Monthly Archives: July 2012


Words are a big deal.  They matter.  But words can be weird.

Among many others, here are just a few of the linguistic mysteries (linguisteries?) that furrow my (considerable) brow.

Why is it that if I am listless, I may or not have a list?  In fact, I can be both listless and holding in my hand a list.

If I’m feeling festive, I’m eager to go to a festival–or a fest!–perhaps even a celebratory feast.  But if I’m restive, I’m not at all about to rest and I don’t feel rested.  In fact, if I’m restive and you try to make me rest, you won’t be feeling very festive.

Perhaps my longest lingering linguistery, however, is the relation of canny to uncanny.  We grasp quite early the relation of a word to the same word that begins with “un-.”  If one is coordinated, one moves about with alacrity.  If one is uncoordinated, one lumbers about like a lummox.  Add “un-” and you have a word’s opposite.

Canny and uncanny confound this rule.  One is canny if one is shrewd or astute, something admirable.  Following linguistic convention, one thinks that a person is uncanny if he is a blockhead or a simpleton.

Not so.

Uncanny has reference to something that is so astonishing it seems to have only a supernatural explanation.  For example, “Gombis’s capacity to recall baseball statistics from the mid-1970’s is uncanny!”

In certain situations, then, canny and uncanny can be near synonyms.

Very odd.  Linguistifying indeed.

Passive-Aggression is not Cruciformity

A few weeks ago I wrote about how we often confuse or pervert Christian relational postures and character traits.  I noted that self-loathing is often regarded as humility.

There are many other examples of this, I’m sure, but one that has occupied my mind for some time now is how passive-aggression or self-pity is mistaken for cruciformity.

It seems to me that upon first encountering the notion of cruciformity (having one’s life shaped by the cross), many people assume that it refers to relational postures of passivity.  If someone mistreats you, you’re supposed to “just suck it up.”  If someone insults you or hurts you, you need to “just take it.”

Such responses to provocation are not embodiments of cruciformity, but are precisely the sort of passive reactions that fuel passive-aggression, a self-regard and posture toward others that is both very ugly and utterly pervasive in American middle-class culture.

In my opinion, it’s among the most common relational dynamics of suburban, middle-class churches in America.

It’s a bit slippery to get hold of, so I want to take a few days to articulate things carefully.  If you know of any good resources or web-sites with careful or thoughtful analyses of passive-aggression, please point me to them.  Or, if you’ve discovered hopeful ways beyond passive-aggression through your own reflection, I’d love to hear about it.

Judaizing is Not a Faithful Response

Paul’s comments in Galatians 3:11-12 are often read as contrasting the Mosaic Law with the Christian gospel, or Judaism and Christianity.  I’ve noted recently that I think this is a misreading, both of Paul in general and Galatians in particular.

In my opinion, Paul is arguing with reference to the specific choice before his Galatian converts.  That is, he isn’t making timeless theological claims about the Mosaic Law but situation-specific assertions about gentiles converting to Judaism in order to be fully accepted before God.

I’ll have lots more to say about this over the next few months as I work through Galatians, but for now, here’s my expanded (albeit somewhat clunky) translation of Gal. 3:11-12:

Now because one’s ethnic identity—in this case being Jewish—is irrelevant for justification before God, it is obvious that God’s approved response to the gospel of Christ is faithfulness.  And to respond to the gospel by being circumcised and converting to Judaism is not how you ought to be embodying faithfulness, which brings God’s approval; rather, the one who responds to the revelation of Jesus Christ with faithfulness will enjoy life from God.

Israel & Christian Theology

In some of his recent works, N. T. Wright has noted that the historic creeds of the church leave Israel out entirely.  Thinking theologically apart from Israel results in a hollowed-out vision of the church’s identity and mission and tends toward a gnosticized conception of history, salvation, and Christian existence.

Wright’s point is largely that neglecting Israel keeps us from recognizing that the Scriptures tell the story of God establishing his reign of blessing over all the earth in Israel’s Messiah Jesus.

I’m currently enjoying Kendall Soulen’s masterful The God of Israel and Christian Theology.  He argues that the distinction between Israel and the nations is fundamental to Scripture and to God’s eternal purposes.

