Saturday, August 29, 2009

McLaren, Christianity, and Islam: Brief Thoughts

On his website Brian McLaren has been posting a fair bit of material on Christian-Muslim relations in the midst of the season of Ramadan. For me these are interesting posts because of McLaren's level of influence in a variety of circles and because of my relationships with several Muslims whom I care about as dear friends.

One post begins thus:

"To my Christian friends: would you agree with this statement?

'Christianity was not intended to create a chosen people, fostering exclusive claims for themselves, while looking down upon the rest of humanity as a sea of untouchables or regarding the animate and inanimate worlds around them as fields ready for wanton exploitation. Wherever Christians find themselves, they are called upon to be actively and positively engaged as vanguards of mercy, welfare, and well-being.'"

McLaren goes on to confess that, though he wishes he were the author of these words, he borrowed them from a Muslim thinker who was in fact speaking of Islam. (In other, words, the original quote has "Islam" where McLaren inserts "Christianity" and "Muslims" where he inserts "Christians.")

I find here something of a mixed bag. First, Christ and the apostles surely never intended to found a church that excluded certain ethnic groups (one need only read the end of Matthew's Gospel or the second half of Ephesians 2!). Second, we may be thankful for the reminder never to look down on others or view creation as merely a pool of resources designed for our selfish pleasure. Third, later in the post McLaren speaks of how easy it is to compare the best of Christians to the worst of Muslims in an act of self-righteousness. This comment is an important one to me as I've been impressed by the respectfulness and kindness that I've received from Muslim friends. I would imagine that any Christian who has befriended Muslim folks gets frustrated when they hear an off-colour quip about Muslims and terrorism (especially if the quip is uttered with a sort of smirk).

However, as mentioned above, the bag is indeed mixed. God in Christ has in fact established a chosen people (the church), but this chosen people is neither necessarily exclusivistic in an ugly sense nor necessarily smug because of its place in redemptive history. The church serves as custodian for a gospel that is both inclusivistic (all people groups can and should be welcomed into the church) and exclusivistic (Christ and his saving work will permit no rivals, religious pluralism not withstanding). Unfortunately, McLaren's enthusiasm for the quote above pairs the concept of "chosen people" with "exploitation" (as if the two were necessarily connected) and fails to distinguish between a proper exclusivity (the truth of the gospel speaks against contrary religious claims) and an improper exclusivity (a smug attitude toward other human beings).

In the end, it seems to me that McLaren offers some helpful reminders but tends to muddy the waters on some key issues. Honestly, when I ponder these two dynamics at work (the helpful reminders and the muddy waters), I am inclined to be more concerned about the latter than I am excited about the former because Christians can get such (undeniably important) reminders from other voices who will be less theologically confusing. Thoughts?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Michael Horton on N. T. Wright on Justification

For folks interested in the debates about justification, two parts of Horton's critical analysis of Wright are available online here and here. Alongside these two soundings, Horton delivers some perceptive chapters on the topic in his book Covenant and Salvation.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Theoretico-Practical: Turretin's Take on Theology

Richard Muller and others in recent years have worked to clean up the reputation of the Reformed scholastic theologians. Often these theologians (Francis Turretin among them) are pegged as rigid and rationalistic, but that assumption has been challenged with some conviction. I find these words from Turretin to be quite pastoral and downright exciting:

"[T]hat theology is more practical than speculative is evident from the ultimate end, which is practice. For although the mysteries are not regulative of operation, they are impulsive to operation. For there is none so theoretical and removed from practice that it does not incite to the love and worship of God. Nor is any theory saving which does not lead to practice (Jn. 13:17; 1 Cor. 13:2; Tit. 1:1; 1 Jn. 2:3, 4; Tit. 2:12)."

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p. 23


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Introducing Paul by Michael Bird: A Review

Along with a few other books from Amazon, Michael Bird’s Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message (IVP, 2008) arrived in our mailbox yesterday. Having no intention immediately to read the volume, I browsed through a few sections and was compelled to keep going. Bird first appeared on my NT radar when I made use of his The Saving Righteousness of God for a paper on justification and the new perspective on Paul. His fair-minded approach to the topic garnered my appreciation. If you want evidence of his irenic but honest posture, look no further than the fact that James Dunn’s recommendation on the cover of The Saving Righteousness of God praises the work even as Bird openly criticizes certain features of the new perspective. Bird has steadily produced useful material on the NT and Introducing Paul is no exception. Its eleven chapters aim at distilling the essentials of Paul’s life and theology in a brief and accessible book, mixing in a healthy dose of wit and pastoral incitation.

