To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
rev-james-schall14_0
Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.

Read Paul in Your Bible, Then Read This

apostle-paul

Years ago, I was talking with a friend on the phone when he began telling me about finishing E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism and another work by Jimmy Dunn. The issues that he brought up from those books seemed so foreign and out of reach that he might have well been reading to me the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in the original Coptic (which I’m sure he would have liked to do also). At the time of that conversation, I had studied a couple of the classic studies on the historical Jesus, but long scholarly tomes on the apostle Paul were another matter. Anderson-Paul's New PerspectiveTalking about the impact that the 4QMMT Dead Sea Scroll had on the way we read Paul seemed an exercise for an old librarian in Cairo somewhere, not for a 20-something campus pastor. And yet, while I knew that those ideas mattered, and mattered a great deal, I wondered where to begin. I wish that Garwood Anderson’s book had been on my shelf back then, because it is the place to start. One Amazon reviewer said all you need to know: “If you like John Piper and N.T. Wright, buy this book!”

For those of us who care deeply about the New Testament, especially Paul, Professor Anderson’s book on Paul published last year is like pulling away the curtains to let the light in. “Friendly to all but friends to none” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as Anderson finds something to like in both the new, old, and post-new perspectives on Paul but yet is not content to take any approach wholesale. He cites a particular kinship with Michael Bird’s approach, “especially in his care to make rapprochement between divided factions, showing that the differences are less severe than frequently supposed” (108).

Anderson’s study is incredibly learned and yet is lively reading. (To read or not read all of the footnotes the first time through was my continual dilemma.) As the well-respected Pauline scholar Michael Gorman blurbs on the back, “Anderson has mastered the literature produced by the traditional, new and post-new perspectives on Paul.” And yet the reader takes comfort in Anderson’s honest confession on the first page of the book that “If I were granted but one desideratum of Pauline scholarship it would be that they all take a decade of Jubilee, cease publication, and let me catch up.”

All of the big names are here and introduced: Sanders, Hays, Wright, Dunn, Gorman, Barclay, Campbell, Martyn, Bird, and Watson; and all of the debates are summarily dissected: pistis christou, justification, impartation and imputation, solution and plight, a “center” of Pauline scholarship, works and law, Paul’s “conversion” as well as fair-length treatments of contentious passages like Romans 3:21-4:28 and Philippians 3:1-11 that contain material seized by both perspectives. Admittedly, those who have done no to little reading in Pauline studies (maybe you are scratching your head at the above list) will have to work hard to find their way around Anderson’s book, but for my money, there is no better work out that is both a generous and accessible introduction to serious Pauline scholarship— as well as a contribution to the scholarship itself—than Paul’s New Perspective.

Anderson
Anderson is professor of Greek and New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.

In large part, Anderson is in lock step with the new perspective (and he admits there really is no such monolith as “the” new perspective) but believes that some of their positions become “reductive overcorrections.” The provocative thesis that drives Anderson’s book past the first 150 pages of fantastic summary of the Pauline debates is that contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are “both right just not at the same time” (379). That is because neither perspective pays adequate attention to the fact that Paul was only human and that, inevitably, his theology would have changed and shifted over time. And so Anderson proposes rapproachment between the either/or debates in Pauline scholarship by looking at how Paul’s thought developed over time. He says, “The shortcomings of both the TPP (traditional perspective on Paul) and the NPP (new perspective on Paul) are accounted for in the same way: both schools of interpretation are insufficiently attentive to the manner in which Paul’s soteriology has developed from his earliest to later writings” (ibid). In other words, the new perspective is right to stress that phrases like “works of the law” in Galatians is written as shorthand for Jewish ethnic descent (which includes “boundary markers” like circumcision table fellowship) and should not be read as generic good deeds done in order to merit favor with God. And yet, those who transfer that reading to “works” as mere shorthand for “works of the law” fail to adequately see how Paul’s thought has undergone development from specific Jewish and Gentile concerns to more basic anthropological considerations.

Though Anderson’s developmental thesis does not depend on enlargement of the accepted seven-letter Pauline corpus, a chunk of the book is devoted to making a case for the disputed letters. Anderson makes a case for the inclusion of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, along with the undisputed Galatians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon. The extension of the Pauline corpus from the undisputed seven letters to a contested 13 letter corpus is important, Anderson believes, because it allows us to fill out Paul’s theology and development: “I’m persuaded that excessive trepidation on this matter has precluded New Testament scholars from seeing a possibly larger picture” (166). In arguing for their authenticity, Anderson summarizes his case by saying that “far from a misunderstanding of or derivation from Paul’s soteriology, these letters corroborate a trajectory already evident in the undisputed letters, so much so that one would be justified in thinking that Paul himself wrote them” (381).

