Sunday, May 29, 2011

PLEASE keep praying for Sam

Friday, May 27, 2011

Two books on Wright part 2 of 2

First, what do I appreciate about Wright's scholarship? Here are a few things, and a little biographical aside will help me explain my first point. I've come from a rather conservative Evangelical background, one which avoided academic thinking for one simple reason: fear - fear that theological study could lead to heresy and even unbelief.

However, theologically equipped and thus prepared by scholars like Richard Bauckham, John Goldingay and Walter Brueggemann, I purchased a book in the field which frightened me most, historical Jesus scholarship. That book was N.T. Wright's, Jesus and the Victory of God. Here was a book, written by an evangelical - someone I felt I could trust - about the scariest of all topics. And not only was the book a fascinating and massively educational read, it more importantly gave me confidence that I could think about faith without fear.

This book, together with John Goldingay's Models of Scripture and a Brueggemann lecture, resulted in a revolution in my faith and theology. Instead of just reading books by "safe" and "popular" Christian authors, I started to enjoy the benefits of more academic reflection on faith. Since then I have come to appreciate Wright's scholarship for two more principle reasons (there are a few others, like his politically conversant concerns, but that would make the post too long!)

First, by locating the interpretation of scripture in the wider story of Israel, and the narrative of exile and restoration, I began to understand, negatively, the extent to which my own bible reading was influenced by unacknowledged "interpretative paradigms" (individualism, ahistoricism etc). Positively, I began to discover completely new, plausible and exciting ways of reading passages particularly in Romans, Galatians and the Synoptics. It all helped me to also understand how the bible could hang together.

Second, I began to grasp that academic theology could and should serve for the edification of the church. Wright unashamedly located his concerns in terms of church life, and this resonated deeply with me.

Here are some concerns I have about Wright's work. I will group them loosely under two points. First, given the historical issues raised by a correctly-understood early divine-Christology, I cannot now think about the historical Jesus without reference to the Gospel of John, and indeed I am starting to consider the christologies of the Synoptics in a rather different light now. I think Wright may be getting things the wrong way round on some of these matters. What is more, Wright's arguments concerning Jesus do sometimes smack of apologetic foundationalism, as detailed by Hays (see below) - but I do get tired of the constant critical reference to his (admittedly dubious) "dead rising from tombs" argument, as if this flaws everything else he says. It doesn't.

Second, while I have always appreciated Wright's reading of Paul, a few matters remain unclear. His exegesis of Romans has left me with many unanswered questions - his proposals do not seem to appreciate the theological tensions and problems involved in a coherent reading, especially of chapters 1-4. I also suspect that his grasp of justification and the law court is not without problems. What is more, he seems to have placed a lot of interpretive weight on potentially contingent features of certain letters (such as the language of "curse"), and much relies on narrative features that are assumed rather than directly evidenced in Paul's texts.

But this is really the reason I wrote this post: in this respect I must now mention the extremely helpful volume, Nicholas Perrin and Hays Richard B., eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). The line up is particularly impressive, with an important essay by one of the finest NT scholars to have ever lived (in my estimation), namely Richard Hays.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Two books on Wright part 1 of 2

Those of you who read my blog know that amongst NT scholars, there is one from whom I have gained much - one of the most able and brilliant NT scholars the UK has ever produced, Tom Wright (sorry, Jim, but I do think that he really is clever!).

Here in the UK, Wright has now quite an astonishing following amongst evangelicals. I think that this is largely to do with the nature of his writing (it is exceptionally lucid and clear) and his non-specialist target audience, so that he has made top-notch NT scholarship accessible to the church.

However, translated into sermons, Tom Wright's approach has, in my experience, often lead to sermons like this:

1) "You thought that this verse meant that ... but you are wrong! Understood in terms of exile and restoration, it really means this ..."; Or "You a wrong! It is not about going to heaven when you die ... You have never understood, it is not about imputed righteousness ... " etc.

Such sermons are not necessarily bad in themselves, of course, but depending on how it is delivered, sometimes people leave church with a sense of the perspicuity of scripture lying in tatters on the floor, wondering if they can ever understand the gospel again without high-level academic help. It is a negative moment - and I think an important and potentially very healthy one - but preachers influenced by Wright have not always, in my experience, been as helpful in being more constructive nor theologically confident. Not true of Wright himself, but occasionally of those who have read some of his books for a sermon.

