it completes a lifetime of engagement with Paul by one of this generation's leading scholars. What Wright has to say matters and it is the most thorough treatment he (or perhaps anyone else) will ever write. Second, methodlogically Wright is approaching Paul in exactly the right way, by understanding him as a Jew living in the Roman empire. That may seem like an obvious starting point but for far too many it's just that, a starting point. Wright's analysis consistently keeps the framework in mind. The result is a very rich, contextual understanding of Paul.

Two themes in particular stand out in Wright's presentation of Paul that I believe are absolutely central. Messiahship and the people of God. That Jesus was the Messiah through whom God ws redeeming the world was the bedrock of all strands of early Christianity, and Paul is no different. Wright spends a good bit of time fleshing out what that meant for Paul. It was refreshing to see this made a central focus as I feel it has been too marginalized overall in Pauline studies. However, I am not completely convinced by some aspect of Wright's presentation, specifically the way he tied Messiahship to Jesus embodying the returning, faithful Yahweh. It does, though, tie together the themes of Jesus' divinity with Messiahship in an interesting way. As for the people of God, Wright understands that this was the whole point. This is why Paul wrote. It wasn't about a private spirituality, it was about creating one united people regaurdless of ethnicity, gender, or class. Wright understands all that Paul wrote as seeking to achieve this goal. It draws out the practical nature of the epistles and prevents one from seeing portions as dogmatic treatises. This is a welcome move on the part of Wright, and many other modern scholars.

Like many others, I do have to offer a bit of a complaint at the length of the book. I felt like better editing could have chopped it down by 100 pages or so. There were too many digressions on the state of scholarship and at times, some unhelpful repetition. Also, if you're going to exceed 1000 pages you need some very, very strong structure in place to keep your readers tracking. Douglas Campbell did this splendidly in The Deliverance of God. While there was strong macro structuring, Wright needed to put more micro structuring place. The ordering of the discussion on Romans 9-11 made his argument hard to follow, for me at least.

Even with that said, I still strongly encourage you to take the time and read Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It is a splendid book that I think gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, and even when you question his interpretive decisions, Wright will open up Paul so you can see him from a new angle.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Weightier Matter

The World Vision fiasco has had more than its fair share of commenters, but it's too important an issue for me to leave alone without saying something about it. I am furious at the actions of some in response to World Vision's decision. I can understand that some would not want to support World Vision in the future with new child sponsorships or other types of funding. Everyone has the right to channel their money to organizations they agree with. But the decision of some to pull already existing child sponsorships is utterly despicable. How dare you harm a needy child because you disagree with a position held by an organization giving life saving aid. What's more important? I think the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 are apropriate.

23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24 NRSV)

Monday, March 17, 2014

John 3:1-12: Faith and Works

Again, normally I post the text of the passage in the post, but this passage is a little long so I will just link to it, here.

While this won't be a long post, I think its worth while to flesh out the main point of verses 16-21 a bit more fully. As Protestants I think we have a tendency to assume the doctrine of justification by faith without closing examining what the relevant texts actually say. I think this text is a classic case in point. We read that 'whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life' and think, ok, case closed. But, as I pointed out in my last post, if you finish reading the paragraph you will get a different picture. Faith is presented as being the outcome of a life or character that is holy. Those who are holy come to the light, they come to Jesus because they have nothing to fear. There is nothing that they are afraid of being exposed.

Commonly Protestants will claim that the good works God requires flow from faith. John is saying just the opposite. The faith that God requires flows from good works. That's rather shocking and jarring to our Protestant sensibilities, but perhaps they need a little jolting.

As a result I think we need to consider a few things. First, the situation of the author of the second strata of the Gospel of John is clearly one of conflict.[1] In all likelihood there had been a split with the Jewish community in its past,[2] and probably there is a bit of polemic involved. Those in the synagogue who cast them out did so because they disagreed with the Johannine community on who Jesus was. The reason they got it wrong is because of their own moral failure. Their depravity prevented them from coming to Jesus. They had something to hide. So we do have to consider that this verse isn't really a blanket statement about the nature of justification, but a shot across the bow of a group that caused the author and his community pain.

Second, we do need to consider that different biblical authors may not always have the same perspective. John and Paul don't have to agree. Certainly John and the standard Protestant exegesis of Paul don't have to.

