Saturday, May 31, 2008

Planned creationist park

No, not in the American Bible Belt. In Germany. And it is even of the "world is only 6,000 years old" sort.

But the evangelical church in Baden-Württemberg have made some clear statements against the planned creationist park, which conservative Christians want to build in the Rhein-Neckar region. Hansjörg Hemminger says that "such a project simply stands in the way of passing on our faith". I tend to agree, though I think the truth is more complex. For many, the fundamentalism that such a park embodies is appealing, even if sometimes it may only be a part of the McDonaldising spread of a version of American faith in Europe. So for some, especially younger folk, or others who are happier with more simplistic categories, such a park will strengthen faith and reach out to those of a like mind. However, it does stand in the way of communicating our faith in so many other ways, and will likely be a large stumbling block for more people than it serves. Besides, in my view it is based upon bad science, a seriously deficient hermeneutic and a selective handling of scripture. If it were presented as an interactive portrayal of the begining of the Genesis narrative, and not scientific fact ...

Click here for more info.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Gospel according to

... me, in my early Christian years. Recently I was trying to summarise how I conceived the gospel in the first years of my Christian life and I came up with the following 8 points. It is meant to be represent a popular evangelical perspective with a slight charismatic twist. Would you add anything?

1) God is holy. 2) Humans are sinful and therefore provoke God's just wrath. 3) In order to be reconciled to the holy God, God's wrath needs to be satisfied. 4) Jesus died on the cross to pay this price for my sin. 5) His death averted God's wrath against sin from me, and enabled me, by believing in Jesus, to approach the holy God. 6) If I pray and ask God for forgiveness because of Jesus, I will be saved and spend eternity enjoying God's glory in heaven, instead of eternity in hell (all of this is often assigned the heading 'justification')

Associated with this are various other points which, though not the gospel directly, are associated with it: 7) Salvation begins in this life. I can experience God's life, healing and power in my life, so that I can live with victory over personal sin, pray for the sick and see them healed, experience God's provisions and blessing in my finances, job and marriage. This is another way of separating the 'justification' spoken of above from the 'sanctification' implied here. 8) The heart and centre of all of this is a relationship with Jesus, and this is sustained by daily prayer and bible reading.

In a bible course I am running I have drafted a few questions and problems for people to discuss in relation to this definition. Would you add anything to the following questions and statements? Or change any of them?

  • Does God need to punish someone in order to forgive? Jesus said to forgive your enemies. Does this understanding of the gospel imply God doesn't forgive until he has let Jesus suffer and die?
  • The gospel as outlined above assumes that the reaction of God's holiness to human sin is the problem the gospel solves. But doesn't Paul speak about God reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not about God being reconciled to us (2 Cor. 5:15-21)?
  • Why doesn't Paul simply say the above if the gospel is so easily reducible to a set of propositions?
  • The focus on sin often boils down to a focus on guilt, but do all understand the concept that well? Why do other people groups speak, for example, about shame instead?
  • In order to make people feel guilty, we invent ways of convincing people that they are sinners. We have to make a problem for them, for Jesus to be a real solution. But is that really what the gospel is about? And how do we try to make a problem for people? We try to argue that all are murderers, or all are like Hitler before God. But does this argument convince you? What does it say about God?
  • Is not this gospel a product of an older age, one that does no resonate well with many people today? I.e. the focus is on the individual, what the individual 'gets', the format of the gospel as a set of propositions divorced from its original narrative shape, the focus on heaven (spiritual reality), etc.
  • And as such, does it not fail to really connect with late or post modern people? Why is this? What are post or late modern people concerned about?
  • What about community? Is it really all about me and my personal relationship with Jesus sustained by praying and reading the bible in private (with 'go to church' tagged on at the end as a moral imperative)?
  • What about real problems in the world like poverty, child death rates in poor countries, social inequalities keeping people groups out of work, the abuse of the environment, broken marriages, drug abuse, prostitution, obesity, dissolving communities etc.? Why did things like this not find expression in the core group of issues describing the gospel?
  • Why does Paul not divorce 'justification' and 'sanctification'? Indeed, why does he mix them?
  • How many really believe this gospel? How do you feel about the implication that most won't 'go to heaven', on this basis? And how about the notion that those who don't go to heaven don't do so simply because they didn't pray a sinners prayer, or consent to the idea that they are sinners like Hitler? Why did God create all of these people if he knew they would end up in hell?
  • And why do we talk about 'going to heaven' all the time? What did Paul speak about? In what ways is that different?
  • What is good and what appeals to you about the above?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Book Review: The Bible and Epistemology

Thanks to Paternoster for a review copy of Parry, Robin, and Mary Healy, eds. The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007.

In the midst of what the editors understand as a 'renewal of Christian epistemological reflection' there 'lies a curious black hole. The unaccountable void to which we refer lied in the world of biblical studies' (xi).

