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On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 2

Part 1

Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. – Acts 2:1

In setting the scene for the events of Pentecost, Luke immediately draws our attention to the fact that all of the disciples are assembled together in one place. Remarking on the ‘togetherness’ of the disciples, Richard Thompson observes:

Although Luke does not explicitly state why this corporate quality is important or how these believers concretely demonstrate such a quality, such an emphasis suggests that this characteristic is critical both to the narrative and potentially to what follows.[1]

What are we to make of the corporate character of the events of Pentecost?

A Community of Prophets
Pentecost (re)constitutes the community of the early church in a powerful way, representing an event of decisive importance for its formation and identity. For this reason it is perhaps significant that we find a number of possible echoes of the events of Sinai in the immediate context. Sinai was an event of immense importance for Israel in its life as a nation, being the occasion of a group theophany, their reception of the Torah and their entrance into a covenant with YHWH. Kenneth Litwak writes:

There are several striking elements which suggest that Luke shaped his account on the basis of the Sinai tradition. Acts 2 opens with a theophany, which includes fire and a loud sound (Acts 2.1-4; cf. Exod. 19:16 [sound of a trumpet] and Exod. 19.18 [YHWH descended upon Sinai in fire]). At Sinai God spoke to Moses, and in Acts 2.11 the people hear the disciples speaking of the mighty works of God. On a broader level, the theophanic event in Acts 2.1-4 is formative for the first followers of the Way, just as the Sinai theophany was formative for God’s people in Exodus.[2]

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, where, after a few days of preparation, they received the Law. As the feast of Pentecost occurred 49 days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-16), which took place in the latter half of the first month, the possibility of a chronological connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law and forming of the covenant in Sinai is raised.[3] This connection did not go unnoticed by the rabbis, who identified Pentecost as the feast celebrating the gift of the Law. Whether such a connection was established by the time that Luke wrote the account of Acts 2 is uncertain and continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Taken by itself this connection between Pentecost and Sinai may appear rather slight, but it is given more weight when we consider it alongside the presence of the other echoes of the Sinai account in the early chapters of Acts.[4] At Sinai Israel was set apart as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, giving the children of Israel a special role to play within God’s purposes for the wider creation. The parallels to the event of Sinai are important chiefly on account of the way in which they frame the event as one through which the disciples are set apart as a people with a new vocation.

In contrast to the examples of prophetic succession that we previously observed, the example of Sinai involves the reconstitution and setting apart of a whole people and not just of one person. The events of Pentecost are not of mere private significance to those involved, but herald the establishing of a new reality in the realm of history. Sinai inaugurates a new era and not merely a period of leadership limited by one man’s lifespan. Consequently, the event of Sinai has much light to shed on Luke’s account of Pentecost. Stronstad writes:

…[W]hat is happening on the day of Pentecost is not only as dramatic as, but also as significant as what happened at Mt Sinai. In other words, the creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.[5]

The Distribution of the Spirit of Jesus
A number of commentators have argued for some form of connection between the narrative of Numbers 11 and that of Acts 2, a connection that can illuminate certain dimensions of the church’s prophetic character.

In Numbers 11 Moses appeals to YHWH to ease the burden of leadership that he is bearing. Responding to his plea, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them to the tabernacle of meeting. There God will take of the Spirit that is on Moses and give it to the elders, so that they can share the task of leading the people with him.

Following a day of preparation, the elders are gathered together and the Spirit rests on them. They then begin to prophesy, although they never do so again (Numbers 11:25).[6] Two of the seventy elders—Eldad and Medad—were not present at the tabernacle of meeting at the time, but received the Holy Spirit nonetheless and began to prophesy in the middle of the camp. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, concerned by this, asks Moses to instruct them to stop. Moses, however, was unconcerned: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ (verse 29).

There are a number of echoes of the theophany at Sinai in the account of Numbers 11, including: (1) the granting of a new vocation to a body of people (Exodus 19:5-6; Numbers 11:16-17); (2) the command for the people to sanctify themselves for the coming day when YHWH will act decisively (Number 11:18; cf. Exodus 19:10); (3) the gathering of the people around a particular location, Mt Sinai in the Exodus account and the tabernacle in that of Numbers (Numbers 11:24);[7] (4) a theophany in which God comes down in the cloud and speaks with Moses (Exodus 19:9; Numbers 11:25).

Although some might argue that the ‘spirit’ given to the seventy elders is Moses own spirit, rather than YHWH’s, a reading of Numbers 11 that understands the ‘spirit’ as YHWH’s own Spirit seems far more satisfactory (cf. verse 29). Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the Spirit that is given to the seventy elders is spoken of as the Spirit that is upon Moses himself (Numbers 11:17, 25). Although we are not here dealing with a ‘sacramental transfer’ in which Moses is active, Moses is seen as the one who mediates the elders’ reception of the Spirit. The elders do not receive the Spirit as a direct bestowal from God, but with ‘Moses as the intermediary’.[8]

Williams contrasts this with the case of leadership succession that occurs when Joshua receives authority to lead and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ through the imposition of Moses’ hands (Deuteronomy 34:9). In Numbers 11 Moses does not abandon certain aspects of his leadership to others. The elders are rather empowered to help fulfil Moses’ task of leading the people. Their ministry does not displace that of Moses, but involves a partaking in Moses’ ministry.[9]

At Pentecost Jesus mediates the gift of the Spirit to the church (Acts 2:33), and, much as the elders’ reception of the Spirit in Numbers 11 gave them a share in the Spirit of prophetic leadership that belonged to Moses, so Pentecost brings the church to participate in the prophetic authority of Jesus, an authority that never ceases to be the exclusive possession of Jesus himself.

At this juncture a further dimension of the ‘baptism’ imagery (cf. Acts 1:5) may come to the fore: baptism does not merely initiate into office, it can also fulfil an incorporative purpose, bringing people to participate in the life, authority, status or privileges of another (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2; Galatians 3:26-29). Just as Israel was led by Moses prior to being ‘baptized’ into a greater union with him,[10] so the disciples were led by Jesus prior to the baptism of Pentecost. What Pentecost effected was the disciples’ reconstitution as the church—the body of Christ—bringing them into a new relationship with their master. They now shared in the power of his Spirit, being bound to him by a bond of relationship far stronger than any they had previously enjoyed.[11]

The temporary and unrepeated character of the elders’ act of prophesying merits closer examination. While we have good reason to believe that the Spirit remained with the elders, enabling them to fulfil their role, the fact that they did not prophesy again suggests that prophesying was not necessary for this. The initial ecstatic manifestations were not normative for the ongoing performance of their duties. A similar occurrence can be found in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, where the Spirit comes upon Saul, causing him to prophesy. It is through this experience that Saul is set apart and personally prepared for leadership (1 Samuel 10:6). Apart from one other exceptional occasion,[12] we never read of Saul prophesying again. The prophecy was an effect and an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon him; the continuance of the Spirit with him did not necessitate repeated occurrences of prophetic manifestations.

There is a strong analogy to be observed between the prophesying of the elders and the glossolalia of the disciples, and a few writers (Gordon Wenham, for instance) have even suggested that we equate the two. As Dunn observes, Luke does not share Paul’s sharp distinction between speaking in tongues and prophesying. In his use of the passage from Joel in his sermon, Peter appears to equate the tongues-speaking of the disciples with the prophetic speech which the prophecy promises. In light of this OT background, it seems that the purpose of the glossolalia in the context of Acts 2 was primarily that of serving as an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. There is no reason for us to believe that glossolalia would continue to be practiced by all of the disciples present at Pentecost. Tongues-speaking primarily served as a temporary authenticating sign.

The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter uses in his sermon is strikingly parallel to the wish of Moses that all of the people were prophets (Acts 2:17-18; Numbers 11:29).[13] This connection between the prophecy of Joel and Numbers 11 is also found is rabbinic midrash texts. If, as Litwak maintains, the Joel prophecy provides a ‘programmatic text’ and lens for Luke’s understanding of Pentecost, it is also a lens through which passages such as Numbers 11 illuminate the text. The ‘prophethood of all believers’ that is desired in Numbers, is prophesied in Joel and receives a form of fulfilment in Acts.

Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Eldad and Medad when we read of the Gentiles who received the Spirit in Acts 10. Eldad and Medad were outside of the group of elders at the tabernacle. Nonetheless, they still receive the anointing of the Spirit just as the others. In a similar manner, the Gentiles may have appeared to be outside of the gathering to which the Spirit was specially promised, but they received the Spirit in much the same way, in a sort of aftershock of the original event. By giving Cornelius and his household the Spirit before they had become members of a Jewish church, God demonstrated the freedom of the Spirit and the fact that Jews and Gentiles were accepted on an equal footing.

Endnotes
[1] Richard P. Thompson, Keeping the Church in its Place: The Church as Narrative Character in Acts (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 38
[2] Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 165-166. Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58-59 highlights a number of further common features of the Sinai and Pentecost narratives, including the days of preparation and the occurrence of the theophany in the morning.
[3] A number of writers reference Jubilees 6:17-21 in this context. Others have observed the connection that Jubilees draws between Pentecost and covenant renewal.
[4] Besides those already mentioned, there are a number of further echoes of Sinai narrative in Acts 2. The ascension of Christ into the cloud (Acts 1:9) might be an echo of the ascension of Moses onto Mount Sinai. The number added to the church (‘cut to the heart’) in Acts 2:41 may also echo the number slain by the sword at Sinai (Exodus 32:28). Wedderburn argues for a connection between the events of Sinai and those of the Day of Pentecost as they are recorded in Acts, but claims that this connection was not made by Luke, but by some of his sources. Hovenden has a very helpful discussion of some further possible literary connections, including that of a Lukan allusion to Psalm 67:19 (LXX) in Acts 2:33, a verse applied to Moses at Mount Sinai by some of the rabbis. Johnson highlights the similarities between the statement concerning Moses in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 and that of Peter concerning Jesus in Acts 2:33.
[5] The Prophethood of All Believers, 59
[6] The meaning of the phrase ולא יספו is not entirely clear. In light of the similar phrase used in Deuteronomy 5:22, we have opted to understand it as a denial of their continuance in prophesying.
[7] The possibility of the disciples being gathered around the temple on the Day of Pentecost will be discussed in a later post.
[8] David T. Williams, ‘Old Testament Pentecost.’ Old Testament Essays, 16:130-1
[9] Ibid, 132
[10] As we shall later see, one dimension of this ‘baptism into Moses’ was Israel’s entry into Moses’ own experience.
[11] The incorporative purpose of the baptism of the Spirit is explored in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
[12] 1 Samuel 19:21-24. This incident occurs after the Spirit has departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
[13] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 95 relates Joel 2 and Numbers 11 together, claiming that Joel’s prophecy ‘reads almost as a fulfillment of Moses’ hope expressed in Num. 11:29.’

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On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

The following is the first in a series of several posts, exploring the prophetic role of the church and the meaning of the Baptism of the Spirit.

The first chapter of the book of Acts presents us with both an ending and a beginning. Bringing to a close the period of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ascent into heaven also marks the beginning of a new act in the drama of the NT, that of the public mission of the church.

The exact nature of the relationship between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his church is a matter that I will explore in some depth in the posts that will follow this one. In particular, I will be attempting to demonstrate that the events of Pentecost set the church apart as a prophetic community. Bringing the text of the opening chapters of the book of Acts into conversation with particular texts within the OT, I hope to explore the manner in which accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession can provide a helpful lens through which to view the events of Pentecost. In making this case I will be devoting considerable attention to a closer analysis of Acts 2:1-4. Having established this exegetical groundwork, I hope to proceed to make some observations about the way in which I believe that the event of Pentecost should shape the Church’s self-understanding. While my focus will be on constructing a positive account of the significance of this event, I will also be entering into critical dialogue with alternative understandings.

A number of writers have explored the subject of prophetic anointing in Acts 2. In The Prophethood of All Believers, Roger Stronstad devotes a chapter to the event of Pentecost, which he claims inaugurates ‘the prophethood of all believers.’[1] The theme is also highlighted by some commentators in the course of their treatment of the passage, and in wider treatments of Luke-Acts. Within Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, Kenneth Litwak identifies a number of the OT passages that the narrative of the early chapters of Acts evokes, unearthing some neglected allusions to prophetic call and succession narratives in the process.

Building upon the foundation that these writers have established, and entering into constructive conversation with them, I hope to probe deeper into the OT background for the prophetic themes that surface in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Attempting an intertextual reading of Acts 2, I want to prove the theological and exegetical value of understanding the account in terms of OT accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession.

Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts
For Luke the ministry of the church is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own ministry, something highlighted by the resumptive character of his introduction to the book of Acts. As Ben Witherington argues, Luke situates his account of Jesus within a ‘wider historical framework’, giving considerable prominence to the events preceding the birth of John the Baptist at the very outset of his narrative and closely following the subsequent growth of the church in the second volume of his work.[2] Remarking on the limited attention that Luke gives to Peter’s confession in his gospel, in contrast to the accent placed on the accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy between which it is sandwiched, Witherington writes:

Nowhere is it made more apparent than in this sequence that Jesus is the initiator of a series of events and proclamations that his disciples undertake during and then after his time. The focus is not just on Jesus but on the historical Jesus movement of which he was the catalyst and focal point.[3]

In adopting a narrow focus on the identity and personal ministry of Jesus we are in danger of failing to appreciate the degree to which the Lukan treatment of the early church is driven by more than a merely biographical or historical interest. For Luke the church plays a key role in the drama of God’s salvation, both as the place where that salvation is realized and as the agency through whom it is borne witness to and spread.

Baptism, Ascension, and Elijah Typology
Immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift for which they must wait in Jerusalem. Recalling the contrast drawn by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16, Jesus speaks of the reception of the Spirit in terms of the language of baptism. By describing the church’s forthcoming reception of the Holy Spirit in such a manner, Jesus presents the event that is about to occur to the church as somehow analogous to the type of event that John’s baptism represented. The baptism with water administered by John the Baptist will now be followed by a baptism with the Spirit that Jesus will perform on his disciples.

Within Lukan theology, John’s baptism is presented as playing a preparatory role (cf. Acts 19:1-6). It prepared the people for the coming kingdom of God and also served as the ‘launching-pad’ for Jesus’ own work. In Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 3:20-22), a detail that is given significance in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:21-22). In the narrative of Luke’s gospel, John’s baptism of Jesus also marks the end of John’s place in the foreground of the gospel narrative. Once the ministry of Jesus has got off the ground, the purpose of John’s ministry has more or less been accomplished.[4]

Within the gospels John the Baptist is presented ‘as in some sense Elijah redivivus.’[5] In an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, the angel Gabriel declares to Zecharias that his son John will go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elsewhere, Jesus declares that John was the Elijah that was promised to come (Matthew 17:10-13). The description and narrative of John the Baptist is also replete with allusions to the description and narrative of the prophet Elijah.[6]

Perhaps it is significant that John’s baptism of Jesus takes place on the far side of the Jordan: this was the place where Elisha succeeded Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Joshua took over from Moses (Joshua 1). In all cases the succession involves a crossing or coming out of the river and a reception of the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 1:10-18; 2 Kings 2:9-15; Luke 3:21-22).

At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), fills him and leads him into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Within Lukan theology, there is a very close connection between filling with the Spirit and prophecy (Luke 1:15, 41-45, 67; Acts 2:4, 17-18; 4:8, 31; 7:55-56; 13:9-11).[7] Jesus’ characterization of himself as a prophet in Luke 4:24, in the context of his reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 is significant. It is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that sets him apart as a prophet. The connection between baptism and investiture is an important one for our purposes:[8] the church’s reception of the Spirit in the ‘baptism’ of Pentecost needs to be understood as an ordination for prophetic ministry.

Luke does not limit his deployment of Elijah imagery to his treatment of John the Baptist. As N.T. Wright observes, there is strong evidence to suggest that the synoptics also understand the work of Jesus in terms of Elijah typology.[9] It is at the point of Jesus’ ascension that this imagery assumes a greater prominence. Commenting on the ascension account in Luke 24:50-53, Kenneth Litwak writes:

If Luke’s audience encountered a story of someone approved by God ‘going up’ to heaven, they would surely have thought of Elijah’s ascension … since his is the only ascension account in the Scriptures of Israel. The statement in Lk. 24.49 that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit recalls Elijah’s bequest of his ‘spirit’ to Elisha (4 Kgdms 2.9-10). The use of ενδύσησθε in Lk. 24.49 may also be an allusion to Elijah’s mantle which was passed on to Elisha (2 Kgdms 2.13)…[10]

The OT speaks of the future return of the ascended Elijah to restore all things (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Sirach 48:10), a theme that also appears in the NT (Mark 9:12; Matthew 17:11). Significantly, Luke ascribes to the ascended Jesus that which was traditionally ascribed to Elijah: in Acts 3:21 he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21; cf. Acts 1:11).[11]

Given the dominance of such Elijah imagery in the context of the ascension, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit immediately prior to his rapture must take on an added significance. The Elijah imagery provides the typological adhesive binding together ascension, Pentecost and parousia. Within the frame provided by the Elijah typology, an intimate connection is seen to exist between the ascension and Pentecost narratives. Consequently, any attempt to understand the events of Pentecost must begin by giving attention to the Lukan ascension accounts.[12]

The Ascension and the Prophetic Anointing of the Church
Just as Jesus’ baptism by John marked the beginning of his prophetic ministry and his succession from John’s own ministry, so the ascension and Pentecost mark the time when the church is anointed for its prophetic ministry and the transition from Jesus’ public earthly ministry to that of the church.

The two most important prophetic succession narratives of the OT involve the transition from the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 27:12-23) and the transition from the prophetic ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).[13] In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor.[14] Moses’ mission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is only fulfilled in the ministry of his successor Joshua. Similarly, the mission that Elijah is charged with in 1 Kings 19:15-17 is only completed in the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1-3).[15]

Elisha is a new Elijah (2 Kings 2:15), just as Joshua is a new Moses (Numbers 27:20; Joshua 1:5). The parallel between the ministries of Joshua and Elisha and the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is worth highlighting. Both Joshua and Elisha serve as apprentices to prophets, whose ministries they inherit following the time of their masters’ departures. The same pattern holds in the case of Jesus’ disciples: having left their work to follow Jesus as disciples, they receive their master’s Spirit following his departure and continue his mission.

The relationship between the prophet and his apprentice is akin to the relationship between a father and his son. In Numbers 13:16 we see that Joshua’s name was given to him by Moses. Moses also lays his hands on Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) in a manner reminiscent of the patriarchs’ blessings on their sons (Genesis 48:13-20). A similar relationship exists between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha receives a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit, the inheritance appropriate to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17),[16] and, as Elijah is taken into heaven, Elisha addresses him as his ‘father’. Jesus’ farewell discourse and blessing of his disciples (Luke 24:51) belongs within this pattern of prophetic succession.

Zwiep notes the parallel between the stress on the visibility of the master’s departure in both the account of Elijah’s rapture and that of Jesus’ ascension.[17] Seeing Elijah taken up was an indispensable condition for Elisha’s right to succeed him. Moberly explains the logic of the test: ‘…it is the responsibility of the prophet to be able to see God, and if Elisha cannot see God in this critical instance, then he is not able to take on the role of one who sees God in other instances; Elisha cannot be a prophet like Elijah unless he has the requisite spiritual capacity.’[18] The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.[19]

Elijah and Moses typology is multilayered within the Lukan literature. However, in the critical movement in the narrative with which we are concerned, the disciples are typologically related to Joshua and Elisha. As their master departs, they will inherit his Spirit and continue his mission. The Spirit that the disciples will receive is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that supervised and empowered his own mission.[20]

Endnotes
[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 70
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-24
[3] Ibid, 23-24
[4] A point made more explicitly in the fourth gospel (John 1:29-34; 3:27-30).
[5] N.T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 167
[6] John the Baptist is an ascetic and peripatetic prophet who, like Elijah, calls Israel to repentance in light of coming judgment. He dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and, like Elijah, is associated with the wilderness. Like Elijah, his ministry is opposed by a tyrant with a manipulative wife (Herod & Herodias / Ahab & Jezebel). Significantly, John the Baptist’s ministry begins at the geographical location where Elijah’s ministry ended (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4-5; cf. 2 Kings 2:4-11).
[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit: Volume 2 – Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 11-12
[8] Although its focus is on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination, much of Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 87ff is relevant to our case.
[9] Jesus and the Victory of God, 167
[10], Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 147
[11] A.W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 114-116
[12] There is also a sacrificial pattern to be observed in this movement. Leithart observes [1 & 2 Kings (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: London: SCM, 2006), 176]:

The story of Elijah’s departure into heaven follows the sequence of a sacrificial rite (Lev. 1). By their mutual journey around the land, Elijah and Elisha form a unit, a “two of them” (2 Kgs. 2:7). They cross the Jordan, as parts of a sacrificial animal will be washed before being place on the altar. Fire descends from heaven, dividing them in two, one ascending in fire to God, as the altar portions of the animal ascend in smoke to heaven. In the ascension (or “wholly burnt”) offering, the skin of the sacrificial animal is given to the priest, and the mantle-skin of Elijah, the hairy garment of the “baal of hair,” is left for Elisha. Through this human “sacrifice,” Elisha becomes a successor to Elijah, and a new phase of prophetic history begins. In this sense too the story is a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, who is washed in the Jordan, gives himself over to be cut in two, ascends into a cloud, and leaves his Spirit and his mantle with his disciples.

[13] Peter Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 170-171, and John I. Durham and J.R. Porter, Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies (London: SCM, 1970), 119-121n62 observe some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha.
[14] Joshua’s succession from Moses is presented as a prophetic succession in Sirach 46:1.
[15] 1 & 2 Kings, 213
[16] Elisha is thus given the pre-eminent position among the ‘sons of the prophets’.
[17] The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 116, 194. Observe the repeated use of verbs of visual perception in Acts 1:9-11.
[18] R.W.L. Moberly,
Prophecy and Discernment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135
[19] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31. The encounters with the risen Christ as recorded by the gospels might also be worth considering in this context. Delayed recognition of—or failure to recognize—the risen Christ is a recurring feature in the post-resurrection narratives (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:14-18; 21:12; cf. Mark 16:12). The liturgical structure followed by the Emmaus road account of Luke 24:13-35, accompanied by the disciples’ initial failure to recognize their companion on the road, might suggest that, although firmly embodied and visible as such, the identity of the body of the risen Christ is something that can elude mundane perception and is only truly accessible to those granted spiritual vision (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 218-219).
[20] Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 45.

Romans 2:14-15

Having discussed the meaning of Romans 1-4 at considerable length in the comments of this recent Green Baggins post, I decided that it might be worthwhile posting this brief exegetical essay I wrote on Romans 2:14-15 a couple of months ago. It may not be as polished as I would like it to be, but it makes a basic case for a reading of these verses as a reference to Gentile Christians, and helps to support the broader argument that I have been making over on Lane’s blog.

Questions of Interpretation
Few verses in Romans are perplexing as 2:14-15. Patience and care are demanded of the exegete, lest, in pulling too vigorously on one of the threads bound up in the complex weave of Paul’s argument, while neglecting others, the passage is rendered knottier than it already is, or Paul’s argument begins to unravel in our hands.

