December 20, 2009

Good as the privation of evil?

I've been focusing my reading on Pauline studies for the last year or so, and it's been a blast. One of the key issues that comes up again and again, in Paul's letters no less than in the vast literature they have spawned, is the meaning of righteousness, especially God's righteousness. So this has got me reflecting on what I think it is. I think, for many Christians, the answer would involve something revolving around God's holiness, understood as God's perfection and total absence of sin. It is something (akin to a pristine state, innocence) that God imparts to us as a gift. Now, I can't think of anything at all wrong with any of that (though I know some people would certainly quibble with it), but I also think it's woefully incomplete.

In Pauline studies, there is a big discussion of God's righteousness as understood objectively (a righteousness that God possesses and gives to believers) or subjectively (a quality or activity of God that brings about or entails or results in God's saving work). And while I think something of both positions carries valid and important truth, I think there is immense value in looking at God's righteousness subjectively, as something like God's faithfulness and his saving action. I think this helps us go beyond a perspective of good (held implicitly or explicitly) as that which is without evil (though that is a perfectly fine affirmation) to fill that most excellent category of God's righteousness with some amazing content: God's loving faithfulness, his saving grace, his patient purpose.

These few reflections certainly don't even begin to scratch the surface of the exegetical issues entailed in the discussion, but I hope they can be some valuable reflection on Christmas, and God's loving gift in sending his Son. For in Jesus God's righteousness is surely revealed.

December 14, 2009

Paul and Church Order—J. D. G. Dunn

Continuing my multi-author look at church order in Paul's letters takes me to James D. G. Dunn's perspective as displayed in the chapter, "Ministry and authority" in his massive Theology of Paul the Apostle. Dunn begins his characteristically thorough treatment with a survey of some of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussion around the issue, highlighting especially the discussion about the church structure mirrored in Paul's letters as one of "office" verses one of "charism," a debate which occurred largely in protestant circles but also emerged in Roman Catholic ones, especially as can be seen in some of the changes that took place in Vatican II. Dunn concludes that the importance of Paul's "charismatic" vision can't be questioned but that a further step must be taken, in looking at how Paul's churches actually implemented that vision, since his understanding of the church as a charismatic community shouldn't be taken as a complete ecclesiology or a complete set of instructions on church order.

Dunn's first step, after the historical survey, is to look at Paul's own apostolic authority and how it was exercised. A few insights prove helpful here. One is that Paul exercised his authority from within the community, to equip the community. Dunn observes that Paul exercises a lot of restraint in the use of his authority, rarely if ever calling for "obedience" to him but instead seeking to convince and persuade. A second salient point is that Paul sees even his own authority as subordinate to the gospel and limited in scope to his own apostolic commission.

With regard to other leaders in the congregations, Dunn makes a number of observations. One that is quite interesting is that apart from the possible mention in Phil 4:3, Paul makes no appeal to church leaders to fix a situation or handle a problem, nor does he rebuke the leadership for the failure of a church on a particular issue; instead he makes his appeals to the gathered assemblies in toto. While there are clearly people who take up certain roles or hold various leadership positions in his churches, Paul seems to envision his congregations as an integrated whole who are all responsible for these important matters. (The situation of the Pastoral Epistles is slightly different here; Dunn regards them as later developments in the Pauline tradition, but even considering them Pauline doesn't change the aforementioned situation too much since the type of authority being exercised by Timothy or Titus is more akin to Paul's own authority that it would be to that of a local elder or overseer.)

A second observation Dunn makes is that there is a careful interplay between charism and office, with the former spoke of more than the latter. Prophecy serves as a good illustration of this: Dunn asserts that "prophetic authority derived from prophetic inspiration," and "prophets didn't prophecy because they were prophets; they were prophets because they prophesied" (582). He goes on to assert that prophetic authority also wasn't limited to prophets (others could seek this gift as well), and further, that prophetic authority was subject to the assessment and discernment of others. The position of "teacher" functions similarly.

To me, this seems to mean that, while clearly envisioning a position of "authority" for those designated "prophets," this paints a much more fluid and interdependent picture of how that particular position worked than we might think of today, with categories like ordination and office being more natural and familiar to our thinking about church order.

Dunn concludes by reflecting that the canon includes both Paul's earlier letters and the later Pastoral Epistles, meaning we must hold the two together in some way, even though he sees somewhat divergent tendencies, but he concludes that while we the Pastorals show some level of routinizing and institutionalizing of the more charismatic structure evident earlier, the two elements can and must be held together.

Paul and Church Order—Gordon Fee

I have the privilege of participating in a great class on church eldership and leadership through my church, using curriculum from the Center for Church-Based Training in Dallas. And one of the issues we have been addressing early on has been the role of elders, specifically as seen in the NT. So I've been taking this opportunity to do a little reading on that particular subject. The first author I've dug into on this question has been Gordon Fee, from his book Listening to the Spirit in the Text, a spectacular collection of essays focused especially on things Pauline. In it he has two essays concerned with church order.

A few key emphases come up in Fee's discussions. The first is that Paul envisions leadership as something that is exercised from within the people of God (that is, the "laity") as opposed to something that was exercised from without, by a particular person or class of people set apart from that people (a departure, driven by christology and ecclesiology, from Israel's system of priests). Hand in hand with this emphasis is that leadership is envisioned much less (if at all) as exercising authority than as service: while it is true that churches are exhorted to submit to their leaders, the focus that emerges from Paul's vision of leadership is one of service to the body, exercising of spiritual gifting to build up and equip. A second key emphasis is on the distinction that must be made between "office" and gifting. Paul's concern with overseers and deacons seems to focus on the recognition of the Spirit's gifting of people in these areas and the congregation's role in discerning and recognizing that gifting. I would interpret this to mean much less focus on the particular "offices" that each church must fill and selecting the proper people to do so (though the latter is not necessarily an illegitimate enterprise, though it must be understood at least to some extent to be something that goes beyond the specifics of the text). A final emphasis that comes out in Fee's writing is the assertion that leadership at the local level seems to always have been plural: he is quite critical of a strong divide between "clergy" and "laity" at this point. (This last discussion is complicated some by the recognition that Paul envisioned two types of authority: an apostolic, itinerant sort that was exercised by the Jerusalem apostles, by Paul himself, and by his deputies Timothy and Titus, and a local authority established in each church.)

Fee's reconstruction of church order in Paul's writing is I think a very helpful corrective to some assumptions that many of us may bring to the text. Especially enlightening are his emphasis on the fact that "office" is of less importance than it is often accorded today. Fee is also very good on hermeneutics, and makes the point that Paul doesn't seem to be dictating a specific model of church order (that doesn't seem to be his concern) nearly as much as focusing on the character of leadership that is exercised. In a sense, that means many of our modern questions about how to organize a church are underdetermined by the evidence in the NT, though clearly there is much of relevance here. Thus, we must be careful to articulate and consider the question of the nature of the evidence we are given in these letters and how we transfer that information to our current context: how do we relate the "spirit" of the instructions to the "letter" of Paul's instruction, how do we travel from one cultural context to another, from one historical situation to another? And how does the setting and situation we infer from the text serve as God's authoritative word to us (if it does and to what extent) or how is it just the background into which that authoritative word functions. In short, these two essays provide a vast amount of food for thought, with deep exegetical insight paired with relevant hermeneutical reflection. They help us chasten our reading of the text by investigating our assumptions and also help us act as faithful members of God's people seeking to carry out God's will as expressed in his word for his gathered people.

