"Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world." - Todd Littleton
"I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see." - Anon
"Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all." - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
"Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals." - Jim Forest
"People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone." - Anon
"... Certainly God's love has made fools out of us all." - R.E. Slater
"An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst." - R.E. Slater
"Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics." - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
"Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated." - Emil Brunner
"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Paul, whom I have loved


A Map of the Travels and Voyages of the Apostle Paul

The novel idea in contemporary Christian theology is to bash Paul, or more accurately, bash our own ideas of Paul. But I will admit right upfront that I am a lover of Paul - but so am I of Jesus - and have found great help in the study of Hebrews that reclaims the OT through Jesus and the Gospels. However, since my early days in seminary Paul and Jesus have found a growing gap of misunderstanding between them through no fault of their own - for the onus is on us. We have been the ones that have allowed this gap and distance to grow. And it is also on us to reconcile the theologies, narratives, and ministries of Paul and Jesus back together again. Not seamlessly. But holistically. By recognising all the differences of character and location that comes through the marvelous synergies between meta-narrative and cultural import.

Paul in thought, by Rembrandt
Paul was the Pharisee's Pharisee if you will... the guy that knew Torah better than anyone else. And he's also the guy who was struck down in his great knowledge and zeal for his wayward faith upon the Emmaeus Road. To then spend a lifetime thereafter sorting out the Torah through the words and ideas of Jesus - who was no less a Rabbi except in name only - by Judaism's ruling clerics at war with a growing band of emerging Jewish faithful calling themselves Christ-followers (later to be named Christians). But Jesus had the upper hand didn't he? In that he was actually the God who had spoken Torah to his people Israel... to all the Paul's and would-be followers of OT faithful seeking obedience to God's words of self-proclamation and image-making activities. For over the centuries God's words became more-and-more confused through sin and distractions, judgments and exiles. What started out as a powerful journey of faith by their father Abraham had turned into a miserable mess of disillusionment, fear and confusion. A living faith had become distilled into a faith-killing religion of dogmas and rituals. Grace and Law were unnaturally separated and each had lost their way in the idea of what God and worship should be (properly described as covenantal nomism, sic. EP Sanders et al).

Paul writing, by Rembrandt
Consequently I find this newer focus of NPP (the New Perspective of Paul) refreshing in that it re-rights the distortions that have grown up through the church these past 2000 years. The question is not "Do I follow Jesus or do I follow Paul?" But the real question is, can we, like Paul, learn to re-learn our faith as exampled and taught by Jesus - that it might live and breathe as it should be? Apart from our many disillusionments, fears and confusions that we have placed upon our own selves, in our relationships with others, in our understanding of God and worship, within our faith communities, and the many work-a-day ministries of life, family, work and existence? And like Paul, we'll spend a lifetime trying to figure it out because of the many false distortions of the world that comes to us creating disillusionment, fear and confusion.

But I am a firm believer that our God is a "self-knowing Knower" (to use Barth's description of God) who will make Himself firmly known to us... perhaps not through our heads, or doctrines, or beliefs... but most definitely through our hearts, our faith, and our worship. Though I try my best in this website to lead and shepherd our thoughts and insights about God doctrinally I find our best apprehension seems to come when the Divine meets us in our hearts in worshipful moments of salvation, redemption, renewal, restoration, reclamation, resurrection, recommittal, restitution, reconfiguration, and release. And most usually during our times of deflation, defeat, disappointment, destruction, failure, death, sorrow and woe. Unhappily we will always be in the process of being destroyed in this sinful world. But happily, during this destruction, God is there, and will continually reclaim us as His own children who will never be loosed from His all powerful grip of grace, mercy and hope, in a never-ending process of rebirth.

So then, do not give up on yourself nor on others. It is all of God. And only of God. It is He who is our Faith. The Lover of our Souls. The only real Father that will form and fashion His sons and daughters through this sin-cursed world until we are redeemed fully, freely, completely by His Son Jesus' life, death and resurrection. When together we rise, and together arrive, to a final resting place of newness-of-hope and life eternal. But it begins in this life.... So then, be patient with yourselves. With others. Be steady in your faith and hope. In the devastation of your failures know that God's Spirit rests more powerfully on you than can be thought or believed during those times of abadonment and loss. For you are not abandoned nor lost. God is there especially at those times. And will ever be your inheritance. Your trust. Your Rock and Living Water. The High-Priest of your souls. The Cloud of Fire that abides in the tabernacle of your souls. The Lamb slain for your provisioning. The First Fruits of your Feast. The Slayer of death and sin and devil. God is boundless and is boundlessly-bound to you ever and always. And like Paul, rest ye and be at peace with the Jesus we have come to trust and worship. Who is the self-knowing Knower reclaiming all that you are through Himself.

