Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

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

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

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 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) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Nine Nations of Evangelicalism

July 22, 2011

One of my all time favorite books is The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau (published in 1981). [summary article here]

His theory was that by any measure of culture, there were at least nine of them in North America. As someone in the newspaper industry in the 70s and 80s, he was commenting on how things worked and what priority is evident where.

The three most important ideas for our conversation are these.

- The Nine Nations are broken down as New England (including the Maritime provinces), Quebec, the Foundry (the rust belt), Dixie (the Southwest), the Island (centered in Miami), The Breadbasket, The Empty Quarter (around the Rockies), Mex-America (in the southwest) and Ecotopia (on the Pacific coast).

- The borders dividing the United States, Canada, and Mexico nearly disappear when one re-examines according to values, money, lifestyle and other factors. A person in Calgary, Alberta has far more in common with someone in Denver, Colorado than she does someone in Ottawa, Ontario.

- There is no such thing as the Midwest. It doesn’t exist. Chicago is the western boundary of the Rust Belt (the Foundry) and west of it is the Breadbasket. Chicago is a border-town and not a Capitol. The concept of the midwest has no actual base in reality. The cornfields of Ohio and the wheat-fields of Kansas are part of two different systems.

Earlier this week I blogged about the definition of Evangelical. I think that we are in danger of the label ‘evangelical’ being as undefinable as the ‘midwest’ is geographically. We need to re-conceptualize how the landscape really looks and develop a better map that reflects how things actually function.

In this diverse group called ‘Evangelical’ we have a large and varied collection of groups that may qualify: Conservative, Fundamentalist, Holiness offshoots , Charismatic, Pentecostal, Anabaptist traditions , Congregationalist, Free Church folks, progressive protestants who attend Mainline churches , and potentially some Neo-Reformed perspectives, etc.

I suggested starting with Bebbington’s definition (4 emphasis).

My Hope: is to updated these 4 a bit with a more progressive emphasis – or more a generous perspective.
New Life – expectation of transformed self and community
Bible – I follow N.T. Wright’s ‘ongoing play’ narrative here [How can the Bible be Authoritative?]
Activism – faith in Christ should be emboddied and proclaimed to impact /transform culture
Cross Centered – the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian message.

My Fear: is that they will be replaced by four other issues that will become the new litmus test for this unspoken imagined orthodoxy.
  • Biblical Literalism / Inerrancy
  • Substitutionary Atonement Theory
  • Anti-abortion stance
  • Anti-homosexuality

 If the latter set of four prevail then I am afraid that evangelicalism will become as unclear and unhelpful as the Midwest is in geography. It would become a generic area absent of any real coherence that fails to provide any continuity and thus lacks any real constituents. It would become a citizenship not worth having and which provides no tangible benefit for its citizens.

I look to Mark Noll and Stanley Grenz as examples of the historical and theological richness of the Evangelical tradition. If it becomes merely political, then perhaps the title deserves to fade into irrelevance and to be abandoned. I pray that is not the case.

Why Tim Gombis Doesn't Go Far Enough

Tim Gombis on the New Perspective (and why it doesn't go far enough)

by Andrew Perriman

The problem, in the first place, is that Tim appears to view things primarily through the lens of Galatians, where the question of whether Gentiles need concretely to identify themselves with Law-based Israel by means of circumcision, etc., is very much at the forefront. This is a specific issue, however, occasioned by the activity of Judaizing apostles from Jerusalem. What are the markers of authentic membership of the people of God? Works of the Spirit or those particular “works of the Law” that demarcate Jews from Gentiles (Gal. 3:5)?

