Sunday, February 28, 2010

James Dunn on James

I have finally finished reading Jimmy Dunn's Beginning from Jerusalem, a solid resource of information on the NT and early Christianity. A condensed version of it would make a good NT Introduction one day. Dunn gives a good summary of what the epistle of James contributes to our understanding of early Christianity:

  • It reveals to us a community which was in direct continuity with the wisdom traditions of Second Temple Judaism and drew on the same resources.
  • It reveals to a community which saw itself in direct continuity with Jesus of Nazareth and drew deeply on the tradition of his teaching for its own pattern of living.
  • It reveals to us a community which did not set the conviction of Jesus' glorification and lordship in any sort of antithesis with the tradition of his teaching but saw the two as entirely coherent and consistent with each other.
  • It reveals how the Jesus tradition, material such as was grouped into the Sermon on the Plain/Mount, must have functioned in the instruction and paraenesis of so many fledgling Christian communities, not only in Palestine but further afield.
  • It suggests how the disparate Gentile and Jewish congregations of the first century could find common ground and mutual respect the one for the other precisely in the Jesus tradition, in the way it was being formulated and continuously re-expressed and in the insights and emphases being drawn from it for daily conduct and mutual relationships. After all, [at] the end of the day, it was precisely this character of the letter of James which secured its recognition as Christian Scripture across the churches of the third and fourth centuries.

Lectures by Markus Barth on-line

Four lectures from Markus Barth on baptism given at Pittsburgh University in 1970 are available on-line. Markus Barth is one of my favourite NT theologians and this is the first time that I've heard his voice.

My highlight of lecture # 1 was at the 40:40 mins mark where Markus Barth refers to a discussion that he had Billy Graham where he challenged him, "Why do you speak 10 minutes about the Bible and 40 minutes about the altar call? We'd like to hear a bit more gospel and a little less method". That's telling Billy.

HT: Matt Montonini (with links).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Peter O'Brien on Hebrews

I'm looking forward to the appearance of Peter O'Brien's Hebrews commentary in the PNTC series. It will be interesting to see if this will eclipse Craig Koester (AB) and David deSilva (SR) as my running favourites. Back in 2004 I had lunch with Peter O'Brien and discussed Hebrews 6 with him and I enjoyed his remarks about a warning geared towards the community in general not to allow God's grace to be received in vain. Any way, Eerdmans has a 77 page excerpt of the book here (HT Andy Naselli).

Interview with Dan Wallace

Over at Broadcast Depth is a fine interview with Dan Wallace about many things NT related.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Unity of Romans 1-2

Over at Berith Road, Steven Coxhead has an interesting post on Romans 1-2. He rightly reads Romans 2 in light of Gentile Christians and notes the unity of chs. 1 and 2, but then concludes:

Paul's Jewish opponents believed that righteousness and salvation could only be attained by means of physical circumcision and a commitment to doing the law of Moses. But Paul had come to understand that the new covenant truths of Deut 30:6, 11–14; Jer 31:33; and Ezek 36:26-27 also applied to Gentiles through faith in Christ. That is to say, Paul had come to see how justification by faith in Christ had effectively opened up justification by the works of the law to Gentiles (as per the logic of 2:13) through the grace of the Spiritual circumcision of the heart that Christ had come to achieve as a key element of the new covenant!

Which sounds okay, but I have to ask, what about 3:20? No flesh will be justified by works of law!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Paul Was Not a Christian

I'm reading Pamela Eisenbaum's book, Paul was Not A Christian. The title itself will sell a lot of books! I wish I thought of it. Picking up the book my first thought was that I would be generally sympathetic to the argument of the book. And indeed I am. Her opening statement in her first chapter I agree with heartily, "Paul lived and died a Jew". 