November 21, 2009

E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism

Few books have impacted biblical studies in the past decades more than E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This groundbreaking book has been instrumental in a reevaluation of many long-held presuppositions about Judaism at the time of Paul and Jesus, and about how Paul related to that heritage. I've long heard it referred to, cited, and criticized, so I thought it was finally time that I read it for myself. And I'm extremely glad I did.

First, a word about my reading, which was a bit selective. I chose to read the conclusions he draws at the close of the first two thirds of the book, dealing with his reevaluation of Judaism and his assertion of "covenantal nomism" as the overriding framework at the turn of the era. I then read the remainder of the book, dealing specifically with Paul and his relation to the Judaism of his day as reconstructed by Sanders. I'm not competent to comment on the foundational aspect of his thesis that Judaism is typified in Paul's day by covenantal nomism, that entry into the covenant was by God's grace and that works served to maintain that relationship as a way of staying in, other than to say it is obvious that Sanders was instrumental in awakening a reappraisal of the sources and a questioning of some long-held assumptions. I have found it to be a compelling argument, even if not completely convincing on all counts.

His chapters on Paul are uniformly well written and well argued. His foundational claim is that Paul reasoned from solution to plight, and not the other way around, so that the driving force in Paul's thinking was not what was wrong with Judaism or the Law or with humanity in general, but instead by his conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and is the only way for salvation. This basic premise causes a reevaluation of Paul's thought process and illuminates Paul's thinking in a fresh way. Instead of focusing on justification by faith as the peak of Paul's theological reasoning (his "pattern" of religion in Sanders' terminology), participation with Christ moves more toward center stage. It is the need of Jesus Christ as Lord that is the decisive factor in his distancing himself from Law observance: not that it is futile or wrong-headed or unable to attain righteousness, even if these are also his conclusions, but first and foremost that it isn't focused on Jesus Christ as Lord. His focus on the participationist stream of Paul's thinking is especially enlightening, as he shows how important the theme of dying with Christ is to Paul's understanding of salvation. In his discussion of works, Sanders asserts that "Salvation by grace is not incompatible with punishment and reward for deeds," (517) and that is the position he asserts as Paul's. With regard to covenantal nomism, he says that Paul's view of works is in perfect agreement (518) with the Judaism of his day, but (and this is an important qualifier) Paul's pattern of religion is fundamentally different than covenantal nomism. He stresses this a number of times, asserting that while there is substantial agreement, there is a basic difference (548). That difference is Christ. Paul's pattern of religion, described as "participationist eschatology," is typified by participation in Christ, a change in lordship from the lordship of the flesh or sin to Christ, and being under grace instead of under the law. It is a transfer that takes place, and that is decisive. Even though Paul does spend a good bit of time talking about the role of works, and is rightly concerned with justification by faith, which Sanders includes in his scheme, it is Christ that takes center stage, and union with Christ that is the driving force of his thought. Anything that is pointing toward a different goal is entirely useless, and thus the observance of the Law in order to obtain righteousness is not so much destructive or in need of reformation as it is working in a totally different order than union with Christ.

Even though his discussion of Paul isn't much more than a hundred pages, this short review can only scratch the surface of this seminal work. I came to it with a pretty good acquaintance with many critiques of Sanders' work, and I look forward to continuing to sift this great piece of reasoning and argument. At the very least, it is abundantly clear that he has brought to light a number of themes in Paul that are too often underplayed or subordinated (such as participation or lordship), or at least, that were until after he published this study. I look forward to continuing to study Paul's theology and soteriology, and this important work is clearly one of the indispensable stopping points along that way.

November 01, 2009

Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God

In this study of Pauline soteriology, Gorman focuses on Paul's "grand narrative" of kenosis, justification, and theosis as key themes for understanding Paul's view of salvation in Christ. The key text for explicating the narrative is Phil 2:5-11, where the kenosis and exaltation of Christ form the key movements in the description of Christ's incarnation. For Gorman, this narrative is key to understanding Christ, and salvation, and even more, it is key to understanding God. He sets as one of the book's key agendas the claim that "cruciformity is theoformity, or theosis," built on the foundational claim that "kenosis (self-emptying) reveals the character of God" (2). This key element of the thesis is worked out in the first chapter of the book, with a careful study of Philippians 2 and it's implications for Paul's master story. He then turns to an extended study of justification as co-crucifixion, a participation in the life and death of Christ, and specifically in Christ's covenant fulfillment. (Thus, the pistis christou debate features prominently in the chapter, as the subjective genitive reading there is an important element in the argument, though it doesn't stand or fall solely on that point.) He then turns to holiness as the actualization of justification (not some subsequent and separate movement) and closes with an argument for nonviolence as an essential part of Paul's entire viewpoint.

I greatly enjoyed Gorman's important work. It is well written and clearly argued throughout, and he demonstrates a thorough familiarity with Paul and his letters. I am extremely sympathetic to the core theological argument of the book, that kenosis not only pertains to Christ but also reveals something of the character and manner of working of God the Father as well. His chapter on justification is likewise illuminating, and I think he is convincing that theosis (as he carefully defines it) is an element in Paul's soteriology, one that is often neglected in the Western tradition. Whether "justification by co-crucifixion leading to theosis" is the one soteriological model for Paul is most certainly a more difficult argument to pull off, but at the least Gorman has demonstrated how the "crucified with Christ" language and thought patter in an important one for Paul. His chapters on holiness and nonviolence are similarly thought-provoking and challenging, and I have no doubt that this work overall provides an argument to be reckoned with. Gorman constantly brought me back to the text of Paul's letters to notice details I had previously missed while at the same time making a synthetic argument for an overarching framework that is helpful in thinking like Paul thought. So while I may not agree with him in all particulars, this is clearly a great work, and I am glad to recommend it.

October 20, 2009

Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence

I have no intention of doing this important work justice in this short review, so instead, let me give a few words of appreciation. This nearly encyclopedic book encapsulates what must have been years of research and months of careful exegesis. The first three-fourths of the book consists of a passage-by-passage look at every mention and allusion to the Holy Spirit in Paul's letters. Each passage is exegeted with care, always with an eye to its context and its place in the larger argument of the letter. I had intended to only skim these chapters of exegesis, dipping in at what seemed to be important points, but kept finding myself absorbed in Fee's writing, and though I didn't read it in its entirety, I have no doubt it would repay careful study. The book then closes with a section of synthesis in which Fee brings together the fruits of his research.

The conclusions, like the exegesis they follow, are too extensive to summarize here, other than to say that Fee makes a very convincing case for the importance of the Holy Spirit to Paul's thinking, as well as to Paul's very life. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in Paul's life and letters or in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Fee also has, by nature of his own Pentecostal background, a keen eye to how this doctrine has been understood or misunderstood in contemporary formulations and church practices, and this book provides a well-grounded corrective to many distortions. If you're even considering this book, don't think twice. It is not to be missed.

