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

Reading Paul

15 06 2009

9781556351952I’ve just starting reading Michael Gorman’s book Reading Paul (Cascade, 2008). This is his ‘glimpse of Paul’s grand scheme’ in one (very) long sentence (he has clearly been influenced by Paul in more ways than one!):

Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centered on God’s crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ’s death and resurrection and are (1) justified, or restored to right covenant relations with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord’s body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities commited to and governed by Caesar (and analogous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God’s Son so that they may lead “bifocal” lives, focused both back on Christ’s first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peaceableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation. [p. 8]

Posted by Con Campbell

Thinking Like a Christian

1 06 2009
Close shot of Rodin's The Thinker at the Musée...
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I have been reading Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus” (don’t stop reading… its gets better!). Epictetus was a slave of Nero and a Stoic philosopher. These two things together are very important –given that Nero was a great persecutor of Christians and that many of us today think like Stoics! We rely on rationalizing a bad situation into a good one as a way of coping with life’s difficulties, which is exactly what Stoicism was all about. What is interesting is that Epictetus doesn’t interpret the mindset of Christians in his own day this way!

Speaking about “Freedom from Fear(4.7.1), he rationalizes that if a person doesn’t really set his heart on living or dying he may come into the presence of a tyrant (Nero?) and not be afraid of what he might do. He then goes on to speak about two kinds of people who don’t rely on the power of reason to get them through such a situation. The first is the madman who for some reason doesn’t care about losing children or wife and thus won’t mind losing themselves.

The second is “the Galileans” which all scholars believe is a reference to Christians. He says they are able to make face death because of “custom / practice” (Grk: ethous). This is tantalizing as to what he might mean. My best take is that it is pack mentality. Its was seen as “the thing to do” among Christians to die under the tyrant – part of what had become the custom or the thing to do. This would make sense that he would think of categorizing Christians this way. But what’s interesting to me is what he doesn’t lump Christians in with Stoics who rationalize it like this: “cannot reason and demonstration teach a man that God has made all things in the universe and the whole universe itself, to be free from hinderance, and to contain its end in itself, and the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole.”

For Epictetus the secret to happiness is to rationalize your own misfortune in terms of some greater good. And isn’t this what we who are Christians do as well? I’m not at all sure that being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12) means quite what we think it means. In the context of Romans 11, the will of God is not easy to understand, it is mysterious (11:30-33), it is not at all what you expect. And after we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds it is only then that we understand this (strange) will of God (Rom 12:2b). I think we think that the transformed mind is the mind that can rationalizing things better and better. But this is Stoicism. In the entire context of Romans 11 and 12:1 having a transformed mind seems to have more to do with responding to God’s mercy aright, and submitting your will and lack of understanding to him whose mind is greater (see again 11:30-33). Like Job who never knew why it all happened… but in the end put his hand over his mouth, the transformed Christian mind is a mind which has reconciled itself to not knowing a great deal of the time.

Do we worship the mind, as Christians today? Are we a closet Stoic, thinking this is actually Christianity?

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Is Paul Divided? 02

26 05 2009
Copenhagen c.
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Here is the second good quote. This one comes from Troels Engberg-Pedersen of Copenhagen:

Paul should not be seen against a ‘background’ from which he would stand out in splendid isolation. Such a picture would not do justice to the many and complex ways in which he interacted directly with his cultural contemporaries. Instead, we should view Paul as one among them, as a coplayer within a shared ‘context’ that would allow any player to stand out momentarily and for a specific issue of interpretation, but also to receded again later into the shared context.

It does seem to me that we often do Paul and ourselves an injustice when we oversimplify his background, and separate him unnecessarily from his own “culture.” Your thoughts?

