Review: Paul and the Language of Faith

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay K, Gupta (Foreword by James D. G. Dunn). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: A study of the word pistis, often translated as “faith” as used in the writings of Paul, the rest of scripture, as well as in literature contemporary to the time, showing the rich nuances of meaning that must be determined by context.

In recent Pauline scholarship, perhaps no matter has been discussed more than how pistis, the word most often translated as “faith” might be understood. Underlying this are concerns of faith versus works, our understand of the continuity and distinction between Old Covenant and New, the place of human agency, and divine providence in our salvation, and epitomizing all of this, how one translates the Pauline phrase pistis Christou. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ” but equally, it could be translated “the faithfulness of Christ,” depending on one’s interpretation of the genitive form of Christou.

Nijay K. Gupta takes a different slant on this discussion. He focuses in closely on the usages of the word pistis in both biblical texts and literature roughly contemporary to it. In so doing, he helps us to see that it is a word rich in meaning, variously reflecting ideas of trust, faithfulness, doctrinal beliefs, loyalty, and more, and that its meaning must be understood contextually, keeping all these valences of meaning in mind.

After laying out the issues he will deal with and his approach, Gupta surveys the scholarly understanding of “faith” in Paul from early and medieval times, through the Reformation, and into the modern era. Then he looks back to Jewish and non-Jewish writings, and shows that these also used the word, and that Paul did not write in a vacuum. He considers the gospels, which were still in oral tradition or beginning to be written and not likely accessible to Paul. In these he finds usages that reflect seeking, believing, trusting, and obeying. While faith looks to the efficacy of Jesus’ acts, it is not passive, but often acts on what is believed to be true.

The remainder of the book (chapter 5 onward) is devoted primarily to the Pauline corpus. Here, likewise, Gupta shows that pistis manifests in a variety of closely related nuances. In 1 Thessalonians and Philippians, the emphasis is on a faith(fulness) in adversity, in persecution and in imprisonment. Gupta also parallels Paul’s teaching to that of the letters to the churches in Revelation. In 1 Corinthians, Gupta shows that “Faith is recognition of and a living into a poverty of self-generated, self-reliant knowledge and wisdom. It is a clinging to the ‘strange wisdom’ of God in Christ Jesus.” In 2 Corinthians, faith looks not at material forms or idols but believes and lives into unseen realities, in this case a believing faith.

In his treatment of Galatians, Gupta explores the question of agency. In dealing with the question of faith and works, Gupta moves beyond the New Perspective’s Covenantal Nomism, which involves faith and the obligations of faith under the covenant, to what he calls Covenantal Pistism, where the focus is on the covenantal relationship with Christ, and the centrality of his mediatorial work, where faith is living “in Christ.” He then turns to the faith language of Romans 1:16-17, and argues for this reflecting the idea of trusting faithfulness that commits one’s life and existence to God.

Gupta engages, rather briefly, in a discussion of pistis Christou in light of his prior development of the idea of pistis. So often, this discussion runs along either-or categories of human faith, almost as a work, or the initiative of the faithfulness of Christ. He opts for a third way of understanding pistis Christou as participation in the faithfulness of Christ by a relationship of utter trust in Christ’s saving work. The translation shorthand for this, somewhat awkward, is “Christ-relation(ship).”

His final chapter then is one of synthesis, weaving together his ideas of faith as trust, belief, and faithfulness and his ideas of Christ-relation. This statement about human agency near the end seemed to me to capture the various strands of this study:

   I don’t want to belabor the point, but this retrospective discussion of the divine-human agency question, with special interest in faith language, can help to reconceive of the matter as more than a formula (what amount of divine or human contribution equals salvation?) This is a non-starter for Paul. Christ is all in all!, he would say. But we cannot discount the way πιστις functions for Paul anthropologically, epistemologically, and socially as the way believers relate to God through the Christ-relation, which is necessarily thoughtful and participatory (socially, volitionally, existentially, etc).

