December 30, 2006

Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power

Theories of atonement, expressions of how Jesus' life and death convey God's saving power, stand at the center of Christian theology, and also stand at the core of what it means to be church. So says Peter Schmiechen, in this expansive work of scholarship, Saving Power, about the atonement. Schmiechen sets out to survey the important ways that atonement has been understood, and then to analyze and evaluate the various expressions, on his way to outlining some of the essential components that make up a theory of atonement and, further, to layout out some central claims made across the various theories about what atonement has to say about God and about us.

Schmiechen lays out ten theories of atonement, divided up under four major headings. He also looks at a particuar figure or writing that typifies each view.

A. Christ Died for Us
1. Sacrifice (Hebrews)
2. Justification by Grace (Luther)
3. Penal Substitution (Charles Hodge)
B. Liberation from Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers
4. Liberation (Irenaeus, twentieth-century liberation theology)
C. The Purposes of God
5. Renewal of Creation (Athanasius)
6. Restoration of Creation (Anselm)
7. Christ the Goal of Creation (Schliermacher)
D. Reconciliation
8. Christ the Way to the Knowledge of God (H. R. Nieburh)
9. Christ the Reconciler (1 Corinthians 1-2)
10. The Wondrous Love of God (Abelard, Wesley, Moltmann)

In this first part of the book, Schmiechen does a very admirable service in providing a clear exposition of each of the different views, a concise outline of the logic of the view, a rather detailed look at one figure (sometimes more) or New Testament writing that exemplifies each presentation, and then synthesises and evaluates each of the different theories. Undoubtedly one could quarrel with small points of analysis or presentation, but on the whole his outline is a thorough and clear presentation of a broad range of atonement theories.

The theory that comes under the most fire in his presentation is the "penal substitution" theory, and the presentation of it by Charles Hodge. Schmiechen sees this view as typified by an understanding that sinners stand under God's righteous judgment, and that Christ's death pays a penalty in our place, satisfying the demands of the law. The points he takes most issue with is the idea that atonement would be a transaction with God as object in some way. That is, something is done to or given to God to appease is wrath and judgment. This would mean that in God justice has won out over love as the ultimate demand to be satisfied. It also means that Jesus' death is an end in itself. Schmiechen doesn't throw out the theory entirely though, instead proposing what he sees as a radical reformulation, maintaining a recognizable outline of the theory but stressing that while Jesus death can be in some ways interpreted as being for us, it shouldn't be looked at as a "compensation offered to God to enable God to redeem us" (118). Instead, Jesus death is seen as a revelation of God's judgment against sin and a revelation of the obedience and fidelity that typify God's intention for creation, thus removing any transactional quality.

In some ways, Schmiechen's criticisms are surely on base. He insists that penal substitution is problematic if it affirms only God's justice as an ultimate characteristic of God's person, requiring the law to remain always fully in force, even over God. For formulations of penal substitution that succumb to this danger, this is a relevant critique, because it recasts the good news in language of vindication, not grace. But I don't think this attitude typifies this understanding of the cross, where Jesus is almost always understood in terms of his identity as the Son of God, following God's will even unto death. God is first and primarily subject. The value of his second critique is less clear. He sets out to counter any argument that sees Jesus' death as an end in itself, apart from his life of holiness and obedience, which he sees as ultimately a valorisation of retaliatory violence. Again, there is a good reminder that Jesus death shouldn't be understood as radically divorced from his person and life, nor that God in some way condones or enacts retaliatory violence upon those who sin out of some vindictive desire to punish those who dare to cross him. Again, there is value in being aware of the tendency to valorize suffering and to condone violence, and his word is an important critique of too much preaching and teaching that confuses this issue. But, getting to the core of the theological argument, Jesus death can and should be understood as the reason he came, the high-point and focus of his life and ministry. And was understood this way already in the New Testament (e.g. Phil 2, 1 Cor 2), as is made clear by the relative space given to the Passion narratives in the Gospels, and even seemed to be the understanding of Jesus himself, who predicted his own death on numerous occasions and who in the Gospel of John spoke of his death by saying "my time has come." I would even argue that Schmiechen's logic is almost turned on its head here, and that any atonement theory that doesn't see Jesus death as the central and defining moment in his life has a strong uphill climb to legitimacy.

