Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Trio of Current Concerns in Pauline Studies

As I am scoping out my thesis and trying to figure out which are going to be the most fruitful lines of enquiry there are three major shifts that have been going on in Paul studies over the last few decades. Depending on who you talk to you will receive different answers as to how important they really are to understanding Paul, but as far as I am concerned they are all important for me to take into account at this stage.

1. The shift from viewing Paul as being in opposition to 1st century Judaism to seeing him as a product of it. (This often goes hand in hand with seeing Paul not as a convert to Christianity but as a Jew who had found in Jesus the messiah)
2. The shift from viewing Paul as a writer-of-theology to a writer-to-people. This might seem like hair splitting, but much scholarship has attempted to extract systems of Pauline theology from the letters. Now a greater appreciation of the unique circumstances that each letter was written to suggests that Paul's letters (with perhaps the exception of Ephesians?) are not examples of a systematic thelogy but of closely contextualised situational theology.
3. The shift from seeing Paul's primary opposition as being against Judaism to seeing Paul being primarily opposed to the Roman Empire. This understanding has come to light mainly as a result of post-colonial sensitivities discovering in the text what seems to be layer upon layer of anti imperial rhetoric and a growing historical awareness that most of the positive view of the empire we have from ancient literature is from the elite within that empire rather than those living in the lower social strata.

Now for some people these shifts are deeply worrying and to be resisted because they have radical implications for the way we read and understand Paul's letters. For me however they are a real ray of hope showing the possibility of a Paul who is not so difficult to connect to the rest of the New Testament as, say, the Paul of Luther. I have always been uncomfortable with the way 'Paul's gospel' seemed to have a radical disconnect from the rest of the NT and indeed the OT too. In these shifts there is at least the possibility that Paul's gospel has had this disconnect only because of the way we have been reading him through the distorted lenses of 16th century reformers and western emperialism individualism. So I will be paying close attention to the way these shifts will inform my research.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Changing Tack

Since getting my proposal approved last year I have been reading and thinking about both my topic and the issues around it which I need to take into consideration. My original thesis proposal suggested that the meat of the issue was around Paul's sources, i.e. those ideas current in Paul's time which he could draw upon to construct the image of the church as Christ's body. However I have pretty quickly come to realise that this is barking (to some extent) up the wrong tree. While it is important to be aware of all the different ways the word for body could be used in the ancient world, i.e. the word's 'linguistic horizon' or 'chamber of resonance,' two other issues come before this and are more decisive: firstly the literary context of the metaphor and secondly the particular historical situation in which it was used. What this means is that rather than having to look for a single generalised explanation of Paul's meaning when he uses the phrase 'body of Christ' it is entirely possible that in each situation he uses it in a different way and with different connotations.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Treachery and Child Sacrifice

Still talking about contextual theology here is an example from someone working among tribes in Indonesia. Don Richardson missionary and writer is cited here saying:

When Caroline and I lived among the Sawi and learned their language, we found that they honored treachery as a virtue. This came to light when I told them the story of Judas betraying Jesus to death after three years of friendship. They acclaimed Judas as the hero of the story. It seemed as if it would not be easy for such people to understand God’s redemption in Jesus. But lo and behold, their way of making peace required a father in one of two warring villages to make an incredible sacrifice. He had to be willing to give one of his children as a peace child to his enemies. Caroline and I saw this happen, and we saw the peace that resulted from a man’s sorrowful sacrifice of his own son. That enabled me to proclaim Jesus as the greatest peace child given by the greatest father. In Lords of the Earth [one of his books], the Yali tribe had places of refuge. That was their special redemptive analogy. In other words, there’s something that serves as a cultural compass to point men and women toward Jesus, something that is in their own background, part of their own culture.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jesus = God?

"I suppose I want to say there that the critical thing about being a Christian is not that we know who God is ahead of time and then fit Jesus into that package, but that we take the risk, as John 1:17ff tells us to take, and Colossians 1 and so on, of looking hard at Jesus and thinking the word “God” as we do so, if I can put it like that, and then drawing our appropriate conclusions. That means you cannot pre-judge who Jesus is by some template, e.g., the picture you have of God at the moment, and therefore I see this as actually committing each generation of the church to look even longer and harder at who Jesus really was – the real human being Jesus – in the faith that it’s when you discover this Jesus that you discover who God really was."

