December 09, 2007

Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit

A Theology of Word and Spirit is the first volume in Bloesch's Christian Foundations series, a seven-volume systematic theology. In it he outlines the methodology behind his theology, looking at a umber of important issues in the way theology is done.

Bloesch takes on some very important theological issues in this opening volume of his series, such as the role of rationality and the mind in faith and the place of natural theology. His discussions are much too comprehensive to simply summarize here, but we can at least illumine a few of his main themes. One of the most important is his understanding of the role of the mind in faith, what he calls "fedeistic revelationalism," a position that intentionally stands between "fedeism" (faith is an act of the will apart from rational thought, or in fact an irrational decision) and "rationalism" (faith is a reasoned decision based on the evidence). For Bloesch, both of these positions preserve important facets of how we believe, but also distort the truth of the gospel. Bloesch emphasizes that faith is a response to God's revelation, not simply a summing up of the evidence, nor a decision that is made completely without warrant. God's Spirit plays a key role in this whole process. This points to another important theme in Bloesch's theology, that it is a theology "of Word and Spirit." He is committed to a theology that is anchored to God's Word, Jesus Christ, revealed in Scripture, and always gives full credit to the moving of God's Spirit, who illumines God's words and guides God's people. This makes for a theology that is Christ-centered, Scripture-based, and always sensitive to God's Spirit.

Bloesch is a "mediating theologian," an evangelical that finds himself in between the progressive theology of liberalism and the conservatism of much evangelical theology. In his irenic theology, he dialogues with both, but points out extremes and misunderstandings in both systems of theologizing. His theology shows much evidence of the stamp of Karl Barth, and in many ways it is an "evangelical" morphing of Barth's theology, especially as it is an outworking of Barth's threefold doctrine of the Word of God. In many ways, I think this is a profound strength, in carrying out a profoundly evangelical theology that is based on God and his revelation found in his Word, instead of based primarily on a rationalistic doctrine of Scripture. Bloesch can uphold the importance of Scripture as a locus of God's revelation and the norm for theology without flirting with bibliolotry. How successful he is will have to be decided after a more careful look at the second volume of his Christian Foundations on Holy Scripture.

Over all, Bloesch's A Theology of Word and Spirit is a very worth-while exercise in theology. It gives evidence of a lifetime of prayerful reflection on these things, and is truly a mature theology that is aware of the great thinkers of theology through the centuries.

November 13, 2007

Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death

In Jesus and His Death, Scot McKnight undertakes a historical look at how Jesus understood his own death. He begins with a study of the "historiography" of Jesus studies, looking at the historical methods currently in use, often in the background, in studies about Jesus and the New Testament, broadly categorizing them as modernist or postmodernist in orientation. After surveying this turf, he goes on to investigate how Jesus' death has been understood in modern studies of Jesus, largely concluding that in many cases Jesus' death is a neglected or at least under-emphasized facet of his life. (Which, this seems odd considering it's prominence in Paul's theology; though on the other had that might partly explain it, considering the orientation of many of the Jesus studies these days.) He then goes on in chapter three to "reclaim" Jesus death as an important focus of study.

Part two of his book is an initial investigation into the role Jesus' death played in h is life. He begins by looking at the question of whether Jesus expected a premature death, concluding minimally that after John the baptizer's death, it couldn't have been far from Jesus mind; that is, his own death was a possibility. But he begins building from that point by moving on to consider whether Jesus considered it more than mere possibility, but also a probability; was it something he expected? To investigate this question, McKnight surveys many strands of the Gospel narratives, making the argument that though Jesus didn't want to die, he came to see it as a likely outcome of his ministry, and that he expressed this as having a "temporary presence" with his disciples, and further, that he saw his likely death as part of the Final Ordeal, infusing it with eschatological significance, even to the point of seeing his death as representative for his followers.

Part three of McKnight's study focuses more specifically on how Jesus understood his own death as atoning, and specifically if he understood it as a ransom. This focuses the discussion on Mark 10:45, the saying about Jesus' death being a ransom for many. In this investigation he looks at allusions to Isaiah, the context of the saying, and many other factors in evaluating the authenticity of the saying. And the verdict isn't clear. The possibility that it is a later addition is strong. So this leads McKnight to investigate the remainder of the Jesus tradition to see if the saying gains support from other places as something Jesus would have said. This includes looking at how Jesus understood his own role (was it like Isaiah's servant, a role that would point toward "ransom" language or more like a son of man or some other mold?), concluding that servant imagery didn't play a prominent role in Jesus' self-understanding, but that son-of-man imagery was prominent. His investigation continues, with studies of other "scripture prophets" to whom Jesus can be compared, and with the passion predictions. Then, in part four, he undertakes an in-depth study of the last supper traditions, to shed some light on how Jesus understood his life and death.

Ultimately, McKnight concludes that the ransom saying in Mark 10:45 is likely a Markan gloss, and that Mark indeed understood Jesus' death as a ransom for many, paying the price to liberate Jesus' followers from a hostile power. So what of Jesus and his death? His first emphasis is that "Jesus' mission is more than a 'mission to die'" (336). Though it indeed turned out to also be that. Jesus called on God to avoid his upcoming death, but ultimately saw it as his own role in God's providence. So what of atonement? Jesus saw his death as a representative death, having value for his followers, and probably even as vicarious, taking the place of others. This is intimately caught up with the fact that his death was part of the "Final Ordeal," the inbreaking of God's kingdom into the present and the fulfillment of God's plans for the world.

But more must be said. The early church didn't confine it's reflection of Jesus' death to these themes, but plumbed the depths of Scripture and reflected on Jesus' life and death to come up with deep, rich, and varied expressions of the significance of Jesus death. And McKnight finishes up his book surveying these developments. In the end, he points beyond the "how" of atonement to the "whereunto": "the design of the atonement," he writes, "is to create a community, an ecclesia, a koinonia, a zoe, a new creation" (371). That is where he sees the center of the New Testament's message about Jesus and his death, a message that goes back to Jesus himself. Jesus death "would protect them, liberate them, and usher them into the kingdom of God" (372). That's a pretty robust place to start in reflecting on the atonement.

