Tag Archives: theology

How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand the bible in its historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

1 Peter – more work needed

I’ve been a bit neglectful of late. As I blog for the Big Bible Project, I’ve been reading my way through and around the Old Testament prophets of late. Supplementing this, I’ve also been looking at Jesus, both through the eyes of the gospels and with a more theological bent through Paul (helped partly by N.T. Wright’s in-depth study). A few weeks ago I sat and listened to a former pastor of mine give an exposition of Revelation.

So what’s missing?

Well, there are a few bits, but I’m thinking (well, you read the title didn’t you?) of the book of 1 Peter. The reason this has come into focus is because it is appealed to on two controversial topics within christianity. Yet it’s appealed to from different parts of the spectrum. The two topics I have in mind are 1) atonement, 2) the harrowing of hell.

Not two of the most straightforward subjects and here I only wish to note some points, rather than give a detailed exposition. The passage in question is this (emphasis added):

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1) Atonement

I’m generally reluctant to write on this subject as it can be needlessly divisive. Broadly speaking, the two main ideas are referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and christus victor (CV).

PSA concerns the idea that Jesus died in our place. It is the meeting point of two of God’s characteristics: justice and love. Justice demands that there must be a penalty for sin, but instead of humans paying the price, God, embodied as Jesus, took the punishment himself as an act of love for us.

CV concerns the idea that Jesus’ death was not as any form of punishment at all, but was his triumph over evil and death. This was a view that was espoused by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén in the early 20th century, although he claimed that it represented the earliest views of the church.

Without going into any depth here, I subscribe the both/and compromise. Some christians will be fiercely PSA-only and some will ferociously defend the idea of CV without PSA. Using a very broad brush, my observation is that PSA-only tend to be more evangelical, while CV-only tend to be more anglican.

The above passage (particularly the first part bolded) is one of the clearest statements of PSA. There are others, including Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 15:3. I was at a talk recently with someone for whom PSA played no part in their theology. It wasn’t that they were CV-only; rather, they were advocating what they referred to as nonviolent atonement (the speaker was from an anabaptist background). In this talk, when someone challenged him about this particular passage he could only respond that he thought Peter was wrong. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve actually heard anyone who didn’t incorporate PSA into their theology tackle this particular backup for it. Usually, it is combated by means of first caricaturing it (often as “cosmic child abuse” or something similar) and then dismissing the caricature using some form of moral argument. i.e. a straw man argument.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of a substitutionary process: the righteous for the unrighteous.

2) The Harrowing of Hell

This is a question of what happened to Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection on what is variously called Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday. I’m sure there must be other terms used for the same day.

Having grown up an an orthodox, but not traditionalist, evangelical baptist church, the idea that was taught (though not with much emphasis) was that Jesus went to hell. Then somehow (it’s a mystery, the how was never properly explained) he endured multiple eternities in a single day. Once that was over, he rose from the dead.

In later life, I encountered those who took to the idea of the harrowing of hell. Here, Jesus is somewhat more active in his day in hell, doing something akin to a jailbreak. Part of the idea behind it comes from supersessionism whereby Jesus’ death created the problem of “[what do you do with the faithful Jews before Jesus?]” The problem is resolved by the harrowing of hell, whereby Jesus converts dead, faithful Jews to christianity.

I know that’s a slight simplification and that various traditions have subtly different takes on it, but that’s it in a rough nutshell. Now, I take a fairly “high” view of scripture. Not as inerrant, but as the primary epistemological source for christianity. Because of this, I come with the question “how do we know this?” Or, “what’s the backup for the idea?” If you talk to someone from a conservative background, they tend to point primarily to creedal statements rather than scripture. In this case, I get pointed to the Apostles’ Creed which has as one of it’s clauses “He descended into hell”.

Peeling back the layers, the most commonly cited backup for this idea is from Ephesians 4:4-10:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

My reading of this passage has changed over the years. I no longer interpret this as a reference to Jesus’ death (descended) and resurrection (ascended) but rather I see it as a talking about incarnation (descended) and ascension into glory (ascended). It is this revised reading that has been one of the factors (amongst several) that leads me to holding to a position of annihilationism.

Another of the backups comes not the bible but from the later works that are sometimes referred to as the New Testament apocrypha. Specifically, the Gospel of Peter with it’s rather odd resurrection scene with the talking cross that comes out of the tomb and confirms that the dead have been preached to. With hindsight, I think it’s probable that this may have been inspired by 1 Peter, though when I’ve previously read the epistle (the one that seems to be genuine, rather than the more dubious gospel) I’ve rather glossed over this part of chapter 3, so I’ve only come to it after noting story of the talking cross.

Over the Easter weekend, when lots of people were talking on social media about the harrowing of hell, I tended to bite my tongue, though I did finally manage to pin down and articulate another objection to it. It is this: if Jesus was active in salvation on Easter Saturday, then it makes his declaration of “It is finished” a lie. Or at least wrong.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of Jesus making a proclamation to the dead.

The Puzzle

All this so far has been background. I’ve not tried to argue my position in much detail, just to state it with some clarity. The aim is not to divide (as these topics so often can), the aim is to note the paradox laid out below.

What intrigues me is that these two subjects are closely linked, not only in proximity in 1 Peter, but also by what we might call theological string. The ideas are not disparate strands of theological thought, as one might suppose if considering, say, the doctrine of the fall with Thomas’ scepticism at Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, one might say all things are connected somehow. But the two topics mentioned above rather nuzzle up against one another.

Yet from my experience, those who are most likely to reject PSA are those from the traditions/expressions of christianity that are more likely to embrace the idea of the harrowing of hell. Likewise, those who are more inclined to be advocates of PSA-only are also more inclined to leave out the harrowing of hell from their theological language.

It seems that both camps may be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m sure there must be some christians who take an all inclusive approach and do incorporate PSA with the harrowing of hell; it’s just that in the circles I move in, such voices are absent. There may also be some who reject all aspects of PSA who also don’t teach of the harrowing of hell. Again, such voices seem to be on the fringe.

I may well have missed something significant here, making this whole post little more than a confession of my own ignorance. I’ve clearly got some more studying and thinking to do.

Book Review: Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright

Signed copy

Signed copy

It has finally come. 10 years after the publication of The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), Wright finally completed and published volume 4 of his series ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ (COQG). The plan from the outset had been to write an introduction (The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)), a book on Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG)), a book on Paul, a book on the gospel writers and a conclusion. In the preface, Wright acknowledges that the plan has somewhat altered, though he returns to this theme in his conclusion.

Knowing that it would feature the new perspective on Paul, you may recall I did some preliminary reading on the matter a little while ago. See here for my conclusion on the matter with links to the reading I did at the time. Early in the book, however, one gets the impression that this aims to move beyond the new perspective on Paul. Wright makes frequent reference to false dichotomies that have been put forth by various scholars over the years and outlines how to draw such distinctions is either anachronistic or ‘alocalist’ as he puts it (meaning out of location, rather than out of time – though I thought ‘atoposist’ might have fitted the bill better).