From Tom Wright speaking in conversation with James Dunn.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Image of God

Translated from the Spanish of Francisco de Aldana by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Let me know what you think :-)


O Lord! who seest, from yon starry height,
Centred in one the future and the past,
Fashioned in thine own image, see how fast,
The world obscures in me what once was bright!

Eternal Sun! the warmth which though hast given,
To cheer life's flowery April, fast decays;
Yet in the hoary winter of my days,
For ever green shall be my trust in Heaven.

Celestial King! O let thy presence pass
Before my spirit, and an image fair
Shall meet that look of mercy from on high,
As the reflected image in a glass
Doth meet the look of him who seeks it there,
And owes its being to the gazer's eye.

Who Am I?

A poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written whilst imprisoned by the NAZIs during World War II. Bonhoeffer was eventually executed by the NAZIs. This poem was use to great effect in a scene in the film Agent of Grace. If you haven't you should watch it. Let me know what you think :-)


Who am I? They often tell me I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire form his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly, as though it was mine to command.
Who am I? They tell me I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I really then that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath,

As though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds
Thirsting for kindness, for neighbourliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, a thinking, at making,
Faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once?
A hypocrite before others and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Though knowest, O God, I am thine!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why You Should Fast

Of the three works of piety Jesus seemed to expect his followers to perform (Matt 6:1-18) fasting is by far the least talked about and most neglected. You should fast because:

Practical reasons:
  1. It detoxes your system
  2. It saves money on groceries
  3. It trains your system to burn fat for energy (unless you overdo it!)
  4. You enjoy and appreciate food much more after the fast

Spiritual reasons:
  1. It reminds you to pray throughout the day and creates the time and space to do so by eliminating meals
  2. It is a symbolic self emptying to demonstrate a desire to receive God's Spirit
  3. Apart from its Biblical association with social justice (Isaiah 68) it also creates empathy with those who are hungry
  4. It creates a respite from consumption and is hence dramatically countercultural (unless you are a supermodel)
  5. It trains the body to submit its base desires to a higher purpose
  6. It demonstrates the body's fragility and weakness and helps create a sense of dependency on God
  7. Unlike prayer and almsgiving which are by necessity brief, fasting is continuous and lasts all day
  8. Unlike prayer and almsgiving which are things we do, fasting is a non-act, it is not something we do but something we dont do, so there is no possibility of thinking we are somehow influencing the world with our power
  9. It will have a radical effect on your walk with God. Don't believe me? Try it

Anymore ideas?

PS. fasting should not be practised by anyone with good medical reason not to do so, e.g. pregnant or nursing women and children. A good fast is from evening after dinner through the next day till morning of the second day, but you could do evening meal to evening meal, breakfast to breakfast, or just miss one meal. And no, giving up chocolate or television, while worthy in themselves, do not count!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Acts 1:1-11: Sermon Outline

Here is the outline of the sermon I preached this Sunday (08/02/09), questions for discussion at the bottom.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all the Jesus began to do and teach from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God. While staying with them he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

• Acts is a sequel, and like all good sequels starts with both a recap (of Jesus’ ministry on earth) and links the two parts together (how we got from A to B, from Christ to the Church).
• Jesus ministry/work is not finished with his earthly ministry, death, and ressurection, he still has more to do, Jesus the baptizer- see Luke 3:16 (this, of course, does not exhaust Jesus' "heavenly" ministry, see esp. Hebrews on that one).
• And the disciples’ job is to wait. Even after all that good teaching (pre and post ressurection), knowledge is not enough.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

• Not only is knowledge not enough but it is not for us to have complete knowledge.
• It is not for us to have all the details of the end times, BUT it is for us to receive God's power to witness (to fulfil God’s saving mission in Jesus). We cannot all be evangelists, but we all must be witnesses.
• Holy Spirit is not wishy-washy feeling based nice churchy experience, but the Spirit of the living God that empowers our words and deeds to witness to the saving action of God in Jesus Christ. Spirit-ual not spiritual. Spirit-uality always comes from God then moves out from us to others.
When he has said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Understand God's story of salvation in Jesus and where we fit into it. Understand that we cannot play our part without the Holy Spirit's enabling. Know that this story ends with Jesus returning to earth and bringing heaven with him.
Stop looking up to heaven wondering what the time is; it is time to be Christ's witnesses.
Wait for the Holy Spirit. There is a time to go, and a time to wait. To receive first and then give from what we have received. How much time do you give for the Spirit to work and speak in your life, or are you just running around on empty wondering why nothing is happening?