I still have some digesting to do of this one. It is a great book, and quite an enjoyable read for being a careful academic study. He does a very good job of making the reader aware of the large themes in the New Testament, while also zeroing in on important passages. It was a little disconcerting, though, to have so many traditional sayings of Jesus dismantled and dismissed, at least as they go back to Jesus. His judgment at times seemed a bit tentative when it came to authenticating sayings, but that may also give the book its value, as it provides a very strong foundation upon which to build an understanding of Jesus' death: Jesus thought of his death in these ways, at least. McKnight is a gracious scholar with a passion for teaching, and I deeply appreciated this book, though it has also challenged my thinking, but also driven me to think more deeply about many important issues. With so many debates ranging today about atonement theories and atonement thinking, this book provides an important voice in the larger discussion.

Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book

In Eat This Book, Peterson continues the work he began in his masterful Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places to construct a "spiritual theology." And in this book, he takes up "spiritual reading." Peterson guides into an intentional encounter with the Bible by focusing not just on the fact that we read the Bible, but in focusing on how.

Peterson's focus can be summed up by the guiding metaphor that gives the book its title: eat this book. The metaphor comes from the book of Revelation, where an angel tells John the Seer to eat the scroll he gives him containing God's word. Peterson molds this rather cryptic command into a well-shaped image of how we should take the Bible in when we read it. Scripture isn't for external study, for quantifying or disecting, but it is first and foremost for taking in, digesting, and living.

Near the end of the book, Peterson contrasts two types of readings of the Bible, when he says that instead of treating the Bible as a "thing, an impersonal authority . . . to define or damn others" we should deal "with God's word in a personal, relational, and obedient way." This means acknowledging that it contains "words that mean, that reveal, that shape the soul, that generate saved lives, that form believing and obedient lives" (139-40). This is the journey he leads us on through this book. First recognizing that the Bible reveals a "strange new world," to use Barth's idea, and that we need to enter that world and be shaped by it. So he teaches us how to do that, by being carefully attuned listeners, obedient listeners.

I highly recommend this book. It has rekindled in me a passion for reading God's word, and helped remind me of how I should be doing it and why. We read God's word to be formed by it, and Peterson helps bring this home. Do not miss this book.

November 07, 2007

Torture, human rights, and life before God

After doing some reading on issues of torture this week, and also listening to the talk surrounding the nomination of Michael Mukasey for attorney general, I've been doing a lot of thinking about "human rights" and torture. First off, I have a visceral loathing of torture by the US government. It seems like the sort of thing only "other" countries would do. But all of that aside, on what grounds do I oppose torture. Is it some inalienable human right intrisic to our status as human beings that is the ground for my opposition, or is there more?

I've also been doing some reading about natural theology this week, as I read through Donald Bloesch's A Theology of Word and Spirit. And as someone who has been strongly influenced by Barth, he includes an extended discussion of just what Barth's opposition to natural theology was all about--the primacy of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ that stands above all other sources of knowledge about God. This opposed an approach that included seeing some intrinsic property within humanity that corresponded to the divine, or some intrinsic knowledge that humans have of who God is, whether through inner reflection or outward observation. While it is true that God's power and glory are reflected in creation and specifical in human beings, it isn't the ground of our knowledge of God, but is instead something that is distorted and leads to idolatry.

What does this all say about human rights? The ground of our knowlegde of God is God's address to us in Jesus Christ, and the same is true of our vaule as humans. We are indeed God's creation, but we have value precisely because God stands in relation to us, and all human beings are people related to God. That is the ground of our need to respect every individual's rights, because each person is a person who is and can be related to God, and who can receive God's grace and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. This leads to just the sorts of conclusions that the Bible would have us reach, like loving our neighbors as ourselves and wanting to treat them as we would want to be treated, because we all stand as humans before God. It also leads to leaving retribution up to God, just as Paul writes in Romans 12 that justice belongs to God, and we are to love our enemies (echoing Jesus' Sermon on the Mount).

I am certainly not working out all the details of what it means to be human, or what our rights are, nor does this short post deal with all of the intricacies of a public theology that includes a robust theology of the state, acknowledging traditions such as the Just War tradition. I don't think these conclusions necessarily assume a certain view of those issues, though I do think it informs the way we think about them. And it certainly should inform our view of what it means to torture another human being. Regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent, they should receive respect. That is for their honor, but also for our own honor, and for God's.

Just some thoughts to add to an important conversation.

November 02, 2007

Evangelicals and Torture

Back in March 2007, a group of evangelicals published An Evangelical Declaration against Torture. It is a broad statement advocating an evangelical-biblical logic for the sanctity of life and human rights. Recently, Keith Pavlischeck has published an article in Books & Culture criticizing the declaration as misleading and missing the moral point. I won't rehearse all of the details here, but I do think this is such an important moral issue that it is worth some reflection. I was just listening to a discussion on NPR last evening about conditions in Guantanamo Bay, and even though the discussion may have been slanted toward making things sound worse than they are (the interviewee was a defense lawyer for some detainees), I'm sure that it has a good kernel of truth. And that basic truth is that the people in Guantanamo, guilty or innocent, are not treated well. I have always wanted to think that the US doesn't torture people, but I'm afraid that is decidedly a false assumption, as a seeming endless parade of evidence is showing.

I acknowledge that the issues are indeed very complicated, and that simple answers are elusive, but I think it is still worth pondering. One question is about justification for the distinction between legal and illegal combatants, such an important one in the situation in Guantanamo, for instance. The basic logic discussed in Pavlischeck's article is that if the US or any nation were to extend rights equal to legal combatants to those who are illegal, they are in a sense sanctioning that illegal behavior, and thereby undermining basic human rights by discouraging the distinction between combatants and civilians, and thus making conflicts more difficult to fight and causing more civilian deaths.

I hadn't really thought of that logic, and must admit that there is a certain sense to it. But I don't think it is a very strong argument. First, I don't think human rights are earned, and even people who do deplorable things deserve basic rights of fair treatment. Now I do want more civilians to be spared harm, and want combatants to fight as legal combatants, but I hardly think this bit of logic has made any difference to our al Quaeda or Taliban adversaries. First, do they have any idea that that is our supposed logic. And, second, do they consider themselves illegal combatants. Who gets to decide? If they consider themselves essentially legal (as I'm sure they do), then our logic backfires a bit, since then we are seen as taking at least as low a road as they do. What good does that do?

I've struggled with questions of pacifism and just war, capital punishment, and the like for years, and think they are important issues and that both sides usually have very valid points. But I'm more and more coming to the conclusion that grace, while it often goes against worldly or pragmatic logic, sheds amazing and refreshing light on the situation. I think our country would be much better off if we treated all people, including those that don't deserve it, as human beings worthy of respect, we would do a lot to further peace and reconciliation in the world, not to mention cleansing our own tortured conscience. I encourage you to look into these issues for yourself. Read the article from Books & Culture, read the Evangelical Declaration against Torture, think on these things.