Romans, on the other hand, addresses the issue of “works of the Law” on a much broader and logically prior basis. Here the premise of Paul’s argument is that a “day of wrath” is coming upon the ancient world. This will bring a dramatic and decisive end to the whole system of pagan religion and ethics; and Israel, despite having the Law and a bunch of other privileges, will not be exempt from “judgment”. Judgment means destruction (Rom. 9:22). So the critical question is not about membership but about survival. On what basis will the “righteous” live when the day of wrath comes (cf. Hab. 2:4)? Not on the basis of “works of the Law”, because the Law now condemns, but on the basis of a radical faith—which is also faithfulness—in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So the New Perspective, as Tim Gombis presents it, is limited in the first place by its failure to grasp the historical-eschatological dimensions of Paul’s thought. Tim cites the generalized Christian apocalypticism of scholars such as J. C. Beker, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell, and Leander Keck. But I think that Paul’s apocalypticism is much more focused, contingent, historical and, indeed, Jewish—and that his argument about Law and faith in Romans 2-4 cannot be properly understood without taking this narrative of wrath into account.

Tim writes that the “incarnation is the invasion of the Son of God to retake God’s world for God’s glory”. I would say that the resurrection of Jesus is for Paul a clear indication that the God of Israel intends to annex the Greek-Roman world for the sake of his glory. I think that Paul lies quite a bit further outside the sphere of a theology shaped by the western Christendom-modern paradigm.

This brings us to the second limitation, which is highlighted by this paragraph:
Several scholars have complained that the “new perspective” can tend merely to describe Paul’s flow of thought sociologically so that we’re left with a very thin theological reading of Paul. This criticism isn’t too far from the mark. I agree with Stephen Westerholm’s point that while “new perspective” scholars may outstrip the reformers in grasping historically what Paul was getting at, they cannot match the reformers at recovering Paul’s deeper theological impulses. Interpreters such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin do indeed provide for us excellent models of theological interpretation of Paul.
The word “sociologically” is wrong. Paul’s argument remains thoroughly theological even when located within its own historical-eschatological setting, for the reason that I gave above: it is not merely a matter of the terms of membership in the covenant community; it has to do with the agenda of Israel’s God. But the criticism is correct: we have not yet worked out how to derive from the re-contextualized Paul a theology compelling enough to drive and sustain the life and thought of the church today.

The answer to this dilemma, however, cannot be that we simply bolt a Reformation theology on to the New Perspective. Tim Gombis seems to want to both have his cake and eat it. These are incompatible paradigms. The distinction between what Paul meant historically and his “deeper theological impulses” is an invalid one. We only have the historical Paul.

Instead, we have to take the much more difficult approach of plotting a new theological trajectory from a consistent New Perspective reading of Paul to land somewhere beyond the modalities of Christendom—remember that the Reformation was only an attempt to reform the Christendom model of church. If the insights of the Reformers or of modern evangelicalism then help us to understand more clearly what it means to have been brought into this narrative, fine. The same could be said of any other Christendom tradition. But Paul has first to be allowed to speak for himself.

Tim Gombis - The Paul We Think We Know

The Paul We Think We Know

How [Paul's] 21st-century evangelical makeover distorts the New Testament reality.

by Timothy Gombis
posted July 22, 2011

Evangelicals feel a special connection with the apostle Paul. We shape our theology according to his thought, imitate his mission to evangelize, and pursue discipleship after his devotional practices. But our vision of him is loaded with misconceptions. Have we become more Pauline than Paul himself?

Last April in Christianity Today, Scot McKnight profiled "The Jesus We'll Never Know," describing the tendency of New Testament scholars to create a historical Jesus in their own image. We do the same with the great apostle. Like gazing into a mirror, we easily see our own reflections when we look at Paul.

Intense debates in Pauline studies over the past three decades have yielded fresh insights into Paul's thought and corrected some mistaken assumptions. If we want to be truly Pauline, we will have to take stock of these findings. Let us examine two longstanding misconceptions that have not held up under recent scrutiny, and then note one further way in which we tend to impose our evangelical values upon this apostle of Jesus Christ.

