Monday, June 30, 2008

Guest Book Review: Doubting by McGrath

First, my thanks to IVP for a review copy of Alister McGrath's Doubting. Click here for the table of contents and an excerpt. Second, thanks to Nelson Moore for the following. As you will realize by reading his superb offering below, Nelson has a very sharp mind and he is not afraid to say what he honestly thinks. Plus it made me laugh. Prepare for a tremendous review ... Hang on, this sounds like I'm reviewing a review! I'll stop now.


The book at hand was originally published by IVP in 1990 under the title Doubt. Its current edition, entitled Doubting, first appeared in 2006. It is written not for an academic audience, but rather on a popular level, having originally been created as a series of talks to a group of university-aged people. Because of this, I do not recommend this book for those who are trained in theology or philosophy. You will be disappointed by its thin content in many areas.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each of which attempts to deal with some element of the overall discussion. For example, chapter one attempts to define the terms "faith" and "doubt" while chapter two discusses what McGrath calls "the vain search for certainty." The list goes on (doubts about Jesus, doubts about the Gospel, etc.) as McGrath tries to provide a cursory treatment of a variety of matters relating the doubt and faith.


McGrath does deal capably with some items. He responds quite helpfully in chapter one, for example, to the notion that faith should be defined basically as the absence of doubt. In this model, one begins with doubt and as soon as every single doubt has been overcome, then the residue is called faith. McGrath rejects this model, viewing faith as more of a "saying 'yes'" to the call of God – a call to which people respond despite the fact that do not have the answer to every objection.

He also does a very good job in chapter two supporting the claim that no side in the debate over the existence of God is going to have absolute certainty. He is quite clear that faith in Jesus is ultimately going to require a leap (p. 25) in which you choose to believe and follow. Take heart, however, because your ideological opponents also need to make a leap in order to arrive at the conclusion that no God exists.

In some of his later chapters, he does a good job of using biblical narrative in a pastoral manner, drawing upon the Exodus narrative and subsequent wilderness wanderings, for example, to illustrate the need for persevering faith. There are plenty of instances in which he engages the biblical material in this way. These later chapters also contain simple, practical advice. Read the Bible, pray, join a community of faith so that you are not alone in your spiritual walk. I certainly do want to endorse his counsel on these matters.


Despite the above, I was disappointed by the book in many ways. My biggest objection is that at no point does McGrath ever address the question of whether doubt can be good and healthy. If the Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door, for example, and try to convert me, should I not exercise a kind of Cartesian doubt and ask them to prove their position? Or should I just jump on board and believe them, since to doubt is sin? Obviously, I am going to doubt them; and if I am going to do that with the JW's then it only makes sense that I have a similar doubts about traditional Christian claims. In short, there has to be some legitimate place for doubt and McGrath never addresses the question of where this is. (He would obviously agree with the statements above – he just never deals with the subject in the book, and that is my objection.)

I also found myself a bit disappointed by the thin treatment of philosophy. It seems odd to have a book that talks about faith as a leap without ever discussing Kierkegaard. And while Ravi Zacharias mentions Descartes in the foreword, I do not believe that McGrath ever discusses the French philosopher in the context of doubting what cannot be proven. Does it really make sense to write a book that is self-describedly geared toward university students and then never cite the philosophers whose insights you are using?

The exegete in me finds the book quite thin when it comes to actual biblical exegetical work. I know it's written for a lay audience, but I don't think it's wise to write a book in which you define the word "faith" without doing some pretty hefty exegetical work.

And finally, some of the statements McGrath makes are just plain silly. I will provide the most egregious two examples.

Chapter two is entitled "Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty." While the chapter ultimately proved to be quite good, I cannot help but comment on the following passage.

"Absolute certainty is actually reserved for a very small class of beliefs – for example, things that are self-evident or capable of being logically demonstrated by propositions. Christianity does not concern logical propositions or self-evident truths, such as 2+2=4, or 'the whole is greater than the part.' Both of these are certainly true, and we are able to know such truths with absolute certainty – but what is their relevance to life? Realizing that 'the whole is greater than the part' isn't going to turn your life inside out! Knowing that two and two equal four isn't going to tell you anything much about the meaning of life. It won't excite you. Frankly, the sort of things that you can know with absolute certainty are actually not that important" (23).

I am trying to imagine McGrath's response if his pharmacist were not altogether concerned about 2+2=4 when dispensing life-saving medication. Or perhaps the pharmacist might counsel a patient to swallow the whole bottle of pills since it doesn't really matter that the whole is greater than the part. That a trained scientist and theologian would make such an absurd statement is nothing short of stunning.