While not attempting to cover all of the ground, this small volume of essays makes a helpful contribution to plugging up that aforementioned hole. In the first part, a team of scholars (both Catholic and Protestant) examine epistemology in Deuteronomy (chapter 1), the Prophetic literature (chapter 2), the Psalms (chapter 3), Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (chapter 4), Luke-Acts (chapter 5), the Johannine literature (chapter 6), and Paul (chapter 7). Part 2 discusses theological and philosophical issues, reflecting on the principles of biblical epistemology (chapter 8), and biblical epistemology as it engages philosophical trends (chapter 9).

Interestingly, a number of features repeat themselves in almost all of the chapters in part 1, namely they all perceive biblical epistemology in relational terms. Knowledge of God comes through relationship with God, through self-involved commitment to God. In other words, rather than mastering the object of knowledge in a disinterested manner, as in popular caricatures of modernity, biblical epistemology proceeds on the basis of 'the risk of self-engagement which is the sine qua non of personal knowledge' (Mary Healy in her essay on epistemology in Paul, 144). A number of the biblical scholars point out how this relational understanding of epistemology, through its participatory nature, rejoins ethics with knowledge, driven asunder in many forms of modernity. And Barthians (among others) will rejoice at the emphasis, seen in the analysis of the biblical texts in part 1, placed on the necessity of the divine initiative in all knowledge, of the self-revelation of God that makes the knowledge of God possible.

Writing a doctorate on relational Christology, I was unsurprised by Mary Healy's proposals in her chapter on Paul, and gladdened to see the subject formulated in a relational manner with such clarity. While her confessional bias was at times acutely felt, her judicious treatment on Paul was especially helpful. I was also struck by the boldness amongst the contributors to contrast biblical epistemology with that found in modernity. All the while modernity held sway, it was as if many theologians, apart from a notable few, were scared to admit the differences between the two epistemologies (exemplified in a remarkably consistent way throughout the biblical texts on the one hand, and modernity on the other). Now that theologians have been emboldened by the supposed demise of modernity, or at least the modernity-critical thrust within late or post modernity, it is refreshing to see more honesty about the discrepancy between the bible and modernity in terms of epistemology. Indeed, the developing affection for relational and interdisciplinary models of knowledge in late modernity allows the biblical texts to be engaged with fresh appreciation, a task in which this book revels.

I end this short review with a passage that grabbed me at an existential level. I read it and heard the point with unusual force.

'We need to be constantly reminded ... that theological knowing is inseperable from the life of obedience and faith. It is fostered through worship and prayer – those practices by which we submit ourselves to the Word and Spirit of God – and is borne of humility before the Word' (Murray Rae, 163)


Creative Ministry Method of the Day

Here is a memorable ministry idea to brighten up your Sunday services, and one bound to keep your flock alert and engaged. It is all the more effective as it is of ‘the Holy Spirit told me ...’ variety. Yes, I'm talking about the 'anointed preacher kick in the Christian's face' manoeuvre.

The wimps on the Methodist blog, connexions, are all upset at Todd’s behaviour. But over here in Southern Germany, I think it is fair to say that a broken nose and a split lip is evidence of a rousing service. Especially if the meeting was ‘ecumenical’. Nothing like the inner release of slamming a chair across your brother head, especially if you came to church tense. And was it not Charles Wesley who once penned the memorable stanza: ‘Smack him with the Hymnal, and if that doesn’t work, try the edge of the church bible’?

I actually know very little about Todd Bentley, and I'd be interested to hear what people think about his ministry and his quite astonishing healing claims. It all sounds rather Smith Wigglesworthian!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Thought for prayerful contemplation

In the spirit of the last post, Josephus tells us that the Essenes were so strict about Sabbath observance that they refused to relieve themselves for that whole day ('nor go to stool thereon' Jewish War 2:147). No pooping or crapping allowed until Sunday! No wonder they were always talking about 'girding up their loins'. With Sabbath approaching they would need to wrap up a real sturdy girding, and that would definitely mean: no lamb vindaloo on Friday evening.

(Plus, I bet things could get pretty violent in the Sunday morning queue for the toilet. Imagine it, a community of dozens of men all desperate for ‘the place of the hand’. John pushes Simon. Simon jump in front of Matthew. Riot breaks out. I think Hippolytos had the right idea. Of course, and now I’m waffling, if both Josephus and Hippolytos were correct, I wouldn’t like to be the community bed-sheet cleaner on Sunday morning)

Thought of the day: Hippolytos on the Essenes

According to Hippolytos (170-235 AD), the Essenes were so strict in keeping the Sabbath that they spent the whole day in bed! Slight exaggerations aside, this perspective on the Essenes sounds pretty darn attractive, if you ask me!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Guest Book Review: The Gods of War

My thanks to IVP for a review copy of Pearse’s book, and to Philip Sumpter for his review. He obviously enjoyed the book, which always makes for a rousing review! And he touches upon some really tricky issues.


Meich Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (Nottingham: IVP), 2007.