Let me end by quoting a juicy bit at the conclusion of Anderson’s book that will give you a feel for where Anderson is going and hopefully will entice you to pick this one up:

The rapprochement offered here succeeds only under two conditions, to be sketched now briefly: 1) that justification cease to be the center and preoccupation of Pauline theology such that it is made to bear weight for which it was not intended and 2) that union with Christ once and for all take [sic] its place as the central and integrative fulcrum of Pauline soteriology in all of its juridical, relational, transformational, and ecclesial dimensions (384).

For those looking for a way to better understand New Testament and Pauline scholarship and the points in the key debates, there is no better place to begin than Paul’s New Perspective. But I must warn you, once you begin reading in Pauline studies, it’s hard to stop. But it will make you read your New Testament like you never have before. As Wesley Hill says, in Anderson’s book “one is reminded yet again why wrestling with Paul is so invigorating.”

Rural Theologies

“Social class in America isn’t just about money.” So says J.D. Vance in the midst of his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in southwestern Ohio, but grown with close ties to nearby Kentucky, Vance tells a story that is more than just his own “rags-to-riches” type of narrative. His tale encompasses a breadth of white rural experience that conditions not just the hillbillies of Appalachia but actually many poor rural whites throughout the country. Around the time of the election of Pres. Donald J. Trump, Vance’s memoir was often pointed at as a description of the ailment that manifested in political symptoms.

If social class, neatly construed, is not, as Vance suggests, about money, then what is it about? Vance struggles with this throughout his book. He goes to the Marines, a big state university, an Ivy League law school, upper-crust elite work, and all the time he still feels like a “hillbilly.” For him there’s a sense of pride in that identification; but there is also a sense of humiliation. For some reason, he stresses near the end of the book, he just cannot escape the pressures of rural poverty and the power it wields over his life, even in the midst of relative success.

I have wondered about this problem of social class too. In my working life thusfar, I have been a campus missionary, a graduate student, and a low-level lab manager in an expensive neighborhood (e.g. my pay was better than as a missionary; my costs were higher still). At every juncture I would have described myself, financially, as poor. And, based on the poverty level standards, this would have been objectively true. Yet I was raised in a middle-class household, in a stable family, in a culture with certain values. It has only been fairly recently that my eyes have become adjusted to seeing what “poverty” looks like.

The numbers describe me and my family as poor. But we don’t look it. Instead, we look pretty successful. (We save a lot of money by not caring about having “satellite TV” or “high speed internet.”) In a strange way, in spite my financial “lacks” (i.e. I don’t make enough to save any money, and we spend more on food every month than we can afford), I feel successful while Vance, in spite of his financial gains (making upwards, we are told in the book, of $100K a year; good house; good neighborhood), feels unsuccessful. What constitutes this? What is “social class” really, if it isn’t, as so many sociologists or economists (or policy-makers) claim, an economic demographic?

Benld IL
A dilapidated building in downtown Benld, IL, where I grew up. Photo by Bruce Wicks via Flickr.

A problem confronts me whenever I set down to think about theology: I have been to too many different places. At present, I live in a demographically-mixed (all the demographics!) part of Chicago’s South Side; in the past, I lived in a poorer part of the river town Alton, IL; I grew up in a middle-class household in an impoverished rural county; I once lived in a burgeoning up-and-coming town for the upper-middle-class. And this is just the state of Illinois!

An observation that I have seen in my life throughout Illinois (and also in my sojourns to other states as well) is that denominational / theological groups thrive in certain socioeconomic circumstances. The more poor, the more rural, the more Pentecostals, the more Baptists, and the more non-denominationals (who are really Baptists). Drive through eastern Tennessee into the mountains, for instance, and you will see, one after another, X Baptist Church, Y Baptist Church, Z Church of Christ, Q Church of Christ, R “Fancy Name Big Church” (which might be non-denominational evangelical or charismatic, you can’t quite tell by the sign).

This observation is just an observation, of course, and I haven’t yet gotten the chance to dig up the data for it. My hunch is that there are surely a few of churches that don’t fit these socioeconomic trends, and yet my hunch is also that this is the minority. There is a history to this phenomenon: most American denominations were founded by ethnic minorities as they migrated to the country. Poor Irish settlers (like my great-great-great-grandfather Caveny) brought with them their Roman Catholicism, not-quite-as-poor-but-still-poor German farmers brought with them their Lutheranism or their Congregationalism, while more financially-astute English immigrants brought Methodism and Anglicanism.

Different ethnic groups brought with them different levels of financial stability and different home-cultures and values when it came to work, money, and the like (although discerning those cultures and values becomes a very difficult ethnographic task, one that cannot be navigated lightly). The different ethnic groups in America for a long time created different social classes, and these social classes became tied to theological identities.

How American society transformed from ethnically-determined churches into socioeconomically-determined churches, especially amidst white people, is a mystery that I do not want to broach here, and it should go without saying that there is another parallel story that occurs in American society with regards to African-American, Hispanic, and other minority churches. But the result of these historical processes is clear: somehow when you land in a geographic location determined by certain economic situations, you can already get a sense of the theology of that people.

