Sunday, August 31, 2008
I hope McCain wins this race, and if he does not, I will be disappointed. That said, if Obama wins America will go on. It will go on while still having many problems, but it will go on. If McCain wins, America will go on. It will go onw hile still having many problems, but it will go on. I prefer the latter, but America will go on.
And I don't shout that triumphantly, like some kind of nationalistic rally cry. I say it as a kingdom-centered recognition of the way the world actually works. No matter who wins, God will still be sovereign, humans will still be sinful, and Christ's blood will still be my only plea as fundamentally a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
We Christians must face the reality that America's problems are the result of human sinfulness. No president will eliminate that problem, but at best will manage to limit the physical consequences of human sin. So for example, a good government will get more food to the poor than a bad one (however that actually happens best, which is up for debate).
But at the DNC, Obama-supporters (and maybe Obama himself) seemed to be hoping for so much more. Maybe that is one of the main reasons I am so turned off by some of his support. It is not that Obama seems to be a bad guy or even insincere. But as I watched thousands of people surrounding this man as he spoke, I couldn't help but think that most were thinking, "Here, finally, is the man that will lead us to the promised land of American life." And this attitude sickens and saddens me.
Whatever change Obama can deliver on, he cannot change a human heart. Neither can McCain. And that's why as Christians we should never put too much faith in any world power. As many have started to notice in modern Christianity, the only sovereign who can change things in truly meaningful ways is God Himself. Compared to His work, the president's is microscopically important. The Messiah already came and still lives. He rules the world with infinite grace, love, and wisdom. And He is the One in whom I will put my faith.
(NB: I'm not saying you shouldn't vote or be involved in the political process. I'm just saying that you should always check your expectations when you do it. And I don't say that in a cynical way- just in a way that is centered on the sovereignty of God.)
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
In chapter 7, Dr. Bird tackles one of the most contentious issues in Pauline studies; the relationship between works and justification. As a card-carrying Protestant, this topic has been particularly vexatious for me. I firmly believe that justification is by faith, and not by works of the law. Yet, Paul says things like, "the doers of law shall be justified" (Rom 2:13). How do we reconcile Paul's statements regarding justification by faith and judgment according to works? This is the question our author addresses in this chapter, as he offers his interpretation of Romans 2 - a crux interpretum for understanding the relationship between justification and works.
Christians have been debating this passage since Augustine. Moreover, Jews in the Second Temple period struggled to resolve the tension between faith and works. There are therefore many well-rehearsed arguments in this discussion. As for Romans 2, there are 5 major interpretative options.
(1) Some scholars (e.g. Sanders and Raisanen) think that Paul is inconsistent when he says that the doers of the law will be justified. This camp posiits that Romans 2 is actually in conflict with Romans 3 and other passages in the Pauline corpus.
(2) Other scholars think that Romans 2 is hypothetical. Paul is saying that there is a valid promise to those who do good; namely, God will justify them in accordance with their obedience. However, Paul goes on to state in Romans 3:20 that no human will be justified by works of the law. No human has the requisite ability to be justified via obedience. Paul is thus setting up a hypothetical possibility which he proceeds to knock down.
(3) Other scholars contend that Paul is speaking of non-Christian Jews and Gentiles who respond to the revelation they have received from God. Some Jews/Gentiles in this group are condemned because they do not respond accordingly. Others, however, are justified in virtue of their obedient response to God's revelation.
(4) Yet another group of scholars believes that Paul is only speaking of God's impartiality in Romans 2. God will impartially judge Jews and Gentiles alike, though the outcome will be entirely negative for both groups.
(5) A final collection of scholars understand Paul as speaking of fidelity in Romans 2. Those who do the law persevere in their faith (and thus maintain their covenant status), while those who fail to do so apostasize.
How do we solve this interpretative conundrum? Bird offers 7 criteria which need to be met for an interpretation of Romans 2 to be satisfactory...
(1) The meaning of judgment according to works in second-temple Judaism and the degree to which it is a foil for Paul's own views.(166)
(2) The context of Rom 1:18-3:20 which functions chiefly as a negative indictment of Jews and Gentiles.
(3) The emphasis upon the impartiality of God and the false presumption of Jews in their elect status in Rom 2:1-29.
(4) The outcomes espoused in Rom 2:12-16 are categories of justification and condemnation respectively.
(5) The identity of the persons described in Rom 2:1-16 and in Rom 2:25-29.
(6) The identity of the law in Rom 2:15, 25.
(7) The relationship between faith and obedience as the basis of justification in Pauline theology as a whole.
Bird concludes that the "Christian reading" most adequately meets these criteria. That is, "Paul is speaking of Gentile Christians who fulfill the Torah through fiath in Christ and life in the Spirit" (166). This view has gained popularity of late, receiving support from N.T. Wright and C.E.B. Cranfield.
While I don't necessarily agree with Bird's take on this passage, I appreciate that he reiterates the importance of Christology for understanding final justification. When you read Wright, you sometimes get the impression that Paul differs from Judaism on eschatological justification only insofar as he thinks believers are uniquely empowered (by the Spirit) to live an obedient life. According to this view, believers will be judged and justified on the basis of the whole life lived, but the Spirit uniquely empowers obedience. Therefore, this isn't simply works-righteousness. Bird is right to say that our final justification has come into the present in the death and resurrection of Christ. We must not move final justification away from the realm of Christology. God's pronouncement regarding believers at the final judgment will be a revelation of the verdict that he executed in the cross/resurrection of Christ.