The current spout of religious warfare has generated a more vigorous secular critique of the religious worldview as inherently violent. Pearse reports that an opinion poll in Britain in late 2006 indicated that 82 % of adults “see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16 % disagree” (14). This is a sentiment expressed both in the media and amongst many Western intellectuals. In response to this misrepresentation, Meic Pearse has taken it upon himself to demonstrate historically that wars are multi-causal and complex, and are motivated by all ideologies, secularist as well as religious. His book attempts to substantiate four main arguments:

1. Irreligion has produced wars far worse and far bloodier than religion.
2. We must distinguish between belligerent and non-belligerent religion.
3. Cultures enshrine religion, and wars fought for one often appear as being fought for the other.
4. The global secularist campaign against religion and traditional cultures (as supposedly violent) is already and will continue to be productive of the most ferocious violence.

The first chapter opens with the truism that the 20th Century was the bloodiest century of all. The key question is whether this massive bloodshed was simply a result of more developed technology or whether it was connected with the prevailing secular ideologies of the time. Pearse illustrates how within the ideologies of the key thinkers of Communism, Fascism and the French Revolution, human life was considered expendable for the sake of the attainment of a particular abstract ideal, an understanding of “the grand scheme of things.” Within these secular creeds, the end not only justified the means of its attainment, it defined what it meant to be human. “People” had no intrinsic value grounded in the imago dei, rather they were a theoretical construct to which the “facts” must conform. This attitude, combined with technology, has catastrophic consequences.

Not that religion can be excused. Chapter two looks at the question of religion as a cause of war. Religion is defined as “an interconnected system of beliefs and/or practices rooted in the numinous or spiritual world that gives meaning to the lives of those who embrace them or have been reared in them” (22). Yet when we try to analyse concrete historical examples, we are faced with the complexity of their causes. Were the Jewish revolts of the first century religious or political? How about the druids in Roman Britain? Christianity was peaceful for the first 300 years of its existence, and then became bloody from 330 A.D. An overview of the wars of the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Mongols, French and Americans indicates that more mundane factors such as greed, security, booty, glory, territory and nationalism were the predominant factors rather than religion.

More clear cut cases are the subject of chapter three. Islam, in contrast to Christianity, was “cradled in war.” Pearce outlines its history of violence and notes that it shares a teleology or dynamic with communism: universal, this-wordly rule. In dividing the world between dar al harb (“sphere of war,” i.e. the non-Muslim world) and dar al Islam (“sphere of Islam”), the price of peace becomes submission to Islam. Christianity, on the other hand, had a different beginning and ideology. It doesn't have an equivalent of the Muslim ummah, the believers whose life must be expressed as a political entity. Though the Crusades were no less violent, Pearce argues that their causes are more “mixed.” Indeed, the undefined frontier of Europe has always been a source of war, regardless of the religious affiliation of each side. In a sense, war between East and West seems inevitable.

Chapter four offers an historical analysis of wars in which the situation is far more ambiguous. The English and American civil wars, the conquests of South America, the conflicts between the Orthodox church and the Ottoman empire. Often cultural identities are enshrined by a religion, so that a challenge to this identity leads to an increase in religious intensity. Often, religion functions as a morally convenient cloak for another cause. In the end, religion in inseparable from cultural, social and political issues.

The following two chapters look in detail and a particularly insidious mix of politics and religion: religious-national myths. In the cases of Serbia, Russia and England, the nation is deified and rendered immune to criticism.

So what causes war? Chapter seven offers a historical overview. In ancient times religion was hardly significant. The key issue was was access to property in the form of livestock, food, slaves, land and women. When religion was present, it often functioned as a restraint on war, as the fall of the Roman Empire, the medieval papacy and the Islamic umma indicate. For Pearse, it wasn't until the rise of popular rule that religion became a major factor in creating conflict. When loyalty to an absolute ruler is not enough to acquire popular support for war, reference to an abstract principle that generates both group identity and enthusiasm is necessary. Religion becomes a handy framework of meaning to meet these needs.

This is, more or less, what Marxists have always said, and so Pearce draws on their arguments in chapter 8. Though for the first 300 years Christianity was spread by persuasion, the moment it was adopted as the meta-narrative of the state, the sanctification of that state's wars is inevitable. Marx helps us uncover the real aspirations that undergird a states use of religious language: namely economics and politics. This can be seen in the transformation that Christian doctrine underwent from the time of Eusebius onwards, through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, as various states adopted varieties of the religion for its own purposes. The same pattern, claims Pearse, can be seen in other religions.

Chapter 9 seeks to exculpate Christianity by find out what it really is. Pearse argues that both historically and theologically the church was never intended to form the basis of a political order. When that has occurred, the church has strayed from its roots and a belligerent form of Christianity is the result. It wasn't until the Anabaptists, with their insistence on the split between the state and church, that a situation similar to that of the early church was rediscovered after the “Constantinian” development. In addition to this, the pluralistic political developments in the modern era have helped create a situation in which the church can stop trying to do that for which it was not designed—running society—and get back to it's original function: guiding individual lives. Today, though there is still an inner-ecclesial debate concerning pacifism, it is universally agreed that when war is waged, it cannot be fought to spread the faith.