Here is the second type of Wright-influenced sermon I have heard:

2) "Not Neoplatonism and saved spirits, no, but resurrection - our hope is a transformed physicality, and so this means you can care about social justice".

This became a clarion call for many who were tired with the individualistic and painfully other-worldly sermonising of some evangelicalism, which seemed to reduce the gospel to a cognitive moment in an individual's head. However, this is not quite enough for a year's worth of sermons, and some have been in danger of a works-righteousness of social care, neglecting to preach the gospel about sinners rescued by the unconditional love of God (even avoiding this kind of talk as if it must be anachronistic to the NT and "unscholarly")

While both of these types of sermons have their place, I am pleased that Stephen Kuhrt's little volume, Tom Wright for Everyone: Putting the theology of N.T. Wright into practice in the local church (SPCK, 2011), is now available to help negotiate what Wright's theology could mean at a more popular and ecclesial level (for which Wright has been tirelessly writing for the last few years).

I know, the book subtitle does smack me as a little sycophantic and yuk, but given the above I think it will be of great benefit to many.

In part 2, while mentioning the second book on Wright's theology to have been published recently, I want to explain more about how my personal theological journey has been impacted by Wright, and the ways in which my thinking has developed in slightly different directions in the last 3 years. Cos you really want to know that, right? Course you do.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Theology, God and Romans

"Theologie richtet sich auf Gott, nicht indem sie Gott zu einem Sonderthema neben anderen macht, sondern indem sie alles im Licht der wirksamen Gegenwart Gottes wahrnimmt, zu verstehen sucht, erforscht und durchdenkt" (Ingolf Dalferth's Radikale Theologie, p.15)

This is a bit of an aside, but hey ho. I think Daniel Kirk began his very helpful book on Romans by saying something like: Romans "is about God, dummies"! The more I read Romans, the more I appreciate how right he was: theology cannot be bracketed in exegetical work on that letter. If it is to be understood, it must also be studied, researched and considered in light of the God it speaks about. This is why the tensions between parts of Romans 1-3 and the rest of the letter are so important to admit and think about.

For those who pray

Please remember Sam Kean

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My own predictions: Camping's future rapture-fail excuses

Half an hour to go here before Harold Camping's rapture happens, but I'm going to stick my neck out now and say "it won't happen".

What will their multinational, wealthy ministry claim after all fails to materialise?

Here are some possibles:

1. Haha, April, er, May fools!
2. Harold stands up and says: "Did not Jesus say that even he did not know the time? The fuss you have all kicked up is a lived out example of how dull of discernment you have all become" (I would go for this one)
3. Related to this: "I wasn't serious guys, I just wanted you to think about your life if Jesus really were coming soon"
4. "I must have got my calculations wrong again, let me get back to you in a few years" (I am expecting something along these lines - it is what he said after his first failed prediction about 10 years ago)
5. "We where sadly almost all left behind. Only one person was raptured"

What is so depressing, is that this nonsense has had so much air time and was promoted around the world. Perhaps we should have a controversial "Karl Barth reading nude in public day", or something, so that decent theology gets a look in.

Now this is awesome

The science 'X Factor'

Contrast of the Day

Instead of gloating over the failed "rapture prediction" nonsense, thought I'd instead try out my new iPad blogging App with a "contrast of the day".

"The freely acting God Himself and alone is the truth of revelation. Our dogmatic labours can and should be guided by results which are venerable because they are attained in the common knowledge of the Church at a specific time. Such results may be seen in the dogmas enshrined in the creeds. But at no point should these replace our dogmatic labours in virtue of their authority. Nor can it ever be the real concern of dogmatics merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible" (Karl Barth, CD I.1 §1, p.15-16)
“What is systematic theology? Many different definitions have been given, but for the purposes of this book the following definition will be used: Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, "What does the whole Bible teach us today?" about any given topic. This definition indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 21)
Who is right? There is only one way to find out! FIGHT! (to the humourless: this is an allusion to something Harry Hill says, not an actual call to arms for violence)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Book Review: Volker Rabens The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

My good friend, Volker Rabens, adjusted and published his wonderful and vigorously researched PhD thesis in the Mohr Siebeck WUNT series, and I wanted to draw attention to it by republishing Carsten Lotz's review for LST's INSIGHT Magazine. I can only concur with Carsten that Volker's work really was a model PhD. If you are interestd in Pauline theology, especially ethics or pneumatology, but also close exegesis of numerous Pauline passages and elucidation on Paul and 'relationality', you can't afford to miss this one.