Personally, I've waffled between the hypothetical interpretation and the one Bird is espousing. I'm sympathetic to his position, but here's my main hesitation regarding it... Paul structures 1:18-3:20 with a view towards the conclusion he is going to arrive at in 3:19-20. The argument reaches its crescendo when Paul asserts that no human being will be justified at the final judgment by works of the law. I think it's beyond dispute that "works of the law" include moral requirements binding for Jews and Gentiles alike. Now, it's possible that Paul introduces a theme in Romans
2 that he will expound upon later - i.e. the fact that Christians fulfill the law - but it seems to obfuscate his argument. If the Christian reading is correct, Paul says these things sequentially...(1) Gentile Christians will be justified in accordance to their obedience to the law (2:12-16, 25-29), (2) all Greeks and Jews are under sin (3:9), and (3) no one will be justified by works of the law (3:20). This seems a tad muddled. Moreover, it's difficult for me to envisage Paul using the elliptical term "Gentiles" as a reference to Christians in 2:12-16, and then use a very similar term (i.e. "Greeks") in 3:9 in reference to non-Christians. For these reasons, I currently lean away from the Christian reading. However, I'm willing definitely willing to be persuaded otherwise.
Dr. Bird, how would you respond to the argument that the Christian reading of Romans 2 obfuscates Paul's major point?
Monday, August 25, 2008
I always assumed that as I aged, my opinions would become even stronger and more annoying. So a few weeks from my 28th birthday, I'm shocked to discover that perhaps both sides can sometimes be right.
I've been thinking a lot about form. It seems we place a strong emphasis on right and wrong ways of "doing church." (Incidentally, I love how the word "doing" adds gravitas to anything. I'm going to start throwing around phrases like "doing shopping for shoes" or "doing eating my cheeseburger.") For instance: Purchasing a permanent building vs. meeting in a public space. Megachurches vs. home churches. Age specific classes vs. integrated worship. 30 minute sermons vs. 90 minute sermons. Pews vs. chairs. This all seems to suggest that if you can just embrace the right form, you'll do church the right way.
I disagree. While the New Testament has many commands concerning the mission and behavior of the church, it has far less to say about the specific form of the church. We need to cover the essentials, but there appears to be a lot of freedom in how local churches choose to implement these essentials. A program that effectively disciples children at one church may be a complete flop at another. Meeting in a coffee shop or bar might draw lots of new people in one city and might alienate people in another.
I think that the way each individual church applies God's commands needs to be informed by its specific community and culture. And perhaps less informed by what others are doing. Maybe there is more than one right way to run a church.
Let me know what you think. Perhaps I'm wrong and you're right. Or maybe you're wrong and I'm right. Or maybe we're both right.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Any of you who have read this blog for some time have seen some of my posts about my Father's ministry, particularly its recent changes. If you aren't familiar with any of that and want some context, go back and this post that I wrote in June.
My Dad was not only a pastor for thirty some odd years and still a truly godly man, but is also exceptionally thoughtful and a fantastic writer. I highly recommend giving his blog a read.
Oh yeah, here's the link: billfaris.blogspot.com. I'm guessing that most of it will cover thoughts on church ministry and I suspect it will be very helpful to those who think about these sorts of things...
Saturday, August 23, 2008
...Paul advances a case for the superiority of Christ over the universe, particularly over its inimical powers. Paul also emphasizes the sufficiency of Christ's death for the forgiveness of human sin, for inclusion within God's covenant people, and for reconciliation to God. the sufficiency of Christ's death, he argues, obviates the need for any complicated ascetic regimen as a means of placating and controlling divine powers. In place of its "harsh treatment of the body" Paul offers an ethical program that reflects Christ's defeat of the inimical cosmic powers and the reconciliation of the whole world to god through Christ's death on the cross. (377)
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Which got me thinking: what's the point of a doctrinal statement? Not in a negative way- just in a, "I don't want to do things at church just because that's what churches do" kind of way. Among my many thoughts on that issue, one of the most prominent was my numerous interactions with the type of people who sharply distinguish between "religion" and "spirituality," preferring the latter. With that in mind, I decided to write an introduction to the doctrinal statement that perhaps that kind of person would come across, especially for our soon-to-be launching website.
I thought it would be a good idea to put that intro here first though, partially because I think you might be interested, and partially because I wouldn't mind some feedback. So pardon the length of this post, but without further delay:
Today’s Western World commonly distinguishes between spirituality and religion, expressing a conscious preference for the former. The term “spirituality” conjures thoughts of desirably mysterious transcendence and generally being in touch with the divine. By contrast, “religion” is thought of as the stifling institutionalization of that transcendence, such that mystery is eliminated and God is made in humanity’s image to suit its arbitrary and sometimes even evil ideas and actions. Perhaps it is because of these stigmas that some well-meaning Christian first coined the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.”
We can appreciate the good in this mindset. Most of us can feel intuitively that there is something profoundly wrong with domesticating the divine. Most of us can also feel intuitively that there is something profoundly right about looking outside ourselves for an experience of the transcendent. Further, most of us can see that all too often, heinous evil has been done in the name of God.
Yet while we see this good, we are convinced that, contrary to the religion/relationship distinction, to carry out any legitimate relationship with God, some of the forms of religion are quite necessary. There are two sides to this point. From the divine side, God is so transcendent as to be largely unreachable but for His revealing Himself in real ways in human history. From the human side, mankind’s finitude and sinfulness allows us too limited a knowledge of God to be satisfied with sweeping mystery as expressed in spiritual platitudes. The combination of God’s eternality and humanity’s finitude is spiritually paralyzing- unless God intervenes to make it possible for us to know Him.
We believe that God has done exactly this through direct revelation to humans, both in word and action. The “spiritualist” denies the need (or perhaps the possibility) of this revelation and wallows in the mystery. The Christian is unsatisfied with mystery alone and asks, If God has truly revealed Himself to humans, why should I do anything but pursue it with the most seriousness and vigor I can muster? She sees the need for revelation and joyfully pursues her spirituality within revelation’s self-set bounds, including any religious structures it deems necessary.
We believe that God’s revelation of Himself in particular in the Bible provides such religious structures. Because God has also revealed Himself to be good, wise, and omniscient (among other things), we trust that any religious structures He has revealed to be necessary are not hindrances to our spirituality, but channels of spirituality that benefit our pursuit of Him. Indeed, without those religious structures, no human being would be able to know God meaningfully.