So, can a Christian fight at all? Pearce doesn't provide an easy answer, for to do so is to sanitize war. War is an insoluble dilemma and neither pacifism nor theories of just war can adequately deal with it. Both arguments are analysed for their strengths and weaknesses, and Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer are drawn on as role models. The solution? In war there is none, neither in theory or practice. The best we can do is take moral responsibility for our own actions and to keep those decisions conscious. No general or king can do that for us.

Pearse ends with a glance at our contemporary situation. In his final chapter, “The War Against Faith and Meaning,” he points out that apart from greed a principle cause of war is conflict over the shape of society. The principled irreligion of the West, spread through globalization, in which meaning itself is held to be the problem and thus must be banished, is an “absolutizing relativism” that is itself a cause of violence. Rather than being a universal pancea, the attempt to eliminate difference both inside and outside the West is just another unattainable utopianism which produces violence through its intolerance. The only real solution to world peace is genuine tolerance, which can accept different kinds of polity and the cultural spaces that make them possible. “And to that end, Christians, who know from Scripture and from their own painful, error ridden past that their faith is not a basis for governing society as a whole but a private choice and a transcendent calling, have far, far more to contribute than most” (207).

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can recommend it to all. Whether one agrees with his construal of Christianity or not, this informative and eloquent book provides us with important categories for entering an important debate.

N.B. For those wishing to look at this issue in relation to Christian Zionism, check out this fascinating article.

Philip Sumpter

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Quote of the Day: Evolution and Christology

"The God of natural selection is the liberating, healing, and inclusive God of Jesus"

Denis Edwards, cited in LeRon Shults' Christology and Science, 50.

(In other words, Edwards claims that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is consistent with the God assumed in the evolutionary process of natural selection)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thought of the Day

Boy oh boy I'm a busy bee at the moment. I would point readers to the terrific discussion in the previous post, but tonight I have no time to join in. I can only offer a thought that occurred to me as I was entering Tübingen library today:

If a murderous alien life force were to suddenly possess my body, armed with a golf club I could seriously dent the living theological halls of fame in a pretty short space of time. Imagine it: Jüngel down with a nine iron in his head, Moltmann a sandwedge, Küng, Stuhlmacher, Hengel ... enough to get my face on the Church Times front page as the most hated person ever! Of course, I might just have very bad luck and take a few out accidently in my Audi (I fall asleep at the wheel and curve into the Theologicum were the aforementioned greats happen to be unfortunately gathered together).

Of course, all this is less likely to happen than every single one of my readers winning million pound/dollar/euro lotteries every day for the rest of their lives. But such a detail aside, such was my idle thinking strolling across the lawn to the Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen this pleasant afternoon.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Enoch and Christian Universalism

I've been repeatedly reading the Similitudes of Enoch recently (1 Enoch 37-71 – the new Vanderkam and Nickelsburg is both the most authoritative translation and, in my view, the most accessible), and it occurred to me that it is a potentially relevant text to the Christian Universalism (CU) debate. If Matthew did indeed draw from the Similitudes for the 'parable' of the sheep and goats (Mt. 25:35-46), as Jim Davila and others think, then one ought to best consult 1 Enoch to understand Matthew. And I think one would be hard pressed to maintain any version of universalism based upon 1 Enoch!

In other words, the canonical Gospel text of Matthew likely does not support the notion that Jesus held universalist convictions, and, especially if the Similitudes link is pursued, indeed held convictions opposed to CU.

To run with this line of thinking: While it can be argued that Paul's letters do not have to be interpreted in a way that is incompatible with CU, one would also be hard pressed to claim that Paul was himself a universalist, even if there are CU seeds in his letters. Add to this the general view of Christian tradition, which in the 6th century explicitly condemned (albeit an extremely dubious variety of) CU, and one has a formidable artillery lined up against universalist convictions.

Further, and for me at the moment decisively, to add the CU footnote at the end of this picture is not simply a tame option but vital for one's understanding of the whole (much like the last chapter in a book telling you what happens at the very end is crucial). And to this extent, because it is difficult to understand the CU option as merely a subtlety, I struggle to accept a version of the story's end that does not square too comfortably with a canonical portrait of Jesus' teaching, Paul, nor the tradition of the church. Of course, I hope CUs are right. Gregory MacDonald is a 'hopeful dogmatic universalist'. For now, I remain simply a hopeivist.


Quote of the Day

"In conclusion, let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God's victory over evil? Which picture lifts the atoning efficacy of the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honor and glory? Which has the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why I am a Christian universalist."

----- The final paragraph of Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist, pp. 176-77


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thought of the Day

'As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian'

James Crossley, Why Christianity Happened, 23

I suppose James' proposal raises again the important question as to what counts as 'recognizably Christian'.

Back from England

... loaded with a copy of Ben Witherington III's The Living Word of God, Celebrating Common Prayer and Tim Gorringe's Salvation. My search for church history books in London was a spectacular failure, though only because I didn't manage to make it to the London School of Theology bookshop, Phil ;-)

I also returned to happily find a review copy of LeRon Shults' Christology and Science lying on my desk. I was present at LeRon's inspiring presentations on the book in Tübingen, and I am very much looking forward to reading the final result.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gorringe on Salvation

Today I picked up a copy of Tim Gorringe’s little book, Salvation, in the ‘Thinking Things Through’ series. What a wonderful, stimulating, thought-provoking read. The first part is essentially, and rather uniquely, a script in which Gorringe presents two main characters: Rebecca, an evangelical, and Tom, an agnostic. Their discussions get right to the heart of issues with remarkable economy for such a genre, and each chapter ends with excellently worded ‘questions for discussion‘. I am really enjoying this little gem.