On picking up the book (spread across two volumes) one might think of 1 Tim 4:8 as is it not only a spiritual workout but it also provides a physical workout, even in paperback, with one friend commenting that he hurt his wrist in picking it up. The book is split into 4 sections, 2 in each volume. In this review, I’ve tried to echo, where possible, the style of the book. So, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as this is going to be long. I’ve kept it at one blog post, though you may find it easier to digest if you bookmark it and read each section, one at a time, with breaks.

Part I

So where might one begin to look at Paul’s thoughts? Romans? 1 Corinthians? Galatians? No. Wright begins with an exposition of the little book of Philemon. The story of the runaway slave is contrasted against another letter from Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus about a slave who has also run away. I would like to be able to start a sentence with the phrase “The main point Wright makes here is…” but to do so would almost inevitably misrepresent Wright’s viewpoint. Instead, I would choose to highlight those elements which, I, as a reader, took from Wright’s book. If the author takes the time to read this review then he may assess for himself whether his key points got across to his audience.

So what did I get from his take on Philemon? The contrast in the letters is one of emphasis. Paul was most concerned about the issue of reconciliation. That trumped other considerations. From a (post) modern perspective, one might have wanted Paul to address the issue of slavery, particularly to condemn it, and call for Onesimus’ freedom. The fact that Paul did not do so in anywhere near as forthright a manner as we might have wanted may cause others to condemn Paul for advocating slavery. But, Wright points out, to do this is to miss the point, bringing 21st century assumptions into the questions we ask of a 1st century writer.

Wright then identifies verse 17 as being the heart of the letter, which , though not calling for emancipation, does request of Philemon a radically different treatment of the slave than would have been considered normal at the time. Hence, even though there is not the extensive discourse here that we find elsewhere in Paul’s letters, there are hints here that there was something different about Paul’s thinking. Even though the Jewish mindset was heavily influenced by the idea of freedom of captivity, reconciliation was something new. The implication is that this was something christian.

Wright’s analysis of the letter serves as a reference for the rest of the opening chapter which forms the introduction to the work. Here, Wright recapitulates some of the work covered in the earlier volumes in the series, particularly NTPG. Given the number of years between publications, such a reminder is no bad thing.

Having looked at the idea of worldview in some detail, Wright gives us his view on a topic that he has thus far rather demurred upon in his earlier books; that is, the authenticity of Paul’s letters. His earlier writings (at least those that I have read) lean much more heavily on Romans, Galatians and the 2 Corinthian letters than anything else. In his introduction to the pastoral epistles commentary he did as part of ‘New Testament for Everyone’ series, he made reference to some debate but was far from providing a clear ‘yes/no’ opinion on their Pauline authorship (see here for more detail on the debate over the pastoral epistles). Here, at last, he goes some way to showing us his cards. Without a great amount of detail, and stopping short of saying outright which he thinks are not genuine, he states that he will use 1 Timothy and Titus for illumination rather than support. As the book progresses, they are noticeable by their relative absence.

So that’s the opening chapter, which sketches out the plan in some detail.

In chapter 2, we delve into the Jewish background of Paul. That said, the focus is less on Paul than it is on Judaism in general, with a particular focus on the Pharisees. Here, one gets the distinct impression that some 20+ years on from NTPG, Wright’s thinking has moved on to the extent that he now feels the need to fill in some gaps from his earlier introduction. While he stands by his earlier work, there is much more that needed to be said to give a suitable background to Paul’s Jewish mindset which is here given in some depth.

At times, the work gets rather academic, with Wright analysing and countering the views of other writers on second Temple Judaism. In particular focus is the idea of a continuing exile. Wright draws on a rich breadth of early writings do demonstrate that even though the temple had been reestablished, the diaspora hadn’t completely ended and that there was an expression of a hope for a final renewal and restoration. In this analysis, Wright points out that the stories, questions, theology and aims which he portrays are prevalent, but not universal. As such, there may well be counter-examples and other viewpoints which existed at the time, but that the picture painted is one that would be familiar to a 1st century Jew.

Much of this would have also been relevant to Wright’s earlier study of Jesus, though it’s not stated whether or not Wright might have reconsidered volume 2 of the series in light of this more detailed background.

While chapter 2 gave more detail to an area of study already given a lot of treatment in NTPG, chapters 3-5 feel more “new”, though they did get a cursory look in in that earlier work. In these, I got the feeling that Wright was not only trying to give a background into all the schools of thought that would have been relevant to Paul at the time, but that he was having fun in his writing, drawing on his formal training as a classicist. At times in these chapters we seem to lose sight of Paul, with just an occasional reference here and there. This, it must be added, is very firmly corrected in Part IV, where these topics are revisited in reverse order, with Paul very firmly in focus.

Chapter 3 covers Greek philosophy, chapter 4 covers what ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ (with those two put in inverted commas for very good reason) while chapter 5 looks at Rome and the influence that that culture had (Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen!). These are all very interesting chapters and each could serve as a primer in studies in each of those topics in their own right. The only downside to them as I read was for me to wonder “where does this fit in?” At the time it wasn’t particularly obvious how a discussion on the sanity of Caligula was helping us understand how to understand Paul’s writings. I got the idea that Wright was trying to get us to watch him paint a picture. The study on Philemon was something of a preliminary sketch, but here he gets to paint the background on the big canvas. I had an idea that Part II would then sketch the main features in the foreground, Part III would fill in the details and Part IV would then be standing back and looking at the whole composition.

So is that what I found?

Part II

Labelled as “The Mindset of the Apostle” we have some very chunky discourses here on what is referred as symbolic praxis. First of all, how Paul related to those around him in the three worlds of Judaism, Greek philosophy and Roman Empire. There is far more detail and nuance here than I could do justice to. I will, though, give a brief run down of the points I thought were dominant.

To begin with, there is a tricky issue to deal with: supersessionism. The way Wright puts it, the symbolic praxis of second-temple Judaism was like a car that was being driven towards an end. In the death and resurrection of the Messiah that goal was reached. Therefore it was time to park the car and turn off the engine. He tries to be careful with his speech as some of the terminology he uses is very similar to that used by supercessionists, though as I was reading this section I attended a lecture of his at Kings College London in which he said he “resisted the term”.

In talking through the issue of symbolic praxis, Wright’s argument is that Paul’s primary concern was the ekklesia, what we would not call the Church. Though he rightly points out that to regard the ekklesia as some kind of hierarchical organisation is anachronistic and doesn’t help us to understand Paul. In NTPG, Wright made reference to the importance placed on baptism and communion. Here he has notably with more emphasis on baptism than on communion, in accordance with the frequency with which they occur in Paul’s texts. He takes the same approach as he did in Surprised by Hope by portraying baptism as a boundary marker used by the ekklesia to determine who is part of that group. Though he includes this in a section on symbolism, there’s a curious remark thrown in which hints that he may still hold to a functional view, which I would disagree with. The theme occurs again later in the book, again hinting at, but not being explicit about the functional view.