However, as I begin reading into the chapters what I am finding is significant disagreement. I'll name a couple briefly. First, her insistence on using only the seven "undisputed" letters of Paul to the exclusion of Paul's other letters and the book of Acts seems to me short sighted. I know this remains the standard approach among many, but her explanation for only using the undisputed letters retreads old arguments that have been largely shown to be a product of modernity's overconfidence and ironically now seem old fashion, although her view is that to take a more maximalistic approach is really old fashion.

Related to this is the second point I have a problem with already and did I say I'm only in the third chapter. She believes that the traditional portrait of Paul the convert would have been less likely to have arisen if Acts and the Pastoral epistles were not used by Christians as evidence for Paul. I'm not going to make a sustained case against this here, but her assertion is just not true. I will just address her handling of Acts as an example of the weakness in her discussion. I have two points. First, Paul's "conversion" in Acts is not described in terms of a conversion. We just looked at this in my Paul class last week. In each case, Luke fashions the narrative as a "calling" scene. Dramatic changes take place and Paul does a complete 180, but he is commissioned for a task in each of the three narratives where Paul's story is told (chs 9, 22, 26). Second, she doesn't seem to notice that Luke portrays Paul as a Torah-observant Jew in much of his narrative. One need only highlight Acts 21 as a case in point. So, while I agree that many have misused Acts to create the false caricature of Saul Paul converting from Judaism to Christianity, it is not because there is something inherent in Acts that is not in the "undisputed" letters. 

I'm sure there will be much that I'll like in this book, but there are significant problems with the book. I'll keep you posted.

Sacred Text Cover

Above is the cover for the imminently available book called The Sacred Text edited by myself and the indefatiguable Michael Pahl. It's a cracking good read with essays by top scholars like Jim "Da Mang" Hamilton of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on inerrancy, Jack Poirier of Kingswell Seminary on concepts of Scripture, Tomas Bokedal of Aberdeen University on Scripture in the second century, Karen Jobes of Wheaton College on the Septuagint, Brant Pitre on Catholic approaches to Scripture, and many, many more. Available for order NOW at Gorgias.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Syriac Reception of Daniel

I've always been intrigued by the Syriac reception of the Book of Daniel. Sadly, I lack the linguistic expertise to be able to study the topic in any depth (I'd have to revize my Hebrew, learn Aramaic, and then learn Syriac). For instance, several Syriac commentators identify Antiochus Epiphanes IV as the wicked king of the north in Daniel 11 as opposed to the anti-Christ of traditional interpretation. Some Syriac commentators also saw the fourfold kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece as opposed to the traditional Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome scheme. For those with a similar (if not peculiar) interest in the Syriac reception of Daniel, you can get an overview in the essay by Konrad Jenner available at Google Books. This would be a good Ph.D topic for some brave soul (and perhaps you could always learn Syriac at Tyndale House).

Roland Deines on Theology

On YouTube, I found this clip about Roland Deines on "Why Study Theology?" (= Why study Theology in Nottingham University). It contains some good material about theology in general and some great biographical info on Roland Deines. Note that Prof. Deines is speaking at the "Remembering Martin Hengel" Conference at the Tyndale Fellowship in July this year.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Book Project Announcement: Introduction to Messianic Judaism

I'm happy to announce that Zondervan has agreed to publish a new book that myself and Dr. David Rudolph (MJTI) will edit called Introduction To Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations to be published in mid-2011. 

Here is a description of the publication and the list of its chapters.

Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations (IMJ) will become a standard reference for introductory information on Messianic Judaism. Alongside chapters that describe the history and ecclesial context of the diverse Messianic Jewish movement, the book will include a number of biblical and theological reflections on elements central to the identity and legitimacy of Messianic Judaism. 

This book will be geared to address a diverse readership including informed laity, undergraduates and seminarians. It will not be overly academic or technical but will aim to present the history, ecclesiology and biblical foundations of Messianic Judaism in an easily accessible manner.