Gorringe used to lead one of my seminar groups in St Andrews, but at the time I was living in a very small theological world and thought the man a screaming heretic! Well, maybe not heretic, but I didn’t like the fact he didn’t live in my “individual sin-penal atonement-personal faith alone-heaven” schema. This book, among other things, helps shows why precisely that schema is inadequate!

Jim's new blog title

Jim is asking for suggestions for a new name for his blog. In the comments I suggested one that I think resonates deeply with the tenor and depth of his own academic contributions in biblioblogdom:

"Idiot with keyboard"

But here are ten more for consideration

1) Zany Zwingli Zordidness with Zilch Theological Content
2) Dribbling Ape with Keyboard could do better
3) Man bungee jumping from bridge and landing accidentally a few times on a keyboard headfirst could do better
4) Minimalists don’t believe Zwingli ever existed
5) Mini-malists R Us - in every sense of the word
6) Bold Heresy Below
7) Total Depravities R Us
8) The Historical Bultmann demythologised and raised in the kerygma of Joel Osteen below
9) Zwingli Ninja
10) Utter Tripe

Monday, May 12, 2008

Seeking a book recommendation

Can anyone recommend me what they would consider a good single volume work on the history of the Church? I've already got Küng's Das Christentum. Wesen und Geschichte, plus The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, and A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins.

Today was my granddad’s funeral, and it was naturally quite an emotionally exhausting day. For all of you out there who read this blog, whether Christian, atheist, or whatever, do take a few minutes to give thanks for those around you, for your loved ones. They won't always be there.

Judging a book by its cover

Blogging has slowed down recently as I’ve returned to England for my granddad’s funeral (if you have e-mailed me, I will respond when I return to Germany in a few days). And while the reason for my return is a gloomy one, it is at least good to be see my corner of the UK again. Earlier today, I took my nephew to the local park to play on the swings. The area stands opposite my old secondary school (The Beacon) which was a sight that stirred many dubious memories.

But before I try to get poetic about my comings and goings in Ol’ Blighty, a bit of self-realisation: I popped in to a local Christian bookshop in the afternoon, and, as is my custom, piled up some ‘potential buy’ books before filtering them down to the one I eventually purchased (a half price copy of Celebrating Common Prayer).

Now apart from the fact that many of the books being sold in the shop caused me some consternation, as I whittled my books down I noticed something else rather alarming, namely I noticed how influenced I was by who was recommending the books with the blurb on the back cover. If Bauckham had his name on it, for example, I took notice. Or, if it was a scholar I generally disagree with, yet is more liberal, I kept the book for a second look - hungry to find out more. But if other big scholarly names were on the back, the book hardly stood a chance. More significantly, if the ‘big names’ were of the conservative variety, I really struggled to consider the book at all - even if I was attracted to the book itself. Why do I react like this, I wonder, especially as I am pretty conservative in some ways? One name in particular, one I think almost all my readers will know ... well he tends to just get me irritated, even though his work is of the highest academic quality. Yet I just can’t read his stuff anymore with wincing (go on, guess the name if you can!). Ergo, put his name on the back: bye-bye book. Cranky revisionist and foaming mouthed blathering Liberal mash I don't always agree with, I get. Conservative stuff I may have more in common with in terms of conclusions, wind me up. Figure that!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Guest Book Review by David M. Moffitt

My thanks both to the kind folk at Westminster John Knox for a review copy of Luke Timothy Johnson's Hebrews: A Commentary, and to Dave for the following stimulating review.


Luke Timothy Johnson's recent commentary on Hebrews (Westminster John Knox, 2006) accomplishes a feat rarely achieved by scholarly commentaries. It is easily accessible and readable. Johnson's volume is no substitute for more thorough studies like those of Attridge, Grässer or Spicq. Yet, what this commentary lacks at the level of detailed discussion and engagement with secondary literature is atoned for at the level of lucid prose and exposition. There is little to distract from Johnson's own sustained interpretation of this oft neglected text. As such, this volume is a welcome contribution for those of all levels of expertise who share an interest in this ancient homily.

This review will neither detail the contents of the commentary, nor expend a great deal of verbiage explicating the main emphases of the book (for those seeking more information, see the helpful reviews of Craig R. Koester and Wolfgang Kraus already published in RBL: Suffice it to say that this is a thoughtful and at times provocative study (e.g., Johnson's argument for a pre-70 dating) that is well worth reading. Instead, I will briefly discuss Johnson's welcome emphasis on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews in view of one of the major themes that orients the whole of his interpretation of the "epistle"—his claim that the argument of Hebrews is best understood in terms of a Platonic worldview.