Frank Thielman, The Law and the New Testament

Frank Thielman is a Pauline scholar at Beeson Divinity School. In addition to his very readable commentary on Philippians in the NIVAC series, which I enjoyed studying through, he has written a number of books focusing on Paul's understanding of the law. This book broadens that focus out to include a survey of the relationship between the law and the New Testament, especially as it is envisioned in the five major streams of the NT that directly take up the question: Paul, Matthew, John, Hebrews, and Luke-Acts. Thielman deals with each author in turn, looking at their distinctive approaches to the law, with a focus on areas of both continuity and discontinuity. In the final chapter, he draws these streams together by both looking at how they differ in emphasis but also how they hold essential elements in common. He summarizes his comparison of the five authors by placing them in three categories:

1. Paul and Matthew stand together in their interest in the ethical use of the Mosaic Law.
2. John and the author of Hebrews stand together in their symbolic use of the law.
3. Luke stands by himself in his use of the law not only in ethical and symbolic ways but also to construct the story of Gods saving purposes. (168)

He also highlights three basic issues that are common ground among the five authors:

1. The Mosaic law no longer regulates the lives of God's people.
2. A new "law" has taken its place.
3. the Mosaic law remains valid, but in a new way. (176)

His final sentence sums up his study well, "Continuity is present, but the gospel is something new" (182).

Thielman's study of the law is well written, and provides a very clear introduction to this area. He is careful to look at each author in his own right, looking at the major arguments of the various letters and then highlighting how the issues surrounding the law fit into this larger picture. His chapter on Paul was especially well done, and is a very helpful study that illuminates these major components of the letters to the Romans and Galatians. This was a worthwile read, and I'm glad to have it on my shelf for future reference. It is clearly a textbook, but is no worse for that fact.

September 18, 2009

Three by Gordon Fee

Three items related to Gordon Fee for today. First, I'm working my way through God's Empowering Presence and have, as I expected, been awed by his scholarship and exegesis, but even more, have been entranced by Paul as he comes through in Fee's writing. This book has received wide praise, and it was about time I finally got to it. I haven't got to the synthesis chapters yet at the end, but the exegesis is well done, especially his overviews of the books and their arguments.

Item two is that Fee has a new commentary out in the NICNT series which he edits for Eerdmans on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, which I hope to pick up soon. His Philippians volume in that series is a volume I deeply appreciated, both for it's learning but even more for its pastoral sensativity and it's helpful words of application.

Third, I just picked up, again long overdue, Fee's Listening to the Spirit in the Text. Reading Fee always makes me want to read more of him, and this collection of essays has some great stuff on Paul, so it fits right in with my current Pauline emphasis.

September 15, 2009

Getting back from a busy summer

Well, Cindy and I took advantage of a summer where neither of us was tied down to a full-time job. With her getting summers off from teaching and me staying home / working from home, we had quite an opportunity for flexibility. This meant time to make it up to Canada fishing with my Dad, Grandpa, and Cousin for our annual trip, a great week out in California to visit friends, a week spent with Cindy's family in Montana, with a great hike up in the mountains, and a few weeks back in beloved Peru. It was both great to see friends and places we loved and also a joy to be able to serve, doing earthquake relief in the town of Chincha. The devastation is pretty amazing, rivaled only by the slow pace of recovery.

I've also been blessedly busy with freelance work since returning from Peru, with some copyediting on my desk right now and a few typesetting projects on the way—I do love book production. What a great job.

Now another school year is upon us, and a chance to get back in to our routines. The boys have been keeping me busy, as they are now on the verge of 2, with all that entails. But they are so much fun and are certainly always entertaining. I've got some book reviews to catch up on, especially Michael Gorman's great new book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I'm also looking forward to doing some continued thinking about the nature of church, both as a spearhead the development of a new small-group ministry at our church and an opportunity to take part in a study on church leadership. So "church" is likely to be a topic for thought, along side my continuing reading in all topics surrounding Paul (that could last a lifetime, I have no doubt).

July 15, 2009

N. T. Wright, Justification

Justification is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith, and in both evangelical and more mainline circles, it has been contested territory for a generation or more. N. T. Wright is one of the giants of biblical studies today, with broad recognition in both academic and in more popular circles, with an important multi-volume series from Fortress Press, Christian Origins and the Question of God, and with a string of popular presentations of important facets of the Christian faith, Simply Christian, Suprised by Hope, and After You Believe, all from HarperOne. He is also important because of his rather unique ability to attract admirers and detractors from across the theological spectrum. With his keen insight into Paul, both building on his past work and in anticipation of his forthcoming academic work on the Apostle, this important work zeroing in on the doctrine of justification is one for which I eagerly awaited. And Justification is truly a book to be reckoned with. It is a comprehensive (though, as the author admits, not exhaustive) statement of the place of justification in Paul's thought, and I find myself far more appreciative than anything for this carefully reasoned book.

Wright begins by laying out some important groundwork for the present book by locating it especially within the evangelical conversation concerning the classical "Reformed" view of justification, especially as espoused by John Piper (whose recent book, The Future of Justification, was a sustained critique of Wright's perspective particularly on this issue), and locating his views with reference to the new perspective on Paul, of which Wright could be considered one of the primary contemporary proponents, though he seeks to provide "fresh" perspectives that move beyond what is often termed the "new" perspective. I'd like to proceed in a thematic way by extending some words of appreciation and interest toward a couple of Wright's major themes.

Clearly, the largest idea that Wright advocates is locating of the doctrine of justification, and the understanding of the "righteousness of God," firmly within the context of covenant. He describes God's righteousness as God's covenant faithfulness, and, more specifically, God's faithfulness to the one-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world. The problem that God addresses in the Messiah is that Israel has failed in its part of the plan, to be God's instrument in and to the world, so the plan becomes one-plan-through-the-faithful-Israelite-to-the-world, as Jesus the Messiah becomes the instrument of God's work in and to the world, fulfilling God's covenant plans, demonstrating God's faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham even though it seemed to be foiled by sin.

Wright seeks not to upend the traditional Reformation emphases of justification by faith, God's grace, forgiveness of sins, but instead to locate them in the broader, deeper, and what he asserts to be more truly Pauline story of God's covenant and God's covenant people. He writes,

"Justification by faith—God's declaration in the present time that all those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, all those who confess him as Lord, are true members in the renewed covenant, and are assured thereby of final salvation—belongs inextricably . . . within the framework of Paul's vision of God's single plan of salvation, through Israel and hence through Israel's Messiah, for the sake of all the nations and ultimately for the whole cosmos." (247)

I think there can be no doubt that Wright has illumined some of the questions that were clearly on Paul's mind, and has demonstrated a certain logic, especially about Israel, that helps to fill out much that is right but incomplete in traditional thinking. He also stresses repeatedly that much of the "old perspective" is right and true, just as he often distances himself from or modifies the "new perspective" take, seeking to move beyond both to a more complete theology of Paul that incorporates both the sin-salvation and one-people-of-God facets into a more robust way of thinking.

Another interesting facet to Wright's argument concerns present justification and future judgment. He asserts, very clearly, that justification entails a present verdict that someone (or, maybe more properly, some people) are in the right with God, have achieved the status of righteous/righteousness. The second thing he discusses, at some length, is how this relates to the final judgment. Wright proposes that present justification corresponds to the future verdict of righteousness, but that the two aren't the same. The final verdict, as Romans 2 makes clear, is based on being "doers" of the law. But, and here is the pivotal move for Wright, this doesn't mean a return to the merit theology of the Medieval era, or a works righteousness, but it does mean living a new life enslaved not to the law and sin but to righteousness. This obviously raises some important questions, both about how we in fact live a life that attains this final verdict and how we know it—in short, the question of assurance. This is the topic Paul takes up in Romans 5 to 8, in explaining how the "verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced" (225). The answer for Paul, according to Wright, is the Spirit. It is the Spirit "who makes that victory [of Jesus Christ and of the Father's love triumphing in his Son's death] operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return" (239).

