(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

1 Thessalonians: a document of eschatological formation

In his little book Michael Gorman argues that Paul needs to be “read as Scripture, as—to be blunt—the voice of God speaking to us”. The historical distance between then and now needs to be understood, but it should not get in the way of hearing Paul address us directly as the church. We “read Paul best when we read him speaking to us and for God” (3-4). The letters, therefore, are not merely “someone else’s mail”; they are pastoral letters written to “all who share the faith of Paul’s first letter-recipients”.

They should therefore not be read as philosophical or theological discourses—though they are quite rhetorically sophisticated—but as documents of spiritual formation. (28)

A paradigm shift in Pauline studies?

There’s an excellent set of brief, somewhat dense responses, from earlier this year, to a question about developments in Pauline studies on the Enoch Seminar forum:

Pauline studies have undergone major changes in recent times. Which new research topics and methods would you especially highlight? Would you, moreover, agree to speak of a paradigm shift?

Respondents include James H. Charlesworth, Paula Fredriksen, Larry Hurtado and Mark D. Nanos. The opinions offered all fall from the same tree, grown over the last 35 years from the seed of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, but they reflect something of the complexities and controversies internal to the debate.

Paul (and the righteousness of God)

I’m doing some preparatory work for a short series of lectures on Paul and thinking that it may be helpful to set out a rough summary of his thought—a sketch of the big picture—from my over-zealous narrative-historical perspective. If nothing else, it may help me to respect some boundaries.

It is also a modest attempt to pre-empt the publication of Tom Wright’s eagerly awaited Paul and the Faithfulness of God . (You can read chapter one here, made available by Fortress Press.) Judging from this interview with Michael Bird, despite the frequent references to Rome and empire, I don’t think Wright will do justice to the forward-looking political dimension to Paul’s gospel—he still instinctively sees Jesus as the ending of a historical narrative (about the return of Israel’s God to the temple), rather than as the beginning of a historical narrative.

I object!

In What was credited to Abraham by faith? I suggested—perhaps somewhat mischievously, certainly polemically—that ‘The language of “imputation” or “impartation” or “infusion” is overblown.’ Nathan wonders why I am so opposed to the concept. What am I trying to counter? That bears some consideration. At a gut level…

I object to the assumption that we need this sort of esoteric, pseudo-rational, unbiblical metaphysics in order to explain the significance of Jesus’ death for the life of his people.

I object to the obscurantism of so much of the technical theological language.

I object to the finicky, obsessive, blinkered, book-keeping scholasticism that reduces the concrete life of trust to the management of an absolute, overriding, non-negotiable soteriological abstraction.

Passover and atonement

I made a bit of a mess of this—the system let me down—but I’ve moved this lengthy conversation about the passover and atonement to a separate thread. It arose from this paragraph in response to Peter Wilkinson:

And I still don’t get this argument about the passover. I see no reference to the passover in Romans 3:21-26. I can’t find any connection in the LXX between apolutrōsis (“redemption”) and the passover. The language of justification is nowhere associated with the passover. Ezekiel 43 makes no reference to the passover—sacrifices are made for the consecration of the altar (cf. Ex. 29:37). The nations are “justified” in Isaiah 45:25, but the nations do not take part in the return from exile, whether or not it is thought of as a second exodus. Where else is dikaioō used to describe “God’s bringing his people out of the Babylonian exile in Isaiah”? The passover itself was not in any case an atoning event, the passover sacrifice was not a sacrifice for sin. The “blood of the covenant” in Matthew 26:28 is a reference to Exodus 24:8, which is also not a sacrifice for sin, rather than to the passover lamb. When Paul describes Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7), he is not thinking of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

What was credited to Abraham by faith?

Still on the subject of judgment and works, justification and faith, and the fundamental misalignment of Reformed theology… Darren asks: “What was credited to Abraham by faith?” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at—he may just be asking what “it” refers to: “he counted it to him as righteousness”. If so, the answer is simply that God counted or reckoned his act of believing as righteousness. But it gives me an excuse to look a little more closely at Paul’s argument about righteousness and faith. We’ll begin with three other Old Testament passages:

  • Moses says that “it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25).
  • Having been delivered by God from his enemies, David declares:

The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psa 18:20–24; cf. 2 Sam. 22:21-25)

  • When Phinehas killed the man of Israel and his Midianite wife, it was “counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever” (Ps. 106:31, with reference to Num. 25:7-8). This is the closest parallel to Genesis 15:6. Notice that it is what Phinehas did (he “stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed”) that is counted to him as righteousness.

Justification by faith (in the story of Israel and the nations)

The classic doctrine of justification is roughly that God declares righteous—and will declare righteous at the final judgment—the sinner who has faith in Jesus. There is nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God—no works of any religious or moral “law”. The righteousness of Jesus may be transferred or “imputed” to us, but even then, it’s never really ours; it remains, in effect, on loan. Justification does not mean that we are right. It means that we have Christ’s rightness. This is how John Calvin defines justification:

Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…. (Institutes III 11.2)

There you have it—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, which is another way of saying that this is a matter of Reformed theology and not really what Paul was talking about. What our modern Protestant theologies have done is take an argument out of the New Testament story about Israel and the nations and rewrite it as an argument about the salvation of the individual.

Judgment according to works: a flawed paradigm

I was hoping that at least one of the views expressed in  Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) , edited by Alan Stanley, would recognize that the theological problem looks very different—and frankly much less problematic—from a narrative-historical perspective. Sadly not. The four positions can be efficiently summarized using the chapter headings:

  • Robert Wilkin: “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment.”
  • Thomas Schreiner: “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.”
  • James Dunn: “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?’
  • Michael Barber: “A Catholic Perspective: our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ.”

Each chapter is followed by critical—and sometimes quite scathing—responses from the other three disputants. In my view the manner in which these four theologians tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize the data is pretty strong confirmation that the traditional paradigm is flawed. What follows is a rough outline, with some exegetical illustration, of how I think the issue might better be approached.

Some women and the story of God’s people, and a brief obituary

Elkanah had two wives. Peninnah has children, but Hannah has no children. Elkanah favours Hannah, but Peninnah “used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb”. At the temple in Shiloh Hannah prays that the Lord of hosts will look on the affliction of his servant and give her a son. Eventually the boy Samuel is born, and when he is weaned, Hannah takes him to the temple and hands him over to the Lord. She then utters an impassioned prayer: “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation…” (1 Sam. 2:1).

John Barton on biblical criticism and reading the Old Testament

I have found John Barton’s defence of “biblical criticism” as a fundamentally semantic or literary enterprise extremely helpful in clarifying what I mean by a narrative-historical hermeneutic. The biblical text relates, on the one hand, to how things really were, and it is the task of historical-criticism to examine that referential relationship: is the text what it purports to be? does it give an accurate and trustworthy account of the people and events to which it refers? But it relates, on the other hand, to the communities which produced and read the text. This is also a historical relationship, but the critical task in this case is primarily to understand what is being said by and for the benefit of the original communities. It is this emphasis on what is being said that is so valuable in The Nature of Biblical Criticism .


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