Gupta offers us a valuable work that moves us beyond the either-or discussions of faith and faithfulness, of sovereign grace and human agency in Paul to one that both magnifies the faithfulness of Christ and the all-embracing life of faith in relation to Christ who has acted efficaciously on our behalf on the cross. He points the way to the richness of faith in Christ, not merely affirming doctrines, or praying prayers but a life of devoted loyalty and trust in all things, because of the surpassing great work of the Faithful One.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: From Adam and Israel to the Church

From Adam and Israel

From Adam and Israel to the Church (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology [ESBT], Benjamin L. Gladd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theme of the people of God, tracing this theme throughout scripture in Eden, in Israel, in Christ, and in the church.

This is the inaugural volume of a new series looking at essential themes in the story line of scripture. This work is written by series editor Benjamin L. Gladd and traces the idea of the people of God through scripture. For many, particularly in the dispensationalist stream, this is defined by covenant with a sharp demarcation between Israel and the church.

Gladd uses a different lens, focusing on the people of God as created in the image of God, expressed in terms of the functions of king, priest, and prophet. Kings control the environment, keeping it holy. Priests both worship holy God and discern between holy and unclean. Prophets speak truth on behalf of God. Gladd also develops a three level understanding of the world that mirrors the heavenly temple with the Holy of Holies (Eden), the Holy Place (the Garden) and the outer courts (the outer world).

Gladd traces this from Eden, where Adam and Eve allow the unholy serpent into the Holy of Holies, yielding control of the environment, and shade and then disobey rather than speak the truth. He then shows how this image of God as king, priest, and prophet was reflected in the creation and fall of Israel, at Sinai, in the Tabernacle and Temple, and the nation’s decline into idolatry with unfaithful kings, apostasy with unfaithful priests, and prophets bringing the word of God competing with those who were false. Ultimately, in Nebuchadnezzar they experience what they’ve embraced in the anti-king, anti-priest, and anti-prophet. The prophets point to Israel’s restoration, centered in a person who would embody king, priest and prophet.

Jesus embodies restored Israel in his person as the ideal king who succeeds where Adam and Israel fail, and gives himself for his people as great high priest, who is also the temple, the Holy of Holies, and speaks with authority the word of God that constitutes the people of God. These people, the church are the Israel of God, displaying the image of God who rule by standing and suffering with the king, to be vindicated by God, who are priests built as a temple for God to dwell on earth and who bear prophetic witness to the world and the cosmos and stand guard against the evil one’s wiles.

Perhaps most bracing is the author’s thoughts about how kingship, priesthood, and prophets works out in the new creation:

   Perhaps another dimension of imaging God in the new creation will be the development of technology and science. Will we invent the wheel again? Will we learn how to start a fire once more? What about basic human knowledge such as math, language, music, and so on? I suspect that we will not start from scratch. One could possibly argue that we, being perfected in God’s image, will develop what we have learned in the past. The knowledge that humanity has acquired and is acquiring through observing the world around us may not only inform us about God’s creative power, but it may also prepare us for life in the new creation.

The author speaks of the wedge between Israel and the church and the church as the true Israel, the people of God who image God, in continuity with ethnic Israel. I wish the author might have said more specifically about the Jews, and about how Romans 11 might be fulfilled in this people of God. The author allows for a “remnant of Christian Jews” saved through history (p. 128-129), which seems far from explaining how “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). He contends that the church does not replace Israel, yet he calls the church the true Israel of God. Granted that how these things shall be is unclear for any of us, this presentation seems to be murky at best.

That said, Gladd paints a picture of the people of God throughout history, a people who images God in the world, and in our own day is called to be kings who rule without exploiting, who worship God alone and commend his excellence over all worldly idols, and who prize the truth in our lives and words. We pursue these in faithfulness to the great high king, high priest and ultimate prophet, Jesus. This is not insipid pablum but strong and substantive food for the follower of Jesus. I look forward to seeing what successive volumes in this series do to enlarge on the biblical story line.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Guest Review: The Generations of Heaven and Earth

the generations of heaven and earth

The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World, and Biblical TheologyJon Garvey. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary:  This book presents Jon Garvey’s views of the positive theological implications of a scientifically credible historical Adam and Eve who could have lived in the Ancient Near East around 6,000 years ago and been the genealogical ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ.

