December 20, 2008

Propositions in theology

One of the major developments in "late-modern" and "post-conservative evangelical" theology is a movement away from propositions as the central and sufficient way of enshrining the gospel message. I have watched and learned of this trend with mixed emotions. I warm to it in the sense that over-focus on propositions seems to tame the gospel into information or language games. On the other hand, I am cautious about overstating the folly of propositions, because, regardless of the exact status we ascribe to propositions in our theology, there is an irreducible propositional content to our talk about God, it seems to me, even if it is variably expressed. LeRon Shults, in a post from a couple years ago, talks about propositions with regard to the emergent movement. It gives some interesting food for thought. And while I agree with him that often "statements of faith" serve as means to exclude, and am continuously drawn to an approach that seeks to focus on the center rather than fixing the boundaries, I also worry that eschewing statements of faith, even as provisional tools, is equally a cause for concern.

December 13, 2008

Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians

This interesting little commentary is one of the few examples of Barth's theological exegesis as it is applied to an entire book systematically. It doesn't rival other more traditional commentaries as far as exegetical insight, but it contains a number of gems, and reflects a deep and sustained engagement with the text. Barth illumines a number of theological themes in the letter in his own distinctive way, and, as is reflected by citations of this book in many modern commentaries, certainly makes a contribution to the understanding of Philippians. I most thoroughly enjoyed his discussion of Phil 3:8-9 and the subject of faith and righteousness. This brief discussion alone is worth the price of the book. While I won't be consulting this little commentary first or most frequently in future studies of Philippians, I certainly won't neglect it either, especially when looking at those more theologically dense passages.

William Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals

I think it is fair to say that hermeneutics, and specifically hermeneutics as it relates to cultural anaylsis, is one of the most pressing issues facing the church today. How we understand Scripture to relate to its original culture and how we appropriate it in our own culture is one of the issues that is driving our current era of church history. How we understand issues such as those surrounding women and homosexuals are very live and important questions in our day. And this is why I commend William Webb's book as highly as I possibly can. He addresses these issues by carefully probing the underlying hermeneutical questions with thoroughness and and an irenic and humble spirit.

Webb begins by laying out the Christian's challenge with regard to these issues, "It is necessar for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values; it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters" (22, italics in original). This is difficult because though Scripture contains both culture-bound and transcultural elements, these would have been nearly indistinguishable to its original readers. The challenge, then, is to live out the spirit of the text without being too inseparably bound to the "isolated words." For Webb, this means undertaking a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic" as opposed to a "static" hermeneutic.

A redemptive-movement hermeneutic seeks to assess the "movement" of a text relative to its original cultural setting. It then moves into our own day and seeks to retain the same direction of movement relative to our current culture in places where our cultural setting has gone beyond that of the original culture. An explicit component of this assessment is that the Bible doesn't only contain an "ultimate" ethic, but often contains provisions, laws, and instructions that entail only a "partially realized" ethic. It is worth taking a second to look at the reasons Webb outlines for this to be so, because I don't think this concept is one most readers of Scripture consciously ascribe to. Webb asserts that God often inspired a "partially realized" ethic (1) for pastoral reasons, to stretch his people as far as they could go without snapping; (2) for padagogical reasons, to help people move from the known to a foreseeable future with enough continuity so they can find their way; (3) for evangelistic reasons, thus reform was intended to better social structures without being so radical as to jeopardize other aspects of the Christian mission; (4) to sustain competing values, such as upholding temporary values in pursuit of associated goods, such as slavery in service of social welfare or patriarchy in service to gender differentiation; and (5) for soteriological resons, to to deal with a fallen and sinful humanity to whom reform does not come easiliy and move us in a process of progressive sanctification.

Throughout the book, Webb sustains an argument that, taking the presence of elements of both an ultimate and a provisional ethic within Scripture (and he certainly acknowledges the presence of an ultimate ethic in Scripture), we must undertake careful cultural analysis to determine what components of Scripture are culture-bound and which are transcultural. Once this is done, we seek to uphold the transcultural components and seek to live out the culture-bound components through a process of "redemptive movement" where we seek to follow the redemptive spirit within the text by reapplying that same spirit to our own culture. Let's follow a similar flow to Webb's own argument to flesh this out a bit.

Webb argues that the neutral example of slavery provides an important case study for understanding how a redemptive movement hermeneutic works. The culture of the Ancient Near East and of the Greco-Roman world upheld a structure of slavery. The Bible, written within this culture, reflects this setting, in that it assumes the general structure of slavery. There are no explicit texts or passages that speak directly to the need for the abolition of slavery (except perhaps for Gal 3:28 and parallels); there are, on the flip side, though, many texts that assume that slavery exists. But many of these texts reflect a "redemptive movement," that is, they demonstrate a limited but real movement away from the worst abuses of slavery toward better and more equal treatment of slaves. This movement, when coupled with the ultimate ethic in Scripture that acknowledges the equality of all people before God and the need to love neighbor as self, points toward the need for further movement beyond the movement accomplished in the OT or NT. Thus, as we live out the spirit of these texts, we appreciate our different cultural setting and seek to move closer to the unrealized ultimate ethic of abolition of slavery, and even beyond this toward fuller workplace and economic justice.

Webb takes this same process of analysis into his discussion of texts surrounding women. In that cultural analysis, through the use of eighteen different criteria, he assesses the culture-bound components of patriarchy, relating to economic, social, and practical concerns. This analysis includes a careful exposition of the pertinent New Testament texts in their cultural settings, as well as a thorough discussion of the relation between the testaments on this point, and especially of the role played by Genesis texts in the discussion. He then couples this with an investigation of the ultimate ethic present in scripture, and concludes that the Bible moves toward a complementary egalitarianism or an ultra-soft patriarchy.

The third issue Webb looks at throughout the book is that of homosexuality. This is important in two respects. First, it is important because it is a vital issue in its own right, and second, because it is often related either positively or negatively to discussion of issues regarding women, usually to rhetorical effect. Thus, importantly, Webb demonstrates that the two issues, both needing careful cultural analysis, demonstrate opposite movements within Scripture. Whereas the patriarchy texts evidence a positive movement toward egalitarianism, the homosexual texts consistently demonstrate an absolute movement away from freedom to complete prohibition, and this movement is to be carried over into our own culture, albeit slightly modified.

William Webb's book is often cited and quoted in studies surrounding these important and divisive issues, and this is with good reason. I wish I had read this book years ago, and have deeply appreciated his hermeneutical insights. He shows how to recognize a redemptive movement in Scripture that acknowledges and appreciates the spirit of the text without being too bound to the "isolated words," by which he means the words taken in isolation from their cultural and canonical context. He demonstrates a genuine faithfulness to Scripture and an intense pursuit of God's truth and God's desire for our lives here in the in-between time, while also demonstrating how to carefully move beyond the bare words of Scripture in those cases when it is bound to its cultural setting. I look forward to appropriating his insights in future study. I must say that I also deeply appreciated his humble and irenic tone. He openly acknowledged the areas of greatest weakness in his own case (even writing a "What If I Am Wrong?" chapter to lay bare and discuss these weaknesses and their bearing on his case), and also sought to acknowledge the strengths of his opponents positions and demonstrated charitable readings of opposing views. All the same, I think he also admirably shows the promise of careful cultural analysis for faithful application of Scripture, in a convincing assessment of the issues surrounding both homosexuality and women. I also hope at the very least that this book dismantles the arguments often bandied about that those who favor women in ministry are on the slippery slope to accepting homosexuality or that those who accept women in ministry must make this subsequent move, as Webb demonstrates how this is clearly not so.

In all, this book is a landmark study of hermeneutics especially as it bears on these important issues, and is a must read for those on all sides of these pressing discussions. Do not miss this book, and do not delay.

December 10, 2008

Ben Witherington, The Lazarus Effect

I loved this book. Biblical Scholar Ben Witherington and his wife Ann Witherington have put together a great, plausible work of fiction, and I enjoyed reading it. And further than that, I learned something.

Art West, a well-known biblical archaeologist, makes an astonishing discovery. In an unexcavated mound in Bethany, he finds the tomb of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. In it is reference to Lazarus's first "resurrection" from the dead and his eventual death, as he awaits the second resurrection. Also discovered is an ancient manuscript of the Gospel of John in Aramaic, shedding important light on the origin and nature of that Gospel (Witherington, a Johannine scholar, makes some interesting points about dating and authorship). But before West can make the discovery known, he is trapped inside the tomb, and before he can show the discovery to the world, the tomb is robbed and the inscription is stolen. Thus begins a chase to find this astonishing piece of history amid doubts about its authenticity and among an interesting inter-religious setting in Jerusalem. West is aided by his Jewish friend and scholar Grace Levine, and by his Muslim friends Kahlil El Asad and his daughter Hannah, antiquities dealers in the old city. As the story moves forward the pace picks up as Art is framed for having a fake inscription made and also for shooting his friend Kahlil. With so many rumors swirling in such a volatile world, suspicion rests on Art, and he finds himself on trial for the killing and for the forgery. And more stories intertwine, as fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews both see West as someone who is compromising the essentials of the faith. The complexity of the plot really helps to illumine the complexity of the real-life situation in modern Israel.