Symbols are one part of the worldview analysis, but it’s not the whole thing. I almost got the feeling that the main part of the book was yet to come but that Wright wanted to get these bits out of the way before he embarked on the main thesis. In the subsequent chapter he goes onto make the firm foundation and the wireframe of the heart of the book, that being the ‘storied worldview’. It is a rejection of systematic theology and a return to narrative. The work here is detailed but clearly aided by the use of some diagrams which I found helpful, but others may well find annoying. I have also heard other comments from some who are critical of Wright’s narrative form. He gives a very good case here, though I am not sure it will convince those who see his approach as a ‘flattening out’ of the richness and variety of the Old Testament.

The contention is that Paul had a number of “grand narratives” in mind when he was writing, but that they were nested within each other like a set of Russian dolls. One subplot played a part in the solution to the wider story. Here, Wright appeals to an analogy with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and purely by coincidence I am finalising this review on midsummer’s night!). The ‘top level’ story proposed is of God’s plan for creation as a whole and humankind’s place within it. Where we then get stories of the Fall, of Israel, of the Torah, etc. these are all subplots to the wider view. Wright’s view is that much of western theology has missed this over-arching story and has wrongly focused on one of the subplots. So while he does not deny the common ‘evangelical’ view of personal salvation, he is keen to point out that it is not the whole gospel and to portray it as such is misleading. As each story is told, there is something wrong that happens at each level. The idea then is that Jesus, understood as a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, is the solution to the problems at a variety of different levels, including his fulfilment of Torah, the embodiment of Israel as the means through which humans could be restored to the role they were meant to play within creation.  It is a very carefully constructed chapter, though as one critique I have already heard of it, it’s largely based on Romans, at the expense of other books.

The worldview analysis is not quite complete though. There is one further chapter in this section which looks at the questions which a worldview has in mind. Here, Wright takes us back again to his first volume in the series, NTPG.  So we ask what answers Paul had for the following questions: 1) Who Are We? 2) Where Are We? 3) What’s Wrong, and What’s the Solution? 4) What Time Is It?

Wright’s contention here is that Paul’s worldview remains Jewish, but one that recognises that Jesus was the Messiah, who nobody expected to be crucified, let alone resurrected. That cannot leave the worldview unaltered. So while the above 4 questions were pertinent to the pre-Messiah view of Saul, the zealous Jew, they needed to be re-asked and re-answered in the fresh dawn of the resurrection by Paul, the originator of “Christian” theology.

Part III

From worldview to theology. That’s how Wright starts the longest section of the book. This is constructed around what he sees as the three big themes in second-Temple Judaism: monotheism, election and eschatology.

In the chapter on monotheism, we look at how God is revealed in and through the person of Jesus. Wright’s level of detail is far too intricate to do justice in such a relatively short review (relative compared to the length of the book!). Yet to think of the chapter purely as being about monotheism would be misleading. Wright works into it a number of different themes, as he picks what he sees as the key texts and gives us an exegetical view of each of them. Paramount to all this is how Paul harked back to the Old Testament. So here, and throughout the book, we see in the footnotes various little critiques of other writers on the same topic. Though I must say I was surprised to see that some of his sharpest criticisms are not for the likes of Don Carson or John Piper, who have tackled Wright in the past over his interpretation of Pauline theology, but rather he is harshest about Ed Sanders and Jimmy Dunn, two fellow protagonists of the ‘new perspective’ movement. Any time he mentions the movement, he is usually rather disparaging, prefacing it with the phrase “so-called” and this work seems more than ever before to distance himself from that movement. Whether one might like to refer to it as “post new-perspective” I doubt Wright would like the term himself.

The culmination of his chapter on monotheism is to look at the reworked Shema. Here, the Jewish statement of God’s unity is transformed in 1 Corinthians 8:6 with Jesus not just added to it, but worked into it, so that there is no less monotheism here but that Jesus is revealed to be the same God whom the Jews worshipped. In other words, after criticism following JVG of advocating a low christology, Wright finally gets  round to stating that in referring to Jesus as both Christos (Messiah) and as crucified and resurrected, Paul did demonstrate an early high christology.

In terms of ‘finally getting round to’ I think there is much that Wright says which people for years have waited for him to say, particularly in the COQG series. Well aware of this, he even wryly points it out at one stage with respect to ‘dealing with the problem of sin’. Yet for as much that many will find comfortably orthodox, Wright will always have something up his sleeve to unsettle his readers. One feature that comes to the fore is that Wright is not a major fan of false dichotomies. For example, in his relatively brief treatment of atonement, he rejects the choice between Substitutionary Atonement and Christus Victor, even if those who merely scan the titles may have formed the impression he was purely an advocate of the latter. Instead, he firmly embraces both, though with the caveat that he does so not quite in the forms that they are traditionally expressed, and not only those, but that the doctrine of atonement Paul expresses has more dimensions than that.

It was also good to see a place for the Holy Spirit forming a wholly necessary role within Wright’s theology. Though he stops short of saying Paul expressed the same kind of trinitarianism that the later church developed in its various councils, the argument is made that Paul implicitly saw the Holy Spirit as God. I must admit to a wry smile at this point, as I wonder if Wright realised just how close he is to the theology of the modern charismatic churches here. Though I also took in a sharp breath at his mention of theosis (divinisation). Though before one starts to think that Wright has turned to Eastern Orthodoxy, he does clarify what he means. Elsewhere in the book, in some personal remarks, he states that he has lost any credentials to be considered “Protestant” though again, anyone thinking he is danger of crossing the Tiber need not be worried, as there is very little in this book that will be of much comfort to Catholics, not least the emphasis on justification by faith.

If there were any doubt that Wright was ambitious in writing this book, one would have that doubt removed by looking at the footnote at the start of his chapter on election where he takes on all of Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas and Barth and essentially says, “[they got it a bit wrong, here’s my view].” To take on such a group of theological giants would mark one out as being either courageous or foolish. Yet it would be braver still to charge Wright with being the latter. It is also the opinion of this reviewer that Wright is forming a legacy whereby he will he will regularly be spoken of in the same breath as those he cites here.

From monotheism, he turns to the idea of election, specifically on the identity of the ‘people of God’. Here, Wright more than anywhere else, goes on the defensive against his critics. But in a twist on the old adage, sound exegesis is the best form defence. So we return here to the dominant theme in Wright’s previous writings about Paul, that of justification. Of course, there is much more to it that just that in this chapter, but space (and copyright!) prevents a thorough review. Those who are familiar with his New Testament translation will know that instead of “righteousness” he much prefers to translate dikaiosyne as “covenant faithfulness”. This has been a point where I have earlier thought that Wright has taken a connotation and made into the denotation. Here, though, he makes a much better case for doing so than he had done before, where he harks back to the Hebrew terms tsedakah, particularly in relation to Abraham. In so doing, Wright admits that “covenant faithfulness” is just one of the reasonable ways to think of dikaiosyne, which in itself cannot be summed up easily, but to bring out the multi-layered meanings would be overly-cumbersome.