“ . . . the distinction between Israel and the nations is an inescapable fact of the biblical narrative.  Indeed, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt has suggested that the distinction between Israel and the nations constitutes the basic structure of an ontology in Israelite idiom.  In this he is undoubtedly correct.  Marquardt’s appeal to the term ontology is appropriate because the Scriptures view the distinction between Israel and the nations as a part of the abiding constitution of reality in God, anticipated from the beginning and present at the end of all things.  At the same time, his observation can be made more precise.  Viewed in light of the distinction between Israel and the nations, biblical ontology takes the concrete form of economy, that is, of God’s providential care and management of the households of creation.  More particularly still, biblical ontology takes the form of an economy of mutual blessing, in which God summons the households of creation to receive God’s blessing in the company of an other.  Because it belongs to the glory of the biblical God to love the human family in a human way, in the fullness of its corporeality and concreteness, God’s economy of mutual blessing exhibits a certain order or taxis, a taxis summarized by a first-century Jew in the phrase, “to the Jew first and also to the Gree” (Rom. 1:16) (p. 121, emphasis added).

Soulen’s work is programmatic and far-reaching, and it has implications for all aspects of Christian theology and practice, from the identity of God to the character of mundane relationships.

Reckoning with the relationship between Israel’s Scriptures and the Christian canon is an abiding challenge for biblical scholars and theologians.  Much of my work is driven by a desire to overcome a reading of Paul that marginalizes Israel, either as being subsumed within the church or left behind as merely preparatory for God’s work in Jesus.  Soulen provides a profound, hopeful, and compelling theological vision for rightly reckoning with Israel’s Scriptures, the God of Israel, and the Israel of God.

The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 2

As I wrote yesterday, I regard pistis Christou to be a deliberately ambiguous expression whereby Paul captures Jesus’ own saving faithfulness.  That is, God accomplishes the salvation of his people through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.  Further, the phrase points to the self-expending and self-giving of Jesus as paradigmatic for Christian faithfulness.  In this sense, pistis Christou is often adjectival, describing the form of Christian fidelity of which God approves.  It is both, in my view, subjective genitive and adjectival genitive.  As it happens, this faithfulness is participatory, a dynamic revealed by the intensity of participationist language in the close contexts in which the phrases appear.

It seems to me that Romans 3:21-23 is an instance of pistis Christou as a subjective genitive.  “The faithfulness of Jesus Christ” appears just before “for all who believe.”  It would be strikingly redundant for Paul to speak of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Jesus Christ.”  Paul is, rather, stating that God’s saving action has been brought about through Jesus’ own faithfulness.  In this sense, I very much resonate with Michael Gorman’s articulation of the subjective genitive.  God’s aim is to restore humanity to its original role as the image of God on earth.  Jesus lived a life of faithfulness to God, summed up by Paul’s statement that Jesus “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).  As Gorman notes, faithfulness and love, toward God and toward fellow humans, are the essence of covenant faithfulness—what it means to be in the image of God.  This is the very thing that God is looking for on the part of his renewed people.  Jesus, in his faithful life of servant-hood, performs that human response to God that God seeks.

In this sense, Jesus’ faithfulness to God is a forerunner of Irenaeus’s conception of “recapitulation,” by which he meant Jesus’ taking up the failed human project and redeeming human existence.  Those who are in Christ by the Spirit can now inhabit this redeemed humanity because of what God has done in Christ.

Other instances stress the appropriate human response for which pistis Christou is paradigmatic.  Galatians 2:16 and Philippians 3:3-11 are instances of this.

In Galatians 2:16, Paul seems to contrast two holistic patterns of conduct—“works of law,” on one hand, by which Paul means Jewish identity; and pistis Christou, by which Paul means Jesus-shaped faithfulness—obedience to God that, according to Galatians 5-6 looks like “pistis working through love and new creation without respect to ethnic identity.”