So much more could be said about this insightful and wide-ranging book. It is highlighted not only by his insightful restatement of the doctrine of justification but also by two chapters that provide a sustained and systematic reading of Romans and Galatians, to see how Paul's logic in those two central letters, as interpreted by Wright, informs the doctrine.

Wright has clearly taken the arguments back to Paul and sought to show how fresh readings of the original texts of Scripture can bring fresh light. His writing is always well-crafted and clear, and he does an admirable job of presenting his arguments at a level that appeal to an interested general reader in addition to those more thoroughly versed in the current debates within biblical studies. It certainly remains to be seen which of his readings will win the day, but there is without doubt much of value in the overall framework he proposes, especially of setting the gospel in the larger framework of God's work in the world. I look forward to seeing where this conversation goes in the future.

July 09, 2009

Alicia Britt Chole, Finding an Unseen God

Thanks to Bethany House Publishers for a review copy. This is a delightful, honest story about finding, or better, being found by, God. In two converging threads, Chole narrates her own journey through Atheism to faith in God while also reflecting on the nature of God and belief. Chole's own story highlights her father, a man who she deeply respected and loved, and who didn't believe in God. Before reaching junior high, Chole had embraced her father's Atheism, and into high school she grew to be outspoken in her disdain for faith of every kind. But in the summer after high school, wholly unlooked-for, God met her.

Woven together with her own journey to faith is Chole's thoughtful reflections on Atheism and its adherents, for whom she has the utmost respect, and her description of the nature of belief in God, complete with four "filters" (consistent, livable, sustainable, transferable) through which various belief systems can be sifted, all in search of truth. Last, through five things that she likes about God (God delights in sincere questions; walking with God sharpens the mind; God is not a fool; God is the ultimate realist; God is knowable), she paints a beautiful portrait of what God is like; one especially suited to those seeking or being sought by God.

While some might be put off by the interwoven story lines, I think Chole pulls off the two threads to good effect. Her writing is very clear, with many finely turned phrases elegantly communicating the depth of her reflection. This book is not an argument for God's existence, a handbook of apologetics, but is instead a thoughtful and honest story of being found by God. I would not hesitate to put this book into the hands of an Athiest or an agnostic, or even any Christian who may need to meet God afresh, because Chole's compassion and respect for others comes through clearly in her writing and earns her a hearing.

July 01, 2009

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine

My blogging has been erratic of late, and I've had Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine sitting on my desk to review for a couple months now, waiting for the time and the ambition to take on such a substantial task. I'd just skip it and move on, except it was such a spectacular book I have to at least make note of it.

I have to start by saying that I loved this book. Though it was over my head at points (he enters into many important theological discussions about theological method which I have but only a surface familiarity with, not to mention the philosophical theology and hermeneutics that continually arise in his discussions), its value is obvious even without grasping or appreciating all of the finer points.

Vanhoozer gives, in essence, an apologia for the importance of doctrine, asserting that it fills the essential role of guiding the church to "demonstrate faith's understanding by living truthfully with others before God" (xii). Throughout the entire work, one of the themes that continually arises is the importance of doctrine for life, in that doctrine is not an esoteric or abstract exercise but a concrete, lived reality with the utmost practicality. I think this point, made repeatedly, is one of the most energizing in the book, as it brings an excitement to doctrine when its horizon is broadened to include the way we live.

I will not attempt here a summary of this substantive proposal about the method of doing doctrine Christianly, but will simply say that it is clearly a tour de force, anchoring Christian wisdom firmly and faithfully to Scripture all the while using a robust hermeutic to reinvigorate the Scripture principle. This all deserves a careful unpacking, but suffice it to say that he sets for the Bible as the "script" that provides the authoritative direction, the "drama" in which we find ourselves players. This brings up another important dimension of this book, the sustained metaphor of drama that provides the framework for Vanhoozer's thought. The pervasive use of such a metaphor could be a distraction, but Vanhoozer uses it to good effect, carefully building may points and relationship off of this central idea. And once you've developed an ear for the way he uses and applies the various dramatic dimensions, with actors, script, drama, dramaturge, and so on, the metaphor serves to enlighten, instead of obscure, his points. In fact, it would seem that maybe "metaphor" isn't quite the right term for the role "drama" plays, because the correlation between doctrine as "drama" and the fact to which it referrs, that doctrine involves description and prescription concerning a narrative-infused world in which we live under God means that doctrine truly is dramatic.

I have only but scratched the surface of this programmatic proposal concerning doctrine, but I hope that doesn't obscure my excited endorsement. I look forward to working through this book again in the future and digesting further its deep insights and catching again its passion for the dramatic truth of the gospel. If you have any interest in theology and the role of scripture in it, do not miss this book.

June 26, 2009

Mark Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle

Mark Reasoner's Romans in Full Circle (Westminster John Knox, 2005) is a brief but very helpful survey of historical approaches to Paul's most theological letter. He chooses twelve loci from the letter (heavily weighted to the first eleven chapters, since that is where most of the attention has historically been paid). For each locus, he sets up briefly the issues at hand, and then proceeds to lay out a selective but informative history of interpretation focusing on some of the major interpreters throughout history. He always starts with Origen, and then proceeds through major developments, usually hitting on Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Post-Barthian and Narrative approaches (and occasionally mentioning Pelagius and Erasmus, among others, as they are pertinent). This survey usually shows how major interpretations developed, where they changed, and what bearing they have on other loci.

Reasoner's premise is that Romans interpretation is moving in a "full circle" from Origen, who focused especially on the relation of Jew and Gentile in the letter, through Augustine and the focus on the individual, through Luther and a focus on Justification, through Barth and a focus on God and his righteousness, and back through the new perspective and narrative approaches to the relation of Romans to Israel's story and the role that the relation of Jew and Gentile plays in the structure of Paul's argument.

This attention to the original setting, he asserts, is leading readers back toward Origen. He concludes, "These approaches include reading both Christ's faithfulness and faithfulness in Christ as in view in Romans 3, a willingness to discus the universal scope of Christ's obedience at the end of Romans 5, reading the ego of Romans 7 as someone who is not fully in Christ, insisting on a human will whose free choices have real consequences in the order of salvation . . ., viewing ethnic Israel as God's chosen people (Romans 9-11), and reading 13:1-7 with deconstructive strategies that emphasize how believers must not always be subject to the government" (145).

Though he doesn't explicitly set out to evaluate or contextualize the "new perspective," I think Reasoner's survey shows how many parts of the "new" perspective are in fact quite old, giving pause to the oft-leveled criticism that the new perspective is taken with "novelty." Like I mentioned, this book doesn't set out to advocate or criticize the new perspective, but it does provide some important material for the debate.

Michael Bird, Introducing Paul

Michael Bird's Introducing Paul (IVP in England used the whimsical title A Bird's Eye View of Paul for this same volume there) is a great little introduction to Paul's life and thought. In this short book, obviously intended as a college or seminary text, Bird cover's the necessary ground for an intro, dealing with matters of upbringing and training, Paul's conversion, his literary legacy, the important components of his thought, and his ethics and spirituality. Bird's coverage of these areas is uniformly well written and up to date, reflecting the latest issues and advances in scholarship without giving over to a faddish interpretation of the apostle. One leaves the pages understanding the contested ground but at the same time having a well-grounded understanding of Paul's theology that reflects both the best of the historic interpretations of Paul and some important modifications and improvements from the "new perspective."

Bird does a great job of situating Paul in his second-temple Jewish contect, and notes how the Old Testament and Judaism provide the important seedbed and framework for his thought, while also noting the role of Rome in his thinking.