Those who have read Justification will be familiar with the line of the argument as well as the way Wright tackles the key texts. Here, though, instead of engaging directly with John Piper as he did before, Wright chooses as his main conversation partners more academic theologians. Indeed, I had an interesting discussion with some in my church, who wryly pointed out that the theology that gets taught in Sunday sermons, in housegroups and at the bible school usually expresses the same theology that comes out of universities some years later.

The way the topic is tackled is somewhat back-to-front, though if you read RSG then this  may not surprise you. He lays out his case, entitled The Shape of Justification, before going into great detail on the key texts. What differentiates this take compared to that found in Justification is the relation with the rest of the key themes brought out thus far in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. To attempt to summarise it, the primary concern is not to conflate justification with salvation. Justification is instead the present verdict, giving assurance of a final verdict whereupon salvation will be complete. But at the same time, it is arrived at by faith (pistis) which becomes the new boundary marker which identifies the people of God. It’s a question of “who is in and who is out”. In keeping with Wright’s keenness to distance himself from historic and unhelpful dichotomies, he balances the ideas of “forensic” and “participationist” views of justification, maintaining a both/and approach instead of either/or, arguing that these categories are later impositions upon Paul which he might well not have recognised in his single, over-arching vision. From my own baptist/charismatic background, it is a puzzle that these two were ever confused; I wonder if it is a confusion that is primarily found in academic circles or Anglican/conformist theology.

The third chapter in this most lengthy part of the book, each of which may have been books in their own right, is ostensibly about eschatology (where, against many in my church, I favour the pronunciation esker-tology, as opposed to ess-scatology, which doesn’t sound good), though Wright’s take is far from what one might expect.  We get very little of what one might expect in terms of eschatology, though in fairness part of the reason is the extensive treatment given to the eschatology of resurrection in RSG as well as Wright’s own interpretation of inaugurated eschatology, whereby Jesus was the eschaton, realised over the course of the Easter weekend. So this chapter instead expands more on the earlier two themes of monotheism and election, particularly election.

Before the major exegesis of Romans 9-11, we first get a very interesting glimpse into ethics, a subject on which Wright has been curiously quiet thus far in the COQG series. Without going into detail in the specifics, Wright asks why the behaviour of this new Messiah-community would be important. To understand this is to hark back to the storied worldview of Part II and to reject the notion that the aim of salvation is “to go to heaven when you die”. If anyone still harbours such a notion about christianity, then Wright may just despair at you! It is about new creation. The call is to live as part of that new creation, which is something that has begun, not some hope to escape from the world in the future so it doesn’t matter if we let it decay. One can almost hear the uncomfortable murmurs from the American anti-environmental lobby at this point.

There is then a detailed commentary on Galatians 4-6 before we embark upon possibly 3 of the toughest chapters not only in Paul, but in the whole of the bible, to get to grips with (admittedly, some of Revelation may just pip Paul in this instance). Yet I wondered if in making Part III the heart of the book, consisting of chapters 9, 10 & 11 (this being chapter 11) whether or not Wright was trying to deliberately echo the structure Romans.

Again, I cannot do justice to Wright’s ideas here. He revisits the idea of supersessionism, but only to reject it. He starts off though with the idea of return from exile, first covered in Part I, and relates this to Romans 10:1-17. His reason for doing this is that he sees all of 9-11 as chiastic structure, centred on 10:1-17 with the focus being at 10:9 – “because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In highlighting this as the focus, and doing so after his more detailed look at justification, we can see how Wright understands justification to be a part of, but not the whole of, soteriology. He draws together the themes he has worked on through Part III and gets us to see their interplay. The conclusion that jumped out at me is that Paul is re-telling the story of Israel to a gentile audience and telling them that they are now a part of that story. While they may not share the history, their participation in the Messiah means that they are now inheritors of that Jewish heritage, but that this in no way invalidates Judaism. It is that Jesus was the fulfilment of the promises and the hope that Israel had.

Rather than recount the intricacies of the argument which are better critiqued by someone with more theological training than I, I would just recommend that you read it.

Part IV

Still with us? Good.

If you are to tackle the Behemoth that is this book, then you should be prepared for some long reads. Though my writing is not up to Wright’s quality, if you’ve struggled thus far then I would warn you that you may have difficulty with Wright’s magnum opus.

The chiastic structure that Wright has adopted means that we now come back and revisit the themes first explored in Part I. Above, I noted that Paul was curiously absent to begin with, but here we finally get to see why. Wright has first of all painted the backgrounds, before going into a lot of detail in animating this one figure, before now he puts this character of Paul into the pictures and we can see how he fits in and how he interacts with the interlocking worlds that Paul found himself in.

We begin with Paul and the Roman Empire. After the very long chapters in Part III, it was something of a relief to see such a relatively short chapter. The thrust here is the idea of “If Jesus is lord, then Caesar is not”. This idea will be familiar to many christians and I must say that there was little here that was particularly new or surprising. That may be because the treatment is very similar to that found in Paul: Fresh Perspectives. The odd thing about this chapter, and this recurs throughout Part IV, is that Wright chooses to engage with one or two writers who hold different views, so that it becomes less of an essay and more of an argument with a fellow scholar. Knowing that Wright was also writing Paul And His Recent Interpreters (currently due out this autumn) I couldn’t help but wonder if these engagements might have been better left for that work rather than here.

As I read this as fairly ordinary chap in the pew, not a theological specialist, just an accountant who is part of a church and tries to be faithful, the fine points on this argument were rather lost on me, not least because I had not read any of the works which Wright cites. If I got anything out of it, it would be this: Paul was not overtly anti-imperial. His view of “christianity” was not a protest movement against the powers that be. Rather, if one focuses on Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and resurrected, he is therefore lord. Because of this, brought sharply into focus, all else fades into the background. The terminology Paul used sometimes deliberately echoed that used within the Roman Empire, as examined in Part I, but any hints of anti-imperialism are not the focus of Paul’s attention, is a mere corollary of his worldview and theology.

Continuing the ring structure, we then have another look at Paul and “religion”. The key point here is that the religio which Paul writes about and which would have been well-known in the Mediterranean in the 1st century should not, but has been by many, confused or mistaken with 18th century categorisations of religion. So while this new Messiah-community lacked of the features that would have been recognisable in the religions of the day, but that in a new and strange way, it is not an unfair description.