R.E. Slater
February 7, 2012

God's Everlasting Love (Romans 8.31-39)

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be[i] against us? 32 gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.[j] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Voyages and Travels of the Apostle Paul


Learning to Love Paul

by Scot McKnight
February 2, 2012

J.R. Daniel Kirk‘s new book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity (BakerAcademic, 2011) may very well be a touchstone for the next generation of Christians who can’t accept (i) the traditional Paul (on historical grounds) and yet who want to explore what Paul looks like if we begin with a more accurate understanding of Jesus, of Judaism, of the Bible’s Story… and of Paul himself [sic, the (ii) New Perspective of Paul - res].

What role does Paul play in your faith and in your theology? Have you struggled with him?

We begin with this: lots of Christians today are struggling with Paul. (For some that is just incomprehensible, while for many this speaks volumes.) Some are bothered that Paul doesn’t talk kingdom enough; others that Paul doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ teachings; others that Jesus was so activist and justice-oriented and Paul, well, those aren’t his gigs. Some find him “distasteful, offensive, oppressive, exclusive, confusing, arrogant, or just plain wrong” (3). Others wonder why he gets so much attention and why his theology is the lens through which the whole Bible is read [sic, Calvinism as expressed through Reformed Theology. - res]. Others think Paul was not so important until Augustine (c.354-430) and after him not until Luther (c.1483-1546) and Calvin (c.1509-1564). Kirk gives us more: Paul the angry Reformed theologian, the promoter of internalized Christians, the Neoplatonist, the exclusivist, the oppressor, the judge, the chauvinist, and the imposer of order.

Daniel Kirk thinks Paul’s been given a misreading. He thinks we need to get to the narrative shape of Paul’s thinking, to the Story at work in Paul’s letters.

But Daniel also thinks that many (post?) evangelicals no longer operate with the assumptions of the previous generation, including concern with inerrancy as the foundation. “For this generation (in which I include myself), a network of relationships and experiences fills the primary role of confirmation of our beliefs that earlier evangelicals would have located primarily in ‘objective’ truths such as the inerrancy of Scripture or, to take another example, proofs of the resurrection” (7).

Kirks strategy is to show that Jesus and Paul inherited the same story of God at work in Israel, and that Mark’s Story of Jesus and Paul’s Story of Jesus are very similar — that is, Jesus and Paul are at one on the Story. This leads, he argues, to a revolutionary reinterpretation of Paul (for some). That one Story is this:
The God of Israel acted decisively in the person of Jesus to restore God’s rule and reconcile the whole world to himself (9).
That Story is about God (and this God is known through the Story God is in, not through such terms as immutable, etc). This is a Story about Israel as God’s chosen way of blessing the world. No Story in the Bible without Israel. Israel has a future: new king, pour out Spirit, live in Land, free from overlords, the temple.

Big one: The Gospels are Israel’s future. The future tense becomes present tense. This Story comes to its “pointed realization” in the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul’s churches have been “scripted into Israel’s story” so that the whole Gentile theme in Paul is about realizing the promise to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. They get to be part of Israel’s Story.

The center of this Story, of course, is Jesus. He is the King and brings the kingdom. The Gospels tell the Story of God ruling through Jesus, and the oddity of this Story is that God reigns through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He becomes King, as it were, via those acts. Resurrection is about new creation and about ruling creation.

Mark’s crucified King — first half about king, second half about how he rules as king — and Paul’s christology are very similar: it is about Jesus ruling as the one who was crucified and raised.


The Cost of True Leadership in the Failure of the Jesus' Twelve Disciples

On Jesus’ Choosing Twelve Males, take 1 

by JRD Kirk
Yesterday, I posted the first of two responses I wanted to make to John Piper’s description of Christianity as a “masculine” religion. Rachel Held Evans has issued the summons for replies, and I think this is an important moment to inject a more biblically sound reading of gender issues in the church. Thanks, Rachel, for stirring us to positive response.

Today’s issue has to do with the significance of Jesus’ choosing of twelve men to be his disciples. This is one of several issues I take up in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The story within which this selection of the twelve is embedded leads us to draw a very different point from Piper’s.

Jesus chooses twelve men. These twelve Jesus specially commissions. Jesus came preaching, casting out demons, and healing. The disciples are sent to preach and heal and cast out demons.

Jesus comes proclaiming and inaugurating the reign of God, and these men are sent out to participate in that coming. When Jesus feeds the 5,000, he hands the bread to them. They are the chosen. They are the insiders.

In contrast (let’s stick to Mark’s Gospel here), the women in the story are marginal. There are small handfuls of nameless women. They touch Jesus’ robe, they ask for healing for their daughters, they throw a few coins in a box in the temple, they anoint Jesus’ head with oil.

