Monthly Archives: July 2011

What is Romans?

What sort of communication from Paul is Romans?  It’s been quite common to assume that Romans is a systematic treatise on the Christian faith.  Many commentaries contain an outline of Romans structured according to systematic theological categories.  Paul deals with the doctrine of justification here, the doctrine of sanctification there, the doctrine of election over there.  

If Paul had any practical purpose, it’s that he is informing his readers of his theology in an attempt to establish his orthodox credentials.  He wants to secure Rome as a mission base for his eventual goal of reaching Spain with the gospel (Rom. 15:24).

Such a perspective, however, regards Paul and his letter to the Romans wrongly.  Paul was not the initiator of Western abstract theology and he is not “treating” various doctrines throughout his letter.

Romans is intensely occasional, something very like 1 Corinthians and completely unlike the volumes by Berkhof or Hodge.  It is a pastoral letter written in an apocalyptic frame and from an apocalyptic perspective. 

It is pastoral because Paul is dealing with a church in crisis, writing to help them understand the causes of their division, to lay out for them the way forward, and to encourage them to pursue unity as God’s people in Christ.  He says in Rom. 15:15, “I have written very boldly to you on some points,” something he cannot say if he is merely theologizing in the abstract. 

Paul names their divisive conduct as sin and uses their slogans sarcastically, strategies he also utilizes in the Corinthian correspondence.  I think he’s doing this with his use of “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16; 2:9-10).  This isn’t Paul’s mission strategy but a subversive use of a phrase that Jewish Christians were using to establish dominance over their gentile sisters and brothers in the Roman fellowships.

The interpretive payoff of this approach is that there is far less systematic theology and abstracted salvation-historical material in Romans than historically has been recognized.  Paul is not so much reflecting on the broad historical sweep of God’s work in the world, the history of his judgment and salvation, or realities about the Law and sin in the abstract.  He is, rather, describing realities as they exist within the Roman Christian community, helping them to see the full range of the cosmic realities that are at work so that they can take appropriate action that is fully consistent with their new identity in Christ.  Romans is thoroughly pastoral.

Paul’s letter is also apocalyptic in that he reinterprets their situation from a cosmic perspective, pulling back the curtains of physical and earthly reality to take a full account of spiritual realities.  He talks about sin and death, not as unfortunate choices that people make (we sin), and as something that happens to us at the end of our lives (we die).  Sin and Death are actors on the cosmic stage, hostile cosmic forces that bring pressure to bear on the corporate life of the Roman community. 

Paul’s talk about the Law in Romans can only be understood as we realize that for Paul the Law of Moses has been hijacked and manipulated by these malevolent cosmic forces.  This evil apocalyptic power alliance is corrupting the Law in order to pervert the work of God by the Spirit to redeem communities for the name of the Lord Jesus.

From this perspective, expressions like “in the Spirit” and “in Christ” do not merely have to do with forensic statuses of individuals, but are actual locations on the map of the cosmos.  They are places within the present evil age that constitute outbreaks of resurrection life where Jews and gentiles are united in communities that anticipate the coming age.  These new creation outposts, however, are precariously situated in that they are prime targets for the enemy to disrupt, discourage, and destroy.  Paul tells the Romans that there are other dynamics at work in their community and other characters involved in the cosmic drama than those for which they have accounted to this point.  The hope of the gospel, however, is that there is a far greater power available to them to triumph over these forces than they may realize.

Romans, then, is not so much a tempered theological treatise as it is a vigorous pastoral letter written in an apocalyptic frame, exhorting the community in Rome to fully embrace their identity as the new creation people of God.  They are the people whose purpose it is to signal that the restoration of all of creation is imminent.

The recognition that this is the character of Paul’s letter has been made possible to some extent by of the shattering of older paradigms by the emergence of the “new perspective.”  Whereas previously Romans may have been regarded as a collection of proof-texts for our systematic theologies, newer perspectives remind us that our reading of Paul’s letter must be related at point after point to the situation going on in Rome. 

We can be far less certain regarding the historical situation Paul addresses.  It seems reasonable to assume that the tensions had to do with the return of a large number of Jewish Christians to Rome with the death of Claudius in 54 CE.  Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in 49, fostering the rise of gentile leadership in the house churches and the development of non-Jewish patterns of Christian community life. 

With the return of Jewish Christians to re-populate the churches and synagogues, and to re-take positions of leadership, there are tensions.  The Jewish Christians seem to be asserting their priority with the God of Israel in an effort to re-establish their prominence among the network of churches.  For their part, gentile Christians are emphasizing their priority over the Jews since the gospel has gone out to the nations.