1.  Messianic Judaism in Antiquity and the Modern Era 
2.  Messianic Jewish National Organization
3.  Messianic Jews and the Jewish World 
4.  Messianic Jews and the Christian World 
5.  Messianic Jewish Synagogues
6.  Messianic Jewish Worship and Prayer
7.  Messianic Jews and Scripture 
8.  Messianic Jews and Jewish Tradition
9.  Messianic Judaism and Women
10.  Messianic Jewish Ethics 
11.  Messianic Jewish Outreach
12.  Messianic Jews and Jewish-Christian Dialogue 
13.  Messianic Jews and the Land of Israel 


14.  The Relationship Between Israel and the Church 
15.   Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community 
16.  Paul’s Rule in All the Churches (1 Cor 7:17-24) 
17.  James and the Jerusalem Council Decision (Acts 15, 21)
18.   Interdependence and Mutual Blessing in the Church (Rom 11, 15)
19.  Equality in the Church (Rom 2-3; Gal 3:28; 4:10; Eph 2:14) 
20.  Peace in the Church (Rom 14) 
21.  Ethnic Dimensions of the New Heavens and New Earth 


22.  The Restoration of Israel in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1-2) 
23.  The Son of David and the Gospel 
24.  Jewish Priority, Election and the Gospel 
25.  Canonical Narrative and Gospel 
26.  Mission Commitment in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament  
27.  Corporate Aspects of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God (Rom 15)


My Easter Reading

As I get ready for Easter, my readings will include:

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Easter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010). See Google Books and this You.Tube video with Wright talking about the book.

D.A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), some good stuff in here, I've heard the sermon on the "Irony of the Cross" on three different continents!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

COS recognizes ACNA

The Church of England Synod gave a tacit recognition to the Anglican Communion in North America. David Virtue has the details and see also the report in Reuters. The motion to be in "communion" was defeated in favor of an amended motion recognizing the desire of ACNA to "remain within the Anglican family". Both liberals and evangelicals can take away something positive from this. ACNA was not granted communion status, but they are at least on the board so to speak as a recognized Anglican entity. In the end, the COS approach to the issue will probably be a typical "fudge" of trying to look as if they are doing something about ACNA, but making sure that nothing actually changes. Maybe I'm just being cynical, but the journey to ACNA being a fully recognized province is still a long way off!

Ephesian Road

Trevin Wax's gucci little book Holy Subversion advocates the "Ephesian Road" of salvation. Any ways, messianic Jewish author Derek Leman, has some good reflections on this theme following on from Wax. Very interesting is how the pronouns in Ephesians 1 seem to contrast "we" (Jews") with "you" (Gentiles) and this adds a significant dimension to the study of election, inheritance, and sharing in commonwealth of Israel.

Meaning of "Reformed"

I could never be an American Presbyterian. I don't believe in subscription. Don't get me wrong, subscription to the Westminster Confession, that's fine, it's my objection to the mandatory subscription to World Magazine that probably keeps me from being acceptable in those circles. But in the midst is an on-going identity crisis as what it means to be "Reformed" and can those who are "Reformed" be "Evangelical", and if so, in what sense. John Frame responds to a book written by R. Scott Clark about these very issues. This is very much an insider debate in the USA because outside of conservative American Presbyterian circles people generally don't write books on who is in and who is out; those of us who live as religious minorities in either secular or Muslim countries have bigger priorities like survival, evangelism, and discipleship. The whole debate is very personal and vitriolic too and I don't want to take sides because there is a lot more than meets the eye here and I haven't fully read both sides of the argument so I'll reserve judgment. However, I tip my hat to Frame's points about the diversity within the Reformed tradition, the danger of treating the Confessions like inerrant Scripture, the Reformed need for catholicity, and the lack of charity that exists among certain doctrine warriors. Frame's review is lengthy, but the final section on "Two Visions of the Reformed Faith" is well worth looking at. To know what the fuss is about, you can read Clark's book Recovering the Reformed Confession.

