Friday, July 30, 2010

Romans 5-8 Introduction (1)

Romans 1:16-4:25 is arguably the first major section of Romans, and it deals with the fact that Christ is the solution God has on offer to the sin problem that all humanity--both Jew and non-Jew--have. Paul begins with the key verses of Romans, which sum up the entire situation (1:16-17). Then he unfolds the coming judgment of God on everyone (1:18-3:20), with no one good enough to escape on the basis of their own goodness, not even the most law-observant Jew. Then he presents God's gracious solution, namely, faith in what God has done through Christ as the only solution (3:21-4:25).

The result is that, "since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:1). Our trust in what God has done through Jesus--"through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand" (5:2)--has led God to declare us right with him, to "justify" us. We now are at peace with God. We are not facing the wrath of God, "being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness" of humanity. "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more will we be saved from God's wrath through him!" (5:9).

God did not have to do any of these things. He had no obligation to humanity to fix its problem. What he has done through Christ is rather a demonstration of his righteousness (1:17; 3:25-26). The action of Christ and the action of God are so inextricably intertwined that Paul can move from one to the other without pause. God has demonstrated his love toward us in the fact that while we were ungodly sinners, Christ died for us (5:6-8).

Romans 5-8 then unpack some of the implications of what God has done through Christ. They step-back and unpack the implications of Romans 1-4. The first verses of Romans 5, as you can see above, give a quick summary of our new situation--we have been reconciled to God! The second half of Romans 5 then steps back and puts what Christ has done into a historical perspective. [1] Christ's act of obedience corresponds to the disobedient act of the first human, Adam. Adam caused the sin problem with his act of sin. Christ solved the sin problem with his act of faith. [2]

Romans 6 and 7 then step-back and ask about sin and the Jewish Law going forward. If only Christ's death makes a person right with God, then what is the place of the Jewish Law? Why did God institute it in the first place? And if we are not truly judged by the Law, then can we continue sinning just as before, only without any consequences. These chapters can be very confusing, and may indeed have been confusing even to the original audience (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16). Paul's answer is that the Law got us ready for Christ and that he actually now enables us to keep its essence, something we ironically were not able to do when we were under the Law.

Romans 8 then triumphantly puts it all together in a climactic celebration of freedom from condemnation, and it looks forward to the final redemption of our bodies and indeed the whole creation. Christ has made us right with God, but we remain in this situation of flesh still. God wants to give life to our mortal bodies even while we are still on earth (Rom. 8:11-13). But we especially look forward to the coming redemption of our bodies and the whole creation when Christ returns (8:22-23). Regardless of current suffering, nothing can compare to what is to come (8:18).

[1] The biblical authors, as is the case with most of us, did not distinguish strongly between history and the story of the Old Testament. Indeed, some Christians today, called fundamentalists, make it a key item of faith that the stories of the Bible equate exactly with history.

Unfortunately, dogmatism on these sorts of things has rarely made anyone more godly or resulted in greater unity or faith. Rather, it has more often engendered needless argument and unnecessary division. What is worse, it seems to impose foreign expectations on the biblical text that, in the end, result in far more Scripture-twisting in the name of a modern debate, rather than a stance of truly listening to what the biblical texts seem to have been saying.

[3] See the previous chapter for discussion of the "faith of Jesus Christ."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reflections (13)

Christians have drawn on a number of images over the years to get at the significance of Jesus' death on the cross. Unlike Christian beliefs about Jesus, the church never settled on just one picture. He satisfied God's anger. He took our place. He showed us God's love and how to obey. He defeated the evil powers that rule this age. These are all lenses through which Christians at different times have explained what Jesus did on the cross. All of them have truth to them.

But the image that I think might speak most to our current age is reconciliation. In a broken world where AIDS has left thousands of orphans in Africa, we understand the longing for a father. In an America where a child is as likely to grow up in a broken home than in one where your parents have been together your whole life, we understand alienation and distance. We understand brokenness and the need for reconciliation. Some of the images Christians have used throughout the centuries may have strong features of other times--how many of us have ever seen a sacrifice? But we "get" alienation and the need for reconciliation.

Atonement is reconciliation that takes place because of some sacrifice, some offering. God himself made the sacrifice. Jesus gave himself as the offering so that we might be reconciled to God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-19). The righteousness of God in Romans is God's propensity to reach out and rescue his people and, indeed, the world. In a world of profound alienation, this message still rings out as immensely good news!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Faith Reflections (12)

Previously on Paul.