The Witheringons' book is a real page turner, with a great plot and interesting characters. But what sets it apart is both the plausibility of its events (Ben Witherington is an expert in the James ossuary, a real-life artifact of similar significance also fraught with suspicion) and the quality of its history. It is obvious that the authors know the Biblical world and modern Israel well, and they help the reader to feel some of the important dynamics between the various groups. The relationship between evangelicals and more fundamentalist dispensationalist Christians and Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also brought into the mix as well, along with Muslims. But in all things, the Witheringtons' bring respect to their portrayals, not caricatures. His discussion of the dating and provenance of John's Gospel (that Lazarus is the beloved disciple, the primary author of the Gospel) is an interesting argument, here made very well at a popular level. I've read some of his material elsewhere on this idea, and it is an interesting one to ponder, not least because it fits with the setting of most events in the Gospel and is given further creedance by some verbal connections with Lazarus as one whom Jesus "loved." Finally, the Witheringtons also bring a great glimmer of hope to the situation as the "Lazarus Effect"--new life from the dead--takes hold among many of the characters and brings hope in unexpected places. It certainly isn't serious scholarship, nor is it meant to be, but that doesn't mean it's flippant or shallow either. Instead, it provides a great story with just enough nuance to give it depth. I think this book is a great read and would make a great gift.

December 04, 2008

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parekeet

Scot McKnight, well known blogger and author, challenges readers to think about how they read the Bible in this great little book. The challenge McKnight lays down to readers is to think about what it means to be "biblical" in our thinking, speaking, and acting. Though we may think we mean simply "doing what the Bible says," he shows us that for almost all of us, that is clearly not the case. Through some simple examples he shows that we all pick and choose what we apply and how. The question explored throughout the rest of the book, then, is why and how do we do this. He asserts that "adopting and adapting," a more positive spin on the phenomenon, is indeed the right way to read the Bible, as we seek to discern both how God spoke in the past and how God is speaking to us in our day in our way.

McKnight proposes a three-stage process in our reading and applying the Bible: Story, Listening, Discerning. The first case he sets out to make is that the Bible is fundamentally a Story, or more properly, a variety of retellings of the one Story: Creating Eikons; Cracked Eikons; Covenant Community; Christ, the Perfect Eikon, redeems; Consummation. That, in a nutshell (and in Scot's own distinctive terminology) is the story of the Bible. The 66 books of the Bible then make up "wiki-stories," retellings in often distinctive ways, with varying emphases and language in different times and settings, of this one overarching story. And here is one of McKnight's core assertions, these "wiki-stories" are tellings of God's truth "in Moses' days in Moses' ways . . . in David's days in David's ways . . . in Jeremiah's days in Jeremiah's ways . . . in Jesus' days in Jesus' ways . . . in Paul's days in Paul's ways . . ." He concludes that we are "called to carry on that pattern in our world today" (28). The key to this movement into our own days and ways is Story, as we recognize the story and its retellings in the Bible and seek to enter into that same story in our day.

The second section of the book takes up the second stage in our reading and applying the Bible: Listening. McKnight emphasizes that we listen to the Bible because we have a relationship with the God of the Bible. That relationship forms the ground and purpose of our reading and listening. He seeks to get past abstract discussions of the Bible's authority, past having a "view" of the Bible, as legitimate as these things may be, to focus on having "a 'relationship' to the God of the Bible" (95). This understanding then shapes our listening, as we listen attentively to and for God, we are attentive in recognizing God speaking, we absorb what God says and we act on what we hear (99). This puts a helpful emphasis on the way the Bible must shape us as we listen. We aren't just mining the Bible for "truth" or theology but we are encountering God speaking to us, and must act and react accordingly.

The third stage we encounter is Discerning. After we have recognized the story in the text and have listened attentively to God speaking through his Word, we must discern our part in the story, we must discern what we are then to do. Here he argues that the "adopt and adapt" strategy that all Christians implicitly or explicitly espouse is in fact the right idea. We must recognize that "that was then and this is now." But this is not simply a personalistic anything goes reading of Scripture, but is a discerning, with (as opposed to through) tradition, in community. We need to recognize that the Bible itself points toward a strategy of discernment, and that the church has likewise passed on this legacy of a "pattern of discernment" (118). McKnight acknowledges the messiness of the process, and that it means there will be disagreements. But, he writes, "it is the attempt to foist one person's days and ways on everyone's days and ways that quenches the Holy Spirit" (143). It is because of the gospel that we strive to adapt, just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9. We, like Paul, should be governed by what furthers the gospel the most (142). Thus, "Living out the Bible means living out the Bible in our day in our way by discerning together how God would have us live" (143, italics in original).

These three stages sketch McKnight's proposal for how we should approach and appropriate the Bible in our own day. The fourth part of the book provides an extended case study in this method, using the question of women in ministry as an example of "adopting and adapting." In this fourth part, he lays out a careful argument, beginning with what women did in the Old and New Testament times and in the Early Church, and with what the Bible says about women and ministry. He looks at how we can recognize the cultural distance between these past times and our own, but also focuses on how we can recognize the "story" in the Bible that spoke powerfully in past days and again in our own. Through this process, he makes the argument that discerning God speaking in the story of the Bible and discerning how God would have us act today, with a focus on the message of the gospel, leads to the full participation of women in the life and ministry of the church.

I thoroughly enjoyed this very readable introduction to how we read and apply the Bible. I have no doubt that almost all Christians could benefit from a book like this, as all too often we assume that we're being "biblical" without recognizing the complexities involved in our own positions. This little primer on hermeneutics is a great way for people in the pews to begin to come to terms with these important issues. But, importantly, this isn't a cause for consternation but for hope. Instead of being paralyzed by fear of the messiness of discernment, we should be energized by the gospel and our part in the story as we acknowledge the God of the Bible speaking to us even down to our own day. This book is clearly at an introductory level, as McKnight acknowledges along the way, but I think it agreeably whets the appetite for further study into these important questions. And I think it is a helpful introduction into the Bible as "Story," as we recognize the great divine drama into which we are called. I also enjoyed his case study on women in ministry. His arguments and his own personal journey make for very compelling reading. I think he shows beyond doubt that the church, at the very least, has restricted women beyond even the restrictions they faced in New Testament times, and he points toward a fuller inclusion of women in all areas of the church. While he obviously doesn't engage with the vast array of scholarship or the serious technical issues involved in the debate, his case study provides a great "egalitarian" introduction into the debate.

In all, I think McKnight's Blue Parakeet is an important guide to seeing the Bible as it really is and to recognize how we do and how we should read and apply it.

The closest we get to heaven . . .

My son Lucas had just awakened from his nap. As I held him, he snuggled into my shoulder for a minute or two--waking up is so hard. And as I enjoyed his embrace, it occurred to me that that feeling, loving embrace, may be the closest we get to heaven in this life. I've just enjoyed a couple wonderful books on the Trinity (Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune, and Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God), and one of the beautiful pictures they paint is of God's life as a mutual sharing and indwelling and relating. Instead of thinking of God as a static monad, we develop a picture of dynamic, vibrant life and love. Further, we come to reimagine our relationship to God. We come to see salvation as including the joining of our lives to the Trinitarian life, a participating with God in this beautiful relationship. Paul uses the image of marriage to point toward the beautiful intimacy and union the church shares with Christ, and likewise the Gospel of John repeatedly talks of Jesus' unity with the father and believers' unity with Christ. There is a beautiful embrace that takes place here. (Cf. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace; I'll need to go back and give it some attention when the opportunity presents itself.) So, I say, the beautiful contented and loving embrace of a father with child and of a husband and a wife are the closest we get here on Earth to experiencing everlasting life. And that's a great thought.

November 24, 2008

F. LeRon Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God

In Reforming the Doctrine of God, LeRon Shults takes a sustained look at theology proper, but he does it with an important contemporary twist. Shults asserts that theology must be done as a "messy reciprocity between our ideas about God and everything else" (12). That is, theology is (inevitably) conditioned by our understanding of the world, just as it conditions that same understanding. It is with this basic insight in mind that he sets out to reform the doctrine of God.