Perhaps the key questions facing the exegete of Romans 2:14-15 concern the identity of the persons spoken of in these verses. Are these doers of the Law real or hypothetical?[1] Are they Christian (as Ambrosiaster,[2] the later Augustine,[3] Barth, Cranfield[4] and Wright maintain[5]), non-Christian (the historically dominant reading, held by most of the Reformers[6] among others) or even pre-Christian believing Gentiles? Is the portrayal of them intended to be positive or negative?[7]

The role of the word φυσει in this context is also a matter of debate. Does it modify the verb ποιωσιν, describing the manner in which these Gentiles do the things of the Law, or does it belong with the earlier part of the clause, in which case it refers to the fact that Gentiles do not possess the Law by birthright, in the manner of the Jews? Is Paul making a reference to some form of natural Law in this context?

A number of further questions must also be addressed. What sort of ‘doing’ of the Law is here envisioned? How are we to understand the work of the Law written on the hearts of these Gentiles? Is this an allusion to OT passages concerning the New Covenant, or is a reference to an inner moral sense possessed by every person?

Within this post I will present an argument for favouring a Gentile Christian reading of these verses. I will engage with some of the principal objections that have been raised against this reading and will explore the manner in which the reading that I propose functions in the context of Paul’s larger argument. (more…)

N.T. Wright Lecture: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

The following are my notes from a lecture delivered this evening, 20th December, by N.T. Wright in the University of St. Andrews. The following provides a general idea of what the good bishop said, but should not be depended upon too much. Doubtless other eyewitnesses will come forward with conflicting accounts…

N.T. Wright, Bishop of DurhamAs someone who gave up studying physics and chemistry more or less as soon as he had the opportunity and devoted little effort to excelling in them when he did study them, Wright finds it odd to find himself in the position of being looked upon to provide an answer to such a question. The question itself is strange: it reminds him of the person who, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, responded in the affirmative, assuring the questioner that he had seen it happen with his own eyes. There are scientists who do believe in the resurrection. In answering the question, Wright wants to explore the fault lines between different ways of knowing, between the forms of knowing advanced by science and by history, and the way of knowing that belongs to faith, hope, and love. These ways of knowing overlap in various ways.

We are often told that over recent centuries we have enjoyed an upward path towards the light of reason—the narrative of the Enlightenment. While Wright has no desire to return to premodern dentistry or sanitation or transport, for example, he feels that the modern narrative is limited. Science has not proved sufficient to provide us with the wholeness of life that we really need.

Plato regarded ‘faith’ as a sort of intermediate form of knowing, a sort of cushioned knowledge, a sense that the terminology retains in much common parlance. We often use the term ‘knowledge’ in a positivistic sense and ‘believe’ in a loose sense, to refer to matters of mere private opinion, where any relation to external reality is somewhat lacking or doubtful. The disciples, however, believed in a resurrection with a real purchase on reality, a resurrection that left mementos behind, whether that was an empty tomb or footprints on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.

What does the term ‘believe’ mean in the question that we are answering? What sorts of questions and dimensions of reality are open to the scientific method? What sort of claim should the scientist’s science have on his approach to other areas of his life? Should he be ‘scientific’ about his relationship to his wife, or about his assessment of a piece of music? The question that we are dealing with assumes that this particular issue of the resurrection impinges upon the scientist’s particular area of concern in a manner and to an extent that questions of love and music generally do not. While there are some who have sought to locate the issue of resurrection alongside such issues of love and music, this is not a movement that should make. In the context of the first century world resurrection was very much understood as a public, space-time event.

To put things somewhat simplistically: history deals with the unrepeatable, while science deals with the repeatable. Scientists’ objections to the resurrection often focus on the lack of analogy. However, the disciples did not believe that the resurrection was just one of many analogous events. The whole issue of worldview raises itself at this point. The worldview of the scientist is the context in which such things become believable or not.

What is the resurrection? There were many ancient beliefs about life after death. Ancient paganism contained many beliefs on these matters, but they universally ruled out the possibility of resurrection. Wright has explored this whole area at considerable length in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. The conviction that the dead do not rise is not a product born out of scientific discovery over the past few centuries: any first century person knew this fact. Ancient Judaism believed that God was creator and that he would set his world to rights, which for many was seen to involve bodily resurrection. Christianity belongs on this map. For Christians, resurrection was not a fancy way of talking about life after death, but a way of talking about a form of life after life after death. Christians certainly believed in a form of intermediate period, and might speak of it using terms such as ‘paradise’, but these beliefs are not to be confused with its belief in resurrection.

Beliefs about life after death are generally among the most conservatively held of all beliefs in the context of any given culture. It is in such areas that people tend to revert to the positions that they were taught in childhood. For this reason, any large scale change in the convictions of a society in this area needs to be accounted for. Such a large scale shift in beliefs about life after death is precisely what we see in the case of Christianity. Excepting the later movement of Gnosticism, the early Christian Church manifests several key mutations from traditional approaches to the subject of life after death.

1. In contrast to the Judaism of the day, there was virtually no variation on the issue of the resurrection in the context of early Christianity. Christianity has no trace of an established Sadducean view in its ranks.

2. While many Jewish groups held beliefs about resurrection, it was an issue for speculation and did not lie at the core of its belief system. In the early Church, belief in the resurrection moves from the circumference of belief to its very centre and heart.

3. In contrast to Jewish groups, within which many conceptions of resurrection circulated, from the very beginning the Christian Church held a very clearly defined understanding of resurrection. For instance, the resurrection body was thought of as a transformed—‘spiritual’—body and not just as a resuscitated one.

4. For Christians, the event of ‘resurrection’ has split into two. Outside of Christianity we do not find belief in the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. Such a theological movement is without precedent.

5. The Christian approach to ‘collaborative eschatology’ (Crossan) is also without precedent. Believing that the resurrection inaugurated the eschaton, the early Church believed that it needed to implement this event, in anticipation of the final consummation.

6. Within Christianity we also see a new metaphorical use of the language of resurrection. Within the context of Judaism the language had been employed as a metaphorical way of speaking about return from exile, for instance. In the context of Christianity, this metaphorical usage of ‘resurrection’ is replaced by the use of resurrection metaphors in the context of baptism and holiness.

7. Within Christianity belief in resurrection is connected with Messianic belief in a way that it is not within Judaism. Judaism did not have a place for a Messiah that would die at the hands of the enemies of the people of God and so, naturally, did not have the place for a resurrected Messiah that Christianity did.

Indeed, without the resurrection, how do we account for Messianic belief after Christ’s death? Within other Messianic movements more or less contemporaneous with the Jesus movement, the death of the supposed Messiah tended to lead to a quest for a replacement, often a relative of the supposed Messiah who had died. Within early Christianity there was a perfect candidate for such a position following Jesus’ death—his brother James. James was renowned for his piety and was a leading figure within the early Church, but was never thought of as the Messiah.

Twentieth century revisionist historiography has occasionally suggested that belief in the resurrection arose out of the subjective internal experience of early Christian disciples. A little employment of historical imagination should destroy any plausibility that such a suggestion might initially seem to possess. Anyone offering the suggestion that Jesus was raised from the dead, based purely on an internal experience of a warmed heart or even on the basis of witnessing him in the same room, would have been subjected to ridicule. First century people were well aware, as we are, of cases of dead relatives appearing to their grieving kin following their deaths. At this point we should note the common confusion that exists between the idea of resurrection and the idea of someone dying and going to be with God. The event of the resurrection is one that is not merely a matter of subjective inner feeling, but one that has considerable claim on the external public world. The point of the resurrection is that Jesus is Lord and that death and the tyrants who use its power are defeated.

Why did these mutations occur? Only one explanation truly suffices: the disciples genuinely believed that Jesus had been bodily raised.

As many have observed, the accounts of the resurrection in the gospels do not fit snugly together. There are a number of apparently conflicting details. A recent book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, provides a wonderful example of the surface discrepancies of eye-witness testimony. In a room containing many of the most brilliant minds of the time, Wittgenstein brandished a poker at Karl Popper and then left the room. The eye-witness accounts of this event differ markedly. However, what no one doubts is that something significant happened. The same can be said of the resurrection. Surface discrepancies between narratives is quite to be expected under such circumstances.

There are four important points of commonality to be noted between the resurrection accounts of the gospels:

1. The Scriptures are almost completely silent in the resurrection narratives, in marked contrast to previous stages of the gospel narratives, where quotations from the Scriptures occur with relative frequency. This suggests that the accounts of the resurrection are very early, going back to a very early oral tradition, established before the scriptural basis had been sufficiently explored (as it had been by the time of the later account of 1 Corinthians 15).

2. The presence of women as initial witnesses of the event is not what one would expect to find in the context of the culture of the day. Once again, the account of 1 Corinthians 15 would appear to be the later one here.

3. The portrait of Jesus himself is surprising. Jesus does not, for instance, shine like a star as we might expect him to. There is such an account, but it is found in the transfiguration, not in the resurrection accounts. Jesus’ body appears normal on occasions, but in other contexts it is clear that it has been transformed. For instance, we see the disciples having difficulty in recognizing him on occasions (e.g. John 21:12). This type of account is without precedent. The writers appear to be struggling to find the language appropriate to what they have witnessed and do not appear to be driven by a clear anti-docetic, or other agenda. The body of Christ is equally at home both in heaven and in earth. It also is clearly physical.

4. The resurrection has a very much ‘this-worldly’, present age meaning. Had the stories been written later, they might well have contained references to the future resurrection of all God’s people. As they stand, the accounts include a number of clearly pre-reflective elements.

When dealing with the issue of the relationship between Easter and history we need a two-pronged approach of explanation: (a) the tomb really was empty; (b) the disciples really did encounter Jesus after his death. People were aware of the occurrence of post-mortem appearances in visions in the ancient world. Jesus’ burial was also (a fact often unrecognized) a primary burial, which would have later been followed up by storing his remains in an ossuary. Apart from sightings, the empty tomb would have not been a sufficient argument for the possibility of resurrection; in the absence of an empty tomb, nor would sightings. The only explanation sufficient to support resurrection must involve both of these things. All of the signposts point in the direction of resurrection. Denials of the resurrection often preclude on the basis of worldviews that preclude its possibility from the outset. The event of the resurrection is that which explains the future shape of the early Church.

Here the issue of a form of knowing beyond scientific and historical knowing presents itself. This new way of knowing must involve some sort of overlap with scientific and historical forms of knowing. Wright gives the example of the donation of a magnificent work of art to a college in a university. The college, lacking any place in which to display the work of art, dismantles the current college building and rebuilds it around the donated work of art. All of the things that used to make the college special are retained and, indeed, enhanced by the presence of the work of art. The negative features of the college are removed by the redesign of the college around the work of art. However—and this is the crucial point—there must be some initial reception of the work of art prior to the redesigning and rebuilding of the college around it. It is of such an overlap that we speak of with the bearing that the issue of resurrection has upon the scientist or the historian.

The resurrection poses such a challenge to the scientist or the historian, for it is the utterly characteristic, protological event of the new world that is coming to birth. It is not an absurd event occurring within the system of our own world, but an event that belongs to a new reality. No other explanation of a satisfactory character can explain the empty tomb. Nevertheless, if someone chooses to stay between the Pharaoh of scepticism and the sea of faith, they cannot be pushed any further by the historian.

God has given us minds to think. Despite the fact that the resurrection bursts the bounds of history, it also belongs within history, which is precisely why it is so disturbing and unsettling to us. In seeking to understand the resurrection, we need to situate it within a broader context. The apostle Thomas is a good example to follow here. Thomas starts out looking for a certain form of knowing—“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe”—but ends up transcending this sort of knowing in a greater form of knowing. This is not an anti-historical or anti-scientific belief. There is epistemological weight borne by history. Faith transcends—but includes—historical and scientific conviction.

The faith by which we know, like all other true forms of knowing, is determined by the nature of its object. The fact that faith is determined by the nature of its object corresponds to the methodology adopted by science. In order to know certain things, scientists occasionally have to change their ways of seeing to a way that is more appropriate to the reality with which they are dealing. Changing paradigms involves finding a bigger picture within which to see things. Christian faith involves much the same sort of movement.

If we see an epistemology of faith in the example of Thomas, we see an epistemology of hope expressed in the work of the apostle Paul, a matter that is explored within Wright’s most recent publication, entitled—with apologies to C.S. Lewis—Surprised by Hope. Hope is a way of knowing in which new possibilities are opened up. There is also within Scripture an epistemology of love to be found, perhaps exemplified best by Peter. Wittgenstein once remarked in a profound statement: ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’ So it was in the case of Peter.

The question of how we know things is related to the new ontology of the resurrection. The resurrection cannot be known properly in terms of our world of death, detachment and betrayal. The knowing of love must have a correlative outside the knower in the external world. This is the knowing that is needed in the world of the resurrection. ‘Objective’ historical epistemology leads us to the questions faced by Thomas, Paul and Peter: are we able and prepared to adopt a knowing of faith, hope and love? All forms of knowing are given by God; all forms of knowing can be situated within the broader setting of knowing established by faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Wright’s Theological Starting Point in his Doctrine of Justification

Bishop WrightOne of the main reasons why many of Wright’s critics misunderstand his doctrine of justification can be traced to the fact that the questions that he is answering with his doctrine of justification are slightly different from those which traditional Reformed doctrines of justification are designed to answer.

Reformed doctrines of justification tend to have an anthropological starting point. The big question that the doctrine generally addresses is that of how an individual can get right with a holy God. Wright’s doctrine, on the other hand, takes its starting point with God. He starts with God’s covenant-renewing action in the gospel, rather than with man’s attempt to get right with God. Justification is understood in the context of the question of how God sets men to rights, rather than primarily in the context of the question of how men can get right with God.

When Wright talks about the basis for God’s justifying declaration, he is not providing a direct answer to the question of what we must do to be saved. For Wright, God’s declaration that we are right with Him is not merely delivered on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness extra nos, but includes the work of the Spirit within the believer as part of its basis. Wright believes that God is righteous in justifying because (a) Christ has died for the sins of the world; (b) faith is the appropriate helpless response to the gospel; (c) faith is the true obedience that the Law called for but could never provide; (d) faith, as the first sign of the work of the Spirit, is the sign of a new life that is obedient by nature (‘God’s verdict in the present is righteous, because the basis on which it is made is sufficient grounds for confidence that it will correspond to the righteous verdict of the last day’).

Wright’s doctrine of justification relies heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit in the convert (both in present and final justification). If Wright’s doctrine were designed as a direct answer to the traditional Reformed questions of justification it would probably be dangerously misleading. We would be taught to depend at least in part on the work of the Spirit in ourselves, an incomplete and imperfect righteousness within, rather than on the completed work and person of Christ extra nos. Such a dependence on an incomplete righteousness would produce assurance problems, given the lack of a proper ground for our justification (the need for a perfect righteousness as the basis of our justification is the issue that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness seeks to deal with). However, Wright’s doctrine is not designed as an answer to the traditional questions that Reformed Christians have tended to use the doctrine of justification to answer. To understand Wright’s doctrine of justification you really have to put the traditional questions to one side, something which most of Wright’s critics haven’t really grasped yet.

When Wright speaks of faith in relation to his doctrine of justification one of the things that should really strike the reader is how passive man is characterized as being. From his treatments of faith in such contexts, one could be led to wonder whether he believes that faith is something that human beings ‘exercise’ at all. For instance, faith is spoken of as the ‘boundary marker’ or ‘badge’ of the true people of God. One does not generally think in terms of ‘exercising’ a badge.

‘Faith’, for Paul, is therefore not a substitute ‘work’ in a moralistic sense. It is not something one does in order to gain admittance into the covenant people. It is the badge that proclaims that one is already a member. [What St Paul Really Said, 132]

Such a statement is bound to confuse the Reformed reader who is used to approaching the doctrine of justification as the doctrine that answers the question of what an individual must do to get right with a holy God. Given Wright’s theological — rather than anthropological — starting point, his doctrine of justification provides at best a confusing answer to the question that Reformed Christians are answering.

As Wright addresses the issue of justification within the context of the question of how God sets humanity and His creation to rights, his doctrine can include things that a doctrine with an anthropological starting point would find it hard to include. If we adopt an anthropological starting point, certain of the distinctions between justification and sanctification are far more important than they are if we begin with a theological starting point. From an anthropological starting point justification speaks of the way in which I can come to be accepted as righteous in God’s sight and sanctification speaks of a more synergistic process, through which I grow in personal righteousness. Viewed from this perspective it is crucial to keep justification and sanctification distinct, as we do not want to say that we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight on the basis of our works. The distinction between justification and sanctification is essential if we are to preserve monergism.

Viewed from Wright’s more theological starting point, justification and what we call sanctification are not so distinct. From a theological starting point sanctification is not really viewed as an essentially synergistic process (although from other perspectives it can legitimately be regarded as such). In Wright’s understanding, God’s declaration of justification has ‘sanctification’ — both present and promised — in view to some extent. However — and this point is absolutely crucial — the sanctification that is in view is God’s action, rather than ours. It is God who gives the badge of faith and the life of the Spirit in the effectual call and it is God who commits Himself to bringing to completion that which He has begun in us. The condition for this justification is something provided by God, rather than by us.

This means that Wright can maintain a far less antithetical relationship between faith and faithfulness in his doctrine of justification. He writes:

Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness’, which makes the point just as well. Nor, of course, does this then compromise the gospel or justification, smuggling in ‘works’ by a back door. That would only be the case if the realignment I have been arguing for throughout were not grasped. Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more not less. [What St Paul Really Said, 160]

All of this should alert the reader to the fact that Wright is not approaching justification as the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved. If someone asked Wright what they must do to be saved, he would clearly direct them to Jesus Christ and away from any dependence upon their own moral efforts. He would call them to trust in God, His Word and His promises, and not to rest their assurance on their own imperfect works. There is no ambiguity on this point. However, this is not the question that Wright believes that the doctrine of justification is intended to answer. Few points could be more important for the proper interpretation of Wright.

Links

Links from the last few days:

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According to Dr Scaer, the most common way people join the Church is that someone invited them. Guess what? If church sucks, people don’t invite others. They don’t think “Man, my friends have got to be here for this!” They think “Well, I might as well keep going here.” So here’s a fun list that can work for all denominations!

Read the Fearsome Pirate’s church growth tips here. He also gives a Lutheran perspective in outlining some of the things that he dislikes about the PCA worship that he has experienced.

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An interesting post from Leithart here. He observes the way in which we are shaped by popular culture, beginning with a series of tests to see how easily we identify with certain popular slogans, characters and advertisements from our culture and then how easily we identify with Christian counterparts to these. I think that I got a near perfect mark on every part except for the advertising slogans, which probably has something to do with living in the UK. However, I admit that the references to popular culture were generally more familiar than the references to the traditional hymns and references from classic literature. I could probably quote near-verbatim the lyrics from a few dozen rock albums, but I probably know no more than a score of psalms by heart. I have a troublingly vast quantity of pointless pop trivia in my head, so Leithart’s post was a good one for me to read.

Leithart argues that the way that Christians often characterize our struggle with the world is deficient. We tend to think primarily in terms of a struggle of ideas. However, the battle is, more often than not, a struggle of desire. As René Girard has argued desire is mimetic, and the world is consistently tempting us to model our desires after its pattern.

This is where the church comes in. If the battle we face in the wider culture were merely a matter of ideas and thoughts, then we might be able to withstand the onslaught of bad ideas on our own. We might be able to fill our minds with good thoughts and ideas through reading and studying, and when a bad idea came up, we’d pounce. If we are cultural beings, whose habits and practices and desires are shaped by the habits and practices and desires of others around us – and we are – then we can’t really stand up to the cultural temptations in isolation, by ourselves. We cannot resist on our own. We need to be part of a resistant community, a resistant community that recognizes the way the world seeks to shape us into its image, and self-consciously resists the world.

And we can’t resist something with nothing. To the world’s desire-shaping, formative practices, Christians need to oppose a different set of desire-shaping practices. We can’t say: I won’t desire what the world wants me to desire. We have to have positive, godly desires in place of the world’s desires. And these desires and habits need to be nurtured, cultivated, shaped and formed in a particular community. The church has a culture, and must be a culture, if it is going to resist the forces that would conform you to worldly culture.

Leithart also has a post on consumerism that I found interesting.

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Following on from his earlier post on Dawkins and Lacan, Macht observes the importance of un-clarity in argument if we are to truly communicate:

Being “unclear” in one’s writing, then, can perhaps be a way to get the reader to NOT translate what they are reading into familiar terms. A writer want the reader to think in ways they’ve never thought before and that may require unfamiliar terms. This will of course require more work on the part of the reader and may lead to misunderstandings, but that might be the price a writer needs to pay in order to get his point across.

This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why misunderstanding so often attends theological discourse. In theology our terms are generally given to us by Scripture. Our overfamiliarity with these terms can lead to misunderstanding when we read people like Barth and Wright, who use familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. It takes quite a conscious effort on our part to overcome the familiarity that we have with the terms and begin to appreciate the ‘otherness’ of the theology of such men, and not merely interpret them on our own terms.

John Milbank has also observed the importance of ‘making strange’: developing new language to replace overfamiliar terms, in order that the peculiarity and distinctive character of the Christian position might become more apparent. This, I suggest, is one argument in favour of those who are wary of a theological discourse that works almost entirely in terms of biblical terminology. Such a discourse is helpful among those who understand the positions being advanced, but it can provide an impediment to those who have not yet grasped them.

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Joel Garver begins to articulate some of his concerns with the recent PCA report on the FV/NPP.
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Paul Helm on biblical versus systematic theology. I believe that the way that we do systematic theology is overdue for a complete overhaul. I don’t believe that biblical theology is the answer to everything, but I would not be sad to witness the demise of the discipline of systematic theology as it is often currently practiced (something that I have commented on in the past). Much systematic theology is ‘timeless’ in a deeply unhealthy fashion. It tends to treat its subject matter as if it were timeless and it also teaches in a manner that abstracts the learner from the time-bound narrative.

Systematic theology often seems to aim to present us with a panoptic perspective on the biblical narrative. We look at the narrative from a great height, from without rather than from within. This ‘timeless’ perspective is very dangerous, I believe. A reform of systematic theology would reject this way of approaching the discipline and would approach its subject matter in a slightly different manner. We study theology from within time, as participants in God’s drama. Neither the subject matter nor the student of theology should be abstracted from time. Rather than dealing with ‘timeless’ truths, we should deal with truths that are ‘constant’ through time.

Peter Leithart has suggested that ideally systematic theology would play a role analogous to the role that a book entitled An Anthropology of Middle Earth would play relative to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a book would help the reader to understand the constant features of the narratives. However, its subject matter would never be detached from the narrative nor could it ever be substituted for the narrative itself. The narrative always retains the primacy.

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Michael Bird writes [HT: Chris Tilling] on the importance of the study of NT Theology and Christian Origins. Here is a taster:

…when students (esp. evangelical students) talk about the message of the New Testament, they usually mean Paul. And when they mean Paul, what they mean is Romans and Galatians. Their understanding (or sometimes lack of undestanding) of these two epistles often becomes the centre of not only Paul, but of the entire New Testament. Hebrews, Matthew, Revelation, and Luke-Acts are all forced into a Pauline framework.