Accordingly, the picture of God's anger is probably much more to help our understanding than a literal picture of God. It is an "anthropomorphism," a humanizing of God that helps us catch a glimpse of something beyond our comprehension. It is God's baby talk to us in terms we can understand. The Old Testament in particular uses these sorts of images, like God's nose getting red with anger or him being jealous or changing his mind. [1]

As with all such pictures, we can take the illustration too far. An example is the very widespread emphasis on something called "penal substitution" in some parts of the American church today. Certainly Christians believe that God is just, that God will one day punish the wicked and reward the righteous. Under the influence of Paul's letter to the Romans, Western Christianity in particular has come to emphasize that everyone is wicked and no one is righteous. God's justice thus dictates that he will one day punish everyone.

However, we have seen in Romans an even greater emphasis on the "righteousness of God" or, as James 2:13 puts it, that "mercy triumphs over judgment." God is both merciful and just, but the New Testament regularly sees the merciful aspect of his character as primary and the "judgmental" aspect of his character as secondary. We thus should reject the common picture of God we often hear today of a God who is a slave to his justice. The fundamental question here is this--did God have the authority simply to forgive us without Jesus dying on the cross or did someone have to pay for us to be forgiven?

It makes much more sense to see Christ's death more as a demonstration of God's justice--which is how Romans actually states it--than as a necessity of God's justice. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the father does not have to find someone to pay for the sin of the son. He has the authority simply to forgive him. [2] Any picture of God that is less than God in this story is a skewed one.

And so the modern view of penal substitution has taken the anthropomorphism of the Old Testament and the secondary emphasis of the New Testament and has blown the image of God's anger into a skewed picture indeed. God is now a slave to very rigid rules of justice. Someone has to pay--God cannot simply forgive someone. And it has to be the party that did the offence--no one can pay for us. So Jesus has to become human so that one of us is paying and yet indeed someone is paying the bill of justice. And, yes, every last dime of the bill must be paid.

Suffice it to say, this is a skewed picture of God that has little basis in the New Testament. Rather, the God of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant has the authority simply to wipe the slate of the servant's debt clean on his own authority. In the New Testament, God sends Jesus to reveal God (John 1), to preach the good news to us (Acts 10:36), to free us from the slavery of death (Heb. 2:14), and, yes, to die for sins (Rom. 8:3). But nowhere is the image of Jesus dying for sins developed along the lines we have been mentioned.

This picture of God has implications--bad implications for how we relate to others, raise our children and so forth. It can foster an attitude that is unhealthy, even devilish. Justice is indeed the default. Wrongdoing should have consequences and even when a person is truly repentant for doing wrong, it can still be important to experience consequences. Something about the order of things, something about human nature truly benefits from such consequences.

But such consequences are beneficial. They actually help us. It is the difference between discipline and punishment. The legalistic sense of God's justice fosters an attitude of punishment. I know this feeling as a father, the anger of justice that can well up inside of you because of a child's open disobedience. It says, justice must be satisfied, and it pushes to immediate and swift punishment.

But Jesus' death on the cross was not some legalistic playing out of God's justice. It is a demonstration without which it would be very difficult to experience the depth of our alienation from God and the depth of God's love for us. It is not God making sure someone gets it so that his justice is satisfied. It is God reaching out to us in the most powerful way possible to show us the disorder of our world and the magnitude of setting things back in order.

Over the years as a parent I have learned about God as I have learned to be bigger than the affrontery of disobedience. Can I see in my child's disobedience his or her need rather than my offence at being disobeyed? In the public schools, in society at large, when we see defiance and wrongdoing, can we see with compassion a world that desperately needs God's help? I have come to see that the God who is out of control and must swiftly punish sin is not a big enough God. It is a Zeus.

The Christian God is not this god. The Christian God is a God who is too big not to be able to handle our disobedience. He is a God who looks on us in compassion when he sees how stupid we are to disobey, how we are hurting ourselves in our ignorance. He is big enough to take it. Indeed, he made the world in such a way that we would be able to choose whether to obey or disobey him. He is a God who disciplines to make us better, not who punishes because cannot help himself...

[1] If God knows everything at every point of his existence, then he cannot literally change his mind. Such pictures of God were very intelligible to the ancients, and God used them to speak to ancient Israel. However, from the standpoing of fully developed Christian understanding, they are still too much like a Zeus or a Marduk.

[2] And here let us add to our list of books to master Paul Joel D. Green and Mark D. Baker, Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reflections on Faith (11)

Previously on Paul. I didn't finish the last section on directing faith toward Jesus but wanted to get on with finishing this chapter on "How Salvation Works." I'll fill in the gaps for publication.

Life Reflections
The standard Protestant application of Paul in Romans is such a well-worn path that it hardly seems necessary to mention it. The typical sermon goes something like the following. No one can earn God's favor. No matter how much good we do, it is not enough. Good deeds cannot make you right with God, cannot get you to heaven. We can only get right with God by faith, by believing in Jesus, by believing that Jesus rose from the dead, by confessing him as our Lord.