Why reform? The reason, as laid out in the first part of the book, is because too much of theology has been inextricably linked with outmoded philosophical categories that see God as immaterial substance, single subject, and first cause. These categories, he asserts, lead to problems with our thinking about God that are created more by the categories than by the reality they seek to illuminate. In the second part of the book, Shults looks at a number of "late modern" trends that can prove as resources to reinvigorate our thinking about God by overcoming some of the philosophical barriers of modern thinking. Specifically, he looks at divine infinity, the trinity, and eschatological ontology as three important streams of thought that are reshaping how we think of God.

In this review, I'm not going to try to expound either of these parts in detail, for a couple of reasons. First, and probably most important, philosophical theology is not my own specialty, and I fear any summary I give would only distort his points, rather than illuminating them. Second, he draws on a broad range of streams of modern and late modern thought in his critiques and constructions, and a concise summary would not do them justice, especially if you aren't already familiar with his subjects. But, a few comments will hopefully give at least some insight in to where he is going.

Shults demonstrates, successfully, I think, that some of the classic dilemmas in theology, such as how God works in the world or how divine sovereignty and human freedom are compatible, are at least in part caused by assumptions and categories that are foreign to the Bible. His second point, worked out in part two, is that many late modern thinkers have begun to rethink some of these basic assumptions and have collectively reclaimed some important ways of thinking about God that have been too often lost or diminished in modern theological thinking. And in each chapter he surveys a number of important thinkers from a variety of perspectives, such as Karl Barth, J├╝rgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and John Zizioulas, to show the sources and contours of these important developments. The three streams that are recovered focus on God's infinity (God is more than just "extensively" greater than creatures but is genuinely "other"), trinity (God is not a single substance or mind but is dynamic relationality in himself), and futurity (God relates to time not only as its originator but as its upholder and as its future hope and consummation). All of this is helped by what he calls a "turn to relationality" in philosophy, with a movement away from a more substance-based view of reality to the acknowledgment as relationship or relationality as basic to the constitution of what it means to be person.

It is in part three that the the real "reforming" takes place, as Shults seeks to rebuild the doctrine of God through a critical appropriation of many of the late modern trajectories into a constructive exposition of theology. He looks at God's knowing, acting, and being through the themes of omniscient faithfulness, omnipotent love, and omnipresent hope. As with the first two parts, I won't try to recreate the flow of his argument. Instead, I want to note that he takes head on three of the thorny (and fascinating) issues that confront theology, the "antinomies" of divine foreknowledge, divine predestination, and divine timelessness. In each case, he surveys the state of the discussion and proposes a way forward that liberates the discussion from the classic categories that create the problems in the first place. In each case, I found his proposals to be insightful and liberating while remaining true to the core biblical insights that provide the foundation for the discussions. Just these three discussions are easily worth the price of the book, but I think the book's greatest value is that the "solutions" to these three problems point toward a richer and more dynamic doctrine of God.

I read the whole third part of this book with growing appreciation and excitement, and I look forward to delving in to Shults's other books and seeing how his vision plays out across the various ares of theology. But I know that the groundwork laid here is deeply valuable. It certainly struck a chord with me both in its freshness and its faithfulness. I look forward to rereading these final chapters again as I reflect on who God is and how we think of him. This book is highly recommended, though it certainly contains a lot of technical language. It is at times a rather difficult read, but it will repay a careful reading. For anyone who is interested in contemporary evangelical theology, this book is essential reading, and is a profound example of a vibrant and delightful investigation and appreciation of who God is.

November 16, 2008

Allan Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune

In The God Who Is Triune, subtitled Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God, Coppedge undertakes a systematic exposition of the doctrine of God. The key to the book, though, as its title makes clear, is that Coppedge draws on the triunity of God as the key for his reconstruction. The book opens with two chapters laying out the New Testament evidence, larger biblical "frame," and early theological developments toward understanding God as triune, making a case that understanding God as three in one and one in three, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is essential to understanding who God is. He then goes on to construct a fuller doctrine of God, covering the classic themes of God's attributes, creation, and providence, but he does it all after laying the trinitarian groundwork and in light of these fundamental insights. This makes Coppedge's book a valuable contribution to the field.

Coppedge's material on the Trinity is very well done, and I think he lays out very clearly and helpfully the essentials necessary for constrcting a theology of the Trinity. He shows much sympathy toward an Eastern approach to the Trinity that starts more from God's threeness and goes on to assert God's unity, though he also shows sympathies toward the more Western, Augistinian approach of starting from God's unity. Overall, though, this Eastern trend helps give the trinitarian drama to his whole presentation, as it keeps the vibrant interrelational life of God center stage as moves on to discuss God's being and attributes and God's relation to creation.

One of the defining insights of the book is that a Trinitiarian starting point means that when one moves to discussing God, the traditional four categories of attributes are still discussed--personal, moral, relative, and absolute--but they are approached in a different order. Coppedge begins with God's personal attributes (discussing attributes such as God's social nature, life, heart, moral capacity, freedom, creativity, and responsibility) and moral attributes. Only then does he move on to God's relative and absolute attributes. This means that God's sociality, will, freedom, and righteousness come before and exercise a controling role over attributes such as omnipotence. The result of this is that a picture of a vibrant, alive, relating God comes to the fore. This doesn't lessen God's glory or holiness, or diminish God's transcendence, but it means that who God is isn't lost in discussions of what God is capable of. Instead of focusing on God's being in himself, with a focus on God's unity as the omnipotent and omnipresent being above and beyond the universe one meets God as Father, Son, and Spirit, forever relating as living, loving, active beings who come to meet us in holiness and invite us to enter into their trine life. That, to me, is the refreshing aspect of this book. The Doctrine of God doesn't become abstract philosophical discussions about categories of being, though it does contain that, but it focuses instead on God as he makes himself known in a personal way. The focus is thereby supremely on God as made known in Jesus Christ, who becomes the key for our understanding of who God is.

I found Coppedge's expositon of the entire doctrine of God based on a trinitarian starting point to be supremely helpful. It helps to illumine all of theology by adding a relational element to God's very existence. It also points Coppedge (a Weslyan) toward an understanding of providence and freedom that entails God inviting human persons to enter into genuine relations with God and each other in true freedom. In short, I think it is one of the most helpful defenses I have read of a Weslyan (that is, essentially an Arminian) understanding of providence and free will, drawing as it does on God's very nature as the ground for its theological reasoning.

I highly recommend this book as a great resource on the doctrine of the Trinity, but more than that, I think it is essential reading for an example of how Trinity matters to all of Christian life and thought, instead of being a mere appendix to the doctrine of God to set it apart from other non-Christian expositions of theism. Not only did I benefit from it, but I enjoyed reading it. And further more, I was drawn closer to God through it, by being reminded that God isn't an amorphous being up there but is instead chooses to be known as Father, Son, and Spirit: in short, God lets us know who he is, and that's a lot more intimate than focusing on what or that God is.

November 13, 2008

Obama on things spiritual

CT has published the full transcript from an interview with Barak Obama from 2004 by Cathleen Falsani, then religion correspondent from the Chicago Sun-Times. In the interview Obama talks about his background, his journey to faith, the role faith plays in his politics and vice versa, and the role faith plays in his life.

Here are a few nuggets, though I encourage you to read the whole piece:

"I think there is this tendency that I don't think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them."

[I would have to say right-on to this. I think it ins important that religion not be excluded from the public sphere, and we should be allowed to talk about how our religion motivates our choices and values. But at the same time, religious motivation is not enough. In the area of public discourse and public policy, I think it is essential that arguments be framed in ways that appeal to the public good and be arguable on those grounds. Otherwise, real substantive dialogue about the policies is too easily undercut by ideological posturing.]

What is sin?

Being out of alignment with my values.

[hmm . . .]

I recommend giving the piece a read. It shows, as does so much of Obama's speech and writing, a keen mind and a thoughtful engagement with complex issues. I would definitely take some issue theologically with some of the points he makes, but his candid discussion about faith is certainly laudable.

November 12, 2008

Glorifying God

One of the areas of tension that I see in envangelical theology today has to do with the place and role of God's glory in our understanding of God and creation. There are streams of thought, mostly reformed in orientation, that assert God's glory is God's chief purpose in end in all that he does, while there are other streams of thought that speak more freely of God's love and God's orientation toward the other. I admit that even trying to divide the camps like this is an inadequate characture, but hopefully it gives us a place to start.

