Sunday, April 11, 2021
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Sunday, March 28, 2021
“One need not, for instance, internalize left-progressive views on inequality and identity issues in order to effectively collaborate with a colleague on a project (not the least because colleagues who are minorities or immigrants often won’t subscribe to such views themselves). Insofar as training seeks to push controversial moral and political ideologies onto participants in addition to (or at the expense of) providing them with practical knowledge or skills, this often lowers employee morale and generates blowback against colleagues who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.”
Sunday, March 21, 2021
Julian of Eclanum. Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Job, Hosea, Joel, and Amos. Translated and edited by Thomas P. Scheck. IVP, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.
Julian of Eclanum was the bishop of Eclanum in Italy. He lived from 386-455 C.E. Julian was a leader of the Pelagians, and Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine and eventually became marginal within Christianity. As the title indicates, this book is a new translation of Julian’s commentaries on the biblical books of Job, Hosea, Joel, and Amos.
The back cover of the book states that “Julian’s Pelagianism does not fundamentally affect the commentaries presented in this volume[.]” Overall, that is a fair assessment. The book of Job, however, does coincide with Julian’s Pelagianism, as the editor’s scholarly introduction to this book acknowledges. In the Book of Job, God affirms that Job is righteous in his behavior, whereas Job’s friends, who claim that humans are morally and spiritually rotten to the core, turn out to be wrong. Job sounds like Pelagius, whereas Augustine sounds like Job’s friends!
Another topic of interest is Julian’s approach to prophecy, specifically the question of how the prophets were addressing their own times while also speaking about Christ, who would come centuries later, as well as eschatology. Julian addresses this issue most explicitly and systematically in his discussion of Joel 2:28-32, where God promises to pour his spirit on all flesh, and the moon will be turned to blood. Peter in Acts 2 asserts that this found some fulfillment at the day of Pentecost, yet the moon was not turning to blood at that time. Julian wrestles with this.
Julian’s interpretation of the biblical books is literal, moralistic, and focused on minutiae, in areas. The book was edifying to read while I was reading it but, with the exception of Julian’s comments on Joel 2:28-32, Julian’s discussions do not stand out in my mind. The editor’s introduction to the book is strong, though, as Thomas Scheck addresses the Pelagian controversy, what Augustine may have gotten right and wrong about Pelagian beliefs, and how Julian believed the Hebrew prophets spoke to their own time while also predicting the far-off future.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Colossians Conundra, Jesus as God of the OT, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception
Some items from church this morning, followed by a book write-up. I will also include elements of the past two Sundays at church in this post.
A. The Sunday school class is continuing its way through Colossians. Here are three conundra, if you will:
—-The church when Colossians was being written was new and was thus experiencing growing pains, making it especially vulnerable to confusion and cultural trends. As a result, the Colossian church was absorbing Gnostic and Greco-Roman ideas that detracted from the Gospel. Judaism, by contrast, had by this time arrived at a securer self-understanding. It had already wrestled with Hellenism over a century before, and its centers were in Jerusalem and Galilee. With the early Christians, however, Christianity was so new, and outsiders could come to the church claiming to be from the apostles when they actually were not. How would the Colossian church know?
On the other hand, last week, in speaking about Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:6 that the Colossians had received Christ as Lord, the pastor said that this was more than making a decision for Christ or accepting Jesus into their hearts. It was receiving and being trained in a body of Christian doctrine, much like Lutherans are educated in the faith when undergoing confirmation. This seems to imply that the church had already arrived at a firm sense of what it believed.
I suppose this conundrum is not impossible to resolve. The apostles may have arrived at a firm sense of what they believed and attempted to pass that down to others, but Christianity was still new to those who received it, and they may have lacked the means to deal with the religions and philosophy of their day in light of their newfound faith. The Christian creed also may have been a bare-bones summary in need of development, so its adherents perhaps supplemented it with other ideas without recognizing that those other ideas compromised and detracted from the Gospel.
—-Colossians 2:16-17 states: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (KJV).
The pastor, like a lot of Christians, interprets this to mean that Paul was exhorting the Colossians to resist the Judaizers, those who held that Christians needed to observe Jewish rituals of the Torah to be righteous before and to find acceptance by God. The Old Testament rituals had their place in God’s plan, as they guided Israel and foreshadowed Christ. But, now that Christ has come, Christ has replaced them, so people need not observe them.
