What is the Center of Paul? A Three Corded Rope?

21 05 2010
Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854
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A friend of mine (Jason Hood) is in the process of writing an article about the kingdom of God as the center of Paul’s thinking -If I’ve understood him right. This is an age old question, but after I wrote a response to Jason, I thought it might be worth posting it for others to interact with…

Jason, you have emphasized the continuity of the concept, i.e. suggested how other key ideas and expression (eschatology, union with Christ) may be consumed under the kingdom of God. I would like to hear about the discontinuity too – why in the  Pauline corpus do we see him choosing this expression when he does, over against another descriptor. I.e. in the absence of a passage which explains why this particular expression IS a summary of these other ideas (I don’t know of any passage that brings them all together), why does Paul choose to use other expressions besides this one and why does he choose to use this expression where he does.

My only concern as I have thought about this subject myself (I start my lectures on Paul’s letter with three full weeks on the center of Paul) is a pedagogical one. Kingdom is quite an impersonal concept, as are redemptive history and eschatology. Union with Christ is a REALLY personal way for Paul to say things. Maybe this (in part) answers the question of “Why this expression?” (above), but there is also a pedagogical rub with what you are trying to say in your article. If someone says to me that “kingdom of God is the center of Paul” It sounds very corporate – which of course many today would be happy about! But given the VERY personal nature of “with/in Christ” how in your article can you capture the idea that the center of Paul is (in fact) very personal?

For what it is worth, I teach that the center of Paul is a three corded rope – union with Christ, redemptive history & eschatology. You may then state this three different ways depending (pedagogically) on what you/Paul wants to emphasize 1) The center of Paul is Jesus, who fulfills redemptive history by ushing in the eschaton; or 2) The center of Paul redemptive history, which now finds its fulfillment in Jesus ushering in the eschaton; or 3) The center of Paul is eschatology, which in Christ is the beginning of the end for redemptive history. Perhaps the redemptive history side could be restated as kingdom, since this is OT language for the hope of Israel, which finds finds a subversiveness expression in Christianity in that the way the eschaton works out and also the nature of God‘s Christ. It is this subversive edge as well as Paul’s desire to be personal, which perhaps explains why he must add the other two cords to this rope.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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What’s in a word?

1 01 2010

In reading about a debate on “Patronage” vs “Benefaction” it occurred to me that lots of people are ignorant of a really important discussions about the nature of words. So here is the first of a few extracts from Chapter 3 of Anthony Thiselton’s  “New Horizons in Hermeneutics”. Hope this is helpful in stimulating your thinking…

All texts presuppose code. The text of a medical prescription, for example, has been encoded by a medical practitioner in accordance with the conventions of the profession, and invites a pharmacist to de-code it for action in light of these shared conventions. A music score has been encoded by a composer, and waits to be decoded by an orchestra or singers in a musical event. In these exampels, however the code is not the items of information which constitute the “message.” The codes is the sign –system, lattice, or network, in terms of which the linguistic choices which convey the message are expressed. The musical code which enables the composer to specify the production of a particular note for a particular length of time is not the note itself (which would be the message); but the stave or staff of five parallel horizontal lines (together with the clef and the specified areas where possible choices about key signature and time would be supplied) which constitute the structure in terms of which given notes can be chosen and properties specified. Complex texts may presuppose several different layers of code. For example, the Apocalypse of John at one level presupposes the range of possible lexical and grammatical choices available in Hellenistic Greek… But it also operates on the basis of a system of conventions used by earlier apocalyptic. Some allusions to earlier texts such as Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel are not merely reminders about earlier traditions… Language in the Apocalypse of John about “one hundred and forty-four thousand” (Rev. 7.4) presupposes a code which is different from that which generates meaning in the case of mathematical propositions. In the case of mathematics, the network of choices operates in terms f a contrast which opposes or excludes “one hundred and forty-four thousand and one” or “one hundred and forty-three thousand and ninety nine.” But the text of Revelation presupposes contrastive networds which signal differences between completeness and incompleteness with reference to a history of traditions about “twelve” which have become familiar enough to represent a convention among certain communities. Where horses’ heads seem to become merged with heads of lions (Rev. 9.10) the code which is presupposed is not that of empirical visual observations and description. The “measuring” of the temple (Rev. 11.1-2) may perhaps involve several layers….

Posted by Bruce Lowe

Morality Not an End in Itself

13 12 2009
C. S.
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C. S. Lewis once said:

“I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that thought Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filed with light. But they are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.”

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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“Pursue Academic Responsibility”

9 12 2009
Master (Cap and Gown)
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Recently I came across this quote from and old book: “Letter’s Along the Way” (Carson and Woodbridge). I thought it was worth posting:

“Pursue academic responsibility and trust God to work out the details of who hears you and what influence you have. Responsible scholarship has far more potential for discovering and buttressing truth and for winning people’s minds than mere respectability anyway. If instead you take the lower road and pursue mere academic respectability, you may gain more plaudits from the world, but it is far more doubtful that you will have the approbation of Heaven. Once in a while there have been scholars who have gained both; it is doubtful if they have ever done so by pursuing respectability.” (p176)

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Douglas Campbell, “The Deliverance of God”

22 10 2009

Douglas Campbell’s new book “The Deliverance of God – An Apocalyptic Rereading of imagesJustification in Paul” is a very substantial work likely to ruffle more feathers than a windstorm in a chicken coup.