I'm currently reading Alan Coppedge, The God Who Is Triune, and he has a great perspective on this, which I will quote here:

But is gloryfing God a creation purpose or a result of creation? If gloryfing God is God's own purpose, it would seem to be a self-centered purpose rather than a self-giving purpose. Does God have some innate need to be glorified and constantly have others' attention? Alternatively, if glorifying God is a natural result of God's purpose in creation, its role changes. If glory is a result of what God has done, it leads others to God's purpose for them, and it is therefore an other-oriented factor rather than a self-centered one. From the nature of the triune, self-giving God, it seems that God's glory as a result of creation is preferable. If this is the case, then God does need to be glorified, but as a result of what he has done, not as a chief end in itself. Our shift in perspective comes with a move from seeing God primarily as sovereign King to understanding him as the tripersonal God. (272–73)

November 10, 2008

Pearl of Wisdom from Michael Bird

Michael Bird, over at Euangelion, has a brilliant little pearl about homosexuality and the church. He writes, "Everybody is invited to my church and come as you are: gays, prostitutes, ex-cons, even people who vote Republican! But no-one is allowed to stay as you are, and if you have to do business with God in the area of sexuality, well, so be it." Simple yet profound. I hope the church aspires to this simple truth.

Dating the Gospel of Mark

Mark Goodacre, over at NT Gateway Blog, has been doing a very informative series about dating the NT documents. In one noteworthy piece, he discusses the dating of Mark, which he sets as post-70. One of the key elements in the discussion, of course, and the reason for 70 as the benchmark date, is the catastrophic and seismic changes in Jerusalem and Judaism with the destruction of the temple in that year. So of course, one looks to the text for evidence of this event. The much debated passage is Mark 13:1-2 ("not one stone will be left on another"). The more "progressive" or critical stance on the passage is often that this shows evidence of knowledge of the temple's fate, dating the document after 70. The usual "conservative" rejoinder is that this assertion of a post-70 date is dismissing the idea of predictive prophecy out of hand, and thus is imposing assumptions onto the dating of the text. All relatively simple, so far. But Goodacre makes a very insightful argument concerning the "literary function" of the prediction. If, as seems to be the case, Mark recounts the event to in a sense demonstrate Jesus' authority, this assumes that his readers will "get it," that is, they will recognize that Jesus was intimating that the Temple would soon be destroyed, and that this shows his authority because it in fact was destroyed. If the temple was still standing, the predictive reference would have no literary value and would demonstrate nothing about Jesus' power or knowledge, but would be just another prediction. Now, I concede that this argument is not a open-and-shut one, for there are clearly evidences in both testaments such "predictions" that can and should be argued to have been unfulfilled at the time of the document's writing, such as prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled. But at the same time, looking at literary function can influence the dating of a Gospel, for instance, without necessarily taking a hard-and-fast position of whether the predictor did in fact make the prophetic prediction. Thus, in this case, the argument could be made that Mark knew the Temple was destroyed, and thus used Jesus' prediction to that effect to point toward Jesus' authority. This does not inherently carry with it a judgment as to whether Jesus in fact made the prediction in question.

Some things to ponder . . .

November 04, 2008

My haul from AAR

I had a great time at AAR in Chicago. I attended a few sessions, and spent a good bit of time networking and browsing the display floor. Here are the books I ended up buying or otherwise acquiring:

A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight
Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by Stephen Webb
The Lazarus Effect by Ben Witherington III and Ann Witherington
Aspects of the Atonement by I. Howard Marshall
The Divine Authenticity of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan
An Intro. to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Daniel Trier
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters

A few thoughts about the exhibition hall part of AAR. This is the first year that AAR and SBL have been separated (and I am very disappointed about this fact; it certainly changes the experience, and is detrimental to the whole experience, I think), and it was noticeable on the exhibition floor. Pretty much all of the vendors talked about how it was quite slow this year. I didn't see a lot of people actually buying many books. The economy certainly could be a factor in this, but who knows. I was also disappointed that, since SBL is not part of this show, Eerdmans, for example, brought basically no books on the "biblical" side of their list, only the more theological things. Which was quite disappointing to me. But on the other side, IVP and Baker both brought the full array of titles, and the biblical areas were barely touched (except by me, as you can see above). Another thing worth commenting on is discounts and tax. A lot of vendors, IVP and Baker among them (again, note what I bought above!) discount their titles 50% at the show, which is a nice discount. Many other vendors discount between 40% (Eerdmans, for instance) and 20%. But the fact that the show was in Chicago took away some of this discount, since tax is 10.25%! Ouch. So most titles ended up being about 10% to 20% cheaper than their respective prices on Amazon (or more for publishers that don't discount as much on Amazon, such as Wipf and Stock/Pickwick, meaning I saved almost $10 on the Witherington book). I think in the end I saved about $40 or $45 on the books I bought. So I'm quite pleased, and have lots to read over the winter. And, as I remembered from my last trip to AAR/SBL in 2005, it was a theology-book-lover's dream. More about the actual conference later, but there's the books.

October 28, 2008

AAR and other musings

I'm looking forward to AAR in Chicago this coming weekend. I wouldn't be going except it is so close I can't resist. And I can stay for free with my sister in Milwaukee; I spend a bit extra on gas, but save a ton on hotel costs. So I'm looking forward to coming home with a big pile of discounted books! I've got money set aside, and can't wait to prowl the aisles. I must add at this point that I bemoan the separation of AAR and SBL. I went to the joint meeting in Philadelphia in 2005. And it was awesome. There were so many great presentations in both the theological and biblical areas that I was horribly divided on which sessions I was going to attend (and I only made it to a few, but heard some great stuff). It seemed like such an important opportunity for theologians and biblical scholars to have their scholarship interact, such an important and growing emphasis these days. This year there are some great sessions as well, and I am looking forward to the weekend. I'm interested in the discussion on the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology on Saturday (M1-200). I've been greatly enjoying that book, and look forward to a discussion about it's take on evangelical theology and practice. It seems to exemplify the best of evangelical scholarship and the promise of an evangelical future, though certainly not in an uncritical way. There's also a session on LeRon Shults's Reforming the Doctrine of God that should be good, and hopefully I can hang around for it on Monday.

Beyond that, I have a few thoughts budding, including some thoughts about "slavery and ministry" in the New Testament and it's applicability to discussions of hermeneutics and social roles with regard to women. Hopefully a post will be born of that train of thought sooner than later. I've also been deeply dug into Allan Coppedge's The God Who Is Triune, which is a great introduction on the Trinity (and the Shack and some of the issues it raises are still bouncing around in my head, and Coppedge's book is very insightful on how we think about the Trinity). More to come in the following days and weeks, including a report of all the books I did and didn't buy at AAR.

October 23, 2008

Praying to the Triune God

I have been reading a great book on the Trinity of late, The God Who Is Triune, by Allan Coppedge. I'll review the book in more detail in due course, but I have been greatly enjoying it. Thinking of God as Triune always seems so fruitful and fulfilling. And this morning, as I was praying, some of these basic insights about God's Triunity were bouncing around in my head, reminding me to not just throw up a "dear Jesus" or "dear God" or "dear Father" and stumble on into my prayer, but instead to pause a second and remember what I'm doing, praying to the Father in the name of the Son in and by the Spirit. For me, it's amazing how profoundly this changes the experience of prayer. It seems that for me, recalling and praying to the Triune God means remembering who God is, not just that God is. I'm not addressing an impersonal force, some amorphous perfect being, but a personal and self-revealing God who has made himself known. What a great thing to ponder as I sit down to pray.

October 16, 2008

I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology

I. Howard Marshall is one of the most distinguished evangelical New Testament scholars of the past twenty-five years. And the adjective "evangelical" is not necessary to make that statement true: he stands tall in any scholarly company. His work has been devoted to the documents of the New Testament, from Luke-Acts to the Pastoral Epistles, with many important works of biblical theology as well. This work, New Testament Theology, is clearly the fruit of his long career.

First, a word about general format. Marshall begins with an introduction about the nature of New Testament theology. He then proceeds systematically through the documents of the New Testament, with periodic breaks for synthesis and comparison. He sums up the theology of the Synoptics and Acts, for example, before proceeding to Paul, and after discussing the Pauline corpus document by document, he synthesizes Paul's letters and then proceeds to carefully compare the theology of Paul's letters to the theology of the synoptics and Acts, and so on throughout the collections of literature that make up the New Testament. In each book, Marshall begins with some introductory comments about the book, it's setting, authorship, etc. He then tells the "theological story" of the book by moving chunk by chunk through each book, dealing with the major teaching units and their content. After moving through the book this way, he synthesizes the theology by approaching the book's content in a more theologically organized way, looking at things like "God the Father" or "Spiritual Gifts" or the like. This allows the book's theology to speak to itself, but also helps the book's theology to speak toward the categories of systematics and helps piece together an author's theological perspective.