This leads me to propose a surprising and bizarre claim: theology in America is the result of socioeconomic class more often than it is the result of Bible-training, study, and preaching.

Middletown OH
A movie theater scheduled for demolition in Middletown, OH, where Vance grew up. Photo by Robby Virus via Flickr.

Vance finds this to be true in his memoir. His observations of the culture of Appalachian hillbillies includes claims like “[they have] a lack of agency,” they believe in “avoidance and wishful-thinking,” and “[they] had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” He provides some statistical differences between how hillbillies perceive their own church attendance (“Why, of course I go to church!”) and how the actual church attendance in their towns; he notes the suspicion held by his communities towards ecclesiastical structures; he observes their personal, private commitments to Christian faith that are divorced from communal, public manifestations of it.

What manifests in utter suspicion of ecclesiastical structures in Appalachian appears as devout congregationalist / Baptist communities in my own southern Illinois. Non-denominational churches pop up like wildfire in the rural Midwest, communities with little to no oversight except centralized pastoral authority. American civil worship practices appear too, like the displaying of patriotic symbols (the flag, “God bless America!”) or the singing of the National Anthem at a church. I remember visiting a church on the Fourth of July in which the whole congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, something that to me was utterly off-putting but absolutely normal for the community. For many in rural churches this is a natural manifestation of their Christian belief.

I am “waving” at something here. One of the pinnacles of Protestant — especially Reformed, but also Wesleyan — belief is the emphasis that beliefs, values, doctrines, and practices find their home in the Scriptures first. And, yet, if we take Vance’s personal stories of Appalachian faith to heart, and if my admittedly-broad observations ring true, then it would seem that theologies and doctrines are not as based off of “serious Scriptural study” as they are based off of socio-economic class, with a priority to the “social” part over the “economic.”

The pastor-theologian should find this strange and maybe even a little troubling. If a pastor’s goal is to see my people grow in the knowledge of the Lord and in a knowledge of His Word, how is it that the people under pastoral authority seem to grow most effectively in a knowledge of the socio-cultural beliefs they already bring with them? And, given these socio-cultural beliefs are difficult to leave behind, as we see Vance wrestle near the end of the memoir, how is a pastor to provoke pervasive underlying beliefs that have a lot more to do with American or social-class identity than our ancient Christian identity or the Scriptures?

Theologically speaking, this is the problem that feels most at stake in Vance’s work. There are surely problems of socio-economics, justice, cultural-community dynamics and the like that one could discuss from Hillbilly Elegy, but the issue of a socially-determined (as opposed to biblically-determined) theology is one that seems to manifest underneath a lot of the societal ills Vance describes. He comments, for instance, on how churches that ought to be a safety-net for low-income families instead have become so individualistic that their social benefit is altogether negated, to the detriment of his community.

 

How the American Christian should respond to this level of theological crisis, a thing tied to the socioeconomic crisis of the white poor, is complicated, and my goal here is simply to point out what Vance has already pointed out in his book. It is provocative enough to notice that most of our received theologies in evangelicalism are not the result of Bible study or theological inquiry, but instead the result of the strange interconnections between church-life and our social-cultural matrix. My hunch is that this is just another type of syncretism that American Christians do not see as such because we would rather describe syncretism as something “people in the third world” do. (As I overheard a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology say the other day: “Anthropology is the word white academics use to describe non-white cultures, while sociology is the word for white cultures.”)

If rural theologies flourish and propagate as a culturally- and socially-derived set of beliefs, even tied to economics and class, how ought pastors — in all types of communities and contexts — communicate the Gospel and discuss the Scriptures? Once the problem is clearly seen, it becomes difficult to know how to go forward. Vance wrote that “social class in America isn’t just about money”; but, as we have seen, so too “theology in America isn’t just about Bible studies and teaching.” Somehow both of these things rely on a rural culture that is much more powerful than we could have expected.

Fleming Rutledge and the Crucifixion

*Rutledge’s book came out a couple years ago but it has won some major awards and recently been re-released in paperback so I wanted to post a review that I wrote which I never posted, which I thought especially apropos given that it’s Holy Week.

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Eerdmans, 2015 (669 pp.)

Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.

–PBS special “The Christians” 1981.

51iB04IqXvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Why the cross? It seems an easily answered question for those familiar with the plot line of Christianity but on reflection the crucifixion does not easily explain itself and requires interpretation, Rutledge says. Ask even mature Christians what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross and how it was accomplished and the answers will likely be short and fairly inarticulate — thus the need for this book. The Crucifixion is a gift to preachers and teachers alike in large part because there are surprisingly few books of this kind in publication. Her book fills a hole in the need for book-length overviews of the atonement.