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Is Paul Divided? 01

22 05 2009
Marquand Chapel: Yale Divinity School
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I came across this great quote about the need to consider Paul in his total cultural context. I have one other from the same book “Paul Beyond the Judaism / Hellenism Divide” which I will post soon…

“A Hebrew born of Hebrews” he tells us himself, “as to the law a Pharisee. Yet he wrote only and fluently in Greek… others are also making a strong case that Paul was more aware of the specifically philosophical school discussion of his day than we had previously guessed. Yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that frequently he also employs interpretive strategies and traditions from reading the Jewish scriptures that are strikingly like those found in early and later Jewish interpretations, both sectarian and rabbinic. Impossible, too, to erase the typically apocalyptic scenarios that intrude into Paul’s argument, even in places where he is sounding most “Hellenistic” or “rabbinic.” He was, it seems, all these things at once.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Galatians 1.1

18 05 2009


A well-known senior colleague and I are toying with the idea of writing a commentary on Galatians together. It’s very early days: we’re not even sure if we want to do this yet, but it’s looking promising. We’re thinking of writing a commentary that models how to move from the Greek text to the sermon. In other words, it would be a preacher’s commentary, working through all the steps that preachers need to make to go from text to pulpit.

I’ve started making notes on the first verses of the epistle to give us something to work on as we think through what the commentary might look like. I thought I’d share this as I put it down, and I’m keen to hear your feedback, comments, suggestions, etc.


This is a first draft. I haven’t revised it or edited it. And I haven’t read any commentaries yet.

These are just my first thoughts as they strike me from the Greek text.

With that in mind, comment away!

Galatians 1.1

Παῦλος ἀπόστολος οὐκ (ἀπ᾿ ἀνθρώπων) οὐδὲ (δι᾿ ἀνθρώπου)

Paul’s opening emphasizes his divinely-appointed apostolicity: he is an apostle not from men, nor through man. The prepositions from (ἀπό) and through (διά) are interesting here. Since apostle is cognate with the Greek verb to send (ἀποστέλλω), being an apostle from men conveys the sense of being sent by men. They are the senders; the apostle is the one sent. But Paul’s point is that he is not sent by men. It is less clear, however, what it would mean for the apostle to be through man. Perhaps the switch to singular man (ἀνθρώπου) from plural men (ἀνθρώπων) indicates the sense of humanity, so that Paul is an apostle not through human decision. So then, the function of the two prepositions and the plural men and singular man is to convey the sense that Paul is an apostle not sent from men, nor through human appointment.

ἀλλὰ (διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ θεοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ γείραντος αὐτὸν (ἐκ νεκρῶν)),

The negative opening phrase is immediately contrasted by the strong adversative conjunction ἀλλὰ, as Paul indicates through whom his apostolic appointment comes. He is an apostle through Jesus Christ and God the Father—the one who raised Jesus from the dead. What Paul means by this is straightforward. What is curious, however, is the inversion of the order of Christ and God compared to Paul’s normal expression. As illustrated only a few lines on (v.3), Paul’s normal phrasing is something like: ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. Is anything to be made of his putting Jesus first here, or is it an inconsequential variation? It is difficult to answer such questions with certainty, though a suggestion may be offered. This may be a subtle reference to Paul’s experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–30); his encounter with Christ brought about his conversion, but also his commission as an apostle. Certainly this is consistent with the content of the second half of Galatians 1 in which Paul describes his reception of the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ (1.11–24).

To Paul’s mind, his commission from Christ implies the agency of God the Father, which is why his apostleship comes through the Father as well as Christ. Indeed, this is confirmed later in the chapter in which Paul describes the revelation he received from Christ (1.12) and the call of God (1.15). Furthermore, it was God who revealed his Son in Paul (1.15–16).

The subtle reference to Paul’s conversion and calling to be an apostle may also explain one other curious element in this second part of verse one. We find here the only explicit reference in the whole epistle to the resurrection of Christ (τοῦ γείραντος αὐτὸν (ἐκ νεκρῶν)). If Paul seeks to establish the central themes of the epistle in his opening, as he consistently does elsewhere, it is odd that the resurrection of Christ is mentioned in the first verse of this epistle in which there is no further explicit reference to it. It seems most likely, however, that the reason for this reference to the resurrection here is related to Paul’s experience of the risen Christ on the way to Damascus. The fact that it was the risen Christ who encountered Paul is of course extremely important. It is Christ’s resurrection that establishes Paul’s entire Christology, as he comes to terms with the fact that Jesus really is the Messiah. By referring to God’s act of raising Christ from the dead, Paul further anchors his apostolic commision in the agency of God through Christ. The Father raised the Son, who was revealed to Paul by the Father as the risen Christ. Through this revelation, Paul was called to be an apostle.