Michael Pahl vs. Death

Pastor Scholar Michael Pahl has a gripping one way conversation with death. Read the entire post. Very powerful.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

RBL Reviews

Over at RBL is a review of the American edition of my popular level Paul book Introducing Paul by Tony Costa. On the whole it is a sympathetic review that grasps what I was trying to achieve in that little book and offers critical comments were appropriate. Though I confess that one of the minor criticisms seemed a bit off target, viz., that participation implies synergism, I'm not sure on that one.

See also the review of J.R. Daniel Kirk's book Unlocking Romans which gets a good plug too.

N.T. Wright for Everyone

My good friend Nijay Gupta has put together a very brief guide to N.T. Wright for those attending the upcoming Wheaton Theology Conference (gosh I wish I was going now!). It is designed to introduce N.T. Wright and the dialogue that he has started to the uninitiated. It includes essays on N.T. Wright on Jesus, Paul, and Biblical Theology. Nijay's essay is about N.T. Wright and the Apostle Paul.

Monday, February 08, 2010

"Rabbis' Dust" Is Fairy Dust

For a number of reasons which are unimportant to enumerate here, I have set out to find  more of this pervasive idea that as best I can tell Rob Bell created or at the very least popularized. The idea has been bugging me for quite sometime as I just had a feeling that it was not really correct. There are innumerable references to the idea called Rabbis' dust on the internet and I have recently heard a pastor use it in a sermon, although he is not by any means a fan of Bell's. Do you know this Rabbis' dust idea? I'll let Scott Armstrong over at Common Grounds summarize it for you:
There was this saying among the sages: "May you be covered in your rabbi's dust."  If you were the best of the best of the best and a rabbi took you into His flock to be schooled in his "yoke", or teachings, then you literally and physically followed closely behind your rabbi as he traveled from one town to the next, teaching.  And as you walked behind the rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. And then Bell points out the one thing that is all "wrong", upside down and strange about the rabbi Jesus.  He skipped the seminaries, and places of power and goes straight to the fishing docks and factories. Jesus begins calling blue collar "joes" to drop what they were doing and follow Him.  Simon Peter, and the Zebedee brothers, to name just a few, were fishermen and Jesus simply comes up to them and say, "Follow me and be my disciples." These blue collar "joes" had long since given up being smart enough and sharp enough to follow a rabbi.  They were holding down steady jobs, living for the weekends, when Jesus swings by and says, "I want you to follow me." 
This is powerful stuff isn't it? Well the only problem is that it just isn't true. Anyone who would take the time to investigate the saying would discover that the context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea. For a sensible explanation of the mishnah see Tim Seid's blog

Rabbinic literature is very difficult to work with for a number of reasons not least one needs a sophisiticated methodology for dating the traditions. When I was doing my doctorate I remember working tirelessly for a couple of months in the Rabbinic literature. I  came to realized how foreign a world it was. One must be proficient in the first with  biblical, mishnaic and modern Hebrew. Most of the secondary sources and study tools are in modern Hebrew. And those working in the field are almost exclusively Israelis. One notable exception is my friend David Instone Brewer at Tyndale House, Cambridge who is working on a multi-volume project whose acronym is TRENT (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament). The second volume is to be released next month. This is an essential resource for those interested in using the Rabbis as background for the NT.

Alternatively, a rabbinic idea that can be shown to have influenced Jesus in his relationship to his pupils is the idea of imitation. As W. D. Davies points out "The life of the rabbi was itself Torah. It was not enough to learn the words of the rabbi, but necessary to live with him, so as to absorb his thought and copy his every gesture" (Setting of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 455). Jesus in Matthew 10:24-25 says:
Students are not above their teacher, nor servants about their master. It is enough for students to be like their teacher, and servants like their master.
The saying is parallel with one in Sipra on Lev. 25:23 which states: "It is enough for a servant to be as his Lord". And in their commentary Davies and Allison (2.197) eloquently state that "The imitatio Christi runs like a bright thread throughout [Matt] 10.5-25". While not as catchy as "dust", we are on much firmer ground historically to say that disciples both then and now are to emulate Jesus' life.