After his in-depth analysis of the ten theories of atonement, which take up the bulk of the book, Schmiechen concludes by discussing the structure and role of atonement theories, and by laying out five points or dimensions to discuss when looking at atonement: 1. From image to theory; 2. God's opposition to sin, death, and demonic powers; 3. the purposes of God; 4. persons in community; and 5. God's initiative. This framework allows him to discuss the themes that carry through many or all of the theories, and also present a way to evaluate theories for their adequacy on these various points. He then concludes the book with a very insightful discussion of how theories of atonement relate to forms of church. He looks at how various understandings of atonement, with their accompanying understandings of how that saving power is bestowed, lead naturally (but not necessarily) to various shapes for the Christian community. One of the examples that best typifies this discussion is the recognition that Luther's reunderstanding of atonement in terms of justification by faith leads to church that is centered around preaching of the Word and the use of the vernacular Bible, in order to get the truth of God's Word out to the greatest number of people and incite faith. This final chapter is one of the greatest values of the book, though it is short, in that it helps us to recognize the centrality of the atonement to our life as church, and second, helps us to recognize that the same atonement theory can lead to different expressions of church when understood differently. This can be cause for fruitful dialogue and empathetic listening on the part of people from various denominations.

In Saving Power, Schmiechen has written an important study of the atonement. As he carefully presents a broad spectrum of options in a sympathetic way, he invites the reader to recognize the values implicit in each of them, and points a way toward a deeper and more powerful understanding of what it is that God has accomplished in Jesus. I know I was surprised by the power of a number of the views, and found friends in Christian thinkers from centuries gone by that will help enliven and energize my own thinking about Jesus Christ, and I trust it will have the same benefit for all who invest the time in these pages.

December 20, 2006

Paul and theories of atonement: Romans 5

Over the past hundred years, it has become common to speak of various theories or models of atonement. And on the whole I think this has been a worthwile enterprise, as we come to appreciate the variety and depth of different ways to speak about what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. We can understand Christ's death as a liberation from forces of sin, death, and evil, or we can understand his death as a sacrifice on our behalf. And there are quite a number of other ways to understand Jesus' death.

I think a truth that is absolutely essential to keep in mind during all of these discussions is that while it may be possible to classify some theories in this way to see how typical images and forms of thought are used to try put into words what Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, it is equally as vital to see that no one of these theories is complete in itself, or is or should be isolated from others. It is detrimental to speak of the atonement in terms of say a theory of sacrifice if the image of atonement as the love of God is left completely out of the picture, for instance. And I think a good example of what it means to hold multiple theories or images together is already to be seen in Paul's writing about Christ's death in Romans 5.

A careful reading of Romans 5 shows us quite a number of images or approaches to Christ's death are being held to gether to create a picture of what his death means. Paul speaks of Jesus' death accomlishing justification by grace (which Schmiechen in Saving Power classifies as a theory of atonement), a central image to Paul's thought. But Paul ties this image closely together with God's wondrous love, speaking in 5:5 and 8 about God demonstrating his love in Jesus and his death and pouring that love into our hearts. Paul also speaks of Jesus death as effecting reconciliation, the bringing of humans back into right relationship with God. As part of this reconciliation theme, Paul also speaks of Jesus as the second Adam, fulfilling the role of true humanity and effecting a renewal of Creation, a completing of God's purposes. In addition to these images, Paul also speaks of the efficacy of Jesus' blood (5:9), which points to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus death as covering over sins and removing God's wrath and judgment. And just to complete the picture, there are also overtones of a liberation theory of atonement, as Paul writes in verse 6 that Christ died for the ungodly "while we were still powerless."