How is this corrected? First, Christian Origins shows us the real diversity of the early church. You only have to compare the Johannine literature, Luke-Acts, and Paul to see that the saving significance of Jesus was expressed in different (I did not say contradictory) concepts, categories, and terms. Approaches to the law were diverse and pluriform as Christians struggled (in every sense of the word) to understand how the law-covenant was to be understood and followed in light of the coming Jesus/faith (cf. Gal. 3.23). A study of Christian Origins opens our eyes to the reality and goodness of diversity, so that Christians can learn to differentiate between convictions and commands, and discern between the major and the minor doctrines of Christian belief. I would also add that, despite this theological breadth to the early church, there was still unity within diversity, a unity apparent in the common kerygma of the early church. While there was diversity and complexity in the early church, it was never a free for all, and the desire to discern between true and false expressions of belief were part of the Christian movement from the very beginning. That leads us to New Testament Theology and rather than priviledging Paul to supra-canonical status (and Romans and Galatians and hyper-canonical), we should listen to each corpra on its own terms and to the issues to which they speak. A study of this kind will indicate where the theological (and dare I say) spiritual centre of gravity lies in the New Testament.

The evangelical and Reformed tendency to force the whole of the NT into a Pauline framework is something that is becoming increasingly apparent to me. Over the last few weeks I have been studying the doctrine of atonement, for instance, in the NT. I have been struck by how muted the theme of penal substitution is in much of the extra-Pauline literature (or even, for that matter, in a number of the ’secondary’ Pauline epistles). If our ‘canon within the canon’ consisted of the Johannine literature or of Matthew and James, rather than Romans and Galatians, evangelical and Reformed theology would probably take a radically different form. Recogizing this fact has made me far more sympathetic to a number of traditions whose theology differs sharply from Reformed theology, largely because they operate in terms of a very different ‘canon within the canon’. Paul is only part of the picture and his voice is not necessarily any more important than others within the NT canon.

I suspect that a number of significant theological advances could be made if we were only to put our favourite sections of Romans and Galatians to one side for a while. For instance, we might begin to see the continuing role that the commandments of the Torah performed in shaping the life of the Church. We might begin to have a clearer sense of just how Jewish the thinking of the early Church was. An overemphasis on Paul’s more antithetical and abstract ways of formulating the relationship between the Law and the Gospel can blind us to how Paul and other NT authors generally continue to take the particularities of the Torah as normative for the life of the NT people of God. The way that the Torah operates has changed, but it is still operational in many respects as the Torah of the Spirit and the Torah of liberty.

We might also find ourselves called to more concrete forms of discipleship and begin to move towards a gospel that is more firmly rooted in praxis. We might also discover that the message of the gospel is not just concerned with the overcoming of sin and death, but also is about bringing humanity to the maturity that God had always intended for it. We might also find ourselves moving towards a more sacramental gospel.

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John Barach ponders the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the ten statements of Genesis 1.
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David Jones at la nouvelle théologie gives a list of links to material relevant to the recent Wilson-Hitchens debate on Christianity and atheism. There is also an interesting article in the Daily Mail, in which Peter Hitchens reviews his brother’s book [HT: Dawn Eden].
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Al Kimel’s blog, Pontifications, has a new home [HT: Michael Liccione]. The RSS feed also seems to be better on this one.
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June 2007 Wrightsaid list answers.
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As someone who believes that the inerrancy debates are largely unhelpful, I found this post by John H quite insightful. The Scriptures are exactly as God wanted us to have them and fulfil the purposes for which they were given. They are trustworthy. In the comments to the post, it is observed that the Church would have been far better off fighting for the ground of Scriptural efficacy, rather than Scriptural inerrancy. The Scriptures perfectly achieve the goals for which they were given. A position centred on Scriptural efficacy also serves to remind us that fundamentalism is itself a threat to a truly Christian doctrine of the Word of God, generally denying or downplaying the saving efficacy of God’s Word in preaching, the sacraments and the liturgy. Thinking in such terms might also help to move us away from the overly formal doctrine of Scripture generally adopted by conservative evangelicalism.
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Matthew gives some helpful clarifications in response to my comments on his recent post.
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The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart’s latest book is released today. Buy your copy now!
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David Peterson, from Oak Hill, gives an introduction to biblical theology in a series of audio lectures. I haven’t listened to these yet, but some of my readers might find them helpful.
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Ben Witherington on Billy Graham.
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R.P. Reeves on evangelicalism:

With Hochshild’s case, I was surprised to learn how bare-bones Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is, but as I’ve tried to think through the history of evangelicalism in a more comprehensive manner, I’m no longer surprised; rather, it’s exactly what I expect from evangelicalism. One of the characteristics of evangelicalism that I am working on developing is that it is first and foremost a renewalist, rather than ecclesiastical, movement. In 16th century Protestantism, the doctrinal heritage of the church (notably the ecumenical creeds) was explicitly reaffirmed, precisely because the Reformation sought to reform the church. By contrast, Evangelicalism seeks to renew the individual (and then, once a sufficient mass of individuals a renewed, this will renew the church, or society, or the state, etc.). Mixed with a primitivist suspicion of creeds and traditions, it’s not surprising that a basic affirmation of biblical inerrancy was believed to be sufficient boundary for evangelical theologians, nor is it surprising that this thin plank is proving to be a shaky foundation.

[HT: Paul Baxter]

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A PCA pastor: “We wouldn’t ordain John Murray”. Sadly, this is only what one should expect when theological factionalism takes holds of a denomination.
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Byron is right: this is a very good parable.
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‘Begging the Question’ [HT: Paul Baxter]
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From the evangelical outpost: How to Draw a Head and Assess your Brain Fitness.
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The cubicle warrior’s guide to office jargon
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The unveiling of the logo for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Seb Coe:

It will define the venues we build and the Games we hold and act as a reminder of our promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world.

Tony Blair:

When people see the new brand, we want them to be inspired to make a positive change in their life.

Tessa Jowell:

This is an iconic brand that sums up what London 2012 is all about - an inclusive, welcoming and diverse Games that involves the whole country.

It takes our values to the world beyond our shores, acting both as an invitation and an inspiration.

Ken Livingstone:

The new Olympic brand draws on what London has become - the world’s most forward-looking and international city.

And the brand itself:

London 2012

***
Finally, some Youtube videos:

The new Microsoft Surface:

Battle at Kruger:

I’m a Marvel … and I’m a DC:

New Skoda Ad:

Judas and Ahithophel


In the course of his treatment of the use of the OT in John’s gospel, Steve Moyise describes M.J.J. Menken’s understanding of the background of Jesus’ statement in John 13:18. Menken suggests that John makes his own translation from the Hebrew of Psalm 41:9, but alters it slightly to bring it closer to the language of 2 Samuel 18:28. The context of this verse is Ahithophel’s betrayal of Jesus, an event in the life of David which Jewish tradition also associates with Psalm 41. Menken observes a number of parallels between the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and David’s betrayal by Ahithophel that I hadn’t noticed before.

  • Judas and Ahithophel both hang themselves after the deed (2 Sam 17.23/Matt 27.5).
  • They both plan to do the deed at night (2 Sam 17.1/John 13.30).
  • David and Jesus both pray for deliverance on the Mount of Olives (2 Sam 15.31/Mark 14.26ff.).
  • David and Jesus both cross the Kidron (2 Sam 15.23/John 18.1).
  • It is claimed that the death of one man will bring peace to the people (2 Sam 17.3/John 11.50).

I had seen some of these before, but hadn’t noticed a few of the others.

Birth Pangs and New Birth as a Model for the Atonement and Resurrection

Matthias Grünewald - Isenheim Altar, Christ's birth and resurrection panels, 1515

Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. — John 16:20-22

In these verses Jesus employs the image of the birth pangs of a woman in labour, imagery that is common in the OT prophets, where it is also occasionally used to refer to a period of intense suffering preceding a new age (similar usage is also to be found in extracanonical Jewish literature). In the prophets the image of labour pains followed by birth is associated with resurrection (Isaiah 26:16-21) and with the restoration of the people of God (Isaiah 66:8-14).

The strong eschatological associations of such imagery are not accidental to the meaning of this passage. Nor should this passage be detached from the general theme of new birth that appears at various points of the gospel of John. The popular employment of the language of new birth and regeneration can blind us to the primary focus of the teaching of new birth in Scripture, which is not a spiritual transformation in the heart of the new convert but the death and resurrection of Christ.

The death and resurrection of Christ represent a watershed in history. The death of Christ was the definitive death of the old world order. Since then the old creation has been passing away and the new creation born in the resurrection has been advancing. The first person to born again was Jesus Christ, when He became the firstborn from the dead in His resurrection. The new birth experienced by the new convert is an entry into the new life of Christ’s resurrection.

In the OT no one was born again. From dust they were born and to dust they returned. Naked people came from their mother’s wombs and naked they returned there. The re-entry into the womb (the earth and the womb are habitually related together in the OT — Job 1:21; Psalm 139:13-15; Ecclesiastes 5:15) was by death and no one had come out again on the other side. The cursed womb of the earth seemed barren; the seed continually entered into its belly, but no fruit came forth (cf. Proverbs 30:15-16).

John employs the imagery of the woman in labour in the context of a broader inaugurated eschatology. For John the birth pangs begin in Jesus’ death; the birth itself is presumably the resurrection. A surface reading of the text might suggest that the birth pangs are undergone by the disciples; closer examination suggests a more complex picture.

Particularly significant are the words ‘because her hour has come’. Throughout the gospel of John the theme of Jesus’ coming hour is prominent, and no more so than in the chapters just prior to the crucifixion account. It is our conviction that the woman in John 16 represents Israel, undergoing the travail that will result in the birth of a new age. Her birth pangs are focused on the cross of Jesus, but are also experienced to some degree by the disciples.

Who is the new child that is born? It seems to me that the new child is Christ Himself. We find this position convincing in the light of the strong Johannine and NT connection between resurrection and new birth. In Revelation 1:5 Jesus is described as the firstborn of the dead. This understanding of the resurrection is also to be observed in Lucan (Acts 13:33) and Pauline (Romans 1:3-4; Colossians 1:18) thought. Such a teaching is not treated as if it were in tension with the fact that Jesus is truly the Son of God before the resurrection. Jesus is the both the one who precedes the creation as the eternally begotten of the Father and the one who leads the way into the new age as the firstborn of the dead. In Revelation 12 it also seems most likely that the birth referred to there takes place in the death and resurrection of Christ.

While the resurrected Christ is the most immediate referent of the newborn child, the image refers more broadly to the new birth of the people of God as a whole (cf. Isaiah 66:8; Revelation 12:17). It is through the birth pangs of the cross that the birth from above that Jesus speaks of in John 3 becomes a possibility.

This imagery is employed in a number of places in the NT outside of Johannine writings. In Romans 8, for instance, the imagery occurs within a context of inaugurated and awaited eschatology. The birth pangs are still taking place, but the manifestation of the sons of God is certain, as Jesus has already been declared to be the Son of God in His resurrection as the firstborn of the dead. Being sons of God is a matter of great eschatological significance for Paul. The fact that people are being set apart as the sons of God by the reception of the firstfruits of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come upon us.

Understanding the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of birth pangs and new birth provides us with an illuminating perspective on the death of Christ, one that is present at a number of points in the NT, but has not received much attention. It is a model of atonement that focuses on the giving of new life. Within this model (which undoubtedly needs to be complemented by others) sin and death are overcome not by means of punishment, but by the bringing about of new life. Birth pangs may be an effect of the Fall, but the focus of this model is not on punishing man for sin or condemning sin, but on overcoming the death and the frustration of the creation that result from human sin.

Evangelical doctrines of the atonement often have the tendency of detaching the cross from the resurrection and becoming focused on the condemnation of the sins of the past, saying a lot less about how the cross and resurrection bring about new life. We are left merely as forgiven sinners, rather than as participants in a new creation. Such models — which should by no means be rejected — are generally backward looking, focusing on past transgressions. The model outlined above is more forward looking, placing a far greater accent on the resurrection.

This model also ties in very neatly with themes and motifs that are very prominent in the OT. I have already observed how it relates to imagery that is found in a number of places in the prophets. It relates to the common OT theme of God’s overcoming of barrenness to bring forth the seed. Even more significantly, it relates to the unravelling of the curse and the fulfilment of the protoevangelium far more closely than many other models. It relates to the curse on the woman’s womb, the curse on the ground and the overcoming of death.

Significantly, this theme does not merely show the cross and resurrection as the reversal of the curse. The curse stacks all the odds against new birth, but it is not the reason why new birth is necessary. New birth is necessary because the creation must mature. The heavenly must take the place of the earthly (1 Corinthians 15:35-54). The recent film Children of Men well illustrates the dystopic reality of a world of death without new birth. In such a world, all that remains is the agonizing cry of the woman who can bring forth nothing but wind. In the resurrection the world of the first creation is glorified. The natural body is sown and the spiritual body is raised and there is a future for the world once more.

The model outlined above presents us with a natural image — that of giving birth — in order to help us to understand what takes place at the cross. Even apart from the dimension of the overcoming of the curse and barrenness of the womb of the earth, such new birth of the Spirit would have been necessary even in a world apart from sin. Such a ‘natural’ image for what takes place at the cross also suggests how what takes place at the cross may be analogous to the eternal begetting of the Son, which provides the eternal condition of its possibility. Christ is the one who is eternally begotten by the Father through the Spirit and He is the one in whom new birth by the Father through the Spirit becomes a possibility for us in history. The death and resurrection thus mirror to some extent the eternal processions of the Trinity.

Romans 7:14-25


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In Which Alastair Invites His Readers to Take His Newly-Created Biblical Comprehension Test


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Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?


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Eating and Drinking in John 6 Redux

Just when I thought that this old post had gone into the cryogenic storage of the distant archives, it has been reanimated with new discussion. A number of issues are addressed, including that of whether a reference to the Eucharist in John 6 means that our salvation is at stake if we do not eat it (and what the word ’salvation’ is actually assumed to mean in such a question).

Why I Will Never be a Biblical Scholar


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Rambling comments on Dunn and Esler on Baptism in Romans 6

Over the weekend I read a number of commentators on Romans 6, a couple of which were set reading for a seminar that I attended this morning. The two commentators that were on our set reading were Philip Esler and James Dunn, both of whom I have significant disagreements with. My chief disagreements have to do with the way in which they approach the question of Baptism.

Dunn asks what the phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ would have meant for Paul’s readers. He goes on to interact with two chief possibilities. The first possibility

…is that they would have recalled their own baptism, understanding it as an act that united them with Christ. This would be all the more likely if they were familiar with the initiation rites of the mystery cults, which, so it used to be firmly maintained, were thought to achieve a mystical identification with the cult god through some re-enactment of his or her fate.

Dunn proceeds to dismiss this possibility, arguing that washings were generally preparatory to the initiation rites in the mystery cults, rather than the initiation itself. He also believes that the idea of ‘mystical identification between the initiate and the cult god’ was probably not as widespread as many presume. He writes:—

The one claim of such cults which would have been widely known was the bare evangelistic assertion that without being initiated into their mysteries there could be no hope of life or light in the future world. But it must remain doubtful whether Paul would have wished his converts to understand Christian initiation as providing that sort of guarantee, not least because he has already polemicized against just such a misunderstanding in the case of the rite of initiation into Judaism (2:25-29; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13).

Having rejected this possibility, Dunn goes on to argue for what he terms the ‘other chief possibility’, that Paul ‘is here taking up a metaphorical usage already familiar in Christian tradition.’ Dunn traces the use of this metaphor from John the Baptist, who used it to speak of the one who would baptize in the Spirit and fire, to Jesus, who adapted it to refer to His own death. Later on the same metaphor is used of Pentecost and other ‘initiatory experiences of the Spirit’, for instance Paul’s use of the language of baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul, then, uses the language of baptism as a metaphor to speak of the original experience of conversion: ‘As Paul clearly implies elsewhere, the initiating experience of the Spirit was usually very vivid, an event often deeply moving and profoundly transforming, which the young Christians would have no difficulty in recalling.’

The other interesting aspect of Dunn’s account of Romans 6 is the manner in which he tends to accent our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than our being identified with Christ in a manner that does not necessarily presuppose any action on our part. As the identification that he focuses on is a self-identification, it is as incomplete as faith itself. As we grow in faith our identification with Christ will increase.

Philip Esler’s commentary (Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter) studies the origin and the practice of Baptism in the early ‘Christ-movement’ and explores the question of Baptism and social identity, before he treats the particular position of the apostle Paul. He explores the significance of Baptism in the light of ‘rituals of initiation’ in general.

Esler argues that ‘in the first generation or so of the Christ-movement baptism was also the occasion on which the believer received the Holy Spirit.’ He sees baptism by the Spirit and water baptism as distinct, but closely related, events as part of a ‘“conversion-initiation” complex’. Water baptism is ‘the expression of faith to which God gives the Spirit.’ He argued that the reception of the Spirit following Baptism was manifested in a ‘variety of ecstatic states … and phenomena, including trances, visions, auditions, prophecy, and glossolalia, that often produced feelings of peace and even euphoria.’ Esler compares this with contemporary experiences of ‘charismatic phenomena’. Against those who are sceptical of claims that baptism was accompanied with ‘possession by the Spirit’ he argues that ‘the emotionally charged atmosphere of baptism, with fellow Christ-followers present to assist the newly baptized members achieve spiritual possession, in the manner known from Goodman’s investigation in modern charismatic congregations, would have meant that most did receive the Spirit.’

Within Esler’s account there is far more of an emphasis placed upon the significance of Baptism in and for the community. Faith is not a merely private thing. Access to God is received via entry into the community. Esler adduces Hippolytus’ account of the community of the early Church in Rome gathering for the baptisms of each new member as proof of this. Esler also accents the experience of Baptism and its presumed psychological effect on the baptizand. Paul saw Baptism as the time in which the Spirit of God was received: ‘Thus baptism was an overwhelming encounter with God and Christ, an encounter charged with visionary experiences of light and manifested in an eruption of glossolalia and other ecstatic phenomena.’

I find the approaches taken by Esler and Dunn unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. One of the things that frustrates me about many NT commentators is that often they seem to be more prepared to discover a background for NT practices in the surrounding pagan culture of the first century or (caricaturing slightly) in the observations of some anthropologist concerning the initiation rituals of some obscure Polynesian tribe than they are to give serious weight to the idea that NT rites may have developed out of OT rites and have been understood in terms of existing Scriptural categories.

The idea of Baptism into Christ, at first glance, does seem to be a bit foreign to the thought world of the OT and to have more in common with the world of the mystery religions. However, I believe that there are a number of different ways in which such a concept might not be so alien to the conceptual categories of the OT as we are first inclined to believe.

N.T. Wright and others have spoken at length of the incorporative meaning of the title ‘Christ’, arguing that such a meaning is endemic to the understanding of kingship in ancient Israel. The term ‘Christ’ does not refer just to Jesus as an individual, but to the people of the Messiah as a whole (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:16). Wright deals specifically with Romans 6 in the third chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, claiming that “Romans 6.3 clearly refers to entry, through baptism, into the people of God; here Χριστός is basically shorthand for ‘the people of the Messiah’.” The background for union with Christ through Baptism is not the mystical identification with cultic gods brought about by the initiation rituals of the mystery religions, but the idea of entry into the concrete historical community of the Messiah. It should also be observed that ‘Baptism into Christ’ may just be another way of speaking of Baptism in Christ’s name.

It might also be worth asking to what extent Paul saw a parallel between the baptism into Moses that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Baptism into Christ. What OT data would he draw upon in arguing that the Red Sea crossing was baptismal and created a union between Moses and the children of Israel, for example? The following are a few tentative thoughts and suggestions. First, the idea that the Red Sea crossing would have been perceived as ‘baptismal’, even within an OT context, could be argued from certain parallels that the baptismal priestly ordination rite of Exodus 40 has with the narrative of the crossing (many of these parallels can be seen in the later crossing of the Jordan as well). The Red Sea would then be seen as part of God’s setting apart of Israel as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). There might be a suggestion of priestly ordination within the Song of Moses, with the reference to bringing the children of Israel into God’s Sanctuary (Exodus 15:17).

Some might argue that these parallels might be reinforced with the correspondence between the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the third day of creation (which James Jordan once argued for; I would be surprised if he still does), as a connection between the third day of creation and being brought up out of the Red Sea is hinted at in Isaiah 63:11. However, I would question this interpretation, as the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the Bronze Sea in the Temple seem to represent the firmament waters above, rather than the waters of the deep below, which is why the waters are raised off from the ground.

In Isaiah 63:11 there is almost certainly an allusion to the third day of creation and it is interesting to observe that the verse does not speak of being brought through the Sea, but of being brought up out of the sea (the language of 1 Corinthians 10 draws our attention to slightly different aspects of the symbolism). The Red Sea crossing was about being brought out of the Gentile, pre-formation (in Genesis 1), sea and formed into a new land.

Christian Baptism involves a twofold movement — being taken up out of the waters below and passing through the second day firmament waters above. John the Baptist’s baptism was always insufficient, as it could only accomplish the first part of this movement. It is Christ who brings the second stage of Baptism into action, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit — the living water from above — so that we have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). Incidentally, this is why affusion with living water from above captures the biblical symbolism of Christian Baptism in a way that complete submersion doesn’t. Christian Baptism both brings us up from the death sea of Sin and sanctifies us with heavenly water for priestly access to the heavenly temple.

Second, we could question exactly what sort of relationship the Red Sea crossing was perceived to have created between Moses and Israel, that Paul could speak of baptism into Moses. In Isaiah 63:11, the reference to Israel being brought up out of the sea is interesting when we consider the meaning of Moses’ own name. Moses’ name was given to him because he was ‘drawn out of the water’ (Exodus 2:10). Moses was delivered from Pharaoh through water. He was delivered from slavery before any of the other Israelites were, being taken up out of the reeds (as the Israelites would later be taken up out of the Sea of Reeds) in an account that alludes to the earlier flood narrative of Genesis. Moses recapitulates Noah’s rescue through the flood and precapitulates the later Exodus.

Moses experienced a sort of ‘precapitulation’ of the salvation that God would accomplish through him. He was the one who went ahead of the people of God and sums them up in himself. We see the same of Christ. Many of the events in Christ’s life are both recapitulations of Israel’s earlier history and precapitulations of the ‘New Exodus’ that He would accomplish and His people would share in.

The Red Sea crossing also establishes a union between Moses and the Israelites on a number of other levels. Prior to the Red Sea crossing the Israelites are still slaves and their masters are pursuing them. In the Red Sea their masters are destroyed and they are set free. Having been set free from slavery to Pharaoh they can come under the headship of Moses in a way that they couldn’t before. The shepherd Moses becomes the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11). He was not brought up out of the Red Sea as one individual among many, but in a way distinct from others, as the shepherd of the sheep (Messianic language and similar to Christ, notice the allusion to Isaiah 63:11 in Hebrews 13:20, for instance).

The bond between Moses and Israel is also powerfully affected by the crossing as it leads the Israelites to believe in Moses (Exodus 14:31). God performs the miraculous crossing through the agency of Moses. The strength of the bond between Moses and the Israelites formed by his bringing them up out of Egypt can be seen when YHWH, in speaking to Moses, refers to the Israelites as ‘thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:7). The crossing formed Israel into a new solidarity, freed from the former solidarity of slavery, under the rule of Moses.