This book is a 1000 page “crystallization” of over 20 years of musing on Romans and justification. What he tries to do in a nutshell is chart a new way forward by giving a completely new reading of Romans 1-4. Campbell believes that a correct reading has been stifled by a “justification reading” of these chapters. This he claims is true for almost every past reader. What needs to be realized instead is that in many places Paul is not expressing his own opinions so much as outlining and refuting the ideas of a Jewish teacher. His reading is very much shaped by seeing an ongoing fictitious exchange throughout.

No one is really safe from Campbell’s critique. On the one hand the NPP’s de-emphasis on good works righteousness in Judaism comes under scrutiny. On the other, traditional justification is beaten up both in broad daylight and in every dark alley where Campbell sees it lurking.

What do I think? 1) I don’t like the “everyone else is bias” approach that has somehow become fashionable in this discussion; 2) I do like the fact that he tries a new reading of Romans 1-4, which I think is overdue; 3) I don’t like the way he relies on the ficticious dialogue throughout. I think this dialogue is right for Romans 2.1-3.8 but to try and push it out almost everywhere gets quite thin. If the dialogue is wrong at any moment, if Paul is actually asking or answering a question instead, then what was the opponent’s opinion suddenly becomes Paul’s, in a way that could turn his whole thesis on its head. This indeed is what I think can and will happen as more thorough attention is paid to some of the rhetorical clues that have been missed by Campbell and the apocalyptic side is developed more naturally.

9/10 for critique of others; 8/10 for charting a new way of approaching Romans 1-4; 6/10 for execution of a new reading; and 3/10 for the conclusion that results.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Who is Babylon the Prostitute in Revelation?

18 10 2009
Hanging Balls Of Babylon
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Revelation is one of those books (letters?) that is tough for anyone to read. So much confusing imagery, lots of controversy at every turn. I’m not going to attempt to unravel its mysteries , but I will argue for something I think is pretty important, which can then act as a key for opening up other things: Who is Babylon the prostitute? In many different ways the Letter / book itself points to: earthly Jerusalem. Here’s some of the reasons:

Reason #1 – Unfaithful Jerusalem was portrayed as a prostitute in the OT (Ezek 23), so the metaphor here is just the same.

Reason #2 – Jerusalem has already been called by the names of other wicked cities in Revelation (see 11:8), so there is a precedent for it going by the name of yet another OT city.

Reason #3 – The woman with stars on her head in Chap. 12 (Jerusalem) gets transported into the wilderness in 12:14. Then when John gets taken into the wilderness himself, he sees a woman: “And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet.” Same place is suggestive of the same woman – she has become corrupted in the wilderness (another OT theme for Israel).

Reason #4 – Only other woman (besides Jezebel, 2.20) in Revelation is the bride (contrasting the prostitute) and she is the heavenly Jerusalem. Logically then there is a contrast between unfaithful earthly Jerusalem and the faithful heavenly one (21:10)

Reason #5 – The prostitute cannot be the Rome (next best possibility), because Rome is the city of seven hills (17:9) which is the beast on which she rides – a picture of Jerusalem prostituting herself to Rome.

Reasons #6 – … and the beast turns on here (17:16) which is perfectly explained by the destruction of Jerusalem under the Romans in the year 70.

Reason #7 Note also how in 4Ezra, Ezra has a vision of a woman and it ends up being Jerusalem:

[EZRA HAS A VISION AND SEES A WOMAN…] [I] turned to her and said to her, “Why are you weeping, and why are you grieved at heart?” ”Let me alone, my lord,” she said, “that I may weep for myself and continue to mourn, for I am greatly embittered in spirit and deeply afflicted.” And I said to her, “What has happened to you? Tell me.” She said to me, “Your servant was barren and had no child, though I lived with my husband thirty years…” [SHE GOES ON FOR A BIT AND THEN …] suddenly she uttered a loud and fearful cry, so that the earth shook at the sound. And I looked, and behold the woman was no longer visible to me, but there was an established city (!!!)

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Avoiding a “God-less” Theology

14 10 2009
writing...the old fashioned way
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In a now famous little article by Nils Dahl (“The Neglected Factor of New Testament Theology”) the point is made: “New Testament theology, as practiced in the contemporary scholarly community, does not speak about god but about the way in which the New Testament authors talk about god; its discourse about God is indirect… the theme of ‘God’ has been neglected in New Testament theology.” How amazing that this could happen -a loss of the forest for the trees! There is always a danger isn’t there that ideas about God can capture our attention at the expense of actually thinking about and relating to God!

Dahl adds a provocative thought to this that perhaps under the influence of the Christological school of Ritschl in the 19th century, we think of Christ but not God.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

God as Patron?