Salvation to the Jews

The misconception about Paul with the longest historical pedigree is that he was anti-Jewish. Many imagine that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul immediately rejected Judaism and embraced Christianity. They assume that in the first century these were two clearly distinguishable religions. Before his encounter with Christ, the thinking goes, Paul was wrapped up in a legalistic pursuit of salvation and was teaching others a similar philosophy. So great was his passion that he persecuted the Christians who taught salvation by grace through faith. After his conversion, everything changed. He embraced God's gracious salvation by faith in Christ and rejected the system of dead rituals bound up in Judaism. Paul left Judaism, therefore, and turned to Christianity.

If we encountered Paul today, he would not be the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate.

This account of Paul thrives among evangelicals because it resonates with many who come from legalistic environments. We narrate our testimonies as a movement from guilt to grace, from enslaving oppression to freedom in Christ. We assume, therefore, that Paul's journey mirrors ours. This view also shapes much of our preaching. Eager to let the glorious light of the gospel shine brightly, evangelicals set it against the dark backdrop of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness.

This scenario, while familiar, is deeply mistaken in at least three ways. First, it represents a faulty vision of Judaism in Paul's day. E. P. Sanders's seminal book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, was the catalyst for much of the intense debate over the past three decades in Pauline studies. Until its publication in 1977, the sharp contrast between Paul and his Jewish heritage dominated scholarship. Sanders's work gave scholars an entirely new appreciation of first-century Judaism, opening up afresh the world of Jesus and his first followers. We now have to realize that Paul's past wasn't ruled by simple legalism.

Because of this "new perspective," scholars now recognize that Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic. They point to Jewish texts that stress the absolute need of divine grace for salvation. The Community Rule, a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the following:

As for me, I belong to wicked mankind, to the company of ungodly flesh. My iniquities, rebellions, and sins, together with the perversity of my heart, belong to the company of worms and to those who walk in darkness. For mankind has no way, and man is unable to establish his steps since justification is with God and perfection of way is out of his hand.

A Multi-Ethnic Problem

The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn't have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).

While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities. Paul, as pastor and theologian, addresses these challenges by claiming that "no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law" (Rom. 3:20). This is not a condemnation of Judaism as inherently legalistic, but an affirmation that God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish. Jews and non-Jews approach God on equal terms when it comes to salvation. All have sinned and all stand in need of God's redeeming grace in Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). Therefore all who are in Christ are equal siblings in God's new family (Gal. 3:26-28).

No Difference Between Jew or Greek

A second reason why we cannot envision Paul as anti-Jewish is that even after his conversion, Paul remained a Jew. He did not imagine that he was inventing a new religion, nor did he leave Judaism to join the Christian church. At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem and, at the suggestion of James, went through purification rituals at the temple (Acts 21:23-26). Paul saw no contradiction at all between his commitment to Christ and his faithful participation in Jewish practices. Explaining his ministry before a variety of audiences, Paul emphasized his Jewish identity and claimed to be acting in faithfulness to the God of Israel. Before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, he declared, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!" (Acts 23:6, emphasis added). And to King Agrippa, he again claims to be a Pharisee whose hope is in the promises of God to Israel (Acts 26:4-6).

A Call to Jews To Accept Jesus and All Gentile Christians

Third, Paul never calls upon Jews to reject Judaism. Instead, he exhorts them to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and welcome his non-Jewish followers as siblings in God's new family. We get a glimpse of his preaching to Jews in Acts 17:1-3: "When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,' he said."

The Paul of the New Testament, therefore, is not anti-Jewish. He was faithful both to the Scriptures and to his Jewish heritage. He preached Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, but was insistent that salvation in Christ was not limited to ethnic Jews. According to his gospel, all Jews needed to receive Jesus as Messiah, and all followers of Jesus—Jewish and non-Jewish—needed to embrace one another as siblings in God's global family in Christ.