I have really enjoyed reading this book, and though I haven't yet read it cover to cover, everything I've read has been well informed and uniformly excellent. I have also really enjoyed his synthesis and comparison articles, such as the article dealing with the synoptics and acts in relation to Paul, which help to explore some of the really important and pressing issues that are often so formative to a New Testament theology. I also really enjoyed his article on the theology of the Pauline letters. His synthesis was concise and clear, bringing out important themes. He is certainly conversant in the latest developments in Pauline studies, but defends a very balanced approach. He also deals delicately but effectively with the "authorship" questions by synthesizing Paul's earlier theology of the undisputed letters and then discussing the data from the disputed (and almost uniformly considered to be later if genuine) epistles in relation to this basic formulation. This allows the later letters to modify and support the undisputed letters without making authorship a stumbling block to the whole enterprise.

In short, this is a great book that I highly recommend. Marshall's writing is clear and learned, and this book has proven to be both good reading and an essential reference work.

October 12, 2008


Scot McKnight on JesusCreed recently posted a Wordle, and it seemed too fun to pass up. So here's what it looks like for my site. You can tell what I've been blogging about lately.

October 10, 2008

Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Translation?

Do the words of Jesus that we see in our Bibles today resemble the words that were actually spoken two millenia ago? Or have the Bible's authors, copyists, and translators played fast and loose with them? Bart Ehrman, in his book, Misquoting Jesus, makes a case for the (often systematic) corruption of Jesus' words and of the whole text of the Bible from the earliest times on down to the present. For him, the Bible isn't trustworthy: Jesus words and those of the earliest apostles have been lost in transmission. It is into this discussion that Nicholas Perrin, professor of NT at Wheaton College, enters with this new book.

Let me start by saying that this book is decidedly not academic, by design. Perrin, a NT scholar, could certainly mount academic responses to Ehrman and others on these issues, and other authors have in fact done so. Perrin, on the other hand, seeks to both respond in a way that can be understood, but more than that he seeks to put forth a compelling vision of what our New Testament is and why it's worth paying attention to. This whole discussion is encased in a testimony of sorts, as Perrin talks about his own upbringing and his first exposures to the Bible. His journey of discovery makes a great storyline within which these issues can be explored.

I recommend this book quite highly. He makes a lot of current research in a number of areas, from Jesus studies to textual criticism, highly understandable. His chapters on Jesus and his Jewishness are worth the price of the book, and his summary of the quests for the "historical" Jesus is one of the clearest I've read. Beyond that, he also (selectively and rather quickly by design) refutes a number of Ehrman's central points, and, probably more important, points toward more fruitful lines of inquiry and more authentic approaches to questions of the Bible's integrity.

Perrin's work is full of insights, such as the important assertion that Jesus intended his words be remembered by his disciples, and that, in their Jewish context, it is highly plausible that they would have done so with care. He also makes clear that God chose to impart his revelation into a human context and process, deeming it a sufficient and appropriate vehicle for the intended message. We shouldn't necessarily expect a wooden, flawless, perfect textual tradition, and this fact doesn't lessen the power of God's revelation or diminish it's call on us. In the end, he concludes that "even if that transmission [of Jesus' words] was less than completely perfect, it was faithful" (187). This book has clearly done a service to the church in making some of these discussions accessable. If these are issues that interest you, this book is a great place to start.

October 06, 2008

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul

Pauline studies have been an interesting and contested field for the past thirty years or so. Even the most fundamental tenets of Paul's theology have been brought into question. Central to the debate has been the question of whether the "Lutheran" reading of Paul and his gospel, which has held sway in the West since the 16th century (or the 4th if you go back to Augustine), is faithful to the essence of Paul's preaching or whether it distorts Paul's intent.

Westerholm, in this spectacular book, provides a great entry point into the debates, careful analysis of the various positions, and a clear, mature assessment of Paul and the modern debates about him. I think this book provides an ideal starting point for people who want to get the lay of the land in current study about Paul, while also interacting (mostly in the notes) with these positions. He then, with surprising humor and wit, puts forth one of the clearest statements I've ever read concerning how Paul understood "law," "righteousness," and "justification by faith." Westerholm brings in the best of the "new perspective on Paul," taking into account a fuller understanding of the Jewish backdrop of Paul's writings and a fuller account of Paul's own thinking on these matters, while also showing that the essential core of the "Lutheran" Paul, especially when augmented and corrected at points, helps present a full and accurate view of Paul's thinking.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is very well written, surveys the most important historical figures in the debate, the most important current contributions, both for and against the "Lutheran" Paul (with frequent use of their own words, so that each author's own flavor and emphasis comes out), and then brings this all together with a great presentation of Paul's thought. His work on the role of the law, summed up in nine theses in chapter 19, is especially good. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. It has given me a grasp of all of these issues and debates, and a grasp of Paul's own thinking, that seemed almost too elusive to grasp before.

Ben Witherington, Paul's Letter to the Romans (with Darlene Hyatt)

Ben Witherington is one of the most prolific New Testament scholars writing today, and he brings a great volume of learning to the texts. In this book, a "socio-rhetorical" commentary, he takes a careful look at Paul's letter to the Romans, paying special attention to the social setting of Paul and his readers, and also analyzing carefully Paul's rhetorical structure and flow. These two emphases make this book a bit different than many commentaries, in that they bring out these two facets of the text, but I think this makes his book the stronger for it. This well-written commentary does justice to this very important and theological letter, discussing the many important issues of interpretation, all the while keeping Paul's "rhetorical strategy" in view. This helps, in my estimation, to help keep sight of the forest among the trees, by placing particular verses and passages within the larger narrative flow, to help see the relations between the passages and their role in supporting his main argument or countering possible objections. This, in turn, helps keep Paul's main idea always in view.

Witherington, with the help of doctoral student Darlene Hyatt, also adds "Bridging the Horizons" sections that illumine applications of texts and themes to our modern day, a very helpful addition. It is certainly not a comprehensive "application" section, but it demonstrates one possible direction one could go when looking at a particular text, and some of them prove quite insightful.

Overall, I think this is a great book on Romans. Witherington's Methodist leanings certainly show through, as do any commentators, but I think this provides a refreshing, non-Reformed and non-Lutheran take on this letter that is still very balanced and seems to take into account Paul's major points with ease. While not the only book one could or should read on Romans (I'm sure there is no such thing), this book is a worthy addition to a library and makes for very good reading.

September 25, 2008

Fishing for people

As I sat last night in a Adult Ministries Committee meeting, reflecting how we as a church reach out to those inside and outside our fellowship, I got to thinking about what we do as a church and why. One thought led to another, and pretty soon I was thinking about why the church exists and what it is supposed to do. Now, this post is not the place to try articulate a fully orbed ecclesiology, but I do want to share one reflection. It seems to me that too often today, churches fall into the trap of seeing themselves as magnets. What I mean is that we focus our energy, time, and certainly money on better facilities, better programs, better worship experience, and the list goes on. We are trying to attract people to us and then keep them. Now, there's nothing wrong with attracting people to come through our doors, it's good to have well-kept facilities, etc. But, it seems we've got a mentality right out of Field of Dreams, if we build it/perform it/provide it, they will come. What about churches as being places where we focus on fishing for people. Where we encourage one another to spread out throughout our community and actually talk to people, share with them, invite them to come. We might spend less energy focused on inward projects and keep our eyes outward a little more.

I know this isn't the basis for a complete doctrine of the church, but it certainly seems worth pondering. Is my service to Christ solely focused on what I do in the church and for churchgoers? Doesn't quite seem right?

September 14, 2008

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series

I'm becoming more and more a lover of commentaries. I just wish the cost less. But heeding some advice from Eugene Peterson from his great book, Eat This Book, I've been reading a commentary daily. I've also started to fill a big hole in my education and making some initial strides at Greek (which is long overdue, but there is only so much time in a day). Anyway, that's all to say that I love commentaries, and have been slowly building my own collection. So it is with equal measures excitement and consternation I note a new series from Zondervan (HT: Nick Norelli for pointing me to the new academic catalog), the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. Here is an excerpt they provide from the series preface:

“This generation has been blessed with an abundance of excellent
commentaries. The key question to ask is, what are you looking for in
a commentary? This commentary series might be for you if
• you have taken Greek and would like a commentary that would
help you apply what you have learned without assuming you are
a well-trained scholar;
• you would find it useful to see a concise, one- or two- sentence
statement of what the commentator thinks the main point of
each passage is;
• you would like help interpreting the words of Scripture without
getting bogged down in scholarly issues that seem irrelevant to
the life of the church;
• you would like to see a visual representation (a graphical dis-
play) of the flow of thought in each passage;
• you would like expert guidance from solid Evangelical scholars
who set out to explain the meaning of the original text in the
clearest way possible and to help you navigate through the main
interpretive issues;
• you want to benefit from the results of the latest and best schol-
arly studies and historical information that helps to illuminate
the meaning of the text;
• you would find it useful to see a brief summary of the key theo-
logical insights that can be gleaned from each passage and some
discussion of the relevance of these for Christians today.”