Whatever the actual problems occurring in the Roman church or church network, all we have is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  That is, we only have access to how Paul conceived of the problem(s) among the Roman Christians.

The Paul We Think We Know

My article on Paul in Christianity Today is now online. 

I have heard evangelists talk about how Paul was the ultimate evangelist.  Today’s doctrinal watchdogs portray Paul as one willing to drop the gloves over doctrinal minutiae.  And popular preachers talk about Paul’s powerful proclamation.  He’s become all things to all people in ways he never imagined or intended.

My target in the piece is our tendency to have Paul bear our hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  Hope you enjoy it!

Holistic Morality

I don’t know anything about C. J. Mahaney or his ministry, but someone alerted me to the announcement of his leave of absence.  There’s much about this that is really refreshing.

He is stepping aside from his ministry because of “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.”  This is so striking because it envisions the character of sin and the nature of morality in holistic terms, just as the New Testament does.

Many Christians have become comfortable with graded conceptions of sins that are constructed by our cultures.  We grade some sins as very serious, some as not so serious, and others are turned into virtues.

The biggies are things like adultery and fornication–the “red-light” sins.  Other things like gossip, slander, and jealousy are given a pass, and in some circles angry speech is regarded as virtuous.  You earn your stripes as a defender of the faith among some Christians through angry outbursts of denunciation aimed at those who publish books that revisit cherished dogmatic formulations.

Consider, however, some of the NT vice lists.  They’re shocking.  They don’t grade sins, but lump together all sorts of behaviors that destroy community and degrade people.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

It shocks our sensibilities to see Paul list all these behaviors together.  They are all sins and there is no grading.  If we imagine taking serious steps in our communities to deal with sexual immorality, we ought to be equally mobilized to deal with divisive behaviors such as gossip, slander, and envy.

Take a look at the character requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil (1 Timothy 3:2-7).

This is a completely counter-cultural construction of leadership.  Paul nowhere lists being a powerful visionary, compelling speaker, or winsome personality.  Character may be demonstrated in some of the publicly visible behaviors, but it’s chiefly manifest by hospitality, gentleness, and integrity in the home.  Again, the dimensions of morality are surprisingly counter-cultural, holistic, and involve seemingly mundane aspects of life.

One final passage came to mind when I read Mahaney’s statement.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).

The moral person is the one who does the hard work of peace-making, the one who bears good fruit, the one who shows mercy.  These are thoroughly moral patterns of behavior, the heart and soul of the life of a Jesus-follower.

And James does not say that bitter envy and selfish ambition are personality quirks or that they’re merely unfortunate behaviors when found in a person who is otherwise a great leader.  He does not mince words.  The “wisdom” of such a person is actually demonic.

All this is to say that the New Testament envisions morality in holistic terms.  Evangelical people tend to be mesmerized by powerful personalities and compelling speakers.  We often excuse sin in our leaders just because they’ve avoided the “biggies” or the “serious” sins.  This only demonstrates that our conceptions of morality and leadership need serious revision.

Reflecting on the New Perspective Era

Mike Bird is considering what we’ve learned from the New Perspective on Paul (part 1 & part 2).

Just briefly, in addition to what he mentions, one of the most helpful effects of newer readings of Paul is the emphasis on the occasional nature of Paul’s letters.  We’re reminded that we must read them not as timeless theological treatises but with greater sensitivity to their occasional and polemical character. 

Related to this, fresh readings are also focusing on church communities as the objects of the gospel and the communal dynamics of the people of God.  Paul is often dealing with problems of relationships within his church communities and not theologizing with reference to the individual and his standing before God.  This has led to a vision of salvation as more holistic, involving communities and individuals-in-community.

The Emerging Church, the New Perspective, & Evangelical Identity

Andrew Perriman wrote a few months ago about the convergence of the emerging church movement and the developments associated with the New Perspective on Paul.  He sees the effect of these as salutary for the future of evangelical identity.  I heartily agree.

It seems to me, in fact, that these resonate strongly with the evangelical impulse.  The evangelical spirit is always reforming how Christians articulate and practice the faith.  It is a prophetic movement, constantly challenging established thought and practice, goading fellow Christians toward greater faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.