Third, and related, perhaps we need to reconsider our understanding of justification, salvation, faith, and works. What is the relationship of works and faith with justification and salvation? It's obvious that both faith and works are strongly related in some way with salvation. How related are each with justification? That's a little harder to tell. At the end of the day, this passage clearly underscores that works do play a role in final salvation for the author of John. Even accepting it as a polemical passage, we still have to admit that much. But that shouldn't be a surprise to us as that seems to be the case for all strands of early Christianity. How exactly they relate is an interesting discussion, but one best left for another time. My primary concern is to underscore that we need to think hard about how works relate to final salvation. A scheme that marginalizes them runs in to trouble all over, even in a passage like this that we might expect to be a bedrock of a faith alone approach.

[1] Or of the final editor, if one doesn't adhere strictly to von Wahlde's scheme.

[2] It need not have been a recent split to have been painful, memorable, and defining for the group. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

John 3:1-21: The Cause of Genuine Faith

Normally I post the text of the passage in the post, but this passage is a little long so I will just link to it, here.

Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night. It is hard to say if this was to keep the visit a secret. It may have been. Certainly, as Moloney suggests, it represents movement by Nicodemus from darkness into the light. He was one of those who was attracted to Jesus by his signs. Would it result in genuine faith? We have to wait until later in the narrative to find out, but in the meantime we can learn where true faith springs from.

What did Nicodemus want to ask Jesus? We'll never know, as Jesus cuts him off prior to asking anything.[1] Jesus' response indicates that Nicodemus has misunderstood something. Something is inadequate in his statement in verse 2. What Nicodemus needs is a divine birth, a moral transformation where he shares in God's moral nature.[2] Nicodemus is completely baffled. He thinks Jesus is demanding two births, a physical impossibility. Jesus continues by stressing that he's talking about a different kind of birth all-together, a spiritual birth. Only then can one enter the kingdom of God. God's eschatological salvation will only come to those who possess the Spirit. Jesus expresses his disappointment that one who knew the Scriptures so well could misunderstand him.[3]

Verses 11-12 confirm that there is something inadequate about Nicodemus' faith at the moment.[4] What he failed to understand is that Jesus alone (and presumably those filled with his Spirit) possessed true revelation from God. All encounters with God, whether they be those of Moses or of the various figures like Enoch in apocalyptic literature were qualitatively different than those of the pre-existent Messiah. This means that Jesus alone is authoritative. But the sign of his authority is not what one would expect. His sign will be being placed on a sign, like the bronze serpent.[5] Presumably the resulting salvation of those who place their trust in Jesus also will function as a sign.

Now we come to the most well known passage in the Bible. It was interesting studying it and seeing just how different the meaning is from how it is popularly conceived. If one were to read just verses 16-18 one would get the following picture. Jesus came because of God's love for the world. He did not desire to judge the world but to save it. All one has to do is trust Jesus and she or he will be saved. When we read the following three verses we find that the last sentence needs to be completely revised and we need to fill out the sentence prior a bit more, too. Jesus himself did not come to the world to condemn it. It already stood condemned.[6] It stood condemned because the world was in darkness and was evil, except for a few. Those who were doing good deeds saw Jesus for who he was and had faith. Those who were doing evil rejected him confirming the condemnation that had already been declared. Thus, far from exalting faith alone, this passage fully integrates faith and works or perhaps better put - character - but works are given precedence over faith![7]

[1] This seems to me to be a sure place where editing happened, especially since the words of Jesus don't exactly respond to Nicodemus' earlier comment. They move the discussion onto another plane or dimension.

[2] The way misunderstanding is so heavily relied upon makes me think the NRSV rendering "born from above" is preferable to "born again," which is how Nicodemus understands Jesus. The Greek is ambiguous. Hebrew could not have been here, making it likely (unless Jesus and Nicodemus had this conversation in Greek which is unlikely but not impossible) that this narrative is the invention of the gospel writer (von Wahlde assigns this to the second stage of composition).

[3] Of course one presumes John has Ezekiel 36 in mind here and perhaps channeling that through Jeremiah 31:33-34.

[4] Though certainly he isn't really the target of this critique. It seems to be clearly aimed at those in the synagogue who had interest in Jesus but did not come to full faith.

[5] So, Michaels.

[6] So, Keener, whose comments here and elsewhere in this passage proved immensely helpful to me.