Jon Garvey’s book is a companion volume to S. Joshua Swamidass’s book, “The Genealogical Adam & Eve” (GAE). It is not necessary to have read GAE first, because Garvey includes a summary of the scientific side while presenting the theological implications of an historical Adam who lived around 6,000 years ago.

GAE’s claim is that it is scientifically plausible that a historical couple living in the Ancient Near East, among an existing human population around 6,000 years ago, would almost certainly be common ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ. This claim is based on detailed computer simulations that consistently showed that our probable most recent genealogical ancestor lived two or three thousand years ago, and that anyone living more than 6,000 years ago, who left any descendants, is a common ancestor for the whole human race.

Garvey has attempted to integrate a genealogical Adam and Eve into a coherent biblical theology without any radical revision of traditional Christian theological doctrine by examining its consistency with a number of issues, including the two creation stories in Genesis, the conflict of good and evil, original sin, atonement theories, and the metanarrative of the Bible. Garvey thinks of this as restoring the plausibility of older teaching which had been made to give ground progressively in the light of the “assured results” of science.

Garvey’s contention is that “Genealogical Adam is not just another concordist theory, attempting to find a fix for the incompatibility of the Bible account with other sources of knowledge, but instead as a means for recovering the original intention of Scripture” (p. xv), which is that Genesis 2 introduces the theme of a new creation that occupies the whole of the rest of the Bible.

Genealogical Adam implies some kind of distinction between Adam and those outside the Garden of Eden and the gradual merging of those distinctions through interbreeding as Adam’s genealogical descendants spread across the world. Garvey concludes that “there is no longer a scientific argument against the existence of the biblical Adam and Eve, provided we are willing to embrace the evidence that other, fully human, people existed “outside the garden” before and alongside Adam.” (p. 250) “If we take Genesis 1 and 2 as sequential, and chapter 1 as describing the creation of mankind en masse, including those who lived before and alongside Adam, then we have a human race created in the image and likeness of God which possesses all the intellectual, artistic, and cultural attainments that scientific and historical research has revealed to be ubiquitous from prehistoric times.” (pp. 116-7)

Garvey proposes that cultural inheritance can be as pervasive as genetic inheritance, and it is quicker and does not depend on any genes becoming fixed in the whole population: just on the spread of a strong idea or a habit.  It is culpable sinners who are formed through sinful communities. “[I]t is only possible to become human at all through the absorption of our parents’, and community’s, culture. Our nature is not exclusively “from our genes,” and in fact genetics has a relatively minor role in the inheritance of complex behavior.” (p. 184)   “If Adam were indeed the first person to have a true relationship with God, it would have affected every subsequent relationship of his.”  (p. 185)

Garvey notes that at some stage the apparently chronological narrative of the Bible has to become history. A Genealogical Adam within history solves the problem of where one places the division of allegory and history by placing it with Adam.

Every chapter ends with a short section titled “Conclusion relative to Genealogical Adam.” The book includes a nine-page bibliography, a general index, and a scriptural index.

It’s going to get really interesting when theologians react to this book and to Swamidass’s “The Genealogical Adam & Eve.” Perhaps those theologians, pastors, and Christian philosophers and scientists who had already come out publically for an historical Adam who was not the first human (e.g., Denis Alexander, Kathryn Applegate, Gleason Archer, Craig L. Blomberg, Roy Clouser, C. John Collins, Gregg Davidson, Darrel Falk, Gary N. Fugle, Daniel M. Harrell, Carol A. Hill, Tim Keller, Kenneth W. Kemp, Derek Kidner, Gavin Ortlund, Alvin Plantinga, Harry Lee Poe, John Polkinghorne, Jeffrey Schloss, John Stott, John H. Walton and N.T. Wright) were on the right track after all.

The book’s strength is that it enables the traditional doctrines associated with Adam to remain intact, while maintaining consistency with secular findings on history, archaeology, and various evolutionary understandings of creation.

I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues surrounding a historical Adam and Eve. It is a fresh look which should elicit much commentary in the near future.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

The Heart of RevelationJ. Scott Duvall. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A thematic approach to the book of Revelation focusing around ten key themes which answer the basic question of “who is Lord.”