It is very instructive to look at the logic and imagery of each of these theories or models independently, to come to a deeper understanding of what it means, but this type of study becomes harmful if any one theory is used in isolation to others. This is not to say that all ways of talking about the atonement are equally correct, but instead to say that it seems clear that no set of images can contain the deep meanings of what God accomplished in Jesus.

December 19, 2006

The beggar myth

Living in Lima, Peru, I daily encounter a number of beggars on the streets. And at each of these encounters, I still am beset by a number of often conflicting emotions. Pity and compassion come easily and quickly, wanting something better for these poor people. But usually not more than a split second behind is the thought—the oft-told myth—what if this person is one who beggs for easy money, too lazy to work at a real job. Or of course, this could be one of the beggars who use the money frivolously for cigarettes and alcohol.

Who hasn't heard someone voice this as a concern, and I'd dare say far too often as a reason for ignoring beggars? Because we seem to have this fear of being taken advantge of. "Of course I want to give to the poor," so why not now? Somehow this myth seems to win the day. Now, I grant you that there must be people out there who strive to take advantage of those more fortunate, or who use the money they obtain for less-than-noble purposes. But is this a reason to stop giving as a rule.

I've come to more and more realize that it's not my job to judge the person worthy of my condesention and aid. Jesus didn't go around finding the worthy beggars and most noble outcasts to befriend and heal, he went so often to what seemed to be the bottom o the social ladder. I admit that this isn't always comfortable territory. But that's okay. It is about time we realized that it isn't our judgment that these people need, but our love and acceptance. Like Paul says in Romans 2, it is our compassion and forgiveness that leads people to repentance, not our judgment in place of God. Not that we will always see the change in people, but maybe giving without expecting anything in return might begin to give someone pause.

And in the end, we are all beggars.

The gospel and inclusivity: Romans 2

In today's pluralistic and postmodern world, looking at what it means to be inclusive and accepting is an important task. Because today few thigns are more valued in our culture than these values. And Christian communities have reacted to and incorporated these values differently. Some churches strive to be known by inclusivity and acceptance, while others strive to be on the front lines of the culture war and draw careful boundaries around who is in and who is out. As an evangelical, I feel myself pulled in both directions. And rightfully so, I think. So that is just why I think it is a topic worthy of reflection.

In Romans 2, Paul is working on laying out the logic behind his presentation of the gospel message of justification by grace and inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in the Christian community. He has begun by making the assertions that God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel and God's wrath is revealed in his reaction to people's rejection of his will. In the first section of chapter 2, Paul takes up what it means for Christians to judge others. He asserts in crystal clear language that everyone deserves to be judged based on truth, but he equates this with "God's judgment" (2:2). But for those of us who aren't God, he says, "So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?" And I don't think he is just saying that I look like a hypocrite when I castigate someone for stealing but am caught with the same transgression in my background (or when a pastor who has berated homosexual behavior is caught with the same proclivities). I think his logic points more toward a broader assertion: we are all sinners (as he will say over and over in chapter 3), and judgment isn't in our hands.

So what does that mean for me? If you read further in Romans 2, or anywhere else in Paul for that matter, you know without a doubt that he's not talking about an anything-goes, syncretistic Christianity. And Paul is also a staunch defender in the need for Christians to proclaim Christ, and to seek to discern his will (see, for example Romans 12:2 and Philippians 1:9-11). I'm not sure I can lay out exactly what it means to practice these two seemingly contradictory ideas: do not judge, proclaim Christ and discern his will. But I do think that the core of what Paul is getting at is the attitude of the heart. Inclusivity should be our hearts desire, to accept all people as sinners, just as we are, unworthy of God's grace but offered God's unfailing love as a free gift. And no less than that, our heart is bound with Christ and no other, and this means striving always to live as he lived, and to flee from things that are odious and repulsive to God. So my post doesn't end with an easy answer. More it ends with a question, or maybe more, a reflection. That these two things probably should be a conflict within us as a community (if they are not, there is cause for serious worry). Paul probably sums it up best when he says, "Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" God shows us an amazing love, a love we didn't deserve and can never boast about as being of our own doing. But that love leads us toward repentance. Somehow we need to strive to be that love that is exemplified in kindness, patience, and even tolerance, the kind that leads toward repentance and a new life and existence in Christ.