Preaching the Kingdom

Evangelicals typically regard Paul as focusing on believers' private spirituality to the relative neglect of the church's communal character and social dynamics. This is quite different from the preaching of Jesus, who proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. He announced the arrival of the reign of God, calling for repentance and the renewal of corporate behaviors.

Paul, on the other hand, preached that God is saving individuals, taking up residence in their hearts, and giving them a heavenly destiny. His vision of the Christian life is one in which believers cultivate inner piety and practice private devotion.

This view of Paul is reinforced by our pietistic heritage and our individualistic culture. More recently, however, evangelicals have been awakening to the primacy of the church and its related corporate practices. New Testament scholars have also begun to note a greater continuity between the preaching of Jesus and that of Paul. Far from focusing on privatized piety, the apostle's conception of salvation concerns the arrival of the kingdom of God—a fundamentally communal reality.

According to Luke, God's reign was the dominant subject of Paul's preaching. He ends Acts with these words: "For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!" (Acts 28:30-31). Referring to everyone in Christ, Paul says that God has "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Col. 1:13).

In his highly influential work on Ephesians, God's New Society, John Stott sums up Paul's community-oriented gospel:

One of our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved COMMUNITY. We emphasize that Christ died for us "to redeem us from all iniquity" rather than "to purify for himself  A PEOPLE of his own." We think of ourselves more as "Christians" than as "churchmen," and our message is more good news of a new life than of a NEW SOCIETY. Nobody can emerge from a careful reading of Paul's letter to the Ephesians with a privatized gospel.

Paul does not, then, view salvation in individualistic terms apart from the arrival of God's kingdom in the church. As individuals, we have been saved for life-giving relationships within kingdom-of-God-communities, not merely for privatized walks with Jesus. We become our true selves only in community, exercising our gifts and learning to receive the gifts of others. Paul's vision for the church includes the renewed social practices of forgiving and being forgiven, reconciling formerly alienated individuals and communities, learning to speak words of grace and kindness, practicing justice, and absorbing loss rather than taking vengeance for wrongs suffered. Social practices such as these suffer from neglect in our culture, especially when we orient ourselves by individualized and internalized conceptions of being [solitary] Christian.

Evangelicals have done well to emphasize personal commitment to Christ, but we must take care to regard discipleship as the practice of transformative habits set within communities of renewal empowered by God's Spirit. Central to Paul's conception of salvation is "the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).

Leading Counter-Culturally

Evangelicals place a high priority on leadership, perhaps because historically our movement has been carried along by strong leaders. The great figures in our heritage have been powerful speakers and compelling visionaries, many of whom have built colleges, seminaries, and, in some cases, entire denominations. These are also the traits we want to see in our pastors.

Thus we intuitively assume that Paul was someone just like this. We think he must have been a compelling figure, a charismatic and decisive leader, and a powerful speaker. From the moment of conversion, he immediately put his great abilities to work for Christ, taking over the leadership of the church and becoming its powerful spokesperson.

When we look at the evidence from the New Testament, however, we find a very different picture. Surprisingly, Paul was not a captivating speaker. He was aware of the Corinthians' criticisms of his preaching: "For some say, 'His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'" (2 Cor. 10:10). Just like these early believers, we find his letters rhetorically compelling. But we would be wrong to assume his preaching had the same effect.

Even more surprisingly, Paul doesn't apologize for his unimpressive personal presence. On the contrary, he seems to think it makes him even more fit to be a vessel for God's honor. He reveals his theological reasoning in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.
Paul knew the Corinthians' commitment would soon flounder if it rested on nothing sturdier than attraction to a winsome personality. Addressing them in frailty and humility, he ensured that the messenger would not overshadow the message of Christ crucified.

Paul saw no contradiction at all between his commitment to Christ and his faithful participation in Jewish practices.

