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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part I) (Review Thursday #3)

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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter, PFG) is N. T. Wright’s 2-book fourth volume in his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. I thus think it is appropriate to give an honest caveat at the beginning of this series of reviews of this book (a 1600+ page tome deserves extensive interaction): I am a newcomer both to this series and to its author. I have not read the first three volumes in this series (though I hope to read them in the future), and I have only before read (and this past winter, at that!) Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision out of Wright’s seemingly endless body of work. Wright, of course, is (in)famous for being the public face of “the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Why read this book then? I am reading this book (I have just begun reading Part III) for two reasons:

  1. This book is the fruit of Dr. Wright’s 30+ years of researching and writing on various aspects of Pauline theology. Since I hope to research and write on Pauline theology in-depth during my time in seminary and since Paul’s letters will be a significant part of my preaching ministry as a church pastor, Lord willing, this book will be an important one for me to have read so that I can interact with its arguments.
  2. To quote Dr. James Hamilton, who himself is following the advice of Dr. Thomas Schreiner (both pastors in Louisville, KY, and professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): “even when I expect to disagree … I’ve learned that sometimes you learn most from folks like N. T. Wright.”

In other words, this book’s value is (or at least can be) high both academically and pastorally. Having read Parts I and II, I can attest that PFG is a worthwhile read, both intellectually and spiritually. Because each Part of PFG is long enough to be its own separately bound book, I will review each Part individually. Below is my review of “Part I: Paul and His World.”

The first Part of the four-Part PFG gives us the background and contexts to Paul’s theology, which is treated fully in Part III. Part I alone is over 300 pages long—justifiably so, to Wright: a “reasonably detailed … description of Paul’s multiple contexts—Jewish, Greek, Roman—” is “essential” (xv). Perhaps. Certainly the Jewish background to Paul is helpful because Paul’s theology intersects with that of Second Temple Jews, most notably Jews who were “zealous” as Paul was prior to his conversion. Chapter 2 is rightly the longest chapter of this section. However, nearly 200 pages deal with Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Of these chapters, the fourth on Roman religion and culture seems most superfluous (perhaps in part because Wright himself admits that Peter Rodgers “nudged” him into writing this chapter [xxii]), although I feel like sections 2-3 of chapter five, which are a narrative of Roman history to AD 70, are also overkill. Despite feeling the need to skim read these sections of Part I, on the whole this section of PFG is not only an enjoyable but also edifying read.

Chapter One is Wright’s introduction to the whole book. Wright’s reading of Philemon, Paul’s shortest letter, was on the whole persuasive. Especially beneficial to my own understanding of Philemon was Wright’s contrast of it to a contemporary Roman official’s letter on the same subject (a runaway slave returning to his master). Wright highlighted how Paul turned Roman social custom on its head because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this exposition of Philemon motivates me to see even “worldly” aspects of my life (such as college) more clearly and more fully in light of the gospel. For that I am grateful. However, Wright’s passing interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 as referring to reconciliation of people to people rather than of people to God is way off the mark. I am looking forward to reading his full treatment of this verse in Part III so that I can engage his arguments more fully.

Chapter Two is a comprehensive treatment of Paul’s Jewish background and context. Most helpful were Wright’s historical and sociological overview of Second Temple Judaism. Once again, however, I encounter an unhelpful quirk of Wright’s overall argument. One of Wright’s foundational arguments is that God meant the Jews to be the solution to the problem of sin but because of their own sinfulness Jesus then had to come and serve as the True Israel to rescue the world from sin. I cannot but disagree with this specific argument. As early as Gen. 3:15, we read of God’s plan to save the world (hundreds of years before he even called Abraham to be the first Jew!) through the singular “seed” of the woman, and this hope for a singular Savior is repeated throughout the Old Testament, famously in Isaiah 53. This argument emerges again in Part II and even more extensively in Part III, so I will interact with this theological flaw of the book more fully in reviews of those Parts. On the whole, chapter two was my favorite of Part I, perhaps in part because of the wealth of information I learned about Second Temple Judaism, which is the first century background with which I am most unfamiliar.

Chapter Three is a necessary but thankfully shorter chapter on Paul’s Greek philosophical context. In Wright’s own words, “this chapter is important” because Tarsus—Paul’s hometown—was known for “export[ing]” Stoic philosophers, in particular (199). As a historian, Wright is top-notch. Throughout these chapters on Jewish beliefs, Greek philosophy, and Roman imperialism, I could find nothing wrong with Wright historically. Chapter Three is thus excellent, and Chapters Four and Five, though way too long in my opinion, were also factually sound and will be helpful, I’m sure, in the future, for cultural and historical background to the New Testament.