December 16, 2006

How to think about atonement

Atonement is one of those theoogical concepts that sits right at the heart of the Christian faith, but somehow it seems to be something that remains implicit in a lot of biblical and theological reflection. It seems easy to take for granted that Christ accomplished something, and we probably wed our assumption to a particular way of thinking about what Christ accomlished, though we may not be aware of it. It is clear upon reading the New Testament with atonement in mind that there are a lot of different images for understanding what it is that Christ accomplishes and how we understand it to be for us.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about how to understand this most important of topics. I first had to teach about it, and help my high schoolers understand what atonement means and the major ways it has been understood. I've also been doing some reading, starting with David Willis's Clues to the Nicene Creed. In that book, Willis voices what has become a common discontent in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. The idea that God would demand satisfaction and would need appeasement raises some significant questions about God's character.

I've recently been reading Saving Power by Peter Schmiechen. He sets out to investigate the major theories of atonement, investiating each presentation and looking at a major proponent of each view. He echoes the problems pointed out by Willis about the penal substituationary theory, the view that many evangelical protestants seem to take for granted as the central way to understand the atonement, since the work of theologians like Charles Hodge and the Princeton school, who elevated and defended it. And I think some of the problems he carefully points out have some validity. At some other time I'll need to reflect further on the biblical background of the penal substitution theory, and how this gets translated into the usual presetation.

But what I think is of more value for the moment is noticing, though not for the first time, that there are an abundance of ways to understand the atonement. Schmiechen puts these views (he finds ten) into four major categories: Christ died for us; liberation from sin, death, and demonic powers; the purposes of God; and reconciliation. There are so many powerful ways to understand what God has done through Christ. In his New Testament Theology, I. Howard Marshall reflects on the fact that Jesus blood as an atoning sacrifice is almost absent as a theme from Luke and Acts. Now atonement certainly isn't absent, but that particuar image is in the background. That brings me to my current reading: Saving Power. I have been struck by the fact that there are a number of different ways to explore and explicate the meaning of what God did in Jesus Christ, and have further been constantly amazed at how none of the pictures seems complete without the others. If we are too focused only on the liberation in Christ, or only on the appeasment of God's wrath through Christ's sacrifice, we are missing so much of the inexpressible depth of God's love shown in Jesus Christ, and of the new life that Jesus brings to us. So there will be more thoughts to come on different approaches to atonement.

December 09, 2006

Movie: The Island

I had a chance to watch the movie The Island last night. It is a well-made, fast-paced, and intelligent movie about what it means to be human. The movie starts off with an underground society, carefully partitioned off from the outside world because of a major contagion that has swept the whole earth. Everyone in this closed environment spends their days wanting to get to "the Island," the last pathogen-free place on earth. And there are lotteries that determine who gets to go. Lincoln 6-Echo (played by Ewan McGregor) begins to question their environment, and when he finds an insect that has made it in through the ventilation system, begins to wonder if the whole story about a contagion is false. So he sets off to explore, and discovers that the complex sits under a hospital, and in that hospital those who "win the lottery" and get to go to the Island are actually mined for their organs. The whole virtual world into which he has been indoctrinated is false. So he and Jordan 2-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), who has just "won the lottery," make a break for it, and are able to slip out of the complex and into the surrounding desert. They enlist the help of one of the workers Lincoln has gotten to know, and after learning the whole story from him, they set out to find their "owners," the people who have paid to have a genetic double standing by as insurance. In the end, they are able to get word out that the complex exists, and further, that the genetic doubles aren't just sitting in a vat of jelly waiting to be harvested but are alive and interacting.

