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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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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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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Conversation with an Atheist Friend (04)

22 04 2009
UFO
UFO (via last.fm)

Friend: Sorry, which god have I expressed a disbelief in? People have proposed a lot of different gods. If you mean Yahweh from the bible, then it is meaningless to say whether you believe in him or not — some people have proposed that he exists but haven’t demonstrated it in any way that can be verified. (Equally, people have proposed that UFOs have secretly abducted them in the night but have failed to back it up with any evidence.). The UFO claims have actually got more veracity because they are made by people who are still alive. As I said at the beginning, the claims that the bible does make that can be tested have all been shown to be wrong, or simply obvious even to the jewish goat herders who wrote them. The onus is on the proposer to back up their claims with honest, open debate and with clear instructions on how anyone can reproduce the effect or experiment. If you just want to state something, especially something as extraordinary as what is claimed by Christians, then don’t expect people to take you seriously unless you can back it up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

[break… and other “chit chat”]

Me:… Well anyway here is my response to our ongoing discussion… “Enlightenment optimism” means you are overly optimistic about what scientific method can achieve. Science cannot prove non-repeatable events. Thus science cannot prove history. Science can help in the establishment of history by creating analytical methods (my own PhD specialty) for testing the validity of historical evidence or by refining information about it, but it cannot actually prove a non-repeated event. You have to be able to repeat an experiment enough times statistically to show it must definitely be the case.If the UFO guy has burn marks on the soles of his feet and his car had the top ripped off, this is evidence but what you do with that evidence has nothing to do with science. Science has no comment to make (except probably to say that it could have naturally been caused by, x y or z). It has everything to do with how skeptical or otherwise you decide to be with the evidence. Add to this 100 different things and science still cannot prove whether he was abducted or not. Now let’s say you were the guy. How do you know you weren’t just tripping out somehow? In fact you may know of David Hume the philosopher, who essentially said that if you experienced a miracle you’d be safer going for any other explanation than to accept that it was a miracle. Can science prove that Jesus didn’t walk on water? Of course not. Can science prove that he didn’t do miracles? Of course not. Can science prove that he didn’t rise from the dead? Of course not. If God is Jesus how else is he going to give evidence to humans except to become a person so we can identify with him, and then do things that show he’s not bound by the laws of nature? Actually now I think about it, Jesus did give scientific evidence that he is God – he did miracles on repeated occasions under varying experimental conditions (there’s a thought)! But of course this is crap, and you’re 100% sure god can’t exist. Why? Because you are operating on a pre-disposition (due to a marriage with science) that the supernatural doesn’t exist. You’ve made a prior decision, and through this you interpret everything. But don’t pretend this is scientific. It is a paradigm, as Kuhn would put it. Check out Alistair McGrath (a not so unintelligent) microbiologist and theologian who teaches at Oxford and has had a few things to say to Richard D about his enlightenment optimism.

Friend: But despite what you say, science does work, and scientific truth is nothing more than common sense and places no demands on you than following instructions. On the other hand, Christianity requires you, to paraphrase Saint Doug, “to believe 10 impossible things before breakfast.” And your ‘critique’ of science that says that, because science can’t prove a negative — i.e. that something DOES NOT exist — belies a lack of understanding of how science works. For example, you can’t prove that Zeus or Thor don’t exist. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper. But if you really want to have an argument about proving or disproving the existence of supernatural stuff then science actually does have something to say. It says, “show me any effect, however slight, on anything, anywhere, that cannot be explained by known science,”

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (05)

7 12 2008
The Crucifixion, central panel of the Isenheim...
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Well the time has come to bring this discussion back to the Pistis Christou Debate. If pistis (faith) is a word like “Charis” (grace/thanks) and “eucharistow” (thanks/grace) who’s meaning is determined by the position of the different parties in a relationship, then what would we expect in a relationship like God ↔ people? In Rom 3:1-8 Paul claims that the Jewish promotion of the law has turned it into a contractual relationship. But this is not the way it should be. Rather, over and again, God is presented as the great patron who freely gives in grace to people, so they may honor him. Under this perspective, we would expect God to be performing acts of Pistis towards people (=kindness, faithfulness) because that’s what patrons do. And we would expect people to be expressing Pistis back towards God (=trust), because that’s the appropriate response from people who have a patron. This would then account for pistis Christou. It is Christ’s pistis not towards the God but towards us! To which Christians then respond in a reciprocal way with trust. So pistis Christou may be subjective genitive, but of a sort which actually doesn’t turn human pistis into a following of Jesus’ example… rather, most naturally, it is defined by the relationship itself as trust! Ironically then there is a way of taking pistis Christou as a subjective genitive, but arriving at a place where most proponents of the objective genitive come to!

Posted by Bruce Lowe.

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“Big Headed” Boasting & 2Corinthians

7 12 2008
Th05RexBigHead
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It’s very easy to have a “big head”… to be proud,  and for this to spill over into boasting about your achievements before others. In the period of the New Testament this was an even greater danger because it was a society where your honor meant everything. People were trying to promote their honor in everything, and so there was a real danger they may end up promoting it themselves. Not that this was acceptable. A reading of Plutarch’s comically titled essay “On Praising One’s Self Inoffensively” makes it clear (contrary to Jewett and Esler’s recent discussion on this subject) that boasting was not allowed, except in certain circumstances. Paul boasts in his letters and speaks of others boasting, particularly in 2Corinthians. In my opinion Plutarch’s essay is one of the best preparations for understand 2Corinthians. It is essential reading for the exegete, and anyone who wants to promote themselves without others hating you :)!!! Here is a quick summary of the essay to get you started:

It was permissible to boast when “defending your good name or answering a charge” (540C). Also when a person was downcast by circumstances, it is right for them to rise again and triumphing over disaster by standing “upright in fighting posture ‘Like a boxer closing in,’ using self-glorification to pass from a humble and piteous state to an attitude of triumph and pride” (541B). More subtly, “by most harmoniously blending the praises of his audience with his own [a person removes] the offensiveness and self-love in his words” (542B). Then again, by “letting part of it rest with chance, and part with God” a person may rightly boast of what they have done (542E). Someone may also “throw in certain minor shortcomings, failures, or faults, thus obviating any effect of displeasure or disapproval” (543F). In yet another way, one ought to consider “whether a man might praise himself to exhort his hearers and inspire them with emulation and ambition… For exhortation that includes action as well as argument and presents the speaker’s own example and challenge is endued with life: it arouses and spurs the hearers” (544). “But there are also times when in order to overawe and restrain the hearer and to humble and subdue the headstrong and rash it is not amiss to make some boast and extol oneself” (544). It was also appropriate to speak of one’s achievements “where important issues are at stake” and the errors of some other boastful person must be undermined. In this case “Such praise is best shown for what it is when true praise is set beside it” (545E).

Posted by Bruce Lowe.

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