In his introduction, Johnson claims that, "Hebrews appreciates rather than deprecates the physical. Only because Jesus had a human body could he be a priest … His body, moreover, is not cast off at death but is exalted: Jesus opens the new and living way to God through the veil that is his flesh …" (p. 20). He later adds, "By his resurrection and exaltation, Jesus has entered into the true holy place, which is the presence of the eternal God, with his own blood …, which he offers for the sins of many …" (p. 52). Johnson is not the first to argue for a real emphasis on the bodily exaltation of Jesus in Hebrews (e.g., Spicq, Vanhoye and especially Hofius—whose intriguing interpretation of 10:20 has been largely neglected). As someone actively pursuing dissertation work on this topic (, my interest was especially piqued by Johnson's bold and somewhat surprising comments. In any case, it should be noted that the suggestion that Jesus' bodily presence in heaven forms an important element of Hebrews' soteriological and Christological claims is a minority view.

Such a notion, however, seems at odds with the assumption of a Platonic worldview for the author of Hebrews. Johnson notes the problem stating, "The Platonism of Hebrews is real—and critical to understanding the argument—but it is a Platonism that is stretched and reshaped by engagement with Scripture, and above all, by the experience of a historical human savior whose death and resurrection affected all human bodies and earthly existence as a whole" (p. 21, Johnson dubs this "biblical Platonsim" on p. 173). Granting that "Middle Platonism" is typified by the diversity of opinion and comment on Plato's texts, one still wonders if the fundamental dualism between the material and spiritual realms could really be "stretched and reshaped" to the degree that the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection and ascension entails. Are we really dealing with an author whose Platonic dualism is being reshaped by Jesus' exaltation, or are the author's claims simply better explained by an appeal to some other set of cosmological presuppositions like those of some form of Jewish apocalyptic?

I do not mean to imply that one can view "Platonism" and "Apocalyptic" as hermetically sealed ideas that never influenced one another. I only want to suggest that if the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection is actually important for Hebrews—not to mention notions like those of the ongoing personal identity of Jesus after his entry into God's heavenly presence, or that of belief in Jesus' personal return (cf. 9:28), it would seem that there are better cosmological analogies to be drawn in the ancient world than to presume that the author forges a new kind of paradigm breaking Platonism.

These decisions are important because they inevitably color the way one interprets other issues in Hebrews. For example, Johnson often conflates the categories of Jesus' resurrection and exaltation. In his index of subjects one even finds "resurrection/exaltation" listed together as one topic (p. 402). While this conflation fits well within the consensus position on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews, such an approach more easily coheres with a notion of spiritual ascension in which Jesus' immediately enters God's presence at the moment of his death, than it does with a confession of his bodily resurrection.

More to the point, the supposed fusion of resurrection and exaltation in Hebrews more readily aligns with some form of Platonism than does the claim that Jesus' rose and ascended bodily into God's presence. One therefore wonders if the confusion between the categories of exaltation and resurrection in Johnson might result in the encroachment of his assumption of a Platonist cosmology upon his claim that Jesus' bodily exaltation actually matters in Hebrews. Such a suspicion is born out when later in the volume Johnson comments that, "[T]he notion of 'eternal' does not mean simply 'everlasting,' but more, a participation in the life that is God's own. Salvation, therefore, is more than possession of the land and success, it is 'heavenly' …, transtemporal because also transmaterial" (p. 148, emphasis mine). Somewhere—when speaking of Jesus' offering through the eternal spirit— he also says that by this comment, "[T]he author [likely] intends to describe the mode of Christ's offering. … If spirit is the realm of God's existence, then Christ's entry into that presence is appropriately described as 'through the eternal spirit" (p. 236). And again he says, "The use of 'spirits' [with reference to righteous in 12:10] simply reminds that the way they now live is as God lives, not in their former mortal bodies but in the dimension of spirit." Those who say such things seem to show that they look for a resurrection in which the body no longer plays a role. Thus at sundry times and in various ways it appears that Johnson has actually allowed a Platonic worldview to stretch and reshape his claim that Jesus' human body is not cast off at death (p. 20).

As should be clear, the immediate goal of this review is not to offer a solution to the conundrum I have sought to identify, but only to problematize Johnson's appeal to Platonism on the one hand while claiming that Jesus' body was exalted to heaven on the other. The two assertions stand in sharp tension and it would appear that even for Johnson himself one of these claims really does become obsolete, even to the point of fading away, as his exposition proceeds.

My larger goal, however, is to highlight the less than clear way that commentators on Hebrews tend to employ the language of "resurrection" when explicating the homily. What do we mean when we use this terminology with reference to Hebrews? Does writer affirm Jesus' bodily resurrection? Is resurrection simply another way of speaking of exaltation? Can these two positions be held together or does one exclude the other? Or, does the paucity of resurrection language (some would say total lack—e.g., Attridge) suggest that this author intentionally avoids or denies the resurrection? This latter view seems to offer the most consistent explanation of Hebrews when viewed through the lens of Platonism. Regardless, some clarity in terminology, especially for those who want to use "resurrection" language remains a desideratum.