In chapter eight on "Doubts about Jesus Christ," he brings up the question of whether or not the resurrection might have been some sort of cover-up. He writes, "Doubts about the resurrection arise from suggestions – along with the deep-down feel of some Christians – that the resurrection is just too good to be true!" Such a statement is so ridiculous I can barely respond to it. I think people doubt the resurrection because it is difficult to believe! Now I do believe in the resurrection, but I think we need to engage skeptics sincerely, not with ridiculous platitudes.


In my own spiritual and intellectual life, I definitely find myself beset with doubt. "What if this whole Christianity thing really is just kind of a pre-modern folklore that arose to fill a psychological need?" "What if I leave behind other business opportunities to enter ministry, only to learn down the road a bit that the whole thing is a fraud?" "What if Dawkins is right?" "What if Mohammed is right?" These are very legitimate questions and I have been beset at times with every one of them. And it is clear to me that Alister McGrath also takes them seriously. I just wish he did a better, more thorough job of answering them.

If you are well educated regarding Christian life and thought, I suspect that you will want to skip this book. And if you are trained in philosophy, you will definitely want to skip it. But if you are more of an "average" person who is exploring the world of faith and doubting, then you may well find some encouragement from Alister McGrath's Doubting.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

‘When God tries – a look inside the theology of Exodus’, or ‘One of the Most Difficult Verses in the Bible’

'On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him [Moses] and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision."' (Exodus 4:24-26. NRSV)

So, God tried to kill Moses but didn't manage? If at first you don't succeed …

Both the Septuagint, which uses the verb zhte,w, and the Hebrew, which uses the verb vqb, are simply translated as 'sought'. I.e. God 'sought' to kill him. Probably the NIV does a good job with the verse translating it as follows: 'At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him'. Of course, this rendering also removes one of the theological problems with its more dynamic and less literal approach.

I love bible verses like this!

The CTRVHM Music Ministry Comeback

In honour of Jonathan Edwards's sermon 'Sinners in the hands of an angry God', I have penned a moving new Sunday morning special. I won't post the whole version here, just the chorus, which goes to the tune of Boney M - Brown Girl In The Ring:

If it weren't for Jesus
God would hate me

I know, tears are probably welling up in your eyes already; I obviously have an anointing for this.

The song, by the way, is called 'With Grinning Expectancy God's Finger Perpetually Hovers Over the Smite Button'.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Does ‘all’ mean ‘all’?

A few posts ago we looked at Romans 3:23-24 ('since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift'). The question addressed was. are 'all who have sinned' likewise all justified? If you remember, I stated that 'the "All" language could be used in Qumran in such a way that it didn't actually mean "all individual people"', and in this context referenced Gudrun Holtz. Since then I posted on Romans 11:26, 'all Israel will be saved' in which I noted an article that argues the 'all' doesn't quite mean 'all'.

Chrys Caragounis, Professor in New Testament Exegesis at Lund University, read our discussion relating to Romans 3:23-24 and kindly sent me his thoughts on the matter which I have uploaded here: Caragounis_Universal_Salvation.pdf. It is a single page pdf file, and I thought it best to leave it as such because of the variety of fonts.

I think he makes an important point, one which is rather strikingly obvious now he has pointed it out: 'all' doesn't always mean 'all' – though not on the basis of the use of כֹּל at Qumran, but on the flexible usage of πᾶσα, πᾶς, ὁλος, and ὁλη in Greek. Give his short note a read see what you think.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Recommended Article

Namely, Christopher Zoccali's "'And So All Israel Will be Saved': Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship." JSNT 30, no. 3 (2008): 289–318.

It presents a strong, lucidly argued and extremely well conceived case that the 'all Israel' in Romans 11:26 refers to the total elect from the nation. It may well have me convinced, actually.

I decided to drop Wright's 'ecclesiological' approach because I couldn't believe 'Israel' was meant to be read in light of redefinitions in previous chapters (Rom. 2, 9 etc.), as Wright urges. Instead, the context of Romans 11 seemed to make clear 'Israel' meant ethnic Israel in this case. I thus adopted the most popular scholarly approach to this question, that the salvation of 'all Israel' indicates an eschatological miracle (though I was unsure whether 'all Israel' was to be taken diachronically or synchronically). This approach has many supporters, e.g. Bruce, Cranfield, Käsemann, Sanders, Dunn, Hofius, Barrett, Moo, Stuhlacher, Esler, Witherington etc. (cf. Zoccali, p. 290 n.2 for more).

However, I couldn't shake the feeling that the 'eschatological miracle' answer raised more problems that it solved, and that it was asking the wrong sort of questions necessary to understand Paul. But I didn't want to allow a wider context of Paul's argument to blind me to the content of specific passages, to I took a deep breath, signed my name to 'eschatological miracle' reading, and hoped things would make sense later.

They didn't. So I was thrilled by Zoccali's lucid argument, and it makes sense of almost everything associated with the passage. Of course, it stumbles over the 'all' in Romans 11:26 a little, which consequently gives me pause for thought still, but it does not make me stumble so as to fall.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Your Favourite Romans Commentary

I mentioned in a post this week that I love the Cranfield commentary. But I really don't know which is my favourite. Wright's appeals to me the most at one level, much as Witherington's does in a similar way. But mention must be made of Esler's Conflict and Identity in Romans, as well as the commentaries of Stuhlmacher, Dunn, Käsemann, Moo, Schreiner, and most recently Jewett's ... so many great offerings (I don't have Fitzmyer's). I suppose in my work I turn to Jewett's the most now, but what is my favourite? Wright's, I suppose, is difficult to top for shear reading pleasure and intellectual delight. What is your favourite Romans commentary?

Kenneth Miller discusses Intelligent Design on the Cobert Report

Get this: Apparently, Tom Wright will be appearing on the show tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Free book online

The other day I referred to a book opposing the concept of penal substitution, The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. The author has since contacted me to say that the whole book is now free online, here:

Thanks to Norman for making it available like this.

Being rather pressed for time, I've not had the time to read it yet. So let me know what you think.

Just to be evasive

... but I have been reading some utterly superb books recently, and I'm looking forward to saying more here in the next few weeks. Plus, while I don't have time to go into detail right now, I was watching a Sam Harris video today, and reading a bit of Dawkins too, and it struck me that their arguments are sometimes so astonishingly shoddy, they must surely embarrass many thoughtful atheists. At least I hope so. Of course, as one can read on Dawkins' webpage discussion forum, there are plenty of especially young people out there who have swallowed the rhetoric of Dawkins and co just like other young people turn to naive fundamentalist religion. Interestingly the support of their leaders these particular atheists often offer is typical of that offered in the corresponding religious groups, i.e. they all seem locked into a James Fowler's stage 3 in his Stages of Faith!

A Reader’s Question

A reader of this blog, Terry, sent me a question the other day and I thought it would be interesting to hear the response of others. He wrote:

"I've been leading a series of studies on the Nicene Creed in my church homegroup. This week, I was preparing for 'crucified under Pontius Pilate' by looking at different models of atonement. As part of this, I wanted to look at the meaning of hilastērion in Romans 3:22b-25a when something struck me (so to speak).

The NRSV of this text reads: 'For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.'

It seems to me that people often refer to this statement as pointing to the universal sinfulness of humanity; but is there also a statement here implying universal salvation? While 'all have sinned … they are now justified'.

Should the 'all' be understood as referring to Jews and Gentiles, which would mean the 'they' refers to Jews and Gentiles; or does the 'all' refer to all people, which would imply that 'all' people 'are now justified'? And how does this passage relate to 3:22a, which mentions specifically those who believe? Commentaries seem to focus more on the meaning of hilastērion than anything else, which is so mid-noughties Evangelicalist.

How should this passage be read best?"

A great issue is raised here. I must admit, I had missed the potential universalist implications of this verse before, and I was reminded, of course, of Romans 5:18 ("Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all") and Romans 11:32 ("For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all"). In most of these issues I would refer to Cranfield's commentary on Romans. I simply note that the 'All' language could be used in Qumran in such a way that it didn't actually mean 'all individual people' (cf. Gudrun Holtz Damit Gott sei alles in allem [de Gruyter, 2007], for a related discussion). Also, the phrase 'since all have sinned' starts with 'for there is no distinction' in 3:22 ('ouv ga,r evstin diastolh,'). In Romans 10:12 we read exactly the same phrase, simply expanded upon: 'ouv ga,r evstin diastolh. VIoudai,ou te kai. {Ellhnoj' ('for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek'). So I would suggest that Paul's horizon of thought does necessitate a 'both Jew and Greek' gloss. However, the hermeneutical movements are not thereby forever frozen.

Friday, June 13, 2008

On asking the right questions

While reading Thiselton's brilliant The Hermeneutics of Doctrine recently, which I will review in the next few weeks, I had a surprisingly simple 'ah ha!' moment. 'Gadamer follows R. G. Collingwood', Thiselton explains, 'in the belief that we can say that we understand "only when we understand the question to which something is the answer ..."' (p. 4).

I am presently running a bible course in Tübingen, looking at the Apostle Paul, and the relevance of this statement hit me with fresh insight. One of the foundations for understanding the Apostle, I am arguing (following Wright, peace be upon him), is the relation between 'creation' and 'covenant' (cf. Eph. 1-3; Rom. 1-11; Col. 1:15-20; Gal. 3-4; 2 Cor. 3-5; 1 Cor. 15 etc.). So I started the course this evening with the following words:

In order to best understand a text, it is important to know the question(s) to which that text is supposed to be an answer. For Paul, this means we need to understand the importance of the relation between creation and covenant.

I explained the first part of the proposition in the following way:

Imagine if an alien comes to earth and discovers a phone book, our green man will not be able to understand the lists of numbers unless he has some understanding of human communication, technology and specifically the phone system. He may sit down with the phone book in front of him and develop all kinds of theories concerning what kind of information it gives him, and what the phonebook personally say to him, but unless he knows some of the necessary background information he won't be able to formulate the right questions about the purpose and content of the phone book.

I continued with reference to an amusing story:

In reading Paul we are reading somebody else's mail. And whether we come to his letters with the right questions will determine how far we understand him. An amusing, and extreme, example of misunderstanding somebody else's mail is worth citing:

An American Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to experience warm weather during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules.
So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realising his error, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston , a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who died and went to be with Christ following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I've Arrived
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I've seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!

This happened because of an unfortunate coincidence of appropriate language in two very different situations. Does the fact that we use the same language as Paul (such as 'gospel', 'the righteousness of God', 'sin' etc.) sometimes give many of us the deceptive feel that we understand Paul, when indeed in many areas we do not?

Rabens on the Spirit and Ethics in Paul

In the recent evangelikale Theologie (14/1 2008, pp. 25-26), my friend Volker Rabens gives a short report about his forthcoming publication in the Mohr Siebeck WUNT II series. I look forward to saying more about his volume in the coming months, but I can tell you now that his work, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life (London School of Theology / Brunel University, 2007; WUNT II / Mohr Siebeck, 2008) is of the highest quality, and is an important contribution to his field. If you are working on anything relating to Paul and ethics or the Spirit, you will want to interact with this one.

Here is a link to his report:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Critiquing a Statement of Faith – part 1 of 2

Somehow, I came across the statement of faith of the New Life Mission recently. While I am sure many earnest and precious Christians affirm it, and while I am sure many of them love the Lord Jesus and follow him far better than I, criticism is necessary, in my view. Below I have dashed off some critical annotations on its propositions, a venture especially worthwhile as many other 'statement of faiths' are sadly like it.

"We believe that the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments only, is verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is inerrant in the original manuscripts, and is the infallible and authoritative Word of God"

The first problem I have with this statement it is that declaration about the bible is first. Bible before God, huh? That suggests priorities are already out of key. It also wants to affirm something about manuscripts that no longer exists, manuscripts that cannot be accessed or used. Actually, as I argued here, such declarations about original manuscripts is a self-defeating position, even if the intentions are laudible. More could be said in criticism about the phrase 'verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit', but I leave that pass for now. Others will want to challenge the proposition that 'the ... Word of God' is a text, and not Christ, but I leave that too aside for now.

A more general issue strikes me about the Statement, one that is typical of many like it. It is entirely 'We believe that'. The statement thus fails to grasp the full colour of biblical notions of belief, which are mostly about a self-involving and relational commitment. 'We believe that' has its place, but what about 'We believe in'? Contrast this with the Apostles' Creed. This statement's first proposition is not a good start.

"We believe that the one triune God exists eternally in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

I am convinced that the trinity belongs at the heart and centre of anything that today wishes to call itself 'Christian'. But more could have been said, and the lack of detail contrasts rather conspicuously with the previous statement. Here, also, was a good chance for a 'We believe in'!

"We believe that Adam, created in the image of God, was tempted by Satan, the ruler of this world, and fell. Because of Adam's sin, all men have guilt imputed, are totally depraved, and need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit for Salvation"

This arbitrarily mashes together a number of texts from at least 2 Corinthians and Genesis 1-3, and then, for good measure, imputes some questionable leaps of biblically external logic. Where does it say in Genesis that a personal being called 'Satan' tempted Adam? Where is the specific idea that guilt is 'imputed' to all? Further, where is the specific idea that 'guilt' is imputed to all? Besides, I am unconvinced 'total depravity' is the best language, but that is a well trodden debate, of course. I am also a little cautious about the language of 'regeneration', but I will leave that issue for now as my critique would not be very significant. However, that the statement speaks only of 'all men' is simply not helpful. This isn't about being 'politically correct'; it is just about living in the real world. Most importantly, to speak of 'guilt' and 'imputation' like this sets 'the gospel' in an impoverished direction, as shall become clear as the statement develops.

"We believe that Jesus Christ is God, was born of a virgin, baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, crucified as the Lamb of God, rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, where He is presently exalted at the Father's right hand."

I like this one more, but I wonder if our statements of faith should also say something about the faithful life of Jesus. Furthermore, and perhaps I am being too hard here, but 'Jesus Christ is God' is perhaps a statement that can lead to all kinds of heretical christologies. Christ is not God (the Father), and Paul, for example, avoids speaking of Christ as 'God' entirely (as recently maintained by Fee in his Pauline Christology). While I am orthodox and believe in the full divinity of Christ, 'Jesus Christ is God' strikes me as too blunt a sentence to capture the slippery and glorious truth, as the church has perceived it, of Christ's identity vis-a-vis God. Paul had a different way of expressing the intuition that this statement seeks to articulate. Again, perhaps I am being too hard. The Nicene Creed of course states: 'God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father', but the creed as a whole is much more careful in relating the nature of Christ in relation to God than this statement.

I'll complete my critical sweep through this statement in part 2. Until then, any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The cross is the means by which .... what?

'[A]lthough many Christians think of the cross as the means by which human beings get right with God, Paul thinks of the cross as the means by which God deals with the alienation of human from human, from the world in which humans live, and from God'

This delightful sentence comes from Marianne Meye Thompson's brilliant contribution to 'The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary' series (Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians and Philemon [Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005], 121)

For a recent and spunky review of a book opposing the concept of penal substitution, do have a read of Phil Groom's superb offering here.

For me, the inner jury is still out on the whole 'penal' issue. If you were to recommend any book on the penal substitution issue, what would it be?

Evangelikale Theologie

Today a copy of the most recent evangelikale Theologie (14/1 2008) arrived in the post, with a short summary of a paper I gave at the last AfeT conference in Tübingen. My paper first concerned 1 Corinthians 8, the claims of the 'knowledgeable', and the strategy and nature of Paul's argumentation in response. In light of my exegetical findings I attempted a theological engagement with the question of inerrancy. After executing a shameless battering on the Chicago Statement, I offered a different statement of scripture's trustworthiness that I cheekily, but rightly, claimed promotes 'a higher appreciation of scripture than inerrancy statements', especially of the Chicago variety! *Benny Hinn voice* 'And the people said AMEN!'

For all the ladies out there, including Jim West, you'll be glad to know that the article about the conferences (on pp. 19-21) includes a picture of yours truly! (I imagine folk swooning now) I don't know who was speaking when my picture was taken, but I look like somebody is reading out a particularly uninteresting bit of a telephone book! I actually was interested in the papers, so all I can say is that the photographer got me at an unfortunate moment. Phil Sumpter, another blogger, is in the picture to my right. He manages to look even less involved than me! It was a good little conference, ably overseen by the likes of Rainer Riesner, Rolf Hille, and Uwe Rechberger. I was glad to be a part of it.


I delivered a paper tonight in the English-German colloquium in the Tübingen Theologicum, entitled 'Paul's Christ-devotion and Jewish devotion to figures other than God'. I critically engaged with the claims of Horbury, Fletcher-Louis, Barker and others, and a big part of my paper was to argue that the praise of Simon son of Onias in Sirach 50, and the 'worship' of Adam in the Life of Adam and Eve is of practically no relevance in understanding Paul's Christology.

The passage that gets many folk so worked up in the Life of Adam and Eve is found in 13:3-14:3:

When God blew into you the breath of life and your countenance and likeness were made in the image of God, Michael brought you and made (us) worship you in the sight of God. And Michael went out and called all the angels, saying, 'Worship the image of the LORD God, as the LORD God has instructed'. And Michael himself worshiped first, and called me and said, 'Worship the image of God, Yahweh'. And I answered, 'I do not worship Adam'. And when Michael kept forcing me to worship, I said to him, 'Why do you compel me? I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior to him in creation; before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me'

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bishop Tom Wright in the Classroom Again

Nijay Gupta wrote me asking if I would publish the following info on the blog. Well, we are talking about Tom Wright (peace be upon him), so of course I will!:

Bishop Tom Wright is going back to teaching an advanced class relating the Bible to the big issues of today. He will be teaching at Cranmer Hall, an Anglican-Methodist seminary (of Durham University) in the diocese of Durham, England.

The class is called 'The Bible in Tomorrow's World: Gospel, Kingdom and Mission' and it will cover key cultural issues from Western culture over the past 200 years.

This is aimed at preachers, church leaders, and anyone who wants to have a fresh vision of how the Bible can fresh integrations of head and heart, doctrine and devotion, and, more widely, scripture and culture. The overall aim is to enable students to use the Bible with a mature wisdom as they take forward the mission of the church in tomorrow's world.

The class will run intensively on 7-8 Jan 2009 and 22-24 April 2009 in the historic surroundings of St John's College, Durham, next to the

Cathedral. Students are invited to sign up for this module as a one off or as part of the MA in Theology and Ministry.

The first ten non-UK students to sign up for the module will receive a free copy of two of Tom Wright's recent books 'Evil and the Justice of God' and 'The Cross and the Colliery'

Other teachers on this MA programme this coming year include John and Olive Drane (formerly of the University of Aberdeen).

MA homepage

Tom Wright's module

Online lectures

All here, including lectures by Tom Wright, LeRon Shults, Christopher R. Seitz, Marianne Meye Thompson, Terence E. Fretheim, Slavoj Zizek, Ronald J. Sider, Eugene Peterson, Gordon Fee, William Lane Craig, Miroslav Volf, Beverly R. Gaventa, James. C. VanderKam and, did I mention, Tom Wright. Hours of listening fun!

Sunday morning service

Drawn by the fact that Prof. Otfried Hofius was preaching on Mark 4:35-41 (what a great message he gave), I visited Tübingen Stiftskirche today. We sat ourselves down and I noticed a certain Jürgen Moltmann sitting in the row in front of me. I've been living near Tübingen for almost 6 years now, and I've met Moltmann and others of his ilk in person before, but I still found the experience bizarre! Perhaps I should have grabbed my wife's lipstick and asked him to sign my chest ...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

About as ‘reserved’ as ...

Your creative juices are petitioned:

As you perhaps know, I am writing a doctorate on the debate concerning whether Pauline Christology was divine or not, on whether, to use Bauckham's language, Paul's Christ was 'on the divine side of the line which monotheism must draw between God and creatures' (Richard Bauckham, "The Worship of Jesus in Apocalyptic Christianity," TS 27 [1981]: 335).

I think I have mounted a very strong argument that Paul's Christology is indeed 'divine' in Bauckham's sense, and this, of course, brings me into conflict with Dunn's claim that Paul's Christology evidences 'reserve' (Dunn, Theology of the Apostle Paul, 257.)

I want to write a sentence like the following:

'Dunn argues that Paul's christological instincts involved "reserve", but this thesis has shown that his Christology was about as reserved as ...'

So how would you complete that sentence? There is some creative and comic potential here, hence my first drafts began with 'about as reserved as Pamela Anderson's ...' ... I'll leave the rest of that draft to your imagination (I wrote 'watermelon love-pillows'). But I am guessing that that wouldn't go down too well in the Viva, or at a job-interview. Still, I might just leave my original version in the chapter I send my supervisor, to help him stay awake while reading!

How would you end the sentence? Any ideas?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Book Notice: Judaism of the Second Temple Period

First, my sincere thanks to the kind folk at Eerdmans for a review copy of the first volume of David Flusser's collected essays on ancient Judaism. This first volume focuses upon Qumran and Apocalypticism.

David Flusser (1917-2000)
Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Volume 1. Qumran and Apocalypticism (translated by Azzan Yadin)
Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8028-2469-1. 370 pages.
$36.00 Hardcover

I have decided to call this a book 'notice' rather than strictly a 'review' simply because I am not qualified to judge the quality of this work in any serious way. However, anyone with a passion for learning is going to be interested by what an honoured academic, deeply familiar with the primary literature, has to say. So I picked up the book with a desire not so much to offer clever words of critique here, but to learn.

I suppose the first question people will ask about a volume like this is 'who is this supposedly learned author, you speak of?' As the dust jacket explains: David Flusser was 'professor of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and a recipient of the national Israel Prize in 1980 for his academic achievements'. He is most famous for his book, Jesus, now published in a fourth edition by Eerdmans as The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus' Genius. Flusser was prolific author and published over 1000 articles in Hebrew, German, English, among other languages. As a devout Orthodox Jew, he knew he way around the Torah and Talmud like few Christian or secular scholars, and his learning encompassed ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic texts, as well as the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls – indeed he became a leading scholar in his field. As David Bivin informs us in his Foreword: 'Flusser conversed fluently in nine languages and read scholarly literature in an additional seventeen' (vii)! In other words, he deserves to be studied.

I have spent more time looking at the two related questions (Who is he? and Why should I read him?) as this is perhaps the most useful information I can give, as a collection of essays is never easy to summarise in an approx. 800 word review. An overview of the content can be found on the Eerdmans webpage here. And scholarly blurb about this publication, more concomitant with the immediate focus of the book's study can be found here.

What I will do is focus in on one of his articles and from there also make more general comments about the collection as a whole. The essay in question is chapter 18 'The "Flesh-Spirit" Dualism in the Qumran Scrolls and the New testament' pp. 283-292.

Immediately one grasps that Yadin has translated well; he has imitated Flusser's engaging writing style. Plus, Flusser's use of question posing helps orientate the reader at various points as well as provoke the reader's thoughts further (he ends the essay with a couple of questions). More importantly, his insights are worthy of discussion. So he maintains that the 'theological basis for the flesh-spirit dualism [in Qumran and Paul] is not, then, the deeper dichotomy of matter and spirit, but rather the view that God elevates his elect from a debased state – from the reality of "flesh" – by endowing him with spirit' (286). A little later: 'the Qumran community and the early church maintain a dialectic position not only with regard to the flesh, but with regard to the spirit as well. Even though he received the spirit when he entered the Qumran community (1QH 6.13), the elect may still "look for the spirit" (1QH 8.14)' (290). Such passages as these are of the sort that receive the treatment of my underlining pencil!

However, one also gets the impression that some of his insights are a little dated. So he can speak of '[t]he religious worldview of Qumran [which] divides humanity into two camps' (285). The religious worldview of Qumran (cf. also chapters 1 and 2 in this volume)? Perhaps one is also left wondering what can be learnt from essays published before the entire fund of Qumran texts was released, and before many of the modern developments concerning the relationship between the texts and the Qumran site (though cf. his comments in his introduction, xi-xii). This actually does not bother me too much, as much as his familiarity with what had been published (cf. my comments above). However, his grasp of the complexity of Paul's 'flesh' language was likewise lacking nuance, for example claiming that 1 Corinthians 3:3 'indicates that Paul too sees the flesh and human nature as one and the same' (285). But Paul's usage of 'flesh' is more complicated than this, and could be used in a variety of very different ways. Another small grumble concerns the lack of dating of the original essays. One is left wondering when and where some of them were originally published.

While this is not the first book I would recommend on Qumran or Apocalypticism, and while I am less enthusiastic on some other points, the connoisseur will enjoy the lively and learned articles this volume offers. I leave the closing words of this 'notice', however, to David Bivin, the writer of the foreword, as he reflected on his involvement in the project of publishing these essays. He writes that 'disciples should assure that all the unpublished material of a prominent teacher is published before they publish their own research. The teacher's work takes precedence over the disciple's' (viii). All I can say to my doctoral supervisor is: 'Max Turner, don't get any funny ideas!'


Heretic of the Day Award

Goes to Steve Martin:

Prepare to sprinkle yourself with holy water after reading.

Monday, June 02, 2008


First the shocking, namely: that my face would appear on such a graphic, and that it would appear in such a situation. I deny everything of course. Besides, Brandon made me get the tattoo. Worse still, Will postulates an 8-point Tillingnism!

On a different front, Darrell Bock shares some thoughts about Christology in the Emergent movement.

LeRon answers some questions about relationality. His book, Christology and Science ... WOW!

Nijay (I hope I don't meet him face to face before I have learnt to pronounce his name properly!) tells us about a forthcoming festschrift in honour of both Larry Hurtado and Alan Segal that has a seriously star-studded line up.

Josh Bothell shares some nice thoughts about Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist.

There is a helpful examination of Paul's Christological monotheism on the Sub Specie Aeterni blog.


Oh, and John Hobbins is biblioblogger of the month here. It includes the best shot of him I've ever seen! In the interview he says that: "I would like the blogging world to offer more quality resources", a suggestion that raises some interesting questions...

And, Carlsen actually flippin beat Leko in a blitz match! A future champ, surely.

Guest Book Review: The War on Terror

My thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy of Megoran's book, and to Phil for another great review.

Nick Solly Megoran, The War on Terror: How Should Christians Respond? (Downders Grove, Ill.: IVP Books), 2007

Conservative Evangelicals have in recent years acquired a reputation for being so individualistic and other-worldly that they have lost sight of Church's obligation to be engaged in the pressing social and moral issues of the present. Whether true or not, Nick Solly Megoran can be seen as an example of a committed Evangelical, rooted in the tradition of Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, for whom this is clearly not the case. His book is a plea to Christians to analyse their gospel and turn to their scriptures in order to face the most important challenge of our age: the War on Terror. His concern is not only to equip Christians to think about war, but also to build them up in their faith in Christ and enable them to witness to the gospel by talking sensibly to non-Christians in the context of discussions about war. This book has therefore a strong devotional and practical dimension. Each chapter opens with a discussion of a particular portion of the Bible and closes with concrete examples of how these biblical principles have been put into practice.

The War on Terror is divided into four sections with a final appendix. In Part one, Megoran gives an account of various responses to the War on Terror, both secular and Christian. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has been variously defined as either an “irrational evil” by those on the right or as the result of “government oppression” by those on the left. Both of the main protagonists, Bush and bin Laden, describe the war as one between good and evil. There is also diversity amongst Christians, depending in large part on whether they take up a pacifist or a “just war” position on violence in general. Megoran believes the former is the more biblical, which brings us to Part 2.

The chapters in Part 2 deal with the big questions raised by the war on terror. The first concerns the realism of Jesus' command that we should love our enemies (Mt. 5:9, 38-48). While not wanting to undermining the difficulty of this command, Megoran believes it is the only way to demonstrate the true nature of God and bring about genuine transformation. Just as God has reconciled to himself us who were once his enemies, so we are called to demonstrate the same grace to our enemies. We are liberated by the experience and empowered by the Spirit to do so. In other words, the key to the solution of war is the gospel of justification by faith (44). Reconciliation with God is good news for everyone: terrorists, superpowers, ourselves and the world.

The second question raised by the War on Terror is why God allows such violence to occur in the first place. Though the Bible gives us no answers, the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 4.11-27) represented war as the undoing of God's creation and thus contrary to God's will. Jeremiah promised a new age in which the kingdom of God would be established and there would be no war. The reality of this future kingdom was initiated by Christ, who has reunited us with God. This reality is demonstrated today, in anticipation of its final consummation, wherever his kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness is proclaimed and lived out. This is the task of the church in an age of terror, as illustrated by the early church in Carthage.

Part 3 turns to the practical issue of how the church can concretely “proclaim and live out” Christ's rule. A key concept here is that of “citizenship” (Phil 3:12-21; Jer 29:1-23). Christians have to negotiate between two allegiences: to the state and to heaven. We are to seek the peace and prosperity of the state, which has the divinely instituted role of promoting virtue and preventing vice. On the other hand, the fact that God is our true king means that we are ultimately answerable to a different set of rules. It is these kinds of citizens that the world needs for true peace to reign. Examples are given of Christian responses to U.S. support of Nicaraguan terrorists in the 1980's and the French priest André Trocmé.

Indeed, the gospel as the creation of a community of divinely reconciled sinners creates the conditions for overcoming the idolatry of nationalism. This reconciliation between different peoples is the outworking of God's plan for history, as can be seen in Acts 10.1-23, in the work of post-war Polish and German Bishops and in the movement Reconciliation Walk.

Before we can work for unity in the world, however, we need to work for unity within the church. This is our proof to the world that we have been forgiven and have peace with God. Phil 4:2-9 provides us with five principles for conflict management within the church, which can also be applied to the international scene, as demonstrated by the work of MRA and the LWF in Guatemala.

A role model for being a “citizen of heaven” is ironically provided by Jos 5:13-6.27: the battle of Jericho. This violent story, however, has to be interpreted within the framework of God's big plan. The invasion of Canaan was the task of Israel under the old covenant, where citizenship was understood in earthly terms and so violence was necessary. When it is understood that we are now under a covenant of grace rather law, we are free to spiritualize the story and draw the correct principles. The goal of invasion was to create holiness, a land devoid of whatever is contrary to God. The means for doing so was faith. Examples of these principles in practice are provided by John Paton and Tom Skinner.

The final question concerns hope in the face of the threat of death. On the one hand, Ps 116 assures us that God actually works to save us from literal death in concrete situations, with the result that the church in general is strengthened. Megoran gives examples of deliverance from terrorists, brutal regimes and weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, often the saints do die (see v 15). Even then, their knowledge that death has lost its sting enables them to be witnesses to Christian hope, as the Evangelical church in Beslan has been able to do.

Part 4 brings the baisc theme together. Like Jeremiah, who bought a field despite immanent exile (Jer 32-33), we need to engage in prophetic acts, pointing people to a reality that transcends what is visible now. The work of FFRME and CPT are held up as varied examples. We need to follow Paul's example (Acts 27:17-31), who despite his hopeless situation in prison preached the kingdom and taught Jesus, held as he was by his vision of God's great plan (as Horatio Spafford and Rev. Mehdi Dibaj did). Ultimately, war is nothing new. It is the manifestation of sin, and so the only solution is the gospel, which justifies us and thus brings peace with God and with neighbour. As we wait for the consummation of Christ's kingdom, our task is to prayerfully read our scriptures, think about the issues raised by war and sin, praise God for what he has done and proclaim it to the world.

Megoran has not written an academic treatise. Though one may question at times his theological argument, that is hardly the point of the book. It is an introduction to the key issues that are a matter of life and death, and as such provides an invaluable reference point in a complex area. Most significantly, it is a call for action, and to that end I found the abundant examples of concrete Christian witness in action helpful, inspiring and at the same time shaming for my own inactivity.

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