Neither of these movements were offering a distinct or cohesive school of thought or mode of practice.  The emerging folks were calling evangelicals to re-evaluate forms of church life in light of mega-church developments.  And the New Perspective has shaken up New Testament studies so that people are reading the text with fresh eyes.

Genuine evangelicals ought to embrace the challenge to think creatively and purposefully about Christian thought and practice.  I think it’s a bit sad that so much conversation vis-à-vis these two movements has been reactionary, defensive, and negative rather that critically constructive and reflective.

Observations on The Open Championship


Darren Clarke, Open Champion (Robert Beck / SI)

A great championship gave us a great champion.  Darren Clarke from Northern Ireland.  Much has been written about him and the twists and turns his life has taken.  Here’s the piece from the Belfast Telegraph.  He’s the third Ulsterman to win a major out of the last six, which is extraordinary.

Phil Mickelson has lots of golf left in him.  He finished second and shot a 30 on the front nine before fading over the final nine.  It was good to see him do well and to see him enjoying it, too.

I love watching golfers having fun as they’re playing.  Miguel Angel Jimenez made quite an impression with his warm-up.  He’s a total clown and seems to have a seriously great time playing golf.  He hit one of the most amazing shots of the tournament last year in St. Andrews

Phil, too, was laughing and joking around as he played his round with Anthony Kim, and was messing around with Jimenez on the practice tee before the final round.  Darren Clarke played with Dustin Johnson on Sunday and they were chatting, laughing, and walking together the whole round.  This is so refreshing.  When Tiger Woods is in contention, it’s riveting, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy the game, and is always blowing up when things don’t go just right for him.  It’s just nice to watch guys out there having a good time.

There is nothing like listening to the inimitable Peter Alliss.  ESPN is continuing ABC’s policy of welcoming Alliss to offer comment during Sunday’s play and it was a delight.  It was nice to have him alongside the ESPN guys, but there’s nothing like watching golf, especially the Open, on the BBC.  There are very few commercials and Alliss doesn’t really describe the action so much as he gathers and narrates the entire British golf scene.  You feel like it’s just you and Peter Alliss sitting in a pub watching the golf on the telly.  He’ll say things like, “That’s a real thump, that is, and he’ll like that one, as I suspect will Andrew Wilson, who’s watching with his wife Gloria while nipping at a pint at the pub in Whitby.  Who can forget Andrew’s 5-wood from 187 yards out in a howling gale on the 18th to within 4 feet to win the junior championship back in 1958?  Andrew could really lash it.  He’s retired now and his son Ian is the head professional at the club in Colchester, a lovely parklands layout with a gorgeous shepherd’s pie in the clubhouse.”

This sort of thing is constant.  He’s a brilliant story-teller and an understated commentator.

There is simply no one like him.  If there were a school for sportscasters, it would consist of listening to Peter Alliss doing the last twenty-five Open Championships and Vin Scully doing a season’s worth of Dodgers games.

Evangelicals & the New Perspective on Paul

The “new perspective” era in Pauline studies had its heyday through the final two decades of the 20th century, dying out in the later 1990’s.  After the publication of E. P. Sanders’s book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, Pauline scholars around the world produced a flood of dissertations, monographs, and articles re-evaluating previous assumptions about Paul and established interpretations of passages in his letters.  This era put a charge into Pauline scholarship that continues today in a wide variety of directions.

Sometime in the late 1990’s, evangelical leaders and pastors became aware of what was happening in scholarly discussions.  The conduct of many evangelicals since this time indicates a desperate need to clarify the nature of evangelical identity.

To be evangelical is to welcome the opportunity to grapple with the Scriptures more vigorously with the end of embodying the gospel more faithfully and proclaiming it more clearly.

Some evangelicals, however, have reacted quite negatively to the challenge to dig into the Scriptures more deeply and to wrestle more profoundly with the various strands that make up our theological heritage.  This debate, which offers so much promise for everyone involved, has been beset by some very disappointing behaviors.  I’ve been struck by two reactions.

First, some have demonized and condemned others who draw exegetical or theological conclusions that are only slightly different from their own.  Rather than take the time to read and re-read what others have written, engaging with the biblical text in its historical setting, some have chosen to publish fulminating and rhetorically-charged critiques on blogs or web-sites, smearing brothers and sisters in Christ.

Many critics have not taken the time to understand rightly what they’ve read, resulting in confusion, frustration, and division.  For those whose Christian heritage stretches back to an earlier reactionary and denunciatory fundamentalism, this may appear to be acceptable.  But such behaviors ought not to be found among Christian people.