Following this, we look at Paul and his philosophy. We have a little recap of what was covered in Part I and ask how Paul might answer particular schools of thought, in particular the Stoics, though Wright acknowledges that modern western society is often more Epicurean in nature. The point Wright makes, quite unsurprisingly I thought, is that Paul might not try to counter his critics in their own terms, since the all-pervasive transformation through the mind of the Messiah entails a fresh way of looking at the world. The point is made, as it was before, that the early church may have been described as a kind of school of philosophy, not in the same manner as the Cynics, Stoics or Epicureans, but as a new kind of thinking. As with the chapter on the Roman Empire, our emphasis is once again the Messiah and how, when looking at him, our priorities are transformed and renewed.

Entitled, ‘To know the place for the first time’, the penultimate chapter of the book brings us full circle to the subject of Paul and Judaism. Much has already been written about this topic earlier in the book and, rightly (though un-Wrightly?), no attempt is made at recapping the vast body of work preceding this chapter. Indeed, Wright is arguing that Paul never ceased being a Jew, but rather his understanding of what that meant, and what the family of God (as Wright puts it, the “Messiah-people”) entails. The allegory that came to my mind, not used by Wright, was that of someone who knew who their family was and in particular who their father was. But then you find out that he undertook some action not unlike that of Oskar Schindler. You do not cease to be his child, but now, because of his actions, one now realises more about the nature of your father and come to the conclusion that you have many more siblings than you previously thought and that in light of that one must rethink what it means to be a child of Schindler. I wouldn’t push the point too far, though, given the role-reversal of Jews & Gentiles.

So how might we conclude? Well, it’s with a topic that I had originally included in my critique below. The reason is that in Wright’s main analysis, his categorisation of the 3 main areas of thought as monotheism, election and monotheism seem to miss one major point. It was alluded to in Parts I & II but throughout this book and its predecessors in the series, I have wondered, “where is the temple?” Thus far, it seems to have been marginalised somewhat by Wright, in spite of his references to second Temple Judaism. The term has functioned as a label to summarise a school of thought, a religion and a cultural identity, but the temple itself has not been dealt with in much detail. Yet here, in the conclusion, it comes back to the fore. It is part of the answer to the question, “What was Paul trying to do?” In answering this, Wright identifies as the clearest summary of Paul’s aims 2 Corinthians 5:13 – 6:2. The conclusion that Wright reaches is that Paul is a builder. His whole missionary zeal is to see the construction of the new temple, the Messiah people, the ekklesia, the Church. That is what he was aiming to do. Implicit within this (though it was odd that Wright doesn’t mention it here) is that Jesus is the cornerstone of that building.

As Wright has ended each previous volume of the COQG series, he looks forward to the next volume. He states his intention to look at the subject of the Church’s ‘missiology’. I must say I look forward to it, though I would hope that it is not quite as long in coming as this volume has been.

Critique

Having then given an overview, I here choose to echo Wright’s engagement with Engberg-Pederson in chapter 14 by critiquing certain points. Some of these I have hinted at above, but I want to draw these out explicitly. Almost anyone who reads Wright will find something to disagree with. So vast is this work, entire agreement seems unlikely. You may have other points to pick up on. I choose to focus on two:

Completeness/Omission

Having been clearer than before as to his views on Pauline authorship of the pastoral letters, he does not seem to use them for illumination as he promised to do so. Added to this, Wright expresses grave doubts over the historicity of the book of Acts. Firstly, this seems rather odd given the extent to which he relied on Luke in forming a view on the historical Jesus. So why not use the sequel from the same author to look at the historical Paul? Unless, of course, Wright doesn’t think they are by the same author. But if so, he is far from clear in expressing this, let alone providing a good reason for thinking in this way. So while we predominantly get a view of Paul from Romans and Corinthians, with support from some other books, I could not escape the opinion that in spite of the depth Wright looks at Paul, he keeps the blinkers on, preventing us from seeing the full breadth of Paul’s worldview and theology. That said, Acts is referred to, but only in places where it seems to back up Wright’s view, which gives one cause to suspect the possibility of confirmation bias.

Emphasis

In this account of Paul, his worldview, his theology and his place in the worlds he inhabited, there is, as one might expect much to be familiar. After all, Wright is here taking a fresh look at a figure that many have looked at before, not inventing the figure of Paul from scratch, nor does he presume that everyone who has come before has entirely misunderstood him. Yet in so doing, those who have read Paul extensively, listened to sermons on his writings and been part of churches where Paul’s theology is woven deep into the fabric may be surprised at the weightings given to the various aspects of Paul’s theology. For example, atonement is featured but doesn’t get close to the emphasis that the joint picture of justification & participation get.

In a similar vein, while Wright speaks of God “dealing with” sin, the term ‘forgiveness’ is rarely used. Admittedly, when it is, it is highly spoken of, but it comes in just one paragraph in the final quarter of the book. Blink and you’ll miss it. The same can be said of grace which seems similarly pushed to the fringes. Together, one might well question how these two themes can be considered so peripheral to Paul’s thought.

Conclusion

From the moment one picks up this book, one entertains the hopeful wish that if you get to the end you will be rewarded with some kind of medal as you might get at the end of a marathon. For those who like their medals, I’m sorry to disappoint. I didn’t get one for finishing this monumental tome. But that is not to say I didn’t get a reward, if you will forgive the double negative. The richness of thought that Wright lays out is a treat. But like a chocolate cake, too much in one go will leave you feeling slightly the worse for wear.

As I read I had an image of Wright being the host of a great banquet. The basic ingredients are all there and familiar to most christians. To that extent, Wright rightly says that he is not really making any grand new proposals. What he’s doing is putting everything in its right place. Maybe the soufflé of justification has been over or under done by others in the past, but here we are shown how to do it in accordance with the recipe book that Paul left for us. By including ethics within eschatology, we are not giving ourselves indigestion by jumping straight to dessert. So with the feast cooked and the table laid, we may now taste and see that the Lord is good.

The other image that comes to mind is one of a surprise party. In Part I, tracing the worlds in which Paul lived, was like arriving and talking to people from different walks of life who all interact with the person whose birthday is being celebrated. So while one might get some colleagues from work, a few old uni friends, some family and other friends, we meet them as isolated groups. When the person for whom the party is thrown arrives, the focus is on them, but as the evening progresses we get see how he relates to the various groups and how they interact with one another.

In terms of the overall COQG project, we have 2 major gaps left. His two books on Jesus focused very much on the synoptic gospels, with John getting only occasional mentions. Similarly, with Paul as one of the major figures of the early church one may well ask ‘what about Peter?’