Sermon Series: Psalm 73, A God-Centric Life, Part 4

The Plot
Aristotle said that a plot is a unified action with a beginning, middle and an end. One of the central principles of plot is transformation. Stories rarely end where they begin. Change, growth and development are the essence of good storytelling.

Simply put, the songwriter of Psalm 73 is telling the story of a transformed life.

The transformation takes place in three scenes:

Opening Scene (vv. 2-3; 13-16) –“Truthful Angst”. The story’s opening scene presents a person with a heart-wrenching struggle. The major conflict of the story, as we have seen, is the collision of the theological setting and his raw experience. The lengthy description of the “arrogant-wicked” character shows his preoccupation with them. The songwriter has studied them; he has observed their every move it seems. Moreover, he has appears to have been able to discern their motives. Apparently, he has allowed his untamed imagination to fill in the blanks. His angst has made him unrealistic in his assessment of both the wicked and himself. Of course in truth, the wicked are no more unaffected by humanly struggles as he is affected.

In the first scene the songwriter paints an honest, albeit messy, portrait of himself as he wrestles together truth and life. There is however a glimmer of hope in the first scene as he instinctively realizes that to think and speak in these angst-ridden ways is to betray the truth. He keeps in his mind the legacy he will leave with his words and actions (v. 15).

Middle Scene (vv. 17-24) – “The Divine Encounter”. The middle scene presents the climax of the story bringing the resolution to his conflict but not in the way one might have expected. After attempting, to the point of exhaustion, to understand his conflict with this mind, for some reason he enters God’s sanctuary. In the sanctuary he meets God and his life is transformed by it. In a moment of divine encounter his blurry vision is cleared. With a glimpse of God, he sees reality as it really is. He perceives both the end of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. And perhaps as profound, he gains perspective on his own life.

I find two points here powerful. First, the opening scene’s Truth Angst is not considered “sin” or “evil” or “wrong”. It maybe “brutish”, “ignorant” and “beast-like”, but nevertheless in this state he sees that God was with him the whole time. The songwriter realizes that in the midst of that dark place of his life God was walking him through. Second, it is important to note that nothing in the writer’s circumstances has changed. His divine encounter transformed him, not the external reality around him. But it is this perspectival transformation that makes all the difference. He sees his life, you might say, God-trospectively.

Final Scene
(vv. 25-28) – “A God-ward Preoccupation”. The final scene presents the aftermath of the climax. And here we have some of the most intense language in the Bible: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-26). The songwriter becomes totally enraptured by God. The songwriter’s divine encounter has left him spellbound, infatuated, and gripped. But that’s not all. Lest we think of him as fixated and immobilized, he concludes the song with a newfound mission. A God-ward preoccupation is ultimately a vocation.

This story is not, however, a “once in a life time journey” one takes. But, rather, is meant to show the rhythm of life lived as one in relationship with God.

The plot gives us our third characteristic:
Characteristic Three: A real relationship with God is characterized by transformations: a God-centric life on mission.

Hugh Williamson on Ezra 2

Hugh Williamson, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford Uni, and a good Tyndale Fellowship man(!) has a superb Ezra-Nehemiah commentary on the WBC series. I found his initial "Explanation" of Ezra 2 (on the list of those who came out of exile) rather hilarious and then quite useful.

"Chapters like Ezra 2 are among the most uninviting portions of the Bible to the modern reader both because of their tedious nature and because of their overtones of racial exclusivism and pride. However fascinating the chapter may be to the antiquarian, it is unlikely that this enthusiasm will ever be shared by more than a few. It is more prudent to admit the difficulties from the start and to suggest instead one or two points of value that emerge from a consideration of the list as a whole".

Those considerations are:

1. Continuity between pre-exilic Israel and the community of restoration.
2. The importance of people and land in God's promises
3. A concern for pedigree and purity can easily turn into pride and superiority.