The first chapter maps out five images of Paul found in the NT and offers this incentive for studying him:

“If you are sick of spiritual ‘milk’ and crave ‘meat,’ if you want to have a faith that is simultaneously thoughtful and pastoral, if you want to know the big picture but don’t want to skimp on the details, then Paul is the author you need to read, for he is the one who most in the New Testament combines pastoral insights with profound theological reflection. A fresh encounter with Paul will leave your assumptions shaken to their foundations, your theological world turned upside down, your spirituality revitalized, your faith quickened, your love for God and Christ renewed, and your labour in the kingdom refocused. This is Paul for the people of God” (15).

Bird first covers Paul as persecutor of the church, anchoring Paul’s actions in his Pharisaic zeal “to protect Israel from apostasy and impurity” (16). Next comes Paul the missionary, who, Bird maintains, was not just the apostle to the Gentiles but also the apostle who suffered much in the hope of converting his fellow Jews. Out of the missionary impetus was birthed Paul the theologian. Bird argues that the main sources of Paul’s theology were the Jesus tradition, the OT read with a “Christocentric grid,” and the contextualization of the gospel to the situations of life. The shape of Paul’s theology was apocalyptic and redemptive-historical and its development a matter of circumstance and emphasis. Then comes the section treating Paul the pastor, which canvasses the whole of the Pauline corpus to showcase the apostle’s intense concern for the well-being of the early churches. Finally, we read of Paul the martyr, who “absorb[ed] the messianic woes of the tribulation (Col. 1:24)” (26) and may well have been beheaded in Rome some time in the mid- or late 60s. To drive home the provocation wrought by the apostle’s labors:

“Paul is not given the thirty-nine lashes by his fellow Jews because he asks them to ‘try’ Jesus in the same way one might try a kebab (2 Cor. 11:24). He is not executed for suggesting that Roman citizens may wish to invite Jesus into their hearts. No, Paul has the courage and conviction to proclaim that the one who is to come again, the Messiah, is Jesus, who has fulfilled Israel’s hope by being cursed on a cross and raised from the dead. Jesus is the deliverer Israel has hoped for and desperately needed (2 Cor. 1:20; Acts 13:32-34; Rom. 11:26)” (28-29).

Chapter two parses what took place on the road to Damascus. For Bird, Saul’s Pharisaic lifestyle had left him without the burden of a guilty conscience (see Phil. 3:6). In his radical commitment to Jewish piety, Saul persecuted the church likely because of the scandal of a crucified Messiah, the early Christians’ religious devotion to (seemingly) a mere man, and the Christians’ openness to Gentiles qua Gentiles. On the question of Saul’s “conversion,” Bird posits that the Saul-to-Paul transition was not merely a calling but a conversion to another Jewish sect, the messianic. This transformation sent out “theological shockwaves” renovating Paul’s Christology, soteriology, eschatology, nomology, and ecclesiology. Jesus was clearly the risen and exalted Son of God, salvation was to be found in him alone, the age to come had partially arrived with the resurrection and bestowal of the Spirit, the law as the distinguishing characteristic of God’s people was replaced by faith in the Messiah, and the church was free to admit Gentiles without enforcing a preliminary conversion to Judaism.