Bird's book is my favorite introduction to Paul that I have so far encountered. He straightforwardly deals with the important issues, he gives solid background and well-reasoned and balanced conclusions, all the while inviting the reader into Paul's rich and gospel-focused world. An extremely good book; thanks Mike. I look forward to digging into his more substantive Saving Righteousness of God at some point in the future to see how some of this plays out in more detail.

May 18, 2009

Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology

This important book by professor Fee is truly a monumental achievement and an important contribution to the study of Paul and of Christology more broadly. When I decided to buy this book a few months ago, I scanned the contents and, noting that the first two thirds of the book was largely exegetical, figured I would maybe graze through a few sections of that, but mostly focus on the synthesis portion at the back (still more than 100 pages of discussion). But, in reading the book, I found that Fee's exegesis of Paul, going book by book and passage by passage, was too rich to pass up, so instead of mostly skipping over the first four hundred pages of the book, I read almost the entire portion. There is no doubt that this book will become an important reference for me as I study any passage on Paul that touches on Jesus Christ. His in-depth discussions of some of the key christological passages in Paul is extremely worthwile. As should be no surprise, 1 Cor 8:6, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1, among others, receive sustained attention. But the careful and sustained exegetical attention given to each of Paul's letters (both the undisputed and "disputed" letters) helps Paul's own thoughts to come through clearly, and builds a very powerful cumulative argument for Paul's high christology.

Fee argues that Paul holds a very high christology. Paul envisions Christ as the Preexistent One who became incarnate as the human Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus died and was raised again, proclaimed to be the risen Lord, receiving "the Name" and exalted to the highest place. It is this same Jesus who shares in a large array of divine prerogatives, is worshipped as God, and who along with the Father sends the Spirit.

The details of Fee's work, both exegetical and synthetic, are too many and varied to communicate here, but the value of his work is easy to ascertain. Interesting among is emphases is that much of Paul's christological discussion comes in the form of assumptions that seem to be held in common with his audience (Colossians 1 being the primary exception, where christology is the primary focus). Fee repeatedly emphasizes that this lends great weight to these inherent assertions, since they were so fundamental to both parties that they could be assumed.

In all, this book is a great statement of Paul's understanding of Christ, and demonstrates how the data from Paul's letters, along with that of John and Hebrews, led the church down the road to Nicaea and Trinitarian Orthodoxy. While Paul wasn't overtly Trinitarian, the way he talks of Christ (and the Spirit) shows that these developments find rich soil in Paul's thought. I highly commend this great study. It's ambition is clearly matched by its execution.

April 25, 2009

Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary

Schnabel, professor of New Testment at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, presents a distinctive and thorough treatment of the Apostle Paul by focusing on Paul as a missionary. There can be no doubt that keeping Paul's missionary motivations in mind helps illumine Paul's thinking and writing, and furthermore, that investigating the way Paul carried himself as a missionary has bearing on what it means to be a Christian and more specifically a missionary in our twenty-first-century context.

Relying heavily on what must be an even more exhaustive treatment in his two-volume Early Christian Mission, Schnabel first sets out to describe the mission Paul undertook (dividing Paul's "travels" into fifteen different "periods" of mission), the task he set for himself (or maybe better, the task he saw himself as being given), and the message he preached. He then synthesizes this material in two chapters that discuss Paul's strategies and his methods for carrying out that mission. In the final chapter, he brings the study to bear on questions of mission in the current context, both in understanding why and how a church should grow and in what way current missionary endeavors should be informed by Paul.

I found the descriptive portions of the book to be informative, and though keeping track of fifteen "periods" of mission over Paul's career is cumbersome, it also helpfully breaks up the more traditional missionary "journeys" in a way that better reflects the reality of Paul's undertaking. Easily lost in the old scheme are the significant periods spent in various locations in sustained ministry, whether the two years in Ephesus or the six months in Athens, the sorts of durations that are more obscured than illumined when talking about "travels" or "journeys."

Schnable focuses repeatedly in the book on a couple important themes. One is the primacy of God in Paul's mission. Paul saw himself as called and appointed by God, in his service, dependent upon him, and ultimately accountable to him. No other responsibility, no other obligation, and no other message could supplant this one in the apostle's thinking. A second emphasis is that it is the gospel itself that dictates Paul's strategies and methods, not a grand itinerary or a finely-honed rhetorical presentation. Paul understood the deep need of all humanity to come to faith in Jesus Christ, and he undertook whatever ministry was expedient to bring about that end. He may have developed some patterns of ministry (such as going first to the synagogue), but these were always subservient to the message he proclaimed.

Schnabel's final chapter is an application of the study to the modern situation in the church and in missions. Some of the critique, such as his discussion of the "homogeneous unit principle" or of church planting, proves quite insightful, as is his caution against the search for the right "method" for church growth or evangelism instead of focusing on the gospel message. But at other points, his critique seems quite disconnected from the five substantive chapters on Paul, such as his discussion of "seeker-driven" churches or "atonement," where very little discussion of Paul is actually brought to bear on the matter at hand. While I would agree with many of his comments regarding "mega-churches," his discussion is very heavily dependent on David Wells and Os Guiness, and I think unfairly equates mega- or seeker-sensative churches with a dearth of theology. Criticism aside, though, the final chapter ends with some very helpful discussion of how study of Paul can and should inform how we do "missions" in the twenty-first century, and much wisdom can be gleaned here by pastors and missionaries. In all, Schnabel has written a detailed study of Paul that focuses on his missionary context and undertakings and it is helpful both in illuminating Paul and his thought as well as in guiding our application of the gospel message in our own day.

A final, reluctant but necessary note is in order here. This book desperately needed a good proofread before going to press. I was distressed by how many errors remained in the printed edition, and though I was just annoyed by inconsistencies in the footnote style or confused punctuation, there were numerous instances were the sense of a sentence was indecipherable. While I'm usually annoyed when reviewers point out one or two typos in a book, in this case, it really did detract from this worthwhile book.

Stephen Westerholm, Preface to the Study of Paul

Pauline scholar Stephen Westerholm, author of the spectacular Perspectives Old and New on Paul, has also written this great little introduction to the study of Paul. Organized as a conceptual tour of Romans, Westerholm seeks to acquaint his readers with Paul's worldview. He contends that coming to terms with Paul means first grasping his "particular vision of reality," his worldview, which is then more fully developed and nuanced as one investigates deeper into Paul's "theology."

And this well-written little book accomplishes its aims admirably, and then some, I would say. Westerholm succeeds in contrasting modern assumptions about "the nature and terms of human existence" (1) with those views that underpin and are played out in Paul's writings. Topics such as law, freedom, and the nature of the cosmos are helpfully discussed to bring out common modern assumptions and illuminate Paul's own perspective.

This book truly is an introduction, in the best sense, and would prove a very good place to start a study on Paul and his thought. It also carries out the task of a good introduction in giving a remarkably concise and readable overview of the important contours of Paul's theology. Especially illuminating are the discussion of the interplay of sin, the Mosaic law, and Israel and the new situation brought about by Christ.

His chapter on Romans 9–11 is easily worth the price of the book, and the four-page discussion, "The Role of God in History," is easily one of the best summaries and statements I have ever read on God's knowledge, providence, election, and interaction with humanity. He defends a traditional view of God's foreknowledge, the necessity of election and God's capacity to "harden," while also maintaining that God certainly does not predetermine all human activities and choices, and furthermore that there is no divine role in the origin of sin. He also asserts that while some have drawn the further implication of a double predestination of some to salvation and some to damnation, Westerhom asserts that such an conclusion need not be drawn, and that in fact Paul often warns that those who are "called" may prove faithless and be lost and that the "call" can be resisted.