Where the pastor struggled was that Judaism was not particularly strong in Colossae, so how could the Colossian Christians have been dealing with Judaizers? He landed on suggesting that at least Colossae had some Jewish presence, which was challenging the faith of the Colossian Christians.
—-Colossians 3:1-2 states: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (KJV).
Here, Paul exhorts the Colossian Christians to seek what is above, not what is on earth. The pastor’s struggle here was that Paul had just spent lines seeking to refute Gnosticism, which had an otherworldly focus that marginalized the material world. Is Paul contradicting himself and telling Christians to repudiate the material in favor of the heavenly?
The pastor’s solution was to interpret the “things that are above” as things upward. Paul in Philippians 3:10-14 describes Paul’s upward journey, his high calling. This entails the Christian battling his old, ruined, sinful self and being raised daily in Christ. God brings us upward to him on this progressive journey. The part in Colossians 3:1 about Christ sitting on God’s right hand refers, not to pie in the sky, but to Christ as ruler holding creation in his hands. Colossians 3:1, therefore, is not opposed to the material creation but affirms Christ as ruler of the material creation.
There are valuable insights here. Personally, I find little problem with Paul telling Christians to seek what is in heaven. Paul probably differed with the Gnostics on how to do this: Gnostics believed in saying the right password and going through intermediary deities to arrive at the pure God, whereas Paul held that one only needed to know Christ to arrive at God; moreover, Paul is not opposed to the material creation, for he maintains in Colossians 1 that Christ created it. Still, Paul wanted Christians to look to God above rather than to be sidetracked by the temptations, corruptions, and persecutions in the world around them.
B. A few weeks ago, in talking about Colossians 1, the pastor said that everything we know about God is on account of his Son, Jesus, for Christ is the image of the invisible God, the way that we know the invisible. Even knowing the Holy Spirit occurs through the Son. But even the theophanies in the Old Testament were actually Christophanies: Christ was the one who appeared to the Old Testament figures as God. The “angel of the LORD” in the Old Testament, the spokesperson for God, was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.
I was raised in the belief that Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. This belief, within Armstrongism, served to dispel the notion that Jesus was nicer than the Old Testament God: that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and violence who commanded people to obey a bunch of rules, whereas Jesus showed love and grace. When God in the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to slaughter every Canaanite man, woman, and child, therefore, that was Jesus making the command.
John’s Gospel may very well maintain that the Word who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. Through the Word was all things made, according to John 1. John 5:37 affirms that no one has seen the Father or heard his voice. How, then, do we account for the times in the Old Testament when people did see God or hear his voice? That must have been God the Son whom they saw and heard. John 12:41 appears to go this route in interpreting the theophany in Isaiah 6 as Isaiah witnessing Christ’s glory. Whereas the Son was revealing himself in the Old Testament, he was revealing the Father in the New.
But is this the view throughout the New Testament? At times, the implication is that the Father, the God of the Old Testament with whom Jews were familiar, was the one who sent Jesus Christ. I think of Hebrews 1:1-2a: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (KJV). Is this saying that God the Father was the one who spoke in the Old Testament?
Of course, there is a way to get around this: to say that, when the Son speaks in the Old Testament, that is, in effect, the Father speaking, for the two are one. Why, then, would the Gospel of John make a big deal about Jesus revealing the Father, if the Father had revealed himself all along before that time? Perhaps its point is that Jesus incarnate is a clearer manifestation of the Father, or to marvel that the revelation of the Father walked on the earth, among people, for a period of time.
C. Matthew J. Thomas. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.
Matthew J. Thomas has a D.Phil from Oxford and teaches biblical theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and also at Regent College.
When Paul criticizes seeking to be saved by obeying the law, what exactly is Paul criticizing?
According to the old perspective, exemplified by Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann, Paul was saying that humans cannot become righteous before God through their good works. People cannot rely on the law because, being corrupt sinners, they fail to meet its high demands. Reliance on the law also generates self-righteousness and self-idolatry. People need God’s grace, forgiveness, and free acceptance in order to have a right standing before God.
According to the new perspective, the “works of the law” refer to Jewish rituals, such as the Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision. Paul was saying that people are saved by Christ, not these laws. While Christians enter God’s community through grace and God’s forgiveness, they must observe God’s moral law (love of God and neighbor) to receive ultimate salvation (the resurrection of the righteous).