I think I’ve just found my new “go to” book when someone asks for help in understanding the book of Revelation.  Instead of getting engaged in systems of trying to figure out who in contemporary history might be one of the Beasts, or the significance of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, J. Scott Duvall focuses on themes running through Revelation centering around the purpose of proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord and will triumph, to the encouragement of a suffering and persecuted church.

Duvall thinks that taking context seriously is vital. Revelation cannot mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original recipients. Duvall helps us understand how the seven churches faced pressure from Rome, from the Jews, and from false teachers. He emphasizes reading the book as a letter, as prophecy, and as apocalyptic, or an unveiling. He proposes that in interpreting that we try to understand what the book would mean to its original recipients, that we take the text seriously, but not always literally, since much is symbol, and that we focus on the theological message of each vision, particularly around the truth that “God is in control, and he will successfully accomplish his purposes.” Also, he offers a kind of theological glossary which he terms “Cast of Characters in the Divine Drama of Revelation,” offering a brief explanations of everything from “abyss” to “woman clothed with the sun.”

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

  1. God: “The Almighty”
  2. Worship: ” You are Worthy.”
  3. The People of God: “His Called, Chosen, and Faithful Followers”
  4. The Holy Spirit: “The Seven Spirits before His Throne”
  5. Our Enemies: “The Dragon Stood on the Shore of the Sea”
  6. The Mission: “My Two Witnesses”
  7. Jesus Christ: “The Lamb, Who Was Slain”
  8. Judgment: “How Long, Sovereign Lord?”
  9. The New Creation: “I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth”
  10. Perseverance: “To the One Who is Victorious”

Each chapter traces the theme through the whole book, summarizing main points, offering key texts and a reading plan and community group questions. Indeed, the clarity of the text, the inclusion of this reading plan and questions makes this an excellent text for a class or small group, as well as an adjunct to personal study.

The thing that stood out to me most was the idea of the greatness of and ultimate victory of the Triune God. At the same time, chapters on the people of God, our enemies, our mission, and judgment emphasize the call to faith and faithfulness in witness, which has often been accompanied by suffering. Much of the global church needs to understand this. I found myself wondering if there is also a message for the American church in coming years. At very least, the challenge to faithful witness, vigilance, and a preparedness to suffer is a clear message of scripture.

I found myself pausing at times in worship and wonder on reading passages on the greatness of God, and the destiny of his people. One example from the chapter on “The New Creation”:

   The new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to live among us. This idea can be a bit scary until you let it sink in that every good thing that exists in our lives now comes from the Lord. He is our loving Father, who only wants to give us good things. He wants to be with us and wants us to be with him and to experience the perfect community, the very reality we were created for. In fact, all our longings and desires for life and goodness and beauty will be completely fulfilled in the new creation because we will be dwelling in God’s presence….Haven’t you ever wanted a short time of such peace and joy and love to last forever because it was so wonderful, almost a fleeting glimpse of heaven? We long for that world, and that longing comes from God, and he intends to fulfill these longings and desires. He will keep his promises (p. 176).

This book makes both a great first book on reading Revelation as well as a helpful resource for deeper study and for those who would teach others. It models a good example of doing biblical theology in tracing great biblical themes running through this book in a way that at the same time is consistent with the context and content of Revelation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul, a New Covenant Jew

Paul

Paul, a New Covenant JewBrant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid (Foreword by Michael J. Gorman). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: In answer to the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”, three Catholic scholars, focusing on 2 Corinthians 3:2-16, argue that he was a new covenant Jew and then relate this idea to apocalyptic, Christology, atonement, justification, and the Lord’s supper.