While part of me does wonder why we need yet another series, there are a few things that get me interested in this series, beyond the great list of contributors. They are the attempt to distill the authors' interpretation of the main focus of each passage down to one or two sentences. I've heard that Michael Gorman does this for each Pauline letter (quite a task) to some success in one of his Paul books, and think it would be even more successful on a passage by passage basis. I also think it is great for a commentary to consciously try to bridge the gap between high-level Greek exegesis done by very learned professors with the Greek knowledge of the average preacher by helping them apply the level of Greek they know, while, I'm sure, still putting their superior experience and knowledge to work. So these elements (along with a relatively tolerable $24 price tag on inaugural volume, James, which is in hardcover!), joined with a strong contributor list, make me rather optimistic that a few of these volumes will find their way onto my shelves in the coming years. So here are the contributors Zondervan has announced:

mattHeW grant r. osborne
marK mark L. strauss
LuKe David e. garland
JoHn i. Howard marshall
aCts eckhard J. schnabel
romans frank thielman
1 CorintHians Paul gardner
2 CorintHians Bruce W. Winter
gaLatians thomas r. schreiner
ePHesians Clinton e. arnold
PHiLiPPians george H. guthrie
CoLossians & PHiLemon David W. Pao
1 & 2 tHessaLonians gary s. shogren
1 &2 timotHy anD titus gregory K. Beale
HeBreWs Douglas J. moo
James Craig L. Blomberg & mariam J. Kamell
1 Peter michael J. Wilkins
2 Peter & JuDe robert W. yarbrough
1–3 JoHn Karen H. Jobes
reVeLation Buist m. fanning iii

(That text didn't cut and paste well for some reason, but you get the idea.) The John, Acts, and Romans volumes have special appeal for me, and I hope they come out soon.

September 12, 2008

Voting for President

Scot McKnight has a great piece over at JesusCreed about voting for president, and it may be one of the best things I've read on the subject this year. I think he is right on to point out that Christians (implicitly or explicitly) seem to have a political eschatology that looks to a president or party for salvation, revival, justice, etc. To my mind, Scot is right on that the election is important, extremely so, and fascinating, undoubtedly so. But our calling as Christians, while certainly not unrelated, has so many more immediate and deeper callings. I wonder if we could spend half the time preparing to share Christ and actually doing it as we spend analyzing and proselytizing for our candidate, what would happen. We can make disciples for Obama or McCain without missing a beat. What about Christ?

August 29, 2008

Big Changes

Well, my blogging (again) has been abysmally inconsistent of late. But this time I actually have a good excuse. My wife and kids and I have now moved to Shakopee, Minnesota, where we are taking up residence in our "new" house. We bought a 1938 house in the old part of town, and we are loving it. It is in a great neighborhood, with lots of things within walking distance, such as a library, coffee shop, gas station, post office, a few restaurants, a couple parks, and more. You get the idea. The house has needed some minor work, including some painting, which we have been busy working on, and will need some minor structural work, which we're having done in a few weeks.

The other, maybe bigger, change, is that I am now officially a stay-at-home dad. My twin boys, Paul and Lucas, are 11 months old, and are crawling around on the floor right now trying to get their hands on the computer. My wife has taken her Spanish teaching job again, and I'm now taking over the full-time parenting. I'm going to be doing some freelance book work from home (I specialize in typesetting and project management, though I also do a little cover design and maybe some light editing), so that makes it a really good situation for me to stay home. And I'm very excited to spend all of this time with my boys. Though it is going to be something of an adjustment. This last two weeks we've been trying to get into some good routines.

What this will mean for my blogging and reading habits I'm not sure yet, though I'm hoping that once things get settled a bit more it will mean finding regular time to read and regular time to blog. I've already got a start on some good reading, and this post and a few on my other little blog (What James Reads) seem to point toward a promising start to the blogging as well. I've also taken up some Greek study, something I've been wanting to do for years. I'm starting with the basics, using William Mounce's book, Greek for the Rest of Us. This also includes instructional videos on So I hope it's a good first step. I'm already relatively comfortable with some very basic Greek, and pretty good with a lexicon or other study tools, but hope this will be a step toward better skills. So that's been another daily discipline.

So there's what's been going on. They boys say hi.

August 28, 2008

William P. Young, The Shack

I've been very slow posting since we just finished moving and have been gettin settled, but I'm finally trying to catch up on some books I've finished recently. The first is The Shack. This book has become quite well known, and I dare say notorious, over the past weeks, and there's been a lot of discussion on the Web about it: it's theological underpinnings, it's quality as literature, etc. I recommend John Stackhouse's posts: post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4; also the review by Ben Witherington.

Because it has been so much talked about, I won't either summarize the plot or give a detailed theological critique. Both of those things have been undertaken elsewhere. What I will do, though, is give a brief appreciation of this great little book.

I think Young has written a powerful and imaginative tale dealing with important questions many Christians wrestle with, especially concerning justice and suffering. I love his imaginative portrayal of the Trinity as Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Though I think what has been said elsewhere does ring true: this isn't a systematic theology text, it is fiction, so it shouldn't be expected to fully and completely flesh out the doctrine of the Trinity. But I think it does illumine one great element of it: the tri-personal nature of God and the beauty of the interrelation between the persons. God's unity may get a little neglect in this portrayal, but I think that is okay, especially because modern Christians seem to have no problem with the oneness of God, but often neglect the Trinitarian tri-personality. That said, I also think the main thrust of the book is spectacular in it's power to confront the reader with the deep questions of suffering, tragedy, and trust. I know for me, it was especially convicting to be reminded that it was only in believing that God is really good that I could really trust him. The insight seems so simple, but its presentation made it profound.

In all, I do highly recommend this little book. It's certainly not perfect, but I am convinced that it can be a powerful story of God's love and grace. And, hopefully it will insight curiosity and interest in the deeper theological issues it touches on.

July 31, 2008

EFCA Statement of Faith

The EFCA (Evangelical Free Church in America), the denomination to which I belong, has recently updated its Statement of Faith. Collin Hansen at CT wrote a short article praising the church for being proactive in modifying its statement. And I tend to agree that the new statement is an improvement. David Neff has a great piece on his blog about the change in the statement with regard to the "ordinances" (sacraments for those of you in other traditions). I think this helps fill an important hole in much evangelical theology, with a tendancy to ignore the sacraments for fear it will look like they convey salvation. I do think they have an important role to play in the life of the church as they enact the gospel message in a tangible way and as they serve as a vehicle that the Holy Spirit uses to work in people's lives. I haven't had time to go over the statement in detail, but there was one thing that jumped out at me, which is the inclusion of premillenialism in the statement, an article I'm going to need to think more about. But overall I think the EFCA has a very strong statement of faith, partly because of its brevity.

July 15, 2008

Reflecting on the word gospel (euangelion) in Paul

I'm preaching next weekend (May 27) at my home church, Oxboro Evangelical Free Church, in Bloomington, MN. I'm excited about the prospect, especially since God had just been laying something on my heart the day before I was contacted by the pastor last week about filling the pulpit while he is on vacation. One component of what I'm speaking on has to do with "gospel" in Paul. (My main thrust has to do with faith, but we'll get there later.) So I've been reflecting on what Paul means by "gospel" or "good news." So here are some beginning thoughts on how Paul uses this word, specifically in Romans.

1. It can refer simply to the preaching about Jesus Christ, that is, the "good news" of Jesus and his death and resurrection. And it should be said it is always intimately connected with Jesus Christ.
2. The gospel is Paul's purpose and mission, the goal of his apostleship and the message he is to preach.
3. The gospel is the revelation of God's purposes, from time immemorial; it is the culmination of the disclosure of what God is about in the world.
3. The gospel is the means of salvation, it is the way to be come acceptable before God; the converse is also true: it includes judgment upon those who do not believe.

Here are some preliminary thoughts. It is amazing how much content is connected with this word, not that it is surprising. And this short little list certainly doesn't exhaust the nuance Paul gives. I also will be looking at Thayers and other lexica as well as TDNT, but I wanted to do my own leg work first. (Any thoughts, disagreements, or contributions are of course welcome.)