“Religion” as a concept thus should not carry the stigma of being spiritually stifling. By contrast, we embrace religion joyfully, and choose to distinguish between religion and “religiosity” rather than religion and spirituality. God is not only transcendent and incomprehensible; He is knowable. Religiosity gets caught up in the forms such that the whole enterprise goes stagnant. The religious Christian rejoices in the truth that we can have real access to God rather than being stuck in the perpetual vagueness of New Age spirituality.
The following affirmations then lay out some of the major parameters of God’s revelation of Himself that we at
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
the Judaizers/James' party were offended not simply because Peter was eating with Gentiles, but the implication this action carried; by eating with Gentiles without forcing them to judaize, Peter was implying that the Gentiles were equal members with Jews in the covenant.
Moreover, through disassociating himself from the Gentile believers, Peter was effectively asking them to Judaize in order to enjoy full membership in the New Covenant community. Circumcision was the final step in judaizing, and this final step appears to be what Paul is opposing throughout Galatians (cf. Gal 2:3, 14; 6:12). Paul's opponents were attempting to convince believers to take on the distinctive marks of Judaism in order to be identified with covenant community, and it was precisely this community that the judaizers supposed would be vindicated at the final judgment. Paul thus opposes ethnocentrism, AND reliance on the law, since the judaizers supposed that their works would serve as the basis for final justification. In contradistinction, Paul maintains that faith is the sign of family membership (3:6-9), and the basis of justification (2:15-21). I like this reconstruction, as it goes a long way in, (1) tying together the different situations Paul mentions in Galatians (i.e. Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia), and (2) explaining how he effortlessly moves from speaking of table fellowship in 2:11-14 to justification in 2:15-21. The flow of thought is fairly clear, as Bird notes...
"If doing works of the law [i.e. judaizing] is necessary to be part of the people of God, and if the people of God are those whom God will justify, then the Judaizers were de facto making justification by works of the law." (140)
My only issue with the section was that Bird seemed to downplay the notion of human inability in Galatians. For instance, I agree that 3:10-14 is primarily about salvation-history (i.e. about the age of "faith" and the inadequacy of the age of law). However, I think what makes Paul's point particularly potent is his implied premise that the old age is characterized by human inability. Perhaps we agree on this Dr. Bird.
As for Romans, Bird traces the theme of justification throughout the epistle, with an eye to the Jew/Gentile conflict in the church. The Jewish opponents supposed that both their possession and peformance would garner them favor with God. Paul responds that this sort of presumption is foolish because of God's impartiality. Moreover, the apostle contends that it is faith in Christ which secures righteousness for the believer (Rom 3:21-26), and it is faith that marks one out as a member of the New Covenant community (Rom 4:9-17). God is impartial in judgment, and impartial in justification. I thought Bird did an excellent job of showing that Paul was arguing both against the presumption of membership in God's people based on ethnic privilege, and the presumption that obedience secures God's favor.
Where does this leave us? Well, justification is both about being acquitted in the divine law court, and being marked out as part of the redeemed community. It is both forensic and covenantal. It's about salvation and it's about the church.
One practical application I saw arising from this chapter pertains to the relationship between justification and adoption. Bird notes the need for more sustained reflection on this relationship (154), and I think he's right.
Being justified means being part of a new community; a new family. If this is the case, then my justification goes hand in hand with my adoption. As N.T. Wright says...
"The doctrine of justification by faith...[was] about how one could tell, in the present, who God's true people were - and hence who one's family were, who were the people with whom one should, as a matter of family love and loyalty, sit down and eat." [Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005); 159]
The doctrine of justification contains the implicit command that we are to show family love and loyalty to our brothers and sisters.
Well Dr. Bird, I don't have specific questions for this week. I'd appreciate any further thoughts you have on the chapter/my response to it.
That said, Jeff, Jenny and I are all still committed to blogging and no one has officially bowed out, so stay tuned for now. We are certainly not ready to throw in the towel as we have enjoyed the writing and the interaction. Many thanks in advance for your patience at this point, and we'll be sure to keep you updated on anymore changes that present themselves.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Neither of these two were believers, but Sherry launched into a story about her frustration with her daughter's and son-in-law's newfound born again Christian faith, because it meant that they would no longer spend time with her. Sherry framed this in terms of their opposition to her use of medical marijuana, which she employs because at 71 years old and with arthritis everywhere in her body, it's the only thing, she says, that makes her feel any better.
So the two of them began to voice their frustration with those narrow-minded born-again's and their belief in a God who would be so cruel as to punish sinners. "One God, One Love" was Richie's self-proclaimed motto, while Sherry, apparently feeling more biblical, went with "God is Love." The question became, "How could a good God eternally torture people just because they don't believe in him?"
Well I have no intention to answer that question right now, except to say that I don't think you'll find it in annihiliationism. The conversation turned out pretty good even after I interjected that I myself am one of those narrow-minded born-again's who believes in the Bible and its narrow-minded God.
What really stood out to me was how indignant these two folks were about the idea that God would torment regular, nice folks like them just because they didn't happen to believe in Him. Put another way, they don't believe in sin. Thus my response throughout our conversation was focused often on convincing them that there really is a problem with the world, and that problem is sin. The next step then is to agree with the famous G. K. Chesterton quip: the problem with the world is me. And you. And everyone else.
With that in mind, I really enjoyed F. F. Bruce's reflection on the nature of sin as addressed by Col. 1:21. Bruce writes,
Sin is not only disobedience to the will of God; it effectually severs men and women's fellowship with him and forces them to live 'without god in the world' (Eph. 2:12). Those who are estranged from the one in whom alone true peace is to be found are estranged also from one another, and lead lonely lives in a universe which is felt to be unfriendly. The barrier which sin sets up between them and God is also a barrier set up between them and their fellows. If this letter declares that their alienation from God has been abolished by the redemptive work of Christ, the companion letter to the Ephesians declares that their alienation from one another is similarly abolished by that redemptive work. (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 77-8)I admit that God's justice towards sinners can be hard to swallow, but at my best that is because I recognize how unjust it would be for me to exercise God's justice. I am the one who deserves it. If only people would reflect enough to realize just how unfriendly the world is, then maybe sin would be an easier thing to say.