There are two things that are particularly helpful about the way Rutledge has written her book:

First, she writers as a preacher for preachers. Rutledge is not interested in a theology book for theology sake but to give preachers and teachers a resource for better understanding and speaking about the death of Jesus Christ. “These pages attempt to be a bridge between academic scholarship, on the one hand, and local congregations, on the other,” she writes in the preface (xvii). Her book is littered with anecdotes, literature quotations and excerpts from the liturgy of the Church (particularly Episcopalian of which she is a part). It is clear that she has continually asked herself, ‘will it preach?’ in the composition of this lengthy book. Her section on Jesus wrestling with the forces of evil and death in the garden of Gesthemene (pp. 371-375) should be read by every preacher before they begin preparing their annual Easter sermon. It will undoubtedly bring the earth-shattering consequences of Jesus life, death and resurrection back into the heart of the gospel with the reminder that Jesus death is much more than the forgiveness of individual sin but also the victory of God over everything that opposes His reign.

Second, Rutledge is intentionally inclusionary of the Church’s wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the atonement. The Crucifixion is not written to privilege the Christus Victor view over the substitutionary model or to defend the “legacy” of the Reformers interpretation of penal substitution, to note just two of the more prevalent current reasons for those writing on the atonement. Though Rutledge admits that it is a “challenge” to address such a profound topic in an understandable way while still engaging with the wide spectrum of the church’s teaching about the crucifixion of Christ, her decades of pastoral experience in the Church have made this “work of a lifetime” a comprehensive overview of the theories of the atonement. Though this inclusionary treatment has made the book a lengthy read, for the faithful and persistent reader, however, this inclusionary approach is invaluable. This reviewer, for instance, has come away with a deeper understanding of Anselm, apocalyptic and hell to name but just a few of the more prominent sub-themes that run throughout The Crucifixion.

From the outset, Rutledge notes that there are actually two questions connoted in the question of why the cross? The first and most obvious is, why was it necessary for Jesus to give his life away? But there is another that is seldom asked: why was the cross —crucifixion— the means by which that death was accomplished? Anslem in his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, asks, why should God have to “stoop to such lowly things,” as the crucifixion or “do anything with such great labor” when he could simply flick the demons away? Though the first question guides the book as a whole, the second, Rutledge says, stands at its heart. Anselm’s answer to his interlocutor, and one that Rutledge returns to continually is a sobering one: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.”

In the first part of the book, “The Crucifixion.” Rutledge builds on Anselm’s answer for why the crucifixion specifically was the form of death chosen for Jesus. Her answer is that the cross and the crucifixion, “marks out the essential distinction between Christianity and ‘religion.’” That is, the crucifixion is such a horrendous death that it must dethrone any type of natural preconceptions that we may have of who God should be or what He should be like. The sheer “irreligiousness” of the cross subverts any anthropomorphic reductions of Christianity in the guise of a Feuerbach or a Freud. This really isn’t something that could be made up, is the essence of Rutledge’s claim. Paul said the same thing: “for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This notion of the “irreligiousness” of the cross is a powerful reminder and one that pastors need to reclaim time and time again in order to remind the Church that in the words of Moltmann, we worship a “crucified God.”

The sheer scandal of such a proclamation was brought home recently when a Muslim friend said to my wife, “that cannot be true. God cannot die.”

Having reminded the reader in part one of just how subversive and strange the central belief of Christianity really is, Rutledge turns to the more traditional question of what Jesus accomplished in the much longer part two, “The Biblical Motifs.” She gives a helpful two-fold categorical grouping of the various theories of the cross offered in Scripture ­— atonement and deliverance. The first, atonement, is God’s action in making vicarious reparation for sin that understands the cross as a sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation, and substitution where related motifs are the scapegoat, the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant. The second, deliverance, is God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that sees the cross as rescue from bondage, slavery, and oppression and interprets it as the new exodus, the harrowing of hell, and Christ the Victor. From there, she devotes eight chapters to expanding on each of the major theories that come out of these two main categories. I will not take up any more space diving into those chapters, but they deserve your time.

Reading Rutledge’s book is a commitment — it is long and extensive because it is concerned with eliminating the shrug and the “heard it before” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death is the crux from which all of history turns and it demands our time and study. Rutledge has given believers and seekers alike a gift The Crucifixion. It invites us all to understand in order to love the greatest gift that has ever been given.

 

 

Salvation By Faith Alone?

515GSDJamNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King
Matthew Bates
Baker Academic, 2017. 234pp.

Matthew Bates has written an important new book titled Salvation By Allegiance Alone that came out this month from Baker, a publishing house that seems to consistently come out with solid theological works, especially in their academic branch of which this book is a part. Scot McKnight wrote a lengthy forward to the work and has been blogging about it and so it is sure to receive a good deal of attention given how popular his site is. (An odd side note that I must warn you about: every time he posts about the book he includes a family-portrait type photo of Bates that is just awkward, so be prepared for that….)

