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.