March 29, 2007

Studying Paul with J. D. G. Dunn, 2

I've been continuing my study of James Dunn's Theology of Paul the Apostle. And I have been really ejoying his comprehensive and systematic treatment of Paul's thought. His work is so encyclopedic that I won't even try to "summarize" it in the traditional sense. But instead, I want to continue working through the various pieces of the book, and glean some insights for understanding Paul better. Chapter Two of the book concerns God and Humankind.
Dunn's discussion of God focuses on the "taken-for-granted" nature of Paul's talk about God. God is clearly at the center of Paul's thinking, but at the same time Paul doesn't really expound in any systematic way who God is. But it is emminently clear that Paul's God is the God of the Jews, and further, that God is one. (And Dunn points out that this is actually a source of some tension in Paul's thinking that the one God is in fact the God of the Jews, as he understood himself as the one called to preach this God to the Gentiles.) Really, there isn't too much that is surprising in Dunn's treatment of God, but it still provides an indispensable starting point for a systematic exposition of Paul's theology. And it is worth keeping in mind that Paul considers God's existence and basic character as essentially axiomatic.
The second focus in this chapter (§3) is humankind. Dunn advances his discussion by looking carefully at the important terms that Paul utilizes to discuss humanity: soma, sarx, nous, kardia, psyche, and pneuma. And each discussion proves to be fruitful. But I think the central insights have to do with "body" and "flesh" (soma and sarx, respectively). The core point that Dunn advocates with regard to soma is that Paul understood persons to be fundamentally embodied. That is, when Paul speaks of "body," he dosen't simply mean the physical material that is occupied by a separate "spirit," but more it denotes "the person embodied in a particular environment." The point, then, is that there doesn't exist for Paul a simple spirit-body dualism, but that body denotes an embodied "I" that is more robust, for Dunn more relational, that simply a fleshly shell. The other key point that Dunn makes (and this one is less controversial) is in regard to "flesh." Dunn carefully notes the variety of ways that Paul uses sarx, and lays them out on a spectrum, from simply denoting the physical body to denoting the source of corruption and hostility to God. In this spectrum, he finds the link in the notion that sarx, flesh, is "what we might describe as human mortality." It is closely related to that whithin humans that is fallen, but is not itself the source of that fall, and neither is it in itself evil. It is instead the weak and corruptible material of human existence. Thus, Dunn concludes that flesh was "neither unspiritual nor sinful."
The variety of insights go much further and deeper than these few highlights, but they go to demonstrate the quality of Dunn's work, and also help to illumine some important foci of Paul's thought. And they will lead us into a further discussion, shortly, about the nature of humankind as fallen.

March 28, 2007

What does it mean to live for Jesus?

This is a question that goes to the heart of being a Christian: What does it mean to live for Jesus? Or, to put more of a point on it, how does a Christian relate to those around them, and why?

I see this question played out and lived out all around the world, but I wonder if some of us do it a little too unreflectively. We should proclaim the gospel, for what else are we here for except to make disciples of all nations. Absolutely! But what about dealing with injustice? Here is where things get a bit more interesting. Do we just help the poor as a door-opener to get some preaching in as well. Are food programs only Christian if they lead invariably to gospel-preaching? Why are we feeding the poor? Because economic injustice of this sort is just plain wrong, and we need to do what we can to redress it? Or because it is a great opportunity?

Scot McKnight, on Jesus Creed, has a great blog post that helps us get to the heart of these issues: I believe he is right on, that we need to live out the gospel in all areas of our lives. This means working for justice and for what is right because it is just and right. And I agree absolutely that this type of work is a great opportunity to give a reason for the hope and love within us. But this type of work, with no further strings attached, is a great proclamation of the new reality of Jesus Christ. Kingdom living can't separate "preaching" with "living." So I hope we can all reflect a bit on what it means to be God's ambassadors here on earth. I know I need the challenge.