The other potential follow-up would be if Wright plans to something like “Simply Paul” as he summarised other volumes in this series in other, shorter works such as Simply Jesus, Surprised by Hope and How God Became King or if he considers that this has already been done with his earlier works on Paul. At present, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Coming back to this volume, it is a greater commitment to read than other books. The page count is greater than War and Peace. If you do get through this, I would confidently predict 3 things:

1) You will learn much about Paul, his world and how the heart of his theology may be viewed as a coherent whole. If anyone finishes this and says they learnt nothing, then I would think they have either failed to engage with Wright, are guilty of some arrogance, or they themselves are the author – though as he did at the lecture at King’s College, he acknowledged that in writing this he learnt plenty himself.

2) There will be something in here you will agree with and something you disagree with. The range of Wright’s analysis and his huge reluctance (in most cases refusal) to be tied to a particular tradition will inevitably put some noses slightly out of joint.

3) You will keep flicking back. In trying to lay things out clearly, Wright loves enumerating his points, though the length of those points sometimes means that you suddenly start a paragraph with the word “Thirdly…” and then you have to back to what you were reading the day before in order to get the precise context. And not wholly unlike Revelation, you may find the final point has 7 or 12 sub-points to it.

So with both a fair warning and an encouragement, I commend this work to you. To paraphrase the title of a wholly unrelated, but recently popular, work: Read, pray, think, live.

Theology – an idealistic view

After noting in my last review that the author had a rather idealistic view of how physics works, I thought I might take a lesson from that and give a similar-styled view in relation to theology. I wouldn’t pretend that this is how theology works, rather a sketch of a manifesto for how it should work. The seed of the idea goes back to a conversation I had some months ago about whether it was possible for theology to be a purely academic subject.

Then, as now, I would love for there to be healthy circularity in the relationship between theology and church life. Because of this circularity, where one starts might be arbitrary. So let’s first have a think about community.

Being a christian does not just mean giving assent to a set of ideas or subscribing to a creed. Nor is it just about living as part of a community. Both are involved, but one without the other will be an anaemic form of christianity. The shorthand terms for these are orthodoxy (correct view) and orthopraxy (correct practice). My idea is that these two need to held in balance. To emphasise one over the other leads to a lop-sided faith. With all due cautions over the relative terms (see here), I have found that those who identify as liberal christians will tend to emphasise orthopraxy whilst those who are more conservative will place an emphasis on orthodoxy.

The theologically informed Church

Churches need to be theologically informed. Without sound teaching, the risk is not only that false teaching may creep in, but there is also a risk that there is a wrong emphasis in what is taught. As Kurt Willems has recently pointed out, churches which constantly emphasise teachings on single issues are those one should be cautious about. Though not a church, anyone who occasionally reads the fundamentalist e-zine, Charisma, will be familiar with the constant stream of homophobic and Zionist output. The misplaced emphasis (leaving aside how much I disagree with the content of those views!) means that the form of christianity that emerges is rather cross-eyed (no pun on cross intended). The gospel may be right in front of your nose but you look from one fringe to another and portray them as the most important thing, then the message of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection gets sidelined.

“High” and “low” perspectives

So how about theology? The study of the bible inevitably has to start with a view about the bible. Whether one chooses a “high” view or a “low” view of scripture is a thorny issue which I shan’t attempt to explore in any great depth soon. For now, I think it best to pick a place on the spectrum and work through to see if it comes up with a coherent picture.

My own view is that I am at the “high” end of the spectrum but do not advocate the idea of inerrancy. Too often, discussions about how one views the bible focus on the question of authority. This is, in my view, unhelpful. If one accepts the idea of God (how might one get to this point?) then it would seem to follow, given centuries of christian teaching, that God is the ultimate authority. In the great commission, Jesus gave authority to his disciples. To some, this is the origin of the idea of apostolic succession, whereby a christian order of priesthood is established. For more on this, see here. To others, it is the origin of the idea of apostolic authorship, whereby the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament has to be that the author came from a list of apostles. While this may serve to understand the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which were included in the Codex Sinaiticus) it does give rise to some awkwardness over the inclusion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews, as well as the epistles labelled John and the pastoral epistles, whose authorship was disputed much later.

Instead, the question to which “the bible” is the answer is: “What is the earliest and most reliable source of information regarding christianity, its origins and aims that we have?”

Exegesis

Given this, where might one start with the more academic work of theology? Surely, it has to be with the task of exegesis: the task of bringing out of the texts what the author(s) meant to say to the audience they intended to read/hear it. To do so with integrity requires a study of the languages the texts were written in and an understanding of the cultures in which and to which they were written. This why theology is not really a solo discipline in and of itself, but in a similar way to geology being a hybrid of mostly chemistry, physics and geography, so theology is a hybrid subject, requiring mastery of the use of many tools.

One may question whether the task of exegesis is ever complete, though to remain stuck within this would prohibit progress, so we must at least come to tentative conclusions and move on, bearing in mind the need to possibly revisit the exegesis and alter it. So what is the next step? Well, there are many possibilities. This is why theology is such a rich subject, as, having put together the ingredients of the cake and properly baked it, we may slice it in any number of ways.

One could look at particular authors and try to understand their particular views, in relative isolation from other biblical authors. Or one could look at themes that emerge across a range of authors and develop a theology of these ideas, as seen from the perspective of many authors. However we set off, we need to not lose sight of the heart of the gospel nor the direction it heads towards. What should hopefully emerge from such a study is the idea of doctrine. To some, the idea of doctrine is foundational. Though it is important, I would argue that it is an emergent idea from the foundation of the writings themselves. After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.

So if we have doctrine can we draw a straight line from that to application? I would argue not. The reason for this is that we live in a very different time from the communities out of which the writings of the bible came. So if we combine an understanding of those cultures with a correct understanding of the doctrine, then, and only then, can we make sense of the practical applications.

An example

To give a particular example, if we look at 1 Timothy 2 and take it as face value, then the bible is very clear that women are not allowed to teach. This would mean no pastors, no vicars, no “priests”, no bishops, no housegroup leaders are allowed to be women. But to take a passage in isolation from the positive affirmation of the role of women in the early church then the simplistic maxim becomes less black-and-white and more something to be worked through. If one then adds into the mix the cultural background in which Timothy lived, that of Ephesus, with its cult of Diana led by a female priesthood, then one can understand that there might be a time-and-location-specific reason for the way Paul wrote. The counter-argument includes Paul’s characteristic appeal to the Torah, specifically to the order of creation. At the risk of getting unnecessarily sidetracked, I shall leave further exploration of that particular issue for another time. I intend only as an example of the kind of ways of thinking that I believe are healthy.

The great cocktail

To return to the main point, then. Imagine a set of tubes. We have two input tubes and one output. The two items feeding in are doctrine (having been properly prepared) and community of the local church. When these two are mixed, what we should end up with is a realistic, Christ-centred practicality. That mixing is the job not so much of the academic theologians, but of our church leaders, whether one refers to them as pastors, priests or vicars, they are the great cocktail mixers who have the tough job of holding these two inputs in balance whilst remaining relevant to their own church community and indeed, the wider, unchurched community around them.

