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Category Archives: Theology

Sanders Explains Sanders

Not Bernie, but Ed. Here’s a great summary of what E. P. Sanders considered the gist of his monumental Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Astute Bible readers—and students from my CHR 150 classes—will know that this book was a watershed in the history of Pauline research: a study with which one must be acquainted.

I shall now give a summary of the principal arguments, beginning with a negative point:

(1) The book is not about the sources of Paul’s thought. I granted that many or most topics in Paul could be paralleled in Jewish literature, but I was not pursuing an argument about where Paul got his ideas. Failure to note this point has misled several readers, some of whom have criticized me for using Jewish material later than Paul, while some have even imagined that in proposing that Paul had a different “pattern of religion” I meant that he had no connection with Judaism.

(2) In most of Palestinian literature, the “pattern” of “getting in and staying in” is simple: one is in by virtue of the election (or covenant); one stays in by remaining loyal to the Jewish law. These two basic convictions gave rise to the term covenantal nomism.”

(3) In Paul, all are “out” of the people of God and may enter only by faith in Christ.

(4) The two sets of terminology summarized by the phrases “being justified [righteoused] by faith” and “becom ing one person with Christ” essentially mean the same thing: these are the terms that indicate entry into the people of God: one “dies” with Christ or is righteoused by faith and thus transfers into the in-group.

(5) Once in, the member of the body of Christ should behave appropriately. In detail, this usually means the adoption of Jewish rules of ethics and other forms of behavior.

(6) In both Judaism and Paul, people in the in-group are punished rewarded depending on how well they adhere to the standards. Punishment and reward, however, are not “salvation”; people are saved, rather, by being in the in-group, and punishment is construed as keeping them in (as in 1 Cor 11:27-32).

(7) Paul does not accept the adequacy of the Jewish election for getting in; he begins the process of a theological rupture with Judaism by requiring faith in Christ.

(8) Formally, Paul sometimes accepts the whole law,” but it turns out that his Gentile converts do not actually have to keep all parts of the Jewish law, and that sometimes even Jewish Christians should depart from Jewish practice (as in the case of Peter in Antioch).

(9) Consequently, Paul’s “pattern” of religion is not the same as “covenantal nomism.” The efficacy of the election is rejected, and the law is accepted with qualifications.

(10) Paul’s pattern is, however, like covenantal nomism in that admission depends on the grace of God, while behavior is the responsibility of the individual—who, of course, is supported in his or her efforts by God’s love and mercy.

(11) Since one gets in by dying with Christ, and since Pauls outlook is strongly eschatological, I dubbed his pattern “participationist eschatology,” though “eschatological participationism” might have been better.

(H/T: Jesus Creed)

Jesus Our Brother

I don’t know what Oprah said, and I don’t especially care. But I do appreciate Scot McKnight’s defense of the propriety (theologically, biblically, and pastorally) of conceiving of Jesus as “Brother.”

But I would like to defend the importance of seeing Jesus as Brother, even if “Brother” is not a sufficient or adequate christology.

First, she was a young child when she said this and was coming to terms with relations and faith. Children think things like this. I found her sentiments entirely appropriate for a child and the way we would want our children to think.

Second, she thought like this because she didn’t have a father in her life and that’s where pastoral theology enters. We should see in her statements something about how God steps in our lives, in part, to fill up what is lacking.

Third, in the Bible and in the history of the church many have found a theological anchor in Brother-hood with Jesus as a place from which we can pursue some themes. To call Jesus brother is to acknowledge his humanity not to deny his deity; if one think he’s only a brother, then brother is inadequate. But his fellowship with us, his “friendship” with us (Luke 12:4), can be legitimately called brotherhood at some level.

The Orthodox Jew Who’s Staged to Revolutionize Evolutionary Theory

Fascinating article from Meghan Walsh at Ozy.com:

So what does God have to do with all this? In his quest for answers, [physicist Jeremy] England, of course, finds himself at the center of the classic struggle between science and spirituality. While Christianity and Darwinism are generally opposed, Judaism doesn’t take issue with the science of life. The Rabbinical Council of America even takes the stance that “evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator.”

For his part, England believes science can give us explanations and predictions, but it can never tell us what we should do with that information. That’s where, he says, the religious teachings come in. Indeed, the man who’s one-upping Darwin has spent the past 10 years painstakingly combing through the Torah, interpreting it word by word much the way he ponders the meaning of life. His conclusion? Common translations are lacking. Take the term “creation.” England suggests we understand it not as the literal making of the Earth but rather as giving Earth a name. All throughout the Bible, he says, there are examples of terms that could be interpreted differently from what we’ve come to accept as standard.

Historical Criticism and Christian Truth Are Not Enemies, Nor Can They Be

So says Peter Enns, with an assist from German Alttestamentler Konrad Schmid. There’s much to digest here, but let me whet your appetite with Enns’s conclusion:

The bottom line for me is and has always been: the truly historical study of scripture, one that is not dictated by and asked to “serve” theology, will inevitably be in tension with that theology. And that tension must be critically respected rather than cut off or neutralized.

Historically speaking, the Bible we have presents us with some very serious challenges. Good theology will accept the challenge and understand that simple answers are often wrong and that sometimes, whether we are comfortable with it or not, resolutions will elude us.