In conclusion, let me say again how much I appreciate Johnson's commentary. His generally balanced approach and clear exposition not only provide those of all levels who would learn more about this homily with an excellent resource, they also provide a fine example of how a fine commentary can be written.

David M. Moffitt

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Blue Man Group

Anja, my brother-in-law and I went to see the Blue Man Group in Stuttgart tonight. Great fun. I recommend them if you get the chance to see them on their tour.

Casey responds to Bird

Maurice Casey responds to Michael Bird's review of his book, The Solution to the 'Son of Man' Problem. Mike promptly posted it on his blog (and James Crossley also posted it here). Such exchanges as these are reasons to give thanks for biblioblogdom. Incidentally, Mike's forthcoming book Are You the One Who is to Come? is a superb contribution, one I will regularly recommend.

Chrisendom glossolalia and interpretation

David Ker recently posted on glossolalia, and because he happened to mention me a certain Peter Kirk seized his opportunity and exclaimed:

"As for Chris Tilling, I can understand why Jim gives him such a hard time"

What the hell?! Persecution!

Glossolalia: "Kiwi mah ma bung giftteemax imo banjo beeeum poomarkswiftworthy Mr Kirk slip dunk skdit bhwosidth sdkh! karate kid weiu ueif ywqplcxnf duwiel! dhsido? sdlkjq0gjn, sdld, tqnod, thewioghs wehros q wepop hfow"

Interpretation: "Calling on all angels, cherubims, living creatures and intermediary figures to give Mr Kirk a convincing dose of 'karate kid' wax on wax off in the head department, till his face resembles a damaged Picasso, the snot from his nose is removed, and righteosness is imparted in a restorative type way"

At least that was my interpretation.

Tomorrow, I will post a superb book review by one of the smartest up-coming scholars I know, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Religion TV documentaries free online

The German station, ZDF, have a load of their shows to stream free online. Click here to explore. You'll find documentaries about Jesus, Church history, and all manner of other subjects. Of course, it is all in German, but what a great way to improve your German language skills! Thanks, Alex, for the hat-tip.´

Here are a couple that caught my eye:

  1. Imperium der Päpste: Duell zwischen Kreuz und Krone
  2. Die Geheimakte Jesu
  3. Homo erectus konnte abstrakt denken: Älteste Holzspeere beweisen Intelligenz der Urzeitmenschen
  4. Julius Caesar, der Imperator: Die lange Nacht der Eroberer
  5. Martin Luther - Kampf mit dem Teufel: Ein Mönch gegen Papst und Kaiser
  6. Das Geheimnis der ersten Christen: Von der Sekte zur Weltreligion
  7. Griechisch-orthodoxer Gottesdienst – well, I thought that was interesting!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A link

A great list of 'Scholars Who Have Influenced Me Most' by Nijay Gupta. His blog is definitely one to add to your readers, by the way.

Post Charismatic?

I really don't like all the post-this and post-that business, but I did venture to get Rob McAlpine's new book, Post-Charismatic?, which I started a couple of days ago.

In terms of the question of whether the gifts of the Spirit are around today, I'm an unashamed charismatic. The popular way of justifying the theory that the gifts vanished with the death of the last apostles is to eisegete into 1 Cor. 13:9-10, but the 'perfection' there named is not a biblical canon, at least not in Paul's mind. However, when it comes to charismatic culture, I often want little to do with it. And, if I am honest, I sometimes struggle with the tension this creates. Just recently a well meaning person tried to speak with 'prophetic authority' into my life, but to put it politely ... they didn't bless me. As my charismatic friends would say, the person apparently spoke 'from the flesh' (which is also a polite way of putting it – I thought of other ways, but alas that aspect of my creative urge is best left unpublished. Besides, they meant well).

To be honest, my understanding of what counts as 'prophecy' has changed somewhat. I would understand particularly socio-political theological engagement (e.g. aspects of liberation theology, and books like Colossians Remixed) to be sometimes profoundly prophetic, for me more so than the 'I had a picture but don't know what it means' variety. But through whatever manner God chooses to speak I want to be ready to hear (1 Thess. 5:20 'don't despise prophecies'; 1 Cor. 14:1 'Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy'). Hopefully this books will help me out on at least that front.

Prophetic word of knowledge idea of the day

1) Grab a charismatic. Lay a hand on him or her and say 'I have a word, brother/sister'

2) Say 'I saw an odd picture. I saw a dirty tissue, filled with snot and phlegm and sneeze'

3) *pause with eyes closed looking all earnest like you are waiting for an interpretation*

4) Continue: 'That dirty tissue?',

5) *wait for a nod*

6) 'That's you, that is'

Monday, May 05, 2008


No, not silly nonsense such as people who dare to disagree with me, who bother to read Jim West's blog without laughing derisively, or those who claim to converse with the alien 'mother ship', who use Domestos as a breath freshener, or who turn their underpants inside out to double their pre-washing machine life-span etc.