There is a cascade of literature in Pauline studies in recent years, difficult for any reviewer to keep up with unless one makes this one’s focus. One of the qualities that makes this work stand out is that it is the work of three Catholic scholars, seeking both to interact with and contribute to serious Pauline scholarship, and to do so in a way faithful to Catholic tradition. The other distinctive of their work is their proposal answering the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”

The first chapter considers this question and alongside the alternatives of former Jew, eschatological Jew, and Torah-observant Jew, the authors propose that Paul is a new covenant Jew. They center their contention on Paul’s self-description as a minister of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6) and the broader context of 2 Corinthians 3:2-16. They argue that this best explains both the discontinuities (“new”) and continuities (“covenant”) evident in Paul’s ministry and letters (this work focuses on the seven uncontested letters of Paul).

Remaining chapters then press out the connection of this idea to other Pauline themes. With regard to apocalyptic thought, they note the continuity of Paul’s thought with the idea of two ages, and the discontinuity in the assertion that in the death an”d resurrection of Jesus, the new age has already begun, new creation already is a reality, and both Jews and Gentiles already part of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is, in the words of Michael Gorman, an “apocalyptic new covenant.” Along the lines of Jewish expectation, Jesus is a very human figure, according to Paul. Yet Paul also asserts that he is in “the form of God” and “equal with God,” on the creator side of the creature/creator divide. Paul’s new covenant hope is in a Messiah both human and the divine Son. For these scholars, the cross is not only new covenant sacrifice by the apocalyptic revelation of the character of God in the self-giving of his son–a revelation of both righteousness and love.

The chapters that are most “Catholic” and might evoke the most discussion are those on justification and the one on the Lord’s table. The authors contend that justification is not merely juridical but, drawing on Pauline language, contend that justification also involves three transformative realities in the life of the believer:

  1. Cardiac righteousness, in which the heart of the believer is transformed resulting in an obedience of the heart, and obedience of faith. (2 Cor. 3:9; Romans 10:10).
  2. This righteousness comes through baptismal initiation (Romans 6:11; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 3:24-27).
  3. Through our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, reflected in baptism, we are being conformed to the image of Christ, which Paul describes under the term, justification (cf. Gal. 2:15-21; Phil. 3:7-12; Romans 6:1-11).

Finally, with regard to the Lord’s Supper, they draw out the connection between participation in Christ and participation in drinking the cup, eating the bread of the sacrifice. They note the strong cultic language in Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s supper and emphasize its sacrificial nature. The authors make a strong exegetical case for their contention, although I would contend one can understand the Lord’s supper as participation in Christ’s sacrifice, without the elements becoming body and blood, that is, a sacrifice (although the authors do not assert this explicitly, but draw parallels to Old Testament sacrifices, and the consumption of these).

In these last two chapters, the authors walk a fine line between Catholic and post-Reformation discussions. They raise important exegetical issues and cite other scholars from the wider discussion whose work aligns with their conclusions. They make a proposal about how we might understand Paul that echoes his own self-description and that plausibly connects with other themes in Pauline teaching. Their work suggests the potential of biblical theology to foster constructive engagements between different parts of the church around the biblical text.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Participating in Christ

Participating in Christ

Participating in ChristMichael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of what it means to be “in” Christ, or to participate in Christ, drawing from the Pauline letters, and particularly what this means for living a cross-shaped and resurrection-infused life by which one becomes increasingly like Christ and God.

This book is about a small word, “in,” that carries a vital and transformative idea for the Christian believer. Anyone who has read Paul’s letters will no doubt have encountered the phrase “in Christ” numerous times. But what should we understand the significance of this phrase to be, both with reference to Christ and for those who have believed in Christ.

Michael Gorman argues that this is the language of participation of union, of an intimate sharing with Christ, and much of his work has been to develop the implications of participation for Pauline theology. His argument begins with the cross, which is at the heart of the revelation of the person of Christ, even as risen Lord. Furthermore, the cross not only tells us what Christ is like, but what the Godhead is like, a God of self-emptying love. And finally the cross reveals what both human beings and the church are meant to be, that individually and collectively, to be in Christ is to take on the cross-shaped character of Christ and God. The cross is not only the source but the shape of our salvation as we live by faith and faithfulness, love, power, justice and hope. Because the cross of Christ reveals the character of God, our lives are God-like (Gorman develops the idea of theosis here, perhaps the most controversial aspect of his work). The cruciform or cross-shaped life is not merely imitative, but transformative through participating in the life of the risen Messiah through the Spirit.