I was thankful for the time to read the book last week and it was one of those rare books that I had wished were longer. It seems like Bates is just starting to sink his teeth into the material by the time you turn the last page. He tries to cover a ridiculous amount of ground ranging from linguistic studies to soteriology to Pauline studies to eschatology in a little over 200 pages. They all come together under the theme of truly understanding and responding to the good news of Jesus and so I don’t want to make too much of all of the different aspects he tries to cover but two of the middle chapters on eschatology and a Christian anthropology (six and seven, respectively) do feel a bit forced. Someone told me this is just the start of a longer project but it would have been enormously helpful, given Bates somewhat controversial thesis which I will get to here in a second, if he would have provided an additional substantial part that engaged with the history of the doctrine of faith and salvation in the history of Christian thought. For example, I think of the third chapter in John Barclay’s game-changing book Paul and the Gift that gave the reader a substantial, yet obviously limited, overview of the history of Pauline interpretation of grace. That chapter, which looking at it again here now, was right at 100 pages, was an enormous aid for the reader in situating Barclay’s thesis into the larger context of Pauline interpretation. Bates’ book would have been far better had he been able to provide a similar 100 pages or so on the history of interpretation of faith. But, with that said, it’s still an important book to pick up.

Bates’ controversial thesis is that the language of faith and belief are so contaminated for describing the appropriate response of a person to the good news of Jesus that they must be abandoned in favor of the term allegiance. In an admirable in its boldness but sure-to-be divisive two sentences at the beginning of the book Bates states emphatically: “The best corrective is that ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse” (3). As if that wasn’t clear enough, he attempts to clarify: “That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary” (ibid, emphasis mine). See why this book is already a bit controversial?

If the language of belief is to be abandoned for allegiance, what does allegiance entail? Without getting into too much detail, Bates highlights three aspects: 1) mental affirmation that the gospel is true 2) professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord 3) enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus the King. The use of the word allegiance to replace faith and belief is centered around the understanding of Jesus kingship. In the clearest statement of his thesis in the book Bates says: “We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of ‘faith’ (pistis) as ‘allegiance’ in relation to salvation. Jesus as King is the primary object toward which our saving ‘faith’ —that is, our saving allegiance—is directed (67).

For Bates, the most “important” part of the Apostles Creed in the life of the believer today is the oft neglected clause that “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.” This means that even with all of the mess in the world today, Jesus is actively reigning and is the current King. Therefore there is no excuse to wait for an other worldly application to the life and death and resurrection and per Bates, enthronement, of Jesus.

Bates helpfully points us to Paul’s terse and dense summary of the gospel in Romans 1:3-4 by saying that, “In reading Paul’s summary of the gospel, we quickly recognize that the gospel is not at its most basic level a tale about me and my quest for salvation (or even about ‘us’ and ‘our’ quest), but rather it is a grand, cosmic story about God’s Son and what he has done” (30). The book is full of high points like this that will preach on Sundays and that reorients the Western pastor soaked in the hedonism of individual indulgence to the paradigm-shattering news of the gospel about God and not us.

For me, the most helpful part of the book was Bates’ frequent interaction with the scholarly literature in the footnotes. Bates introduces many of the controversies of New Testament scholarship like pistis Christou, dikaiosune theou, and justification/participation and helpfully situates them both in the larger context of the good news and the scholarly literature. For instance, n.27 of chapter eight on justification took me to the work of Charles L. Irons on the use of “righteousness” in Paul which was a fascinating trail to go down. In fact, chapter eight alone on justification would be worth the price of this book. So even though I do wish that Bates would have given more contextual grounding for his thesis in the history of Christian doctrine, it’s clear that he has done his homework in the notes and they are helpful for taking the discussion further.

Thoughts on N.T. Wright’s work on the atonement

nt-wright-the-day-the-revolution-began

It’s classic Wright, a long and sprawling work that reads like a novel and manages to talk about (almost) everything from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22:21. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2016) rediscovers many of the threads that have featured predominantly in Wright for the last several decades while also launching out into previously unexplored territory, even changing his mind from his previous work  on one significant question: namely, was God punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross? (See, for example, page 273.)

Before I get to the heart of the book, allow me a brief excursus on the author. I would bet a fair amount of money that Wright has been the greatest influence that you may have never heard of upon the pastors and friends that have influenced you and those that you listen to teach you every week. I know that’s certainly the case in the circles I run in. Wright has the almost superhuman ability to be a world-class scholar and a world-class pastor at the same time, which means that he has had an undue influence on both the academy and the pews. His written output and the amount of places he speaks through the year are remarkable. I had the privilege of beginning my theological discoveries at the 2010 Wheaton theological conference which was a celebration of Wright the man and his work. (All of the sessions can be found here.) Few scholars ever receive a festschrift in their lifetimes, let alone have the star power to be honored with an entire weekend of festivities that draws crowds in the thousands. At one lecture I sat next to the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today and at another next to a resident of Chicago who had never heard of Tom but wanted to check out what all the fuss was about. Such is the gifting of Tom Wright, a man humble enough to bless the establishment and those outside and with the grace and civility to respond to emails, phone calls, and coffee requests from myself and my friends.