October 05, 2007

A prayer for our twin boys

Well, it's been a big week. My wife, Cindy, delivered our twin boys on Sunday, a few months earlier than we had figured. They came at 27 weeks. Both boys, Lucas James and Paul Christian, are in the NICU, and are doing quite well. That is quite early for kids to come, but they are hanging tough. Lucas was 2 pounds 10 oz and Paul was 2 pounds 4 oz. So it's been a week full of prayer, as we pray for our new sons and leave them in God's hands. And as I bowed my head to pray the simple table prayer that I grew up praying every day, and that my dad grew up praying every day, and that came at some point back there from an equivalent Norwegian prayer, the depth and power of the words rang truer than it ever had before.

We thank you, Lord,
for this our food,
for grace and life and everything good.
In Jesus name,

I can't help but think, as I look at my new little boys: see what great things God can do.
You can check on our boys at CaringBridge.

September 29, 2007

OT Theology

Over at Sets 'n' Service blog, Tony announces the release of Waltke's Old Testament theology. Waltke's commentary on Proverbs in the NICNT series has been highly touted, and I look forward to checking out this major book, organized around the theme of God's "Gifts." Check out the TOC and sample on Tony's site.

September 12, 2007

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God

What is the Bible all about? Is it a random collection of writings about people who have experienced God? Is it one story about Israel and another somehow connected story about Jesus? In this masterful work, Christopher Wright sets out to demonstrate that the Bible, from start to finish, can be read as focusing on God's mission: in both the Old and New Testaments, God is on the move.

The depth of Wright's book is too much to summarize here, beyond surveying the ground he covers and discussing a few of the high points along the way. He begins by discussing hermeneutics, that is, how we read the Bible and what we see when we do, and the argument he makes there is that instead of mining the Bible for insights about "missions," we should instead look for God's mission that permeates the pages of the Bible. It's not about searching for texts that tell us to go to the nations, but instead about being attuned to what God is doing and finding our part in it.

To flesh out this them, and to demonstrate how it is one way of showing the unity of the Bible, Wright begins with God, looking at who God revels himself to be and what God reveals himself to be doing in the world. This involves especially the fundamental notion of God's uniqueness, the foundation of biblical monotheism. The second foundational idea about God is that God wants to be known by that which he has created. God has revealed himself in many and various ways. The final investigation Wright undertakes with regard to God's identity is an extended investigation into the theme of idolatry, a major theme especially of the Old Testament, where he demonstrates that the constant prohibitions of idolatry over and over show God's desire to be known and Israel's conviction (though often forgotten) that God is the only true God.

After establishing who God has revealed himself to be, Wright goes on in part 3, the most substantial part of the book, to look carefully at "The People of Mission." This begins with the programmatic and foundational text of God's covenant with Abraham, with special focus on God's commitment to bless Abraham and bless the world through him. This statement of God's intention really sums up what God is doing, and signals a major shift after the rather dismal happenings in Genesis 3-11. After humans have broken their relationship with God and utterly messed up God's good creation, God steps in on a mission, a mission of blessing. And the way God goes about it is through Abraham. God makes a particular choice, of Abraham and his descendants, but God is not playing favorites. Instead, God chooses the particular for the sake of the universal. Abraham is a man with a mission, he is a man whom God chooses to use to begin the reconciliation of the whole world. Wright investigates these themes, and especially the two poles of universal and particular, as he goes on to discuss election and the people of Israel as God's missional people. He then goes on to investigate God's redemption of his people, through the programmatic story of the exodus, and God's model for restoration, the Jubilee year. Wright then gives special attention to the covenants of God with his people, in Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant, showing how they trace God's mission throughout Israel's formative statements. He then concludes his discussion of God's people with a look at the ethical implications of God's mission and election, with a discussion of the role of the law as the instrument of God's purposes and blessing in the world. Each of these topics could warrant a full discussion, and some of them will probably warrant revisiting, but, in short, Wright traverses the span of the Old Testament showing that God is up to something, and Israel is where it begins, but certainly not where it ends. Through it all, there is always at least an eye to the nations (God's eye, if not always Israel's).

In the final part of the book, Wright broadens his scope to what he calls the "arena" of God's mission. Where is this mission situated, and who is involved. He begins with the whole earth, with a sustained and insightful discussion about the care of the earth, integrating creational responsibility into missional activity. He steps into what is often a sensitive issue in many evangelical camps with a clear and balanced call to take note of God's whole creation, and to care for it as part of God's mission, all the while noting that this doesn't mean a divinization of that creation. Instead he shows how care of creation is a part of our mission, how it fits with the larger picture of what God is doing in the world, and how it embodies the mission we as God's people are supposed to have to the world. He then goes on to discuss humanity as the field of God's mission, beginning with a discussion of humanity in God's image, demonstrating that we have been made for relationship with God, and that is God's intention for all people. He concludes the chapter with an insightful look at the Wisdom literature of the Bible, investigating how it incorporates the "wisdom" of other cultures (always critically) and can demonstrate how to create an international or cross-cultural bridge in our proclamation of God's truth. He also has a very insightful and important excursus in the middle of this chapter on the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the mission of God's people in the world. It provides a clarion call to take note of opportunities to be part of what God is doing here on Earth and to note the opportunities to undertake God's work. Wright then concludes his discussion of the arenas of mission with a look at the "nations" in first the Old Testament and then in the New Testament. The Old Testament has a persistent eye on the nations, with Israel declared to be a nation of priests for God, but the fullness of God's plan for the full incorporation of the nations isn't fully made known until the New Testament, when this persistent vision of inclusion and universality is given God's means, in Jesus Christ. Finally, God's eschatological promises of the gathering of the nations, of the universality of God's blessing, are made known and are under way.

Christopher Wright's book, The Mission of God, is a spectacular work of theology. He achieves his goal of showing that God's mission is the underlying "grand narrative" of the Bible, from first chapter to last. Wright goes far beyond a "theology of mission" to demonstrate that "mission" itself is what God is all about, and it is God's mission that we need to take not of. Our "missions" are derivative and secondary, even as they are important.