Most of this scenario fits with what Paul was actually saying. True, it has lost the context of Paul's original message, where the key point was whether non-Jews could also escape God's wrath and be a part of God's people. It has lost the original flavor of the debate over "works of Law," a debate that heavily centered on things like circumcision and purity rules, the things that most separated Jew and Gentile. Paul also never says that heaven is our eternal destination, and you can make a very strong argument from Paul's writings that he saw a transformed earth as our eternal home. Interestingly, Paul never mentions hell in any of his writings.

Many of us in the church feel quite comfortable with the basic line of thought here. Everyone of us as done wrong at some point, with the result that God's judgment stands over and against us. Jesus absorbed God's anger toward our sin. All we need to do is trust in what God has done for us through Jesus, and we will escape the coming judgment and be saved. God's provision of a way out for us is an indication of just how loving and "righteous" he is.

However, I suspect that this line of thinking no longer makes sense to many Westerners, including many Christians. Certainly any difficulties we might have in making sense of these ideas does not in any way disprove them. Every culture has its blind spots, and we cannot assume that our "common sense" is always going to be a true sense. Nevertheless, God revealed the biblical messages to their original audiences in categories they could understand as well. The result is that we have to consider the culture of the biblical authors not only when looking at their "ethics," what they said about how to live, but also when looking at the categories of their ideas.

For example, what exactly does the picture of an angry God mean to say? Anger is a human emotion that usually has an edge of being out of control and, as we now know, physiologically impairs our ability to think clearly. [1] We can wonder whether a God who is omniscient--and thus for whom there is no difference between "experiential" knowledge and cognitive knowledge--could literally experience anger, which implies changes and movement in thinking and reflection. [2] God knows everything in every detail in every moment. His thoughts cannot move or change differently from moment to moment.

The notion of God's anger must thus a picture that says much more about us than it does about him...

further reflections to come:
1. penal substitution
2. alienation as a picture we strongly identify with
3. God's amazing acts of reconciliation

[1] How God Changes Your Brain ***

[2] The idea that God might learn something on any level by becoming human or dying on the cross implies that he was not truly omniscient beforehand. A God who creates everything out of nothing knows everything, including what it feels like to sin.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Greek Connecting Words (subordinate conjunctions)

You can tell how desperately under water I am when I blog as seldom as I have these last two weeks. To pass the time here's a video lecture I made today on some key connecting words to notice in your Greek interlinear.

IWU has switched video software again, so I'm afraid that all the links I've provided in the past are toast. There's a lesson there about technology and progress (assuming we are progressing). I guess all the material I've generated these last five years still exists, including an entire video commentary on the book of Hebrews. Whether I will receive access to it all again and have the stamina to recreate all the links (yeah, right), we'll see.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Original Meaning Version

It ticks me off that I repeatedly find myself using the ESV in Logos (I've successfully refused to buy a hard copy thus far) when I want to scan the original very quickly as transparently as possible. It's still slower for me to scan Greek quickly than English. I'd love it if there were an Original Meaning Version (OMV) that had no intention of being relevant or communicating the message to today but whose sole purpose was to translate the original meaning in all its--it wasn't written to you-ness. There is a place for that, despite its secondary importance for Christians.

Really fun (but less helpful for looking into the original) would be a dynamic equivalence original meaning translation whose purpose was to communicate in free flowing language all the original connotations.

So here's the Old Living Translation (OLT) of 1 Timothy 2:12-15:

"I do not allow a wife to teach or dominate a husband because following the authority inherent in birth order, Adam was the firstborn God created and Eve like a younger sibling. And Eve demonstrated in the Garden that women are more easily deceived than men, and she brought all women into a state of sinfulness at that time. Yet the stain of Eve's sin is removed when a woman becomes a wife and gives birth to children, conditional upon her remaining in right relationship to her husband and maintaining honor in the family through her faithfulness, her love of her husband, her purity in relation to God, and her continued demonstration of self-control."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Whitesels Waypoints 2

I'm reading through Bob Whitesel's new book, Waypoints, this month, Waypoints. The first post on it is here.

Bob's book has 16 points a person might be on the Christian journey. I strongly prefer not to think of these as the process, which is why Bobby Clinton's rigidly regimented leadership sequence gets on my nerves big time. I don't think Bob means it rigidly either. What I find Bob's book helpful for is to see the kinds of needs a person at a particular point might have and to see the kinds of things that might conceivably get such a person moving in the right direction.

Of course movement is a mysterious mix of grace and free will, so no promises that such tactics will work. Bob's advice certainly makes sense as the kinds of things that might, from a human perspective, facilitate change. And in the mystery of God's will, why wouldn't we try, especially if a person's heart is bent to cooperate with God's grace?