Add to Paul's pedestrian oratory a physical appearance that must have been quite unpleasant. In Acts 14:19-20, we read that Paul's ministry in Lystra came to a terrible end when volatile crowds were incited to stone him and drag him from the city, "thinking he was dead." Let this description work on your imagination for a moment: A bloodthirsty, riotous horde brutalizes Paul so badly that any chance of survival is dismissed. He must have been in horrible shape.

The Book of Galatians offers clues about what Paul looked like. Just after the episode in Lystra, Paul likely visited the Galatian churches, reporting that his physical condition "was a trial" to them (Gal. 4:13-14). He knew he looked repulsive and suspected that the sight of his injuries would turn stomachs. Of his scars and bruises, he says, "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Gal. 6:17), and he writes elsewhere of his tremendous sufferings, including torture and beatings. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal text from the second century, states that Paul was "a man small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, stocky with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed."

If we encountered Paul today, we might be disappointed to find someone quite unlike the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate. In this regard, as in so many others, the New Testament evidence resists efforts to re-create Paul in our own image.

Timothy Gombis is associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and the author of Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (TandT Clark).

Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Related Elsewhere

Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark) is available at Barnes & Noble and other book retailers.
Additional Christianity Today coverage of the life of Paul includes:
Jesus vs. Paul | Many biblical scholars have noted that Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith—and not vice versa. What gives? (December 3, 2010)
The Apostle of the Golden Age | Classics scholar Sarah Ruden says extraordinary things happen when you read Paul alongside other ancient literature. (September 22, 2010)
What Did Paul Really Mean? | 'New Perspective' scholars argue that we need, well, a new perspective on justification by faith. (August 10, 2007)
Paul's Tomb Reportedly Discovered | Vatican archaeologist: Paul really is buried where the church said he is (Apr. 13, 2005)
Apostle Paul's Shipwreck Makes Headlines | Former U.S. ambassador tries to block book on search (May 2003)
The Women in Paul's Life | Two competing Bibles for women highlight the human component of Bible translation and interpretation. (October 27, 1997)
The Apostle Paul and His Times: Did You Know? | Little-known and remarkable facts about Paul and his times. (July 1, 1995)

The Role of Freelance Theologians

The state of theology and the role of freelance theologians

by Andrew Perriman

James K.A. Smith, who stayed in our house in the Hague with his family a few years back, wrote last week about the state of contemporary theology, complaining in particular about the “balkanization” of professional theology today. He attributes this—in part, at least—to a shift in the way theologians identify themselves. Traditionally theological identity was determined by denominational allegiance: Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran. Now theologians appear to have developed a taste for more abstract and theory-laden labelling: “ecclesio-centric”, “apocalyptic”, “radically orthodox”.

Jamie attributes this development to an “ecumenical” theological education, exacerbated, naturally, by the blogosphere, and he is not happy about it. It’s unhealthy.
I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call “churchmen” in any strong sense (“churchwomen” included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.
So he argues, instead, for an old-fashioned, broad or “thick” confessionalism. It doesn’t have to be true, necessarily, but it has to be “good”, or at least “good enough”. He regards his own Christian Reformed identity not as a “recipe for sectarianism” but as something that frees him up to “engage selectively, critically, and generously”. I can see what he’s getting at, but I’m not entirely convinced by the argument for the following reasons:

  • I can see how an “ecumenical” theological education may undermine traditional commitments, but how is the new “balkanization” any worse than the old “balkanization” driven by denominational commitments? Arguably, it’s a lot better.
  • The denominational categories keep us firmly within the Christendom paradigm. They reflect the patterns, preoccupations and prejudices of historically determined debates. If theological activity has to be partitioned (I guess it’s unavoidable and probably not a bad thing) I think that it is well worth testing new ways of mapping the landscape—ideally ways that follow the contours of scripture better.
  • It ought to be much easier to let go of theoretical identities than denominational identities. If the new partitions are the product of a more ecumenical education, then we might hope that they will preserve something of this spirit of ecumenism. The institutional and cultural containers of our theologizing are much too rigid.
  • The sort of abstract theoretical commitments that Jamie is wary of cut across denominational boundaries and must to some extent mitigate the controlling force of denominational allegiances and politics.