Coming full circle

So having made the point that churches need to be theologically informed, and how that might look in practice, how about the other way around? In short, it’s about theology being informed by the life of the Church. Without it, what we risk is turning the study of theology into a purely academic field, devoid of life.

So when it comes to the issues that affect the life of the Church and its members, which are in essence the issues that face humanity, then ivory tower thinking will not do. All the time, there are pressing questions which are asked both within christian communities and asked of them by the rest of the world. How might we respond?

This is where get to glimpse that theology is not a static subject, restricted only to the study of ancient texts. Within the bible, we see how doctrine interacted with the needs of the community, both Jewish and christian, and we have examples of how it has worked, but mostly how it hasn’t. I would hope that we’re good at learning from the past, if only just to make brand new mistakes. But my hope would be that good theology, informed by the Church it seeks to serve, helps to restrict the range of mistakes we might make.

To go back to my example above, for centuries it might well have been unthought of that women might have leadership roles within churches, just as one might take it for granted that slavery is a fact of life. Yet changing societies put pressure on churches to re-examine what we think, and such re-examination is no bad thing. Differing hermeneutics have given rise to people defending the use of slavery, though again we need to be conscious of differences in cultures, in that the kind of slavery against which the abolitionist protested was quite different from that present in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Likewise, the feminist movement gave credence to the thought that there is no good reason why a woman shouldn’t hold to the same roles as a man. Today, I can’t think of any churches that advocate slavery, though the issue of women in leadership continues to be an issue for some.

In so doing, though, there needs to be care taken not to simply jump on a bandwagon. What sometimes worries me with churches that have more liberal social values is that sometimes they seem to skip the good theology part and jump straight to conclusions. In other words, the idea that “Jesus was a liberal” is taken as axiomatic, rather than the product of exegesis. It for such a reason that I cannot agree with Vicky Beeching’s anachronistic example of this, “Jesus was a feminist“.

Conclusion

So what we need is a Church that is theologically informed. A Church that is familiar with the texts which are the best source of information about the origins, ideas and communities of our belief, both as a matter of history, but also as a matter of everyday practicality, living as an example of a renewed humanity between pentecost and parousia. At the same time, theology as a study has to be informed by the Church and the many church communities that comprise it. There needs to be something of an urgent hotline whereby the very real issues christians face throughout the world can be addressed by those who have the gift of understanding, in order that the Church may be soundly led and guided.

Of course, this is all idealistic and doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world. I would hope that some of this is faintly familiar, though I guess many of you have other insights borne out of your own experience of church life and theology.

So, what do you think? Does all this sound reasonable, pie in the sky or just setting off on the wrong track?

Incapable of love and prone to hate? (A Personal Catechism #5)

Link to previous part

Q: Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?

A: In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour.

Response

This is stated with specific reference to the previous question in the catechism, so if you’re joining this series just here, then please do take a moment to step back and look at the context.

The point being made in this question lies at the heart of the one of the 5 points of Calvinism, that of “total depravity”. Although it’s very simply stated and here, the answer is also quite short, there is much behind it to consider from a number of viewpoints, though I only have space here to consider the direct biblical basis.

The catechism does provide references to back up the claim. To determine if it’s accurate we must ask whether it is a true and fair understanding of the passages cited. i.e. is this a case of texts being taken out of context or is it a fair exegesis? Then we ask whether it’s a complete picture. i.e. are these the only texts which speak on the subject or are there others which throw a different light on the matter?

The phrase “in no wise” the verses given as backup are Romans 3:10,20,23 and 1 John 1:8,10. If we look at these passages, one fails to see a straight line between what Paul wrote and the catechism’s conclusion. What these verses seem to point at is the fact that humans a) are not righteous (Romans) and b) are in a state of sin and that all sinned (1 John). Here, the link is easier to see between these two, though care must be taken not to equate a) and b). To my understanding, b) comes before a). In other words, we are first of all in a state of sin (how? That may be dealt with later) and as a result of that nature we are those who sin. That was the point I tried to make in the previous part. Because of this we are considered, in the judicial sense, unrighteous.

But does this indicate that we are incapable of fulfilling the two great commandments? I’m not convinced. To leap ahead slightly, if this is a statement about human nature, then if humans were incapable of keeping the commandments, then to state that Jesus was fully human would logically lead to the idea that Jesus could not have kept them. So one would be forced to conclude either than Jesus wasn’t fully human or that he failed to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and failed to love his neighbours as himself.

If, however, we consider that the catechism is incorrect and that these passages are not indicative of an impossibility, then we may allow ourselves more scope when look at the nature of Jesus later on. One might think that I am trying to ‘cheat’ here by anticipating a later answer and rigging this now. However, I am not trying to build this catechism in terms of axioms and intermediary theories. This is simply looking at one aspect at a time, when really the whole thing ought to be kept in mind.

Looking at the second part of the answer, we are given the following scriptures:

Romans 8:7
Ephesians 2:3
Titus 3:3
Genesis 6:5
Genesis 8:21
Jeremiah 17:9
Romans 7:23

If we read through these, is it a true and fair view to say that they can be encapsulated by the statement “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour”?

The first Romans passage doesn’t seem to endorse this. Of course, picking verses out of their context is a risky business, as one can easily misconstrue their meaning, failing to see the overall gist and the particular part the passage in question plays in achieving the author’s goal. The phrase (in the NRSV translation) is “the mind that is set on the flesh”. This does not imply to me “all minds”. The Ephesians passage back this up, referring to a past time, “All of us once lived among…” and “…we were by nature…” These imply a past tense. Titus says, “…were once foolish…”. The Genesis 6 passage is, I believe, a bad citation and not relevant for the discussion. The Genesis 8 passage is, though, more revealing. The key phrase being, “…for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…”

The use of the Hebrew neurim is interesting in itself, as it seems to be correct to interpret is as “from youth”. One might wonder why not “from birth.” That may be worth exploring another time. If we pick verses out of their context then one might be able to sympathise with the expression in the catechism. But if we regard, as I do, Genesis as being the background, the opening salvo in the grand narrative of creation, Israel, exile, law, etc. then we come to see that what is described here is the ‘past sense’ that Paul talks about in the passages already mentioned.

The Jeremiah verse seems to be part of a poem, so while it reflects a kind of truthful insight, one should be cautioned against reading it too literally.

Returning to Romans,  I read it as part of a very tricky passage to understand (the whole argument of Romans 7:14-25). I cannot do justice to it here, for which I must apologise, but if we look at the catechism assertion to which it is used as backup, the question that must be asked is ‘Does the passage lend weight to this interpretation?’ – to which I would cautiously say ‘no’. Rather, Romans, though highly pertinent to the idea of the sinful nature, I think that the sinful nature is housed within the human nature.