Waypoint 15 (you'll remember his chapters go backward) is "Awareness of a Supreme Being." This is the person who is not an atheist who disbelieves. This is the type of person who has a minimal sense of God or the possibility of God, but they are not at Waypoint 14, where a person has some awareness of the good news.

I like this chapter and we had Wesley Seminary @IWU students read it as part of our missional course. What I like about it is that it sketches out the levels of human needs a person has. A person who is starving is not likely to want to talk to you about theology. Maslow's hierarchy of needs can be sanctified. Bob suggests that unless a person's basic physiological and security needs are met, you will not likely get very far with them talking about God.

Bob suggests research first: 1) live among them, 2) meet in group settings, 3) don't clone someone else's ministry. Then design your ministry: 1) include non-churchgoers int he planning and 2) allocate sufficient money. Finally, connect and evaluate: 1) do a trial run, 2) be a good-doer not a do-gooder (don't give off fake vibes).

Waypoint 14 involves people who have some sense of God but 1) are skeptical or 2) tend to ignore Him. For those who ignore Bob suggests 1) help them to see the seriousness of God's existence, 2) help them picture the future. He backs these things us with several points: 1) injustice and poverty are the result of human activity, 2) humankind was put in charge of the creation, 3) humankind is in charge of caring for the needy, 4) God requires sacrifice.

He closes the chapter with an interview with Ron Sider, who is a good example of someone who balances spiritual with physical concerns.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Jewish Literature and the Afterlife

They say the last 20% of any project is often 80% of the work. I did a Fulbright in Tuebingen in the Winter of 2004, partially to finish a little book on Philo I wrote and also to continue some research I had done on afterlife traditions in Second Temple Judaism. I gave three lectures in Germany on my research, a couple more when I got back. But alas, I never put it into publishable form.

So here's twenty minutes hoping to add a few hours next week to make a viable proposal to someone (T & T?) before the end of the month because of something else I'm applying for.

Die, shadowy and meaningless afterlife
1. Torah and Former Prophets - shadowy afterlife, similar to the Homeric afterlife, deuteronomistic theology
2. Latter Prophets, Psalms, Wisdom Literature - no meaningful afterlife, no resurrection
3. Tobit, Sirach - no sense of afterlife, Sirach's solution to problem of evil
4. Sadducees

Die with reward or punishment elsewhere
5. Jubilees - spirits will have great joy
6. Philo - reward and punishment at death, some later Greek
7. Pseudo-Phocyclades - same
8. Essenes - reward and punishment after death?
9. later Paul - we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (at death?)
10. 4 Maccabees - spiritual afterlife
11. John - I go to prepare a place for you?
12. 1 Peter - made alive in the spirit?
13. Hebrews - spirits of the perfected righteous?
14. Apocalypse of Abraham - reward and punishment at death

Some in future will go somewhere
15. Book of Watchers (22) - some in reward and torment, future moment to settle with those who did not
16. Daniel - some to life, some to contempt, shine like stars
17. Epistle of Enoch - spirits in heaven
18. Some Pharisees may have believed in a kind of spirit resurrection
19. 4 Ezra = at point in future, righteous and wicked get theirs

Return to the earth in future
20. Animal Apocalypse - maybe physical resurrection?
21. LXX of Job - physical resurrection
22. 2 Maccabees - partial bodily resurrection of righteous martyred
23. Pharisees - resurrection of more than one sort perhaps
24. Book of Wisdom - spirits but with resurrection to the earth
25. early Paul - bodily resurrection of dead in Christ
26. Luke - spirits but with resurrection to the earth
27. Revelation - two resurrections to earth
28. Mishnah - all Israel have place in life to come

Righteous by Faith (10)

Click here for the previous post.

Romans 3:28 captures Paul's bottom line well: "a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law" (NRSV). As a reminder, to be "justified" is to be considered righteous by God, to be found "not guilty" or "innocent" in his divine court. It is to be reckoned as "right" with him. The "works of law" here could in theory be any part of the Jewish Law, but we have followed those who primarily see Paul thinking of those aspects of the Jewish Law that Jews might boast the most about--the ones that distinguished them in their minds from non-Jews. [1]

But what does Paul mean by "faith." The word faith itself has a number of possible meanings, which we have already seen. It can mean "faithfulness," as in Romans 3:3. It can mean an almost purly mental belief, as when James talks about how the demons "believe" (pisteuo) in one God (Jas. 2:19). Maybe the majority of times in the New Testament it has a sense of confidence or trust, such as when Jesus says we might move mountains if we had enough faith (e.g., Matt. 17:20).