The Island raises some interesting issues about medical ethics, cloning, and human life. The whole movie is based around the theme that clones are humans too. There would be some obviouls benefits to having a clone handy so there were spare parts available, but as nice as that fantasy sounds, with other attendant discoveries and medical advances like curing some diseases, the dangers are unspeakable. The manipulation of life that is required in cloning is not worth the advances. As the movie shows, it takes a loss of our own humanity in order to manipulate human life in that way. But there is also a weakness in the movie. The theme of cloning is treated as not problematic in itself. What causes the source of public outcry isn't that clones are being made but that they are allowed to be born and have conscious lives. Somehow, it seems, it would have been fine if the clones had never been aware of their existence, but once they become conscious, the seem to take on a new value. The line they are seeking to draw seems all too artificial, and demonstrates the briar patch of problems once we have advanced too far down the road toward manipulation of human life. But in the end, this movie is worth watching, both for entertainment value and for the conversations it sparks. Like Gattica, for instance, it is an interesting exploration of biomedical ethics.

December 05, 2006

Christ the Creator

One of the central affirmations about Jesus in the NT is that he is one and the same with God the creator, and in fact all things were created through him. And I’ve always seen this as being part of a clear affirmation of Jesus as God—being on par with saying something like “Jesus is so completely God that he is the creator God.” It also serves as an affirmation of the fact that Jesus isn’t a created being, a creature like us, only of a higher sort (a point that had to be reaffirmed a few hundred years later against Arius). But in doing some reading on atonement, I’ve come to appreciate another deep meaning in the simple statement that God created the world through Jesus. Athanasius, one of the theological giants of the first four centuries and a participant in the council of Nicaea, wrote that it is proper for us to think of God redeeming this world that he has made. He argues that while it wouldn’t have shown weakness for God not to have created, once God had created, it was fitting and proper for God to redeem the world, and in fact not redeeming it was out of the question. He goes on to make the point that it is also fitting that this work of redemption would be done by the same Word through whom the world was created. He writes, “For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in him by whose means he made it” (from “On the Incarnation of the Word,” Christology of the Later Fathers, 56). It may seem a simple insight, but for me, it turns the logic of thinking of Christ as creator on its head. I had always though of it as an affirmation of the deity of Christ, an affirmation of who he is, but Athanasius helps us to see that more than that, thinking of Christ as creator is fitting, because how else would God re-create the world that he had made except in the same way that it had been created in the first place. This simple insight helps to recontextualize our thinking about what atonement means. More than thinking of it just as forgiveness or freedom, we appreciate that in Christ, God was displaying his purposes for creation. In learning about Jesus, and appreciating his action as the action of the very Creator of our world, we come to know all the more intimately about who we are as God’s creation and what we were created for.

Athanasius certainly wasn’t the first Christian thinker to put these pieces together. There is ample evidence that his pattern of thought was clearly present already in the NT. Paul makes these same connections for us in Colossians 1 and helps us begin to appreciate their significance. In Col 1:15, he beings by asserting that Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” and moreover that “by him all things were created.” So we start with a clear affirmation of Christ’s divinity, and see him as Creator, with authority over all things. But Paul then goes on to connect this image of Christ as creator with his work of holding all things together. That speaks both of his work of creation and his work of redemption. Jesus was God reconciling all things to himself because Jesus is God in whom all things hold together, and it is fitting that the work of atonement and reconciliation would be done by him. What an amazing thought.

(Colin Gunton writes quite a lot about the theme of Christ as Creator in The Triune Creator, and I am sure he has these insights well in view. Being in Peru and thousands of miles from the great majority of my library means I can’t consult it to read further at this point.)

November 30, 2006

David Willis, Clues to the Nicene Creed

In Clues to the Nicene Creed, David Willis looks at the Christian faith through a study of the main themes of the most ecumenical of the creeds, the Nicene Creed. Willis's book isn't reallly a historical discussion of the Creed or its development, nor is it a look at the theology of the creed, so much as it is a collection of theological reflections on the major themes. In some ways it is a mini-systematic theology, though that is too strong of a term.