Questions for discusion:
  1. Can you find any other passages in Luke-Acts where the movement of the Spirit is outwards towards other people? Have you been aware of this movement at any point in your own life?
  2. What does Luke mention in his 'recap' at the beggining of Acts and what does he miss out? Does this surprise you? What can we learn from this?
  3. What does it mean practically to wait on the Holy Spirit as an individual, as a family, or as a church?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Darryl Gardiner on the Treaty of Waitangi

How should Christians in NZ respond to the history surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi? Here is one attempt at a Biblical response. Let me know what you think :-)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Phil Baiden's faith journey, thus far...

[My thanks to Phil, a regular commentator on this blog, for sharing something of his story about moving from Liberal Christianity to a Reformed faith. Phil has also started his own blog, check it out, but only after you have read Xenos :-p]

A while ago Jon asked me to write about how I came to be where I am now – a historically Reformed minister in a liberal mainline denomination. Jon and I were at school together and were also involved in church youth events in East Kent. We once shared a two-man tent together on a church camp when we were 16. And yes, it did smell bad.

However, as I moved from Kent and began my A-Levels I entered a period of rebellion from the church. The Jesus I'd been taught about in Sunday School wasn't fitting with the Jesus I was reading about in the Bible. So I left it. I still believed in God but there was no way that Jesus was anything more than a bloke with some weird ideas.

I went off to Sheffield to study for a Biblical Studies degree. I have no idea why. It was a secular, liberal course that taught the Bible as ancient literature but not as God's Word. That suited me just fine.

That began to change when we looked at the Bible and the Arts. As part of that course I watched The Gospel according to Matthew by Pasolini. In that film I was confronted by the words of the Jesus I had rejected but now they didn't repulse me - they attracted me. Over the Christmas break I started going back to church. I went to everything. On the 2nd January 2000 I realised that I was nothing without Jesus and I broke down.

I was baptised and started going to the local United Reformed Church. It was an old Scottish Presbyterian Church with in depth preaching and a great minister. Every sermon seemed to be speaking to me and I began to feel that God was calling me to ministry. And so after a time of testing that call I was accepted for training.

At the time I considered myself to be a good liberal Christian. I was campaigning for left-wing causes, questioning whether Jesus really said that and dismissing John's Gospel and Paul's letters. But I also had a burgeoning love of church history, especially the Reformed heritage.
I then was sent to Madagascar in my third year of seminary. There I saw people that prayed and meant it. There I saw real poverty and the hypocrisy of aid. There I read the Bible like I'd never done before. On my return I read The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter and I realised that being a minister wasn't about being a social worker. I've since looked back and seen that I was never that liberal to begin with - I had a commitment to the Bible and to Reformed beliefs above and beyond my contemporaries.

God has opened my eyes to the glories of his Gospel.

And so now I'm a minister to two churches in Doncaster, England. I realise that my zeal for the Reformation of the church puts me at odds with a lot of my peers but I keep the words of Paul to Timothy in my mind at all times: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” I've already seen God blessing that work and I pray that he may continue to do so.

So when I come and cause trouble on this blog, you'll know where I'm coming from.
But it doesn't matter about me. So I'll sign off with those watchwords of the Reformation:

Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God Alone!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The problem of evil: the mathematics of humanity

One of the things I didn't think that Rowan Williams did particularly well in his interview with John Humphreys was deal with the 'problem of evil' in a very satisfactory way. The 'problem of evil' (POE) is an old chestnut which goes something like this:

  1. God is both all powerful and totally good/loving
  2. An all powerful and totally good/loving creator God would not make a world with evil in it
  3. Evil exists in the world
  4. Therefore there is no God

Now it is no.2 which contains the assumption where the argument falls down on a philisophical level because, of course, we humans have absolutely no way of knowing what an all powerful totally good being might or might not do. However, RW rightly recognised that in Humphreys' case, as with many people, the argument is not really a logical one so much as an emotional one. That is, at some point someone witnesses enough evil, or something so evil, that they find belief in a good God unconvincing. (Of course there are many other reasons for not believing in God but the POE is often reason enough for many people.)