I highly recommend this great little book, and I am greatful to pauline scholar James Aageson, one of my professors at Concordia College in Moorhead, who pointed me toward this book back in my college days. Rereading it has been a treat.

April 16, 2009

Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air (both are great books and worth your time), takes up a different subject matter in Under the Banner of Heaven. This book, as Krakauer puts it in the "Author's Remarks," is his endeavor to "grasp the nature of religious belief" (333) His investigation into the nature of belief, and especially its irrational elements, takes the form of an investigation into the history and beliefs of the Mormon church, with special emphasis on Mormon fundamentalism and the murder of a woman and her infant daughter by two fundamentalists who believed they were doing God's will.

It is clear as Krakauer sets out that he hopes to illumine the "dark side to religious devition" (xxi) and lay bare the irrationality of faith. And lest there be any doubt as to the tack he is taking, he defines faith as follows at the close of the prologue: "Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants raticination, all bets are suddenly off" (xxiii). Not exactly a robust definition of faith, though maybe closer if one limits the scope to "fundamentalism." (Though I don't want to go off the track here and discuss what fundamentalism of the various stripes is and isn't and how it relates to more orthodox faith.) So, back to Krakauer.

Under the Banner of Heaven
is a well-written investigation into a double murder of a young woman and her child by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, investigating both the factors that lead to the killing and the interesting lack of remorse in its wake.

The Lafferty brothers are Mormon Fundamentalists, part of a loose group of Mormons who seek to return the faith to its roots and vigorously defend and follow its doctrines, plural marriage one among many things that they see the modern LDS church waywardly departing from. Ron receives a revelation that he is to kill his sister-in-law and her daughter. Dan goes along with him, and is the one who ultimately carries out the brutal executions. In the wake of these brutal killings, neither man feels significant remorse, instead living confident that they have carried out God's will, a higher law than any earthly laws.

The story brings out many facets peculiar to Mormonism and Mormon Fundamentalism (espeically the importance of ongoing revelation and the authority of these revelations), but it also investigates by extension the nature of faith and its relation to rationality and modern society.

While I don't agree with Krakauer's conclusions that faith is ultimately nothing more than irrational delusion, I think he has none-the-less done a service by writing this interesting book. Beside bringing out the very interesting story of the rise of Mormonism and its later Fundamentalist developments, he also raises important questions about the nature of faith—questions that I think can ultimately be answered much better than Krakauer allows, but he does a service by at least raising the questions.

April 08, 2009

God's Word for the flood

My parents live on the Red River in Moorhead, MN, so we have spent the past couple weeks sandbagging and battling the flood waters, and are getting ready for a second crest next week. There were many sleepless nights, and it was touch and go a number of times. So far, they have emerged with some water damage to the lower level, including losing all of the carpet. But they were able to stop the leak and pump the water back out, so the house itself seems fine, as is the furnace. The first night I did dike duty over night, my cousins Ricky and David and I sat up in my parents' sun porch watching the pumps and listening to the radio, and at about 2:30 AM, we heard the report that our school, Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo, ND, had sustained a dike breach. (The whole school was severely damaged in the 1997, and a permanant flood wall was built after that flood; they are also just completing a multi-million-dollar renovation of the campus, including a new fine arts center, fitness area, and other major renovations.) And as we listened over the next two hours, we heard the agonizing news that the permanent wall had indeed failed, and that the National Guard was unable to stop the water. Two buildings sustained major damage, and there was fear that the whole campus could again be inundated. This was very discouraging news.

A little later, around 5 AM, I picked up the Book of Common Prayer off a nearby shelf to help me stay awake, and came immediately upon Psalm 29. Let me preface this by saying that Psalm 29 has held no special meaning to me before, and in fact I could have told you nothing about what it said. (None of these things applies any more, as you will see.) But as I read the Psalm, I was overwhelmed by how powerfully these words spoke to the situation that night.

1 Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of his [a] holiness.

3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.

4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.

5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
Sirion [b] like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the LORD strikes
with flashes of lightning.

8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;
the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks [c]
and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, "Glory!"

10 The LORD sits [d] enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.

11 The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.

I have been struck by the power of God's Word before on many occasions, but I was awe-struck by the amazing power in those words, as if God wrote them just for that morning. Imagine reading the words in bold as you sit looking out over record-level flood waters that are threatening to devastate whole towns, and as you have just heard about unexpected and serious devastation to Oak Grove. It was quite an experience. But what struck me most was the final lines of the psalm, that in the midst of all of this, God gives strength and peace. And I was called back to the beginning of the psalm, called to ascribe glory to God. I have no doubt that God has already used the flood, and the devastation at Oak Grove, for his glory. He certainly has in my life. And listening to the president of Oak Grove, Bruce Messelt, talk to the media the next morning with such confidence and thankfulness to God despite the flood's destruction, all I could think was that the psalm was being lived right there as I listened, and I'm confident that it will continue to be lived as the weeks and months pass.

It is awesome to be confronted by God's Word, and even greater to know that God's Spirit is using it even still, speaking powerful and true words right down to today. God is a great God, more powerful than flood waters, glorified even amid devastation. How awesome to know and be known by such a faithful God.

Walter Wangerin Jr., Paul: A Novel

The well-known writer and Valparaiso professor Walter Wangerin lends his pen to this novelization of Paul's ministry years. Wangerin shows a thorough knowledge of the relevant scholarship, and especially of the New Testament text, as he weaves together the narratives in Acts and the relevant data from Paul's own letters to form a coherent story of Paul's post-conversion life. Starting with his journey to Damascus, we met Paul and a broad cast of characters that come alive off the pages of the New Testament. Paul is of course the focus of the book, and it is the compelling characterization that Wangerin gives him that makes this book work so well. Paul is a driven personality, captivated by Jesus Christ and single-minded in his pursuit of God's call.

Wangerin does, I think, a good job of portraying some of the tensions that beset early Christianity, especially relating to questions of the Law and Jew-Gentile relations, portraying the relationship between Paul and James as a genuine but rocky friendship. He also brings out Paul's displeasure with the pronouncement of the Jerusalem council (Ac 15), asserting that Paul was deeply disappointed that they didn't go far enough in breaking down barriers.

Paul is a well-written novel, and it follows nicely the outline of Acts. Wangerin also peppers Paul's speech with words right from his own letters, both enlivening the often familiar words and also keeping his characterization of Paul close to that found in the NT especially in Paul's own writings. There could of course be quibbles about various details large and small with regard to Paul and early Christianity (e.g., Wangerin relates Ac 15 to the visit Paul relates in Gal 2, certainly a legitimate interpretation, though not one I favor; or the depth of the rift between Paul and James), but these are certainly eclipsed by the value that comes with Wangerin's imaginative yet faithful writing.

A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture

I am way behind on my posting, and this one has been on my desk for well over a month now. I've been reading a lot of books lately that I have really appreciated. And this one is no different. In the very contested area that is the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, McGowan makes what I believe to be a very valuable and important contribution. First, he sets out to situate the current evangelical landscape with regard to Scripture, and particularly inerrancy, in its historical context, focusing especially on the rise of liberal theology and biblical criticism in the nineteenth century and on the conservative reaction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His purpose is to show that the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated in a very particular landscape. He further asserts that while if pressed he would choose an "inerrantist" position over an "errantist" one, he presses the discussion in a different direction, proposing a reformulation of the doctrine and a retrieval of the term "infallible" as a robust alternative. He then concludes his study with studies of how the doctrine of Scripture should relate to confessions and also how it relates to preaching and the proclamation of the Word.