Wright, as an Old Testament scholar, focuses especially on the Old Testament texts, but this is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of the book, for he demonstrates the broad sweep of who God is and what God is doing, painting a coherent and continuous picture from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. In fact, this book would be well used as an exercise in Old Testament Theology, as well as a book investigation the whole Bible, for he illumines most of the major themes of the Old Testament, creation, covenant, election, ethics and law, and fits them together into an elegant mosaic of God's purposes.

The Mission of God is technical at times, but still highly readable, and I recommend it enthusiastically. It helps bring to life the Old Testament, showing that it isn't just dusty literature with a few important prophecies, but that it is the very heart of God's revelation, brought to completion (not obscurity) in Jesus Christ. Wright does Christians a service, in showing what the Bible is all about, and I think he succeeds in showing that God is on a mission, and that this theme unifies the narrative of the Bible.

August 16, 2007

Please Pray for Peru

As I'm sure you have all seen, Peru sustained a major earthquake yesterday. Since we just left Peru after spending a year there, we have been watching the news carefully. Messages from our friends who are still there paint quite a picture. The city of Lima seems to have come through the quake without much major damage, but as you head south, the sceen must be pretty devastating. The towns of Pisco and Paracas, Ica, and other towns closer to the epicenter of the 7.9 quake were ravaged, and I heard a report that one town was as much as 80 percent destroyed. You have to imagine that in a lot of these areas, the construction is pretty basic, brick and cement, and while this may survive the smaller quakes, most of the buildings, and especially the homes, aren't built with a lot of structural integrity. So while the death toll seems to be around 450 right now, I'm sure that will go up. So please pray for the people of Peru. The country lacks the infrastructure to respond, and many of the roads leading to the damaged areas were themselves damaged, thus rendering aid very difficult.

August 14, 2007

Atheism and evolution

It seems that few debates capture the imagination and ire of religious and non-religious people alike as completely as the debate surrounding evolution. In the US, it has a long history of court decisions, public arguments, and certainly no shortage of book publishing. It seems that at the heart of the debate stands the relation between science and religion. And maybe one of the things that most people can agree upon in the debate, regardless of side, is that the government should not advocate a specific position on the question of religion and faith. Teach credible science, yes, theology, no. What this basic principle means in practice has quite a variety of proponents, but the basic principle seems to stand. That makes the following quote especially interesting, and certainly food for thought. The quote comes from an article from the First Things blog about the recent surge in publishing about atheism. Enjoy.

"The physicist Steve Barr tells the story of a lecture Daniel Dennett gave last year at the University of Delaware, in which he claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very “destroyer” of God.

"In the question session, a philosophy professor named Jeff Jordan suggested to Dennett: “If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools.” “And why is that?” inquired Dennett, incredulous. “Because,” said Jordan, “the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion.”

"Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall and said, after a few moments of silence, “clever.” After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion."


August 01, 2007

God's Persistence

I've been away from blogging for quite a while. Life has been crazy, moving back to the North American continent, changing jobs, moving into a rental house tomorrow . . . You get the picture. But during my travels recently, I was using my time in the car to reflect on God, or more specifically on God's persistence. I've seen a lot of lists of God's attributes, organized, categorized, and discussed in a variety of ways. And I have read my share of theological treatises attempting to unveil for us God's very being by way of these attributes. And of course, each one claims to fall short, as they do, of unfolding God's majesty. It seems that the more you read, the more you appreciate the Bible's approach: stories. How better to get to know God than by what God says and does and how God interacts with people over time. This isn't to take away from the impulse to do systematic theology, and in fact, the more I read stories, and appreciate who God is, the more I am driven to revisit my own semi-systematic understanding of who God is.

One of the interesting (to me) historic discussions has to do with God's immutability. For me, about the most perceptive piece I've ever read has been Hendrikus Berkhof's Christian Faith, where he talks about the "Changeable Faithfulness" of God. This seems to capture the "historic" and personal nature of God's existence quite well. But today, my own little contribution, far from original, I'm sure, has to do with God's persistence.

In my own experience, I've found God to be persistent. God's call, conviction, and guidance persist through my on deafness, stubbornness, and failure. And it seems that this same persistence is also reflected throughout the pages of the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, as God persistently pursues and blesses his covenant people, despite their copious failings.

These are only the beginnings of some thoughts, but seem to point to some interesting areas of reflection.

July 16, 2007

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

In The Divine Conspiracy, philosopher Dallas Willard paints a compelling picture of the Christian Life by investigating what God is doing in the world, and how humans can experience it.

Willard begins by laying out some of the problems he sees in our world, and in Christianity, today. These include the erosion of "truth" and abosolutes in our culture, and the loss of the depth of the meaning of the gospel message. He then sets out to reconstruct a clear picture of what it means to be a Christian, and what that type of Christ-life should look like. To do this, he gives us a prolonged reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' in-depth discussion of what life in his Kingdom is like. Instead of letting the Sermon be a pie-in-the-sky ideal, Willard fleshes out the deep logic behind it, and makes it something that we live. The insight of these reflections alone, and the recovery of the power of Jesus' teaching make this book worth reading. But Willard doesn't stop there.

One of the basic insights that undergird Willard's discussion is that if Jesus was who he said he was, and who we say we believe he is, then he was and is brilliant. We should listen closely to what he says, and learn to follow it. This insight takes him through a careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount, and also leads him into an investigation of Christian discipleship. More than just being a Christian who "grows," discipleship is acknowledging Jesus as brilliant, and then resolving to really become his students. We seek to learn from Jesus about the true nature of reality and of our own existence, and then resolve to actually obey, to actually live as if these things were true. Disciples delve into the deep reality of God, and constantly strive to keep him before their minds. This results in a true knowledge of God that effects our entire lives. And it brings us deeper into the eternal life that we have been given, kingdom-life. And all throughout the book, Willard stresses that "eternal life" isn't merely a life that never ends, "fire insurance" against future judgment, but is instead true, abundant life in God's kingdom that starts here and now.

He concludes the book by discussing the "Restoration of All Things," the final coming of the kingdom in its fullness. Truly appreciating the end means acknowledging the present in its truest reality and purpose. And Willard helps us to see that as we understand God's plans and intentions, we appreciate him more and understand our own lives more fully within God's plan.

The Divine Conspiracy is one of the best books I've ever read, and one I highly recommend. When I finished reading it, I just put my bookmark back in the front and started over. It is valuable simply as an extended reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, but its value extends so far beyond that. It also demonstrates how that important NT category, "the kingdom of God," is more than just an archaic phrase that isn't important for the lives of disciples today, but instead gets to the very core of living the Christ-life. There are so many deep and profound insights into what it means to live a life devoted to God. Eternal life is here already, and Willard has helped me to see and appreciate it, and helped me to pull so many threads of Christian thought together into a coherent and compelling vision of life in God, kingdom-life, a life as a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.