Gorman argues for justification as a participatory event that is both forensic in our trust in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, and that incorporates us into Christ’s body as we share in his covenant faithfulness in our death to sin with Christ and experience in his resurrection the power to live a cross-shaped life. Therefore what Gorman proposes is a theology that bridges the divide between the historic forensic view of justification, and the New Perspective on Paul that focuses on justification as covenant inclusion into the people of God through the faithfulness of Christ.

To participate in Christ is not merely to believe but to become the gospel, advancing it through our embodiment of the cruciform life in reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, and non violence. The transformative work of justification is also one of justice-ification. As we are transformed individually and corporately through being reckoned righteous or just before God (the same word in Greek), we embody this work in pursuing cruciform justice in society

Gorman develops these ideas in nine chapters considering Pauline texts from the Corinthian, Roman, Galatian and Philippian letters, ones universally accepted as Pauline. His final two chapters apply these ideas to the church today, the first through an imaginary epistle of Paul to the church in North America, in which he challenges the pursuit of political power and alignments with a call to cruciformity and latter in which he explores the critical relevance of the resurrection for both Christian hope, and resurrectionally infused ethics in the present.

I like the focus on this simple but often overlooked aspect of Christian living–what it means to live in Christ and how this is evident in the believer’s life. The cruciform shape, resurrection power, and missional presence in the world all are vital for both the individual believer but the body as a whole. I did wonder about the connection between our participation in Christ (and his body) and the idea Paul also develops of our partnership (koinonia) with one another. Gorman doesn’t develop this, but it seems a natural corollary to participation, and speaks to how Christians exercise solidarity across national and ethnic and gender and class lines in the gospel.

I’m also drawn to the way Gorman reconceptualizes the discussion between the New Perspective and forensic camps around justification, particularly in his emphasis on the transformative aspects of justification or being “righteoused.” While we sometimes separate justification and sanctification, and there are dangers of confusing them, to emphasize that justification does not just address our status but also the beginnings of new creation in the regenerate believer seems vital. This is a very different take than in Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective (reviewed here) which takes more of a chronological approach to explaining passages that support more of a forensic view and others that support more of a covenant inclusion view as reflective of development in Paul. I’d love to hear the dialogue between these two scholars!

In any event, I found the book a rich exploration of the significance of being “in Christ,” a short phrase we often gloss over. I won’t be able to look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to Michael Gorman’s work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Into His Presence

into his presence

Into His PresenceTim L. Anderson. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019.

Summary: Offers a biblical study of the idea of intimacy with God, and engages with Catholic mystical, Pentecostal experiential, and Evangelical devotional approaches to intimacy with God.

Tim L. Anderson contends that scripture assures us that God both longs to draw near to us and for us to draw near to Him. He writes this book to uncover the wealth of material in scripture that both assures us of this truth and explains how this can be a reality in the life of the believer. He writes that he is also seeking “an intervention of sorts.” He believes there are three approaches to intimacy with God that suffer from theological imprecision and thus will fail to lead believers into the fullness of intimacy with God that is promised the believer. He describers these approaches as Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional.

He begins with defining intimacy, which he proposes is “the movement of God and Christians toward a place of true knowledge and close contact.” He believes this consists in four elements: movement toward intimacy, intimate knowledge, intimate place/location, and intimate contact/touch, elaborating each of these from scripture. Chapter 2 looks at the place of intimacy with God in theology and philosophy, beginning with the God who is source of our existence, consciousness, and delights, thus making knowledge of God both our gift and our responsibility, pursued through God’s self-revelation in scripture, showing us a God both immanent and transcendent, all-present and knowing, and yet condescending to us.

Chapter 3 considers the fall and the barriers to intimacy this raises. Chapter 4, then, explores the beautiful symbols of scripture that convey God’s communication of intimacy, especially the anthropomorphisms of face, ears, hands, voice and mouth, and how we are to understand these.