So what sense does Paul have in mind when he says that it is a person's "faith" that justifies them, not their "works of Law"? We are so used to thinking Paul has been talking primarily about faith in Jesus Christ that our knee-jerk reaction is usually to say that it is a trust in Jesus that Paul has in mind here. And faith directed toward Jesus is clearly part of Paul's equation to be sure (e.g., Gal. 2:16). But as Paul unpacks his argument in Romans 4, it is not faith directed toward Jesus that is Paul's focus. It is faith in God the Father. [2]

So Paul gives Abraham as a model of faith in Romans 4. But it obviously is not Abraham's faith in Christ that is the model but rather Abraham's faith in God. No one earns a right status with God but this status is for the one who "trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (4:5). Abraham was considered to be righteous "in the sight of God, in whom he believed [=had faith]--the God who gives life to the dead and calls thigns that are not as though they were" (4:17). And God will justify us too, "who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (4:24).

As Paul unpacks how faith justifies a person in Romans 4, it is never Christ who is the object of such faith, but God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead. We see this pattern in Paul's thought also when we look at Romans 10:9, which gives us the path to salvation: "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe [=have faith] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Here again, it is our faith that God raised him from the dead that effects salvation...

[1] circumcision, purity laws, food laws, sabbath observance, and so forth.

[2] This is again one of the many observations that I think add up to Romans 3:22 being primarily about Jesus' faithfulness rather than human faith. Jesus is the secondary object of faith for Paul, after God the Father.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Faith of Jesus Christ (9)

Previously on Paul.

So what does it matter if Paul grammatically meant to say that the "faith of Jesus" is how we come to be declared "right" with God? He still taught that we must direct our faith toward Jesus. And even if this grammatical expression did not invoke Jesus' faithfulness, he clearly saw Jesus' obedience as an element in the equation. Is this debate simply a squabble between scholars that, aside from our desire to know what Paul really was saying, does not really make much of a difference in what we believe?

It probably does not change too much the individual things we believe. What it changes is the overall emphasis and picture, and I personally find the changed overall picture to ring much truer to Paul. It shifts several aspects of Paul in particular that move us away from some of the extremes we have inherited from history and arguably back to Paul himself.

For example, if Romans 3 and Galatians 2 use the "faith of Jesus" as the starting point, then our understanding of Paul shifts just the right amount away from our faith and on to Jesus. The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith was an important corrective in the 1500s, but in the intervening centuries pushed Protestants more and more to a "me" centered path to God. My faith is significant in Paul, to be sure. But if Paul's initial focus was on Jesus' faithfulness, then we have a better balance of emphasis that seems to fit Paul and his time very well indeed.

Related to the human focus is also a kind of individualism that the Protestant emphasis on my faith tends to foster that does not ring as true to the group orientation of Paul's world. I as an individual believer become more the focus rather than what Jesus has done. It seems to fit Paul's world much more, as we will see in the next chapter, if his focus is much more on our incorporation into Christ and into what he has done.

Another shift that seems to fit Paul and earliest Christianity better is a slight shift of focus from faith in Jesus to faith in God the Father. It is not that Paul does not still speak of our faith in Jesus. Directing our faith toward Christ Jesus remains a crucial element in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 no matter how one takes the phrase "faith of Jesus." But a careful look at what Paul says elsewhere reveals a consistent priority of God the Father over Jesus. After every knee bows in the Philippian hymn (Phil. 2:11), after everything is put under Jesus' feet (1 Cor. 15:28), God the Father is still the one to whom Jesus is servant and subject.

Throughout Romans 4, it is God that is the object of faith. It is God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). It is God who calls into existence the things that do not exist (4:17). It is God who raised Jesus from the dead (4:24). Christians understand Jesus to be God, "eternally begotten of the Father," as the Nicene Creed of AD381 would put it. So we sometimes do not hear carefully the emphasis of Paul's writings at his stage in the flow of revelation. The "faith of Jesus" interpretation seems to recover Paul's balance of where faith is directed a little more accurately. Yes, it is directed toward Christ, but it is even more directed in Paul's language toward God the Father.

Finally, the "faith of Jesus" interpretation recovers a greater sense of the importance of the life of Jesus and of his humanity rather than Paul simply being interested in Jesus' death. Again, because we rightly believe Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, it is all too easy for us to forget that we also believe he was fully human. Paul and the New Testament authors did not have this problem. Hebrews, for example, can speak of Jesus learning obedience through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8) and being tempted like us (4:15).