What RW didn't do was to challenge Humphreys' on his acceptance of the emotional argument against God. For Humphreys' the terrible things he witnessed as a journalist led him to conclude that God could not exist, in particular the death of innocent children. The reason this needs challenging is that it betrays a rather wrong headed approach to the value of human life.

The emotional POE argument goes something like this,

  1. God is good, and God made the world which is good
  2. But something terrible happens
  3. If God made the world knowing that something terrible might happen then God cannot be good
  4. Therefore God is either evil, incompetent, or non-existant

What this argument basically says is that the genocide and the rape, the exploitation and the poverty, the war and the violence, in the world negate the goodness in the world, and so if God made the world he did it wrong, and so God is probably no god at all and just a figment of our imagination.

But I dont think that is right. Because the world that contain all that evil also contains much that is good. What we cannot do is try to calculate whether or not the evil outweighs the good. We cannot do this because it is absurd to say that because a child's life ends in violence that they should never have been born at all. That their short life, however full of tradgedy and pain it was, was somehow not worth it. But this is what the POE argument (in both its forms) says. It says that on balance there is so much evil as to render the world, if it has been created, a big mistake. That the world is not worth it.

It would be just as foolish to suggest the equation could be better done the other way, i.e. that there is enough good in the world to negate the evil. What we can say is that this world with all it evil is the only world in which you, me, the murdered child, and the rape victim could have existed in. In any other world, but especially one devoid of evil, we could never have existed. This is the world we live in, and if there is a God, God has decided it was worth it. For the love of you, me, the murdered child and every victim of every crime, God decided it was worth all the evil to bring us into existence.

To say that there is too much evil in the world for there to be a God is to say that our existence and the existence of all humanity is negated completely by the presence of evil in the world. Is that a judgement you are willing to make? Can you make that judgement on behalf of the victims of the world? Would they rather have never existed? Maybe some of them would rather that, but I dont think I would make that decision for them. I cannot calculate the worth of a life, no matter how short or tragic against whatever evil that might befall that life.

At the end of the day, if there is a God, only God can decide if it is worth it or not, because only God know the beginning from the end. And if there is a God then God has decided, and we (humanity) are worth it. But of course, if there is a God then God has an advantage over us, the big picture, where one day (if there is a God and if the Bible is God's word) God 'will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' (Revelation 21:4) The Christian claim has never been that the good in the world outweighs the evil, or that things will somehow balance out in the end, but that God will one day comprehensively and decisively deal with evil and it (and its effects) will become a thing of the past. The answer to the POE, if there is a God, is that all evil however evil is only temporary, but all good will endure for ever in the eternity of God.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Matt 6:9b-10: The Lord's Prayer Revisited

πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου
ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς
Which we uually translate something like:
Our Father, who is in Heaven, hallowed be thy name
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

But we tend to read 'hallowed' as being a stament of fact, i.e. 'your name is holy.' But this takes us away from the original Greek where the archaic 'hallowed' is perhaps better rendered 'sanctified.' Our English translation also misses two other things present in the Greek. 1) The repetition of the word σου (your/of yours) at the end of three phrases which links together name, kingdom and will. and 2) the use of the imperative form of each verb. Perhaps my translation here (which is poor English) demonstrates those features.

Father of ours, who in Heaven is,
Sanctified must be the name of yours
Coming must be the kingdom of yours
Happening must be the will of yours
As in Heaven, so on Earth.

Reading it like this the prayer takes on a different shape. 1) Reality is reflected, in that God's name is often not (as it should be) holy but often treated as a swear word and used casually. 2) The inevitability of God's name being sanctified, the Kingdom's arrival, and the accomplishment of God's will, shows our prayer not to be a request for God to do something but an alignment of ourselves through prayer to the future certain promise of Heaven coming to Earth. If God's name will one day be treated with total holiness then we antipate that day by doing so now. If God's kingdom and will will one day be supremely manifested on Earth then we anticpate that day by living according to them now.

[Disclaimer: I am still a novice when it comes to Bible translation and so take my translation as being a provisional attempt of a learner rather than the work of an expert, please!]