But what prompted me, in the first place, to write this piece was Jamie’s dismissal of freelance theologizing, which I take rather personally. Freelance theologizing is what I do. I have an M.Phil and a PhD in theology. I have a loose but invaluable relationship with a non-denominational theological college in the UK and with a cautiously progressive US-based church-planting organization. I have always been strongly committed to diverse evangelical churches wherever we have lived, from Chinese Baptist to francophone African, from Anglican to Reformed Church of America, from restrained seeker-sensitive to romping charismatic. But I would not know what “thick” confessional location to plant myself in. I think of myself currently as a sort of post-Christendom, post-modern evangelical, but what does that mean?

While I understand the appeal of a centred approach to theological study, my view is that there is a real need for decentred theologians to challenge the massive consensuses that still set the agenda for western English-language theology. The blogosphere is an anarchic and promiscuous place, but it provides an important counter-medium for an exploratory, conversational, non-conformist mode of theological thought that may prove critical for the future of the people of God.

That said, Jamie is right to be concerned about a loss of collective responsibility in the shift from denominational to theoretical classification of theological positions. A “radical orthodox” or “apocalyptic” or “New Perspective” theologian has no clear constituency to support or be supported by; there is no underpinning ecclesiology; the danger of narcissism is apparent; and the connection between theology and what is traditionally called “discipleship” is greatly weakened.

But the answer, in my view is not to revert to traditional denominational categories but to seek to forge new collective identities, a new ecclesiology, a new sense of what it means to be in continuity with the biblical narrative in the aftermath of the collapse of the Christendom model. No matter how far outside the traditional boxes we find ourselves in our search for a way forward, we still have to confess. We are still part of the story. We still have to affirm the vocation of a people called originally in Abraham to be new creation. We still have to have do theology for the sake of the future of the people of God.

What is Theology?

Why we do not need theology

by Andrew Perriman
It has led to the assumption that the only viable history within which to construe the meaning of biblical texts is the history within which those texts were generated—or the history to which those texts give witness. The results for Christian theology and preaching have often been disastrous, since it is difficult to construe the meaning for contemporary times of a biblical text whose meaning properly belongs to an ancient time. (1)
This is the central problem posed by a historical hermeneutic: if biblical meaning properly belongs to an ancient past, of what use is it for us today? Biblical truth becomes nothing more than an assortment of corroded artefacts—primitive tools, crude items of jewellery, roughly shaped dishes—dug from an ancient site. We might display them in a museum, with explanatory notices for the benefit of visitors. They are remarkable items. But we would not dream of making everyday use of them.

This is rightly intolerable to evangelicals—indeed, to anyone who wants to believe that the Bible is formative for the people of God today.

Green’s solution will be to prioritize theology over history, to construe the historical texts theologically as transcendent scripture—that much can be inferred from the title of the book. The problem with this approach is that inevitably the historical voice will be distorted or suppressed, and the Bible will be made to say things that it does not want to say. The ancient artefacts will be discreetly replaced with cheap shiny replicas which won’t look out of place in the modern household—the sort of stuff that you buy in the gift shop on the way out of the museum.

I think this is a mistake and ultimately a betrayal of the Bible as scripture. My view is that we do not need to wrap the Bible in a modern user-friendly “theology” in order for it to have practical value for the church. What makes the Bible meaningful for us, what makes it scripture, is not that universally applicable moral and religious truths can be extracted from it—though undoubtedly some can—but that it establishes a narrative trajectory. It points in a certain direction.

The New Testament points the early redeemed church in the direction of vindication—first with respect to apostate Judaism, secondly with respect to European paganism. If we step back a bit, I think we then see how the Bible as a whole points the people of God always towards the prospect of new creation, of which it is both a concrete embodiment and a prophetic sign.