The third chapter seeks out the underlying narratival framework funding the Pauline teachings we find expressed in his epistles. Paul adhered to a robust Jewish monotheism, a belief in the one God who created the universe and willed to renew it despite the corruption of sin. In dialogue with Romans 5:12-21 Bird argues for the federal headship of Adam and our subsequent inheritance of original sin and original guilt. Yet we ourselves re-enact and ratify Adam’s decision when we choose to commit sinful acts. Bird then surveys Abraham’s significance in Pauline thought, describing Abraham’s paradigmatic experience of justification by faith and the Abrahamic covenant as the overarching one which guided the administration of the Mosaic and new covenants. Abraham’s physical descendants, the people of Israel, received the law but mistook its intent and, failing fully to obey it and to recognize God’s desire to include the Gentiles, stumbled over the goal of the law, Christ (Rom. 10:4). In Bird’s mind, Paul understood Jesus to be the pre-existent one (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5-11) sent by God into the world and whose obedience and faithfulness brought salvation to his followers. However, Bird asserts firmly that the apostle was well-aware of the historical Jesus and his teachings. Finally, in Paul’s underlying framework there is the ecclesial moment, “the people of God, called to be the new Israel and the renewed humanity (e.g., Col. 3:1-17)” (56).

Acknowledging that Paul’s epistles were written for us but not to us, Bird uses the fourth chapter to take readers on a whirlwind tour of all the writings of Paul in their original contexts. Each epistle is assigned a succinct heading and given a fast-paced treatment which attempts to provide a sense of the flow of the letter. Chapter five examines the nature of the gospel itself, defining it as “the story of Jesus the Messiah, his death and resurrection, and faith and repentance toward him” (74). Bird avers that a redemptive-historical, narratival account of the gospel may enable us to view it more holistically. He hopes to move beyond a gospel which envisions God as merely a “cosmic accountant,” ignores Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s plan through Israel to bless the Gentiles, omits the resurrection and the parousia, and skips over the coming of the kingdom. After clarifying his option for the narrative mode, Bird examines how 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, Romans 1:1-4, and 2 Timothy 2:8 bear on our understanding of Paul’s understanding of the gospel. He sees in the hyper of 1 Corinthians 15:3 an indication of substitutionary atonement and refutes the notion that the verb horizein in Romans 1:4 betrays an adoptionist Christology by judging that Jesus’ sonship has shifted toward simply a new eschatological function. In addition, the gospel, says Bird, includes the announcement of Jesus’ kingship but (contra N. T. Wright) must also sketch how the King has endeavored to save us by his death and resurrection for our acquittal. Finally, the chapter considers the gospel’s challenge to Roman power with a user-friendly diagram picturing Paul’s terminological parallels with the teaching of the OT and the imperial cult. Bird finishes:

“[M]any Christians cannot recognize a counterfeit gospel when they encounter it. As a result many tolerate short pithy one-liners in its place, like ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ which is a poor substitute for the real gospel. Paul does not want Christians duped by a pseudo-gospel of ‘Jesus plus the latest Fad,’ nor does he want the gospel reduced to touchy-feely psychobabble. Paul’s estimation of the human condition is that we need a Saviour, not a therapist” (90).

The sixth (and probably my favorite) chapter handles Paul’s perspective on the cross and salvation. First, we read of Paul’s take on “righteousness.” The “righteousness of God” relates to both creation and covenant, often refers in the OT to salvation, should be taken as a subjective genitive construction, is manifested on the cross, and renders sinners rightly related to God, granting them a righteous status. Justification is forensic, covenantal, eschatological, and effective (in the sense that it results in freedom from the power of sin). Bird argues that on the textual level we see in Paul the believer’s union with Christ fostering a sharing in Christ’s righteousness, while on the systematic level the doctrine of imputation is a necessary inference enabling us to think coherently about various Pauline themes. In short, he reasons that imputation is a corollary of our identification with Christ. Turning to Paul’s notion of “sacrifice,” Bird outlines the apostle’s conceptual resources, including especially the Mosaic law, the Isaianic suffering servant, and martyrdom in intertestamental Judaism. He reasons that the condemnation of sin in Romans 8:3, the allusion to the Aqedah in Romans 8:32, the image of the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), and the propitiatory character of Jesus’ death are appropriately condensed in the phrase “penal substitution.” Furthermore, this substitution is grounded in Christ being the representative of believers. Speaking of Christ representing us and bearing God’s wrath on the cross, Bird says, “The logic is that because they [believers] have gone through it once they can never go through it again” (103). The remainder of the chapter expounds more briefly the Pauline analogies of reconciliation, redemption (which, for Bird, occurs through substitution and for the purpose of beginning a godly life), adoption, renewal, and victory.