March 23, 2007

Torture Statement by NEA

There are few issues that have brought me more sorrow over the last few years than that of torture. I have been repeatedly saddened to hear what is all too often an almost deafening silence from so many quarters of the evangelical community that are often so quickly outspoken on "important" religious issues. The endorsement or at least tolerance of a culture of torture in the armed services and intelligence community of the United States stands in direct contravention of numerous international laws, direct denial of so many principles that stand at the foundation of our demoncracy, and, even more, total denial of the ethics and values that proceed directly out of our Christian faith. The question, Would Jesus endorse torture? seems almost an absurdity. Or maybe not almost. And I have been encouraged over the past years that amongst the relative silence there have been a number of Christian voices who have stood up to the administration and encouraged an about face in terms of policy, and have also served to issue a wake-up call to evangelicals to stand up for what is right. In the past weeks, the National Association of Evangelicals has made great progress on this front, endorsing a statement concerning torture that outlines the pertinent issues and a very clear and important Christian response. It is highly recommend reading, and can be found, along with some great resources, online at I hope this statement permeates the evagelical community, and spurs further study and continued outcry against this sad chapter in our nation's international activities. I hope we as Christians will wake up to the illusions we too often harbor about the assumed "Christian" character of our nation, and will lead the charge for change, and for the respect of the sanctity and dignity of human rights. Not only will this be an opportunity for a consistent and clear Christian witness, but it will be an opportunity for the United States to regain some stature and credibility in the international community that has been sadly lost.

Whither Israel?

I have come across a couple different and troubling stories about Israel this morning. The first is in regard to a new law being proposed that would outlaw all proselytism and provide a one-year jail sentence for the offense. (,7340,L-3376215,00.html) Israel currently has laws against offering rewards or material benefits for conversion, and laws against proselyting minors, but this new law would extend the law to include all people. This would be a serious and very deleterious move by Israel toward a totalitarian and closed policy toward other religions. Thought lawmakers did point out that the law would apply to Judaism as well, it certainly seems aimed primarily at Muslims and Christians, in an attempt to avoid losing adherents to the Jewish faith. On one level, it seems very sad that lawmakers feel the need to legislate adherence to the faith, instead of choosing a path of freedom and openness, aligned with an attempt at Jewish education or some other positive measure. Regardless, it is difficult to support a state that proposes such closed policies.

A second troubling story reported comments by U. N. envoy John Dugard, a South African, who likened Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Apartheid-era policies and culture of South Africa. ( It is quite clear that both sides hold some blame in the current Middle East conflicts centered around Israel and Palestine, but it is equally clear that Israel has developed a culture of unacceptance and exclusion of Palestinians from their "democracy." Things like the "security fence" (read "massive security wall") show a strong desire to exclude Palestinians from Israeli society, instead of a desire to move toward a constructive and peaceful solution.

Dugard makes an insightful point, when he observes that trouble in Israel/Palestine has far-reaching effects around the globe. It in some ways weakens any global response to crises in places like Darfur, because the legitimacy of the Western community is strongly weakened by ambivalent response to the situation in the Middle East, and especially with regard to Palestine. It is clear that we need to pray for and work toward an amicable solution to the crisis that has so perpetually beset the Holy Land. And it is clear that we as Christians must provide support and energy for a peaceful resolution that respects the humanity of those on all sides.

March 14, 2007

Christians and Culture

One of the questions that has been in the forefront of evangelical Christianity in America over the past century (and more) is how Christians are to engage with culture. Are Christians to be salt and light by being one voice among many working for good? Are Christians the custodians of the good, true, and right, and therefore responsible for maintaining the culture at large? And, to put it simply, how do Christians understand culture. In the last half of the twentieth century, three evangelical giants, Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and Charles Colson, were leading Christian apologists and thinkers who advocated a view of Western culture that emphasized that it was being erroded, and was falling into what they saw as a dark age. This commentary was meant to spur evangelicals to engagement and action, a good and noble pursuit, but did it have other consequences as well? In an interesting article in the most recent issue of JETS (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society), Professor James Patterson looks at these three apologists and their ideas, and explores what some of the consequences may be. It is worth reading, and provides a good opportunity for reflection of how Christians look at secular culture.

March 11, 2007

Evangelicals and Sin

After teaching about the nature of sin and salvation over the last couple of weeks, I've been reflecting a bit on what it means to think about sin and salvation as more than merely individualistic, but also corporate and cosmic. What does it mean to say that sin is structural, and that salvation is corporate. Well, here is a great reflection from Fulcrum about Evangelicals and sin.