But this narrative trajectory—this pointing—can be thoroughly described without introducing a ‘disastrous’ schism between theology and history. In scripture theology is grounded historically; [and] history [can be] interpreted theologically. This is why prophecy is such a critical component in biblical discourse—it is the realistic theological interpretation of historical events, past, present, and future. [prophecy = theology]

(1) Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Abingdon Press, 2007, 14-15.

Recovering Theological Perspective Through Narrative

New Perspective and Reformed theologies at a crossroads

by Andrew Perriman

Weighing down God's Word
with our Presuppositions
Jim Hoag has a couple of pertinent questions about my “Postconservative evangelicalism and beyond” post—pertinent, in fact, to the point that he makes me wonder whether the piece had much in the way of substance to it at all. The first question has to do with what we understand by the “New Perspective”, the second with my nifty but perhaps vacuous metaphor of a narrative-historical hermeneutics cutting across the “dominant paradigms of modern theology at ninety degrees”.

The New Perspective—associated principally with writers such as Sanders, Dunn, Hays, and Wright—is a rather loose category that is going to mean different things to different people. It is also a work in progress. It started out largely as an attempt to correct the very negative presentation of Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness that has held sway over much New Testament interpretation and theology. But since this was essentially a historical correction, it has given a powerful impetus more broadly to research into the historical setting and scope of Paul’s argumentation. In effect, it has done for Paul what successive quests for the historical Jesus have done for Jesus.

I would place recent imperial-critical research (Crossan, Horsley, Lopez) in this trajectory, though it has a habit of going off at a tangent; and my own argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul’s thought in Romans is governed by a forward-looking narrative about the place of the emerging churches of the nations in a troubled process that effectively culminated in the victory of Christ over the gods and powers of the Greek-Roman world.

Douglas Campbell has some excellent things to say regarding how the “superstructure” of a theological theory (such as Justification theory) may distort or overwhelm the reading of the “base”—the primary texts—on which it was originally constructed. The poor donkey of scripture gets overloaded with a weight of self-substantiating theory that it simply cannot sustain.
We have seen that in the case of a scripturally constructed and authenticated explanation the reading is prior and fundamental; it generates and then supports the explanation as base to superstructure.
The images below are tarted up versions of Campbell’s diagrams (238). In the first one the base of the texts properly supports the superstructure of theory—Campbell is careful not to pretend that we can dispense with “theology”.

But the theory—the superstructure—proceeds to take on a life of its own:
But the resulting theory, once established, possesses its own integrity and coherence…, to the point that it is largely detachable from its underlying texts.
Then, of course, what happens is that for all sorts of complex sociological and historical reasons the theory comes increasingly to “intrude prematurely into the act of reading that supposedly undergirds it” (The Deliverance of God, 237, Campbell’s emphasis)—quite understandable, but “epistemologically disastrous”. Campbell then goes on to describe how “Any illegitimate epistemological causality flowing from the superstructure to the base may be cloaked in a variety ways” (238)—a covert art that we are all remarkably adept at.

So in this second picture the epistemological current has been reversed: the theoretical superstructure, which I have taken the liberty of enlarging to indicate its oppressive function, controls the reading of the base texts, with potentially distorting effect.

So when I suggested that the “New Perspective offers us the best chance of ensuring that in the process we remain loyal to scripture”, what I had in mind was its capacity to swim against the current of an ‘illegitimate epistemological causality”—to resist the distorting effect generated by the sociological success of currently dominant paradigms.

The slightly fuzzy New Perspective topples the bullying theological theory and lets scripture speak with its own voice again (this is purely my contribution to the schematics):

The question will then be whether a constructive and credible tension can be maintained between an appropriate historical-critical methodology and an authentically and potently evangelical commitment. I am confident that it can.