Posted by Con Campbell

Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 03

10 05 2009
Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
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I don’t want to drag this out into too many posts, so let me just cut to the chase – Most authors today agree that Luke is writing to help his readers see why Christianity is the real fulfillment of God’s history for his people. It is written to Gentile Christians who are a bit worried that they might be riding the wrong horse (see Luke 1:1-4).

So what is the role of these three parables? On the one hand they exposes Jewish exclusiveness. On the other they affirms that God loves those who apparently have no right to be included among his people. If we look to chapter 16 and discussion about using worldly mammon to get people into the kingdom, there seems to be a message in the lost parables, for Christians – don’t forget God has a heart for those who are yet to come in, just as he had a heart for you! Don’t be like the elder brother and the religious leaders who are exclusive and have no thought for lost ones.

Yes these parables are meant to challenge an elitist attitude. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a secondary word to the lost. The Christian audience themselves would be reminded that they were once lost and God was pleased to seek them out. This reminder (I think) can be used directly with non-Christians when preaching these parables to them.

So should we preach about the older brother or the younger brother? It can and should be preached in terms of exclusivism – both Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting seem to make this reasonable. But I also think Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting make it reasonable to focus on “the Lost.” In so far as he reminds his Gentile audience of the way God loved and sought them  this can be well applied to people who aren’t Christians yet. IN NOTICING THE IMPORTANT PLACE OF THE OLDER BROTHER THEREFORE, WE SHOULDN’T FALL TO AN EXTREME AND FORGET THAT LOTS OF DETAILS ABOUT THE FATHER’S LOVE FOR THE YOUNGER BROTHER (not to mention the sheep and the coin) ARE INCLUDED! This chapter is still a great resource for evangelistic preaching.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 02

6 05 2009
Dark Secret ..
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There are at least a couple of questions that need to be answered, and the first is: Who was Jesus talking to, when he gave these three parables? The answer I reckon, was both “the lost” tax collectors and sinners (15:1) and the Pharisees and scribes (15:2). The Greek is ambiguous in v. 3 when it says “he told them this parable”, but for various reasons (e.g. Greek verbs in vv. 1-2), I think it is safest to say he’s speaking to both.

In this way, all the nice things he says about the lost sheep, coin and son are all a positive statement to the “lost listeners” whom historically he is addressing. All the negative things he say about the 99 being left in open country and the older brother, are directed towards the grumbling religious leaders.

But there’s another question: How was Luke trying to effect his audience? This is a really important question to ask. Often when we look at a passage in the gospels we think of it only in terms of the history of the event. But we need to ask how different authors are trying to use these events. Mark and Matthew on the calming of the storm have different purposes and so a sermon on the same event would have very different purposes if preached from Mark or Matthew.

We’ll pick up this question in the next entry, but for now it should be notice that in terms of Jesus’ own audience, “the lost” are certainly on the radar…

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 01

2 05 2009
Terry O'Quinn
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Luke is in the habit of telling short parables in pairs (11:31-32, 12:24-27, 13:18-21, 14:28-32). In chapter 15 the lost sheep and coin form such a pair as seen by their similar structures and language.

At first the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) may seem to not be directly connected. Its not in the doublet, and unlike the first two parables, there is a bit of a break (“then Jesus said” – though no change in scene or audience). And yet by the end no one can doubt that this is a direct continuation. The father’s closing words to the older son are strike the same key words as the first two parables: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and have been found” (v32).

A big question today though is whether any of these three parables should be used in evangelism. I think its a bit of a “bug bear”. The prodigal has been a classic evangelistic text, yet more recently there has been a move to see it as all about the older brother. Answering this question is really important for preaching Luke 15 and for evangelism. But it is also a great case study for how to read the bible in general and Luke in particular…

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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