Here, then the idea of human sinfulness being equated with what it means to be human is a mistake. Rather, the question is the one of the spirit which dwells within the human being. Looked at from this perspective, then Romans 7 comes into better focus as we can see that Paul speaks of a spirit of sin “dwell[ing] in my members”. As opposed to this we have the spirit of holiness (the Holy Spirit) which may dwell within us and which acts as an alternative  motivating force.

So then, with that having taken far too long to write, we have a tentative alternative of the way of looking at what we might refer to as “human nature”, “the human condition” or such similar terms. Not least because of the later questions that come up over the nature of Jesus, one needs to think carefully about we define “human” if (and this is an if, not an assertion) Jesus is fully God and fully human.

What then, might we give by an alternative answer in distillation of the above?

Alternative Answer

The “these things” reference denotes the great two commandments to love God with everything that we have and to love one another. In any person, a person can do both, so the crux really lies in the use of the term ‘perfectly’. If this love is to be perfect then it must be born of a spirit of love. To do this, one must be emptied of the sinful nature (a matter of ontology) which is within us, and which exhibits itself in the form of sin (a matter of action), and instead be filled with the Holy Spirit completely. This is the work of sanctification (i.e. making holy) which is begun in us, but which is not yet complete. So I do not think that we can, as yet, love perfectly, but that does make us wholly devoid of love. It is a work which will be completed, but hasn’t been yet.

God and Jesus and a question of gender

Intro

I am sitting down to write this on the evening of Monday the 24th of February. Earlier today, @helen_a13 posed a question on Twitter.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I am here only going to respond with a few thoughts. As @richardclarkson sagely pointed out, “I suspect it’s the kind of thing that either needs 140 characters or 1400 pages to do it justice.” So here I cannot pretend to give a satisfactory answer. Where I hope to shed a little light, I acknowledge that additional shadows may be formed. Others may choose different emphases and scriptures to look at. Much more of this may be dealt with as I continue my ‘A Personal Catechism‘ which is going far slower than I had hoped for, even though my initial plan was to spend 3 years on it.

Attempting to answer an ancient question

From the outset, it has to be said it’s a fantastic question and one that has been asked in various forms for centuries. It’s of particular interest to me as it sort of coincides with some reading I’ve been doing recently (in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God) and it also taps into something I have been meaning to make explicit on this blog for some time.

Another form the question has been asked in is, “Was Jesus divine?” or “What does it mean for God to be referred to as ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of Man’?” It is the differing answers to these questions that gave rise to, for example, the term in the Nicene Creed, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” – here I would remind readers of my view of the creeds as products of the disputes of their time, not as normative statements which define christianity. That is not to denigrate the creed or falsify it.

Indeed, referring to Jesus as ‘Son’ may be found in several scriptures, but I would choose to highlight the narratives of his baptism (“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased“, Matt 3:17, NRSV – see also Luke 3:21) and transfiguration (“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!'”, Mark 9:7, NRSV). In these cases, we note the word translated as ‘Beloved’ is the Greek agapetos, which my concordance fleshes out as: dearly loved one, the object of special affection and of special relationship. A footnote in the Luke passage reads: “Other ancient authorities read You are my Son, today I have begotten you. This latter note makes explicit an allusion that could have been read in the other passages: Psalm 2.

Here, we have a poem which states “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations you heritage…” – just prior to this is a statement about setting a king on Zion. So when we read these declarations of Jesus as a begotten Son, this is not meant to say that he is the offspring of God. The term begotten is not meant to denote a genealogical relationship; it is a metaphor for being specially designated. But designated as what? As the king who sits on Zion. This identifies Jesus firmly within the royal line of David.

We might also note Peter’s confession whereby he says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16, NRSV). And who revealed this to Peter? Jesus answers, “…flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

So we cannot escape the notion of a father-son relationship. It’s then a question of how we interpret this.

Yet none of this in and of itself points to Jesus actually being God. As mentioned above, a form of Helen’s question that has been posed before is, “Was Jesus divine?” Yet, and with further apologies to Wright for following his line of thought, this seems to be slightly the wrong question. It’s not that it’s a bad question, but it’s not the question that pressed the early church. Rather, what they were asking was, “Who was Jesus?” The shocking answer that Jesus was one and the same as God that was developed in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.

This can be seen in, for example, Paul’s poem in Philippians 2:1-11. At the end of this, we see the attribution “Jesus Christ is Lord”. The word translated as ‘Lord’ here is the Greek kyrios. This is also used as a euphemism to translate YHWH, or the name of God, in Greek translations of the Old Testament. So to label Jesus as ‘Lord’ is to declare that he is God.

This is made most explicit in in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul writes: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is not a statement which says, “[there is God, and now in addition to this we have a new figure.]” This is a reworking of the Jewish Shema, a statement of monotheism, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. It is putting Jesus at the heart of this new form of modified/fulfilled Judaism which eventually became known as christianity.

This gets us as far as binitarianism: the idea that Jesus is God. For a full-blown trinitarianism, we’d need to look at the person of the Holy Spirit, but I haven’t the time or space here for that. Of course, as soon as you answer in a way such as this, lots more questions spring up. For example, one could take the lead from Jürgen Moltmann and ask, “If Jesus is God, then doesn’t that mean that God died?” as asked in The Crucified God.

Returning to the question

With that rather lengthy preamble, we return to the original question Helen asked earlier.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I would refer to God as being the whole of the trinity, which are referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some would use the term God to denote the “personality” of God the Father. Though each of these terms represent failures in our language. I wouldn’t take “God the Father” to mean that he is Jesus’ daddy. It is an honorific, meant to denote a kind of relationship. The title Son is also an honorific, but in this case denoting kingship.

Where we get into difficulty is using the term ‘father’ where such a word may, due to bad experience, carry negative connotations. I discovered this in my late teens when I worked with younger teens and I remember one of them asking me, “How can God be a good father? Father is the person who hits mum and makes her cry.” In such circumstances, I am in favour of adapting our language to suit the sensibilities (and sensitivities) of those we are talking to.

Addendum: A note on the style of this blog

As referred to above, there was an aspect of this blog which has thus far been demonstrated, but not stated explicitly. Regular readers may have noticed that I will often refer to God as ‘It’. Why use an impersonal pronoun? Again, our language is somewhat deficient. While I would like to be able to use a gender-neutral pronoun that is not impersonal, the English language simply doesn’t have one. Using ‘It’ for God tries to avoid designating a gender role. The stereotype (as aided by some of the language in the bible) is to refer to God generally via male pronouns. While there may be some uses for this, not least in thinking of God as a “person” (if not human) then some kind of gender specification may enforce this. After all, one may tend to think of something as having a personality if it has a gender. One might think in terms of the animal kingdom or even of the tendency to refer to ships using female pronouns (“all who sail in her”). Using “It” may offend some, but my aim is not to offend, merely to ask you think afresh. If we grow too accustomed to reading about God in anthropomorphic terms, then we risk entrenching ourselves in a wrong view.