Wright identifies Part I as the structural foundation of PFG. In the Preface, he depicts PFG as a chiastic staircase, with Parts II and III on the top floor (Part III being the ultimate climax). Chapters One through Five are thus important first steps for understanding Wright’s understanding of Paul (and Paul’s understanding of “the faithfulness of God”). These chapters build a historically sound foundation for the chapters to come. Theological errors, though present, are neither numerous nor threatening to the historical foundation of Wright’s book. I can only wish that this opening section was not so long so that I could get to what I consider the heart of the matter, Paul’s theology, faster. But before Paul’s theology, for Wright, comes not only Paul’s contexts but also Paul’s own worldview, which is the subject of Part II and will thus be the subject of the next post in my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Is God Anti-Gay? (Review Thursday #2)

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71gwlJNkHoLSam Allberry. Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction. The Good Book Company, 2013.

This short book, part of the Questions Christian Ask series published by The Good Book Company, is worth well over its weight in the wisdom it contains on homosexuality. Perhaps more than any other subject, homosexuality is the “hot topic” of recent years both in American evangelicalism and in the broader American culture at large. Not only unbelievers but also Christians have been asking the question, “Is God anti-gay?” So Allberry’s answer is timely. More importantly, Allberry’s answer is biblical.

Allberry’s biblical answer to the titular question is most evident in his constant grounding of the issue of the Bible (and God) on homosexuality in the gospel. In Allberry’s own words: “God’s message for gay people is the same as his message for everyone. Repent and believe. It is the same invitation to find fullness of life in God, the same offer of forgiveness and deep, wonderful, life-changing love” (10). No one is reducible to his or her sexuality, so the gospel–although it addresses our sexuality–addresses our whole persons. This truth resurfaces repeatedly in this book, most notably in the final chapter when Allberry answers the question, “What’s the best way to share Christ with a gay friend?” (75-76). The central strength of Is God Anti-Gay? is its tight focus on the gospel of Jesus, which is good news for both heterosexual and homosexual people.

Allberry’s book is superb from first to last. The introduction builds Allberry’s rapport with the reader: he is a Christian who has struggled with same-sex attraction (SSA) since his teenage years (10-13). Chapter one appropriately begins with the broader issue of which homosexuality is but a part: sexuality. Specifically, Allberry reviews how God ordained all people to express their sexuality exclusively in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. From there, Allberry notes how the Bible specifically addresses homosexuality in chapter two. After concluding that the Bible consistently condemns homosexuality, Allberry counsels Christians who struggle with SSA to pray, think about homosexuality biblically, and seek others’ support. He also affirms the application of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality for Christians who struggle with SSA. The sexual options for them, as for all people, are either heterosexual marriage or chaste celibacy. Himself celibate, Allberry does an excellent job highlighting the healthiness of singleness, going so far as to call singleness (rightly) a “blessing,” just as much a blessing as marriage is for married couples (54). The final two chapters of the book go hand-in-hand because Allberry offers practical advice to Christians on how to relate both to homosexuals within the church (whether visiting nonbelievers or Christians who struggle with SSA) and homosexuals in the world. Allberry concludes these chapters well:

It will be the quality of our community life as a church, as much as our ability to speak clearly into the public square, that will most visibly show a watching world that the Christian stance on sexuality is the most compelling. (79)

To reflect on the conclusion of the book is to return to the gospel-saturated nature of Is God Anti-Gay? because the conclusion is itself a meditation on John 6:35, where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (ESV). Allberry’s main point about this verse is that Jesus is the bread of life. In Allberry’s own words: “The great gift that Jesus gives us is himself” (83). Amen. The gospel is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, who promises everyone who repents–turning away from sin, whatever forms it takes in an individual’s life–and believes this good news that Jesus has given himself to us and for us to save us from our sins by his life, death, and resurrection.

For all these reasons, I cannot more highly recommend to Is God Anti-Gay? to every Christian I know. This book is accessible and gives great returns for the less than $10 investment to purchase it. The wisdom Allberry shares in this book is valuable because it is biblical–and being biblical, this book is first and foremost gospel-saturated. The gospel of Jesus Christ undergirds every page. May Is God Anti-Gay? help Christians respond biblically not only to the ideology of homosexuality but also to homosexuals. May this book help Christians “speak the truth in love” to homosexuals, for they are no worse sinners than we.

Genesis 3:15 Throughout the Bible (Review Thursday #1)

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James Hamilton. “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10.2 (2006): 30-54.

Having read two of Dr. Hamilton’s books (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and God’s Indwelling Presence), I can testify that this article is as profitable a read as his books and even more accessible. (The link at the top of this page is to a free copy of Dr. Hamilton’s article on his own website.) I highly encourage everyone to read this article for its tracing of the gospel through the first to last books of the Bible.