None of these shifts proves that the "faith of Jesus" interpretation is correct. But they do contribute to a picture of Paul's thinking that, I think, fits not only Paul's time better but also things he says elsewhere. It fits with the fact that faith for Paul is primarily directed toward God the Father. It puts the focus of justification more on Jesus than on us as individuals. And it appropriately includes the human struggle and obedient action of Jesus in the equation of salvation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Faith of Jesus Christ (8)

Previously on Paul. I was unhappy with the last version... I felt like I need to relegate my arguments for the "faithfulness of Jesus Christ" interpretation of Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 more to the endnotes. So I continue today where my revision starts. I also made my normal Monday post on the chapter, "The Priority of the Heart" in the ongoing series, A Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition.

... Yet over time I have come to fall off the log also with those who think Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, started his argument by mentioning Jesus' faith, Jesus faithfulness and obedience to die on the cross. Both sides have made their cases, and neither side has a silver bullet. Where you end up is inevitably your sense of how all the little pieces add up and your overall sense of Paul's thinking in general. If you want to know some of the specific details that led me to this conclusion, I mention three key ones in the endnotes. [1] Here let me just lay out how I like to think Paul's argument runs in Romans 3:21-26.

We start in verse 20. No one, neither Jew nor Gentile, will be declared right with God on the Day of Judgment because of how well they have kept the Jewish Law. "Works of Law" is not just good works for Paul here. True, Paul does not think that anyone can earn or deserve a "not guilty" verdict from God just by how good they are (see Rom. 4:4; 10:32). But it is quite possible that the phrase "works of Law" was one that would have immediately have made a Jew think of the kinds of squabbles Jewish groups had over what did or did not make a person unclean. [2] God will not find the Gentiles worthy because of their "works," and God will not find the Jews worthy just because they are circumcised and have been careful about what they eat or touch.

But God is still a righteous God. Verse 21 speaks of how God has demonstrated that he is still righteous, still in the business of saving his people. He has shown his righteousness in a new way, a way that does not involve the Jewish Law--the covenant rules between God and Israel. But the Law--the first five books of the Scriptures--do witness to this new way, as do the Prophets--the second half of the Jewish Bible. [3] This new way is "through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ," that is, through the faithful, atoning death of Jesus on the cross. [4]

This new way to be right with God is now available to all who have faith, both Jew and Gentile. Everyone in both groups has sinned, with the result that they now lack the glory God intended for humanity (3:23). But anyone from either group can be justified easily, be deemed right in God's eyes, "not guilty," "innocent of all charges," because of God's grace. God's grace is his undeserved favor, his willingness to give us a status we do not deserve.

God has demonstrated that he is still just, that the cosmos is still in order, by offering Jesus as a sacrifice, a sign of God's own faithfulness. [5] His righteousness is proved on every side. He saves his people by providing them a path to redemption, yet he also demonstrates his justice in passing over sins (3:25-26). And God does this to everyone who is "from the faith of Jesus" (3:26). I wonder if Paul means this phrase as a double entendre, rather than us having to decide whether he is thinking of the faithfulness of Jesus or our faith in Jesus. It is both. Those who are from the faith of Jesus are those who have been justified on the basis of Jesus' faith and who at the same time have directed their faith on Jesus.

tomorrow: what difference does it make?

[1] The rest of last week's post and additional thoughts on 2 Corinthians 4:13.

[2] See especially the first volume in this series, Paul: Messenger of Grace, pp. ** in the discussion of Galatians. In particular, one of the documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls was called "Some of the Works of the Law" (4QMMT), and it is an argument over purity at the temple. See James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today ()*** When Paul uses this phrase in Galatians, he is especially thinking of things like circumcision that separated Jew from Gentile.

[3] The collection of writings the Jews considered Scripture at this time basically consisted of three groups: 1) the Law (Torah, the first five books, the Pentateuch); 2) the Prophets (the "former prophets" of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and the "latter prophets" of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets); and the Writings (a miscellaneous collection headed off by the Psalms but whose precise contents were not completely agreed on). See Luke 24:44.

[4] Although I cannot prove it, I wonder if the expression, "through the faith of Jesus" was commonly known in early Christianity, to where a Christian audience would immediately know it referred to Jesus' obedience to death and the atonement it entailed.

[5] On the whole, I think it is more likely that the phrase "through faith" in 3:25 is a reference to God's faithfulness rather than our human faith.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bob Whitesel: Spiritual Waypoints 1

The first professor Wesley Seminary had was Bob Whitesel, author of numerous books in the areas of church growth and missional leadership. His most recent book is Spiritual Waypoints and I'm reading it this month as part of the faculty integration of foundation and praxis. I'll return to Oden at some point in the future.

My two chapters today are the Introduction and chapter 16. He cleverly has numbered the chapters to go down to where chapter 0 is the goal. He is trying to think about our walk with God not as one moment in time, conversion, but as a process and a journey. Not everyone will cover this entire journey, and I don't think he means to say that all the waypoints along the way have to be visited. He is suggesting that the expectation that a person will jump from one end of the journey to the other can be problematic.