July 11, 2008

Scripture's authority and its humanity

My own continuing investigation into a robust doctrine of Scripture continues (it's an investigation that goes in fits and starts, but is always ongoing, I think). Coming as I do out of a relatively conservative evangelical tradition (my own church home is the Evangelical Free Church) I received and assumed a very conservative view of Scripture, one in which it was all God's Word to me here and now, with it's original context as more of a curiosity than a vital component of study. Saying I received and assume this is to say that it is what I took from what I heard in church, Sunday school, and other places; it isn't to say that is what my pastors and teachers necessarily believed (though I'm sure it is true of some of them). There was a real common-sense approach to Scripture that assumed its perspecuity. I'm greatful for that heritage, and still believe that a strong devotional use of Scripture is essential to the Christian life as we hear how Scripture speaks to us. But I've also been working for the past ten or more years to round out my understanding of Scripture by really coming to grips with the God who speaks in Scripture and by the ways God has revealed himself through its authors and pages. That has meant acknowledging and appreciating the human aspects of God's revelation. They are undeniable, and are often paid lip service, but I think a better appreciation for the phenomenon of Scripture (that is, paying attention to the books we have and how we got them) can heighten our appreciation for how God acts and for what God has chosen to give us. To that end, Peter Enns has a post on his blog from last month that discusses how Scripture's humanity relates to its authority.

Enns writes, "Scripture is God’s word because it is of divine origin. That is the locus of authority, and no discussion of its humanity in any way compromises that authority. What a study of Scripture’s humanity does do is help us see the manner in which the divine author speaks authoritatively into particular ancient cultures. How this authoritative Scripture translates to different times and places, in both its timeless affirmations and contextualized particularity is (I trust this is not too reductionistic) the task of theological study. It is my firm experience, however, that evangelical lay readers, those to whom the book is addressed, are not accustomed to understanding the nature of Scripture this way."

Well said.

July 08, 2008

Vanhoozer MP3s

I'm always on the lookout for great MP3 lectures to listen to in the car or while I'm busy with other things. I've also found lectures are a great way to learn. And there is so much out there. I recently came across two lectures by Kevin Vanhoozer at Asbury Theological Seminary regarding doctrine and discipleship that I highly recommend. In the first lecture he goes through the basic thrust of his book The Drama of Doctrine (which is high on my Amazon wish list). In it he discusses the import of doctrine for evangelicalism and the church and explains how the metaphor of drama is a useful way to approach what theology is and does. The second lecture continued these themes with a discussion of how doctrine and theology should play a vital role in our church life. He then uses the doctrine of atonement as an example of how doctrine provides direction and helps us live out the "script" in a faithful way. I think Vanhoozer is an important and vital voice of a renewed and resurgent evangelical theology and I appreciate his keen insight into how doctrine must be lived.

July 04, 2008

Mark Noll on the Revolutionary War and the Bible

CT has a great little piece by Mark Noll, the eminent American religious historian, about the Revolutionary War. He begins with the question of whether Christian colonists were justified in participating in the war. His well-reasoned answer is basically that while there were clear abuses by Britain, it was really only African American slaves who were justified in making war on Britain. This in and of itself makes for an interesting (and important) discussion, as the Revolutionary War is part of our national ethos and certainly informs our self-understanding and how we see the world (the myth of American exceptionalism pitted against the evil powers "out there," often turning a blind eye to the ambiguities of the situation in reality). But I think the most interesting part of the article comes at the end, when he notes that probably the most significant aspect of the Revolutionary War for subsequent Christian thinking had to do with the precedents it set for how the Bible was used in public discourses. Instead of careful exegesis of important texts and dialog concerning careful application of these principals, Noll asserts that the Bible was merely used as a means to justify positions arrived at based on other principals and arguments. That's a dangerous precedent, but one that has certainly been often followed in American public discourse. Noll's book on the Civil War (see my review) shows that this was certainly the case in some parts of the discourse surrounding the Civil War, and careful reading of much argumentation today (whether for free markets or lower taxes or universal health care) probably often fits in this category as well. This obviously isn't to say that thoughtful exegesis can't bring great Biblical wisdom to bear on these topics, because it certainly can, but that isn't always the loudest or clearest voice in the conversation.

July 01, 2008

N. T. Wright on the Colbert Report: Resurrection

N. T. Wright appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss his take on resurrection, heaven, and new creation. I haven't gotten to Surprised by Hope yet, but this little clip is an entertaining way of getting at his main points. And Wright sure handles himself well. It makes for fascinating watching.

I think the main thrust of Wright's arguments are spot-on. I especially like that he is seeking to recover a new-creation thrust to the doctrine of last things, reclaiming this important facet of the biblical teaching that is often ignored in a "heaven is a great place up there" theology. Paul, among others in the Bible, obviously has a strong eschatological vision of heaven as fellowship with God (I think especially of Philippians, with its sweeping vision of a better life beyond this one), but I think this vision makes the most complete sense, and the best theological sense, when completed with a connection to resurrection and new creation. If Christ had just been glorified but not resurrected (what seems to be more in line with the thinking of someone like J. D. Crossan), then an idea of heaven as a great place up there would fit pretty well. But the resurrection is decisive for how we think, and Wright seems very good on this point.

June 28, 2008

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger Olson

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology is a descriptive and prescriptive account of the move of some evangelical theologians to what has come to be termed a "postconservative" style of doing theology. Olson finds himself among this growing group, and seeks to set out the methodology that underlays this shift. Thought that may in fact sound a bit dry, Olson in fact turns in a compelling story of the development of a new brand of evangelical theology.

He begins by identifying just what this "postconservative" theology is by first describing "conservative" theology. He lists ten characteristics:

1. Correct doctrine as the essence of Christianity.
2. Revelation is primarily seen as propositional.
3. There is the tendency to elevate some tradition to the level of magisterium.
4. Suspicion of the constructive task of theology.
5. Evangelicalism is a bounded set: people are either in or out.
6. Many who call themselves evangelicals wouldn't be considered evengelical by conservatives.
7. High levels of suspicion toward modernity and postmodernity in favor of the ancient or traditional.
8. Tend to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by culture or history.
9. Tendency toward harsh, polemical rhetoric, staying close to fundamentalist roots.
10. Tends to be done "in the grip of fear of liberal theology" (25).

After setting the stage with a sketch of "conservative" evangelical theology, he moves briefly through a discussion of shared ground, before then beginning to explicate the "style" of theology that he terms postconservative. It is in fact the task of the rest of the book to lay this out, but some major trends and themes can be listed as distinctive (in essence, they are the flip sides of the ten things he has pointed out about conservative evangelical theology listed above). Some of the important aspects might be layed out as follows (the choice and numbering are my own:

1. Consider relveation's purpose to be transformational more than informational.
2. The constructive task of theology is cointinuing; there are no "closed, once for all systems" of theology that have perfectly enshrined the truth about God (55).
3. Concern about the deep roots of conservative evangelical theology in modernity and the desire to move beyond foundationalism.
4. See evangelical theology as a "centered set" rather than a "bounded set"; that is, less focus on who is in and who is out and instead focusing on who is closer to the center and who is moving away from that center. This includes some comfort with ambiguity that is often lacking in conservative evangelical theology.
5. Recognize that the core of evangelical faith is spiritual experience rather than doctrinal belief. This doesn't mean it doesn't have informaitonal content (it's not merely generic belief itself or belief in some anomalous "ground of being") but that this language is "second order," the communal expression of the experience of God in revelation.
6. While tradition is greatly respected, it is not enshrined as definitive; this means systems and theologians of the past can be helpful and essential conversation partners but the assumption should never be made that they have provided final formulations equal to the status of scripture or fully authoritative as interpreters of the Scriptures.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Olson fleshes out these elements of the postconservative style of theology, looking often at important postconservative thinkers who embody these trends. This includes frequent discussion of Stanley Grenz, John Franke, F. LeRon Shults, and Kevin Vanhoozer as especially lucid expositors of this style of theology. He also undertakes detailed discussions of some proponents of the conservative style, such as D. A. Carson, and Carl Henry, with frequent references to Charles Hodge.

For myself, I have found Olson's vision to be a compelling one, in that he illumines many of the weaknesses that I myself have found with traditional "conservative" evangelical theology, such as it's seeming obsession with who is in and out, and it's often harsh polemic tone in discussions within and outside the evangelical family, and with its sole focus on proposition in revelation. As Olson points out, even taking these points, one is still "conservative" in the larger scheme of theology; they don't make one a "liberal," in any meaningful way (contrary to what many "conservative evangelical" theologians might claim). I think this great book shows the promise of evangelical theology as a vibrant and faithful exponent of the faith into a new century. It makes a great intro to these important themes and to the theologians who are on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking about God.

I Want to Believe, Mel Lawrenz

Mel Lawrenz is pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin (thanks to Elmbrook Church and Pastor Lawrenz for the review copy; HT: Scot McKnight for spreading word of the offer). In I Want to Believe, Lawrenz sets out to offer a guide for belief in God in our pluralistic and agnostic age. This involves some basic and careful apologetics, some study of comparative religions, and some great pastoral reflections on the nature and content of the Christian faith.