But then, there is that little problem of a stone heart that tends to thwart such reflection...
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
‘But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).
(HT: Per Crucem ad Lucem)
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
As I stated aeons ago in my review of chapter 1, reformed types tend to emphasize the vertical and individual aspects of justification, while New Perspectivist types tend to emphasize its horizontal and corporate dimensions. But what does St. Paul really say? And what does he really mean? Is justification God's declaration that the believing sinner has a new status in the divine lawcourt on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection? Or, is it God's declaration that Jews and Gentiles are equally members of the New Covenant community? Bird answers both questions in the affirmative, and seeks to provide a via media in this debate. His chapter is thus appropriately titled, "Justification as Forensic Status and Covenant Membership."
To substantiate his proposal, Bird looks at, (1) what kind of "nomism" Paul was opposing, (2) the concept of vindication in biblical theology, (3) Galatians 2-3, and (4) the link between justification and the inclusion of the Gentiles in Romans.
I'll cover 2.5 of these this week, and leave 1.5 for next Monday.
(1) What Paul Was Opposing? - As we saw in the last chapter, Bird thinks that Second Temple Judaism was fairly diverse soteriologically; some strands emphasized grace and covenant, other strands emphasized obedience as the basis of eschatological salvation. Bird believes Paul was opposing an "ethnocentric nomism." The Judaizers were trying to compel the Gentiles to be circumcised as the means of entering the people of God. However, these same Judaizers believed that it was the people of God who exhibited loyalty to the Jewish identity markers who would be vindicated on the last day. Thus, one cannot separate the Judaizers' emphases on boundary markers and law-keeping as the means of procuring justification. I think Bird is on the money here. Simon Gathercole has convinced me that the Jewish boast is not simply about possession of the law, but the performance of that law as the means of being vindicated before God. However, I wonder if - on occasion - Paul simply opposes nomism/legalism generally, and not "ethnocentric nomism" (e.g. in Eph 2:8-10; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:4).
(2) Vindication in Biblical Theology - Bird notes that the biblical theme of vindication, "includes God's action in rectifying the status of his people, executing justice for them, and publicly showing that those people are in a special relationship with him" (118). Therefore, justification isn't so much about "me and God," but God and his people. It has a corporate focus.
(3) Galatians 2-3: Bird analyzes the historical background of Galatians 2-3. After an extensive discussion of Antioch, Paul's conversion/call, Jewish dietary laws and more, Bird concludes that in the Antioch incident (cf. Gal 2:11-14), the Judaizers/James' party were offended not simply because Peter was eating with Gentiles, but the implication this action carried; by eating with Gentiles without forcing them to Judaize, Peter was implying that the Gentiles were equal members with Jews in the covenant. The exegetical ramifications of this reconstruction will be explored in next week's installment.
Alright Dr. Bird, here are a few thoughts I had after reading the first half of the chapter.
(1) Do you think there are times when Paul argues against nomism generally (or at least speaks of nomism generally)? To me it seems there's a shift towards generalization from Galatians to Romans to Ephesians to the Pastorals. What do you think?
(2) If the Christians in Antioch were celebrating the Eucharist, do you think it strengthens your proposal regarding Galatians 2:11-14?
Saturday, August 9, 2008
According to some experts, I couldn't change the world until I'd written a mission statement (not to be confused with a vision statement, which I apparently also needed.) So I got right to work. I toiled over those mission and vision statements. I wanted them to encapsulate every single conviction about children's ministry that I'd come to embrace over four years of college. And I didn't want them to sound like everyone else's mission and vision statements. Mine had to be unique. Distinctive. Awe-inspiring. To put it bluntly: the best children's ministry mission and vision statements ever written.
So after much labor, I finally produced two dazzling statements. And then I forgot them a week later. To this day, I really don't know what our children's ministry mission and vision statements are. I believe they might have something to do with discipleship, but I could be wrong.
Thus, I think Isaac Watts' amazing hymn, Let Children Hear The Mighty Deeds is going to become our new mission statement. It pretty much sums up my major convictions about children's ministry and it rhymes!
Let children hear the mighty deeds
Which God performed of old;
Which in our younger years we saw,
And which our fathers told.
He bids us make His glories known,
His works of power and grace;
And we’ll convey His wonders down
Through every rising race.
Our lips shall tell them to our sons,
And they again to theirs;
That generations yet unborn
May teach them to their heirs.
Thus shall they learn in God alone,
Their hope securely stands;
That they may ne’er forget His works,
But practice His commands.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Theological smack talk in general is no new enterprise. Pick up any of the older theologians and you will find some pretty potent polemicizing. While many have exercised their gifts in this field, my humble opinion is that Martin Luther was its true master. Here was a man who clearly had probably never even heard the phrase "pulling punches," at least where theology was concerned. I recommend his essay, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" for a fine example.
Now, no one can get away with that kind of rhetoric in scholarly circles today. But far from eliminating the enterprise, this unwritten code of academic theology has only led to the development of the art form. What makes truly great scholarly smack-talk now is the ability to at once maintain the requisite academic tone and style while engaging in bold deprecation of some work in question. The result is not just the slamming of someone else's work, but the truly witty slamming of someone else's work. You know that you have just read good scholarly smack-talk when you can imagine the scholar who wrote it momentarily looking up from his computer to laugh in wry self-delight.
So here are a few of my favorite examples of the modern form, starting with a modern master, D. A. Carson. Consider these two gems, the first of which I found at Michael Bird's blog from Carson's review of Roland Boer's Rescuing the Bible:
"This book, a fascinating mix of dogmatic left-wing self-righteousness combined with rich and scathing condescension toward all who are even a tad less left than the author, is rich in unintended irony."