Paul, just like Peter, had formerly cultivated an identity by faithful behavior within the sphere of Law-shaped existence in an effort to establish a status before others that he hoped would hold sway before God (i.e., justification).  Now that he has come to see that such an identity is not effective for justification, but that inclusion within the sphere of Jesus’ own faithfulness is the way to justification, he has “come to believe in Christ Jesus.”  This has led, as he says in Gal. 2:20, to his being crucified to his former life and being raised up with Christ so that he is truly alive to God by inhabiting Christ.  And the mode of life that he finds himself caught up into now is the very life of God’s own Son.

Just as Jesus’ own life was a faithful and God-pleasing performance of covenant fidelity, Jesus is now living out that existence in Paul’s own life.  Paul’s life is now directed, empowered, and animated by the Son of God “who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Here we see pistis Christou as both God-approved human response and participation in the life of Jesus.

Similar dynamics are at work in Philippians 3:3-11.  Paul had formerly lived a life of credential-accumulation in an effort to establish a claim for justification before God.  Now that he has come to understand that the only way to share in Christ’s exaltation is to participate in Christ’s status-renunciation and to be conformed to the suffering and cross-shaped life of Christ, Paul’s new pursuit is to be found in Christ.

Forging an identity shaped by fidelity to social standards is no pathway at all to justification.  Having the approval of everyone around him does not determine God’s verdict.  The only mode of life that God will vindicate—of which God approves—is pistis Christou, which is why Paul’s new life pursuit is conformity to Christ.

Participationist notions are prominent here, too—“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

I have found Michael Gorman’s work, especially Inhabiting the Cruciform God, to be the most textually satisfying and theologically compelling articulation of the relationship of pistis Christou to justification, sanctification, and lives of cruciformity.  At any rate, that’s how I currently understand the expression(s) in Paul and I do look forward to revisiting all of this over the next few months.

The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ, Pt. 1

At the conference on Galatians and Christian Theology last week in St. Andrews, John Barclay and Richard Hays had a lively exchange over the pistis Christou formulations in Paul.  Such discussions always begin with the promise that one more time round will settle it for good, and always end with all sides re-affirming their original positions.

I hope I’m still open to refinement and correction on the issue, but here’s my current understanding.

The phrase, in its several different forms, refers to the God-approved and God-endorsed human response to the gospel—that word from God that upends and subverts human assumptions about what the God of Israel must be like and how the God of Israel must act.  Pistis Christou as response is made possible by pistis Christou understood as Jesus’ own faithfulness.  Further, it is a participation in the very life of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit.

My view is, then, a sort of hybrid between a subjective genitive and adjectival genitive.  The phrase is intentionally ambiguous and comprehends within its scope both Jesus’ saving faithfulness and the participatory and imitative human response determined and constrained by Jesus’ faithfulness.  It includes both Jesus’ action in creating a new resurrection-oriented reality within an enslaved cosmos, and it determines the contours and trajectory of the faithfulness for which the subversive and life-giving gospel calls.  As such it stands in contrast to other forms of pistis—previous patterns of behavior called “faithfulness” before the epochal shift effected by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I’ll begin with Habakkuk 2:4.

This text is foundational for Paul’s thought, emphasizing God’s approved response to his word.  No matter how surprising nor how contrary to expectations, God’s approved person will respond to a word from God with faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty.

In Habakkuk 1, the prophet cries out to God because of the wickedness of Judah.  God answers Habakkuk by revealing his plans to judge Judah by calling upon a people more wicked than Judah—the Babylonians.  Habakkuk complains about this to God, asking how this can be.  “You are too pure to approve of evil!  This isn’t like you at all!”

As Habakkuk 2 opens, the prophet readies himself to receive the prophetic word.  God is indeed going to judge the Babylonians for their excesses and their wickedness, but the intentions of God to use them to judge Judah are set.  And in contrast to the proud one, God’s approved person will live by fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty to God no matter how upsetting the word of the Lord is (v. 4).

Habakkuk 2:4, then, emphasizes God’s approved response to his word that flies in the face of expectations and established assumptions of how the God of Israel must act.  The righteous one (God’s approved person) will respond to God’s word—however surprising—with faithfulness, with loyalty.

Habakkuk 2:4 highlights the required posture of nimble readiness on the part of the people of God to do whatever it is God asks of them.  A willingness to adjust previously well-established patterns of behavior and thought in the light of a new word from God.