A second reaction that I find puzzling and bizarre is the tendency among evangelicals to surrender their evangelical identity in an attempt to preserve it.  Let me explain.

My evangelical heritage goes back at least four generations, so I grew up hearing things like, “we’re people of the book;” “no creed but the Bible;” “the Bible says it, that settles it.”  I had understood evangelical identity to be a serious submission to the authority of Scripture and Scripture alone.  We cultivated a constant readiness to hear Scripture afresh, and we had an inherent allergy toward appeals to any sort of doctrinal magisterium.

It is mind-boggling to see evangelicals try to grapple with this unsettling issue by making appeals to creeds and confessions in other traditions rather than doing what we claim to do best—wrestling with the text of Scripture, searching out the meaning of Paul in his historical context.

It is equally ironic that many evangelicals have discovered that within those traditions shaped by creeds and confessions, the theological issues raised by “new perspective” debates have been up and running for at least the last five hundred years.  Simple appeal to dogmatic tradition—something evangelicals ought to be slow to do—settles nothing.

Evangelicals are those who proceed with both humility and vigor, reading Scripture in the fear of the Lord alongside our brothers and sisters who just might articulate the truth of God using slightly different terminology from our own.  If we truly are the people of the book, desiring to be careful students of Scripture for the glory of King Jesus, we will refuse to demonize our brothers and sisters.  We will hold our theological conclusions in submission to Scripture, always seeking to refine our understanding and to grow in faithfulness to Scripture.  We will keep in mind the essence of the Reformed impulse—“Reformed and always reforming.”

I’ve noticed over the years that evangelicals can hardly stand to be challenged with regard to interpreting Paul.  After all, he’s one of us!  We are the ones who are more shaped by Paul’s gospel than anyone else, right?  If Paul could imagine his dream church, surely it would be one of our evangelical fellowships or Bible churches—our communities mapped by Romans roads and charted by the Pauline gospel!  For us to be sent back to the text to make sure that we’ve really got it right can be mystifying, and perhaps downright offensive.

It shouldn’t be this way.  The need to take a fresh look at the text ought to excite genuine evangelicals.  Such opportunities hold promise for us to gain a fresh vision for things in the text we may have missed.  Evangelicals, more than anyone else, ought to welcome the opportunity to hear afresh the always devastating and always redeeming Word of God.  We ought to delight in opportunities to provoke one another to love, shrewd exegesis, and faithful theological articulation, and to excel still more at vigorous dialogue and debate, striving always to understand our conversation partners as we learn together from the Word of God.

Saying all this, of course, doesn’t score points for any side over the other and it doesn’t justify Piper or Dunn, MacArthur or Wright.  It is only to say that we must pursue theological dialogue as seriously Christian people.  We must believe the best about one another, assuming that our sisters and brothers are also diligently searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so.

All students of Scripture are called by God to truly embody the very best of Christian scholarship for the glory of King Jesus, for the good of the church, and for the blessing of the world.

What The “New Perspective” Is & Isn’t

I mentioned the other day that the “new perspective” era in Pauline studies is in the past.  Confusion, however, abounds regarding what it is and what it isn’t.  What follows is an attempt at clarification.

The “new perspective” is an interpretive angle of approach to Paul that does not assume that he is attacking Judaism because it is legalistic.  To the extent that he criticizes Judaism, he is doing so rather for its ethno-centric impulses, its limiting the scope of God’s salvation to those who are ethnic Jews.  Those writing from this new perspective have emphasized the need to read Paul against his first century Jewish background rather than in the context of Reformation theology and sixteenth and seventeenth-century ecclesiastical polemics.

The “new perspective,” then, is mostly negative and focuses narrowly on one item in Paul.  It mainly has to do with Paul’s statements in Romans and Galatians that no one can be justified by “works of law.”  The question up for debate is, What does Paul mean by “works of law?”  Is he referring to legalism or something else?

The defining element in the “new perspective,” therefore, is the shared sense that dominant “traditional” readings of Paul’s statements about justification by “works of law” are not fully satisfying.

“Traditional” readings regard Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, as addressing legalistic impulses within Judaism driven by an anthropological optimism whereby humans are thought to be able to earn salvation before God on the basis of their good works.

The “new perspective” is simply and only this shared sense of dissatisfaction with Reformed or Lutheran readings of Paul’s regard for Judaism.  Beyond this, there is no “new perspective” view of anything.