The basic premise that Lawrenz starts with is that we all have a need for God. For Lawrenz, we are "born believers. It's just simply how we're made" (8). God created us for relationship with him, and it shows in how we're made and how we experience the world. As humans, we feel mortal (and why shouldn't we, Lawrenz points out, because we are), and we look for structure and meaning in life. This doesn't mean belief is easy, but in some way it is "natural" (my word, not his). He writes, "Believeing in God is not like a scientist trapping an animal in a cage to bring back to the laboratory for further study and tests. . . . God caries us away" (17). Later, he illumines the fact that belief goes beyond understanding, and that's okay. Because belif is where "the Made and the Eternal" are conjoined, and if we come to a point where we fully understood it, then belief would be about us and what we do. But it's not; it's about God.

Throughout the rest of the book, Lawrenz does a very fine, pastoral job of working out what it means to believe, as humans, as citizens of a pluralistic world, and finally, as followers of Jesus Christ. This involves discussions of doubt (a chapter worth the price of the book), atheism, Islam, and the specifics of the Christian faith, to name a few of the topics he brings in.

Lawrenz book might be termed apologetics-lite, in a sense, but that is meant in the best possible way. He doesn't get bogged down in philosophy or argumentation but instead helpfully touches on many of these themes but moves beyond them to God and what it means to be in relationship with him. I think this great little book makes a user-friendly introduction to belief in the modern world, and I wouldn't hesitate to hand it to someone searching for faith, or even decidedly not searching for it.

The Nature of the Atonement, Bielby and Eddy

In The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, four scholars are asked to put forth a comprehensive understanding of what they consider to be the foundational metaphor or central thrust of the New Testament's teaching on atonement. They are then asked to interact with each of the other three author's views, facilitating a dialog between the different views and accentuating both commonalities and disagreements. The four scholars and views are as follows:

Gregory Boyd, Christus Victor
Joel B. Green, Kaleidoscopic
Bruce Reichenbach, Healing
Thomsa Schreiner, Penal Substutition

Because of the nature of the book, that is, that each scholar is already abridging an in-depth discussion in their short essays and that each scholar interacts with the others, I will simply restrict my review to some brief comments of evaluation and commendation.

In most evangelical circles, it would seem that the penal substitution view holds sway as the dominant (and sometimes almost the only) view. And Thomas Schreiner does an admirable job of displaying the deep scriptural roots and theological reasoning that make this such an important view. Greg Boyd, in what was maybe for me one of the strongest pieces, displayed the deep scriptural roots of the Christus victor model, showing the importance of victory of death and evil for biblical thinking about sin and salvation. Bruce Reichenbach ably deploys arguments for the healing aspects of atonement, emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation as part of this understanding. Joel Green's essay was also very strong, emphasizing that the context of Jesus' death and the purposes of God are two essential aspects of thinking about the atonement. This leads him to assert that no one metaphor or model will fully illumine the significance of Christ's death, nor will any one model necessarily be the best way to speak the truth of Christ's death into our cultural setting today.

Each author does their view justice, in showing the deep logic that underpins it and the way the atonement fits within a larger Scriptural and theological framework. Each author also sets out to show how their view sets the foundation for or interacts with other views and metaphors, which make up subsidiary ways of speaking about Christ's death. For this reason, I think this book makes a great entry point into this lively and important dialog about the work of Christ and the nature of the atonement. It deals deliberately with the text of the New Testament and also, in less depth, with the historical interpretations and understandings of Christ and his death.

June 25, 2008

The inspiration of a prophet

Leslie Allen writes of divine inspiration and the prophets as he speaks about the prophet Joel:

"The formula of prophetic revelation lays the initiative and onus upon the divine side of a confrontation between man and God. Many of the pieces in the book take the form of utterances spoken by the prophet, while less than half the material is represented as coming from the divine 'I.' Nevertheless, in this respect form is no guide to theology, affirms the heading [Joel 1:1, which reads "The message of Yahweh received by Joel son of Pethuel."]. The messages transmitted by the prophet, whether formally in his own name or in his Master's, bear the stamp of the divine will. Quite obviously the heading reflects a conviction that Joel's words, which comprise the 'word' or message of Yahweh, have a continuing relevance for the people of God.
"The statement that the divine word 'came to' or was received by Joel indicates that the prophet was no mechanical medium in the process of God's communication with the religious community. He had a responsible role to play, a role no one else could discharge in exactly the same way. God was to use Joel's special gifts, insights, and background, and ally himself with this unique personality in the incarnation of truth."

--Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 45.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about inspiration and what it means for how we understand the Bible, and this little piece of insight from Allen's commentary on Joel beautifully illustrates the divine and the human in inspiration, acknowledging the necessarily divine imprint upon God's inspired Word, while also acknowledging Joel's essential and pivotal role in that same communication. It's also interesting that he makes reference to the "incarnation" of truth. Is Allen to be ousted just as Peter Enns from evangelicalism and its institutions?

June 21, 2008

Considering Hell

Scot McKnight recently (that is a couple weeks ago) pointed to a discussion in The Christian Century concerning Hell. Having read Dante's Inferno this past year, I've been thinking afresh about what Christians should do with the doctrine. This great piece invites eight theologians from Martin Marty to John Franke to weigh in on what the place of hell should be in modern Christian thought and proclamation. Each piece is very thoughtful, and points to the importance of not allowing past abuses to marginalize this important facet of the Christian faith.

June 20, 2008

Choosing a Virtuous President

CT has an insightful article this month about picking a president. It's basic premise is that we should strive to select a President who is virtuous, for it is the character of the person who becomes commander in chief that will be of decisive importance, more so than campaign rhetoric. They write, "In addition, campaign policies are illustrative at best and deceitful at worst. Politicians offer proposals that they very well know can never be enacted in the form proposed or have the effects they claim." We've been in the midst of heavy campaigning for about a year and a half now, and the campaign rhetoric has been ubiquitous. And we're only going to hear more and more as November approaches. But this thoughtful piece encourages us to think past rhetoric to character. Now, I'm not assuming that obviously slants the decision toward either McCain or Obama in this election, though in the end I will be making a choice for one over the other, and the issue of virtue will undoubtedly be an important factor. But I think it is vital to remember that it is the unforseen situations, the difficult and unpopular decisions, that will make or a break a presidency. And virtue (courage, hope, temperance) is essential to making those decisions when they come. I think this piece is a great example of reflective Christian thinking about electoral politics. Because Taylor and McCloskey point us toward the heart of the matter, the need for an upright, respectable, ably equipped person to lead our country. This doesn't mean policies aren't important: in fact, policy positions should reflect virtue. But campaign rhetoric and policy position papers aren't enough. It's real moral fortitued that is required, especially for one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

June 16, 2008

Lectures on Science and Theology

I'm always on the search for great lectures available on MP3 (and the availability of quality material seems to be endless). Today I have come across a trove of lectures made available by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. I navigated through Alister McGrath's homepage, which is itself becoming a great Web resource. Beyond McGrath's lecture on the anthropic principle and natural theology (I haven't listened to it yet, so no opinion yet, though I'm sure it will be exemplary), there are lectures by the likes of John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker on quite an array of topics relating to the relationship of science and religion/theology. I think this is such an important avenue of theological endeavor and appreciate much of the fruitful dialogue that has been developing over the last decades between these disciplines. Enjoy!

June 13, 2008


For a long time now, amazingly enough more than ten years, the theme of kenosis and God's self-limitation has been one that has held my rapt attention. It all started with a paper on God's hiddenness and Luther's On the Bondage of the Will, was further encouraged by Professor Ernest Simmons at Concordia College (Moorhead, MN), fully flowered in a senior paper and religion honors presentation in college, and was further developed with some investigation into Creation and Kenosis for a Masters' Paper. Much of my past work is reflected on my Web site, which contains both some more comprehensive statements and some fragments of further research and thought. But I think what has continued to hold my interest is how this theme, though much neglected in a lot of theological thinking, keeps popping up as a fruitful and important element in our doctrine of God and has important implications for theological thinking about a vast array of topics.

Most recently, I have been reading John Stackhouse's Finally Feminist, where God's self-limitation comes up as an important element in his reflections. He discusses the idea of progressive revelation, similar to William Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. He recognizes that Scripture points us to an important understanding of God's providence that points to some measure of restraint or limitation in revelation: that is, that God often reveals his truth progressively, strategically, giving us only what we can handle or doing only so much to accomplish what he intends at that time. He concludes, "We trust that God's self-limitation is somehow for the greater good of his ultimate purpose" (40). In Jesus, God's kingdom decisively and revolutionarily breaks in to the world, but it doesn't do so completely and all at once.

I'd never explicitly connected self-limitation with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic, but it seems an essential move to making sense of the Scripture that God has given us. There is so much more to reflect on here, and I welcome your thoughts and reflections.