Dr. Hamilton’s reading of Genesis 3:15 has influenced my own ministry since I first read it in God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment in 2011. In “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman,” Dr. Hamilton demonstrates how the whole Bible bears out not only his interpretation of Genesis 3:15 specifically but also of the Old Testament as a whole. To Dr. Hamilton, “the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope” (30). Genesis 3:15 is an excellent text for testing this interpretation of the Old Testament because it gives the first hope of the Christian gospel.

The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:14-15)

The bulk of Dr. Hamilton’s article argues that in addition to being the Messiah specifically, the “offspring” of the woman is the people of God generally. Satan “shall bruise his heel,” but his “offspring” will be at “enmity” with the plural “offspring” of the woman (32-41). The children of the devil will oppose children of God. As Dr. Hamilton notes, Jesus himself admits this conflict in John 8 (33). Of course, the seed of the woman who will defeat not only Satan’s children but Satan himself is Jesus the Messiah. In “an unexpected development,” God’s Servant himself will be crushed as he crushes Satan’s head:

Twice in Isa 53 we read that the servant was crushed: first in verse 5, “he was crushed (daka’ in the pual) for our sins;” and then in verse 10, “Yahweh was pleased to crush (daka’ in the piel) him.” Here again the crushing judgment first announced in Gen 3:15 seems to be due to Israel because of its sin, but the servant takes their sin upon himself and is crushed for their iniquity, with the result that Yahweh is satisfied (cf. 53:4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12). (42)

Praise God that the “crushing” we deserve as natural born offspring of the serpent was taken by Jesus, the perfect offspring of the woman, in our place on the cross! Jesus’ crushed heel crushed Satan’s head and set us free from Satan! By Jesus’ death we go by faith from being the bondage children of Satan to being the adopted children of God! Praise the Lord for his mercy and grace!

Herein lies this article’s devotional value for all of us Christians: in Christ, we can overcome the temptations of Satan as believers. We can fight sin in our lives and overcome it by God’s grace. Luke 10:18-19, Romans 16:20, and Revelation 12 all point to believers’ struggle against Satan in which we will ultimately be victorious because Jesus was victorious at the cross and is returning one day to cast Satan forever into the eternal lake of fire (42-43).

The article, of course, was not perfect. Formatting is a minor issue. SBJT article notes are endnotes rather than footnotes, which makes reading them more cumbersome and more distracting from the main flow of the article’s main text (if you care to read them). In the case of this article, this format was particularly frustrating because many of Dr. Hamilton’s endnotes were quite interesting. For example, Dr. Hamilton’s note on the translation of Hebrews 11:11 is outstanding:

The emphasis on the important line of descent is also attested to in Heb 11:11, though translations usually obscure it. … [T]he text “woodenly” reads, “barren Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed.” In view of the Bible’s interest in the “holy seed,” the statement that “Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed” carries more freight than “Sarah received ability to conceive.” This common rendering of the text obscures all connection to the Bible’s “seed” theme. (48 n. 33)

Having taught Hebrews to the youth Sunday School class two years ago, I can attest that no commentator I used advocated this understanding of Hebrews 11. (David L. Allen came closest to agreeing with Hamilton’s translation because he was the only commentator to whom I had access who maintained the traditional reading of Sarah being the subject of this verse rather than Abraham, but he explicitly disavowed Hamilton’s reading. Nevertheless, an unspecified “some”  do side with Hamilton, Allen notes [551].) Despite Dr. Hamilton’s minority reading of Hebrews 11:11, in the context of biblical theology, in which a single theme is traced throughout Scripture (in this article “the skull-crushing seed of the woman”), his understanding is preferable to others’ translations. (Dr. Hamilton himself notes, however, that the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB translations also concur with his understanding.)

More significantly, the allusions to Genesis 3:15 cited by Dr. Hamilton are unequally persuasive. Many of them serve his argument well, but a few allusions seem stretched. Many of these unlikely allusions appear in the “Broken Enemies” section of his article in which he admits to “loosening … the image of the crushed head of the seed of the serpent in Gen 3:15, but it still remains related” (38-39). Nevertheless, this section does include a compelling argument about 1-2 Samuel being bookended by allusions to Genesis 3:15 (38). Although individual examples Dr. Hamilton gives do not seem, in my opinion, to support his argument that Genesis 3:15 is a foundational messianic text that is alluded to throughout Scripture, most of his examples do, so his argument stands. I highly recommend this article to every Christian to help them gain a better grasp on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was promised–however faintly–all the way back in Genesis 3:15.

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