See what I mean?
My personal favorite from Carson though is from an endnote in his The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, where he comments on Gilbert Bilezikian's attack on the doctrine of functional subordination in the trinity:
"It is difficult to find many articles that so richly combine exegetical errors, historical misconceptions, and purple prose in so finely honed a synthesis. But I do utterly agree with his final appeal not to 'mess with the Trinity' in support of a contemporary agenda." (86)
Not only is the first sentence hilarious, but the second is clearly a backhanded slam at Bilizekian's apparent self-contradiction, since Carson thinks Bilizekian himself is messing with the Trinity in support of egalitarianism.
Next, In Jesus Under Fire, Craig Blomberg quotes John Meier, who here argues against the Jesus Seminar's understanding of Jesus as a simple spinner of proverbs on the grounds that such a Jesus would never have garnered enough controversy to be crucified:
"A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field- such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one." (Jesus Under Fire, 21, which gives an endnote to Meier's bibliographic information)
Finally, I love Alvin Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion in Christianity Today. I will only quote my favorite short paragraph, but frankly the whole first five or so paragraphs are well worth the read (you can get it here) if only for the sake of a good laugh. One gets the feeling that Plantinga is not impressed with Dawkins:
"Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying. I shall put irritation aside, however and do my best to take Dawkins' main argument seriously."
I know I am not the only one who has come across scholarly smack-talk, so any other examples you can muster would be much appreciated.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
First, Bird makes a few salient criticisms of the NPP.
(1) Merit Theology - E.P. Sanders and his scholarly progeny have adamantly maintained that Jews in the Second Temple Period were not legalistic. The covenant was the undergirding presupposition in every strand of Judaism, and this covenant was an expression of God's grace. In fact, "getting in" the covenant was solely a matter of divine grace. On the other hand, "staying in" the covenant was via obedience. This obedience, however, was understood by Jews as a grateful response to the covenant. Moreover, Jews could avail themselves of the sacrifical cultus if they failed to meet the covenant stipulations. Sanders's schematization is known as Covenantal Nomism. Bird agrees with Sanders that the Jews were not legalists. However, he criticizes Sanders's imposition of one soteriological construct on all the various strands of Second Temple Judaism. Judaism is diverse, and certain groups within Second Temple Judaism definitely emphasized law-keeping as the means of eschatological vindication. Therefore, when Paul challenges his opponents' emphasis on Torah-righteousness as the basis for final justification, he isn't knocking down strawmen. Second Temple Judaism is simply more diverse than Sanders admits.
(2) Election and Eschatology - Sanders equates election with salvation. This is misleading, since (according to him) "staying in" the covenant is by human obedience. Assuming this to be the case, it is difficult to understand how salvation is a matter of God's grace rather than human achievement. Biblically, salvation has an eschatological focus.
(3) Works of the Law - Dunn and Wright have argued that for Paul, the "works of the law" denote those distinctive Jewish works (e.g. circumcision, sabbath, food laws) which marked Jews out from the surrounding nations. The problem with this interpretation is not in what it affirms but in what it denies. For Paul, the works of the law certainly include those ceremonial rites which demarcated Jews from Gentiles. But said works also encompass everything that the law demands (cf. Rom 3:20; 4:4-6). Therefore, it is reductionistic to say Paul is simply attacking a nationalistic mindset. He is also critiquing the Jews' synergistic understanding of salvation.
(4) Nationalistic Righteousness/Righteousness as Covenant Membership (I'm lumping these two together for the sake of time) - Many NPP proponents see the righteousness the Jews were pursuing as nationalistic, and the righteousness which Christians receive as tantamount to covenant membership. Again, the problem with these views pertains to reductionism. There are moral aspects to righteousness (i.e. Paul thinks the Jews were trying to attain a right-standing with God through obedience). Moreover, righteousness doesn't simply relate to "who's in" the church. Romans 5 makes clear that righteousness is the remedy for all of humanity in-Adam. Righteousness has to do with salvation, not just the church.
5) Justification and Regeneration - Bird takes issue with N.T. Wright, who ostensibly conceives of justification as an analytic judgment based on regneration. In other words, justification is God's declaration that someone has become a Christian. Justification is not how God makes someone a Christian, or how someone gets saved; it is God's declaration that they are in fact saved. The problem with this view is that it flattens out the content of justification. God does not simply declare something to be the case in justification; he brings about a new state of affairs in the relationship between himself and the believing sinner.
Bird makes three additional "smaller" criticisms of the NPP, but you'll have to buy the book to read about those.
Second, Bird notes some helpful insights from the NPP.
(1) The Jewish Context of Theology - NPP advocates have rightfully emphasized the need to understand Paul in the milieu of his day. I laud Sanders, Dunn, and Wright for drawing attention to this. We are quite removed from the world of 1st Century Judaism, and we will impose improper categories onto the text if we do not take the historical context of the New Testament seriously.
(2) The Social Function of the Law - It's easy to view biblical statements about the law in a generalized way. The NPP has reminded us of the boundary-creating effect the law had in Mediterranean antiquity. This has helped me to remember that Paul's aim in talking about the law isn't just vertical (me and God), but horizontal as well (Jew and Gentile).
(3) The Unity of Jews and Gentiles in One Body - The unity of Jewish and Gentile believers is central to Paul's mission. Just read Galatians, Romans 3, or Ephesians 2, and you will see that justification is integrally bound up with the Jew/Gentile issue. In light of this, the question we should ask when reading Paul may not be "what must I do to be saved?", but, "who are the people of God and in what economy will they be vindicated?" (109).
(4) Justification as Covenant Status - Justification does have at least something to do with being a member of the covenant!
(5) Righteousness and Obedience - The NPP has contended for a link between justification and obedience that is oftentimes lost in Protestant theology.