Taking all of this OT background into account, I don’t believe that a parallel between Baptism into Christ and baptism into Moses is as far-fetched as some might suggest. ‘In Christ’ we do enjoy a mystical union with Christ, but the significance of this union can generally be articulated in robustly biblical categories, even though it far transcends the things that those categories were originally employed to refer to. Being in Christ is very different from being ‘in David’ or ‘in Moses’, but the concept of being in Christ is best understood as a surprising development and transformation of these OT concepts, rather than as a pagan accretion to the theology of the apostle Paul. There is absolutely no need to appeal to ideas within the world of paganism in order to make sense of such concepts.

Whilst Dunn rejects the idea of understanding Baptism into Christ in terms of the mystery cults, the fact that he does not seem to give much attention to the possibility of the concept of union with Christ through (water) Baptism arising within a strongly Jewish milieu, without borrowing from Hellenistic cults, is telling. It is as such points that I feel the difference between my approach to the NT and that of many NT scholars most keenly. I approach the NT with the presupposition that NT practices can be understood in terms of OT practices and symbolism and that there is no need to appeal to a pagan background. Such an approach is very different from that taken by many NT scholars, who seem to presume that the OT is of limited use in explaining the NT.

Dunn’s ‘other chief possibility’, which he argues in favour of, is one that I find quite unconvincing. The evidence for the idea that the ‘baptism’ referred to in Romans 6 is merely a metaphor for conversion seems to be tenuous, to say the least. The problem, once again, seems to be a failure to do justice to the continuities between the OT and the NT.

Dunn reads Paul to contrast an OT religion of outward, physical rites with a NT religion of faith. This contrast is a common one in Protestant circles and is based on a serious misreading of the NT (and often also the OT, for that matter). This misreading leads to a great problem reconciling faith with the sacraments. For many the sacraments become reduced to mere ordinances to be performed as functions of faith, rather than gifts of divine grace and presence. Many of Peter Leithart’s criticisms of Dunn’s reading of the references to Baptism in Galatians 3:27 as metaphorical apply equally well here (Leithart’s entire ‘Baptism is Baptism’ series is well worth reading — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Whilst we would be wrong to deny that the language of Baptism occasionally carries a more metaphorical sense in the NT, this metaphor is not as free-floating as Dunn seems to make it. In fact, I wonder whether ‘metaphor’ is a very helpful term for us to be using at all. Christ does not merely use baptism as a convenient metaphor for His death. Christ’s death isn’t just comparable to a baptism; it is a baptism.

It all comes down to how we define Baptism. If we read the Scriptures typologically, Baptism is primarily to be defined in terms of the wealth of OT typology that speaks of transitions made through water, for example. Jesus’ reference to His death as His baptism is firmly grounded in OT typology. Reading in terms of typology, we do not have literal baptisms on the one hand and metaphorical baptisms on the other. Rather, we have a number of different types of baptisms, some of which are water rituals and others which involve a broader application of the typology apart from a water ritual. These baptisms are bound together by their shared typology.

In terms of the scriptural typology of Baptism it makes a lot of sense for Romans 6 to be referring to water baptism. The idea of a change in one’s relationship with God being brought about by means of a movement through water has a wealth of biblical support for it. We only face problems when we start to work with a definition of Baptism that cuts it loose from scriptural typology and a theology that denigrates physical rites and polarizes symbol and reality. Once we start to think of Baptism in terms of ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ we will begin to think of Spirit and water Baptism as two quite different sorts of things, which are as separate as oil and water.

If we think in terms of typology, the two can be seen to be closely interrelated. Spirit Baptism has primary reference to Pentecost and the individual Christian receives the Spirit through water Baptism into the new community formed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The contrast between Spirit and water Baptism is not the contrast between spiritual ‘reality’ and physical ‘picture’. Nor is the contrast a contrast between an efficacious Baptism by the Spirit and a water baptism that was powerless to change anything. John the Baptist’s point in contrasting his baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit performed by Christ is that his baptism was not able to give the new covenant life of the Holy Spirit. However, John’s baptism was not without efficacy; it promised nothing less than divine forgiveness.

The contrast that we see between water and Spirit Baptism in places in the NT is the contrast created by two different redemptive historical eras, a contrast that is gradually removed as the post-Pentecost era is established. After Pentecost, apart from a few exceptional cases (recorded precisely as exceptional cases), Baptism with the Holy Spirit and water Baptism were one and the same event. As I pointed out earlier, the contrast between Holy Spirit and water Baptism might also be the contrast between Baptism as being taken out of the waters below and Baptism as being brought out of the waters below and passing through the waters above. The Baptism of the Spirit is a Baptism that is poured out from above. Now that the Church is the New Temple in Christ, the One who has passed through the heavens, Baptism does not merely take us out of the sea of exile, but brings us into the heavenly Temple itself.

Some will argue that determining the meaning of NT rites by their relationship to OT rites produces an excessive continuity between the two testaments. I dispute this claim. I believe that such an approach will be far more likely to give us deep insight into the meaning of Christian Baptism than the sociological and anthropological approaches adopted by many NT scholars. The great weakness of such approaches is that, whilst they can say things about the role of initiation rites in general or in the ancient Hellenistic context, they seldom tell us much about the meaning of Christian Baptism in particular. What is it about Christian Baptism that gives it its peculiar significance and makes it more than just a generic water initiation rite?

What is the primary context within which we will best understand Christian Baptism? Studies of generic initiation rites may produce some parallels with the practice of Christian Baptism, but the relationship that Christian Baptism bears with a ritual washing performed by some tribe in the Amazonian rainforest is far too weak to draw much significance from any differences that might exist between the rites. Such studies can alert us to the continuities between various initiation rituals and to the generic significance that initiation rites have, but they really cannot achieve much beyond this. They can highlight the significance of some details, but in general they tend to level out initiation rituals too much.

However, when we study Christian Baptism in its proper context of biblical typology and the many forms of pre-Pentecost baptisms the continuities between Christian Baptism and earlier baptisms will actually be of less significance than the differences. The differences between Christian Baptism and some ritual washing performed by a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest may be great, but they cannot teach us much as they belong to radical different social and cultural contexts. When we study Christian Baptism within its proper social and cultural context, against the background of pre-Pentecost baptisms, differences are suddenly of great significance as they occur within the same symbolic and linguistic economy.

Peter Leithart has argued that NT rites should be understood as ‘conjugations’ of OT rites. NT and OT rites ultimately have the same ‘verbal root’ — Christ — and share the same fundamental typological structure. However, NT rites differ from OT rites as a new conjugation of the shared typological root. The significance of NT rites is thus chiefly to be found in the differences between them and OT rites. Consequently, the claim that understanding NT rites against the background of OT rites levels things out too much is quite unjustified.

Esler’s account of Christian Baptism is quite spectacular. It also seems quite speculative and alien to many of the Scriptural accounts of Baptism. Christian Baptism is certainly an amazing event. As Jeff Meyers’ has observed, if we saw what really happens in Baptism we would be dazzled. We would witness opened heavens, theophanies and all sorts of other wonders. However, to our eyes Scriptural Baptism is simple and unadorned and does not have the spectacle of many of the later forms that it assumed within the Church, forms which seem seriously to distort Esler’s reading of the NT text itself.

I do not believe that the idea that Christian Baptism is normally accompanied by ecstatic experiences and demonstrations of charismatic phenomena has much scriptural foundation. There are some accounts of such baptisms, but they occur within a context that should guard us against the idea that they represent the norm for all Christian Baptisms. Whilst I am not a strict cessationist I believe that there are good biblical reasons to question whether Paul expected each Baptism to be followed by speaking in tongues, visions and similar charismatic phenomena for it to be regarded as a genuine reception of the Spirit.

The initial reception of the Spirit at Pentecost and the events that are closely related to it in the book of Acts involve spectacular manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. Whilst I believe that we would be unjustified to altogether rule out such manifestations in the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves, we should also recognize that, Scripturally, such manifestations are generally associated with the initial foundation of a covenant order and disappear after a few decades, or only occur once at the very beginning.

The gifts of the Spirit are for the establishment of the Church. There are some gifts that exist like scaffolding for the initial forming of the Church. There are other gifts that exist for the furnishing of Church and daily service of the Church. The ‘scaffolding gifts’ are generally more spectacular, but are not needed after a while. The more quotidian gifts then become more prominent. We should not be surprised to see miracles, healings, prophetic insight and the like later on in a particular covenant era, but they will be considerably rarer. The gradual diminishing of such gifts as prophecy, tongues and healing in the history of the early Church should not shock us. It is not an indication of apostasy. It is just a sign that the establishment of the Church has pretty much taken place. Faith, hope and love have to do with the structural integrity of the Church; they will persist as the scaffolding of other gifts is removed.

Let me give an example. In Exodus 31:1ff. we see that YHWH fills Bezalel with the Holy Spirit for constructing the Tabernacle. Bezalel has the Spirit-given gift of embroidery, for example, which is of great importance for the construction of the Tabernacle. Such a Spiritual gift, however, is not a normal Spiritual gift, but is given in a particular historical circumstance and for a particular limited purpose.

The event of Pentecost was not just one spectacular event among many in the early Church’s life. It was the start of a new covenant order. The spectacular signs that accompanied it would not be expected to be part of the regular life of the Church from that point onwards (although they certainly were for a number of years during the period of the Church’s establishment). The early Church knew their Scriptures too well to suppose that the character of its life immediately following Pentecost would persist into the long term future.

Even when we look at the examples of Christian Baptism within the book of Acts and elsewhere, it is hard to see how many of them fit Esler’s description. Whilst performing Christian Baptism in the context of a gathered meeting of the Church might be the ideal way to do things, there are many examples of Baptism in Scripture that were performed quite differently. Christian Baptism does not seem to necessitate the presence of the gathered Christian community. Early Christian Baptism as recorded in the NT also seems to occur apart from lengthy catechetical preparation and does not seem to involve candidates stripping naked and other such practices that Esler refers to.

Both Esler and Dunn focus on the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 primarily in terms of a memorable experience. Esler in particular gives great attention to the psychological effect of Baptism. The significance of Baptism is largely known through the strength of the experiences that surround it. Esler hypes up early Christian Baptism in a way that grants a lot of significance to details of the rite that are never mentioned in Scripture and far less significance to the details that the Scripture does give us.

Within Dunn’s account the identification with Christ formed by the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 is far weaker than it seems to be in Paul’s mind. For Dunn the identification is primarily a self-identification and has less of the strength of an objective fact. Esler’s concentration on the baptizand’s subjective sense of Baptism also obscures the idea of Baptism as a rite that is primarily there to do something to us, rather than as a rite designed to give rise to a subjective experience.

It seems to me that Paul appeals to Baptism, not as a subjective experience of conversion, nor even as a physical rite that brings about a new state of affairs through a powerful experience, but as a rite that genuinely did something to us, whether or not it was accompanied by an experience. Paul’s point is that Baptism made us new people. Whilst Baptism might well be a powerful experience for us, it is not the experience that makes us new people. Baptism is like adoption in this respect. Adoption makes me a new person and brings me into new relationships, whatever I feel about it. Adoption may be a profound and powerful experience of deliverance and love or the adopted child might not remember the time of their adoption. Either way the significance of adoption remains. This is the way that Paul appeals to Baptism, I believe. Baptism changed me, whether I felt it or not or appreciated it or not. I now have to reckon that change to be true and live in terms of it.

A World of Desires

Leithart makes a good observation:—

John’s suggestion that the world is made up not only of “things” (TA EN TO KOSMO, v. 15) but of desires is a rich insight. He doesn’t limit the world merely to the artifacts that are evident in the world, nor to the institutions and practices of the world. The plural reference in verse 15 covers these multiple manifestations of the world, but at the heart of what John calls the world, the source from which the world flows, is desire. To put it more sociologically, (sinful) human culture – its institutions, practices, products – are all embodiments of evil desire or boastfulness. John hints that we should evaluate the world not only on the basis of what’s done or what things it contains, but on the basis of desire. And desire has a multiple relationship with culture: Desires are the “contents” of culture – culture is made up of embodied dreams, aspirations, lusts; on the other hand, the world is the source of desire, evoking certain kinds of desire. John’s sociology thus encourages us to ask what desires are embodied in roads, buildings, automobiles, iPods, coffee, customs, schools, and so on. John encourages us to seek to penetrate below the surface of cultural life to the desires that are provoking and provoked by the world.

James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection

James Jordan has argued that the Scriptures teach two resurrections and justifications. The final justification is a justification that includes the person’s works and is only possible once the first justification has taken place. We cannot do any good works until the initial justification has taken place. In support of this notion Jordan cites Numbers 19. In Numbers 19, when a person has become contaminated through contact with a corpse, they go through two stages of purification. They are purified on the third day and on the seventh day their purification is completed with a final purification and baptism (quite possibly the ‘baptism for the dead’ referred to in 1 Corinthians 15; certainly the most likely contender in my estimation).

Most contemporary Christians would believe that such a passage is far too obscure to play any role in our doctrine of justification and that Paul’s theology never could have been informed by such a thing. This is the natural response for Protestants, who have very little time for liturgy. The assumption is that the ‘Bible’ is the only place where God’s revelation of saving truths is to be found. There are a number of problems with this notion. Chief among them is the fact that what we call the ‘Bible’ is a relatively recent creation. The people of God of previous ages encountered the Scriptures in the form of liturgical performance not as we do, by reading words off the pages of our mass-produced, privately-owned Bibles. It should not surprise us that, approaching the Scriptures as they do, most modern Christians make little sense out of it.

Once we appreciate this, we will need to reweight the significance of different parts of the Scriptures. The book of Leviticus, for example, is one of the most important books in the OT canon. Obscure as it may seem to us, the book of Leviticus shaped the daily worship of Israel. You will not really understand books like Romans until you have grasped something of the message of Leviticus.

Numbers 19 is a good example of a text that seems insignificant to us, but would have been many times more significant to an Israelite. In a time of higher mortality, when death was not something that took place away from the context of life in modern hospital wards, people would be far more likely to come into contact with corpses. The Israelite who came in contact with a corpse would have to go through the week long ritual of Numbers 19. Living out such a biblical text for a week’s period of time at a moment that was most probably one of profound personal transition following the death of a friend or relative would likely cause Numbers 19 to leave a far deeper impression on your consciousness than it does for the modern reader of the book of Numbers. One would not regard Numbers 19 as an obscure text.

Numbers 19 presents us with a baptismal resurrection. The person who has become unclean through contact with a corpse is separated from the realm of fellowship with God and is symbolically dead as a consequence of his contact with the dead body. They are only restored to the life of fellowship with God through a baptism.

Jordan insists that the ‘resurrection’ of the third day, whilst analogous to the ‘resurrection’ of the seventh day, is a distinct event. It does not ‘participate’ in the resurrection of the seventh day. The third day justification is not a case of the seventh day justification being brought forward into the present. Nor, for that matter, is the seventh day justification merely a reiteration, recognition or validation of the third day justification.

Jordan argues that Jesus’ original hearers would have heard the background of Numbers 19 when Jesus claimed that He would be raised on the third day. They would not have believed that there was only one resurrection awaiting them in the future (or, if they did, they shouldn’t have). Rather, they would have expected two resurrections, an initial one and a later final and consummative one. The NT teaching of two resurrections in such places as John 5 and Revelation 20 was not, therefore, a theological novelty (whilst Jordan does not believe that the first resurrection in these passages refers to quite the same thing, they can be seen as evidence for his basic point). There is an initial resurrection, followed by a later, final resurrection.

The pattern of two justifications is something that Jordan does not merely see in Numbers 19. One can also see this pattern in the sacrifices of Israel as the tribute/memorial offering, in which human works can be presented to and accepted by God on the basis of the earlier sacrifices. One can see it in Christian worship in the relationship between Baptism, which is initial justification, and the Eucharist, which foreshadows final justification in which our works are taken into account (symbolically presented to God in the bringing forward of the bread and the wine and own offerings in the offertory).

Jordan contrasts his position to that of N.T. Wright, claiming that Wright shares the same error as most Reformed approaches, which presume that justification is one event. Whilst most Reformed approaches see final justification merely as a reiteration of present justification, Wright errs by seeing present justification as being based on the bringing forward of future justification through the work of Christ. As Wright argues, what the Jews had expected to take place at the end of history had taken place in the middle of history in the case of one Person.

I have yet to be convinced that Jordan’s position is as far removed from Wright’s position as he generally presents it to be. Jordan claims that Wright holds to only one justification and that he holds to two, the first apart from works and the second including the person with all of his works. Jordan presents Wright as holding to a position in which God plays games with time, by bringing the future into the present.

I believe that this a misleading way to portray Wright’s position. Wright’s position is rather that the single future event of justification has taken place ahead of time in the case of one Person. There is no monkeying with time here. On the basis of this ‘bringing forward’ of the event of justification we can enjoy a present justification on the basis of faith, the positive verdict corresponding with a later verdict on the last day that will be delivered on the basis of the whole life lived.

The point where Wright might seem to be suggesting that God is tinkering with time is better understood as a claim that the future event is already present in principle — or in embryo — in the case of Jesus Christ and that we participate in an event that awaits us in the future as we are united to Jesus Christ. There is a single event of justification, which has different stages to it. There are not ultimately two separate justifications, but two phases of the one justification. This, it seems to me, is perfectly biblical as well. If justification is to be seen in the event of the resurrection of the dead, then it seems that we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a single event with different stages, not two separate events. Christ is the firstfruits of the event, which for us largely awaits us in the future. This future event is truly anticipated as we are united to Christ in Baptism. I think that Wright is correct to hold that there is ultimately only one justification, with plurality to be found within it. I also believe that his claim that the end of history has taken place in the middle of history is essentially true, provided that we add the proper qualifications and do not presume a meddling with time on God’s part.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Jordan is perfectly right to claim that there are plenty of OT reasons to argue that justification was not regarded as a single event awaiting Israel at one point at the end of history (although I would like to see some evidence from extra-canonical Second Temple Jewish texts that people actually held what Jordan argues is the OT position). A plurality of phases to the one justification was not a surprising development of OT belief in the NT, but was anticipated in many and varied ways in the OT text. Wright is wrong to see a two-stage justification as a teaching peculiar to the NT.

The weight of Wright’s understanding of justification is placed on a single event of justification, which, surprisingly (in the light of Christ’s resurrection), has two separate phases. The weight of common Reformed understandings of justification seems to be placed on a single event of justification that takes place by faith on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ and will be reiterated in the future. Wright disagrees with such a position in its failure to give proper weight to a future justification on the basis of the whole life lived as essential to the single event of justification.

I believe that Wright would take issue with Jordan’s position in other ways. I imagine that he would argue that Jordan detaches the two phases of justification too sharply. Rather than seeing the future justification as already having occurred in principle but yet to be fully realized in our cases, Jordan’s position sometimes seems to present justification in the present as an event to which a future event must be added. It is the idea of future justification as the addition of a new justification separate from the present justification that Wright would take issue with. Future justification for Wright is rather the consummation of the single event that is already present in embryo through the resurrection of Christ. It is a distinct phase of the single event, but the event itself cannot be split into two events.

I believe that both Jordan and Wright have important things to teach us here. I believe that Jordan’s treatment of OT evidence is helpful and can serve to counteract some of the weaknesses of Wright’s position on that front. Jordan’s position is also useful in counteracting the weak view of the final judgment in relation to justification that one finds in many Reformed contexts. Whilst I believe that his stress on two events of justification goes a little too far, the idea of justification having two distinct — albeit closely interrelated — phases is very helpful and can help to balance Wright out a bit.

On the other hand, I think that Wright is correct to teach the unity of justification. Present justification by faith is an accurate anticipation of future justification according to works and is in many senses a bringing forward of the final verdict. Although the fullness of the event of resurrection and justification await us in the future, this will involve conforming to what has already become true of Christ. For that reason, the resurrection of the ’seventh day’ is already anticipated in the resurrection of the ‘third day’. Wright also clearly distinguishes present justification from final justification, even whilst closely interrelating them.

I think that some questions remain for Wright’s position, that could be helped by some of the emphases that one find in Jordan. Wright helpfully sees the future verdict of final justification as being present in the vindication of Christ in His resurrection. Jordan does not like any “already/not yet” approach to understanding redemptive history that would suggest that the future comes into the present in Christ, or anything like that. “Already/not yet” for Jordan is understood in terms of a linear timeline in which the future breaking into the present has little place.

I do not share Jordan’s position on this matter and believe that a purely linear account of redemptive history is insufficient. However, I believe that a linear approach to redemptive history is an essential perspective that must be retained and is too easily neglected. Without denying that the future has in some sense arrived in the present, we can see redemptive history as a continuing progression with stages that have yet to take place.

However, and this point is crucial, redemptive history can truly be viewed, not so much a progression beyond Christ’s resurrection, as a progression into Christ’s resurrection (I am not sure that Wright does justice to this either). This is where the “already/not yet” approach has so much to offer us. History is cyclical as well as linear. History is taken up in the resurrected Christ. What awaits us in the future is a full entry into something that has already taken place. This full entry will involve new redemptive historical events, but there is an important sense in which these events are not events that involve any progression beyond what has already taken place in Christ. It is this point that Jordan fails to do full justice to, whilst presenting us with the oft-forgotten perspective in which redemptive history involves a genuine progression beyond the resurrection.

Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

Over the last few days Peter Leithart has posted two posts that have really resonated with issues that I have been thinking about of late. The following are some extensive thoughts sparked off by Leithart’s own comments. (more…)

Sunday School Material

I have only skim read some parts of it, but, from my first impressions, there is some superb Sunday School material here for any church that wishes to encourage its children and young people to engage with the Bible on a more than superficial level. It also draws heavily on the scriptural insights of James Jordan and Peter Leithart.

Wright Questions Please!

Over the next week or two I hope to follow up my talk on Wright’s understanding of Jesus with talks on his understanding of Paul. Within those talks I will particularly focus on Wright’s understanding of justification. My aim is to preemptively address most of the criticisms that are levelled against Wright by exploring his theology on its own terms. I don’t want to spend more time than necessary responding to the critics.

I intend to conclude this series of talks with a talk responding to any burning questions that people might have regarding Wright’s work on Jesus and Paul, or even about the man himself. If anyone has such questions please send them to me. If you have encountered a particular criticism of Wright and you are not sure how best to answer it, if there is an aspect of his thought that simply puzzles you, if you want clarification of his position on a particular matter, please leave your question. You can write them in the comments of this post or my audio posts, or send them to my e-mail address. I will try to answer the best questions in my final talk. The best questions will be searching, relevant, helpful and of interest to a number of listeners. Critics of Wright are especially welcome.

N.T. Wright Lectures


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Richard Hays on Romans 4:23-24

Calvin’s reading of the text, although it contains an element of truth, treats Abraham too much as an exemplary individual and neglects Paul’s strong emphasis on Abraham as an inclusive representative figure. We must recall that several of the “promise” texts in Genesis that are crucial for Paul’s interpretation of Abraham (e.g., Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) declare that all nations will be blessed “in” Abraham. In Gal 3:8 Paul, taking the idea of participation in Abraham very seriously, quotes precisely this promise, apparently conflating Gen 12:3 with 18:18 and/or 22:18. In Rom 4 the same idea surfaces in verses 9-12 when Paul first applies the words of Ps 32:1-2 to Abraham and then asks whether this blessing (on Abraham) applies to Jews and Gentiles. The clear implication is that the blessing pronounced on Abraham applies vicariously to others who are his “seed.” This is precisely the point of view of verse 13, which regards the promise as applicable to “Abraham, or to his seed.”