There are a number of reasons why I think McGowan's contribution is to be particularly commended. First, I think it lends a very important non–North American perspective to this debate, and firmly and repeatedly demonstrates how the errantist vs. inerrantist debate may be raising a false dichotomy, or at least asking the wrong question. And as he demonstrates, this isn't incompatible with many of the more nuanced inerrantist positions, in which the notion of "error" is carefully qualified to fit with the setting and intention of the Bible's authors. Second, I think McGowan's restatement of the doctrine helpfully emphasizes Scripture's role in the Trinitarian economy of communication, and emphasizes the need to move it from a prolegomenon to an item under the doctrine of God in theological statements and considerations of doctrine. (Incidentally, the new Evangelical Free Church in America Statement of Faith does just this, moving the statement on Scripture from first to second.) Another helpful facet of McGowan's book is that he proposes a constructive doctrine of Scripture based around the word infallibility, and is careful to mine the work of past evangelicals, especially Herman Bavnick, showing how others have approached the doctrine and how it fits into their larger theological program.

Much more could be said about this very interesting book. I need to continue digesting a number of his arguments, but I will certainly keep this book close at hand as I continue to reflect on these extremely important theological questions.

March 20, 2009

Fell off the blogging planet . . .

Well, except for one little book review, I've been silent on my little blog for what seems like an eternity. But let me assure you, I haven't abandoned it. I've just been really busy. I just finished copyediting a book on early Judaism that included a lot of excerpts from the relevant texts (mostly OT, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, and Philo), which I greatly enjoyed. And I'm finishing up a huge typesetting project today: an intro textbook for the Hebrew Bible with a ton of images, which is taking way more time than I expected. But both have been great projects. I haven't stopped reading, but just haven't had time to blog. My twin boys (who are now almost 18 months old) have also keept me plenty busy, especially now that Lucas is walking and Paul is not far behind. So that's all to say I've got a few book reviews I need to get up here: Kevin Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine being the big one. Let me just say, what a great book. Vanhoozer is such a solid theologian, and this book was worth every second I spent on it. I've also got A. T. B. McGowan's book on the doctrine of Scripture to review.

I am also in the middle of some study on Paul, mostly for my own personal edification. I'm reading Walter Wangerin's novel Paul, for one narrative take on Paul's life. It has certainly been worthwile reading. I've also been reading various introductions on Paul's life and travels, as well as a number of the relevant articles in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. My first big book on Paul is Eckhard Schnabel's Paul the Missionary, which I just started. So more to come on that book, and on Paul in general. There certainly is no shortage of books on Paul, and I've come across some really good ones.

Well, that's it for now, but more to come in the coming days and weeks. Thanks for sticking with me.

March 10, 2009

Ken Duncan, In the Footsteps of Paul

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy. In the Footsteps of Paul is a beautiful gift book that chronicles the life and ministry of Paul. The book is a mixture of photographs interspersed with quotations from Acts, brief reflections from Duncan, and quotations from well-known authors. Following the Acts narrative, the book weaves together the story of Paul's life both in word and picture. The images—mostly of landscapes and sites, but sprinkled with artifacts, and artwork—are of exceptional quality, and give life to the narrative. A number of the scenes are truly breath-taking, and make this book worthy of a place on a coffee table, in addition to its other merits as a worthwhile introduction to Paul's travels.

The carefully chosen excerpts from Acts and Duncan's brief comments help to narrate Paul's story, chronicling his movements around Palestine, Asia, and Europe, highlighting major events and important interactions. The narrative is also augmented by well-chosen quotations from biblical scholars such as Ben Witherington, N. T. Wright, and F. F. Bruce, and inspirational writers such as Henri Nouwen, Max Lucado, and Thomas Merton.

In all, the book is beautifully assembled and laid out. The pictures are stunning, and the text helps bring Paul's journeys to life. As Duncan says in his introduction, "I knew [following in Paul's footsteps] would challenge me in my own walk with God. . . . Paul was all in for Jesus." Through words and images, Duncan helps us to see Paul the person, a follower of Christ, dedicated to the mission God laid before him. While I would look elsewhere for a more rigorous introduction to Paul's life and thought, this book makes for a great primer on Paul, and a worthy visual companion to other studies, at times instructing and at times challenging us to follow.

February 09, 2009

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I love this book. It is without a doubt one of my favorites. Tolkien is a master of words, and when this is wedded with his fertile imagination and his deep faith you end up with a powerful work. And it only gets better with rereading.

I am always struck by the beauty and depth of the world he creates, the reality and dynamism of his characters, and the epic scope of the events. It feels like every page of this voluminous work is built upon a foundation of volumes of history. I also love the powerful themes of temptation and failure, virtue, hope, and redemption. It is truly a theological goldmine, a volume illumined with a "Christian imagination" that propels the action. Simply said, I love it!

McKnight, A Community Called Atonement

In this great little book on the atonement, Scot McKnight lends his capable hand to this very important doctrine, navigating the often contested waters with ease. McKnight asserts the importance of atonement both as a doctrine of the church but even more so as a practice of the church. Does atonement work? He asserts that yes, it does. It can and should create a community transformed by Christ's work, and transformed to further that transformation in the world.

McKnight lays out a nicely rounded out picture of the atonement by situating the doctrine in the larger Christian story, by investigating the biblical and historical roots and developments, and by asserting the continuing validity of the theory and even more the praxis of atonement.

I think this relatively short book is a great entry point into this important field of discussion, and beyond that it is a robust statement of how this doctrine stands at the core of Christian faith and life. A number of helpful avenues are explored, such as atonement as the work of the missional God and creating a missional community. I also think he takes a very even-handed approach to the modern criticisms of penal substitution, showing how the doctrine can be sometimes distorted by some of its defenders, but also emphasizing how it can express an essential aspect of our faith. Last, I think his own summary of atonement as identification for incorporation proves to be a helpful way of approaching this doctrine.

This certainly doesn't constitute a full review of McKnight's broad and far-reaching project, but I hope it gives some of the flavor of this great little book that can help the church to rethink what it means to be an atoned-for and atoning people.

January 20, 2009

I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement

Based in part on his 2004 F. F. Bruce lecture at Highland Theological College, this great little book is an important and even-handed look at the atonement. Its four chapters entail three major foci. The first two chapters deal specifically with the doctrine of penal substitution through a careful look at its two constituent parts, with a careful study of the penalty for sin in chapter 1 and a sustained look at substitution as it relates to the atonement in chapter 2. Throughout these chapters, Marshall carefully takes into account recent critiques of the doctrine as well and weighs them against a careful investigation of the biblical basis. Through this study, he demonstrates the importance of the doctrine of penal substitution but also how it could be better formulated to avoid excesses and misrepresentations. Thus, he carefully critiques and also defends this important doctrine. He looks specifically at issues of violence, wrath, and suffering, as these often come up in critiques of the doctrine. (A proper trinitarian understanding of God and God's action plays a central role here.) In all, he forcefully demonstrates that the fundamental ideas behind the doctrine of penal substitution are important and essential facets of a doctrine of atonement.