Well Dr. Bird, I have a few questions...
(1) How much gas do you think is left in the tank of the New Perspective debate? Have most people settled on a mediating position? Will there be a new hot topic in this field of study?
(2) How do you incorporate insights from the NPP into your teaching without losing your congregation (and your own mind!) in the process?
Monday, August 4, 2008
I feel the same way about communion. It’s amazing to participate in an ancient practice that not only helps us remember Christ’s sacrifice, but also connects us with other Christians.
I love the solidarity fostered by baptism and communion. Yet some Christians are not allowed to participate because they either haven’t completed or do not meet various requirements such as classes, church membership, pastoral interviews, or even age. The process of getting baptized or taking communion has become a bit more complicated than simply finding a body of water and saying, “What prevents me from being baptized?” or showing up and eating together.
I believe that we need to observe baptism and communion in a worthy manner. But if someone has professed faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, I wonder if it’s the church’s job to determine whether or not that faith is legitimate before they allow him or her to participate. Which leads to my question: Should churches demand any qualifications for baptism or communion other than faith in Christ?
I see several benefits to requiring classes, interviews, confirmation and such:
1. If people don’t understand the significance behind baptism and communion, both practices run the risk of becoming meaningless rituals.
2. Allowing anyone who says they’re a Christian to participate, even if they’ve shown no fruit in their lives, could make baptism and communion seem trite.
3. Kids may desire to get baptized or take communion because they want to be like older siblings, think it looks fun, or even just want a snack. It’s important that they understand the meaning of these practices before they are allowed to participate.
However, these requirements also present some problems:
1. There’s no biblical precedent for individual churches requiring qualifications for baptism or communion other than professing faith in Christ.
2. These qualifications can prevent Christians from participating in the practices they are commanded to observe.
3. Some qualifications aimed at kids assume that a specific process is always a better judge of a child’s readiness for baptism or communion than the parent. It seems wrong to set an age requirement that keeps a seven year old from being baptized, even when that child’s parents know she is a Christian.
So what do you all think? Are confirmation classes, pastoral interviews and age requirements necessary in order to observe baptism and communion in a worthy way? Or should churches allow anyone who professes faith in Christ to participate and leave unworthy practice between the individual and God? I’m currently leaning towards the latter, given the lack of biblical support for qualifications outside of salvation. And if a five year old wants to be baptized and his parents believe he is a Christian and understands what he’s doing, I think it would be unbiblical to prevent him from participating.
But that’s just my opinion. Take it with a grain of salt (or as my dad says, a pillar of salt.) And let me know your thoughts.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
2. Joel Kotkin has an insightful take on the future of the Democratic Party.
3. Sesame Street embraces utilitarianism (et tu, Cookie Monster?).
4. James McGrath argues that fundamentalism is fundamentally unbiblical
5."Right Wing Super-Consumerism"
6.Catholic Anarchy in Toronto
7. David Congdon (The Fire and the Rose) features an interesting article by Brian Howell discussing church leadership, gender, and culture.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
"What did Smart do that got him confined to a madhouse? Apparently he prayed too much. Samuel Johnson defended him: 'My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.'"
Normally I would just throw the link to the Sanders post on in our weekly links post, but I thought Johnson's bit of reflection on prayer was too good to put there.
I mean, seriously: how many of you even go and check those links out? That's what I thought. In this case you really should go read the whole thing though, if only for the quotes from Smart.
First, on the God-driven, salvation historical nature of biblical theology:
"Biblical theology is neither the story of humanity's search for God, nor is it a description of a history of religious experience. Biblical theology is theology: it is primarily a story about God and his concern for human beings. It exists only because of the divine initiative realizing itself in a series of divine acts whose objective is human redemption. Biblical theology therefore is not exclusively, or even primarily, a system of abstract theological truths. It is basically the description and interpretation of the divine activity within the scene of human history that seeks humanity's redemption." (21)
Second, on the nature of Jesus' ministry and teaching:
"The mission of Jesus brought not a new teaching but a new event. It brought to people an actual foretaste of the eschatological salvation. Jesus did not promise the forgiveness of sins; he bestowed it. He did not simply assure people of the future fellowship of the Kingdom; he invited them into fellowship with himself as the bearer of the Kingdom. He did not merely promise them vindication in the day of judgment; he bestowed upon them the status of a present righteousness. He not only taught an eschatological deliverance from physical evil; he went about demonstrating the redeeming power of the Kingdom, delivering people from sickness and even death." (78)
This latter quote seemed especially poignant to me because it seems that sometimes we can spend so much time trying to think through Jesus' teachings (certainly not a bad thing!) that it is easy to forget that he was and is more than a great religious teacher.
Friday, August 1, 2008
1. Am I a Christian? (Integrity is the number one value of a church planter).
This seems like an obvious characteristic. However, some men grow up in churches and are led to believe that they placed their faith in Jesus for salvation while they lack a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus said that we must be born again or regenerated by the Spirit of God (John 3:16). It is possible that a man could build a church and not be a Christian, but it is not advised.
2. Am I passionately in love with Jesus and is He the Lord of every area of my life? (Personal spiritual dynamics is the second most important area) The gospel must be evidently at work in every area of a church planter’s life: personally, maritally,
domestically, sexually, financially, physically, relationally and ministerially. We are sinners who need forgiveness through repentance and confession. We have to practice this daily as examples of the gospel.
3. Do I believe His word and does it affect my life deeply? It's not enough to just have good sermon material; it has to flow from your heart. The Word needs to
speak to you, and you need to preach out of the abundance of his Word.
4. Am I Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed, Spirit-led and Spirit-controlled? (Acts 1:8)
We are eager to be witnesses, but we have tendencies to lean on our own ideas and abilities apart from the Spirit of God. The church planter needs to be an empowered man. The Spirit needs to be working in and through him and be dripping out. Jesus accomplished work on this earth through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon Jesus and rested or remained on Him (Matt. 3:16). Luke 4 said that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit, and began His ministry in
Galilee in the power of the Spirit and preached with the Spirit of the Lord upon Him. He rejoiced in the Spirit (Luke 10:21) and promised the Spirit to those who asked the father (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit longs to empower us to do our work as a missionary-church planter to the ends of the earth.