Chapter 5 then elaborates the particular image of God as Father and how a proper understanding of God as an intimate. loving Father heals unhealthy shame that hinders our approach to God. Chapter 6 looks at Christ through the lens of the marriage images in scripture. Here he focuses on the intimate care and faithfulness of Christ and the church, but sets bounds on some of the highly romanticized or even sexualized applications of this imagery. Chapter 7 turns to the Holy Spirit and how he discloses truth in illuminating scripture and intercedes for us in prayer.

Chapter 8 deals with suffering and the apparent hiddenness of God in times of suffering. He shows from scripture how God knows us in our suffering and provides in himself a place of security as we suffer. He underscores this with the stories of the suffering of Moses and Elijah, and ultimately of Christ.

Finally, chapter 9 applies all this material on intimacy to assessing our songs of intimacy, our worship music, past and present, particularly for how the four elements of intimacy are present in them. I loved his treatment of “Just as I Am,” a song deeply etched in my own life from Billy Graham Crusades and other contexts.

I greatly appreciated the emphasis of setting forth the rich biblical testimony for intimacy that grounds intimacy in the promises, works, and commands of God and not in our experience. His critique of the “Jesus is my boyfriend or lover” kind of spirituality is a much needed corrective. I felt that the approaches of Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional were treated somewhat as straw men against which he took a few whacks while focusing more on elaborating a biblical theology of intimacy, and critiquing some examples of unhelpful teaching. I thought the book might have been stronger had he left the straw men out while focusing on his primary aim of a theology of intimacy, while offering helpful correctives to specific examples of inadequate or even false teaching, which I felt did not represent the best of the three approaches.

Because of the lack of good biblical/theological instruction in many of our Christian communities, many believers do not know what is theirs in Christ. As human beings, we long for intimacy. Anderson’s work assures us that God’s longing for intimacy with us more than matches our longing for Him, and in Christ the bridegroom, and the Spirit who discloses his bidding and intercedes for us, He has made that intimacy possible.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Death and the Afterlife

Death and the Afterlife.jpg

Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven.

One of the most indisputable statistics is that one out of one die. While many other things differentiate us as human beings, the terminus of our lives is one thing we all have in common.  Our responses to this vary, from denial to despair, to mute acceptance that when we die, that is all, to some hope for continued existence beyond the grave. What we believe about these things profoundly shapes how we live.

In this monograph, Paul S. Williamson explores these questions in light of contemporary and ancient thought, and biblical teaching. He writes at the outset, “My primary focus, however, is not the theological case that proponents of various views can mount but rather the prior question: What does the Bible say?” In his opening chapter, he summarizes various views, both ancient and modern, and some of the areas disputed even by evangelical interpreters.

Following this he explores first the biblical materials surrounding what happens to us at death. While acknowledging the limits of the evidence, he recognizes the possibility of some form of post-mortem existence, although this involves a radical separation from embodied life and is thus interim. The ultimate destiny is resurrection. He considers but dismisses the idea of the dead being outside time, and thus the resurrection “immediate.” He traces the idea of resurrection and its development in later OT and intertestamental periods, to its full blossoming following the resurrection of Christ. His chapter on judgement particularly deals with tracing the idea of divine recompense for one’s deeds and how this might be reconciled with salvation by grace alone. He contends that saving faith is trust in action through persistence in doing good, that reflects the transforming work of God in our lives.

Many will turn to the final two chapters on hell, and on heaven, and the contention that ultimately all will wind up in heaven. On hell, while he argues that the language of fire and darkness may well be metaphor, we cannot ignore the language of torment that is everlasting, dismissing the language arguments that deny this. He would argue that annihilation must be read into the text. On heaven, he would contend from scripture that this is the interim resting place of those who die in Christ, but that God’s intention is for a new creation which the resurrected will inhabit. He responds to the arguments of “Gregory MacDonald” for a final universal salvation in which those in hell are brought to post-mortem repentance, showing that this case cannot be made from scripture.

The outcome of Williamson’s study is to uphold the traditional teaching of the church and contend that this is rooted in scripture. There is evidence for an interim state between death and resurrection, for the final resurrection and judgement of all and for eternal conscious punishment in hell. Following some newer interpreters, he would argue that the ultimate destiny for new believers is eternal life with God in the new creation, where heaven “comes down” to a transformed and renewed earth.