My way of dealing with this challenge would be to foreground the narrative structure of New Testament thought, as the locus at which history, literature and theological argumentation converge. A narrative-historical methodology makes us ask different questions; it pushes context into view; it forestalls theological precommitments; it makes the text strange again; it safeguards the contingent dimensions of the texts; it identifies real and urgent rather than remote and speculative concerns; it grounds language in corporate experience; it has an ear for scriptural and cultural resonances; and so on…

The theology that emerges from this hermeneutical realignment ought to retain a narrative shape and momentum. It will have a diachronic structure—theology as an active, critical, prophetic, hopeful engagement with historical realities in the light of earlier moment in the story. That is a very different model to the largely synchronic function of systematic, conceptually organized, modern theologies (Calvinism, Arminianism, modern evangelicalism, etc.) which, as Campbell points out, effectively pre-empt biblical interpretation. The metaphor of narrative-historical interpretation at ninety degrees to the traditional paradigm attempts to capture that realignment, which of course is just another metaphor, maybe just the same metaphor, for this complex hermeneutical shift—and so it goes on.

My own view is that modern theological paradigms cannot in the long run survive the emerging critique—I think the phrase “vindication of an eschatological community through faithfulness” simply gets at the core of Paul’s argument in Romans much more accurately than the Reformation axiom about the justification of lost individuals by faith. But it will certainly be a long run, and there is no reason in principle (practice is always another matter) why the transition should not proceed by way of dialogue rather than conflict and schism.

The Emerging Church and the New Perspective

The Great Convergence:

Two major developments, very broadly speaking, have impacted modern Western evangelicalism over the last decade. With regard to praxis the emerging church movement has challenged traditional patterns of church life and mission and has set out—in more or less experimental fashion—new, fresh, innovative, down-to-earth, enterprising, risk-taking, controversial, incarnational, and, of course, missional ways of being church. With regard to theory the New Perspective has challenged the traditional rationalized presentation of evangelical beliefs, arguing that New Testament theology is a fast flowing river cutting through the landscape of a particular history, not a vast undifferentiated, universal flood covering the whole plain of human existence. The New Testament is not an allegory of personal salvation. It is the complex account of the crisis of first-century Judaism and the painful struggle to bring about the renewal of the people of God. Theology needs to be recontextualized.

What these two developments signal, in my view, is the demise of a modern evangelicalism for which “church” is merely the slow and pointless accumulation of saved souls, and scripture just a massive, dense and largely impenetrable way of saying that God so loves you (singular) that he gave his only Son.

The New Perspective is a work in progress, but it has the power, I think, over time to generate a new, robust, realistic, and profoundly biblical evangelical identity, in credible continuity with the narrative of the New Testament.

The emerging movement has been a messy and at times incoherent attempt to liberate people from the claustrophobic mindset of the modern church, but it has changed the rules of engagement for many believers and many communities. It has demonstrated that church in the aftermath of the collapse of Christendom must adjust to marginalization, must find ways to develop an authentic sense of community, must develop habits of cultural, moral and intellectual integrity, must discover in itself the power of the creative Spirit, must concretely and practically embody the compassion and justice of God, must learn to tell a publicly significant story, must become an incarnating presence in the world rather than a programmed absence….

These two developments need each other. Despite the endeavours of popularizing scholars such as N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, the New Perspective remains largely confined to the academic sphere, a matter of difficult abstractions concerning Judaism and justification. We are only slowly beginning to grasp the revolutionary—and re-invigorating—implications of its shift in outlook for teaching and formation in church communities. The emerging movement, on the other hand, has suffered from a lack of theological clarity and direction, and to my mind would benefit greatly from engaging constructively with the New Perspective.

This has all been a great oversimplification, but in my more optimistic moments I imagine that the future of the people of God after Christendom lies not with the reactionary neo-Reformed folks, for all their good intentions, but in the convergence of these two powerfully creative forces. There, I said it.