5. Am I qualified as an Elder? (1 Timothy, Titus) Timothy and Titus talk about the qualifications. Study them carefully and assess yourself. Both lists say that to be above reproach is the overarching, summarizing characteristic. You will find a similar(but not identical) list in First Timothy. Being above reproach is the first requirement in both lists and Titus repeats it. The other items on the list explain what above reproach means.— you have to be above reproach. There isn’t an exhaustive list of characteristics. They overlap, but the key is to be above reproach. The lists are some "for instances" of how to be above reproach: the husband of one
wife with no one else in your hands, your head, your heart, your eyes, or on that screen—none. A church pastor must be totally focused and satisfied in that one woman God has brought to him. Marriage will be a struggle at times. But you cannot stray, even an inch. Practicing the gospel is required for a good marriage. Children should be in submission and pastors need to pastor their wife and kids first. If we peruse the two lists, as well as First Peter, we find 17 qualities of an elder who is
above reproach. See list at the end of this document.
6. Do I love the local church as the expression of a gospel community on mission? (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus loved the Church – enough to die for her (Eph. 5:25). A planter therefore is a Church lover. He may die for her, but if he doesn’t love her, he is nothing (1 Cor. 13). Josh Harris exhorts the pew sitters to stop dating the church. The pastor may need to stop having a junior high affair with the church and
make a lifelong commitment.
7. Am I a missionary to the city? Am I sent for the advancement of the gospel in the city (John 20:21)? If you are a church planter, you have to be a missionary. Every pastor needs to see himself as a missionary for the glory of God and the good of the city. Don't be someone who wants to start something because of self-centeredness and pride and my desire to be recognized. It's not about the church planter or personal success. It's about exalting the grace of Jesus.
8. Do I have a clear vision for this new work? Nehemiah 1:3, 4; 2:11-18 Lacking a vision was the second most obvious void among aspiring church planters submitting to the Acts 29 assessment process. Nehemiah had to have a vision of a complete wall. Not take a survey. The city is in ruins; it's time to build. You know you have a vision when people around you say, “Let's do that.” People need to be following your compelling, life-transforming vision.
9. Am I willing to pour myself out in obedience to the vision? A planter if he is to follow Jesus, must manifest the death of Jesus. He must become less for Christ to
become greater. A planter, like Jesus, is one who “aims low” in that sense. Philippians 2 is instructive in general of this pattern. We are to “Have this mind” –the mind of a Christ who emptied Himself out for the gospel. He, being God, humbled himself to the point of death – then he was exalted. Romans Chapter 6 describes the union with Christ in His death that precedes union with Christ in life.
10. Am I healthy? Physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, relationally, martially Most church planters get fatter, fussier, angrier, lonelier, poorer and at odds more with their mate and their Lord during the first two years of a church plant. Don’t think that having a church baby will solve your deficiencies any more than a baby will solve the problems of a troubled marriage.
11. Am I the kind of leader many people will follow? Have I served as a church leader successfully? Occasionally a man will aspire to be a church planter who has no experience as a church leader or an elder in another local church. Paul warns the church not to be hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:22) or appointing a pastor who is a recent convert who is prone to pride (1 Timothy 3:6). A
church planter will be more effective with a few years of experience involved with the local church in a leadership capacity. The best church planters are those men who have led in multiple venues and people followed over a sustained period of time.
Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that when God wants to get something done He starts by selecting a man to lead that change. Examples include sparing humanity (Noah), founding a nation (Abraham), liberating a nation (Moses), establishing a throne (David), building a Temple (Solomon), preparing hearts (John the Baptizer), and redeeming all of creation (Jesus). Church planting is no different. Simply, before God can build a church plant He must build a church
planter who can lead others to follow the mission of Jesus.
12. Can I preach effectively? You don't have to hit it out of the ballpark every time. But you do have to hit singles pretty regularly. The pulpit is the rudder that steers the church. You need to hit solid singles most every time you come
to the plate. If you hit some doubles and triples and home runs every now and then that is good. We cannot make our preaching an idol. The key thing is to avoid popping up or striking out. The worst is taking the third strike looking because we freeze at the pressure. Relax, connect with the Spirit and with your audience and the effectiveness will take care of itself.
13. Can I guard the doctrinal door with Biblical clarity and tenacious confidence?
When you start a church, you'll have new people with new ideas—some for which they got kicked out of their old church. You have to be able to guard the doctrinal door, refute doctrinal error—not arrogantly, but being sure of what the Word of God says and being able to articulate that in a winsome way with authority.
14. Can I architect a new work with entrepreneurial skill? What have you started successfully? Some men can't see the vision of what is to come, and some—
even if they see the vision—can't find the steps toward accomplishing their vision. If you can't be the architect, then you are in trouble. As an example, some very pastoral people are NOT the best people to start a church, or at least not as the main team leader. Be clear about who you are. If you're a shepherd, counselor, caregiver, and you could be a success doing those things in an established
church or as part of a team, then that is where you should be. Someone who is called to plant a church is frustrated if they don't do it. Number two leaders rarely make good number one leaders.
15. Am I called to plant a church at this time and in this place? Acts 17:26 says that God appoints the time and the place of our ministry. Titus was the apostolic
leader over the churches in Crete. Before Paul appointed him to do that, he went through a progression of calling:
• 2 Cor. 7:6, Titus was a friend who encouraged Paul
• 2 Cor 7:13, Titus was overwhelmed by the ministry of the Macedonians
• 2 Cor. 8:6, Titus was a faithful worker carrying out the wishes of Paul
• 2 Cor. 8:16-17, Titus developed a heart for the ministry and initiated ministry on his own.