The “new perspective” is not a view of justification.  It is not a view of the relationship between “already” and “not yet” aspects of justification.  Even “new perspective” critics note that there are future aspects to justification.

The “new perspective” is not a view of imputation, nor of how believers are made righteous.  Many assume that the debate is over the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Robert Gundry, however, is both a fierce critic of the “new perspective” and of the notion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  There are others.

In my opinion, this confusion arose because alarm bells were sounded in the late 1990’s about a new threat to orthodoxy called the “new perspective” and N. T. Wright was one proponent.  Many picked up his accessible book, What St. Paul Really Said, and encountered his critique of imputation.  They assumed that this was the “departure” from orthodoxy they had heard about and a firestorm began.

The problem here is that this portion of Wright’s book was simply a rehearsal of a debate that had been going on for decades, if not centuries, among Pauline scholars and Reformed exegetes.  Evangelical and Reformed scholars agree that believers are declared righteous before God, as does Wright.  It’s another question entirely whether the imputation of Christ’s righteousness can be found anywhere in Paul’s letters.  Almost everyone agrees that Paul nowhere explicitly articulates a formula of imputation.

The “new perspective” is not a view of the phrase pistis Christou—whether it is an objective or subjective genitive.  James Dunn, a “new perspective” person if there ever was one, strongly advocates for an objective genitive interpretation of this and related phrases.  This is usually understood as the “traditional” position.

Beyond the narrowly focused notion that Paul is not criticizing Judaism for its legalism, there is nothing that constitutes the “new perspective.”  These other issues are not properly “new perspective” issues.  They have received greater attention since the texts that are battleground passages in the “new perspective” debate are also those that relate to imputation and justification.  Now that these key texts in Romans and Galatians are receiving more attention, it is coming to light that these doctrinal and theological formulations are just that—theological conclusions that don’t necessarily lie right on the surface of the text.

N. T. Wright & Evangelical Theology

Alister McGrath on Wright:

Wright’s project is like a gadfly to evangelical theology.  It is an irritant, a stimulus, that demands we reexamine our ways of thinking and interpreting Scripture, particularly Paul’s writings, to see whether we have fallen into settled and lazy ways of thinking that, in the end, fail to do justice to the New Testament.  A favorite slogan of later-Reformation writers was that the Reformed church must be ecclesia semper reformanda—that is, a church that is always reforming itself.  Reformation, rightly understood, is not a once-for-all event whose ideas are to be set in stone but an ongoing process of reexamination and reconsideration, forced upon us by the priority of the biblical text over our provisional interpretations of that text.  Wright obliges us to read the New Testament again and to take the profound risk of allowing our most settled ideas to be challenged in the light of the biblical witness.  The price of being biblical is to constantly return to the Bible, sometimes with anticipation and at other times with trepidation, in that our present ideas may find themselves rendered questionable.  It is a price that I, for one, am glad to pay.

“Reality, Symbol & History: Theological Reflections on N. T. Wright’s Portrayal of Jesus,” in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (ed. Carey C. Newman; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 178-79.

On Having One’s Cake & Eating It

My kids and I were joking the other day about this common saying.  A day later, someone used it with reference to something I had written.

I find this idiomatic proverb so totally frustrating and backward.  In common usage, to have one’s cake and to want to eat it is regarded as a bad thing.  We say something like this: “Edward ascribes to this position, wanting to have his cake and eat it, too.”

Readers or hearers of such a statement chuckle with derision at poor Edward.  He is, after all, a fool for wanting to go beyond mere possession of cake to actually eating it.

In my experience, however, possession of cake is good for only one thing.  I have not yet been to a birthday party where someone has handed out cake, whereupon all recipients of cake slices did then dispose of the cake without eating it.

Isn’t eating the cake the only thing that possession of cake is good for?  Why else would anyone be happy to merely have cake?

I have not yet met the person who stands forkless with a piece of cake smiling with delight, content with mere cake-possession.

In fact, we should say something like this: “Edward ascribes to this position, wanting to have his cake and eat it, too.”  Readers and hearers of this should regard Edward as utterly rational.  He wins the day!  Further, they should regard as a fool anyone who disagrees with Edward, since they deem the possession of cake as good in itself.

Just to say that I hope I will always count myself among those who want to have cake and eat it, too.  If I don’t want to eat the cake, I will simply refuse its possession, as I did at my nephew’s birthday party at which I had eaten too much pulled pork.

Why do we not regard the person as mad who delights in possessing cake without going beyond to eating?