June 26, 2007

Missional Jesus

Live has been more than hectic the past few weeks, thus the decrease in blogging. My wife and I are about to commence our move back to the States from Peru after finishing up a great year of ministry here. So in the absence of time to post my own stuff, I'll refer you to that of others.

I am especially a big fan of Scot McKnight, professor at North Park University and Seminary, and blogger extrordinare. He has a great series going on "Missional Jesus," that I highly recommend. His reflections on the meaning of the gospel are pervaded by careful and devotional attention to who Jesus is and why he did what he did. Please read with care.

June 16, 2007

"No-faiths" verses "Active-faiths" Barna Survey

The Barna Group has done a survey investigating the rising presence of atheists and agnostics ("no-faiths"), and comparing them to those people who are active Christians (have attended church, read their Bible, and prayed in the week before the survey). The survey makes for some interesting reading.

Here is part of the conclusion of the survey:

"Neither the 20 million no-faith adults nor the 58 million active-faith Christians are as internally consistent as those who write and speak on behalf of their groups make them out to be. Proponents of secularism suggest that rejecting faith is a simple and intelligent response to what we know today. Yet, most of the Americans who overtly reject faith harbor doubts about whether they are correct in doing so. Many of the most ardent critics of Christianity claim that compassion and generosity do not hinge on faith; yet those who divorce themselves from spiritual commitment are significantly less likely to help others."

I must say that I'm not very surprised by these results. Without my own Christian convictions, I'd most certainly horde my money, instead of just giving it away. But reorienting my life around Christ, with the total revision of values that it brings, means other people become far more important, and money becomes less.

June 05, 2007

Some Recommended Reading: A New Feature

I've been way too busy lately to do any blogging, which is too bad. I've barely had time to do any reading that isn't related to the classes I'm teaching or the messages I'm preparing. But I did want to note a new feature on the blog: I've added a "Some Items Worth Reading" list on the right-hand side of the page. It updates with items I'd like to recommend and share. It's a great new feature from Google Reader, a really easy-to-use RSS aggregator that I highly recommend for blog reading. It makes it so much easier to check a variet of blogs daily. Check it out at, and be sure to check out my recommended reading on the right.

May 27, 2007

The Discipline of Secrecy

I have been working my way through Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy over the past weeks, and have been continually struck by the depth of his insight. This book is a prolonged reflection on and interpretation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and in many places Willard turns Christian assumptions and common interpretations on their heads. But through it all is a constant challenge to deepen our understanding and practice of the Christian life, the new life, that we have been given.

One place where his comments resonated deeply was in his discussion of Jesus' instructions about giving in Matthew 6:3-4: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Willard comments on this "discipline of secrecy":

The discipline of secrecy will help us break the grip of human opinion over our souls and our actions. A discipline is an activity in our power that we do to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Jesus is here leading us into the discipline of secrecy. We from time to time practice doing things approved of in our religious circles—giving, praying, fasting, attending services of the church, and so on—but in such a way that no one knows. Thus our motivation and reward for doing these things cannot come from human beings. We are liberated from slavery to eyes, and then it does not matter whether people know or not. We learn to live constantly in this way.

May 22, 2007

What I'm Reading

Just scribbling out a little note about what's on the bed-side table these days.

Richard Dunn, Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students. This book has been spectacular so far. Dunn shows a great pastoral concern for kids, and has great insight into how to practice ministry. It's not about programs, but about a "pacing-then-leading" relationship. I'll blog more later about this one, to be sure.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard gives an insightful reading of the Sermon on the Mount. More comment certainly to follow.

Still reading: Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. I've had to put it down because of some other pressing matters, such as preparation for teaching, but it's certanily not forgotten. A monumental work!

And I'm also reading some short stories by G. K. Chesterton about his famous Father Brown.

May 20, 2007

Evangelicals and Other Christian Traditions

Evangelicals certainly aren't the only Christians. Christianity is made up of a diversity of views and emphases, embodied in numerous denominations, and embodied in various strems of thought that transcend these. One way of look at these is to characterize them broadly as "catholic," "liberal," and "evangelical." Now these certainly don't exhaust the diversity of Christianity (Orthodox Christianity is conspicuously absent), they may provide helpful ways of thinking about who we are and how we think. So how do evangelicals think about people from other streams of thought? Are they the enemy? Are they totally wrong? Maybe they aren't even Christians at all? I think this is a question that must be faced, squarely.

Too often, evangelicals get caught up in the question of who is in and who is out. It would sometimes seem that that is the primary pasttime of the Evangelical Theological Society (or at least one of its favorite diversions), as the row over Francis Beckwith this past month has made plain.

I was reading this morning from a letter by Andrew Goddard from Fulcrum, part of a dialogue between Andrew Goddard and Giles Goddard on the issues facing Anglicanism today. And he speaks insightfully about these streams of tradition, and how evangelicals should view them:

"I am an evangelical by conviction through commitment to such matters as the supreme authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross and Christ's atoning death, the priority of mission including evangelism and the call for conversion. I am an Anglican by conviction not only because I see those central evangelical marks as central to Anglicanism. It is also because, as an evangelical Christian seeking to be faithful to Scripture, the church is also important and I am aware those evangelical emphases on their own can and have led to some evangelicals losing sight of this and other important aspects of Christian belief and discipleship.

"Anglicans from a 'catholic' tradition remind me of the importance of the whole church and Christian tradition (not least for reading of Scripture) and the need to set my evangelical emphases in the context of worship and relate Word to sacrament. 'Liberals' remind me I need to be open to new insights and developments, to question received wisdom and not (in Archbishop Rowan's words) 'close down unexpected questions too quickly'. They also (as you note through reference to human rights) have a passion for justice and require me to take seriously the social, political and intellectual contexts of both Scripture and our contemporary mission field.

"To be honest I think all of these are also part of evangelicalism at its best but as evangelicalism is - like all human traditions - rarely at its best I'm grateful to be in an Anglican Communion where other traditions can often more faithfully bear witness to these features of following Jesus."

Well put.