[7] A point Michaels makes clearly.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

John 2:12-25: Recognizing Jesus

12After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days. 13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
23When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (NRSV)
In this vignette, after the miracle at the wedding, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover. Once in the temple, Jesus takes drastic action. He fashions a whip out of cords and begins using it on the merchants and animals there. The table of the money changers gets overturned. Then he makes it over to the area where birds were being sold. There wasn't much he could do there except tell the owners to take their cages and get out. However, his statement at this point is rather interesting. We get introduced to one of the great Johannine themes, Jesus' familial relationship with God. Jesus was claiming his intimate relationship with God as grounds for his actions. Additionally, by referring to Zechariah 14, Jesus was claiming to inaugurate the Messianic age of the rule of God. In both cases, Jesus was claiming divine mandate.[1]

Contrary to its chronological placement in John,[2] Jesus' actions in the temple led to his death. The disciples, naturally linked this connection back with Scripture. They understood much more clearly, in retrospect.

Jesus was challenged here by the priests. What was his authority? Did he have more than just his own word to support his Messianic claim? They wanted a sign of his Messianic status and his approval of his father.[3] Jesus would only offer a laughable sign, that he would rebuild the temple three days after the Jews destroyed it (why would they destroy the temple? - perhaps it's a sly statement of their own culpability in the destruction of 70 CE?). Of course they scoff at it. But in John, that leads us to another "of course," of course they misunderstood him, even though he seemed to be making a straightforward (though ridiculous) claim. Jesus was actually speaking about his body, about his resurrection. "Jesus refused to give a sign in proof of his authority, such as would enable men to identify him without risks, without committing themselves to him."[4]

Here we have a story that contrasts with the preceding. When Jesus turned the water into wine, the disciples saw his glory and believed. They were received by Jesus. However, Jesus is much more wary of the faith he is producing in the crowds this time around. Something about their faith was inadequate. It sprung from poor character, presumably from people who were likely to fall away in the end. So Jesus lacked faith in them and kept his distance. However, those who were received by Jesus had their faith rewarded and validated by the resurrection. They were given new eyes to understand what had happened that day, and new ears to hear Jesus' promise of restoration of the temple.

In this redefinition of Jesus' words about rebuilding the temple, are we to hear any disappointment that he did not show up to rebuild it after its destruction in 70?

[1] Contrary to many commentators, I see no critique on the part of the temple establishment here in John's gospel. As Keener points out, there's no reason to believe the priests profited from the sales in the temple. Assuredly the Essenes would have alerted us to that fact. Also, as von Wahlde suggests, there is non reason to see Jesus as a replacement of the temple.

[2] As Keener notes, readers of ancient biography would not have expected chronological presentation.

[3] Contrary to most commentators, I see no need for the priests to have been unaware of Jesus statement in verse 16. Verse 18 seems to presuppose that they did hear him.

[4] Bultmann, p. 125.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Wrighting the Course?

I hope all of you with me in the Midwest are staying warm.

In my earlier four part discussion of the identity of Jesus, two themes or categories stood out: Messiah and divine identity (perhaps not in Mark, but definitely in the other three gospels). The former seems to me to be the primary category. At the time when I wrote, these categories seemed to me to be distinct, with the Messiahship becoming less important over time as emphasis on divinity increased.

Over the past two months I have been reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright has argued strongly that divine identity and messianic status were entwined topics for the early church. My continued study of the gospel of John has colluded with Wright's suggestion and made me think that I need to take some time to explore that relationship. Wright, it seems to me, subsumes Messianic status within the notion of divine identity. Without considering the evidence, there's an attractiveness to that proposal because it brings the fourth century fathers into closer continuity with the primary emphasis of the New Testament.[1] However, I'm not convinced yet that it shouldn't be the other way around, with Messiah being primary and divine identity as something that Jesus the Messiah possessed. I am in strong agreement with Wright that understanding early Christian christology is critical.

So, at this point I'm Wrighting my course, and will be taking a longer look at early Christology. Specifically I'll be engaging with Wright, Hurtado, Bauckham, McCall, McGrath, and Ehrman to try to understand the relationship discussed above. Any others that I shouldn't miss?

[1] I am not suggesting that Wright makes his argument for this reason, but from the perspective of conservative orthodoxy, it is a nice result.