March 10, 2007

Studying Paul with J. D. G. Dunn, 1

I've undertaken the rather formidable task of studying James D. G. Dunn's Theology of Paul the Apostle, his 800-page contribution to Pauline studies. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile task than trying to "think Paul's thoughts after him," as N. T. Wright has put it, or to think Paul's thouhts from "inside his skin," as Dunn has similarly said. So here I'm going to take my blog as an opportunity to digest and reflect with you on some of the major themes that Dunn illuminates in this important work.

Dunn's first chapter, as is no surprise, is a prolegomena, outlining just what it means to have a theology of Paul, and further, defending the possibility that such a thing is in fact possible. Paul, he says, is the only Christian of the first three centuries for whom we can really attempt to construct a well-rounded and in-depth portrait of his theology. For Paul is in many senses a well-known quantity: we know a good bit about his life and background, we know about his conversion, we know about his ministry, and we have a good number of writings that are undisputedly from his hand. (Dunn takes a relatively traditional scholarly position that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are undisputedly Pauline; he also includes 2 Thessalonians on this list; with regard to the other letters, Dunn also asserts that Colossians was written by Timothy before Paul's death, and also defends the value of Ephesians and the Pastorals for coming to grips with Paul's theology.)

I will not attempt here to outline Dunn's method, nor will I repeat his arguments for doing this study, but I do think there are a few important insights that are worth consideration. One of the points which seems most significat methodologically for Dunn's study is his assertion that it is important to understand the multilayered character of Paul's thought. This means (very much in the mold of narrative theology) understanding that at the foundation of Paul's thought is a bedrock of assumptions and axioms (such as God's existence and uniqueness), mostly taken over from his native Judaism, and including the stories of God and of Israel. The second level is Paul's own experience, and most especially his conversion, which proves to be a turning point in his thinking about God and continues to inform his thought. The third level is Paul's immediate situation. Here, in the case of the letters, we mean the situations or issues Paul is confronting and addressing. For Dunn, theology is the interaction of all three. Much like N. T. Wright, then, delving into Paul's theology means identifying and illuminating the underlying thought-patters or narratives that give coherence to his more specific expressions of theology found in the letters. This doesn't mean getting away from the letters, nor necessarily getting behind them, so much as trying to find coherence that goes deeper than just a whole made up of disparate pieces to the very thought patterns that produced those pieces.

A second worthwile insight Dunn has about studying Paul is that it is a study that can't be wholly scholarly and disinterested. Paul's theology was for him a matter of life and death. It had immediate life-significance for him. This means that it is to distort Paul's thought if we approach it in a way that doesn't take into account the deep implications for life (both in Paul's case and in the case of those of us who come after).

March 08, 2007

Science and Faith: Blog review of Vern Polythress

Over the past couple of weeks, Scot McKnight has had a friend, RJS, who is a professor of science at a research institution, review and discuss Vern Polythress's new book, Redeeming Science. This series of three posts, linked to below, has been a great discussion of the relationship between science and faith. I haven't yet read Polythress's book, but have certainly put it on my short list of books I need to buy. (Also, I discovered the entire text of the book online at, along with other books by Polythress and his colleague John Frame.)

Post #1:

Post #2:

Post #3:
This post goes into an interesting discussion of the beginnings of creation, primary and secondary causation, and Intelligent Design.

March 07, 2007

What I'm Reading

These are books I've got a bookmark in at the moment, or book in which said bookmark is immanent.

Theology/Biblical Studies
Oden, Systematic Theology, vol. 3
I'm reading this book both for fun and as some background for my teaching. Oden does a great job of setting forth the ecumenical and orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith, and he gives a wealth of references to primary materials, especially from the first millenium of the church.

Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle
Dunn is such a great evangelical scholar. He has a nack for thinking creatively and faithfully at the same time, and while I'm not sold wholesale on the New Perspective, I've got to give it its own voice. This book is quite a monument of scholarship.

J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind. A great book about the need for an informed faith and a reasoned engagement of Christianity with the world.

Evangelicals and Global Warming. Living out our beliefs?