In the third chapter, Marshall sets out to investigate how the resurrection of Jesus relates to atonement. While much thought rightly focuses on Jesus' death as the location of atonement, too often this is done without giving necessary attention to how the resurrection likewise plays an important role. Through a sustained look at Romans 4:25 (Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification), Marshall shows how the resurrection can and should play a helpful and central role in our thinking about atonement, especially as it is connected with the them of new life, and how it should be seen as an essential part of God's work of justification.

In the fourth chapter, Marhshall puts forth reconciliation as a helpful overall scheme for thinking of the atonement. While reconciliation and its attendant word forms are not prevalent in the New Testament, Marshall shows how related themes of forgiveness and peace, which play an important part in the NT, point toward reconciliation as an important and helpful way of thinking about what the atonement accomplishes.

I greatly enjoyed this very readable little book. Marshall is very sensitive to modern critiques of the doctrine of penal substitution, and both shows the value in the critiques and also the enduring value of this historic doctrine. For any who are interested in this ongoing debate, I highly recommend this book. It is also very valuable for its second half, with a great discussion of resurrection and of reconciliation. In all, this is a great exposition of the doctrine of the atonement.

January 13, 2009

More on the Millennium: Why?

I must admit that one of my principal objections to the idea of a millennial kingdom has always been that it seems so pointless. It is a doctrine that is only taught specifically in one place (Rev 20), and even there the precise reading is contested. It is consistent with some other themes and teaching in the Old and New Testament, but it certainly isn't required by other discussion of the end times elsewhere in Scripture. So this has always raised the question for me of why there should be a millennium. Why not go with a simple (essentially amillennial) approach that understands Jesus return to be immanent, with his return inaugurating the final judgment, the resurrection to the life to come, and the new creation. And I must admit, even in my recent study on the topic of the millennium, and my own movement toward a "premillennial" position, this has been a nagging objection.

But in my continued reading, I've read what G. E. Ladd has to say about the Apocalypse in A Theology of the New Testament (the discussion is at pp 630-31 in the first edition, and quotations come from there). And there, he discusses very helpfully how we might begin to understand a millennial reign of Christ--he puts some logic to it.

(Now I admit that we don't certainly only believe things that we fully understand, and just because I don't see the reason for something doesn't mean that God can't or shouldn't do something that way; and some things we read in Scripture are that way--God reveals to us his ways and plans. So don't read too much into my objections. But in this case, it is of a bit more validity because the question arises of how we should read Rev 20 in relation to the rest of the NT and of the Bible, seeking to shape the reading of one based on the other, so a fuller canonical understanding of eschatology certainly comes into play at some level.)

Anyway, on to the logic of the millennium. Ladd writes, "There should be no objection to the idea of such a temporal kingdom in principle . . ." And he goes on to explain. First, the idea of a temporal reign (that is, Christ reigning within history and not only beyond it) fits with the fact that Christ is currently reigning now in the church age. There is now a sense in which that reign is not fully revealed or realized, but it is still a reality. And this is one of the theological reasons Ladd points to for thinking about a millennial reign: it is the consummation of Christ's reign on earth, the realization of that which is now only partly manifest. And this reign is millennial (and thus only temporary in some sense) because Christ then turns over his glory and sovereignty to the Father in the age to come. (I admit that there is a certain logic to this, in light of various biblical discussions about the end, but I need to do some more reflection on the trinitarian implications of this, including the idea that Christ is in eternal and final subjection to the Father instead of an eternal coregnant.)

The second logical and theological reason Ladd explores for the millennium has to do with God's justice. The millennial reign of Christ will be a time when Satan is bound and the social environment will be "as nearly perfect as possible." But at the end of this time, Satan will be loosed and will again deceive the nations. Thus, the logic for God's justice goes something like this. Some may say that humans are at least in part not to blame for their sin and their harness of heart due to the environmental and societal factors that come into play. But this objection will be truly and finally demonstrated as false as the millennium demonstrates the true wickedness and hardness of the huaman heart. Ladd writes that "in the final judgment of the great white throne every mouth will indeed be stopped and every excuse voided, to the vindication of the glory and the righetousness of God." In a sense, the millennium is the final proof of God's justice, and provides the backdrop for God's final judgment of all people for all time.

While the logic may not "require" a millennium, it helps make some sense of what God is about. It is certainly food for thought.

January 11, 2009

Revelation and the Millennium

The EFCA has recently revised its Statement of Faith (see my earlier comments here). One of the major modifications was the inclusion of "premillennialism" in the statement. I must admit that I initially met this inclusion with some skepticism--do we really need to enshrine that particular belief in our statement, especially considering the number of Christians holding varying opinions.

Our church (Oxboro Ev. Free Church) is going to be looking at the changes to the statement in the coming weeks, so I thought I'd begin doing some homework. And though I've studied and read about Revelation and issues surrounding the Millennium before, I've never really delved deeply into it, and never really come to any opinion on it myself, even a provisional one. And I figured this would be a good time to get working. So I pulled a number of books off my shelves and got to reading. At first, I was struck by the breadth of the views I was finding. It seemed that each position had some positives and some negatives.

So I sat down and read Revelation from start to finish, essentially non-stop. (I must say I highly recommend this, especially after perusing an introduction or two to get your bearings.) And was struck by how powerful the words would have been to its first audience, Asian Christians facing persecution. It seems we all too often forget that they are the adressees of the letter! I must admit that this doesn't easily and quickly solve any of the thorny and complicated exegetical issues of the book, but it does immediately and powerfully open up the main thrust of the book: God is holy, mighty, powerful, the Savior! He was and is and is to come. And despite how things may look at the moment, he's got the whole world in his hands, and his judgments are just. We can expect some tough times, difficult persecutions, maybe even death for his name. But don't be fooled--God is on the throne, and he is coming again to vindicate the righteous and to set the world right.

So there's a thumbnail sketch of Revelation. It is easy to see why this book has inspired so many songs, poems, and prayers. (Think Milton, for one easy example.) But what about the Millennium? Like I said, I didn't come up with any easy answers to the thorny questions. But. After a lot of reading (from commentators like Robert Mounce in the NICNT to Craig Koester to Ben Witherington, from the NT theology of I. H. Marshall, and from theologians like Donald Bloesch and Wayne Grudem), I am more and more convinced that while I may have some type of affinity with an amillennial position (more for aesthetic reasons than anything else, I think), I keep being lead toward premillennialism. Though it is also abundantly clear that this is not an obvious road to take (a commentator as responsible and mature as I. H. Marshall essentially dismisses premillennialism out of hand in his NT Theology). And right now, the most clear and convincing piece of the argument goes back to where I started in my exploration, thinking about the original audience. Amillennialism and Postmillennialism may seem like equally viable options now, two millennia later, as we look over the past and possible future. There's a church age, that may be somehow related to the millennium (amillennialists would say it has been and is the "millennium" and postmillennialists would say something like it is becoming or will become the millennium). But, what of the original authors, who didn't have that church age behind them. In fact, one of the clearest and probably most secure pieces of NT data we have is that the NT authors didn't expect a long and extended "church age." They expected Christ's return at any moment. In Revelation, for instance, just turn the page from Revelation 20 and the discussion of the millennium and you get to Revelation 22: Come Lord Jesus! And the same expectation permeates Paul, the Gospels, and the other NT writings as well. Jesus is coming again; soon! While this may not be a totally secure argument for premillennialism, (and while it argues more persuasively against postmillenniallism than amillennialism) it sure makes good sense of the data in a very natural way.