May 19, 2007

Bible Translations and Inclusive Language

Bible translation is tough work, I'm sure. And it is impossible to understate how important it is. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, but the vast majority of us only see it in translation, and very frequently, only in one translation. So how do you translate something across millenia and across huge cultural boundaries? There are a number of different strategies, from wooden and literal to "dynamic equivalence" (going thought by thought more than word by word, like the NIV) to modern-language paraphrases that border on not being "translations" at all. And each of these has merit. But I think the first think that is important to notice is that it is important to understand how the translation you consult works, and to be in the habit of checking various translations during study.

This is all by way of introduction to another important issue, that of inclusive language. In some circles, this issue is entirely a non-issue ("of course you should always use inclusive language whenever possible"; or even "of course you shouldn't use inclusive language, because of the importance of masculine superiority"), but in may circles it is an important issue. I had a chance to read a a great article this morning by New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, and found it to be extremely helpful and insightful on this issue. He specifically looks at the debate as it relates to the issue of the TNIV in 2002. This release by Zondervan and the International Bible Society brought down a storm of criticism from some important and influential conservatives, such as Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, and World magazine. Their main claim related to the obscuring of the "masculine" nature of God, the skewing of important texts toward an egalitarian understanding of gender, and the change from masculine to plural that would obsure individual application or Messianic prophecies. Blomberg takes up these criticisms, and shows that they are largely unfounded.

But the biggest benefit of his article is the careful notice he takes of some of the extremely important improvements in the TNIV, both improvements that have nothing to do with gender (these make up the majority of the changes) and with regard to how gender issues are treated. I believe it warrants a careful read. Blomberg has helped me see the issue from a broader perspective, and made me want to pick up a TNIV.

If you are looking for more info, you can check out the TNIV web site, which includes passage explanations for some of the most visible changes, and also has an extremely impressive list of endorsers, including quite a list of evangelical Biblical scholars from quite a variety of denominations and schools.

You can also research the opposing viewpoint on the web site of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Happy reading. In the end, it is my hope that evangelicals can embrace the enclusive-language renderings in almost everyc ase, because they reflect the way English is now used. At the end of his article, Blomberg relates how a friend of his ten-year-old daughter came to a church service, and near the end of a gospel presentation, their Children's Ministries Pastor quoted a verse from the KVJ from 2 Corithians that says if "any man is in Christ, he is a new creation." This immediately caused their daughter's friend to ask, is this the way people always talk in this church. Even kids are extremely attuned to the chauvanistic overtones of that type of language. That's not meant to be an ultimatum, nor a call to any type of uncritical and haphazard translation, but an important notice that we need good reason to leave gender-exclusive language.

May 17, 2007

Immigration Reform, the beginning of a theological perspective

Lawmakers in the United States announced today new bipartisan legislation to overhaul the immigration laws. News sources are announcing the deal, and describing it as a compromise. I haven't had a chance to do a lot of research yet into the bill itself, beyond reading today's releases. But it is an issue that warrants careful theological thinking.

One dimension of immigration that requires careful thought is the question of national borders: specifically, what are they? It seems easy in a discussion of immigration to get into an "us verses them" mentality. We need to be sure we are keeping them out, so they don't take our jobs or benefits. And this type of logic holds a lot of sway, if for no other reason that the political reality that it is voters who hold the jobs and pay for the benefits that immigrants would take. But before we get too far down this rather easy path, we need to stop and ask if it is a legitimate path to take. What makes someone worthy to enter our country, and someone else less worthy? Or, who qualify as us and who qualify as them? There are few things more fundamental to the logic of the New Testament than the truth that we are all equal in standing before God, regardless of our race, gender, or occupation. And this wasn't an easy lesson for early Christians to learn, especially considering the importance of the us-verses-them mentality of Second Temple Judaism. But learn it the early Christians did. So how does this apply to immigration and our understanding of national borders? I admit the question is a complicated one, but one that must be confronted in all of its complexity.

National borders are important, especially to a comparitively rich country like the United States. Without them, one could envision an avalanche of immigrants overwhelming schools, government services, and major population centers. It seems probable that illegal employment would flourish, with its low pay and poor conditions, and along with it, many "Americans" would loose their jobs to immigrants willing to work for less and have a lower standard of living. It would eventually unravell the fabric of the country. But at the same time, we need to always keep in mind that these people are people too. They deserve a chance at a better life, and are no more deserving of life in a run-down shack with tainted water and spoiled food than you or I.

A second theological perspective that must be explored with regard to immigration is the approach to those people already in the States illegally. As someone who tends to be a rule-follower, I have always tended to the perspective that these people (notice the them mentality) have broken the law, and must bear appropriate consequences. And that is true, because our society, like any successful society, is based on the rule of law, and the expectation that those laws will be respected and enforced. But this is far from the only consideration. As many people have pointed out (often on campaign stops, I'm sure), many of the people who inhabit the States illegally are contributing members of our society. They hold jobs, support their family, etc. And even beyond that, many of them transgressed our immigration laws out of desperation and hope. And that can't be ignored. In the end, we must remember that people without legal status before the United States government are still people in full standing before God. They are to be loved like any other, and maybe even more so. And its not hard to recall quite a number of verses from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' other teachings that would point toward the importance of a compassionate solution. And that leads me to the summation of these beginning reflections, with the reminder that these people are our neighbors, in many senses of the word.

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Some notes on the news

I read this morning that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard are in final negotiations for a film version of Dan Brown's earlier novel, Angels and Demons. And even though I found their earlier attempt at a Dan Brown movie a rather sad and boring one, I'm looking forward to Angels and Demons. It, like Da Vinci Code, is kind of a fun read, and could make a fun ride for a movie. But even better, I think it raises some great questions about theology and provides a great opportunity to learn and educate others about some of the great themes of Christianity. I can't remember another time in recent history when the status of the books in the Christian canon or the origin of the belief in Christ's divinity have been main-stream questions in the public sphere, but Code did this. And I loved it. I got to learn a whole bunch, and got to teach a bit to others as well. And A&D raises another great set of questions, both about histoical elements of Christianity, but also about the nature of reality and about the relation of science to theology and to belief. I look forward to the conversations.

In another note, the Baptist Press has an article about a survey of college professors that shows very unfavorable feelings toward Evangelical Christians: they received the largest unfavorable rating among religious groups that were part of the survey. I think this shows two things. First, it shows that it is an okay thing in today's culture to be anti-evangelical, and second, I think it shows that there really has been a loss of the Christian mind in evangelicalsm. Though some of these profs probably have unjustified biases against evangelical Christianity, many of them are probably reacting to the quality of the students they see every day. And I think a large part of it has to do with the common evangelical attitude that science as commonly practiced today is antithetical to Christian belief. Yes, there are some scientists who believe that science is antagonistic toward faith, but that is the minority. The two need to have a fruitful interaction.

