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

Reading the parable of the mustard seed after Christendom

As I see it, a narrative-historical theology is bound to recognize that the collapse of western Christendom is a profoundly significant event in the story of the historical people of God—as significant as the exodus, the exile, Pentecost, the destruction of Jerusalem, the conversion of the empire, the Great Schism between East and West, or the Reformation. The story does not begin with Jesus and it does not stop with Jesus. Our theology, therefore, is unavoidably post-Christendom and should be aware of the fact: the context is not incidental.

For this reason I think that the Anabaptists, who have embraced the current marginalization of the church more enthusiastically than most, are worth listening closely to. Closely, but not uncritically. Anabaptists have been so quick to embrace the post-Christendom reality of the church because they have always been resolutely opposed to the cosy collusion between church and political power that began with Constantine. But this entrenched antipathy, like any ideological bias, can lead to distortions.

Discipleship means giving up everything to follow Jesus. Or does it?

Lloyd Pietersen’s post-Christendom reading of the Gospels leads him to stress the fact that for Luke “discipleship means giving up everything to follow Jesus” ( Reading the Bible After Christendom , Kindle version, loc. 657). Jesus tells his disciples that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”, but to gain it they will have to sell their possessions and give to the needy. By taking this radical step they will ensure that they are not distracted from their course by the treasure that they hold on earth (Lk. 12:32-34). Like a man who wishes to build a tower or a king going out to fight a battle, they must frankly assess the cost of following Jesus, because “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:28-33).

Keep telling the story, despite God and despite ourselves

I spent a very enjoyable day last Saturday listening to Lloyd Pietersen talking to a mostly Anabaptist audience about his book Reading the Bible After Christendom . One of the strong points that he makes in the book and made in the conference is that we have to take the biblical narrative as it is, warts and all, the rough with the smooth, come rain or shine, God of love and God of war. We cannot simply excise or allegorize or ignore the problem texts. I think he is right to insist on this.

What do we mean when we say that Jesus is Lord?

The “gospel” today comes in two main user-friendly varieties. There is a “hard” version, which says that we are sinners subject to wrath, but Jesus died for our sins so that we may have eternal life with God. And there is a “soft” version, which says simply, with a big smile, that God is love. For those who prefer their faith celebrity-driven, Mark Driscoll would represent the former, Rob Bell the latter.

A third option, however, has recently emerged—or better re-emerged—promoted not by pastors or evangelists but by scholars; and since scholars are modest, self-effacing people, those who prefer their faith celebrity-driven will just have to be disappointed. The third option is that the New Testament gospel is not in the first place a personal but a political message which may be succinctly stated in the form “Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not)”. The early Christian movement was by no means anarchist (cf. Rom. 13:1-7), but it was in a profound sense dissident, finally answerable to a king in heaven rather than a king in Rome. It was a political stance that would change the ancient world.

Daniel Meeter: Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)?

Daniel Meeter has written an elegant, lucid, sensible, and humane book about hell and, as far as I am concerned, gets most of it right. The basic argument of Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)? (Shook Foil Books, 2012) is that the “Bible does not teach that anyone spends eternity in hell” but that doesn’t matter because there are plenty of other much better reasons to be a Christian. In fact, most of the book is about those other reasons. Why be a Christian? Because being a Christian offers a way to be spiritual, to pray, to save your soul, to be a human being, to know God… and finally, to go to heaven, sort of. Lines are carefully drawn between the Christian faith and other religions. The book is non-judgmental, but it knows where it stands. Some good unpretentious stories are told. Here are some of the theological points that stood out for me….

In the likeness of sinful flesh

Last week it was Romans 9:5 and the question of whether Paul says that the Christ is “God over all, blessed forever”. Since then I have been fretting over Paul’s account of Christ’s self-emptying and vindication in Philippians 2:6-11. I am working on a paper developing an idea about the conceptual background to the passage that would be strongly supportive of the view that Jesus must be understood primarily as an apocalyptic figure—both in the sense that he interpreted Israel’s predicament apocalyptically and in the sense that the full canonical narrative about Jesus is an apocalyptic one. I made the point recently, reflecting on a piece by Scot McKnight, that the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament is the “Jewish apocalyptic Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future”. While it is certainly correct to say that Jesus completes Israel’s story, the more important historical point to make is that he also sets out a vision for the political future of his people that cannot be reduced to the expansion and evangelistic activity of the church.

Does Paul say that Jesus is God in Romans 9:5?

I have been puzzling over Romans 9:5—a notorious interpretive crux, as scholars like to say. Is this a rare place in the New Testament where it is stated that Jesus is God? This is how the ESV takes it:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Or should the final clause be read as a separate doxology, as in the RSV: “God who is over all be blessed for ever”? It all comes down to where we put the periods and commas. Be warned. This is not a post for the fainthearted.

Scot McKnight on the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the church

Scot McKnight argues that historical Jesus studies must start from the premise that the “church either got Jesus wrong or said too much”, that the “real” Jesus of the historians and the theologized Jesus of the church cannot be reconciled, and that historical Jesus studies are of no use to the church because the church already knows what it believes about Jesus. His conclusion is:

If the church opts for the historical Jesus, it must choose to disregard the canonical Jesus for a reconstruction of Jesus on the basis of historical methods.

Some notes on discipleship

I have the opportunity to do some teaching on discipleship later in the week at a Christian Associates staff conference in Scotland. This rather lengthy piece is part of my preparation. I have tried to outline how I see discipleship functioning in scripture, with particular attention given to the relation between discipleship and narrative. No one will be surprised by that. Interestingly, the word “disciple” is confined almost entirely to the Gospels and Acts. It occurs once in Isaiah (in the ESV), however, which turns out to be quite a good place to start.

Fitting the baptism of John into the missional narrative

I think I would be right in saying that much “missional” theory these days accepts that in our post-Christendom and post-modern cultural context there is likely to be a significant transitional period between first serious exposure to the “gospel” and conversion. People don’t simply get saved. They set out on a journey. This seems to me to be true to the extent that, in many instances, we have to reckon with large numbers of people—communities almost in their own right—who are attracted to Christ, even to the life of the church, but who remain fundamentally uncommitted.

In the New Testament context these were the “God-fearers”—Gentiles who were drawn to the ethical monotheism of synagogue Judaism but for whom it was a step too far to become proselytes. We would probably call them “seekers”, and we get frustrated with them after a while because they never seem to want to find what they are looking for.


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