He's doing several things in this book at the same time. For example, he interviews key individuals on the missional scene throughout the book. In chapter 16 (the first chapter), he interviews Richard Peace of Fuller.

He is also trying to hold the balance between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment without leaving one or the other out. He sees the "evangelistic mandate" (souls) as primary if you have to choose--but you don't. It has to be both/and, both souls and the "cultural mandate" to help people in their material, earthly needs.

Chapter 16 is about a person who has no awareness of a Supreme Being at all. Bob--following Peace--strongly suggests that it is not problematic to think of movement to agnosticism as a good thing because it is progress on the journey. Looking at it from a particular Christian perspective, Bob thinks of agnosticism as having some awareness of a Supreme Being even though they have not committed to such belief. Of course some agnostics might define themselves as someone who does not believe we can know if there is a God, while not denying the possibility of God's existence.

Bob suggests three types of atheist who may demonstrate a ripeness for movement: 1) the unselfish activist, 2) the confrontational activist, 3) the self-absorbed artist.

He suggests two things to do to mobilize toward such individuals: 1) release your "organic intellectuals," by which he means Christian intellectuals who engage various spheres of public life; and 2) make sure whatever Christian community to which you belong models things like: a) truth telling, b) fair dealing, c) an "ask-assertive" environment that invites questions and discussion rather than shoving the answers down your throat and d) imagery of hope, that says we have something to offer in an often hopeless world.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Faith of Jesus Christ (7)

Previously on Paul

... On the one hand, human faith does seem to be the major focus of what Paul has to say in places like Romans 4 and Galatians 3. When Paul says that "a person is justified [deemed right with God] by faith" (Rom. 3:28, NRSV), he is surely talking about our faith--the faith of Paul the Jew or Ken the Gentile. Paul does not seem to be talking about Jesus' faith here. He is laying down a general principle for how sinful people can be considered right with God, and the answer is "on the basis of [their] faith."

We see this line of thinking very clearly in Romans 4. "Blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin," Paul says (4:8, NRSV). He is expanding on what it means for God to consider someone righteous (4:6) despite their sins (4:7) and ungodliness (4:5). His train of thought is clearly about the faith of sinful humans, not the faith of the sinless Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).

Yet over time I have come to fall off the log also with those who think Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, started his argument by mentioning Jesus' faith, Jesus faithfulness and obedience to die on the cross. Both sides have made their cases, and neither side has a silver bullet. Where you end up is inevitably your sense of how all the little pieces add up and your overall sense of Paul's thinking in general.

For example, notice how redundant Paul's thought is in Galatians if he only has human faith in view:

Since a person is deemed right with God "through faith (pistis) in Jesus Messiah, we also have directed faith (pisteuo) toward Messiah Jesus, so that we might be deemed right by faith (pistis) in Messiah." [1]

Here's how I prefer to translate it:

Since a person is deemed right with God "through the faithfulness of Jesus Messiah, we also have directed faith toward Messiah Jesus, so that we might be deemed right through Messiah faith." [2]

Certainly Paul does not have to be concise, so this is no definitive argument that Paul had both Jesus' faith and our faith in view in this verse. It is just one point that eventually added up for me personally as a scholar.

But there are other arguments. For example, notice how similar Romans 5:19 is to this interpretation of Romans 3:22:

5:19: "through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous" (NIV).

3:22: "the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus to all who have faith." [3]

Clearly Paul had a place in his thinking for the obedient, faithful death of Jesus in us becoming right with God (cf. Phil. 2:6). But was he thinking this sort of thing in Romans 3:22? I will not go into further details in the main text here about what finally led me to see this as a "both/and" rather than an "either/or." [4]

You might wonder at this point what difference this whole debate makes, especially if everyone agrees that both the faithful death of Jesus and our faith in Jesus is important. True, beyond our desire in general to know accurately what Paul was really thinking, it is to a large extent a question of emphasis and tone. But I can think of three ways in which taking my interpretation points to three significant shifts...

[1] These two translations of Galatians 2:16 are mine.

[2] I prefer to leave the last faith expression ambiguous, "Messiah faith," in case Paul meant a double entendre here, a reference to both Christ's faith and our faith in Christ. Christ's faith is the basis for our justification, so we have put our faith in Christ. So in every way, it is "Christ-faith" that is the means of justification.

[3] My translation. Notice again how redundant this verse would be if human faith was only what Paul had in mind: "through faith (pistis) in Jesus to all who have faith (pisteuo)."