No doubt, this is contrary to what interpreters like Rob Bell (“love wins”) or “Gregory MacDonald” (“God wins”) would contend. What Williamson makes the case for is that while such opinions may be popular, they are wanting in terms of biblical evidence. For those who really care about searching such things out, this book is a good, careful statement of the traditional understanding of what scripture affirms, cautious in acknowledging what is not known, and equally cautious in not speculating on what scripture does not say. It makes clear the hope of the resurrection, how we may hear God’s “well done” in the judgment, and how one may enjoy eternal life in God’s new creation as well as warning of what faces the unrepentant. As much as we struggle with the hard truth of the latter, this book poses the question of dare we go beyond what scripture has plainly affirmed?

Review: Finding Favour in the Sight of God

Finding Favour

Finding Favour in the Sight of God (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Richard P. Belcher, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A study of the message and theology of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes concluding with an exploration of Jesus and wisdom.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament is both treasured and puzzled over. Sometimes as we read Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, we wonder “what do we make of these books?” Once we get beyond the first nine chapters of Proverbs and Proverbs 31, is there any structure or order to these sayings? How should we understand the message of Job? Of Ecclesiastes? These books seem very different from the rest of the Old Testament, so much so that Richard P. Belcher, Jr. notes that these books are sometimes referred to as the orphans of Old Testament theology.

This study seeks to address this challenge, beginning with rooting the wisdom books on a foundation of creation, in which wisdom is grounded in observing, interacting with, reflecting on, and drawing conclusions from creation, rather than revelation from God, which helps connect these texts to other parts of the Old Testament. After discussing these issues, Belcher outlines the plan of the book which is three chapters on each of the three wisdom books, considering their message, interpretation, and theology, with a concluding epilogue on Jesus and how wisdom was evident in his person, life, and teaching.

In his chapters on Proverbs, he explores the message of the first nine chapters including the two ways and the person of Lady Wisdom. He then tackles the hermeneutics of proverbs and the question of whether proverbs should be understood as absolute statements. Finally, he considers the theology of Proverbs focusing on the sovereignty of God and the how the Proverbs reflects the creation order within which we seek to live wisely and well. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of “life” in Proverbs, proposing that the horizon of this life, though a focus of Proverbs, is insufficient to understand all references.

The study of Job begins with a discussion of the theology of the first three chapters followed by a discussion of the speeches of Job 4-26. He characterizes Eliphaz as the counselor who misses the mark, Bildad as the defender of God’s justice, and Zophar as the interpreter of God’s ways. None credit the possibility that sometimes the innocent suffer. This sets up his concluding chapter on Job 27-42, in which it becomes clear that wisdom is not to be found among men but only as revealed in Job’s encounter with God, where both his innocence is vindicated and the folly of his challenge to God is revealed. The book stands as a challenge to an inflexible doctrine of divine retribution and looks ahead to the ultimate innocent sufferer, Jesus.

Belcher approaches Ecclesiastes or Qohelet as largely written from an “under the sun” perspective and that the “wisdom” derived from such a perspective is ultimately hebel or futile. Positive passages are offset by the bleak ones. Human wisdom is revealed to be unable to answer either “what is good?” or “what will come in the future.” Belcher believes the postscript is key for countering this bleak assessment in its encouragements to fear God and keep God’s commands–a wisdom from “above the sun.”

The epilogue concludes with connecting wisdom in the teaching, person, and work of Christ with the wisdom books. He draws helpful parallels between Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount, and discusses how Christ’s person and work fulfills wisdom.

I found three things that were helpful in this study. One was the care given to how we read the wisdom books. The second was a clarity in his summaries the message of the books, probably as clear as I’ve found anywhere. Thirdly, the discussion of the connection of wisdom to creation order as well as the fulfillment of wisdom in the person of Christ addresses the orphan character of these books. It seemed to me the author hit all the important aspects to be addressed in these books within the limits of te format of this series.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: God’s Mediators

God's Mediators

God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.

The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.

The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.

The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.

In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.

The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.

Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).

The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.

Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.

So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.

Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.

Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.