Good stuff!

Keep Christianity Weird

Patrick Mitchell lays out a case for why we need a “weird” Christianity to protect it from any form of cultural captivity.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

Perhaps something for my Sunday school class to ponder as we continue to study the Sermon on the Mount. Definitely something I hope my CHR 150 students wrestle with throughout the semester.

Reading the Bible Critically in the Church

Peter Enns took part in a panel discussion on the topic of “Reading the Bible in the 21st Century” at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last week in San Diego. His ten-minute opening remarks are well worth your time. Here is his conclusion:

If I can put this in Christian terms, scripture bears witness to the acts of God and most supremely to the act of God in Christ. But scripture bears witness in culturally and contextually meaningful ways. This is where historical criticism comes into the picture—not as an enemy to be guarded against or plundered, and not as an awkward relative you don’t know what to do with, but as a companion, a means of understanding and embracing the complex actualizing dynamic of the Bible as a whole.

This is what I am aiming for in The Bible Tells Me So, albeit at a popular level, because that is where this discussion needs to be—with those who feel they have to chose between accepting academic insights or maintaining faith. I don’t believe that is a choice that has to be made, and miss out on a lot when we feel we need to.

Henderson on Hengel on Paul on Christos

Tim Henderson has posted his summary of the next essay in Martin Hengel’s Between Jesus and Paul: “‘Christos’ in Paul.”

Christology in Twelve Theses

Ben Myers calls them “grammatical rules.” They sound more like theses to me. Whatever they are, they succinctly describe the limits (i.e., the boundaries) of how Christians can speak properly about the mystery of the Incarnation. I commend them to you.

1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience.Jesus Christ is truly human.

2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.

3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.

4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.

5. Not to divide redemption from creation, or to give the impression that Christ invades a world that is alien to him. Human beings were created after the pattern of the same eternal Image that has become incarnate in Jesus.

6. Not to divide Christ’s person and work, or to give the impression that Christ is merely the instrument by which God achieves salvation. Salvation is a person: Jesus Christ.

7. Not to divide Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, or to give the impression that he achieves salvation at just one moment of his career. The total life-journey of Jesus Christ – from his birth, to his ministry of teaching and healing, to his death and resurrection – is the saving event.

8. Not to speak of Christ’s death as a mere preliminary stage on the way to resurrection. Jesus Christ is the Priest whose death abolishes the power of sin and death. He is the humble God.

9. Not to speak of Christ’s resurrection as a mere reversal of his death.Jesus Christ is the King whose resurrection exalts and glorifies human nature. He is the deified human.

10. Not to speak of Christ in any way that implies that he is absent, or to give the impression that the church’s task is to make Christ present. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who reveals himself. He is present always and everywhere as the divine-human light of the world. 

11. Not to divide Christ from Israel’s history, or to give the impression that the New Testament abolishes the Old. As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ is the surpassing fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.

12. Not to speak of Christ as if he were relevant only to some people in some cultures and circumstances. Jesus Christ is present to all people, in all times and places, as their divine-human Prophet, Priest and King. The church trusts and proclaims, but never possesses, this Messiah.

“We’re So Conservative…”

Michael Bird may not know it, but he’s hit a bit too close to the truth for a lot of us former Southern Baptists:

Instead of thinking of “conservative” evangelicalism as defined objectively by holding to the historical faith of the church defined by the creeds and confessions, I think some bastions of American evangelicalism define “conservatism” comparatively by a relative position to everyone else on the map. So when certain people or groups edge to the right to claim the label, “I’m more conservative than thou,” then every else responds by leap frogging over them in a race to the right. You end up with a denomination or seminary becoming far right just because they don’t want to be the least conservative group on the block. It also means you can end up being called a liberal just by standing still and refusing to follow the rightward drift.

Of course, those who just stood still may then be tempted to do the same leapfrogging dance in a leftward direction, just to prove they’re not like those other blighters. But that’s a topic for a different post.

The Whirlwind Creation Museum

Somebody needs to build this. I would pay to see it.

Welcome to the Whirlwind Creation Museum. Other so-called creation museums place their emphasis on a narrow, literalistic, modernist reading of the early chapters of Genesis. They imagine that these chapters simply “tell it like it is” — this is how God did it. Period. We, however, focus on a more panoramic and comprehensive text about how God created and rules over the universe, our world and its inhabitants: Job, chapters 38-42. This passage reminds us that we weren’t there, and none of us actually has any idea what God has wrought or how it all fits together. Job teaches us that herein lies wisdom.

It is my pleasure to give you an overview of the museum today, so that I might then set you free to explore the vast wonders of creation on your own — wonders that go beyond our human ability to describe and explain.

You see, we think the most basic truth about creation is its ultimate incomprehensibility.

Though we humans have the privilege to use our minds and imaginations to explore and discover and theorize and understand God’s creation, we will never come to the end of it. Its sheer scope and its innumerable mysteries resist our attempts to grasp it all. Its contradictions and conundrums stretch the limits of our logic. Before this great universe, we are very small. We do not think this should discourage us, however. Instead, we devote ourselves to learning, appreciating, contemplating, and proclaiming the splendor of God’s handiwork. In the end we yield our quest for all knowledge to the spirit of trust and worship.