To the work itself.

After reading two rather ho-hum reviews, I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting all that much from this book. (If interested, Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 though I would point you to my good friend Ben’s review who did a fine job [better job?] with more limited space on Scot McKnight’s site.) I expected a slender volume that was written mainly to introduce new readers to the major and familiar themes that Wright has laid out in his previous dozens of books. (I once heard a friend of Tom’s say that he was so thankful for an afternoon walk with Tom when he was an undergraduate but apologized for taking up Tom’s time because he could have written a new book in those two hours. Wright is quite prodigious.)

Thus, I was surprised upon receiving the Amazon package that the book clocked in at over 400 pages and, as far as the reviews, upon turning the final page, I wondered if the reviewers and I had, in fact, read the same book. Surely excitement about the glories of the drama of death and redemption and the majestic vision of God’s faithful and righteous plan for the salvation of his creation and what that now means for the world should have at least peaked through the reviews a little bit like the sun through drawn curtains? Have we gotten to such a place that we are unable to be moved by the drama of the story of God, even if we disagree with some of the details? How could such a bombastic manifesto be treated with such temerity?

Though, admittedly, The Day the Revolution Began starts off a bit slowly, it finds its pace beginning in part II (around page 75) and sprints into part III. I was swept up into the great story the rest of the way. The story Wright tells throughout is that Christ has died and and set us free from the idols which have enslaved us and defeated death itself by the power of the resurrection which gives us, his image bearers, the power to live as God originally created us to live!

CHRIST HAS DIED AND SET US FREE FROM THE IDOLS WHICH HAVE ENSLAVED US. HE HAS DEFEATED DEATH THROUGH THE POWER OF GOD— ON DISPLAY IN THE RESURRECTION—AND GIVEN US THE POWER, THROUGH THE SPIRIT, TO EMBODY HIS VICTORY IN THE WORLD! 

At some point in the near future I want to try and do a more full-scale review but for now let me highlight a couple of the main questions followed by three fancy theological terms that more or less embody what the book wants us to see in Scripture and the story of Israel and Jesus. To say it briefly for those who are familiar with Wright’s work, read this book if you have been unsatisfied with Tom’s previous treatment of what sin, forgiveness, and the  are not about, rather than giving new, positive understandings. That to me, is the importance of this book in Tom’s overall catalog, (without saying anything about its importance to readers in general, which is much more significant.)

Summarizing the aim of the book before diving into an exposition of Galatians, Wright says: “our task is to rescue the ‘goal’ from Platonizing ‘going to heaven’ interpretations and the ‘means’ from paganizing ‘angry God punishing Jesus’ interpretations—and so to transform the normal perceptions of what ‘atonement theology’ might be from a dark and possibly unpleasant mystery to an energizing and highly relevant unveiling of truth” (234).

The three questions that stuck out to me that are raised in the beginning of this work and that set the tone might be stated this way:

1.From whence comes the power of the cross to capture imaginations still to this day and what does that power mean? 

2. Why did the cross of Jesus have the place it did in the life of Christianity even from the very beginning? As Tom writes, “Jesus’s first followers… saw it as the vital moment not just in human history, but in the entire story of God and the world. Indeed, they believed it had opened a new and shocking window onto the meaning of the world “God” itself” (4).

3. How was the cross considered part of the “gospel” and how does it relate with Jesus’ Kingdom announcement?

Overall, we might crudely summarize, in one paragraph, why Wright thought it was necessary to write this book: “For too long, we have thought that the goal of Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive our sins so that we could go to heaven. In fact, the biblical story tells us much richer and complex story. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Israel has indeed been faithful to her covenant vocation and as a result, sins are forgiven and all nations can come to know and love the true God. Those who live out of this story are truly human, not waiting to die to be with God, but living with God now, as the first fruits of the new and redeemed creation, inaugurated by Jesus’ defeat of death in the resurrection.

Which leads us to the fancy theological terms that elucidate Wright’s major themes:

Hamartiology (sin)– At the heart of the book is the plea for Christians and the Christian declaration of the “gospel” to broaden the concept of “personal sin” from a moral lawbreaking to a more biblical notion of sin as a forfeiting of our power as image bearers of God to idols. Wright does much of his most important exegetical and thematically work out of this understanding and it does a lot of the heavy lifting in this book. Two brief quotes will do here:

“Worshipping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’: the Greek word for ‘sin’ in the N.T. means…not just ‘doing wrong things’ but ‘missing the target.’ The target is a wise, full human life of worship and stewardship. Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image” (100.)

The change of definition of sin means that a forgiving of “sins” looks quite different than we might have seen it in the past:

“Within that new reality, [the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is on heaven] the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name for a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailor has already been overpowered” (157).