As Thomas shows, there is a diversity of emphases within the new perspective, but Thomas addresses the question of whether second century Christian thinkers agreed more with the old perspective or the new perspective as they are conveyed above. His conclusion, after looking at texts, is that they agreed with the new perspective’s understanding of the “works of the law.” Not only do the church fathers stress Jewish rituals when discussing the “works of the law” while maintaining that Paul still upholds the Christian obligation to observe God’s moral law (love), but Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann themselves acknowledge that their own understanding of the “works of the law” is lacking in the church fathers. Thomas appears to imply that patristic understandings of the “works of the law” may very well clue us in as to what Paul originally meant, for would people so close to Paul’s time utterly miss Paul’s point?
The book gets rather sidetracked, at times, with scholarly minutae, but scholars may deem such minutae to be relevant and essential to Thomas’s thesis. Thomas’s conclusion is lucid and effective in summarizing the issues.
In assessing this issue, a question that I have is: “Does it have to be either/or”? I think so, but I will explain why after explaining where I believe there can be overlap between the old and new perspectives.
Both the old and the new perspectives can affirm that the law cannot give people a right standing before God. Both deny that people, in their carnal state, can satisfy God’s moral demands. That is why the church fathers believed that God’s transformation of people through Christ was necessary: the law may have restrained the Jews in the Old Testament, but it did not cure them of sin, which was why Christ had to come. In light of this, both perspectives can affirm, with Paul, that attempts to be justified through the law leads to unwarranted boasting (Romans 4:2; Ephesians 2:9). Carnal human beings cannot boast that they have attained right standing before God through obedience of the law—-whether ceremonial or moral (see Romans 7-8)—-for, apart from God’s grace in Christ, they cannot obey God.
Where the old and new perspectives may differ is in their understanding of grace. The way some old perspectivist preachers talk, obedience is optional when it comes to ultimate salvation, for God saves people by grace: he accepts them as righteous, even though they are actually sinners. They are like “snow-covered dung.” The church fathers, by contrast, may have seen grace more as God empowering Christians to live a practically righteous life.
What I say in the above paragraph is simplistic, for there are plenty of Reformed Christians who would say that good works, in some way, shape, or form, are necessary for final salvation. But, in critiquing the old perspective, Thomas (and others) seems to portray the old perspective in terms of a “free grace,” antinomian approach to salvation.
Another relevant issue is that some of the church fathers whom Thomas profiles saw the Old Testament system as one of bondage, the implication being that the system that Christ inaugurated is not. But how was the Old Testament system one of bondage, whereas the New Testament system is not? My antinomian desires like to say: “Because the Old Testament required people to earn their salvation, whereas, in the New Testament, they do not have to do anything to possess it; just accept God’s free gift.” The fathers, however, appear to have had a different answer: because the Holy Spirit enables people to keep the law under the New Testament system, so the obedience is not bondage. Here, at least from a spiritual standpoint, I have issues. If obedience flows so automatically from the Christian, why is being good so difficult for Christians?
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
My church write-up, followed by two book write-ups:
A. The Bible study is continuing its way through Colossians. On Sunday, the pastor talked about Gnosticism, since Paul in Colossians is probably fighting a proto-Gnostic Christian heresy.
The Gnostics believed that God is utterly spirit and is separate from the material realm. As far as the Gnostics were concerned, spirit is good and material is bad. There are levels between God and the material world, and a key aspect of spiritual advancement is going through those levels to reach the non-material God. Gnosis means knowledge, and Gnostics maintained that people could receive a secret knowledge from God about some mystery. For the Gnostics, the material does not matter. Some Gnostics fought the flesh because they viewed it as evil, whereas others indulged the flesh because they felt it was irrelevant. According to the pastor, there were official Gnostic institutions, but Gnosticism also infiltrated other religions. Christianity especially fell prey to it because Christians, like Gnostics, held that God is spirit.
The pastor argued that Paul in Colossians was employing Gnostic terminology so as to subvert the heresy. Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:9 that, in Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily would have been anathema to Gnostics, who radically separated the spiritual Godhead from the material body. Paul, like the Gnostics, believed in a divine mystery, but, unlike the Gnostics, he held that God was proclaiming this mystery publicly rather than secretly and to select individuals (Colossians 1:26-27). Paul, too, believed in knowledge (gnosis) and understanding, but the knowledge and understanding that the Gospel provides bears fruit in this world, including love for the saints, rather than seeking to transcend the material world (Colossians 1:9-10).