May 14, 2007

The Logic of Roe v. Wade

Over the last weeks, the US Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision upholding a 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. In and of itself, the decision is an important and valuable ban on a procedure that horrified even Justice Kennedy, who is no opponent of abortion rights. Killing an infant in the birth canal by a gruesome process I'd rather not recount is something that a society can't condone. But, as has been noted, it won't necessarily save a single life, since it only bans one method of abortion, but it may be an important step in the right direction.

Christianity Today has a very good article about the decision, and its significance:

What is the logic behind a ban on abortion, and what is the logic behind the pro-choice position. There are a few different streams of thinking that feed into these decisions. One factor that is often part of the discussion is the health of the mother. And certainly the mother's health is a viable concern, but pro-choice advocates have noted that this cuts both ways, as can be seen in Justice Kennedy's opinion in this last decision (noted in the article above). Abortion may do lasting emotional and mental harm to the mother, and this concern may pave the way for further restrictions.

But the logic that is more at the heart of the debate has to do with autonomy. Is a woman an autonomous person, free from any "roles" and expectations society places on her, free to do with her body as she chooses? This seems to be the core concern at the heart of the Roe v. Wade debate. And I think it is an important question. But I don't think it is a question that pertains particularly to women, say over against men. Instead, the corresponding question needs to be asked, are men autonomous as well. And I think the answer must be a resounding no. Now, from a Christian standpoint, this is easily defensible. And in fact, a Christianity Today article from last week, Holy to the Core, makes a great case for this. Our lives are not our own. We are not free to do as we wish, even if we were capable of it. Instead, we live in community, and even more so, we live in community with God. We cannot act with total disregard to all around us. My own power and self-determination are not the highest good. And in fact might just be an obstruction to it. And I think this abortion debate illustrates this perfectly.

So how does this logic play out on the political field. What is the publicly accessible root to our interdependence. It seems that America needs to recover its core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, realizing all the while that these are only possible in society. They are only possible in the space made by an agreed-upon framework in which we communally seek after the good. The US Constitution does a landmark job of preserving individual rights, but this cannot and shouldn't be read as a carte blanche for self-determination. By that logic, our whole society falls apart. Things like "privacy" become the buzz words of this new logic.

I don't have all the answers to where this logic comes from, nor the best way to retain what is good in the American spirit of individualism while correcting its serious flaws. But I think it is essential that we think in these terms. Because the whole abortion debate, and the very fabric of our society, turns on these questions, whether we realize it or not.

May 12, 2007

Home Schooling, Divorce Rates, and What kids fear most . . .

Here is a great collection of articles from the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune. Some of them are thought provoking, and a couple are must reads.

I've been rethining my own opinions on home schooling over the past months, and this article just deepens my own reflections. As a teacher in a private school, I see the values in a classroom education, and especially in one that is oriented around Christ. And with a wife who has spent six years in the public school system, I see the values there too. But home schooling is definitely becoming a more viable option (not that it hasn't been for years), and there are a growing number of curricula and helps to really make it a great experience. It's something at least worth considering. What a great way to disciple your kids.

I haven't been rethinking marriage (as my wife will be glad to hear, I hope). In fact, the longer I'm married, the more I believe in it. But I don't see the younger generation valuing it very much. And Katherine's article on the divorce rate gets behind some interesting figures to even more interesting causes. Are people living together in "training-wheel marriages" really a good thing? I'd say clearly not. And, as she points out, what about the kids!

April 30, 2007

Thoroughly "Pro-Life"

"I say the focus on health care is pro-life. We're not just pro-life from conception to birth."
-Richard Land, President of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Comission, as quoted in Christianity Today (

Evangelicalism is in the midst of growing pains, or maybe better an inner transformation and reformation. What are the important issues of evangelicalsim. The likes of Jim Wallis and James Dobson find themselves at odds over what really are the important things that evangelicals believe and focus on and fight for. Lately, the tension has been seen in issues of the environment.

Another "political" issue has to do with government-sponsored healthcare, particularly for children. The quote above by Richard Land shows that evangelicalism is changing. A more reflective and world-engaging ethic is growing. Pro-life is anti-abortion, but it is and must be so much more. Children languishing in poverty and sickness, adults without homes and basic medicine, these too are pro-life issues. I'm thankful that life is winning out, and am hopeful that it will continue.

April 26, 2007

Philippians: Gospel Living 1

I've been blessed and challenged by the study of Philippians, and today I'm going to begin a series of posts in which we explore the letter and its implications. We start with an overview of the first eight verses.

1. Paul and Timothy. Paul lists Timothy as a co-sender of this letter, but it is eminently clear throughout the letter that this is Paul writing. His voice is very characteristic, but much more than that, he speaks very personally (maybe as personally as anywhere in his correspondence) about his thoughts and feelings, his past experiences, and his plans. He also refers to plans for Timothy a little later in the letter. So Paul is recognizing his coworker here.

2. Notice the little descriptive phrase Paul adds here. “Servants of Christ.” The word is probably best understood in terms of “slaves.” Paul is setting out in the letter to show that Christ is the head and goal, and he is a servant, a slave, one of no value when compared to Christ. (And here, we see an example of how Paul’s main concerns in the letter are already hinted at in the greeting, as being a servant and being humble is a concern he takes up in chapter 2.)

3. All the saints at Philippi, along with the overseers and deacons. Paul is emphasizing here very clearly that this letter is to “all” the people in Philippi, from the leaders of the church down to the very last believer. They are all saints in Christ, and all objects of his affection. And in calling them saints, he reminds them of why they are unified: because of Christ. The only other letters in which Paul addresses “all” are Romans and the letters to Corinth, and all three of those letters deal with problems of unity. So again Paul is tipping his hand right from the start.

4. This letter is addressed to friends. This church was planted on Paul’s second missionary journey, and they are partners with him, having supported him from the first. Even when they were having tough times (see 2 Cor 8), they kept up the commitment to Paul. And when he was in prison, they sent an emissary to him to care for his needs. Paul shows obvious thankfulness and affection for this group. They are clearly close to his heart in a special way. None of his other letters show quite this much genuine affection. It is fitting that this letter focuses on joy, because Paul gets obvious joy from the Philippians, though he is clear that his ultimate joy comes from the progress of the gospel and from God himself.