Soteriology (salvation)– The major thematic readjustment here is closely related to our understanding of sin and is what Wright labels the “works contract” vs. the “covenant of vocation.” The caricatured understanding of salvation in the works contract model of salvation is the “Romans Road” reading: “God gave us a moral standard to live up to, we broke that moral standard and thus deserve death, but God punished Jesus for our sins instead of us on the cross which means we are now able to get in to heaven if we believe in what Jesus did.” This reading, while it has some echoes in Scripture, Wright says, is really more of a pagan version of redemption. The biblical version of salvation is the “covenant of vocation”: in completely gracious love, God made a covenant with Israel meant to bring all people back to himself. Israel itself stumbled, and was thus unable to fulfill its job. Jesus, acting both Israel and God, fulfilled both sides of the covenant on the cross, highlighting not God’s wrath, but God’s self-giving love, freeing humans up not to go to heaven when they die, but to be the regents of God on earth.”

“‘Forgiveness of sins’ belongs…within a narrative different from the one most people imagine today. The purpose of forgiving sin, there as elsewhere, is to enable people to become fully functioning, fully image-bearing human beings within God’s world, already now, completely in the age to come [not to go to heaven when they die.]” (155).

Missiology (mission)– What’s the result of this more biblical understanding of sin and salvation? Nothing less than an entire reorientation of Christian mission. The message and mission of Christians should be quite dramatically changed from “you can go to heaven when you die” to implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. That implementation of victory comes, however, not by the world’s understanding of victory. Jesus’ showed us that victory means feet washing and death. It is through suffering that the Kingdom message of the cross will be spread. “Suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed” Wright says. And in perhaps the most striking sentence in the entire book: “Did we really imagine that, while Jesus would win his victory by suffering, self-giving love, we would implement that same victory by arrogant, self-aggrandizing force of arms?” (374).

What are your thoughts? How does redefining sin from a moral law code broken to a giving of our power to idols rather than God strike you as significant? How would our understanding of the cross change if we saw Jesus as dying on behalf of a fulfillment of the covenant of Israel in love rather than as appeasing an angry God that needs a blood sacrifice to atone for the breaking of a moral law code?

The Power of Fiction Part 1: Graham Greene, “The Power and the Glory” at 75

Note: This is the first part of a planned 15 part series on the power of fiction. We believe here at the Theologian’s Library that fiction should be read along with theology, philosophy, and all the rest. Fiction has the power to put oneself into the mind and shoes of other people which is a particularly valuable skill for the pastor and cultural interpreter. We hope to give you a solid recommended list of fiction that will improve your preaching and teaching, your understanding of the human condition, and deepen your love of Jesus.

Power and the Glory, Graham Greene, Theology Book Review
Graham Greene’s masterpiece “The Power and the Glory” turned 75 this year.   It is as relevant as ever.

Haunting, apocalyptic and desolate are the three obligatory superlatives that come to mind in thinking over Greene’s masterpiece in its 75th birthday and the mood that Greene creates in its 200-something pages. Time has the novel on its “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century List” and for good reason. It contains a weight, a gravitas, that is hard to come by in fiction today. Greene’s Catholic faith is well-documented but it is worth reiterating that without it, there is no masterpiece, no Power and the Glory. Take that Christopher Hitches and your “religion poisons everything” the subtitle to his 2007 book, God is Not Great. (By the way, I do miss you Mr. Hitchens. In fact, I should see what you had to say about Greene, I always do value your input on literature, if not so much on questions of faith.) In his forward to the edition that I read, John Updike says that The Power and the Glory is the first novel in which Green’s Catholicism doesn’t feel “tacked on” and somewhat superfluous. Indeed, the specter of genuine faith in the midst of starvation, ruination and hopelessness is what makes Greene’s dodranscentennial novel  (75th birthday) a masterpiece.

During the reading of The Power and the Glory, I googled (yes, it is in the OED, I have just learned) “Graham Greene / Cormac McCarthy” because, having come to McCarthy first, I was struck with the similar apocalyptic-like tones of both of these writers.  Sure enough, Penguin publishing has written in the 75th anniversary edition that Graham’s novel traces its history “back to Dostoyevsky and forward to McCarthy.” The Dostoyevsky comparison is obvious because of the very real, yet grotesque, suffering of the “whiskey priest,” the nameless main character of the novel.

Just a quick side note, having just read Vanhoozer’s Pastor as Public Theologian and traveling to Chicago to hear him at the “Pastor as Public Theologian Conference”, I was surprised that he didn’t list Greene and his “whiskey priest” (the anonymous main character of the novel) as an example of men of the cloth in his survey of popular portrayals of pastors and the negative effect those usually have on religion.  Regardless, I appreciated Vanhoozer’s section on the power of fiction and why ministers need to be reading fiction in order to preach more powerfully and to understand the human condition more deeply. If you are looking to be persuaded that fiction is indeed, important, I would recommend picking his book up.