The strength of the book is that it covers a broad range of important topics, from the nature of faith to the nature of God to Jesus and the Spirit to the church. Willis looks at man of these major themes, and illumines some interesting facets. And many of his reflections contain some useful insights and novel approaches. One of these is his extended discussion of the Christian life as a life of forgiveness, of living an active compassion, and of living forward toward our resurrection life. Willis also does well to keep the lives of believers in view, and investigates how these doctrines can be lived out, probably the greatest strength of the book. He does inspire a vision of a Christian life than makes a difference in our interactions in society. Yet, I think the book has some weaknesses as well. Though Willis does look at some biblical material as he goes, this material mostly remains in the background. Though this probably fits with his intentions in writing, a stronger biblical foundation and more engagement with important texts would have greatly helped. His vision of the Christian life was also mostly sociological, involving our interactions with others moreso than with God. I also felt, as I mentioned above, that the book is best categoriezed as reflections, moreso than an "outline of the faith," brief or not, as the subtitle calls it.

The book was worth reading, and does an admirable job of keeping the applicability of theology in view, though I almost put it down a few times before finishing. Clearly he gives some useful insights, but I think better treatments are to be found. Alister McGrath's I Believe is one worthy alternative: a thoughtful reflection on the Apostles' Creed.

November 27, 2006

F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free

F. F. Bruce is one of the most distinguished Evangelical Biblical scholars of the past generation. In this great book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, he focuses in on the Apostle Paul, his setting, and his theology. He structures the book in essentially chronological order, synthesizing much of the material from Acts with what can be discerned from the letters of his travels. This account includes a very detailed historical discussion of the various settings for the letters, as well as cultural and historical factors that would have effected Paul's thinking. He also pauses to reflect on the character and theology of each of Paul's writings, including the undisputed letters, the disputed letters, and also the Pastorals. He makes a case for Pauline authorship of all of the letters, and takes a more guarded stance on the Pastorals, but still including them in his scheme, or at least allowing room for them.

Bruce's account is full of important information, and helps bring the biographical and historical details about Paul and his first-century setting together with his epistles. This sheds insightful light on Paul's writing, and helps to contextualize his theology. And his well-thought-out and well-reasoned positions on things like authorship, chronology, and theology, make this book a great starting point in the study of Paul. He is also well aware of the major critical issues with regard to Pauline scholarship, and introduces the reader to the relevant questions as well as guiding the readers toward well-reasoned answers. The book was written in 1977, which means that there have been some major changes in Pauline scholarship, but E. P. Sanders had already begun the "new perspective" movement, so even though Bruce doesn't interact with it in detail, the trajectory of what would certainly have become a more detailed evaluation at later date is already evident in its pages.
Paul played a central role in the development of Christianity, and in its spread throughout the Mediterranean region in the years after Jesus' death. And through is writings he has decisively shaped Christian thought ever since. Bruce lends a scholar's and historian's eye to the study of this important figure and the writings he left. His contribution is full of important information, and is certainly an important building block in understanding this most important Apostle. Highly recommended.

October 27, 2006

N. T. Wright, Paul

N. T. Wright has been one of the most important and prolific Biblical scholars over the past decade. His major series Christian Origins and the Question of God has already begun to have serious impact on scholarship, through his narrative readings of important texts, and through his reappraisal of the Jewish thinking in the first century, with his focus on the theme of exile and return as a key to undertanding Jewish self-understanding as the people of God. In this small book, Paul, he points forward to the next step of his major scholarly undertaking (after focusing in on method and then on Jesus' life and then resurrection), his study of Paul. In these lectures, he looks at the major themes of Paul's thinking, first through an appraisal of some underguirding themes that made up his thought-world, and then through a brief systematic presentation of Paul's theology.