5. He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it. Paul rejoices because of what the Philippians have done for him and for the gospel. And he rejoices all the more because he knows that it is God that has already worked in and through them and that it is God that will surely complete the work that has been started. In that confidence comes joy. What a great thought to ponder. He who began the work will surely complete it. It is a great promise with regard to our salvation, for God began the work long before we were born, was working in us long before we believed, and will be faithful to finish what he has started. And it applies to all things that God is doing. For he is at work in us and through us, and he will be faithful to complete what he starts.

April 12, 2007

Renewing the Christian Mind: A Review of Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind

J. P. Moreland, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, has written an absolute must-read in his book, Love Your God with All Your Mind Moreland's basic argument is a simple but profound one: modern evangelicalism in the West has become largely anti-intellectual, and has lost much of its cultural power. The church needs to revive Christian intellectualism in order to engage the world and fulfill its vocation.

Moreland starts out by making the argument that since the Enlightenment and the Awakenings, evangelicalism has become largely anti-intellectual. In response to intellectual and cultural assaults from without (philosophical critiques, higher-critical critiques on the Bible, evolution), the church largely withdrew from the arena of ideas. Instead of engaging at an intellectual level, Christians grew suspicious of the whole idea of science or philosophy, and withdrew from the conversation. This has had a number of implications for the church: the misunderstanding of how faith and reason are related, the separation of secular and sacred, a weakening of missions, a largely irrelevant gospel of felt needs, and a lack of blodness in confronting hostile or wrong ideas.

This is the state of the christian mind into which Moreland comes. And his book is basicaly an argument for and proposal toward the deepening and reawakening of the Christian mind. He starts by making a case that Scripture basically mandates the development of the Christian mind. As his title indicates, we love God with our whole beings, and that especially includes the mind. For God is a God with reason (omniscient, wise, etc.), and God created reason. Truth is highly valued in Christianity, for we believe in a God of Truth. So study should be a natural result.
He closes the first part of the book by arguing that transforming the mind (as Romans 12:2 says) is absolutely fundamental to spiritual transformation. For our understanding of God and the world is directly related to our relationship with God and our attitudes toward God, ourselves, and the world around us. He further argues that the mind is an integraded and fundamental part of the soul, and thus its transformation is necessary to any deepening of the soul-life.

In the second part of the book (chs 4 and 5), Moreland starts to point the way forward toward the transformation of the Christian mind. He first begins by describing what he terms the "empty self," a set of values, thoughts, and behaviors that typifies much of the modern American mind. This empty self is inordinately individualistic, infantile (seeking to avoid boredom with amusement), narcissistic, passive, sensate, without interior life, and hurried and busy. This type of self is common in Western society, and in the church as well. So much of what he asserts as the solution to the problem of the Christian mind could be said to be a solution to precisely this problem of empty selves. He then goes on to begin outlining a solution, involving developing skills, abilities, habits, and attitudes that build the mind and push out the emptiness. This includes things as simple as knowing and using proper grammar and as life-long as developing and excercising philosophical powers of reasoning.

Part three of the book is a developing picture of what this new Christian mind can look like. He focuses on the theme of apologetics, asserting that rational defense for the faith is essential to Christian witness. He also demonstrates how the Christian mind should be intimately tied to our vocations. This includes painting a picture of how our faith and knowledge of God can and should permeate all areas of our lives, not just the "sacred" space on Sunday morning.

The final part of Moreland's book is a straight-forward proposal for how church could look different if it truly tried to foster the Christian intellectual life. This includes things as simple as uplifting and comissioning our Christian university and graduate students and professors, and things as straight-forward as broadening and deepening the church library. He also proposes the need for the church to be an education center. Sunday school is one possible point where this could occur, but churches can be creative in how they offer courses, and serious in their content (including readings, discussions, papers, etc.). The sermon is also another important piece. Sermons should be applicable, but they should also be educational, challenging the congregation to think and learn more as the basis for this new attitude or action. And occasionally, sermons should shoot for the upper third of the audience, instead of weekly dumbing down the message so that everyone can follow all of the points. Sermons could also be accompanied by weekly studies, questions to ponder, detailed outlines or additional reading, and bibliographies for further study. Last, he advocates a change in the way the church thinks about "senior pastors." Moreland asserts that this role has become a detriment to the church, as many people see the pastor as the "minister" (that is, the one doing ministry) in the congregation. Instead, he proposes that no one person should preach more than half of the Sundays in a year, and that a group of elders should be the functional and spiritual leaders of the congregation, jointly going before God and leading the congregation. This models to the church an attitude of discipleship, openness to God, and enabling of others to praticipate in ministry.

Moreland has presented a strong, integrated, and absolutely necessary call for a reinvigoration of the evangelical mind. As a rather intellectual person myself, I continually found myself agreeing with him, but I also found strong encouragement to grow much further in a number of areas. Apologetics will especially be an area of study I renew with fresh vigor. All churches and believers need to take the message of this book seriously. Because if we don't foster the evangelical mind, we are giving over "reality" to those who don't believe in God, instead of claiming all truth as God's truth.

April 11, 2007

Leaving Behind Left Behind

Professor Ben Witherington has some great comments on some things that should be left behind us, including the Left Behind series and the attendant predictions about when Christ will return, chochlate statues of Jesus (I hadn't heard anything about this), and the theories about Jesus and the Taploit tomb. Be sure to read through the comments. Readers have some great dialogue with Prof. Witherington about understanding 1 Thessalonians and Mark 13 with regard to "end times."

How do we understand predictions about the end of the world? One thing seems clear. Though we've been given some "signs" about the end, Jesus said it pretty clearly: we won't know the time. Seems we should always be watchful, but at the same time we should be way less worried about exactly when that should be than about what we're doing in the mean time.

March 29, 2007

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

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

March 28, 2007

What does it mean to live for Jesus?

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

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

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

March 23, 2007

Torture Statement by NEA

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

Whither Israel?

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

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

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

March 14, 2007

Christians and Culture

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

March 11, 2007

Evangelicals and Sin

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

March 10, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

March 08, 2007

Science and Faith: Blog review of Vern Polythress

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

Post #1:

Post #2:

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

March 07, 2007

What I'm Reading

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

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

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

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

Evangelicals and Global Warming. Living out our beliefs?

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

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

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

March 06, 2007

Philippians 2:5-11: Who is Jesus?

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

March 04, 2007

Looking for Happyness

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

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

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

March 03, 2007

But is Christianity true?

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

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