Chapter seven presents Paul’s eschatology and divides into four parts. First, Bird charts the apostle’s take on the overlap of the two ages. Second, he touches on the “final ordeal,” which the church experiences proleptically even in the present time. Based on Paul’s line of thinking in Romans 11, Bird also holds out the prospect for “a significant number of Jews to convert to Christ…but he [Paul] does not project the event all the way forward to the final tribulation, nor does he think it will be the trigger for the second or third coming of Christ (as in dispensational theology)” (119). Next comes the parousia, which gives rise to the resurrection, through which we inherit bodies both continuous and discontinuous with our present bodies. Here Bird also cautiously favors a historic premillennial interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:23-25. Finally, he affirms also an intermediate state during which the deceased Christians are clothed with some sort of “heavenly dwelling from God” (2 Cor. 5:1).

With Richard Bauckham’s favorite category of “identity” in hand, Bird proceeds in the eighth chapter to discuss the implications of Paul’s Christology for monotheism. Stressing that, for Paul, Jesus “participates in the identity of God,” Bird suggests the phrase “messianic monotheism” (125). In 1 Corinthians 8 the Shema has been reinterpreted in light of the lordship of Jesus. In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul testified that Jesus possesses the divine nature and prerogatives and used the phrase heauton ekenōsen to signal only Christ’s “self-giving attitude.” In Colossians 1:15 Christ as “firstborn” implies sovereignty over creation, not a rejection of Christ’s eternality. Over against the pervasive polytheism and pluralism of the day, Christ is the one in whom dwells the fullness of deity (Col. 2:9). Additionally, Bird argues that in Romans 9:5 Paul does indeed call Jesus “God.”

Shifting to Pauline ethics, chapter nine covers five streams of Paul’s theology of the Christian life. First, Paul emphasizes that ethics must emerge from being made new in Christ, a judgment which, for Bird, demonstrates that Christians are not left with two natures but just one according to which we must now live. Second, Paul operates with an indicative-imperative pattern for ethical behaviour. Third, Paul places the believer “not under law but under grace” (see Rom. 6:14). Bird maintains that the law reveals the severity of sin, temporarily administers God’s grace to Israel, and foreshadows Christ. Thus, reasons Bird, the law no longer functions to mark out God’s people, cannot provide a basis for justification, and does not definitively govern the people of God in the new era. Regarding the law and sin in Romans 7, Bird favors the pre-Christian interpretation of the vexed experience of the “I” struggling with sin. The law of Christ is described as the “full range” of the commands and exhortations of the messianic age, namely, Christ’s exemplary life and teaching and the epitomic law of love. Although rejecting the tripartite carving up of the law found in Reformed theology (ceremonial, civil, moral), Bird still believes the Mosaic code plays a role in guiding Christians in that it finds its summary in the love commandment which is the overarching directive for believers today. On the issue of sexuality, Bird maintains that Paul, despite knowing of long-term same-sex relationships, saw homosexual behavior as a distortion of God’s design for sexuality and, therefore, sinful. However, Bird adds that this doesn’t mean homosexual sin is any worse than heterosexual immorality (also a violation of God’s creative intention). Finally, the chapter closes with some thoughts on Paul’s view of women, acknowledging controversial texts and (to my eye) committing to neither a complementarian nor an egalitarian reading of Paul.

The gospel-centred spirituality of the apostle is the subject of the book’s penultimate chapter. Here Bird balances cruciformity (“to be shaped in accord with the cross of Christ” [162]) and anastasisity (“to be made alive by the power of Christ’s resurrection” ([166])(anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection). Finally, the epilogue and last chapter focuses on similarities between Paul’s world and ours, exhorting readers to learn from Paul and set forth “the exclusive claims of the all-inclusive Saviour” in a pluralistic time (171).

Having outlined Introducing Paul, a few reflections. This is a solid introduction to Paul and I would gladly recommend it to a layperson or someone with theological training who would like a refresher and an update on Pauline theology. Bird’s sturdy judgments on, for example, penal substitution and homosexuality cut against the grain of many current discussions but do so without the ring of close-mindedness or naïvete. Though they are somewhat veiled in this non-technical volume, Bird’s reflections on the new perspective on Paul are consistently centrist, upholding that Paul dealt with both Jewish nationalism and the wiles of merit theology. On a pedagogical note, his visual aids prove useful throughout the book.