At the same time, I observe that there is an otherworldliness, and perhaps even an individualism, in Colossians. The hope of the Colossians is laid up in heaven, and they are to seek the things above, not the things on earth (Colossians 1:5; 3:1-2). Their lives are hidden in Christ as they go through this world, and Christ inside of them is their hope of glory (Colossians 1:27; 3:3). Perhaps Paul (or whoever wrote Colossians) sought to clarify where Christianity overlapped with and diverged from the Gnostic heresy.
As a shy introvert, I tend to gravitate towards a spirituality that is interior and otherworldly, especially in seasons when I do not fit in. But I still believe in helping people. As pissed off as I am at Democrats these days, I winced when I read that Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem sneered at a Christian charity by tweeting that “there is no free lunch.”
B. The pastor in his sermon spoke briefly about Jesus’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). He said that he does not believe it is so much about vocation as it is spreading Jesus’s forgiveness in the world. The Parable of the Talents has long troubled me, especially since the fruitless servant appears to be condemned to hell for his fruitlessness. I have no problem with the idea that we should do something with what God has given us rather than ignoring or neglecting it. But, for some reason, I think that salvation should be based solely on God’s free grace, no strings attached. Why do I think that? Why should salvation work that way, in my mind? Perhaps my feeling results from a combination of two factors. First, it is wishful thinking on my part: I hope that salvation is solely by grace because I know how abysmally short I fall from God’s standards. Second, the grace message is prominent within Christianity, so there is outward affirmation of the idea that salvation should be solely by grace, no efforts on our part.
C. Matthew S. Harmon. Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.
Matthew S. Harmon has a doctorate from Wheaton College and teaches New Testament at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. This book is part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series, which, according to the back cover, takes “cues from Genesis 1-3” and traces “the presence of these themes throughout the entire sweep of redemptive history.”
As the title indicates, this book is about exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from God’s presence at the Fall. Israel was exiled from her land and God’s presence. And the New Testament uses the language of exile and return. In Christ, people who were alienated from God are returned to him, and Christians in this world are strangers and exiles.
The book is a pleasant read, although, with a few exceptions, I cannot say that I learned much from it that was earthshakingly new to me. Harmon in a footnote refers to N.T. Wright’s view that Jews in Second Temple times believed they were still in exile, even though they lived in their land, while referring to possible indications to the contrary in Second Temple literature. Harmon also speculated that God may have intended for Adam in the Garden to suppress the serpent, which I have read elsewhere, but it was nice to encounter that idea again.
The book would have been better had it more effectively integrated Old Testament prophetic expectations with the New Testament. Harmon tries to do this, on some level. The Old Testament prophets depict Israel’s restoration as inaugurating a new creation, and a new creation is part of Jesus’s restoration of sinners to God. Harmon observes that Israel’s return from exile failed to inaugurate this new creation, so there must be a fuller fulfillment of this hope that transcends the Jewish people’s return to their land. Harmon briefly says at one point that the New Testament treats Israel’s restoration from exile as a metaphor for the sinner’s return to God.
Perhaps I was hoping for a fuller and more sustained treatment of this issue, especially since the Old and New Testaments appear to present two different pictures. The Old Testament prophets emphasize Israel’s return to her land as the nexus for the new creation, whereas the New Testament largely appears to depart from that concept in favor of a spiritual understanding. At least overall, as there are exceptions to that: a case can be made that Jesus in the Gospels sought to restore the nation of Israel.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
D. Douglas Harink. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.
Douglas Harink teaches theology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.
Paul in Romans speaks frequently about “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosune). What is this righteousness? For many Protestants, it is God imputing Christ’s righteousness to sinners such that God sees them as righteous rather than as the sinners that they actually are. The “Romans Road” approach to evangelism exemplifies this understanding: you are a sinner, Christ paid the penalty for your sins, you accept that, and God now accounts you as righteous. For Catholics, “righteousness” refers to God transforming people such that they become practically righteous; this righteousness is infused rather than imputed.