In view of all this, we may begin to suspect that Rom 4:23-24 carries a similar meaning, which may be paraphrased as follows: “Scripture says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ However, it was not just reckoned to him as an individual: these words apply also to us (who believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead) to whom righteousness is going to be reckoned (vicariously, because we are Abraham’s seed).” This way of reading the text should not be understood as antithetical to the customary interpretation. Clearly there is an analogy between Abraham’s faith and the faith of the Christian believer; Paul chooses to stress this analogy not only in the characterization of “us” as οι πιστευοντες (v. 24) but also in his approval (v. 12) of “those who walk in the footsteps of the faith which our father Abraham had while he was uncircumcised.” The dichotomy between receiving a blessing vicariously as a result of the archetype’s faith/obedience (“in Abraham”) and receiving a blessing through reenacting the faith/obedience of the archetype (“like Abraham”) is our dichotomy, not Paul’s. Paul sees the two as indissoluble. Because we participate in the blessing pronounced upon him, we mirror his faith; because our faith parallels his, we may be said to be his seed. Paul would be content, I think, with either formulation. [The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture, 80-81]

Understood this way, the faith of Abraham relates primarily, not to the faith of the individual Christian, but to the faith of Jesus Christ. Abraham was a covenant head, just as Christ is. As Peter Leithart points out, the ordo salutis of Abraham’s life is, in many respects atypical of the regular believer. Abraham’s descendents entered into the verdict of ‘righteous’ proclaimed over Abraham. Isaac received the seal of the righteousness of faith as an infant. The justification of Abraham’s descendents was dissimilar in many respects to Abraham’s own. It was an entering into Abraham’s righteous status as they entered into his faith.

The same is true of the new covenant believer. We enter into the faith of Jesus Christ and the status of righteous given to Him at the resurrection. Entering into the faith of Jesus Christ involves both the receiving of a blessing vicariously and the reenacting of Christ’s own faith by the power of the Spirit.

This is one of the truths that N.T. Wright tries to uphold in his doctrine of justification. God sees faith and declares that the person is forgiven and a member of the family promised to Abraham. Wright wants to retain both the fact we are declared righteous because we enter into the verdict declared over Christ and vicariously receive His blessings through faith and the fact that we are declared righteous because by the new life of the Spirit the believer reenacts Christ’s faith in his own life.

Review of Gaffin

By Faith, Not By SightMark Traphagen has started reviewing Richard Gaffin’s latest publication, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation. This is one book that I look forward to getting my hands on. Unfortunately, what has been said concerning his critique of the NPP so far isn’t exactly encouraging — “Gaffin asserts that NPP advocates view justification almost entirely (or perhaps even just entirely) to be about ecclesiology rather than soteriology”. However, having screened that out, I am sure that Gaffin will have helpful things to say. I have greatly enjoyed all of the other books of his that I have read so far. Perhaps I will get a copy when I have finished Jakob Van Bruggen’s Paul: Pioneer for Israel’s Messiah.

Update: Part II of Mark’s review has just been posted.

Update 2: Part III here.

Update 3: Part IV

Wright on Historical Readings of Romans

The dismissal of “works of the law” as the means of justification has all kinds of overtones. Paul’s fundamental meaning is that no Jew can use possession of the Torah, and performance of its key symbolic “works” of ethnic demarcation, as demonstrations in the present time that they belong to the eschatological people of God, the people who will inherit the age to come. Torah is incapable of performing this function: When appealed to, it reminds its possessors of their own sin.

This Israel-specific and context-specific argument and meaning, vital though it is, must send off warning signals in other spheres as well. To the Roman moralist of Paul’s day, it might have said that clear thought and noble intention were not enough; the clearer the thought, the nobler the intention, the more this clarity and nobility would condemn the actual behavior. To an anxious monk of the early sixteenth century, fretting about his own justification, Paul’s words rang other bells. Performance of Christian duties is not enough. Despite the Reformation, the message had still not been heard by the devout John Wesley, until a fresh hearing of Luther’s commentary on Galatians caused light to dawn. In the post-Enlightenment period, many, including many Christians, have assumed that “the law,” here and elsewhere, refers to the Kantian ideal of a categorical moral imperative suspended over all humans, and have preached this “law” to make people recognize their guilt, in order then to declare the gospel to them.

These are important overtones of Paul’s statement here, but they are not its fundamental note. If we play an overtone, thinking it to be a fundamental, we shall set off new and different sets of overtones, which will not then harmonize with Paul’s original sound. Sadly, this has occurred again and again, not least within the Reformation tradition, which, eager for the universal relevance and the essential pro me (i.e., “for me”) of the gospel, and regarding Israel mainly as a classic example of the wrong way of approaching God or “religion,” has created a would-be “Pauline” theology in which half of what Paul was most eager to say in Romans has been screened out. Provided, however, one is careful to tell again the unique story of Israel and Jesus, not as an example of something else but as the fundamental truth of the gospel, many of the things the Reformers wanted to insist on can be retained and, indeed, enhanced. [The Letter to the Romans (NIB volume 10) pp.463-464]

2TJ

This sounds like an interesting book.

Pentecost


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Bauckham’s New Book on the Gospels

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Last October I had the privilege of hearing Richard Bauckham (a lecturer in the University of Saint Andrews) give a lecture on many of the subjects that will be dealt with in his forthcoming book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (I posted my notes from the lecture here). I had all but forgotten about the book, until Chris Tilling’s post reminded me of it. This will be a must-read book, whether or not it lives up to Chris’s expectation that it might be ‘the most important publication on the historical Jesus to be written in the last fifty years.’ Pre-order it now at a very reasonable price. Also keep an eye on Chris’s blog for the forthcoming interview with Bauckham.

While I am about it, I will also alert you all to another important recent publication by Richard Bauckham (Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Jon).

Regeneration

I have long held that the biblical references to ‘regeneration’ and being ‘born again’ need to be understood to be referring, not primarily to individual conversion, but to the new creation ushered in through the work of Jesus Christ. They are numerous arguments in favour of this position. In fact, I find it hard to understand how people who have read their whole Bibles with any degree of care could interpret these terms in any other way. Everything seems to point to this reading. I do not want to lay out the case for this understanding from scratch, but I will briefly rehearse some of the lines of reasoning here. I couldn’t find many of my thoughts on this subject online, and I wanted to write some brief notes here. I apologize to those of you for whom such a position is olde hatte.

The locus classicus for the concept of being ‘born again’ is, of course, John 3. Here Jesus is addressing Nicodemus, a teacher and a ruler of the Jews. He does not merely address Nicodemus as a private individual, but in his public role as Israel’s teacher (v.10). It should be observed that in Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’ (v.7), the ‘you’ is a plural one.

I believe that there is every reason to believe that Nicodemus was a pious and faithful Jew, who genuinely believed in YHWH. However, he was not ‘born again’. The rebirth that Jesus is speaking of here is not a component of a timeless ordo salutis, nor is it primarily something that happens to detached individuals. Rather, it is a redemptive historical event that is about to take place. There are a number of elements of the context that support such an understanding.

Firstly, it should be appreciated that Jesus is speaking of entry into the ‘kingdom of God’. Whilst countless years of misuse of such language have trained us to regard the concept of ‘entering the kingdom’ as ‘going to heaven when we die’, this was certainly not what Jesus had in mind. In the gospels the kingdom of God / kingdom of heaven is ‘the new world-order, in heaven and on earth, produced by the revolutionary changes brought about in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Covenant in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.’ Jesus is telling Nicodemus what is necessary if he is to become part of this new world order and questioning his failure to understand the things that He is speaking of.

In Matthew 11:11 Jesus speaks of John the Baptist as the greatest of those ‘born of women’, but argues that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. One wonders why Christ would use the terminology ‘among those born of women’ to refer to John if there were not some sort of intended contrast to be drawn with those belonging to the kingdom, who have received a new birth, and those who still belong to the old world order, like John the Baptist.

A second thing to notice is the reference to the Holy Spirit. Throughout John’s gospel the Spirit is seen as a gift that is still expected. The gospel explicitly teaches that the Spirit was yet to be given (John 7:37-39), strong indication that Jesus is speaking of a primarily redemptive historical blessing in His conversation with Nicodemus.

The third point that we must recognize is the flesh/spirit contrast in John 3:6. The flesh/spirit distinction is used in a very particular way in John’s gospel and in the NT in general. This is loaded terminology, referring to a distinction between the old and new world orders. The old world order is the world order of the flesh; the new world order is that which is formed by the Spirit. This distinction is especially clear in the Pauline corpus, but it is also to be seen in John’s gospel.

In Romans we see that Christ comes in the flesh as the descendent of David and dies in the flesh, rising again by the Spirit as the ‘Son of God with power’ (Romans 1:3-4). This is what I believe is in view when the NT speaks of regeneration and being ‘born again’. Not only is Christ the firstborn over all creation, He is also the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15-20). He is the twice-born. This is one of the reasons why, I believe, Paul so closely connects the resurrection of Christ with His divine sonship (e.g. Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4).

The connection between resurrection and new birth is a close one throughout the NT. A classic example can be found in Romans 8, where the themes of adoption, new birth, the contrast between flesh and Spirit and the like are all quite pronounced. The creation is groaning for new birth and those who have been born of the Spirit are the firstfruits of the long-awaited new creation. The curse of the womb is broken as Christ is born of the virgin; the curse of the tomb as Christ is re-born from the dead.

The OT seems to give further support for such an understanding of regeneration and new birth. In John 3, Ezekiel 36:25-27 and 37:1-14 are easy to discern in the background. These passages speak of national restoration by the work of the Holy Spirit. The wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wishes, is going to bring dead Israel back to life. These are all promises of new covenant (which, as N.T. Wright observes, must entail new creation). I have dealt with the subject of new covenant at length in the past, and will not cover it again here.

Does such a reading dismiss any use of regeneration to apply to the individual? No. However, it gives clear priority to the redemptive historical fact of regeneration on Easter morning and the Day of Pentecost. Our personal regeneration is coming to participate in this Regeneration. The work of the Spirit is of cosmic proportions and throws open new horizons in the world outside that we never knew existed. In so doing, the Spirit also throws open new horizons within ourselves. Our lives are expanded in every dimension. Regeneration does not just make me into a new creature; it knits me into a new creation order. In Christ we experience the firstfruits of the regenerating Spirit, forming the Church as the new world order.

This perspective refocuses our attention. For many Reformed people the doctrine of regeneration is just that—a doctrine and little more. In my understanding regeneration is a fact of redemptive history. When I speak of ‘regeneration’ I do not refer to an element of an abstract theological construct called the ordo salutis, at least not primarily. Rather, I am speaking of an event that took place in history, primarily in the resurrection of Christ and the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost. I am speaking in terms of an event in an open story in which we find ourselves, rather than in terms of a doctrine within a closed and detached theological system.

The more that I engage with the NT in terms of this perspective, the more sense that it makes. In the past I have wondered whether there is further support for such a reading of John 3 within the Johannine literature. Yesterday the whole issue was brought to my attention again. The following verses come to mind as possible places where the theme appears in John’s gospel and the book of Revelation.

In John 16:21 there is a reference to a woman groaning in travail, until she delivers a son. The context is that of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. I do not believe that this analogy is accidental. The great birth that Israel was awaiting was not so much the incarnation (first birth) of Christ, but His regeneration/resurrection (and in Him the regeneration of all things). John 19:25-27 may be another passage that sheds light on this question. The scene with Mary and John at the foot of the cross may be understood in the light of this theme. Mary, representing the OT people of God, receives her long-awaited son in John, who represents the Church, the people of Israel reborn from the dead. After this has taken place, Jesus knows that His work has been accomplished (19:28).

I also wonder whether Revelation 12, although it is often understood as a reference to Christ’s incarnation, might not be a reference to His regeneration. Jesus’ rebirth from the dead is the great event that Israel was groaning for. This might explain the rapid movement from birth to ascension described in verses 4-5.

Anyway, enough rambling. It is well past my bedtime.

A Taster of


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God Crucified

God CrucifiedI have found N.T. Wright’s treatments of the manner in which Christology can make sense within the framework of Jewish Monotheism very helpful in the past. Many others have commented on the manner in which his explorations of this have shed light on what is, for many, a vexing problem. Wright makes clear that the claims that the NT makes for Jesus are not inconsistent with the demands of Second Temple Jewish Monotheism.

When I started reading Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified yesterday, I expected to find many of the same issues dealt with, in much the same way as they are in Wright. Although much of the same ground is covered, this small book goes quite a bit further, in my opinion, than any of Wright’s published treatments to date (although Wright does have some insightful observations in his latest Paul book). If you have ever felt that NT Christology is in any sense a departure from the monotheism of the OT, this book is for you. If you have ever wished that you could more articulately defend your faith to those who deny that Christ is God, reading this book will be well worth your while (you should be able to read it in one two-hour sitting). (more…)



On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 2

Part 1

Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. – Acts 2:1

In setting the scene for the events of Pentecost, Luke immediately draws our attention to the fact that all of the disciples are assembled together in one place. Remarking on the ‘togetherness’ of the disciples, Richard Thompson observes:

Although Luke does not explicitly state why this corporate quality is important or how these believers concretely demonstrate such a quality, such an emphasis suggests that this characteristic is critical both to the narrative and potentially to what follows.[1]

What are we to make of the corporate character of the events of Pentecost?

A Community of Prophets
Pentecost (re)constitutes the community of the early church in a powerful way, representing an event of decisive importance for its formation and identity. For this reason it is perhaps significant that we find a number of possible echoes of the events of Sinai in the immediate context. Sinai was an event of immense importance for Israel in its life as a nation, being the occasion of a group theophany, their reception of the Torah and their entrance into a covenant with YHWH. Kenneth Litwak writes:

There are several striking elements which suggest that Luke shaped his account on the basis of the Sinai tradition. Acts 2 opens with a theophany, which includes fire and a loud sound (Acts 2.1-4; cf. Exod. 19:16 [sound of a trumpet] and Exod. 19.18 [YHWH descended upon Sinai in fire]). At Sinai God spoke to Moses, and in Acts 2.11 the people hear the disciples speaking of the mighty works of God. On a broader level, the theophanic event in Acts 2.1-4 is formative for the first followers of the Way, just as the Sinai theophany was formative for God’s people in Exodus.[2]

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, where, after a few days of preparation, they received the Law. As the feast of Pentecost occurred 49 days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-16), which took place in the latter half of the first month, the possibility of a chronological connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law and forming of the covenant in Sinai is raised.[3] This connection did not go unnoticed by the rabbis, who identified Pentecost as the feast celebrating the gift of the Law. Whether such a connection was established by the time that Luke wrote the account of Acts 2 is uncertain and continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Taken by itself this connection between Pentecost and Sinai may appear rather slight, but it is given more weight when we consider it alongside the presence of the other echoes of the Sinai account in the early chapters of Acts.[4] At Sinai Israel was set apart as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, giving the children of Israel a special role to play within God’s purposes for the wider creation. The parallels to the event of Sinai are important chiefly on account of the way in which they frame the event as one through which the disciples are set apart as a people with a new vocation.

In contrast to the examples of prophetic succession that we previously observed, the example of Sinai involves the reconstitution and setting apart of a whole people and not just of one person. The events of Pentecost are not of mere private significance to those involved, but herald the establishing of a new reality in the realm of history. Sinai inaugurates a new era and not merely a period of leadership limited by one man’s lifespan. Consequently, the event of Sinai has much light to shed on Luke’s account of Pentecost. Stronstad writes:

…[W]hat is happening on the day of Pentecost is not only as dramatic as, but also as significant as what happened at Mt Sinai. In other words, the creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.[5]

The Distribution of the Spirit of Jesus
A number of commentators have argued for some form of connection between the narrative of Numbers 11 and that of Acts 2, a connection that can illuminate certain dimensions of the church’s prophetic character.

In Numbers 11 Moses appeals to YHWH to ease the burden of leadership that he is bearing. Responding to his plea, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them to the tabernacle of meeting. There God will take of the Spirit that is on Moses and give it to the elders, so that they can share the task of leading the people with him.

Following a day of preparation, the elders are gathered together and the Spirit rests on them. They then begin to prophesy, although they never do so again (Numbers 11:25).[6] Two of the seventy elders—Eldad and Medad—were not present at the tabernacle of meeting at the time, but received the Holy Spirit nonetheless and began to prophesy in the middle of the camp. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, concerned by this, asks Moses to instruct them to stop. Moses, however, was unconcerned: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ (verse 29).

There are a number of echoes of the theophany at Sinai in the account of Numbers 11, including: (1) the granting of a new vocation to a body of people (Exodus 19:5-6; Numbers 11:16-17); (2) the command for the people to sanctify themselves for the coming day when YHWH will act decisively (Number 11:18; cf. Exodus 19:10); (3) the gathering of the people around a particular location, Mt Sinai in the Exodus account and the tabernacle in that of Numbers (Numbers 11:24);[7] (4) a theophany in which God comes down in the cloud and speaks with Moses (Exodus 19:9; Numbers 11:25).

Although some might argue that the ‘spirit’ given to the seventy elders is Moses own spirit, rather than YHWH’s, a reading of Numbers 11 that understands the ‘spirit’ as YHWH’s own Spirit seems far more satisfactory (cf. verse 29). Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the Spirit that is given to the seventy elders is spoken of as the Spirit that is upon Moses himself (Numbers 11:17, 25). Although we are not here dealing with a ‘sacramental transfer’ in which Moses is active, Moses is seen as the one who mediates the elders’ reception of the Spirit. The elders do not receive the Spirit as a direct bestowal from God, but with ‘Moses as the intermediary’.[8]

Williams contrasts this with the case of leadership succession that occurs when Joshua receives authority to lead and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ through the imposition of Moses’ hands (Deuteronomy 34:9). In Numbers 11 Moses does not abandon certain aspects of his leadership to others. The elders are rather empowered to help fulfil Moses’ task of leading the people. Their ministry does not displace that of Moses, but involves a partaking in Moses’ ministry.[9]

At Pentecost Jesus mediates the gift of the Spirit to the church (Acts 2:33), and, much as the elders’ reception of the Spirit in Numbers 11 gave them a share in the Spirit of prophetic leadership that belonged to Moses, so Pentecost brings the church to participate in the prophetic authority of Jesus, an authority that never ceases to be the exclusive possession of Jesus himself.

At this juncture a further dimension of the ‘baptism’ imagery (cf. Acts 1:5) may come to the fore: baptism does not merely initiate into office, it can also fulfil an incorporative purpose, bringing people to participate in the life, authority, status or privileges of another (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2; Galatians 3:26-29). Just as Israel was led by Moses prior to being ‘baptized’ into a greater union with him,[10] so the disciples were led by Jesus prior to the baptism of Pentecost. What Pentecost effected was the disciples’ reconstitution as the church—the body of Christ—bringing them into a new relationship with their master. They now shared in the power of his Spirit, being bound to him by a bond of relationship far stronger than any they had previously enjoyed.[11]

The temporary and unrepeated character of the elders’ act of prophesying merits closer examination. While we have good reason to believe that the Spirit remained with the elders, enabling them to fulfil their role, the fact that they did not prophesy again suggests that prophesying was not necessary for this. The initial ecstatic manifestations were not normative for the ongoing performance of their duties. A similar occurrence can be found in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, where the Spirit comes upon Saul, causing him to prophesy. It is through this experience that Saul is set apart and personally prepared for leadership (1 Samuel 10:6). Apart from one other exceptional occasion,[12] we never read of Saul prophesying again. The prophecy was an effect and an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon him; the continuance of the Spirit with him did not necessitate repeated occurrences of prophetic manifestations.

There is a strong analogy to be observed between the prophesying of the elders and the glossolalia of the disciples, and a few writers (Gordon Wenham, for instance) have even suggested that we equate the two. As Dunn observes, Luke does not share Paul’s sharp distinction between speaking in tongues and prophesying. In his use of the passage from Joel in his sermon, Peter appears to equate the tongues-speaking of the disciples with the prophetic speech which the prophecy promises. In light of this OT background, it seems that the purpose of the glossolalia in the context of Acts 2 was primarily that of serving as an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. There is no reason for us to believe that glossolalia would continue to be practiced by all of the disciples present at Pentecost. Tongues-speaking primarily served as a temporary authenticating sign.

The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter uses in his sermon is strikingly parallel to the wish of Moses that all of the people were prophets (Acts 2:17-18; Numbers 11:29).[13] This connection between the prophecy of Joel and Numbers 11 is also found is rabbinic midrash texts. If, as Litwak maintains, the Joel prophecy provides a ‘programmatic text’ and lens for Luke’s understanding of Pentecost, it is also a lens through which passages such as Numbers 11 illuminate the text. The ‘prophethood of all believers’ that is desired in Numbers, is prophesied in Joel and receives a form of fulfilment in Acts.

Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Eldad and Medad when we read of the Gentiles who received the Spirit in Acts 10. Eldad and Medad were outside of the group of elders at the tabernacle. Nonetheless, they still receive the anointing of the Spirit just as the others. In a similar manner, the Gentiles may have appeared to be outside of the gathering to which the Spirit was specially promised, but they received the Spirit in much the same way, in a sort of aftershock of the original event. By giving Cornelius and his household the Spirit before they had become members of a Jewish church, God demonstrated the freedom of the Spirit and the fact that Jews and Gentiles were accepted on an equal footing.

Endnotes
[1] Richard P. Thompson, Keeping the Church in its Place: The Church as Narrative Character in Acts (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 38
[2] Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 165-166. Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58-59 highlights a number of further common features of the Sinai and Pentecost narratives, including the days of preparation and the occurrence of the theophany in the morning.
[3] A number of writers reference Jubilees 6:17-21 in this context. Others have observed the connection that Jubilees draws between Pentecost and covenant renewal.
[4] Besides those already mentioned, there are a number of further echoes of Sinai narrative in Acts 2. The ascension of Christ into the cloud (Acts 1:9) might be an echo of the ascension of Moses onto Mount Sinai. The number added to the church (‘cut to the heart’) in Acts 2:41 may also echo the number slain by the sword at Sinai (Exodus 32:28). Wedderburn argues for a connection between the events of Sinai and those of the Day of Pentecost as they are recorded in Acts, but claims that this connection was not made by Luke, but by some of his sources. Hovenden has a very helpful discussion of some further possible literary connections, including that of a Lukan allusion to Psalm 67:19 (LXX) in Acts 2:33, a verse applied to Moses at Mount Sinai by some of the rabbis. Johnson highlights the similarities between the statement concerning Moses in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 and that of Peter concerning Jesus in Acts 2:33.
[5] The Prophethood of All Believers, 59
[6] The meaning of the phrase ולא יספו is not entirely clear. In light of the similar phrase used in Deuteronomy 5:22, we have opted to understand it as a denial of their continuance in prophesying.
[7] The possibility of the disciples being gathered around the temple on the Day of Pentecost will be discussed in a later post.
[8] David T. Williams, ‘Old Testament Pentecost.’ Old Testament Essays, 16:130-1
[9] Ibid, 132
[10] As we shall later see, one dimension of this ‘baptism into Moses’ was Israel’s entry into Moses’ own experience.
[11] The incorporative purpose of the baptism of the Spirit is explored in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
[12] 1 Samuel 19:21-24. This incident occurs after the Spirit has departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
[13] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 95 relates Joel 2 and Numbers 11 together, claiming that Joel’s prophecy ‘reads almost as a fulfillment of Moses’ hope expressed in Num. 11:29.’