"Even if our negative feelings towards this chapter can help eliminate this prideful attitude from the Church and the individual believer, it will have played a valuable role within the total context of Scripture".

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Jimmy Dunn on Paul's "Note" from Prison

I'm still (yes, still) reading Jimmy Dunn's Beginning from Jerusalem, and I was intrigued by his reference to an authentic note of Paul embedded in 2 Tim 4.9-18. Overall, Dunn regards the Pastoral Epistles (PE) as pseudonymous: "The Pastoral Epistles are most probably to be read as letters written in the spirit of Paul some twenty or thirty years later."

No sooner does Jimmy say this than he adds:

"But even so, they may incorporate earlier material from Paul or well-grounded traditions about Paul. In reference to Paul himself and his fate, the most interesting is 2 Timothy, particularly 2 Tim 4.9-18. The letter speaks of Paul's 'first defence', which he had had to face alone, and of his 'rescue from the lion's mouth' (4.16-17). This could suggest that there had been a first trial, which Paul had survived, though now he was facing a second, which could and probably would end in his death ... It may even be that we should see in 4.9-18 a note from Paul which he was able to have smuggled out of his final, more severe imprisonment".

Dunn then adds a footnote: "This suggestion first occurred to me when I read the note, of similar character, which William Tyndale managed to have smuggled out of his imprisonment; the note was framed and hung on the wall of Tyndale House, Cambridge".

Interesting theory. A number of scholars have proposed that 2 Timothy alone is authentic among the PE (J. Murphy-O'Connor) or that the PE more generally contain authentic Pauline fragments (P.N. Harrison). The question is whether the biographical remarks like those found in 2 Tim. 4.9-18 are authentic, or whether they were inserted to add a measure of realism (see discussion in T.L. Wilder, Pseudonymity, The New Testament, and Deception, pp. 222-27 at Google Books). In my mind, 4.9-18 really does sound like Paul, although I have to wonder why and who would incorporate an authentic letter into a Pseudepigraphical work (though they might not necessarily have had the word "Pseudepigraphal" in mind!). The somewhat non-Pauline nature of the language and the portrayal of Paul as a hero in the PE requires explanation, and I really do hope to one day explore the possibility of a Lucan connection to the PE as one possible solution.

See Stan Porter's response to Robert Wall on the issue of the authorship of the PE in a BBR article. A very good piece to read to get a heads-up on the debate.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Sacred Text

Michael Pahl and I are editing a book called The Sacred Text (Gorgias Press). A description of the book as well as its list of contents is available at Michael Pahl's website. It has some great contributors writing on some hot topics. Should be out later this year.

Irenaeus on Valentinian Biblical Interpretation

I'm currently reading Irenaeus' Against Heresies on the bus ride home these days. It is interesting how, in Irenaeus' view, the Valentinians attempted to justify their views from Scripture. Irenaeus is very critical of their biblicism that departs from the catholic faith. He writes:

"They declare also that Paul has referred to the conjunctions within the Pleroma, showing them forth by means of one; for, when writing of the conjugal union in this life, he expressed himself thus: 'This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church'. Further, they teach that John, the disciple of the Lord, indicated the first Ogdoad, expressing themselves in these words: John, the disciple of the Lord, wishing to set forth the origin of all things so as to explain how the Father produced the whole, lays down a certain principle, - that, namely, which was first-begotten by God, which Being he has termed both the only-begotten Son and God, in whom the Father, after a seminal manner, brought forth all things. By him the Word was producing, and in him the whole substance of Aeons, to which the Word himself afterwards imparted form" (Adv Haer 1.8.4-5).