Harink goes a different route, even though he preserves aspects of the Protestant and Catholic understandings. Harink interprets “righteousness” in Romans as justice. God seeks to deliver people from bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and to create a loving community in which people accept each other regardless of social class, a radical concept in the ancient world. This occurs through God’s efforts, not human attempts to exert power and control. God’s sheer mercy to sinners contrasts with human attempts to control others, and Abraham trusted that God would bring about justice rather than trying to bring it about himself. In the tradition of John Howard Yoder, Harink appears to be a pacifist.
God’s free mercy and grace are still a part of Harink’s interpretation of Romans, in accordance with Protestants, but “righteousness” still has a practical dimension, as Catholics maintain.
The book has compelling discussions. First, there was the discussion of whether Paul in Romans 1-3 regards all humans as depraved. Harink argues in the negative. Paul in Romans 2 acknowledges that humans do good and bad. But people are trapped in bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and many are victimized by such a system. God, in God’s goodness, seeks to deliver people from that system. This discussion especially resonated with me, since I have long read Romans 3 and thought to myself, “All humans are not THAT bad, are they?”
Second, Harink talks about the importance of the nation of Israel in God’s plan. God, through Israel, revealed Godself to the nations, which were trapped in idolatry. Israel is indispensable in this part of God’s plan, which is why Paul struggles with most of Israel’s unbelief in Romans 9-11.
The question would then be whether Harink makes a convincing case. On this, I am ambivalent. The “Romans Road” evangelistic interpretation appears neat and clean, even though I struggle with how well it accords with the reality of how humans are. Harink, in my opinion, fails to demonstrate that Abraham’s righteousness was of a systemic sort, and there lingers the question of whether humans are to have any role at all in bringing this about or if God acts unilaterally. Human participation would seem to be necessary, on some level, since people do not naturally come together and create a loving, forgiving community: they have to work at it, and even then, they fall short.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Some items from church:
A. Last week was Epiphany. The pastor in his sermon talked about New Year’s Day and how people act as if the dawn of a new year will actually change things. How can a new calendar date change anything for the better? He wondered why the new year, and each day, for that matter, starts at midnight rather than dawn. I did a search, and the results were largely variations of this post, only this post traces the custom to ancient Egypt, whereas other sites trace it to ancient Rome. Essentially, the reason for starting the day at midnight is that the sun is at its nadir at 12 p.m. and twelve hours later than 12 p.m. is 12 a.m.
B. The pastor this morning drew a contrast between incomplete repentance and being transformed by love. Many of us repent in a half-ass manner. “I’m sorry, but you started it.” Or “I’m sorry, but don’t expect me to inconvenience myself to make extravagant restitution.” When we are transformed by God’s love, though, we are willing to do things that otherwise we would rather not do. A single person watching his married friend change a diaper may think, “I’m glad that is not me!” But the person changing the diaper does so willingly out of love. This seems to be a Lutheran approach: to get Christians to appreciate God’s love, grace, and gifts, in belief that this will lead to their spiritual transformation.
C. The church started a Bible study class about Colossians. The pastor went through three proposals about where Paul wrote Colossians (yes, he is aware of the view that Paul did not write it, but he rejects that view). Paul wrote Colossians from prison. Paul was in prison in Ephesus, Caesarea, and twice in Rome: the first time in Rome was a house arrest, whereas the second time was in the typical underground prison. At Caesarea, Paul was on house arrest, in which he could freely interact with others, for he had proclaimed his Roman citizenship and talked with Gallio. It would be an ideal condition for Paul to write a letter, for Paul could dictate it and send it to the church at Colossae. Ephesus, however, is close to Colossae and Laodicea, which is mentioned in Colossians. If Paul wrote Colossians there, he would have dictated it through a wall.
D. The pastor also compared Colossians to other letters in the Mediterranean world. Letters started by identifying the author and audience, then they said “grace and peace” to the audience. The pastor said that Christians can understand “grace and peace” in Colossians in light of Christ: Paul’s audience is under God’s grace and is in a state of peace with God. Mediterranean letters were short because parchment was expensive, whereas Paul’s is longer.
E. The pastor observed that Paul in Colossians feels no need to defend his apostleship, as he does in Galatians and I-II Corinthians. In Colossians, Paul simply assumes it. Still, Paul contends with a heresy in Colossae, one that treats Christ as merely an expression of God rather than as God himself. Paul affirms that everything began and will end in Christ.