A little autobiography before I get to the book itself: My only contact with Greene before reading this work was reading his Quiet American (1955) for senior honors English back in the day. I remember writing a paper contrasting the protagonist (Alden Pyle) with —with whom…— Hamlet perhaps? I would love to find that paper and read it. I’m sure it would make me cringe, but many of my writings do that, like I’m sure they do for you as well. It’s like hearing your voice played back to you, no one likes that!

I remember writing that paper in the late evening hours at Homer’s Coffeehouse on 91st and Metcalf in the Kansas City suburbs. It was one of the first times that I realized I thoroughly enjoyed literary criticism and the power of words to speak into the painful realities of everyday life. I remember feeling drawn out of myself —what a tremendous experience!— and catching a glimpse of the world around me, a glimpse that is so hard to grab in the teenage years (and many never grasp it).  Renaissance humanists understood this power, the dunamis of literature to make the present make sense, the power of words written centuries ago to transform this very second. They called it bonae litterae. So Greene was powerful in my early formation and my senior English teacher was as well, giving me the space to discover what those Renaissance rascals meant by that beautiful Latin phrase. I have since reconnected with him in order to tell him so. (I am a bit ashamed to admit it now, maybe I shouldn’t be I don’t know, but it was reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg per his recommendation that sent me off on my love of the written word and my love of books in young adulthood. For that, I am eternally grateful.)

Theologian's Library
Laurence Oliver as the whiskey priest in the 1960 adaptation of Greene’s novel.

To the book itself.

A way in to this masterpiece for those unfamiliar comes from the pixels of a recent, but already of classic-status television show. Lovers of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” will undoubtedly devour The Power and the Glory; there are so many parallels, so many similar scenes. Greene’s novel is set in the heat, desolation and atheism of a 20th century Mexico stripped of its faith by a quasi-communist government (the “red shirts”.) Walter White’s life is set in the emptiness, desolation and meaninglessness of 21st century New Mexico. From the beginning, though, the whiskey priest’s situation looks much more existentially dire than Walter’s. Walter, in the beginning, though confronted with a cancer diagnosis still has a loving family and seemingly stable emotional well to draw from, but his life quickly descends into chaos and both men are forced by circumstances outside of their control to confront their past, and ask how and why both have become who they are and if they care to stay that way.   Walter’s search leads him to create an alter-ego complete with piles of cash, sunglasses and that ridiculous hat to his ignominious end (in the eyes of this writer to be sure). The whiskey priest is lead back into the clutches of the lieutenant who has been hunting him like an animal by the plea of a dying renegade for last rights, knowing that it will signal his martyrdom but unable to evade his “duty” as he refers to it.

One of the most powerful questions posed by Walter and the whiskey priest and why both works of art will be talked about for years to come is, who is a person, really? And what happens when the person that once was becomes so radically different from his past that he becomes unrecognizable? Was he ever that person, or were those years simply an apparition of extended fabrication? That’s the question that the whiskey priest is forced to ask himself over and over in the novel and the answer, he knows, means life or death.   Christianity has been outlawed and so to admit that he, indeed, is a priest and to live that out will be at one and the same time, to find his life and lose it. Therein lies the pull of the novel. Is the whiskey priest more alive when he is living up to his vocation as a minister of God, even though it may end his life, or should he scrap all of that now in order to survive?  The priest wrestles with whether his life is even worth preserving. Is he is doing greater harm to those he comes into contact with as an affront to the idea of God? If this is a man who has represents God, then what do we want with that God? the priest imagines people will say. Hiding out in one of the villages the priest asks himself,

If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember; it was from him they would take their ideas of faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem (65).

The authorities have taken to shooting a hostage in every village until the whiskey priest turns himself in. The constant tension between turning himself in as the last hold out priest to save the lives of innocents and continuing to run to preserve his own life and to do the work of God is what gives the novel its immediacy, it’s what turns it into bonae litterae. The whiskey priest knows that he is not a good priest, but he is all that’s left. The bursting of this almost unbearable weight comes, not when the priest has decided to give himself up in order to administer last rights to the dying fugitive, but in his conversation with the lieutenant after he has been arrested.

“You have such odd ideas, the lieutenant complained. He said, ‘Sometimes I feel you’re just trying to talk me round.’
‘Round to what?’
‘Oh, to letting you escape perhaps – or to believing in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints…how does that stuff go?’
The forgiveness of sins.’
‘You don’t believe much in that, do you?’
‘Oh yes, I believe,’ the little man said obstinately” (206).

And so there it is. The priest does truly have faith. He has not been running away simply to survive. He does believe that he is the hands and feet of Christ, that the host does turn in to the body and blood of Jesus and that confession will save people from eternal separation. And so we, the readers, also continue to believe. The little priest has given us his permission. And his life.

-Mark