In the first part of the book, Wright outlines his understanding of Paul's world, and then outlines some basic underlying themes that illuminate his thinking. The first pair of themes he raises are creation and covenant. He emphasizes that these two themes are integral to a proper understanding of Judaism, and would be the major constituent's of a second-Temple Jew's theological thinking. In Paul's thought, Wright sees that these two themes have been brought together, in passages such as Colossians 1:15-20 (which Wright argues is probably Pauline), and Romans 1-11. These two themes come together in Jesus, and are redefined around him. The second pari of themes that Wright looks at are Messiah and Apocalyptic. Throughout this chapter, Wright argues that the idea of Messiaship was a central one for Paul's understanding of Jesus, and further, that this has profound "apocalyptic" implications for Paul. In fact, apocalyptic is an essential way of understanding the fact that in Jesus, God has revealed his plan for the world, and even though Paul doesn't often use the standard forms of apocalyptic literature (dreams, visions, dense imagery), he does often speak apocalyptically. The fianl themes that Wright illumines in Paul's thought are Gospel and Empire. In this last section of part one, he explores this burgeoning area of Pauline studies, emphasizing that the Roman Empire did in fact provide an important element in Paul's world, and that it clearly had implications for his thinking. Wright echoes many other writers in NT studies with his assertion that "political" can't be separated out from "domestic" or "theological" or "religious" spheres of life and existence. These elements were all bound together into one complex world. Thus, Wright argues that Paul's theology, among other things, was counter imperial, and proclaiming Jesus as Lord meant that Caesar wasn't Lord, a "political" statement as much as a "religions" or "theological" one.

Wright then turns to a brief but illuminating systematic exposition of Paul's theology, organized not in the traditional way of something like "God, humanity's need, God's gift, future things," or some other such arrangement, but instead organized around what Wright sees as the main Jewish loci: God, God's people, God's future. Wright asserts that these three loci are still the important centers of Paul's thought, and that we can best understand his way of thinking by seeing how Paul preserved but also modified these three areas of thought, and in each area, Wright helpfully explores the Jewish understanding of the loci, and then looks at Paul's redefinition of it. The first locus he investigates is God. For Jews, the basic doctrine of God is that God is one God, the covenant and creator God. Paul has maintained just this same emphasis, while "rethinking" it to include Jesus and the Spirit as being indeed this same one God. And further, this means that he sees in Jesus that the covenant God has in fact taken the problems of creation and covenant on himself by coming to earth and fulfilling the covenant through his own faithfulness. The second area Wright looks at is God's people, election. Here he closely interacts with the "new perspective" on Paul and on second-Temple Judaism. He is essentially in agreement with Sanders on a reunderstanding of Judaism so as to understand that Judaism didn't understand the law as a way of earning favor with God, but instead was a marker given by God to define their identity as the covenant people and as a way of maintaing that covenant relationship. Yet Wright also agrees that Israel clearly wasn't properly upholding its part of that covenant relationship. And it is here that Jesus fits into his "reworking" of God's people. Election around Jesus means that God's people are no longer understood as those descended by birth from Abraham, but instead as those with faith in Jesus, those "justified" through faith. But he strongly advocates a reunderstanding of justification, asserting that while it does have to do with sinners being made right with God, it is first and foremost in Paul's thikning about "how I am declared to be a member of God's people." And Jesus is the key to this, because in Jesus, Israel has been reconstituted, and through Jesus this Israel will fulfill the mission God originally set for it--Israel is no longer understood as an ethnic idea but is more understood as an instrument in God's purposes. The third area Wright explores is eschatology, God's future. After an exploration of Jewish understandings, with his characteristic emphasis on the themes of exile and return as central, Wright goes on to look at how, for Paul, Jesus has changed things. In Jesus, what God had promised to happen in the future (the resurrection) has happened already in the middle, bringing i what is often called an inaugurated eschatology. The end is breaking into the middle time. Another theme Wright sees as central to Paul is the parousia, the "second coming" of Christ. But Wright asserts that this second coming should be best understood not as Jesus coming from some heaven far away to earth but instead understood as coming with "royal presence" much as an emperor would, and that this coming would not be the end of the present world but a new creation of it. Wright also highlights some other important themes (too many to go into here), such as the Day of the Lord and judgment. In his closing chapter, Wright looks at how these theological understandings related to those of Jesus and how they played out in Paul's ministry. He also concludes by looking at how Paul's thinking bears on the church's ministry today.