God’s ways, while surprising, are always completely consistent with God’s previous self-revelation.  It’s just that it’s so easy to assume that God shares our prejudices and assumptions—those conceptions, often hidden from our consciousness, that grow unnoticed and subtly shape our imagination of what God must be like.

In my opinion, Paul envisions his ministry and the problems in Rome and Galatia through the lens of this text and its call to be ready to respond to the life-giving but surprising word of the Lord.

Paul cites this text in Galatians and Romans, two churches struggling with the form of Christian faithfulness.  What shape does it take?  What does a community created and sustained by the God of Israel look like?  The church in Rome is struggling to embody and embrace genuinely Christian faithfulness whereby Jews and gentiles participate in community together.  The churches in Galatia are wrestling with the notion of converting to Judaism in order to render to God genuine faithfulness.

Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in these letters in order to emphasize that something radically new is going on in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit.  God is forming multi-ethnic communities of Jesus-followers in which Jew and gentile embrace as siblings in God’s new family.  While faithfulness to the God of Israel was formerly rendered within Judaism, God is now saving people without regard to their ethnicity.  Just as in Habakkuk’s day, this appears as something radically new—even though it is in complete continuity with God’s acting all along.

And just as with Habakkuk, this move of God calls for that nimble readiness to make adjustments out of loyalty and fidelity to the God of Israel.  This is why Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in these letters and, I believe, why they contain the most occurrences of pistis Christou and related phrases.  God’s ways in Jesus challenge the assumptions and developed prejudices of how God must act.  Paul is calling for a Jesus-oriented faithfulness in which fidelity to the God of Israel outstrips all other loyalties and commitments.

With regard to the broader interpretive context for pistis Christou, then, this is provided, in my view, by the surprising and subversive word of God, which challenges human assumptions and calls humanity to walk in ways that draw upon the life of God.

Two Decades On

Twenty years ago today, armed with a diamond ring and two scoops of ice cream, I asked Sarah Davis to marry me on the beach in South Haven, MI.

Things haven’t been quite the same since.

We’ve learned a lot, not least how to master the family calendar.  We’re celebrating by seeing each other for all of five hours over two weeks.  I returned from Scotland on Sunday at 1:00 a.m.  Sarah left with Riley on a church ministry trip later that morning at 6:45.

The fateful evening, twenty years ago.

Sarah and I have had incredibly happy times and have enjoyed rich friendships.  We’ve also known profoundly deep grief.  There isn’t much we don’t know about one another and we’ve seen each other at our best and worst.

I can’t get my head around the paradox, though, that just as we share an intense mutuality and intimate partnership, the mysterious distance remains.

There’s still the sense that we haven’t really begun to get to know each other.

I find that a happy prospect.

Reconceiving Faith & Works in Paul

At several points in the conference on Galatians last week, discussions touched on the relationship between faith and works.

It’s fairly typical to imagine that the opposing pair of “faith” and “works” has everything to do with the supposed absolute dichotomy between inward faith and outward action.  Many assume that when Paul commends faith, he is endorsing human passive reception or human inaction.

And when he disapproves of works or “works of law,” he is condemning human action or human intentionality.

There’s an assumed ideological conception at work here, however, and it’s not a good one.  That assumption is that the soteriological stage is something like a zero-sum game, with the sum total of all acting—divine and human—adding up to one hundred.

To allow for human action at all involves the marginalizing of divine action to some extent, however small.  So, if we allow for even one or two percent of the sum total to be credited to humans, we have capitulated to “legalism,” “synergism,” and are diminishing God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.

The assumption is that any and all human acting gets in the way of God’s saving action in human affairs, minimizing God’s stage presence to whatever extent.

This conception dominates Western theological visions of the relation of divine and human acting in general, and especially when it comes to salvation.

In my opinion, this conception is mistaken.  It leads to a misreading of Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, and it makes a mess of Paul’s discussions of the Mosaic Law and obedience.

Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world.  Paul imagines the contrast differently.

On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act, and, on the other, holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way.

Or, we could say it this way; there are actions, behaviors, and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power, and there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize and diminish God’s presence and power.

There is human action that invites and allows God to act and that puts God on display.  And there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, and ends up eclipsing God’s presence and action.

Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by a mixture of our Reformation heritage and divided-up conceptions of the individual.

Evangelicals—people who ought to be shaped more by Scripture than any human tradition—ought to develop a new vocabulary and a new grammar to speak of faith, works, and obedience  so that we do not downgrade that which Paul lauds, or oppose two things Paul regards as near synonyms.

Returning, Rested & Renewed

I returned yesterday from a week in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I attended the conference on Galatians and Christian Theology.  Mark Elliott and his team of organizers were perfect hosts, providing a wonderful venue for intense exegetical and theological engagement and conversation.

I’ll have more to say about some of that down the road, but the last week was memorable for me in some other ways.

The Auld Toon from atop St. Rule’s Tower

I arrived a few days early into St. Andrews and took a few days to unplug, disengage from social media, and slow down the pace of my mind and spirit.  We’ve experienced quite a bit since we returned to the States in 2004, and it was good to walk the town, reflect, pray, recall good memories, and give thanks especially for the past year our family has enjoyed in Grand Rapids.  After a very good week, I feel refreshed and renewed.

I also caught up with old friends and made some new ones.

I enjoyed an afternoon chat with Chris & Rachel Brewer at the Northpoint Café.  They’re going to love their time in the Auld Toon as Chris begins his Ph.D. studies in theology.

It was great to hang out with Joel Willitts and Justin Hardin, too.  In addition to sampling a few Indian restaurants and an amazing Thai place together, we played the Himalayas, the miniature golf course next to the Old Course.

The Himalayas, the putting course situated next to the 2nd hole of the Old Course on the St. Andrews Links

I won’t say who won (nor will I mention the margin of victory), but I’ll just note that Cambridge grads can put up some impressively big numbers.

It was a delight to re-connect with Chris Miller, with whom I taught for seven years, and who gave me my first crack at teaching.

With Chris Miller at the Cathedral Ruins

It was serious fun to show him around town, along with Jason and Lisa Myers and Jason Zastrow.

It was also great to see several other friends and colleagues, and to meet a handful of the brilliant St. Andrews post-grads.  It was an incredibly rich week and I’m eager to dig back into Galatians for at least the next six months.

Paul’s Arguments in Galatians 3:10-14

I’ve titled my paper for the St. Andrews conference, “Reading Scripture in Galatia: Galatians 3:10-14 as a Series of ad hoc Arguments.”  Here’s part of the introduction:

In Gal. 3:10-14, Paul makes a series of assertions followed by Scriptural citations.  Various Christian theological traditions have regarded these assertions and citations in terms of fundamental oppositions.  Paul is setting the Mosaic Law over-against the Christian gospel.  Or, he is pitting the character of faith against the dynamics of obedience.  Or, he is opposing Christianity to Judaism. 

In this paper I will argue that Paul has set himself to none of these tasks.  He is not making programmatic or global-theological statements about the opposition of Judaism and Christianity, nor is he contrasting faith and obedience.  Paul is, rather, making a series of ad hoc arguments, addressing very specifically and exclusively the local crisis in Galatia as he understands it.  His singular rhetorical aim is to dissuade his non-Jewish readers from Judaizing—being circumcised and adopting the rituals and patterns of life that constitute a Jewish identity. 

I will argue that the instances of “works of law” and “the law” are oblique references to the influencers’ teaching—what he calls “this persuasion” in Gal. 5:8.  That is, what Paul says about “the law” and “whoever is of works of law” in this passage are not claims he would make in other, less polemical, contexts.  This is not how Paul would talk if he were discoursing on the character of the Mosaic Law to some other audience, or if he were addressing Jew-gentile relations in the abstract.  His statements have direct, specific, and exclusive relevance to the local situation in Galatia.  In my view, Galatians is Paul’s Scripture-funded and vigorous confrontation of the specific gospel perversion in Galatia and not an attack on Judaism, the Mosaic Law, or Jewish identity.  Theologians and biblical scholars, therefore, must draw upon these statements with great sensitivity to the local crisis Paul addresses when they reflect upon Paul’s view of Judaism, the Mosaic Law, the relationship of faith to obedience, and the character of Jewish Christianity.