On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

The following is the first in a series of several posts, exploring the prophetic role of the church and the meaning of the Baptism of the Spirit.

The first chapter of the book of Acts presents us with both an ending and a beginning. Bringing to a close the period of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ascent into heaven also marks the beginning of a new act in the drama of the NT, that of the public mission of the church.

The exact nature of the relationship between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his church is a matter that I will explore in some depth in the posts that will follow this one. In particular, I will be attempting to demonstrate that the events of Pentecost set the church apart as a prophetic community. Bringing the text of the opening chapters of the book of Acts into conversation with particular texts within the OT, I hope to explore the manner in which accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession can provide a helpful lens through which to view the events of Pentecost. In making this case I will be devoting considerable attention to a closer analysis of Acts 2:1-4. Having established this exegetical groundwork, I hope to proceed to make some observations about the way in which I believe that the event of Pentecost should shape the Church’s self-understanding. While my focus will be on constructing a positive account of the significance of this event, I will also be entering into critical dialogue with alternative understandings.

A number of writers have explored the subject of prophetic anointing in Acts 2. In The Prophethood of All Believers, Roger Stronstad devotes a chapter to the event of Pentecost, which he claims inaugurates ‘the prophethood of all believers.’[1] The theme is also highlighted by some commentators in the course of their treatment of the passage, and in wider treatments of Luke-Acts. Within Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, Kenneth Litwak identifies a number of the OT passages that the narrative of the early chapters of Acts evokes, unearthing some neglected allusions to prophetic call and succession narratives in the process.

Building upon the foundation that these writers have established, and entering into constructive conversation with them, I hope to probe deeper into the OT background for the prophetic themes that surface in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Attempting an intertextual reading of Acts 2, I want to prove the theological and exegetical value of understanding the account in terms of OT accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession.

Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts
For Luke the ministry of the church is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own ministry, something highlighted by the resumptive character of his introduction to the book of Acts. As Ben Witherington argues, Luke situates his account of Jesus within a ‘wider historical framework’, giving considerable prominence to the events preceding the birth of John the Baptist at the very outset of his narrative and closely following the subsequent growth of the church in the second volume of his work.[2] Remarking on the limited attention that Luke gives to Peter’s confession in his gospel, in contrast to the accent placed on the accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy between which it is sandwiched, Witherington writes:

Nowhere is it made more apparent than in this sequence that Jesus is the initiator of a series of events and proclamations that his disciples undertake during and then after his time. The focus is not just on Jesus but on the historical Jesus movement of which he was the catalyst and focal point.[3]

In adopting a narrow focus on the identity and personal ministry of Jesus we are in danger of failing to appreciate the degree to which the Lukan treatment of the early church is driven by more than a merely biographical or historical interest. For Luke the church plays a key role in the drama of God’s salvation, both as the place where that salvation is realized and as the agency through whom it is borne witness to and spread.

Baptism, Ascension, and Elijah Typology
Immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift for which they must wait in Jerusalem. Recalling the contrast drawn by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16, Jesus speaks of the reception of the Spirit in terms of the language of baptism. By describing the church’s forthcoming reception of the Holy Spirit in such a manner, Jesus presents the event that is about to occur to the church as somehow analogous to the type of event that John’s baptism represented. The baptism with water administered by John the Baptist will now be followed by a baptism with the Spirit that Jesus will perform on his disciples.

Within Lukan theology, John’s baptism is presented as playing a preparatory role (cf. Acts 19:1-6). It prepared the people for the coming kingdom of God and also served as the ‘launching-pad’ for Jesus’ own work. In Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 3:20-22), a detail that is given significance in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:21-22). In the narrative of Luke’s gospel, John’s baptism of Jesus also marks the end of John’s place in the foreground of the gospel narrative. Once the ministry of Jesus has got off the ground, the purpose of John’s ministry has more or less been accomplished.[4]

Within the gospels John the Baptist is presented ‘as in some sense Elijah redivivus.’[5] In an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, the angel Gabriel declares to Zecharias that his son John will go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elsewhere, Jesus declares that John was the Elijah that was promised to come (Matthew 17:10-13). The description and narrative of John the Baptist is also replete with allusions to the description and narrative of the prophet Elijah.[6]

Perhaps it is significant that John’s baptism of Jesus takes place on the far side of the Jordan: this was the place where Elisha succeeded Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Joshua took over from Moses (Joshua 1). In all cases the succession involves a crossing or coming out of the river and a reception of the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 1:10-18; 2 Kings 2:9-15; Luke 3:21-22).

At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), fills him and leads him into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Within Lukan theology, there is a very close connection between filling with the Spirit and prophecy (Luke 1:15, 41-45, 67; Acts 2:4, 17-18; 4:8, 31; 7:55-56; 13:9-11).[7] Jesus’ characterization of himself as a prophet in Luke 4:24, in the context of his reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 is significant. It is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that sets him apart as a prophet. The connection between baptism and investiture is an important one for our purposes:[8] the church’s reception of the Spirit in the ‘baptism’ of Pentecost needs to be understood as an ordination for prophetic ministry.

Luke does not limit his deployment of Elijah imagery to his treatment of John the Baptist. As N.T. Wright observes, there is strong evidence to suggest that the synoptics also understand the work of Jesus in terms of Elijah typology.[9] It is at the point of Jesus’ ascension that this imagery assumes a greater prominence. Commenting on the ascension account in Luke 24:50-53, Kenneth Litwak writes:

If Luke’s audience encountered a story of someone approved by God ‘going up’ to heaven, they would surely have thought of Elijah’s ascension … since his is the only ascension account in the Scriptures of Israel. The statement in Lk. 24.49 that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit recalls Elijah’s bequest of his ‘spirit’ to Elisha (4 Kgdms 2.9-10). The use of ενδύσησθε in Lk. 24.49 may also be an allusion to Elijah’s mantle which was passed on to Elisha (2 Kgdms 2.13)…[10]

The OT speaks of the future return of the ascended Elijah to restore all things (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Sirach 48:10), a theme that also appears in the NT (Mark 9:12; Matthew 17:11). Significantly, Luke ascribes to the ascended Jesus that which was traditionally ascribed to Elijah: in Acts 3:21 he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21; cf. Acts 1:11).[11]

Given the dominance of such Elijah imagery in the context of the ascension, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit immediately prior to his rapture must take on an added significance. The Elijah imagery provides the typological adhesive binding together ascension, Pentecost and parousia. Within the frame provided by the Elijah typology, an intimate connection is seen to exist between the ascension and Pentecost narratives. Consequently, any attempt to understand the events of Pentecost must begin by giving attention to the Lukan ascension accounts.[12]

The Ascension and the Prophetic Anointing of the Church
Just as Jesus’ baptism by John marked the beginning of his prophetic ministry and his succession from John’s own ministry, so the ascension and Pentecost mark the time when the church is anointed for its prophetic ministry and the transition from Jesus’ public earthly ministry to that of the church.

The two most important prophetic succession narratives of the OT involve the transition from the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 27:12-23) and the transition from the prophetic ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).[13] In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor.[14] Moses’ mission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is only fulfilled in the ministry of his successor Joshua. Similarly, the mission that Elijah is charged with in 1 Kings 19:15-17 is only completed in the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1-3).[15]

Elisha is a new Elijah (2 Kings 2:15), just as Joshua is a new Moses (Numbers 27:20; Joshua 1:5). The parallel between the ministries of Joshua and Elisha and the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is worth highlighting. Both Joshua and Elisha serve as apprentices to prophets, whose ministries they inherit following the time of their masters’ departures. The same pattern holds in the case of Jesus’ disciples: having left their work to follow Jesus as disciples, they receive their master’s Spirit following his departure and continue his mission.

The relationship between the prophet and his apprentice is akin to the relationship between a father and his son. In Numbers 13:16 we see that Joshua’s name was given to him by Moses. Moses also lays his hands on Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) in a manner reminiscent of the patriarchs’ blessings on their sons (Genesis 48:13-20). A similar relationship exists between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha receives a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit, the inheritance appropriate to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17),[16] and, as Elijah is taken into heaven, Elisha addresses him as his ‘father’. Jesus’ farewell discourse and blessing of his disciples (Luke 24:51) belongs within this pattern of prophetic succession.

Zwiep notes the parallel between the stress on the visibility of the master’s departure in both the account of Elijah’s rapture and that of Jesus’ ascension.[17] Seeing Elijah taken up was an indispensable condition for Elisha’s right to succeed him. Moberly explains the logic of the test: ‘…it is the responsibility of the prophet to be able to see God, and if Elisha cannot see God in this critical instance, then he is not able to take on the role of one who sees God in other instances; Elisha cannot be a prophet like Elijah unless he has the requisite spiritual capacity.’[18] The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.[19]

Elijah and Moses typology is multilayered within the Lukan literature. However, in the critical movement in the narrative with which we are concerned, the disciples are typologically related to Joshua and Elisha. As their master departs, they will inherit his Spirit and continue his mission. The Spirit that the disciples will receive is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that supervised and empowered his own mission.[20]

Endnotes
[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 70
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-24
[3] Ibid, 23-24
[4] A point made more explicitly in the fourth gospel (John 1:29-34; 3:27-30).
[5] N.T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 167
[6] John the Baptist is an ascetic and peripatetic prophet who, like Elijah, calls Israel to repentance in light of coming judgment. He dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and, like Elijah, is associated with the wilderness. Like Elijah, his ministry is opposed by a tyrant with a manipulative wife (Herod & Herodias / Ahab & Jezebel). Significantly, John the Baptist’s ministry begins at the geographical location where Elijah’s ministry ended (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4-5; cf. 2 Kings 2:4-11).
[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit: Volume 2 – Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 11-12
[8] Although its focus is on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination, much of Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 87ff is relevant to our case.
[9] Jesus and the Victory of God, 167
[10], Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 147
[11] A.W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 114-116
[12] There is also a sacrificial pattern to be observed in this movement. Leithart observes [1 & 2 Kings (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: London: SCM, 2006), 176]:

The story of Elijah’s departure into heaven follows the sequence of a sacrificial rite (Lev. 1). By their mutual journey around the land, Elijah and Elisha form a unit, a “two of them” (2 Kgs. 2:7). They cross the Jordan, as parts of a sacrificial animal will be washed before being place on the altar. Fire descends from heaven, dividing them in two, one ascending in fire to God, as the altar portions of the animal ascend in smoke to heaven. In the ascension (or “wholly burnt”) offering, the skin of the sacrificial animal is given to the priest, and the mantle-skin of Elijah, the hairy garment of the “baal of hair,” is left for Elisha. Through this human “sacrifice,” Elisha becomes a successor to Elijah, and a new phase of prophetic history begins. In this sense too the story is a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, who is washed in the Jordan, gives himself over to be cut in two, ascends into a cloud, and leaves his Spirit and his mantle with his disciples.

[13] Peter Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 170-171, and John I. Durham and J.R. Porter, Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies (London: SCM, 1970), 119-121n62 observe some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha.
[14] Joshua’s succession from Moses is presented as a prophetic succession in Sirach 46:1.
[15] 1 & 2 Kings, 213
[16] Elisha is thus given the pre-eminent position among the ‘sons of the prophets’.
[17] The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 116, 194. Observe the repeated use of verbs of visual perception in Acts 1:9-11.
[18] R.W.L. Moberly,
Prophecy and Discernment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135
[19] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31. The encounters with the risen Christ as recorded by the gospels might also be worth considering in this context. Delayed recognition of—or failure to recognize—the risen Christ is a recurring feature in the post-resurrection narratives (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:14-18; 21:12; cf. Mark 16:12). The liturgical structure followed by the Emmaus road account of Luke 24:13-35, accompanied by the disciples’ initial failure to recognize their companion on the road, might suggest that, although firmly embodied and visible as such, the identity of the body of the risen Christ is something that can elude mundane perception and is only truly accessible to those granted spiritual vision (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 218-219).
[20] Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 45.

Romans 2:14-15

Having discussed the meaning of Romans 1-4 at considerable length in the comments of this recent Green Baggins post, I decided that it might be worthwhile posting this brief exegetical essay I wrote on Romans 2:14-15 a couple of months ago. It may not be as polished as I would like it to be, but it makes a basic case for a reading of these verses as a reference to Gentile Christians, and helps to support the broader argument that I have been making over on Lane’s blog.

Questions of Interpretation
Few verses in Romans are perplexing as 2:14-15. Patience and care are demanded of the exegete, lest, in pulling too vigorously on one of the threads bound up in the complex weave of Paul’s argument, while neglecting others, the passage is rendered knottier than it already is, or Paul’s argument begins to unravel in our hands.

Perhaps the key questions facing the exegete of Romans 2:14-15 concern the identity of the persons spoken of in these verses. Are these doers of the Law real or hypothetical?[1] Are they Christian (as Ambrosiaster,[2] the later Augustine,[3] Barth, Cranfield[4] and Wright maintain[5]), non-Christian (the historically dominant reading, held by most of the Reformers[6] among others) or even pre-Christian believing Gentiles? Is the portrayal of them intended to be positive or negative?[7]

The role of the word φυσει in this context is also a matter of debate. Does it modify the verb ποιωσιν, describing the manner in which these Gentiles do the things of the Law, or does it belong with the earlier part of the clause, in which case it refers to the fact that Gentiles do not possess the Law by birthright, in the manner of the Jews? Is Paul making a reference to some form of natural Law in this context?

A number of further questions must also be addressed. What sort of ‘doing’ of the Law is here envisioned? How are we to understand the work of the Law written on the hearts of these Gentiles? Is this an allusion to OT passages concerning the New Covenant, or is a reference to an inner moral sense possessed by every person?

Within this post I will present an argument for favouring a Gentile Christian reading of these verses. I will engage with some of the principal objections that have been raised against this reading and will explore the manner in which the reading that I propose functions in the context of Paul’s larger argument. (more…)

N.T. Wright Lecture: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

The following are my notes from a lecture delivered this evening, 20th December, by N.T. Wright in the University of St. Andrews. The following provides a general idea of what the good bishop said, but should not be depended upon too much. Doubtless other eyewitnesses will come forward with conflicting accounts…

N.T. Wright, Bishop of DurhamAs someone who gave up studying physics and chemistry more or less as soon as he had the opportunity and devoted little effort to excelling in them when he did study them, Wright finds it odd to find himself in the position of being looked upon to provide an answer to such a question. The question itself is strange: it reminds him of the person who, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, responded in the affirmative, assuring the questioner that he had seen it happen with his own eyes. There are scientists who do believe in the resurrection. In answering the question, Wright wants to explore the fault lines between different ways of knowing, between the forms of knowing advanced by science and by history, and the way of knowing that belongs to faith, hope, and love. These ways of knowing overlap in various ways.

We are often told that over recent centuries we have enjoyed an upward path towards the light of reason—the narrative of the Enlightenment. While Wright has no desire to return to premodern dentistry or sanitation or transport, for example, he feels that the modern narrative is limited. Science has not proved sufficient to provide us with the wholeness of life that we really need.

Plato regarded ‘faith’ as a sort of intermediate form of knowing, a sort of cushioned knowledge, a sense that the terminology retains in much common parlance. We often use the term ‘knowledge’ in a positivistic sense and ‘believe’ in a loose sense, to refer to matters of mere private opinion, where any relation to external reality is somewhat lacking or doubtful. The disciples, however, believed in a resurrection with a real purchase on reality, a resurrection that left mementos behind, whether that was an empty tomb or footprints on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.

What does the term ‘believe’ mean in the question that we are answering? What sorts of questions and dimensions of reality are open to the scientific method? What sort of claim should the scientist’s science have on his approach to other areas of his life? Should he be ‘scientific’ about his relationship to his wife, or about his assessment of a piece of music? The question that we are dealing with assumes that this particular issue of the resurrection impinges upon the scientist’s particular area of concern in a manner and to an extent that questions of love and music generally do not. While there are some who have sought to locate the issue of resurrection alongside such issues of love and music, this is not a movement that should make. In the context of the first century world resurrection was very much understood as a public, space-time event.

To put things somewhat simplistically: history deals with the unrepeatable, while science deals with the repeatable. Scientists’ objections to the resurrection often focus on the lack of analogy. However, the disciples did not believe that the resurrection was just one of many analogous events. The whole issue of worldview raises itself at this point. The worldview of the scientist is the context in which such things become believable or not.

What is the resurrection? There were many ancient beliefs about life after death. Ancient paganism contained many beliefs on these matters, but they universally ruled out the possibility of resurrection. Wright has explored this whole area at considerable length in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. The conviction that the dead do not rise is not a product born out of scientific discovery over the past few centuries: any first century person knew this fact. Ancient Judaism believed that God was creator and that he would set his world to rights, which for many was seen to involve bodily resurrection. Christianity belongs on this map. For Christians, resurrection was not a fancy way of talking about life after death, but a way of talking about a form of life after life after death. Christians certainly believed in a form of intermediate period, and might speak of it using terms such as ‘paradise’, but these beliefs are not to be confused with its belief in resurrection.

Beliefs about life after death are generally among the most conservatively held of all beliefs in the context of any given culture. It is in such areas that people tend to revert to the positions that they were taught in childhood. For this reason, any large scale change in the convictions of a society in this area needs to be accounted for. Such a large scale shift in beliefs about life after death is precisely what we see in the case of Christianity. Excepting the later movement of Gnosticism, the early Christian Church manifests several key mutations from traditional approaches to the subject of life after death.

1. In contrast to the Judaism of the day, there was virtually no variation on the issue of the resurrection in the context of early Christianity. Christianity has no trace of an established Sadducean view in its ranks.

2. While many Jewish groups held beliefs about resurrection, it was an issue for speculation and did not lie at the core of its belief system. In the early Church, belief in the resurrection moves from the circumference of belief to its very centre and heart.

3. In contrast to Jewish groups, within which many conceptions of resurrection circulated, from the very beginning the Christian Church held a very clearly defined understanding of resurrection. For instance, the resurrection body was thought of as a transformed—‘spiritual’—body and not just as a resuscitated one.

4. For Christians, the event of ‘resurrection’ has split into two. Outside of Christianity we do not find belief in the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. Such a theological movement is without precedent.

5. The Christian approach to ‘collaborative eschatology’ (Crossan) is also without precedent. Believing that the resurrection inaugurated the eschaton, the early Church believed that it needed to implement this event, in anticipation of the final consummation.

6. Within Christianity we also see a new metaphorical use of the language of resurrection. Within the context of Judaism the language had been employed as a metaphorical way of speaking about return from exile, for instance. In the context of Christianity, this metaphorical usage of ‘resurrection’ is replaced by the use of resurrection metaphors in the context of baptism and holiness.

7. Within Christianity belief in resurrection is connected with Messianic belief in a way that it is not within Judaism. Judaism did not have a place for a Messiah that would die at the hands of the enemies of the people of God and so, naturally, did not have the place for a resurrected Messiah that Christianity did.

Indeed, without the resurrection, how do we account for Messianic belief after Christ’s death? Within other Messianic movements more or less contemporaneous with the Jesus movement, the death of the supposed Messiah tended to lead to a quest for a replacement, often a relative of the supposed Messiah who had died. Within early Christianity there was a perfect candidate for such a position following Jesus’ death—his brother James. James was renowned for his piety and was a leading figure within the early Church, but was never thought of as the Messiah.

Twentieth century revisionist historiography has occasionally suggested that belief in the resurrection arose out of the subjective internal experience of early Christian disciples. A little employment of historical imagination should destroy any plausibility that such a suggestion might initially seem to possess. Anyone offering the suggestion that Jesus was raised from the dead, based purely on an internal experience of a warmed heart or even on the basis of witnessing him in the same room, would have been subjected to ridicule. First century people were well aware, as we are, of cases of dead relatives appearing to their grieving kin following their deaths. At this point we should note the common confusion that exists between the idea of resurrection and the idea of someone dying and going to be with God. The event of the resurrection is one that is not merely a matter of subjective inner feeling, but one that has considerable claim on the external public world. The point of the resurrection is that Jesus is Lord and that death and the tyrants who use its power are defeated.

Why did these mutations occur? Only one explanation truly suffices: the disciples genuinely believed that Jesus had been bodily raised.

As many have observed, the accounts of the resurrection in the gospels do not fit snugly together. There are a number of apparently conflicting details. A recent book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, provides a wonderful example of the surface discrepancies of eye-witness testimony. In a room containing many of the most brilliant minds of the time, Wittgenstein brandished a poker at Karl Popper and then left the room. The eye-witness accounts of this event differ markedly. However, what no one doubts is that something significant happened. The same can be said of the resurrection. Surface discrepancies between narratives is quite to be expected under such circumstances.

There are four important points of commonality to be noted between the resurrection accounts of the gospels:

1. The Scriptures are almost completely silent in the resurrection narratives, in marked contrast to previous stages of the gospel narratives, where quotations from the Scriptures occur with relative frequency. This suggests that the accounts of the resurrection are very early, going back to a very early oral tradition, established before the scriptural basis had been sufficiently explored (as it had been by the time of the later account of 1 Corinthians 15).

2. The presence of women as initial witnesses of the event is not what one would expect to find in the context of the culture of the day. Once again, the account of 1 Corinthians 15 would appear to be the later one here.

3. The portrait of Jesus himself is surprising. Jesus does not, for instance, shine like a star as we might expect him to. There is such an account, but it is found in the transfiguration, not in the resurrection accounts. Jesus’ body appears normal on occasions, but in other contexts it is clear that it has been transformed. For instance, we see the disciples having difficulty in recognizing him on occasions (e.g. John 21:12). This type of account is without precedent. The writers appear to be struggling to find the language appropriate to what they have witnessed and do not appear to be driven by a clear anti-docetic, or other agenda. The body of Christ is equally at home both in heaven and in earth. It also is clearly physical.

4. The resurrection has a very much ‘this-worldly’, present age meaning. Had the stories been written later, they might well have contained references to the future resurrection of all God’s people. As they stand, the accounts include a number of clearly pre-reflective elements.

When dealing with the issue of the relationship between Easter and history we need a two-pronged approach of explanation: (a) the tomb really was empty; (b) the disciples really did encounter Jesus after his death. People were aware of the occurrence of post-mortem appearances in visions in the ancient world. Jesus’ burial was also (a fact often unrecognized) a primary burial, which would have later been followed up by storing his remains in an ossuary. Apart from sightings, the empty tomb would have not been a sufficient argument for the possibility of resurrection; in the absence of an empty tomb, nor would sightings. The only explanation sufficient to support resurrection must involve both of these things. All of the signposts point in the direction of resurrection. Denials of the resurrection often preclude on the basis of worldviews that preclude its possibility from the outset. The event of the resurrection is that which explains the future shape of the early Church.

Here the issue of a form of knowing beyond scientific and historical knowing presents itself. This new way of knowing must involve some sort of overlap with scientific and historical forms of knowing. Wright gives the example of the donation of a magnificent work of art to a college in a university. The college, lacking any place in which to display the work of art, dismantles the current college building and rebuilds it around the donated work of art. All of the things that used to make the college special are retained and, indeed, enhanced by the presence of the work of art. The negative features of the college are removed by the redesign of the college around the work of art. However—and this is the crucial point—there must be some initial reception of the work of art prior to the redesigning and rebuilding of the college around it. It is of such an overlap that we speak of with the bearing that the issue of resurrection has upon the scientist or the historian.