In Paul, Wright has made a very helpful contribution to the field of Pauline studies. He has, in his usual lucid prose, illuminated a number of important issues and given some helpful groundwork for understanding this most important apostle. He has also creatively pointed toward a new way of "thinking Paul's thoughts after him," in dialogue with the way people have done this in the past. Wright's rethinking of such major themes as justification seems to walk an interesting middle road between a traditional Reformation approach and a new-perspective approach. I fear some of the important elements of themes like the righteousness of God are weakend in his treatment, but some of that impression may be due to the brief nature of the book in hand. While Wright clearly rejects a purely sociological approach to salvation and justification, he seems to too much ignore the believer's relationship with God. But again, more room will likely bring a more complete and illuminating treatment. I look forward with anticipation to his fuller treatment on these thems in his next volume of the Christian Origins series. This great little volume certainly gives us a bit of the flavor, and makes us hunger for the substantive engagement to come.

September 26, 2006

Stanley Grenz, Prayer

In this great little book, theologian Stanley Grenz takes a careful look at Prayer. He looks at what prayer is, and why we as Christians should do it. He then goes on to focus on petitionary prayer, helping us to build an understanding of God and the world where prayer really matters.

Grenz clearly has a heart for prayer. And his passion is reflected throughout these pages. He writes as someone who wants to tear down barriers to prayer and help draw us closer to God. He begins this task by strongly reminding Christians how important prayer is, and how important it should be. He starts off with the bold assertion that prayer is the biggest challenge facing the church today. Many people have relegated prayer to the back corners of our lives, maybe doing it out of habit, but no longer really believing in its power. Grenz sets out to remind us that prayer is to be cenral to who we are as Christians. This reminder includes a look at the role played in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and the role it has played in the life of the church ever since. He also looks at how prayer has been understood theologically, and sets out to build a theological understanding of prayer. His understanding focuses on prayer as being "the cry for the kingdom." Prayer is a time when we come into God's presence to entreat him to bring about things as he wills. We pray "according to God's will," seeking that God's desires, God's very kingdom, would be done here on earth. In essence, we are longing for the future to break into the present. And God has invited us into relationship with him in such a way that our prayer in some way releases God's power to act. Our very petitions can make a difference.

This great little book is an education in itself. Grenz looks at many rational stumbling blocks that can interfere with our prayers, and then takes an extended look at what it means to pray according to God's will. This is clearly a theology alive with God's spirit, and it calls the believer back to what should be at the heart of her or his life, prayer.

September 06, 2006

Leon Morris, Revelation

Revelation is probably one of the most feared books in the New Testament, and in the whole Bible. It's imagery is strange and often cryptic, and some don't quite know what to make of it—it seems easier to ignore it. But it's also a book that is full of stunning visions and memorable poetry. And Leon Morris opens the book up for the reader in a way that makes it approachable and understandable.

I can't say that I often read commentaries from start to finish, but I did with this one. This commentary on the book of Revelation by Leon Morris, is part of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series. It's meant to be readable for layman as well as student and pastor. Morris is a recognized exegete on the Johanine literature, and brings learning to bear on this interesting book. He takes a very irenic and faithful approach to the book that seeks to discern its meaning and intent, both in its original setting and for readers today. And I think he acheives just that aim. After reading this somewhat short commentary, Revelation seems so much more approachable, and I highly recomment it to others. Morris finds Revelation as a book of great comfort and encouragement to the troubled Christians for which it was written, who were struggling under persecution from the Roman authorities. But he also sees in it God's identity and intention for the world layed out for all to see. He unpacks the symbolism in a helpful way that keeps it meaningful and brings it "down to earth" without either being a slave to the literal or dismissing it as merely figurative. He seems to find just the right approach to the book that retains its prophetic power yet doesn't give the book over to complicated schemes of future-times events. Highly recommended. A great introduction to this powerful prophetic book.