Synopsis of Christian Origins and the Question of God I-III
There’s a lot of interest in N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God at the moment. If you haven’t read the preceding volumes in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series—or want to refresh your memory—you may find my comprehensive synopsis helpful. For a list of my own occasional comments on PFG click here.
Scot McKnight has been looking at Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Scot doesn’t sound too impressed at the outset by Leithart’s thesis, and much of the comment has been from scandalized Anabaptists.
Scot quotes this paragraph from the book, and I have to say that from one point of view at least I think Leithart is absolutely right:
For all its flaws, though, I believe the project of Christendom—the project of seeking to reshape political and cultural institutions and values in accord with the gospel—is a direct implication of the gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Yoder, to his great credit, argued that Christians are called to live in conformity with the demands of the gospel here and now, and he even imagined what a more faithful Constantine might have looked like. His imaginary Constantine resembled the real Constantine more than Yoder realized. Christians disagree on how achievable that project [Christendom] is. It is, of course, full of risk and temptation, like everything else. I have a difficult time understanding Christians who object to the premise of Christendom.
In a post on the ‘community of the Beatitudes and the restoration of creation’ I suggested that while the Beatitudes are not universal ‘Christian’ truths but contingent teaching aimed at the formation in Israel of a community of transitional renewal, it may nevertheless make sense to ‘transpose’ them from a minor eschatological key into a major key of creational renewal for use by the church today. Jim Hoag has picked up on that word ‘transpose’ and asks—rather astutely, I think—whether this amounts to a step back in the direction of an old school, undifferentiated, ahistorical hermeneutic. It actually comes as a pleasant surprise to be faulted for hermeneutical inconsistency.
Douglas Campbell has a curious and ambivalent excursus (89-94) appended to the section in The Deliverance of God in which he claims that Justification theory and the ‘alternative theory’ of salvation drawn from Romans 5-8 differ markedly in the place that they accord ‘coercive and violent punishment’. For the alternative theory
not only suggests that coercive violence is not part of the divinely endorsed response to wrongdoing but implies that it may itself be an evil, which is to say that a key axiom within Justification theory must actually be repudiated as evil. (89)
I got my hands on Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God only at a late stage of writing The Future of the People of God and could not make more than limited and very selective use of it. That may have been just as well—in any case, I have now picked it up again with the half-hearted intention of reading the whole darned thing properly.
In his remarkably brief and rather elegant introduction Campbell sets out three common problems and a single but complex culprit.
Brian MacArevey picked up on a comment I made about the relationship between suffering and prosperity in my post on sonship and suffering in Romans and wondered out loud what I would make of a piece he had written about ‘eschatological blessing’ – and you really have to ask yourself: How did we ever manage without hyperlinks?
Mike was preaching about sonship yesterday and the need for Christians to discover or claim for themselves the full blessings of having been adopted as sons. I have more sympathy for prosperity theology than is probably good for me, and I take quite seriously the argument that we are often a long way from grasping what it means not to relate to the Father as orphans or slaves or beggars – though the standard model is far too individualistic, far too easily subverted by greed, insecurity, and self-interest.
But what really struck me was that Mike read through Romans 8:14-17, placing great emphasis on the fact that those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, have been adopted as sons, have been liberated from slavery and fear, have been made heirs of all that the Father has – all the marvellous spiritual and material and relational stuff that he is only too willing to give away to his children if they would just ask for it – and yet he made nothing of the shocking condition that Paul inserts at the end…
This quotation from a book by J. Todd Billings called The Word of God for the People of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture rather effectively gets to the heart of the dilemma created by readings of the New Testament that insist on the historical contextualization of the texts:
Another misuse of historical reconstruction is when it leaves readers with a sense that the ancient text does not address them, but only addresses the ancient community. On this issue, Christian interpreters need to be clear that we read as part of the one people of God; we are not reading “other people’s mail.” … When Christians analyze the text, its history, and background, we should not assume that the historical gap between our contemporary horizon and the ancient one is a great canyon to be bridged by clever analogies or parallels. In a very real sense, this gap is bridged by the Spirit—the same Spirit who unites together God’s people culture and time. The books of the Bible are not just “addressed to” ancient Israel or the early church. Through Scripture, the Spirit addresses all of God’s people, not just the original hearers.
The main challenge of New Testament theology at the moment, as the church struggles more or less self-consciously to come to terms with its modern exile, is to tell and retell the story of which Jesus is part – to tell it both critically and hopefully, in a way that brings out its complexity without suppressing its evangelical force, in a way that subverts our dogmatic preoccupations and renews the rhetoric of faith, in a way that not only brings clarity and conviction but also fires the theological imagination to engender abundant forms of new life.