So while the women are coming in and going out, acting on faith and finding praise for their faith, it’s the boys who are getting it done!

Getting it done, that is, right up until the great, transitional moment in the story.

1. “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ.” Ok, so far so good. Then, Jesus begins to tell them what this title entails: “The Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die. Then he’ll be raised.”

Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me Satan.”

What happens then?

Move on to ch. 9, and the disciples who had been empowered to exorcise are unable to cast out a demon. The disciples who had been given the charge to proclaim cannot overcome the mute-making spirit.

2. Later that same chapter Jesus again predicts his death. The disciples’ reaction? They walk along debating with each other about who is going to be greatest in God’s coming kingdom.

We begin to see what they don’t get about Jesus’ ministry: the cross turns the economy of the world on its head. They have a standard of greatness that entails a certain kind of leadership and power, but Jesus wants to transform their ideas. He wants them to see greatness in the cross and the child.

As if Mark, or Jesus, thought we might miss the point, we get the whole thing a third time.

3. Jesus predicts his death, and this time the subsequent response of the disciples is James’ and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand. Again, Jesus has to combat not merely the request, but the wrongheaded assumption about what greatness in the kingdom of God looks like:
Jesus called them over and said, “ You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Mark 10:42-44, CEB)
In the story, the disciples do not understand what is entailed in leading the people of God. They think it is about greatness and power rather than service and death.

And so, we have the group represented by Peter. The rock. Is being “the rock” a good thing? In Mark, the rocky soil indicates plants that spring up well, but fall away when danger or persecution arise on account of the word. Mark repeats the language of “falling away” when the disciples scatter, leaving Jesus to die alone.

The Twelve were committed to Jesus, and happy with him–but only as one who came with power. They had no faith in their calling to participate in his way of death. They did not have eyes to see that the ministry of Jesus turned the economy of the world on its head....

Shall we return to the women now?

How are we to assess these women who, in the narrative world, are outsiders, on the margins?

Unlike the disciples who are rebuked for being of little faith, Jesus commends these women as having great faith: “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

Moreover, there is one episode where Jesus ties a human inseparably to the gospel story. It is the episode of the woman who pours out oil over Jesus’ head. This looks to be a royal anointing! But when Jesus defends her he says, “Leave her alone, she has prepared my body beforehand for burial.”

The act of anointing prepares Jesus for burial: Messiahship and death are held together, and here is the only person in the whole story to get it. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

What does it mean to live at the margins, to be unnamed? How does this compare with being the twelve, the dudes, the insiders?

According to the economy of the world, with its measures of greatness, to be the twelve is to be exemplary, in the place to lead, to exclude others from leadership, to stand close to Jesus and guard the gates of who else can draw near.

And to the extent that we look to Jesus’ selection of them, and the apparent marginalization of the women, as paradigmatic for male leadership in the church, we show ourselves to be people whose minds have not yet been transformed by the very story to which we are appealing.

It is only by agreeing with the disciples’ way of assessing the world that we can see their “insider status” as a true insider status, to be replicated by other men in church history.

Jesus offers another way: You guys don’t get it! It’s the rulers of the Gentiles who lord authority over people. It shall not be so among you.

There is another way. It is the way of the cross.

There is another way. It is the way of the “marginalized” in the worlds eyes lying closest to Jesus in faith and understanding.

Are we really supposed to hold up as our model the “Satan” who denied the gospel of the crucified Christ, and claim that Peter is paradigmatic of the place of men as insiders and faithful leaders in the church?

Or should we not seek out the one who did the good deed for Jesus, holding together Messiah and death from her place at the margins? Should we not seek out the one who sought out Jesus merely to touch the fringe of his garment and learn from her what it means to walk in faith?

The irony of appealing to the boys as insiders is that in so doing we show ourselves to be adopting the boys’ understanding of power, privilege, and leadership in the kingdom.

And this view is roundly rebuked by Jesus in words of dissuasion and the work of the cross.


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Power-Inverting Kingdom, take 2

by JRD Kirk
February 6, 2012

On Friday I said a few words about the twelve disciples. How normative is Jesus’ selection of twelve men to be his ministry-extenders while on earth? This is a question that cannot be answered in a way that is abstracted from the narrative. The story of their failure, of their rejection of the gospel of the crucified messiah, undermines the claims to their normativity.

We have to remember that we’re reading stories. In stories, characters develop. Events in the narrative shape them. They respond. We all know that the twelve includes the betrayer Judas, but we also need to look closely at the other eleven and their betrayal of Jesus.

As I mentioned Friday, the turning point in the story is a turning point for the twelve: Yes, Jesus is the Christ (Peter’s confession in ch. 8), but this Christ is a suffering Christ–a claim for which Peter rebukes Jesus in a Satanic denial of the road ahead.