Mohr Siebeck 2009, £57, pp 390
ISBN 978-31-6149-895-4

One of the first words of advice Max Turner gave to me as I began a research degree here at LST was to “read a good PhD thesis to see how it should be done”. He then directed me towards his former doctoral student Volker Rabens’ recently defended thesis. This ‘model’ thesis is now available to the wider academic world as a published monograph, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul. Rabens’ work fulfills all the requirements for a clear and simple thesis, while at the same time being detailed and creative enough to handily overturn 140 years of theological assumption regarding the ethical work of the Spirit in continental Pauline studies; not bad for a PhD thesis!

The monograph’s main task is to investigate the assumptions behind the practical realisation of Paul’s ethic; in other words how did Paul imagine Christians to actually perform his ethic in their daily lives. Rabens proceeds by dividing his study into two parts. The first part introduces, reviews, and engages the historical and contemporary theories in German academia (and the recent Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in Paul: The Material Spirit), which suggests the work of the Spirit within an individual accomplishes an inner ontological transformation thereby producing an ethical change within the person. The main assumption underwriting this theory suggests that the Spirit himself consists of an ontically renewing material, or ‘substance’ (Stoff), upon which entering a believer transforms their substance (p4).

Rabens will appropriately call this model the ‘infusion-transformation’ approach. It is this very assumption Rabens will convincingly dispute in the first part of his study, concluding: 1) While the idea of a physical ‘spirit’ is present in Hellenistic thought, particularly Stoicism, ‘it could not be found in Judaism or Paul’ (p119) and 2) Based on Paul’s own writings we can see that he ‘does not attribute such an importance to these factors [i.e., a particular mode of reception or nature of the Spirit]’ (p120). Therefore, based on Raben’s research, the evidence itself seems to suggest an alternative explanation to the ethical work of the Spirit than the proposed infusion-transformation model.

In turn, the second half of Rabens’ study lays out an alternative paradigm to the ‘infusion-transformation’ model. In Rabens’ own words, ‘It will be argued that it is primarily through deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and with the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life (p123).’ Rabens clearly and succinctly moves through the relevant Jewish and Pauline sources finding much support for his so-called relational model. The evidence in both Paul and his contemporary context suggests that it is precisely through an intensified, intimate relationship with God, Jesus and the faithful neighbour that the Spirit transforms and empowers the believer to perform the demands of the new religious-ethical life Paul advocates.

To conclude, I can heartily recommend this monograph for three reasons. One, it is truly a ‘model’ thesis in that it accomplishes its aims with clarity and simplicity. Secondly, it provides an excellent survey of Pauline pneumatology and ethics. Lastly, another benefit of this monograph is the intentional bridging of continental and English NT scholarship. As Marcus Bockmuehl notes, ‘New Testament scholarship’s fragmentation has in recent years been further accelerated by its practitioners’ increasingly restricted field of reference and linguistic competence’ (Seeing the Word, p35). Rabens’ monograph definitely helps us to think bigger and more cross-culturally by working against this trend.

Reviewer: Carsten Lotz (LST 2008-10) is researching the Spirit and Kingdom in Luke-Acts with Max Turner and serves as the Pastor of the International Christian Fellowship in Frankfurt, Germany.

Volker Rabens (LST 1992-95, 2008) Researcher of the International Consortium ‘Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe’ and Lecturer at the University of Bochum (Germany)

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A suggestion worth pondering?

What do you think? See here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

My Good Friday Meditations

Michael Gorman has already kindly mentioned the video on his blog here,and James McGrath has followed up with a post titled: "Michael Gorman's Theology and Chris Tilling's Life Spared by Ambiguous English Prepositions"!

If you are interested, here are the six ten minute Good Friday meditations it was my honour to preach at Holy Trinity Brompton, London.

1. The cross and relationship with God (about 10 seconds in)
2. The cross and God (about 16 minutes in)
3. The cross and Christ (about 30 minutes in)
4. The cross and humans (about 44 minutes in)
5. The cross and salvation (about 1hr in)
6. The cross and our mission (about 1 hr 17 minutes in)

Good Friday from Holy Trinity Brompton.