Michael Pahl - Resurrection to New Creation

My good buddy Michael Pahl (Ph.D Birmingham and Pastor in Canada) has a great little book out called From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010). Here's the blurb and a promo:

What is Christianity really all about? Is it-in its essence-about proper religious rituals, or correct religious beliefs, or acceptable moral behavior? What is at the heart of an authentic Christian faith and life? In From Resurrection to New Creation Michael Pahl provides an introduction to Christian theology which attempts to answer these questions, proposing that the heart of Christianity is not a set of rituals or beliefs or behaviors, but an event-the resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead-that prompts a story-the gospel or "good news" of salvation through Jesus. Jesus' resurrection, Pahl claims, is the starting place and the compass in the journey of Christian theology, our journey to understand God, God's work in the world, and how we should live out God's purposes for humanity. Thus, beginning with Jesus' resurrection and using this event as a guide, Pahl surveys the terrain of classic Christian belief and practice. The Trinity, the identity of Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of humanity, Christ's atonement for sin, salvation and the gospel, baptism and the Eucharist, the church and the future state-all these landscapes and more are explored in this concise introductory survey of essential Christian theology.

"In this clear and compelling introduction to Christian theology, Michael Pahl explains the biblical roots and practical significance of the most important Christian convictions. He rightly directs our attention to God's resurrection of the crucified Jesus as the center of Christian faith and practice. Readers will come away both informed and inspired." —Michael J. Gorman St. Mary's Seminary and University

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sermon Series: Psalm 73, A God-Centric Life, Part 3

The Characters
In a story character is what produces action and the action of the character moves the plot. In every story there is a central character called the protagonist and any character that is set against them is referred to as the antagonist. Also, antagonists often function as foils for the main character. In other words, the antagonist’s function is to accentuate or clarify or reinforce the qualities of the central character by presenting something like the photographic negative. One more point about characters: the protagonist’s experience is presented in a story as an “experiment in living” and is “representative”. Storytellers use the main character to teach something true about life. In this case what a real relationship with God is like. Let’s look at the protagonist and the antagonist of the story.

The Pure-in-heart person (vv. 2, 13, 28). The main character of the story is the author himself. He uses the first-person throughout the song. We should take the terms in verse 1, “Israel” and the “pure in heart”, to be a self-identification: The author is a member of the people of God and is faithful to the covenant. He says as much in fact in verse 13 although sardonically: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence”. The storyteller’s most encompassing description of himself is as one who is “near God” (v. 28).

The Arrogant-wicked person (vv. 3, 4-12, 27). By comparison however, the songwriter says a great deal more about the antagonist in the story, the “arrogant-wicked” person. The songwriter paints a profile of the arrogant-wicked person with a litany of poetically tailored phrases in verses 4-12. 
  • v. 4a – They are described as “having no pangs until death” (ESV). In other words they don’t suffer in this life.
  • v. 4b – They are “fat and sleek” (ESV); another translation renders this “their bodies are healthy and strong” (NLT).
  • v. 5 – They are not “in trouble as others are” and not “stricken” like everyone else; their carefree. As the NLT usefully translates, “They’re not plagued with problems like everyone else”
  • v. 6b – “Violence covers them like a garment”
  • v. 7 – “Their eyes swell out through fatness”. The NJB more graphically renders this “From their fat oozes malice”. In other words, their obesity results in sin.
  • v. 8 –  “They scoff and speak with malice and “threaten oppression”. 
  • vv. 9-10 – The Hebrew text behind verse 10 is uncertain. Translations vary from our ESV to the NET, which reads Therefore they have more than enough food to eat, and even suck up the water of the sea”. Given the context I’m persuaded that the NET Bible’s got this one right. Therefore, verses 9 and 10 are saying that the wicked hoard and consume all the natural resources; they perpetuate injustice by their insatiable appetites.
  • v. 11 – “They say ‘How can God know? Is there any knowledge in the Most High?’” They are unbelieving.
The songwriter rounds his description off with a summary: “These are the wicked: always at ease, they increase in riches” (v. 12).