From this point on, the disciples lose their kingdom-extending role. Their failure plays out in several subsequent scenes.

After the second passion prediction, Jesus confronts the disciples about what they were arguing about on the road. They are shamed. They had been arguing about which is greatest.

Jesus inverts their assessment of the world: to be great is to be least and servant of all.

Then, Jesus takes hold of one of the least, the most powerless members of society, and shows the disciples what it means to be agents of the kingdom: “Welcome the child in my name.”

Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with who can minister in Christ’s name, right? I mean, this is just about patting little kids on the head, right?
Well, that’s what John thought: “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

Clearly, welcoming kids is one thing, taking up the master’s name and performing unauthorized ministry, ministry not delineated by the Twelve is something else!

Or maybe not.

Jesus said, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40, CEB).

So I ask again: does the narrative of Mark uphold the idea that the twelve delineate the parameters for faithful ministry in the church?

And again the unfolding story itself pushes me in a different direction.

To the extent that we use the disciples as paradigmatic figures for excluding people from ministry we are embodying their own failed understanding of ministry in and for and under the Reign of God in Christ.

The gospel of the cross overturns such understandings of insider standing, power, and status. It rebukes our natural tendency to affirm as eligible leaders only those who are like the original insiders.

When we use the Twelve as a weapon for fending off women from church leadership we align ourselves with the misapprehending disciples rather than the gospel proclaiming Christ.



Karl Barth on Knowing God

[A] Humanity Ready for God

by JRD Kirk
February 4, 2012

Karl Barth claims that God is ready to be known by people, and hence actually knowable by people. In §26 of the Church Dogmatics, he approaches this from two different angles.

First, as we discussed previously (here and here), Barth draws us back to revelation, claiming that God is only known as God has revealed himself in and by the word.

In §26.2, Barth takes up the same question from the human side. If God is knowable, there must not only be a God who makes Godself known, but a humanity capable of receiving this knowledge.

Who, then, or perhaps what, is this humanity?

First, Barth returns to the question of natural theology, applying his previous arguments about God as knowable through the natural order to humanity as those who can know as they are by nature.

Well, not exactly as humanity is “by nature.” What humanity is in its “fallen nature” is more to the point. We’ll come back to this in a second. At any rate, humans as we actually are cannot truly know the true God through a natural theology, but only through God’s revelation.

“Anthropology” is not the route to humanity’s ability to know God.

Interestingly, and again, perhaps, surprisingly, Barth is equally insistent that ecclesiology, humanity as addressed by the church, is not the humanity able to receive the revelation of God. Humanity in the church is as liable to deception about its understanding of God as humanity in general. It is as liable to control it for its own purposes, as humanity in general.

Though I don’t recall Barth saying so explicitly, I wonder if this twin denial isn’t a recurrence of Barth’s regular two-sided glance: on the one hand he wants to show how evangelical dogmatics stands over against Christian liberalism; on the other he wants to show how it stands over against Roman Catholicism.

If not anthropology or ecclesiology, then on what basis can we discover humanity’s readiness for God? Unsurprisingly, it comes from Christology.

God is [the] known Knower in the triune, eternal relationship between Father and Son. This Son who has eternally known God, becomes human, thus joining the eternal self-knowing God with human flesh. How can people know God? Because, on the human side as well as the divine, God knows Godself. “On the human side” meaning, in this case, the humanity of the God-man.

I have a couple of questions about Barth’s construction.

First, do his stances against anthropology and ecclesiology as means by which we might see that God is knowable to people underplay the significance of Christ as The Human One and of the church as the Body of Christ? In the salvation story, there is a redefinition of humanity, of “image of God,” of the people of God, of “the church,” that is derivative from Christ himself.

Does Barth take this incorporation into Christ seriously enough in his denial that as humans or as the church we can know God?

Second, and related, does Barth give too much play to sin as a defining element in our human nature? Not that all humans aren’t born in sin and all the rest. But being sinful isn’t at the core of what it means to be human. Yes, it’s the reality that we are born into and from which Christ ushers us into a better future.

But Christ was fully human, and yet without sin. So if it’s sinfulness that keeps us from knowing God, it’s not our humanness that keeps us from God, but instead it’s the lack of true humanness that keeps us from knowing God.

So then, third, why is it that Christ offers a new humanity in which God is knowable? Is it because Christ is God? Or is it because Christ is truly human? Has Barth retreated too quickly to the Trinity rather than taking full stock of the inherent value of humanity as created in God’s image and recreated in the image of God in Christ?

That’s the real fun stuff. On a side note: is there a difference between natural theology and general revelation? The latter phrase keeps the requirement of “revelation” on the table, as Barth says is necessary, but allows for a broader compass of revelation than we find in only scripture, Christ, and preaching.