• 2 Cor. 8:23 and 12:17, Titus was a proven minister
• Titus 1:4-5, Titus was the senior overseer to appoint elders throughout the island of Crete. His proven faithfulness and calling allowed him to pioneer works in a hostile environment. In 1 Peter 5:2, Peter exhorts the elders to “Shepherd the flock of God…not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.” A calling is necessary in a church plant to face the tough times because a hireling leaves when the wolf arrives. But a called shepherd stays with his flock through
adversity (John 10:12ff.).
16. Have my church leaders commended me for this calling? The Book of Acts lacks any reference to asking for volunteers. In Acts 11:22 the believers sent Barnabas. It was the congregation in Jerusalem that selected and sent one of its own gifted members. In all of the subsequent sending of missionaries in the Book of Acts, the emphasis is never upon an individual volunteering or upon his own subjective sense of call, but always upon the initiative of others. Saul goes to Antioch because Barnabas takes him there (Acts 11:25-26). It is the whole group of prophets and teachers in Antioch to whom the Holy Spirit says “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul
for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:1-4). Barnabas and Paul parted company and we are told that Barnabas took Mark (Acts 15:39) and Paul chose Silas (Acts 15:40). Both “departed being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.” Subsequently Paul wanted Timothy to go with him (Acts 16:3). We are reminded that Timothy “was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:1-2) implying that the congregations were consulted and involved in his going out with Paul. While western culture promotes and encourages the personal call and entrepreneurial spirit of the planter, the New Testament by contrast stresses the corporate initiatives of congregations in selecting suitable people for Gospel ministry. It cannot be justified from the New Testament and the best one can scrape up from the Old Testament is the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:8). The call of an Old Testament prophet should be not regarded as normative for a New Testament church missionary. The prophet was sent TO the people of God while the New Testament planter is sent BY the people of God. When the church in Jerusalem heard of the need in Antioch, together as a congregation they expressed their sense of responsibility and they sent Barnabas (Acts 11:23, 14:22). We should select our best men (Acts 11:24) and send them. Instead of the initiative being left to the individual, churches should deliberately approach their best, most gifted Christian leaders to send them to places of greater need. The individual is still responsible to respond positively to the congregation’s approach. The individual’s subjective sense of call is confirmed by the objective call of the church body, recognizing his gifts and qualifications. This reinforces the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s call upon a man. Typically a man feels called and informs his church and the lead pastor terminates that man from employment rather than recognizing him as a man called and to be sent by that church. The missionaries sent out from the New Testament churches were ministering in their local congregations already. We typically want to receive resumes when we should be examining the men in our own congregations. If no one in our congregation is qualified, it is a sad statement upon the leaders of that congregation for not preparing men to be sent into other fields. The chief work of church planting is the birthing, building and blossoming of congregations. Who will do this better than those who are already have considerable local church experience? As members of the church, we should be going or training others to go at all times. This is an indication of a church with an enthusiastic and fruitful mission that is passionate about following the mission of Jesus.
17. Am I a hard worker? Am I persevering? Church planting is hard work with no easy solutions or shortcuts. The verse, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thes. 3:10) is especially true in church planting. A man must be disciplined,
organized, courageous, dependable, patient, well read, hard working, discerning, a man who gets things done in an effective and timely manner, which also means that he's passionate and selfmotivated. The Bible calls a pastor an ox (1 Tim. 5:17-18), a soldier (2 Tim. 2:3-4), an athlete (2 Tim. 2:5) and a farmer (2 Tim. 2:6). Those are laborious jobs and the Holy Spirit used them to describe the kind of
man who is qualified to pastor a church. To plant a church that honors God a man must preach and teach the Bible with all of the strength and fortitude of an ox that can pull a multitude of people in his wake (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Satan routinely
sends heretics, nut jobs, and false teachers of all kinds into a church plant because it's systems are yet fluid, its leadership is yet settled, and it's relationships are yet cultivated. To plant a church that honors God a man must fight like a dependable soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Throughout his letters, Paul continually admonishes Timothy to fight a good fight. With the world, the flesh, and the devil conspiring to thwart the new work a church planter must continually fight. Weak men who are prone to avoid conflict or crumble under pressure will end up quitting prematurely. To plant a church that honors God, a man must train and compete with the precision of a skilled athlete (2 Timothy 2:5). Lazy men who adore their comfort, food, and hobbies rarely plant an effective
church because they end up wasting time, energy and creativity. To plant a church that honors God a man must sweat at his labor like a farmer (2 Timothy 2:6). Many
young men are attracted to ministry because, as one pastor said, it's an indoor job that does not require any heavy lifting. When done honorably, ministry in general and church planting in particular is extremely difficult work. Like the farmer who depends on the labor of his hands without a boss, a set schedule or a predictable paycheck, the planter must be self-disciplined, get up every morning and work hard gathering people, studying, teaching, raising money, locating facilities, building systems, training men and repeating that routine day after day.
18. Am I adaptable to new people, places and concepts? If you don't like change, you don't like church planting! If you are the kind of person who goes into the
fetal position with new challenges, you're probably not a church planter.
19. Can I raise the funds needed for my family’s needs? A church planter who won't provide for the needs of his family is worse than an unbeliever and has
denied the faith (1 Tim. 5:8). Church planters often hide behind the cloak of “faith” and “calling” to shield them from taking responsibility with their family. A church planter’s children need a father more than the city needs a new church. Money is not the key to success but a lack of money is a huge
detriment. It is unbiblical to place our family on the altar of our idol of success.
20. Am I humble enough to learn from others—particularly from those who have gone ahead of me in different areas? This is one of the issues we call "stallers" and "stoppers" in our assessments. A church planter needs to be coachable, teachable. If he is not teachable, his church will stay stunted in its growth. He needs to identify areas where he has weaknesses and blind spots and then seek the advisement of those around him that can help him to continually grow and learn.
(HT: Adrian Warnock)