In presenting such a comprehensive description of the “arrogant-wicked” person, I’m compelled to reflect on what the author is trying to say. Has the songwriter’s intention been to present a  profile of a real person or group of people? Does such a kind of person exist in reality? Can anyone, save the rare exception, be described by this profile? Well some interpreters will no doubt take the depiction as accurately presenting those far from God. But I’m not so sure.

If fact, I’m inclined to think that if we do—if we take the writer’s description at face value, we’ll miss his point at best and at worst will come away with a sectarian attitude toward those who are not in a relationship with God that is false. Mishandling a text like this can undermine our relationships with those outside the church. It is not uncommon for some conservative Christians to see the people in only binary terms. It can be surprising and disturbing when we meet people who are not Christians, who have no interest in God or the church, who are, nevertheless, wonderful people.

If this is not to be taken as a straightforward description, what does it mean? Let’s consider the arrogant-wicked character through a narrative lens: what is the function of the “arrogant-wicked” person in the story? When the Psalm is viewed as a story the antagonist is obviously the foil to the protagonist. Thus, there is a literary purpose for the lengthy and comprehensive profile of the “Aarogant-wicked person”. It is not however to be a taken as a true or real description of any particular person or group. The profile serves to accentuate and clarify the nature of the “pure of heart” person. The antagonist represents the photographic negative of the protagonist.

The function of the profile is to expose the nature of the “Pure in heart person”. The person who has a real relationship with God lives a certain kind of lifestyle and it is seen in contrast to the portrait of the wicked. Let’s go back through the list. A person in relationship with God is
  • humble,
  • vulnerable,
  • frugal,
  • trustful,
  • just,
  • peaceful,
  • satisfied, and 
  • persevering.
The characters in the story, then, have given us our second characteristic:

Characteristic Two: A real relationship with God is characterized by a life of justice, humility, faith, peace, frugality and perseverance.

John Chyrsostom, the late fourth-century church father, who had the nickname “golden mouth” because of what a fine preacher he was, believed this deeply. He once sold the golden chalices that were used during the Eucharist to give the proceeds to the poor. He declared: “you make golden vessels, but Christ himself is starving”. He believed that one cannot be rich without keeping others poor: “To grow rich”, he said, “without injustice is impossible”.

Now turning finally to the plot. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Justification - Publications and Conferences

The recent issue of Table Talk is entitled, What N.T. Wright Really Said, with contributions from who's who of American Reformed circles (HT Scott Clarke). The editorial by Burk Parsons includes a lengthy quotation from John Piper about the positive elements of N.T. Wright's ministry which is a polite opener to an issue dedicated to criticism of him. However, R.C. Sproul Sr. reflects on N.T. Wright's dictum that "We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself - in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead". Sproul objects to that statement because it makes a strawman of Protestant orthodoxy. Perhaps so! But Jonathan Edwards made a similar warning as N.T. Wright does (see Compete Works 1.654 - sadly my books are en route from Inverness to Brisbane [if the Somali pirates haven't got their filthy hands on them] and I don't have that book on hand to cite it). I found that reference to Edwards in Timothy George's essay in Justification and Variegated Nomism vol. 2 (p. 461n.68), I included it in my Saving Righteousness of God (p. 8n.8), and I passed the reference on to John Piper who also mentioned Edwards and Owen making a similar point in Piper's Future of Justification (pp. 24-25n.30). The danger that people talk as if we are justified by assent to a doctrine rather than by believing and trusting in Jesus Christ and his work is thus a real danger for Protestant orthodoxy which has always had a temptation of retreating into a cerebral scholasticism. Even if you don't agree with Wright's formulation of justification (and who does at every aspect!), his point here is valid.

In other news, the Annual Evangelical Theological Society Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia has as its main theme "justification by faith" and invited speakers include John Piper, N.T. Wright, and Frank Thielman which will include a panel discussion! I picked a real stupid time to take a year off from ETS/SBL!!! In the words of the great American philosopher, Homer Simpson, "Doh!".