We can debate whether "righteousness of God" in 3:22 refers to God's righteousness or a righteousness he assigns to us. I tend to see a double entendre here of both, but in any case the idea that God deemes us righteous is obviously part of Paul's thought in the passage whatever the precise meaning of the phrase in this specific place.

John Piper--Young Humanity, Old Earth OK

This is an interesting interview with John Piper in which he basically says that the important things about Christian belief in creation are: 1) that God created it, 2) that humanity is relatively young on the planet, but 3) he allows for a variety of views on how old the earth might be prior to humanity's arrival, presumably including the evolution of lower forms of life. He only insists that the purpose of whatever happened prior to that point was to prepare the earth for humanity.

He has been convinced by a book called Genesis Unbound. I haven't read the book, but I find the view attractive simply because it lets science be science while holding to the direct creation of Adam by God at some point in the last 6-20,000 years. As long as we only talk to other fundamentalist Christians, we never have to face the evolution issue. But if we ever find ourselves presenting Christianity to someone outside of our comfort zone, we will have to account for the fact that we (who almost always have no scientific competence in these areas) have made an all or nothing issue out of a position that is more than overwhelmingly rejected by those who are scientifically competent (both by scientists with and without faith) in a field where one makes their name on new ideas and discoveries. It seems to me this is a major truth credibility issue for fundamentalist Christianity (it is not clearly an evangelical issue) that it makes this issue not a matter of individual conscience but one of core dogma.

Piper's position here demands all the key Christian beliefs (God created Adam directly as the first true human) while considering one's position on time prior to that as tangential. In effect it says, perhaps God created the world in six literal 24 hour periods. Perhaps He directed an evolutionary process to prepare the world for humanity and then directly created Adam 10,000 years ago. It says the question of "how" before Adam is really tangential and let those competent in science debate it. If Christian scientists want to enter that debate as part of their discipline, have at it, whichever position you have come to. The rest of us scientific incompetents only know that God created the world and directly created Adam.

This approach would probably require us to take the death that entered the world through Adam as human death or spiritual death rather than the death of any living thing. This fits with Genesis where Adam has to eat from the tree of life to live forever--implying that he would not have lived forever if he did not eat, which he and Eve did not.

What do you think?

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Faith of Jesus Christ (6)

Previously on Paul.

The Faith of Jesus Christ
The first three chapters of Romans, especially Romans 1:18-3:20, present the human problem. God will judge both Jew and non-Jew on the basis of how they have lived in this life (Rom. 2:6). But both Jew and Gentile have done wrong, have sinned, are alienated from God. The default human situation is that both Jew and Gentile stand apart from God on a trajectory to receive God's wrathful judgement on the Day of Wrath.

Romans 3:21-4:25 lay out God's solution to this conundrum. On the one hand, God is a God of justice (Rom. 3:25-26). I personally believe he could simply pardon all humanity on his own divine authority, but such an action would leave us without a clear sense of his justice or of the serious breach of cosmic order that currently exists. But God is also a faithful, saving God. The "righteousness of God" is wrath toward those who stand apart from him (Rom. 1:18). But the righteousness of God is to act to save and make a path of reconciliation to those who will avail themselves.

The solution to the human sin problem is the "faith of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:22). I have a hunch that Paul intended a double entendre, a double meaning with this phrase. It could mean either "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" or our faith in Jesus Christ. I wonder if Paul meant the Romans to hear both. The solution is the faithful obedience of Jesus to the point of death, the faithful death of Jesus through which God atones for the sins of humanity, and our trust in what God has done through Jesus.

In Romans 3:21-22, Paul says that God has now revealed his righteousness apart from the Law, namely “through faith of Jesus Christ to all who have faith.” [1] Almost all translations render this phrase “through faith in Jesus Christ,” but you can see that someone might very easily take it to say “through the faith of Jesus.” Many interpreters now take the expression that way. [2] Paul would thus be saying that God has now shown his righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus, through Jesus' obedience unto death (cf. Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:19). The experts are divided on the issue, and the Greek is genuinely ambiguous. [3]

[1] My translation.

[2] Perhaps the best known current proponent of this interpretation is Richard B. Hays. In the first volume of this series, Paul: Messenger of Grace, we mentioned Hays' The Faith of Jesus Christ as one of the many books one might read to master Paul (The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]).

[3] The best known proponent of the traditional reading “faith in Jesus” is James D. G. Dunn, whose rebuttal is printed at the end of the revised edition of Hays’ Faith of Jesus Christ (Faith, 249-71). The first volume of my Paul series was in part dedicated to Dunn, under whom I studied. This volume is in part dedicated to Hays.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Headed Home

I'm headed home today from Florida so should resume working on my writing projects here this week. In the meantime, I did post the latest on my ongoing series, "A Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition" on the seminary Dean's blog: