Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Biblical theology in a Skype conversation with a friend

My friend says (yes, I have friends! I pay well if people pretend to like me): Hi Chris!

Chris Tilling says: Hey mate!

Chris Tilling says: Got your e-mail, fantastic!! Was going to e-mail back shortly

My friend says: super

My friend says: oh no problem

My friend says: are you gonna be around?

Chris Tilling says: well, I will be in London but working. Would be great to see you though

My friend says: cool

My friend says: Well I have a question about the bible: For the first time yesterday I started to think that maybe not all of the NT texts say the same thing. Because of a lecture on Romans [at Tübingen University], I have been confronted with Paul's soteriology and teachings about justification. But then, and this is the point, I read James and I think Paul and James really don't say the same thing. On top of that, I read some more and it also seems that Matthew, Hebrews and Revelation don't really say the same thing about 'justification by faith alone'. So now my question is: Who should I trust? Is Paul the only one who is right? Does that mean that Matthew faked some of Jesus sayings, because they seem to contradict justification by faith alone?

Chris Tilling says: Great question! Now this leads to the heart of what is called 'biblical theology'. JB Caird used the metaphor of a discussion round a table, with all of the NT authors (and ours) being brought to the table in conversation. Another model would be to say one is right, another is wrong (canon within a canon - Luther); or again, some may try to harmonise the various voices, to make them all sound the same (to a certain extent represented by conservatives like John Piper - though this is not exclusively the realm of the conservative); others would suggest an organising principle around which various voices can be heard as distinct voices, yet not harmonised or allowed to fall apart into confusion (I generally like this approach). Is there another way? I could suggest a number of books on this subject (like James Mead, Biblical Theology; the Hafemann edited, Biblical Theology; Pate edited, The Story of Israel)

Chris Tilling says: ... but it really is more than just reading books, it is a journey we need to take with the text as part of our mission in the world

My friend says: Definitely! I feel like I'm just beginning to break out of an understanding of the bible that maybe doesn't fit what it was intended to be. But it seems scary and has soooo many implications. E.g. someone preaches about a certain text like James and makes a theology out of it, it can become very dangerous. But the breaking out is also very freeing because I always tried to harmonise all of it in some way, only to struggle hard every time I read some texts in Matthew which speak of a judgment according to works. On the other hand I don't know if I'm 'allowed' to question scripture like that. Thank you for the picture- that helps.

My friend says: What do you think: Does e.g. James say something different from Paul about justification?

Chris Tilling says: Well, there are ways of harmonising, but I tend to think they probably say different things, at least emphasise different things! But I still think James needs to be heard as part of canon. Oh yes, forgot to mention, we must not forget the dependency of the canon on the church and its rule of faith - a matter I think should inform our interpretation (cf. a couple of chapters in Max Turner ed. Between Two Horizons, I think by Wall [I later checked and the essays were indeed written by Robert Wall, "Reading the Bible from within Our Traditions: The 'Rule of Faith' in Theological Hermeneutics" and "Canonical Context and Canonical Conversations")

My friend says: but would you say that Paul stands a little bit above everyone else with his theology, at least that is what they perhaps seem to imply here in Tübingen

Chris Tilling says: I think that needs to be determined by the nature of the 'rule of faith' (cf. the Wall essays). I suppose I tend to see Paul as the primary witness to the Gospel in this respect, and James functions, together with John's letters and Jude, as a balance, a canonical counterbalance. What do you think? (I had in mind here a book by David R. Nienhuis's Not by Paul Alone, which I mentioned previously here)

My friend says: Well, for me James was veeery helpful and I'm glad he's in the canon, because only through reading him can I understood a little bit about what is so special about Paul. Also I think he is probably one out of many Jewish Christians at that time who were trying to find a way of how to bring their Jewish faith together with the faith in Jesus. For James it seems to me that he maybe didn't yet realise how lost we really are?!

Chris Tilling says: I like your honest historical approach, interesting thoughts

My friend says: What is difficult for me: If e.g. Matthew and Paul have a different view about how we get justified than one of them must be right, right? But by saying 'Matthew' we are actually talking about texts where is says: 'Jesus said: ....' So if I wouldn't believe in Matthew's way of justification, then what I'm really saying is that either Jesus didn't understand it aright or that he never said those words, which would mean that Matthew 'faked' them. Of course there are probably many other ways of interpreting Matthew that wouldn't necessarily contradict Paul, but here in Tübingen that is what's being taught. But why do they never talk about the implication of their claims?

My friend says: What do you think?

.... I will stop our conversation at this point – which I sadly had to leave anyway shortly after – and let his question address you: what do you think?


At 2/18/2009 6:59 AM, Anonymous Greg Terry said...

Shouldn't that be G.B. Caird - JB Caird???

At 2/18/2009 10:43 AM, Anonymous Mike said...

Great post Chris. Most of the stuff on this blog goes well above my head but this was a really nice thinking point for a theology-noob like me!


At 2/18/2009 5:06 PM, Anonymous Keyvan Cyrus said...


I just wanna say that I enjoy your posts a lot and check you almost every day. your blog is just amazing and is full of educational stuff(at least for me)as well as funny things that happening on the side in comments.I am Doing my MA in LST(You have been there) and I am friend of Mehrad Fatehi. I consider your blogg as one of the best resources to get you updated on what is happening in Theological field.
keep doing this brother.


At 2/18/2009 10:11 PM, Anonymous Kyle Fever said...


Very interesting that you post this. I had a student (I am visiting lecturer at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota) who asked me this morning: "How would Paul have read Matthew?"

I think it is a great question, and one that has had me thinking....thinking not only of what that answer might be, but HOW one would go about answering this. I think that just opposing the two simply does not address the complexity of not only the nature of the issue, but of the texts themselves.

Kyle Fever

At 2/19/2009 1:07 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Greg, yes, thanks!

Jonathan, great list of quotes! I really like the Rowan Williams one at the end.

Mike and Keyvan, thanks so much for your kind words. A nice encouragement!

Kyle, you are surely right. How would you try to begin answering the question? How did you?

At 2/19/2009 7:29 AM, Anonymous Daniel said...

Could it be that in the end it boils down to the fact that Christians live in the tension of two oposites. Like the Now and the Not Yet we are justified by faith but our works show our faith, so we are justified by works?

Is the new perspective not the same in as such, that when your works (following the law) are your badge to belong to the people of God, then when don't follow the law you're not part of the people of God anymore, therefore you are justified by works?

Faith seeks truly and indeed understanding...

At 2/19/2009 2:18 PM, Anonymous :mic said...

I had a friend once.

At 2/19/2009 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love" (Gal 5: 6) ...

Justified through the gift of faith in Christ, we are called to live in the love of Christ for neighbour, because it is on this criterion that we shall be judged at the end of our lives. In reality Paul only repeats what Jesus himself said and which is proposed to us anew by last Sunday's Gospel, in the parable of the Last Judgment. In the First Letter to the Corinthians St Paul pours himself out in a famous eulogy of love. It is called the "hymn to love": "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.... Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13: 1, 4-5). Christian love is particularly demanding because it springs from Christ's total love for us: that love that claims us, welcomes us, embraces us, sustains us, to the point of tormenting us since it forces each one to no longer live for himself, closed into his own selfishness, but for him "who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor 5: 15). The love of Christ makes us, in him, that new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17), which comes to belong to his Mystical Body that is the Church.

Seen in this perspective, the centrality of justification without works, the primary object of Paul's preaching, does not clash with faith that works through love; indeed, it demands that our faith itself be expressed in a life in accordance with the Spirit. Often there is seen an unfounded opposition between St Paul's theology and that of St James, who writes in his Letter: "as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead"(2: 26). In reality, while Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James accentuates the consequential relations between faith and works (cf. Jas 2: 24). Therefore, for both Paul and James, faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ. Salvation received in Christ needs to be preserved and witnessed to "with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.... Do all things without grumbling or questioning... holding fast the word of life", St Paul was to say further, to the Christians of Philippi (cf. Phil 2: 12-14, 16).


At 2/20/2009 5:19 AM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

Walter Bruggemann's summing up as “a central direction and a rich diversity” seems the most satisfactory to me. I like his approach to the Bible as a continuing dialogue and not simply a book to be studied.

When I first began to address the seeming contradictions in the Bible, it was scarey, but after many years, I have come to believe that I should never shrink from the questions. The difficult passages are not to be disregarded, but to be wrestled with, like Jacob wrestling with God.


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