The resurrection poses such a challenge to the scientist or the historian, for it is the utterly characteristic, protological event of the new world that is coming to birth. It is not an absurd event occurring within the system of our own world, but an event that belongs to a new reality. No other explanation of a satisfactory character can explain the empty tomb. Nevertheless, if someone chooses to stay between the Pharaoh of scepticism and the sea of faith, they cannot be pushed any further by the historian.

God has given us minds to think. Despite the fact that the resurrection bursts the bounds of history, it also belongs within history, which is precisely why it is so disturbing and unsettling to us. In seeking to understand the resurrection, we need to situate it within a broader context. The apostle Thomas is a good example to follow here. Thomas starts out looking for a certain form of knowing—“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe”—but ends up transcending this sort of knowing in a greater form of knowing. This is not an anti-historical or anti-scientific belief. There is epistemological weight borne by history. Faith transcends—but includes—historical and scientific conviction.

The faith by which we know, like all other true forms of knowing, is determined by the nature of its object. The fact that faith is determined by the nature of its object corresponds to the methodology adopted by science. In order to know certain things, scientists occasionally have to change their ways of seeing to a way that is more appropriate to the reality with which they are dealing. Changing paradigms involves finding a bigger picture within which to see things. Christian faith involves much the same sort of movement.

If we see an epistemology of faith in the example of Thomas, we see an epistemology of hope expressed in the work of the apostle Paul, a matter that is explored within Wright’s most recent publication, entitled—with apologies to C.S. Lewis—Surprised by Hope. Hope is a way of knowing in which new possibilities are opened up. There is also within Scripture an epistemology of love to be found, perhaps exemplified best by Peter. Wittgenstein once remarked in a profound statement: ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’ So it was in the case of Peter.

The question of how we know things is related to the new ontology of the resurrection. The resurrection cannot be known properly in terms of our world of death, detachment and betrayal. The knowing of love must have a correlative outside the knower in the external world. This is the knowing that is needed in the world of the resurrection. ‘Objective’ historical epistemology leads us to the questions faced by Thomas, Paul and Peter: are we able and prepared to adopt a knowing of faith, hope and love? All forms of knowing are given by God; all forms of knowing can be situated within the broader setting of knowing established by faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Wright’s Theological Starting Point in his Doctrine of Justification

Bishop WrightOne of the main reasons why many of Wright’s critics misunderstand his doctrine of justification can be traced to the fact that the questions that he is answering with his doctrine of justification are slightly different from those which traditional Reformed doctrines of justification are designed to answer.

Reformed doctrines of justification tend to have an anthropological starting point. The big question that the doctrine generally addresses is that of how an individual can get right with a holy God. Wright’s doctrine, on the other hand, takes its starting point with God. He starts with God’s covenant-renewing action in the gospel, rather than with man’s attempt to get right with God. Justification is understood in the context of the question of how God sets men to rights, rather than primarily in the context of the question of how men can get right with God.

When Wright talks about the basis for God’s justifying declaration, he is not providing a direct answer to the question of what we must do to be saved. For Wright, God’s declaration that we are right with Him is not merely delivered on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness extra nos, but includes the work of the Spirit within the believer as part of its basis. Wright believes that God is righteous in justifying because (a) Christ has died for the sins of the world; (b) faith is the appropriate helpless response to the gospel; (c) faith is the true obedience that the Law called for but could never provide; (d) faith, as the first sign of the work of the Spirit, is the sign of a new life that is obedient by nature (‘God’s verdict in the present is righteous, because the basis on which it is made is sufficient grounds for confidence that it will correspond to the righteous verdict of the last day’).

Wright’s doctrine of justification relies heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit in the convert (both in present and final justification). If Wright’s doctrine were designed as a direct answer to the traditional Reformed questions of justification it would probably be dangerously misleading. We would be taught to depend at least in part on the work of the Spirit in ourselves, an incomplete and imperfect righteousness within, rather than on the completed work and person of Christ extra nos. Such a dependence on an incomplete righteousness would produce assurance problems, given the lack of a proper ground for our justification (the need for a perfect righteousness as the basis of our justification is the issue that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness seeks to deal with). However, Wright’s doctrine is not designed as an answer to the traditional questions that Reformed Christians have tended to use the doctrine of justification to answer. To understand Wright’s doctrine of justification you really have to put the traditional questions to one side, something which most of Wright’s critics haven’t really grasped yet.

When Wright speaks of faith in relation to his doctrine of justification one of the things that should really strike the reader is how passive man is characterized as being. From his treatments of faith in such contexts, one could be led to wonder whether he believes that faith is something that human beings ‘exercise’ at all. For instance, faith is spoken of as the ‘boundary marker’ or ‘badge’ of the true people of God. One does not generally think in terms of ‘exercising’ a badge.

‘Faith’, for Paul, is therefore not a substitute ‘work’ in a moralistic sense. It is not something one does in order to gain admittance into the covenant people. It is the badge that proclaims that one is already a member. [What St Paul Really Said, 132]

Such a statement is bound to confuse the Reformed reader who is used to approaching the doctrine of justification as the doctrine that answers the question of what an individual must do to get right with a holy God. Given Wright’s theological — rather than anthropological — starting point, his doctrine of justification provides at best a confusing answer to the question that Reformed Christians are answering.

As Wright addresses the issue of justification within the context of the question of how God sets humanity and His creation to rights, his doctrine can include things that a doctrine with an anthropological starting point would find it hard to include. If we adopt an anthropological starting point, certain of the distinctions between justification and sanctification are far more important than they are if we begin with a theological starting point. From an anthropological starting point justification speaks of the way in which I can come to be accepted as righteous in God’s sight and sanctification speaks of a more synergistic process, through which I grow in personal righteousness. Viewed from this perspective it is crucial to keep justification and sanctification distinct, as we do not want to say that we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight on the basis of our works. The distinction between justification and sanctification is essential if we are to preserve monergism.

Viewed from Wright’s more theological starting point, justification and what we call sanctification are not so distinct. From a theological starting point sanctification is not really viewed as an essentially synergistic process (although from other perspectives it can legitimately be regarded as such). In Wright’s understanding, God’s declaration of justification has ‘sanctification’ — both present and promised — in view to some extent. However — and this point is absolutely crucial — the sanctification that is in view is God’s action, rather than ours. It is God who gives the badge of faith and the life of the Spirit in the effectual call and it is God who commits Himself to bringing to completion that which He has begun in us. The condition for this justification is something provided by God, rather than by us.

This means that Wright can maintain a far less antithetical relationship between faith and faithfulness in his doctrine of justification. He writes:

Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness’, which makes the point just as well. Nor, of course, does this then compromise the gospel or justification, smuggling in ‘works’ by a back door. That would only be the case if the realignment I have been arguing for throughout were not grasped. Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more not less. [What St Paul Really Said, 160]

All of this should alert the reader to the fact that Wright is not approaching justification as the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved. If someone asked Wright what they must do to be saved, he would clearly direct them to Jesus Christ and away from any dependence upon their own moral efforts. He would call them to trust in God, His Word and His promises, and not to rest their assurance on their own imperfect works. There is no ambiguity on this point. However, this is not the question that Wright believes that the doctrine of justification is intended to answer. Few points could be more important for the proper interpretation of Wright.

Links

Links from the last few days:

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According to Dr Scaer, the most common way people join the Church is that someone invited them. Guess what? If church sucks, people don’t invite others. They don’t think “Man, my friends have got to be here for this!” They think “Well, I might as well keep going here.” So here’s a fun list that can work for all denominations!

Read the Fearsome Pirate’s church growth tips here. He also gives a Lutheran perspective in outlining some of the things that he dislikes about the PCA worship that he has experienced.

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An interesting post from Leithart here. He observes the way in which we are shaped by popular culture, beginning with a series of tests to see how easily we identify with certain popular slogans, characters and advertisements from our culture and then how easily we identify with Christian counterparts to these. I think that I got a near perfect mark on every part except for the advertising slogans, which probably has something to do with living in the UK. However, I admit that the references to popular culture were generally more familiar than the references to the traditional hymns and references from classic literature. I could probably quote near-verbatim the lyrics from a few dozen rock albums, but I probably know no more than a score of psalms by heart. I have a troublingly vast quantity of pointless pop trivia in my head, so Leithart’s post was a good one for me to read.

Leithart argues that the way that Christians often characterize our struggle with the world is deficient. We tend to think primarily in terms of a struggle of ideas. However, the battle is, more often than not, a struggle of desire. As René Girard has argued desire is mimetic, and the world is consistently tempting us to model our desires after its pattern.

This is where the church comes in. If the battle we face in the wider culture were merely a matter of ideas and thoughts, then we might be able to withstand the onslaught of bad ideas on our own. We might be able to fill our minds with good thoughts and ideas through reading and studying, and when a bad idea came up, we’d pounce. If we are cultural beings, whose habits and practices and desires are shaped by the habits and practices and desires of others around us – and we are – then we can’t really stand up to the cultural temptations in isolation, by ourselves. We cannot resist on our own. We need to be part of a resistant community, a resistant community that recognizes the way the world seeks to shape us into its image, and self-consciously resists the world.

And we can’t resist something with nothing. To the world’s desire-shaping, formative practices, Christians need to oppose a different set of desire-shaping practices. We can’t say: I won’t desire what the world wants me to desire. We have to have positive, godly desires in place of the world’s desires. And these desires and habits need to be nurtured, cultivated, shaped and formed in a particular community. The church has a culture, and must be a culture, if it is going to resist the forces that would conform you to worldly culture.

Leithart also has a post on consumerism that I found interesting.

***
Following on from his earlier post on Dawkins and Lacan, Macht observes the importance of un-clarity in argument if we are to truly communicate:

Being “unclear” in one’s writing, then, can perhaps be a way to get the reader to NOT translate what they are reading into familiar terms. A writer want the reader to think in ways they’ve never thought before and that may require unfamiliar terms. This will of course require more work on the part of the reader and may lead to misunderstandings, but that might be the price a writer needs to pay in order to get his point across.

This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why misunderstanding so often attends theological discourse. In theology our terms are generally given to us by Scripture. Our overfamiliarity with these terms can lead to misunderstanding when we read people like Barth and Wright, who use familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. It takes quite a conscious effort on our part to overcome the familiarity that we have with the terms and begin to appreciate the ‘otherness’ of the theology of such men, and not merely interpret them on our own terms.

John Milbank has also observed the importance of ‘making strange’: developing new language to replace overfamiliar terms, in order that the peculiarity and distinctive character of the Christian position might become more apparent. This, I suggest, is one argument in favour of those who are wary of a theological discourse that works almost entirely in terms of biblical terminology. Such a discourse is helpful among those who understand the positions being advanced, but it can provide an impediment to those who have not yet grasped them.

***
Joel Garver begins to articulate some of his concerns with the recent PCA report on the FV/NPP.
***
Paul Helm on biblical versus systematic theology. I believe that the way that we do systematic theology is overdue for a complete overhaul. I don’t believe that biblical theology is the answer to everything, but I would not be sad to witness the demise of the discipline of systematic theology as it is often currently practiced (something that I have commented on in the past). Much systematic theology is ‘timeless’ in a deeply unhealthy fashion. It tends to treat its subject matter as if it were timeless and it also teaches in a manner that abstracts the learner from the time-bound narrative.

Systematic theology often seems to aim to present us with a panoptic perspective on the biblical narrative. We look at the narrative from a great height, from without rather than from within. This ‘timeless’ perspective is very dangerous, I believe. A reform of systematic theology would reject this way of approaching the discipline and would approach its subject matter in a slightly different manner. We study theology from within time, as participants in God’s drama. Neither the subject matter nor the student of theology should be abstracted from time. Rather than dealing with ‘timeless’ truths, we should deal with truths that are ‘constant’ through time.

Peter Leithart has suggested that ideally systematic theology would play a role analogous to the role that a book entitled An Anthropology of Middle Earth would play relative to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a book would help the reader to understand the constant features of the narratives. However, its subject matter would never be detached from the narrative nor could it ever be substituted for the narrative itself. The narrative always retains the primacy.

***
Michael Bird writes [HT: Chris Tilling] on the importance of the study of NT Theology and Christian Origins. Here is a taster:

…when students (esp. evangelical students) talk about the message of the New Testament, they usually mean Paul. And when they mean Paul, what they mean is Romans and Galatians. Their understanding (or sometimes lack of undestanding) of these two epistles often becomes the centre of not only Paul, but of the entire New Testament. Hebrews, Matthew, Revelation, and Luke-Acts are all forced into a Pauline framework.

How is this corrected? First, Christian Origins shows us the real diversity of the early church. You only have to compare the Johannine literature, Luke-Acts, and Paul to see that the saving significance of Jesus was expressed in different (I did not say contradictory) concepts, categories, and terms. Approaches to the law were diverse and pluriform as Christians struggled (in every sense of the word) to understand how the law-covenant was to be understood and followed in light of the coming Jesus/faith (cf. Gal. 3.23). A study of Christian Origins opens our eyes to the reality and goodness of diversity, so that Christians can learn to differentiate between convictions and commands, and discern between the major and the minor doctrines of Christian belief. I would also add that, despite this theological breadth to the early church, there was still unity within diversity, a unity apparent in the common kerygma of the early church. While there was diversity and complexity in the early church, it was never a free for all, and the desire to discern between true and false expressions of belief were part of the Christian movement from the very beginning. That leads us to New Testament Theology and rather than priviledging Paul to supra-canonical status (and Romans and Galatians and hyper-canonical), we should listen to each corpra on its own terms and to the issues to which they speak. A study of this kind will indicate where the theological (and dare I say) spiritual centre of gravity lies in the New Testament.

The evangelical and Reformed tendency to force the whole of the NT into a Pauline framework is something that is becoming increasingly apparent to me. Over the last few weeks I have been studying the doctrine of atonement, for instance, in the NT. I have been struck by how muted the theme of penal substitution is in much of the extra-Pauline literature (or even, for that matter, in a number of the ’secondary’ Pauline epistles). If our ‘canon within the canon’ consisted of the Johannine literature or of Matthew and James, rather than Romans and Galatians, evangelical and Reformed theology would probably take a radically different form. Recogizing this fact has made me far more sympathetic to a number of traditions whose theology differs sharply from Reformed theology, largely because they operate in terms of a very different ‘canon within the canon’. Paul is only part of the picture and his voice is not necessarily any more important than others within the NT canon.

I suspect that a number of significant theological advances could be made if we were only to put our favourite sections of Romans and Galatians to one side for a while. For instance, we might begin to see the continuing role that the commandments of the Torah performed in shaping the life of the Church. We might begin to have a clearer sense of just how Jewish the thinking of the early Church was. An overemphasis on Paul’s more antithetical and abstract ways of formulating the relationship between the Law and the Gospel can blind us to how Paul and other NT authors generally continue to take the particularities of the Torah as normative for the life of the NT people of God. The way that the Torah operates has changed, but it is still operational in many respects as the Torah of the Spirit and the Torah of liberty.

We might also find ourselves called to more concrete forms of discipleship and begin to move towards a gospel that is more firmly rooted in praxis. We might also discover that the message of the gospel is not just concerned with the overcoming of sin and death, but also is about bringing humanity to the maturity that God had always intended for it. We might also find ourselves moving towards a more sacramental gospel.

***
John Barach ponders the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the ten statements of Genesis 1.
***
David Jones at la nouvelle théologie gives a list of links to material relevant to the recent Wilson-Hitchens debate on Christianity and atheism. There is also an interesting article in the Daily Mail, in which Peter Hitchens reviews his brother’s book [HT: Dawn Eden].
***
Al Kimel’s blog, Pontifications, has a new home [HT: Michael Liccione]. The RSS feed also seems to be better on this one.
***
June 2007 Wrightsaid list answers.
***
As someone who believes that the inerrancy debates are largely unhelpful, I found this post by John H quite insightful. The Scriptures are exactly as God wanted us to have them and fulfil the purposes for which they were given. They are trustworthy. In the comments to the post, it is observed that the Church would have been far better off fighting for the ground of Scriptural efficacy, rather than Scriptural inerrancy. The Scriptures perfectly achieve the goals for which they were given. A position centred on Scriptural efficacy also serves to remind us that fundamentalism is itself a threat to a truly Christian doctrine of the Word of God, generally denying or downplaying the saving efficacy of God’s Word in preaching, the sacraments and the liturgy. Thinking in such terms might also help to move us away from the overly formal doctrine of Scripture generally adopted by conservative evangelicalism.
***
Matthew gives some helpful clarifications in response to my comments on his recent post.
***
The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart’s latest book is released today. Buy your copy now!
***
David Peterson, from Oak Hill, gives an introduction to biblical theology in a series of audio lectures. I haven’t listened to these yet, but some of my readers might find them helpful.
***
Ben Witherington on Billy Graham.
***
R.P. Reeves on evangelicalism:

With Hochshild’s case, I was surprised to learn how bare-bones Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is, but as I’ve tried to think through the history of evangelicalism in a more comprehensive manner, I’m no longer surprised; rather, it’s exactly what I expect from evangelicalism. One of the characteristics of evangelicalism that I am working on developing is that it is first and foremost a renewalist, rather than ecclesiastical, movement. In 16th century Protestantism, the doctrinal heritage of the church (notably the ecumenical creeds) was explicitly reaffirmed, precisely because the Reformation sought to reform the church. By contrast, Evangelicalism seeks to renew the individual (and then, once a sufficient mass of individuals a renewed, this will renew the church, or society, or the state, etc.). Mixed with a primitivist suspicion of creeds and traditions, it’s not surprising that a basic affirmation of biblical inerrancy was believed to be sufficient boundary for evangelical theologians, nor is it surprising that this thin plank is proving to be a shaky foundation.

[HT: Paul Baxter]

***
A PCA pastor: “We wouldn’t ordain John Murray”. Sadly, this is only what one should expect when theological factionalism takes holds of a denomination.
***
Byron is right: this is a very good parable.
***
‘Begging the Question’ [HT: Paul Baxter]
***
From the evangelical outpost: How to Draw a Head and Assess your Brain Fitness.
***
The cubicle warrior’s guide to office jargon
***
The unveiling of the logo for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Seb Coe:

It will define the venues we build and the Games we hold and act as a reminder of our promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world.

Tony Blair:

When people see the new brand, we want them to be inspired to make a positive change in their life.

Tessa Jowell:

This is an iconic brand that sums up what London 2012 is all about - an inclusive, welcoming and diverse Games that involves the whole country.

It takes our values to the world beyond our shores, acting both as an invitation and an inspiration.

Ken Livingstone:

The new Olympic brand draws on what London has become - the world’s most forward-looking and international city.

And the brand itself:

London 2012

***
Finally, some Youtube videos:

The new Microsoft Surface:

Battle at Kruger:

I’m a Marvel … and I’m a DC:

New Skoda Ad:

Judas and Ahithophel


In the course of his treatment of the use of the OT in John’s gospel, Steve Moyise describes M.J.J. Menken’s understanding of the background of Jesus’ statement in John 13:18. Menken suggests that John makes his own translation from the Hebrew of Psalm 41:9, but alters it slightly to bring it closer to the language of 2 Samuel 18:28. The context of this verse is Ahithophel’s betrayal of Jesus, an event in the life of David which Jewish tradition also associates with Psalm 41. Menken observes a number of parallels between the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and David’s betrayal by Ahithophel that I hadn’t noticed before.

  • Judas and Ahithophel both hang themselves after the deed (2 Sam 17.23/Matt 27.5).
  • They both plan to do the deed at night (2 Sam 17.1/John 13.30).
  • David and Jesus both pray for deliverance on the Mount of Olives (2 Sam 15.31/Mark 14.26ff.).
  • David and Jesus both cross the Kidron (2 Sam 15.23/John 18.1).
  • It is claimed that the death of one man will bring peace to the people (2 Sam 17.3/John 11.50).

I had seen some of these before, but hadn’t noticed a few of the others.

Birth Pangs and New Birth as a Model for the Atonement and Resurrection

Matthias Grünewald - Isenheim Altar, Christ's birth and resurrection panels, 1515

Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. — John 16:20-22

In these verses Jesus employs the image of the birth pangs of a woman in labour, imagery that is common in the OT prophets, where it is also occasionally used to refer to a period of intense suffering preceding a new age (similar usage is also to be found in extracanonical Jewish literature). In the prophets the image of labour pains followed by birth is associated with resurrection (Isaiah 26:16-21) and with the restoration of the people of God (Isaiah 66:8-14).

The strong eschatological associations of such imagery are not accidental to the meaning of this passage. Nor should this passage be detached from the general theme of new birth that appears at various points of the gospel of John. The popular employment of the language of new birth and regeneration can blind us to the primary focus of the teaching of new birth in Scripture, which is not a spiritual transformation in the heart of the new convert but the death and resurrection of Christ.

The death and resurrection of Christ represent a watershed in history. The death of Christ was the definitive death of the old world order. Since then the old creation has been passing away and the new creation born in the resurrection has been advancing. The first person to born again was Jesus Christ, when He became the firstborn from the dead in His resurrection. The new birth experienced by the new convert is an entry into the new life of Christ’s resurrection.

In the OT no one was born again. From dust they were born and to dust they returned. Naked people came from their mother’s wombs and naked they returned there. The re-entry into the womb (the earth and the womb are habitually related together in the OT — Job 1:21; Psalm 139:13-15; Ecclesiastes 5:15) was by death and no one had come out again on the other side. The cursed womb of the earth seemed barren; the seed continually entered into its belly, but no fruit came forth (cf. Proverbs 30:15-16).

John employs the imagery of the woman in labour in the context of a broader inaugurated eschatology. For John the birth pangs begin in Jesus’ death; the birth itself is presumably the resurrection. A surface reading of the text might suggest that the birth pangs are undergone by the disciples; closer examination suggests a more complex picture.

Particularly significant are the words ‘because her hour has come’. Throughout the gospel of John the theme of Jesus’ coming hour is prominent, and no more so than in the chapters just prior to the crucifixion account. It is our conviction that the woman in John 16 represents Israel, undergoing the travail that will result in the birth of a new age. Her birth pangs are focused on the cross of Jesus, but are also experienced to some degree by the disciples.

Who is the new child that is born? It seems to me that the new child is Christ Himself. We find this position convincing in the light of the strong Johannine and NT connection between resurrection and new birth. In Revelation 1:5 Jesus is described as the firstborn of the dead. This understanding of the resurrection is also to be observed in Lucan (Acts 13:33) and Pauline (Romans 1:3-4; Colossians 1:18) thought. Such a teaching is not treated as if it were in tension with the fact that Jesus is truly the Son of God before the resurrection. Jesus is the both the one who precedes the creation as the eternally begotten of the Father and the one who leads the way into the new age as the firstborn of the dead. In Revelation 12 it also seems most likely that the birth referred to there takes place in the death and resurrection of Christ.

While the resurrected Christ is the most immediate referent of the newborn child, the image refers more broadly to the new birth of the people of God as a whole (cf. Isaiah 66:8; Revelation 12:17). It is through the birth pangs of the cross that the birth from above that Jesus speaks of in John 3 becomes a possibility.

This imagery is employed in a number of places in the NT outside of Johannine writings. In Romans 8, for instance, the imagery occurs within a context of inaugurated and awaited eschatology. The birth pangs are still taking place, but the manifestation of the sons of God is certain, as Jesus has already been declared to be the Son of God in His resurrection as the firstborn of the dead. Being sons of God is a matter of great eschatological significance for Paul. The fact that people are being set apart as the sons of God by the reception of the firstfruits of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come upon us.