Rather, these Premier Christian Radio programmes, ably hosted by Justin Brierley, are worth a listen. They discuss the expected mix of subjects in a respectful way, and the listener 'phone ins' and e-mails are most revealing in that they show were some pew-level evangelical thinking is at. I needed to be reminded of the evangelical world beyond the world of blogdom and Tübingen. A sobering wakeup call.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Guest Book Review: The Crucifixion of Ministry

My sincere thanks to IVP for a review copy of Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP), 2007. And also my thanks to Phil Sumpter for the following review. Enjoy!


Andrew Purve's little book is a call to return to the heart of what being Christian is all about—discipleship to God, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It may sound pithy, but there's a concrete reality at work in this world which functions independently of our theologies, strategies and cherished agendas. This reality is what it's all about and so the most significant question you can ask is "what is this reality" and "how do I connect to it"?

This brings us to the interface of praxis and doctrine. The peculiarity of the Church is that it doesn't have a mission statement to fulfil in any strategic sense of the word. It has an identity as adopted son, and everything it does is dependent on its realizing its identity. This is because whatever ministry the Church may have in its various contexts is utterly derivative of the true ministry of the Church's Father. It's His ministry, and so if the Church is to do anything of lasting value, it must do it as a participant in the true ministry of the One who is the creator and perfecter of all things. The consequences of doing it alone, of attempting to be your own "ministerial messiah," is the burnout that many in the clergy are experiencing today.

For this reason, Purves opens his book with a call on church ministers—though by extension this applies to any Christian—to give up the claim that their ministries are theirs, rather than God's. Rather, we should embrace with joy the "crucifixion" of our ministries in order to make space for God to use us in His unfolding ministry. In other words, true Christian ministry is a profoundly theological act. The primary question we need to be asking is not "What strategies will work best in my ministry?" but rather "What is God doing and how do I join in?" The heart of Purve's book is dedicated to unpacking this doctrinal question.

For Purves, the foundation for our ministry is the Trinitarian claim that God is working in the world through his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is within this Trinitarian movement that the church is to find its true identity and the substance of its witness. God acts to save us in Jesus, who as a human offers back to God the service and worship he desires. The Holy Spirit is Christ's chosen form of presence among us and his function is to join us to Christ so that we can share in the love that takes place between Father and Son. This redemption results in a life of thankful response, and it is the task of pastoral work to call people to share in this "alien love." In short, "The centre of Christian faith and life is our sharing in the love or communion within the Holy Trinity and in the ministry that flows from it" (71).

Within this Trinitarian movement Purves highlights two truths that are of especial importance for ministry: the Doctrine of the Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Doctrine of our Unity with Christ. Following Athanasius, Purves holds that "Jesus Christ ministers the things of God to us and the things of humankind to God." This involves the paradox that Jesus is both the Word of God to us as well as the the one who receives God's Word for us. In other words, our response to the covenant is already fulfilled by one more capable of doing it. This has implications for how we worship, preach and teach, as the primary function of the minister is not to be Christ within the church but to witness to him. Ministry is inherently kerygmatic, pointing beyond itself to what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ.

This reality is actualized for us by the Spirit's uniting us to Christ. Union with the person of Christ means union with his ministry and thus provides the ground of the Church's ministry. In short, the being of the Church involves sharing the mission of Jesus from the Father for the sake of the world.

But what does all this mean practically? "Our task is to locate the identity and practice of ministry in the pattern and event of Trinitarian activity as the Word/Act of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (125). Purves refers to his "three-fold mantra" to help guide the minister in his or her work amongst parishioners. First, we must look for the "declarative moment" when we can bear witness to a particular aspect of Christ's ministry relevant to the life situation of the parishioner. This involves the hermeneutical move of locating his or her life within the Gospel. This should be accompanied by some liturgical, symbolical action, in order to communicate the depth of what Christ is doing. The book ends with three helpful case studies, illustrating the challenge and potential of deriving one's ministry from Christ's.

This review may give the impression that Purves has written a book of abstract theology. However, the argument summarized above is spread over 149 pages, which gives him ample opportunity to fill in the gaps with case studies, anecdotes and exegesis. The message is unfolded very slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, so that by the end of the book you are panting for it to come to a resolution. He manages to fit in the practical dimension into the last few pages. Though this was not as much as I would have liked, he does well to include three helpful case studies to fill out the picture.

All in all, the significance of the subject matter and its general readability make this book an important read for those wishing to locate their practical ministry on the horizon of the doctrinal tradition of the Church.

By Phil Sumpter

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Gregory MacDonald starts his own blog

Gregory MacDonald, the pseudonymous author of the brilliant and controversial book, The Evangelical Universalist, informed me that he has started his own blog. See here:

While I will obviously add this to my 'stunningly bold heresy' blogroll, he has posted some really stimulating material! Rather amusingly, he draws our attention to a radio discussion in which he took part – with disguised voice of course!

A prayer request

Posts have not populated my blog the last week as we have had a small holiday. We also heard the sad news that my dear granddad passed away on Wednesday, so please do pray for our family at this time. I will return to England for the funeral soon.

I did have the glad pleasure of meeting fellow blogger Mark recently – a lovely fellow who will also be presenting a paper here in Tübingen next week (hopefully I can still come before I leave for England)