15 08 2009

In his excellent book of 2004 “Reconceptualizing Coversion,” Zeba A. Crook argues that most people in the first century saw God (whichever god they followed) as the great patron and benefactor.

The best picture of this today is actually the Mafia, where the godfather sits at the top of the tree demanding trust and loyalty from his clients, distributing protection, security and belonging in return. But the moment such a parallel is made it causes people to (rightly) cringe. A bit like the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16) – we balk at God ever being paralleled with an ugly figure.

David deSilva has recently given other reasons why 21st century westerners may not like this idea:

People in the United States and northern Europe may be culturally conditioned to find the concept of patronage distasteful at first and not at all a suitable metaphor for talking about god’s relationship to us. When we say “it’s not what you know but who you know,” it is usually because we sense someone has had an unfair advantage over us or over the friend whom we console with these words. It violates our conviction that everyone should have equal access to employment opportunities (being evaluated on the basis of pertinent skills rather than personal connection) or to services offered by private businesses or civic agencies. Where patronage occurs (often deridingly called nepotism: channeling opportunities to relations or personal friends), it is often done “under the table” and kept as quite as possible

Are these good reasons to reject this picture? Actually they are very good reasons to be extremely cautious if choosing to reject this picture. There are a lot of ulterior motives kicking around, which may make us blind to seeing the importance of this idea in the NT.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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What Attitude Does God Want?

8 08 2009
Affection Instead of Despair
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Came across an interesting discussion by the Philo of Alexandria, about ways of coming to God – whether to get something or otherwise. Think its an interesting insight into the way some Jews in the first century were thinking about their relationship with God:

Men when they perceive that, under the pretext of friendship, some persons come to them, being in reality only desirous to get what they can from them, look upon them with suspicion, and turn away from them, fearing their insincere, and flattering, and caressing behaviour, as very pernicious. (127) But God, inasmuch as he is not liable to any injury, gladly invites all men who choose, in any way whatever to honor him, to come unto him, not choosing altogether to reject any person whatever; and, in truth, he almost says in express words to those who have ears in the soul, “The most valuable prizes shall be offered to those who worship me for my own sake: (128) the second best to those who hope by their own efforts to be able to attain to good, or to find a means of escape from punishments. For even if the service of this latter class is mercenary and not wholly incorrupt, still it nevertheless revolves within the divine circumference, and does not stray beyond it. (129) But the rewards which shall be laid up for those who honor me for my own sake are rewards of affection; while those which are given to those who do so with a view to their own advantage are not given through affection, but because they are not looked upon as aliens. For I receive him who wishes to be a partaker of my beneficent power to a participation in my good things, and him who out of fear seeks to propitiate my governing and despotic power, I receive so far as to avert punishment from him. For I am not unaware that, in addition to these men not becoming worse, they will become better, by gradually arriving at a sincere and pure piety by their constant perseverance in serving me. (130) (On Abaham, 126f)

1) Philo does not seem to believe that good deeds (or even the motive behind them) is crucial to being accepted by God; 2) But he does believe that God still wants people to do things for the right reasons (eventually); 3) This quote does show that motives were important in the first century thinking about an individual. This last point makes me think of Krister Stendahl’s essay “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” where he argues against the inward look. Philo’s not encouraging an inward look, but he is conscious of motives. It gets me thinking about this question too – in evangelism, how bad is good works? Sometimes we think that the worst possible person is the religious moralist who is trying to earn things from God. But Philo says that at least they are looking towards God. Is a religious moralist further from accepting the grace of God in Christ or closer than (say) an irreligious person? Is the first step to challenge moralism? Or help them in “gradually arriving” by shifting emphasis to God’s grace?

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Preaching Psalm 13 (Sermon)

10 07 2009
"Where angels fear to tread"
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How would I preach Psalm 13? Typologically, some will argue that David represents the Christ as in Psalm 22, ad so this (like other Psalms) should be preached the way the NT authors use Psalm 22. Here, Psalm 13 could be preached as Jesus trusting his Father and seeing the light of salvation at his resurrection.

I would want to draw attention however to the original context of the Psalm… meaning the audience to whom it was written. If an Israelite was made to sing this Psalm or to listen to others singing it, would the sole purpose be to magnify the king and his right response to God? Would it not also be that the king’s example would resonate with issues faced by those singing/listening. The center of the Psalm itself seems to be a right heart with God – not worrying troubles themselves – is the way to have confidence.

In this sense, I struggle with the thought that the original poetry of the psalm as it highlights the importance of the heart, would in a sense disappear as it does in a purely Christological reading. I would think rather that while David’s type of Christ should be emphasized, so too should his example of faith.

How then would I preach this? I would want to emphasize what the Psalm emphasizes: that troubles, no matter what they may be, should always direct us first and foremost towards God. Provided our confidence is in him you can have joy and anticipation that he will deliver you. Ultimately in the present this means we must put our faith in Christ, who is God’s deliverer for us. When we put our trust in Jesus, God’s savior, we can have utter confidence of his salvation.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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