There has been a lot of attention by evangelicals to the topic of global warming of late. And I think this is a fascinating topic, for a number of reasons. But the thing I most want to reflect on is the connection between beliefs and actions. J. P. Moreland, in Love Your God with All Your Mind, talks about how our beliefs shape our actions, and how our actions are a very good indicator of what we really believe. And I wonder how this relates to the dialogue about global warming. What is it that we actually believe about God's creation and our place and role in it. Do we really believe that the whole universe is God's creation, and do we really believe that we are supposed to be stewards of it? If we do, it would seem like protecting the environment would be a high priority. It would seem like destructive behaviors by human beings would fall under the rubric of sin, because they go against our creational mandate. So if we really believed this, it would seem that we could have our actions fit with our stated beliefs, and work for a sustainable way of life. And conversely, if we don't consider a sustainable lifestyle to be a priority, what does that say about our understanding of salvation and our relation to creation? It would seem to emphasize a "we're out of here" approach to creation that doesn't fully engage with our role as part of God's creation, which yearns toward that day when God will make all things new, including a new heaven and a new earth.

I was troubled to read a release from Focus on the Family and James Dobson yesterday condemning NAE vice president Richard Cizik. According to Dobson, he is too focused on environmental concerns to properly represent the evangelical community. And Dobson is quick to emphasize that not all evangelicals agree with scientists that global warming is an immenent threat to the environment or that it is caused by humans. My first response would be Yes, not all evangelicals agree, but would that exact same logic totally derail Dobson's complaint. Yes, Dr. Dobson, not all evangelicals agree that global warming is a major problem, but at the same time not all evangelicals agree with you that it isn't. Must the NAE agree with you? I would hope evangelicals can move toward the ability to dialogue on issues like this, instead of trying to redraw boundaries to exclude our opponents.

I further think that Dr. Dobson has reverted to some very unfourtunate rhetoric in his attempt to discredit Cizik, when he and other leaders ask, in their letter to the NAE, "how is population control going to be achieved, if not by promoting abortion, the distribution of condoms to the young and even by infanticide in China and elsewhere? Is this where Richard Cizik would lead us?" Now, I don't know Cizik personally, nor have I read anything he has written, but I'm sure I'm safe to say he isn't going to come out anytime soon to advocate infanticide! I myself am quite convinced that global warming is a legedimate problem. But I'm not even close to forfeiting all my beliefs about the sanctity of life or sexual ethics. In fact, I would argue that concern for global warming and for global issues like population control is a sanctity-of-life issue. If we really value the lives of all people on earth, we will recognize the threat environmental and population problems may pose to masses of impoverished people over the next decades. How is that not a Christian perspective? I hope my concern for these issues is a genuine living out of my Christian beliefs. And I hope that I can learn more and more and seek God more and more so that my beliefs and my practices are in conformity with God's will.

March 06, 2007

Philippians 2:5-11: Who is Jesus?

Few questions are more important or fundamental to Christianity that who Jesus is. And there have been centuries upon centuries of reflection on this topic, leading to sometimes complex discussions of philosophical terms and etherial concepts. And I think that's great. For Jesus' identity is a deep and multi-faceted truth that deserves to be investigated to the full. Here I just want to reflect a bit on what this passage in Philippians says about it. This isn’t Paul’s major focus here (he is focusing on Christian love and unity with humility), but nonetheless, Paul makes a clear statement of Christology to make his point. This is one of the few places in Paul's letters where he could be said to be expressing "Christology," as opposed to his very common theme of "soteriology," for so often he focuses on who Christ is for us. This certainly isn't to take anything at all away from Paul, but to point to the importance and uniqueness of this passage. So, who is Jesus?
A. Jesus is God from all eternity, preexistent and fully one with God the Father.
-Jesus was “in very nature,” in the “form” of God.
-Jesus could have grasped equality with God, but chose not to (that is, it was
within his power and right to be honored as God)
-He emptied himself of something, namely the glory and prerogatives of divinity
B. Jesus became a human being.
-Jesus took on the “very nature” or “form” of a slave.
-Jesus was “found in appearance as a man;” that is, it was plain for all to see
that Jesus was human.
-He suffered and died. (This was no illusion, no appearance of humanity!)
C. Jesus was the God-man.
-Jesus was “in very nature” God and “in very nature” a slave.
-Jesus divinity at no time ceased, and his humanity was genuine, including even
D. Jesus the crucified is also God the Son, exalted above all, one with the Father. We get some extremely important and valuable Trinitarian insights from this passage. Jesus is God from all eternity, he is obedient to the Father, he is exalted as Lord and as YHWH, he is recognized as being the One God (note Paul's allusion to Is 4523-24, a clear ). Clearly there is a sense of plurality and differentiation within God, but at the same time God is One God, the only God. You can clearly see here how the church in the next few hundred years, especially as it worked out its understanding of who Jesus is, was led to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Though “Trinity” as such isn’t enumerated in Scripture, this passage is a perfect example of how the trajectory toward just such a doctrine is clearly embedded in the Bible and especially the New Testament.