At the risk of sounding like a cantankerous systematizer, in a couple of places I would have liked to see a bit more critical thinking on the role of narrative. I have no problem with the use of a narratival mode of discourse for theological reflection and I heartily affirm that life would be boring if we dealt always only in lists with bullet points. But I’m not sure that one’s deepest belief-commitments are always formed via “the telling of a story” and never via working with a set of propositions and considering potential logical inferences (38-39). Nor am I sure that a more “listed” account of the gospel is necessarily overly forensic or truncated, though it may be comparatively stale (see 74-78). Interestingly, after amping up the narratival form of the gospel, Bird unpacks the rendition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 by using numbered propositions (78-81)! Perhaps when carefully considering the Christian gospel, a more analytical mode of thought and discourse inevitably comes into play. Yet, lest I imply that Bird wholly disparages careful logical inference, he goes there with the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (97-98). Moreover, these are small objections considered in light of the overarching faithfulness, clarity, accessibility, and pastoral tone of Introducing Paul. Hopefully it will be read by many who seek a richer understanding of Paul and the Lord he tirelessly served.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Human Weakness and Patterned Prayer

"But, although it has already been stated above that, lifting up our hearts, we should ever aspire to God and pray without ceasing, since our weakness is such that it has to be supported by many aids, and our sluggishness such that it needs to be goaded, it is fitting each one of us should set apart certain hours for this exercise. Those hours should not pass without prayer, and during them all the devotion of the heart should be completely engaged in it. These are: when we arise in the morning, before we begin daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God's blessing we have eaten, when we are getting ready to retire."

Calvin, Institutes, III, xx, 50

The specifics of when to establish times of prayer are, of course, debatable, but I think Calvin was on to something when he wrote that human weakness conditions the need to have some pattern for prayer. Otherwise, thinking we are mature enough to "pray without ceasing" without any regimen, we might deceive ourselves and never pray!

Michael Bird on the Nature of Christian Scholarship

Visit for some great thoughts from Bird on what it means for a Christian to serve in the world of academia.

(And while you're thinking of Bird, check out his centrist [and very beneficial] volume on the new perspective on Paul, The Saving Righteousness of God.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Joined with Such a Mercy": The Inseparability of Justification and Sanctification

We evangelicals need a better handle on the relationship between justification by faith and the pilgrimage of spiritual growth which produces good works. If believers can't and don't merit salvation, whence the biblical command for good deeds?

Often I've heard that Christians should live obediently because they should feel gratitude for the saving work of God. Without wanting to neglect the place of gratitude in the Christian life, I've become convinced that this reasoning is inadequate. Far better, in my mind, to reason that the forgiveness of sins and the path of spiritual growth and good deeds are simply a package deal. In other words, the nature of salvation itself is such that when we sign up for it (i.e., convert to the Lord and his gospel) we're signing up not only for the forgiveness of sins but also for the power of the Holy Spirit to grow in obedience to God. An excerpt from Calvin:

"We confess that while through the intercession of Christ's righteousness God reconciles us to himself, and by free remission of sins accounts us righteous, his beneficence is at the same time joined with such a mercy that through his Holy Spirit he dwells in us and by his power the lusts of our flesh are each day more and more mortified; we are indeed sanctified, that is, consecrated to the Lord in true purity of life, with our hearts formed to obedience to the law."

(Institutes, III, xiv, 9)

What might this understanding of salvation, spiritual growth, and good deeds do to our sharing of the gospel? Perhaps make it a more holistic in the sense that we make sure a listener is aware of the fact that conversion is conversion to the whole package, not just to the forgiveness of sins? Thoughts?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Resurrection, Joy, and Contemplation

"[L]et us always have in mind the eternal happiness, the goal of resurrection - a happiness of whose excellence the minutest part would scarce be told if all were said that the tongues of all men can say."

Calvin, Institutes, III, xxv, 10

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gerald Bray on Wright's Latest

Theologian Gerald Bray makes some jarring criticisms of Wright's Justification. See and do post any thoughts if you've read the book.