March 04, 2007

Looking for Happyness

I had a chance to watch "Pursuit of Happyness" (and yes, that's the way the moive spells it) this last weekend. Will Smith delivers a compelling performance in this very interesting commentary on the pursuit of happiness. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck salesman of medical devices (bone-density scanners) that are in low demand. Sales are sluggish, and financial problems cause his marriage to fall apart. So he and his son are left alone.

The movie proves to be a bit of a depressing ride. The viewer takes on some of the hopelessness of Chris's situation. He has no friends, no money, no real job, and almost no prospects. There is a futility that is almost contagious. This really is a movie about the "pursuit" of happiness. But in some senses that might be the strength of the movie. It gets us to focus on what it means to look for happiness—the things we seek out to give us fulfillment.

But for me, the movie was a great cause for reflection especially at the point where Chris finally seems to have found what he's looking for. One of the last scenes of the movie raises some interesting questions about what the pursuit of happiness is really all about. Chris has just been offered his dream job at Dean Whitter, and all of his hard work is finally paying off. Overcome with emotion, he runs out to the street, bubbling with joy, and as he makes it out to the sidewalk, he joins the mass of people moving about on the streets of San Francisco. And he seems to fit in, melding with the crowd of neatly dressed professionals. But none of them look happy. Every face is serious; they all look almost like drones. Is this really the "promised land"? Has he really made it? Maybe he will be the one who truly appreciates the distance he has covered, and make the most of his opportunity. But maybe not. In the end, the job won't make him happy either. Real joy has to come from somewhere else. Try reading Philippians, and see what Paul has to say about joy. It is a deep reality based on life in Christ. God's grace is really the only place to find happiness that lasts.

March 03, 2007

But is Christianity true?

Every once in a while I'm hit by a big idea. And over the past week I've been struck by a big idea that seems so obvious I'm almost embarassed to write about it. But that's exactly why I'm writing about it. The idea that has so taken hold of my mind is that Christianity is actually true. It is a correct description and explanation for what the world is (and, of course, who God is). Now, to all of you Christians out there this should seem as self-evident as the nose on your face. I think it always seemed that way to me too. But I think this week I've been rediscovering this most fundamental notion.

I've been reading J. P. Moreland's book, Love Your God with All Your Mind. In it, Moreland bemoans the loss of the Christian mind. Evangelicalism, he asserts, has withrdawn from the cultural and intellectual spheres, and instead embraced a strong anti-intellectualism. Now reading this as a thoughtful, dare I say academic, Christian, I kept thinking, "Right on!" I love to think and read deeply about the Christian faith, and especially about the intricacies of theology. Yet, as I kept reading, I kept seeing myself implicated. I think the point that hit home the most was when he contrasted revival-style preaching that has come to the fore since the great Awakenings to Paul's preaching in Acts 17–21, the preacing of the gospel that reaches the felt need contrasted with the gospel of the Truth. I believe absolutely that the gospel is a gospel that solves the felt needs of our society. And that good gospel preaching will awaken a need that only God can fill. But do we focus too much on making individuals feel like they need the gospel? Instead, maybe we should be preaching about how it is True, good, right. God really exists, sin isn't just a fantasy, Jesus really came to earth, Jesus really died and rose again. These aren't theological categories or psychological projections, they are reality. What a powerful idea.