Understanding the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of birth pangs and new birth provides us with an illuminating perspective on the death of Christ, one that is present at a number of points in the NT, but has not received much attention. It is a model of atonement that focuses on the giving of new life. Within this model (which undoubtedly needs to be complemented by others) sin and death are overcome not by means of punishment, but by the bringing about of new life. Birth pangs may be an effect of the Fall, but the focus of this model is not on punishing man for sin or condemning sin, but on overcoming the death and the frustration of the creation that result from human sin.

Evangelical doctrines of the atonement often have the tendency of detaching the cross from the resurrection and becoming focused on the condemnation of the sins of the past, saying a lot less about how the cross and resurrection bring about new life. We are left merely as forgiven sinners, rather than as participants in a new creation. Such models — which should by no means be rejected — are generally backward looking, focusing on past transgressions. The model outlined above is more forward looking, placing a far greater accent on the resurrection.

This model also ties in very neatly with themes and motifs that are very prominent in the OT. I have already observed how it relates to imagery that is found in a number of places in the prophets. It relates to the common OT theme of God’s overcoming of barrenness to bring forth the seed. Even more significantly, it relates to the unravelling of the curse and the fulfilment of the protoevangelium far more closely than many other models. It relates to the curse on the woman’s womb, the curse on the ground and the overcoming of death.

Significantly, this theme does not merely show the cross and resurrection as the reversal of the curse. The curse stacks all the odds against new birth, but it is not the reason why new birth is necessary. New birth is necessary because the creation must mature. The heavenly must take the place of the earthly (1 Corinthians 15:35-54). The recent film Children of Men well illustrates the dystopic reality of a world of death without new birth. In such a world, all that remains is the agonizing cry of the woman who can bring forth nothing but wind. In the resurrection the world of the first creation is glorified. The natural body is sown and the spiritual body is raised and there is a future for the world once more.

The model outlined above presents us with a natural image — that of giving birth — in order to help us to understand what takes place at the cross. Even apart from the dimension of the overcoming of the curse and barrenness of the womb of the earth, such new birth of the Spirit would have been necessary even in a world apart from sin. Such a ‘natural’ image for what takes place at the cross also suggests how what takes place at the cross may be analogous to the eternal begetting of the Son, which provides the eternal condition of its possibility. Christ is the one who is eternally begotten by the Father through the Spirit and He is the one in whom new birth by the Father through the Spirit becomes a possibility for us in history. The death and resurrection thus mirror to some extent the eternal processions of the Trinity.

Romans 7:14-25


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In Which Alastair Invites His Readers to Take His Newly-Created Biblical Comprehension Test


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Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?


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Eating and Drinking in John 6 Redux

Just when I thought that this old post had gone into the cryogenic storage of the distant archives, it has been reanimated with new discussion. A number of issues are addressed, including that of whether a reference to the Eucharist in John 6 means that our salvation is at stake if we do not eat it (and what the word ’salvation’ is actually assumed to mean in such a question).

Why I Will Never be a Biblical Scholar


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Rambling comments on Dunn and Esler on Baptism in Romans 6

Over the weekend I read a number of commentators on Romans 6, a couple of which were set reading for a seminar that I attended this morning. The two commentators that were on our set reading were Philip Esler and James Dunn, both of whom I have significant disagreements with. My chief disagreements have to do with the way in which they approach the question of Baptism.

Dunn asks what the phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ would have meant for Paul’s readers. He goes on to interact with two chief possibilities. The first possibility

…is that they would have recalled their own baptism, understanding it as an act that united them with Christ. This would be all the more likely if they were familiar with the initiation rites of the mystery cults, which, so it used to be firmly maintained, were thought to achieve a mystical identification with the cult god through some re-enactment of his or her fate.

Dunn proceeds to dismiss this possibility, arguing that washings were generally preparatory to the initiation rites in the mystery cults, rather than the initiation itself. He also believes that the idea of ‘mystical identification between the initiate and the cult god’ was probably not as widespread as many presume. He writes:—

The one claim of such cults which would have been widely known was the bare evangelistic assertion that without being initiated into their mysteries there could be no hope of life or light in the future world. But it must remain doubtful whether Paul would have wished his converts to understand Christian initiation as providing that sort of guarantee, not least because he has already polemicized against just such a misunderstanding in the case of the rite of initiation into Judaism (2:25-29; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-13).

Having rejected this possibility, Dunn goes on to argue for what he terms the ‘other chief possibility’, that Paul ‘is here taking up a metaphorical usage already familiar in Christian tradition.’ Dunn traces the use of this metaphor from John the Baptist, who used it to speak of the one who would baptize in the Spirit and fire, to Jesus, who adapted it to refer to His own death. Later on the same metaphor is used of Pentecost and other ‘initiatory experiences of the Spirit’, for instance Paul’s use of the language of baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Paul, then, uses the language of baptism as a metaphor to speak of the original experience of conversion: ‘As Paul clearly implies elsewhere, the initiating experience of the Spirit was usually very vivid, an event often deeply moving and profoundly transforming, which the young Christians would have no difficulty in recalling.’

The other interesting aspect of Dunn’s account of Romans 6 is the manner in which he tends to accent our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than our being identified with Christ in a manner that does not necessarily presuppose any action on our part. As the identification that he focuses on is a self-identification, it is as incomplete as faith itself. As we grow in faith our identification with Christ will increase.

Philip Esler’s commentary (Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter) studies the origin and the practice of Baptism in the early ‘Christ-movement’ and explores the question of Baptism and social identity, before he treats the particular position of the apostle Paul. He explores the significance of Baptism in the light of ‘rituals of initiation’ in general.

Esler argues that ‘in the first generation or so of the Christ-movement baptism was also the occasion on which the believer received the Holy Spirit.’ He sees baptism by the Spirit and water baptism as distinct, but closely related, events as part of a ‘“conversion-initiation” complex’. Water baptism is ‘the expression of faith to which God gives the Spirit.’ He argued that the reception of the Spirit following Baptism was manifested in a ‘variety of ecstatic states … and phenomena, including trances, visions, auditions, prophecy, and glossolalia, that often produced feelings of peace and even euphoria.’ Esler compares this with contemporary experiences of ‘charismatic phenomena’. Against those who are sceptical of claims that baptism was accompanied with ‘possession by the Spirit’ he argues that ‘the emotionally charged atmosphere of baptism, with fellow Christ-followers present to assist the newly baptized members achieve spiritual possession, in the manner known from Goodman’s investigation in modern charismatic congregations, would have meant that most did receive the Spirit.’

Within Esler’s account there is far more of an emphasis placed upon the significance of Baptism in and for the community. Faith is not a merely private thing. Access to God is received via entry into the community. Esler adduces Hippolytus’ account of the community of the early Church in Rome gathering for the baptisms of each new member as proof of this. Esler also accents the experience of Baptism and its presumed psychological effect on the baptizand. Paul saw Baptism as the time in which the Spirit of God was received: ‘Thus baptism was an overwhelming encounter with God and Christ, an encounter charged with visionary experiences of light and manifested in an eruption of glossolalia and other ecstatic phenomena.’

I find the approaches taken by Esler and Dunn unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. One of the things that frustrates me about many NT commentators is that often they seem to be more prepared to discover a background for NT practices in the surrounding pagan culture of the first century or (caricaturing slightly) in the observations of some anthropologist concerning the initiation rituals of some obscure Polynesian tribe than they are to give serious weight to the idea that NT rites may have developed out of OT rites and have been understood in terms of existing Scriptural categories.

The idea of Baptism into Christ, at first glance, does seem to be a bit foreign to the thought world of the OT and to have more in common with the world of the mystery religions. However, I believe that there are a number of different ways in which such a concept might not be so alien to the conceptual categories of the OT as we are first inclined to believe.

N.T. Wright and others have spoken at length of the incorporative meaning of the title ‘Christ’, arguing that such a meaning is endemic to the understanding of kingship in ancient Israel. The term ‘Christ’ does not refer just to Jesus as an individual, but to the people of the Messiah as a whole (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:16). Wright deals specifically with Romans 6 in the third chapter of The Climax of the Covenant, claiming that “Romans 6.3 clearly refers to entry, through baptism, into the people of God; here Χριστός is basically shorthand for ‘the people of the Messiah’.” The background for union with Christ through Baptism is not the mystical identification with cultic gods brought about by the initiation rituals of the mystery religions, but the idea of entry into the concrete historical community of the Messiah. It should also be observed that ‘Baptism into Christ’ may just be another way of speaking of Baptism in Christ’s name.

It might also be worth asking to what extent Paul saw a parallel between the baptism into Moses that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and Baptism into Christ. What OT data would he draw upon in arguing that the Red Sea crossing was baptismal and created a union between Moses and the children of Israel, for example? The following are a few tentative thoughts and suggestions. First, the idea that the Red Sea crossing would have been perceived as ‘baptismal’, even within an OT context, could be argued from certain parallels that the baptismal priestly ordination rite of Exodus 40 has with the narrative of the crossing (many of these parallels can be seen in the later crossing of the Jordan as well). The Red Sea would then be seen as part of God’s setting apart of Israel as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). There might be a suggestion of priestly ordination within the Song of Moses, with the reference to bringing the children of Israel into God’s Sanctuary (Exodus 15:17).

Some might argue that these parallels might be reinforced with the correspondence between the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the third day of creation (which James Jordan once argued for; I would be surprised if he still does), as a connection between the third day of creation and being brought up out of the Red Sea is hinted at in Isaiah 63:11. However, I would question this interpretation, as the Tabernacle’s laver of cleansing and the Bronze Sea in the Temple seem to represent the firmament waters above, rather than the waters of the deep below, which is why the waters are raised off from the ground.

In Isaiah 63:11 there is almost certainly an allusion to the third day of creation and it is interesting to observe that the verse does not speak of being brought through the Sea, but of being brought up out of the sea (the language of 1 Corinthians 10 draws our attention to slightly different aspects of the symbolism). The Red Sea crossing was about being brought out of the Gentile, pre-formation (in Genesis 1), sea and formed into a new land.

Christian Baptism involves a twofold movement — being taken up out of the waters below and passing through the second day firmament waters above. John the Baptist’s baptism was always insufficient, as it could only accomplish the first part of this movement. It is Christ who brings the second stage of Baptism into action, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit — the living water from above — so that we have access to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 10:19-22). Incidentally, this is why affusion with living water from above captures the biblical symbolism of Christian Baptism in a way that complete submersion doesn’t. Christian Baptism both brings us up from the death sea of Sin and sanctifies us with heavenly water for priestly access to the heavenly temple.

Second, we could question exactly what sort of relationship the Red Sea crossing was perceived to have created between Moses and Israel, that Paul could speak of baptism into Moses. In Isaiah 63:11, the reference to Israel being brought up out of the sea is interesting when we consider the meaning of Moses’ own name. Moses’ name was given to him because he was ‘drawn out of the water’ (Exodus 2:10). Moses was delivered from Pharaoh through water. He was delivered from slavery before any of the other Israelites were, being taken up out of the reeds (as the Israelites would later be taken up out of the Sea of Reeds) in an account that alludes to the earlier flood narrative of Genesis. Moses recapitulates Noah’s rescue through the flood and precapitulates the later Exodus.

Moses experienced a sort of ‘precapitulation’ of the salvation that God would accomplish through him. He was the one who went ahead of the people of God and sums them up in himself. We see the same of Christ. Many of the events in Christ’s life are both recapitulations of Israel’s earlier history and precapitulations of the ‘New Exodus’ that He would accomplish and His people would share in.

The Red Sea crossing also establishes a union between Moses and the Israelites on a number of other levels. Prior to the Red Sea crossing the Israelites are still slaves and their masters are pursuing them. In the Red Sea their masters are destroyed and they are set free. Having been set free from slavery to Pharaoh they can come under the headship of Moses in a way that they couldn’t before. The shepherd Moses becomes the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11). He was not brought up out of the Red Sea as one individual among many, but in a way distinct from others, as the shepherd of the sheep (Messianic language and similar to Christ, notice the allusion to Isaiah 63:11 in Hebrews 13:20, for instance).

The bond between Moses and Israel is also powerfully affected by the crossing as it leads the Israelites to believe in Moses (Exodus 14:31). God performs the miraculous crossing through the agency of Moses. The strength of the bond between Moses and the Israelites formed by his bringing them up out of Egypt can be seen when YHWH, in speaking to Moses, refers to the Israelites as ‘thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:7). The crossing formed Israel into a new solidarity, freed from the former solidarity of slavery, under the rule of Moses.

Taking all of this OT background into account, I don’t believe that a parallel between Baptism into Christ and baptism into Moses is as far-fetched as some might suggest. ‘In Christ’ we do enjoy a mystical union with Christ, but the significance of this union can generally be articulated in robustly biblical categories, even though it far transcends the things that those categories were originally employed to refer to. Being in Christ is very different from being ‘in David’ or ‘in Moses’, but the concept of being in Christ is best understood as a surprising development and transformation of these OT concepts, rather than as a pagan accretion to the theology of the apostle Paul. There is absolutely no need to appeal to ideas within the world of paganism in order to make sense of such concepts.

Whilst Dunn rejects the idea of understanding Baptism into Christ in terms of the mystery cults, the fact that he does not seem to give much attention to the possibility of the concept of union with Christ through (water) Baptism arising within a strongly Jewish milieu, without borrowing from Hellenistic cults, is telling. It is as such points that I feel the difference between my approach to the NT and that of many NT scholars most keenly. I approach the NT with the presupposition that NT practices can be understood in terms of OT practices and symbolism and that there is no need to appeal to a pagan background. Such an approach is very different from that taken by many NT scholars, who seem to presume that the OT is of limited use in explaining the NT.

Dunn’s ‘other chief possibility’, which he argues in favour of, is one that I find quite unconvincing. The evidence for the idea that the ‘baptism’ referred to in Romans 6 is merely a metaphor for conversion seems to be tenuous, to say the least. The problem, once again, seems to be a failure to do justice to the continuities between the OT and the NT.

Dunn reads Paul to contrast an OT religion of outward, physical rites with a NT religion of faith. This contrast is a common one in Protestant circles and is based on a serious misreading of the NT (and often also the OT, for that matter). This misreading leads to a great problem reconciling faith with the sacraments. For many the sacraments become reduced to mere ordinances to be performed as functions of faith, rather than gifts of divine grace and presence. Many of Peter Leithart’s criticisms of Dunn’s reading of the references to Baptism in Galatians 3:27 as metaphorical apply equally well here (Leithart’s entire ‘Baptism is Baptism’ series is well worth reading — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Whilst we would be wrong to deny that the language of Baptism occasionally carries a more metaphorical sense in the NT, this metaphor is not as free-floating as Dunn seems to make it. In fact, I wonder whether ‘metaphor’ is a very helpful term for us to be using at all. Christ does not merely use baptism as a convenient metaphor for His death. Christ’s death isn’t just comparable to a baptism; it is a baptism.

It all comes down to how we define Baptism. If we read the Scriptures typologically, Baptism is primarily to be defined in terms of the wealth of OT typology that speaks of transitions made through water, for example. Jesus’ reference to His death as His baptism is firmly grounded in OT typology. Reading in terms of typology, we do not have literal baptisms on the one hand and metaphorical baptisms on the other. Rather, we have a number of different types of baptisms, some of which are water rituals and others which involve a broader application of the typology apart from a water ritual. These baptisms are bound together by their shared typology.

In terms of the scriptural typology of Baptism it makes a lot of sense for Romans 6 to be referring to water baptism. The idea of a change in one’s relationship with God being brought about by means of a movement through water has a wealth of biblical support for it. We only face problems when we start to work with a definition of Baptism that cuts it loose from scriptural typology and a theology that denigrates physical rites and polarizes symbol and reality. Once we start to think of Baptism in terms of ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ we will begin to think of Spirit and water Baptism as two quite different sorts of things, which are as separate as oil and water.

If we think in terms of typology, the two can be seen to be closely interrelated. Spirit Baptism has primary reference to Pentecost and the individual Christian receives the Spirit through water Baptism into the new community formed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The contrast between Spirit and water Baptism is not the contrast between spiritual ‘reality’ and physical ‘picture’. Nor is the contrast a contrast between an efficacious Baptism by the Spirit and a water baptism that was powerless to change anything. John the Baptist’s point in contrasting his baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit performed by Christ is that his baptism was not able to give the new covenant life of the Holy Spirit. However, John’s baptism was not without efficacy; it promised nothing less than divine forgiveness.

The contrast that we see between water and Spirit Baptism in places in the NT is the contrast created by two different redemptive historical eras, a contrast that is gradually removed as the post-Pentecost era is established. After Pentecost, apart from a few exceptional cases (recorded precisely as exceptional cases), Baptism with the Holy Spirit and water Baptism were one and the same event. As I pointed out earlier, the contrast between Holy Spirit and water Baptism might also be the contrast between Baptism as being taken out of the waters below and Baptism as being brought out of the waters below and passing through the waters above. The Baptism of the Spirit is a Baptism that is poured out from above. Now that the Church is the New Temple in Christ, the One who has passed through the heavens, Baptism does not merely take us out of the sea of exile, but brings us into the heavenly Temple itself.

Some will argue that determining the meaning of NT rites by their relationship to OT rites produces an excessive continuity between the two testaments. I dispute this claim. I believe that such an approach will be far more likely to give us deep insight into the meaning of Christian Baptism than the sociological and anthropological approaches adopted by many NT scholars. The great weakness of such approaches is that, whilst they can say things about the role of initiation rites in general or in the ancient Hellenistic context, they seldom tell us much about the meaning of Christian Baptism in particular. What is it about Christian Baptism that gives it its peculiar significance and makes it more than just a generic water initiation rite?

What is the primary context within which we will best understand Christian Baptism? Studies of generic initiation rites may produce some parallels with the practice of Christian Baptism, but the relationship that Christian Baptism bears with a ritual washing performed by some tribe in the Amazonian rainforest is far too weak to draw much significance from any differences that might exist between the rites. Such studies can alert us to the continuities between various initiation rituals and to the generic significance that initiation rites have, but they really cannot achieve much beyond this. They can highlight the significance of some details, but in general they tend to level out initiation rituals too much.

However, when we study Christian Baptism in its proper context of biblical typology and the many forms of pre-Pentecost baptisms the continuities between Christian Baptism and earlier baptisms will actually be of less significance than the differences. The differences between Christian Baptism and some ritual washing performed by a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest may be great, but they cannot teach us much as they belong to radical different social and cultural contexts. When we study Christian Baptism within its proper social and cultural context, against the background of pre-Pentecost baptisms, differences are suddenly of great significance as they occur within the same symbolic and linguistic economy.

Peter Leithart has argued that NT rites should be understood as ‘conjugations’ of OT rites. NT and OT rites ultimately have the same ‘verbal root’ — Christ — and share the same fundamental typological structure. However, NT rites differ from OT rites as a new conjugation of the shared typological root. The significance of NT rites is thus chiefly to be found in the differences between them and OT rites. Consequently, the claim that understanding NT rites against the background of OT rites levels things out too much is quite unjustified.

Esler’s account of Christian Baptism is quite spectacular. It also seems quite speculative and alien to many of the Scriptural accounts of Baptism. Christian Baptism is certainly an amazing event. As Jeff Meyers’ has observed, if we saw what really happens in Baptism we would be dazzled. We would witness opened heavens, theophanies and all sorts of other wonders. However, to our eyes Scriptural Baptism is simple and unadorned and does not have the spectacle of many of the later forms that it assumed within the Church, forms which seem seriously to distort Esler’s reading of the NT text itself.

I do not believe that the idea that Christian Baptism is normally accompanied by ecstatic experiences and demonstrations of charismatic phenomena has much scriptural foundation. There are some accounts of such baptisms, but they occur within a context that should guard us against the idea that they represent the norm for all Christian Baptisms. Whilst I am not a strict cessationist I believe that there are good biblical reasons to question whether Paul expected each Baptism to be followed by speaking in tongues, visions and similar charismatic phenomena for it to be regarded as a genuine reception of the Spirit.

The initial reception of the Spirit at Pentecost and the events that are closely related to it in the book of Acts involve spectacular manifestations of the Spirit’s presence. Whilst I believe that we would be unjustified to altogether rule out such manifestations in the contemporary contexts in which we find ourselves, we should also recognize that, Scripturally, such manifestations are generally associated with the initial foundation of a covenant order and disappear after a few decades, or only occur once at the very beginning.

The gifts of the Spirit are for the establishment of the Church. There are some gifts that exist like scaffolding for the initial forming of the Church. There are other gifts that exist for the furnishing of Church and daily service of the Church. The ‘scaffolding gifts’ are generally more spectacular, but are not needed after a while. The more quotidian gifts then become more prominent. We should not be surprised to see miracles, healings, prophetic insight and the like later on in a particular covenant era, but they will be considerably rarer. The gradual diminishing of such gifts as prophecy, tongues and healing in the history of the early Church should not shock us. It is not an indication of apostasy. It is just a sign that the establishment of the Church has pretty much taken place. Faith, hope and love have to do with the structural integrity of the Church; they will persist as the scaffolding of other gifts is removed.

Let me give an example. In Exodus 31:1ff. we see that YHWH fills Bezalel with the Holy Spirit for constructing the Tabernacle. Bezalel has the Spirit-given gift of embroidery, for example, which is of great importance for the construction of the Tabernacle. Such a Spiritual gift, however, is not a normal Spiritual gift, but is given in a particular historical circumstance and for a particular limited purpose.

The event of Pentecost was not just one spectacular event among many in the early Church’s life. It was the start of a new covenant order. The spectacular signs that accompanied it would not be expected to be part of the regular life of the Church from that point onwards (although they certainly were for a number of years during the period of the Church’s establishment). The early Church knew their Scriptures too well to suppose that the character of its life immediately following Pentecost would persist into the long term future.

Even when we look at the examples of Christian Baptism within the book of Acts and elsewhere, it is hard to see how many of them fit Esler’s description. Whilst performing Christian Baptism in the context of a gathered meeting of the Church might be the ideal way to do things, there are many examples of Baptism in Scripture that were performed quite differently. Christian Baptism does not seem to necessitate the presence of the gathered Christian community. Early Christian Baptism as recorded in the NT also seems to occur apart from lengthy catechetical preparation and does not seem to involve candidates stripping naked and other such practices that Esler refers to.

Both Esler and Dunn focus on the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 primarily in terms of a memorable experience. Esler in particular gives great attention to the psychological effect of Baptism. The significance of Baptism is largely known through the strength of the experiences that surround it. Esler hypes up early Christian Baptism in a way that grants a lot of significance to details of the rite that are never mentioned in Scripture and far less significance to the details that the Scripture does give us.

Within Dunn’s account the identification with Christ formed by the ‘Baptism’ of Romans 6 is far weaker than it seems to be in Paul’s mind. For Dunn the identification is primarily a self-identification and has less of the strength of an objective fact. Esler’s concentration on the baptizand’s subjective sense of Baptism also obscures the idea of Baptism as a rite that is primarily there to do something to us, rather than as a rite designed to give rise to a subjective experience.

It seems to me that Paul appeals to Baptism, not as a subjective experience of conversion, nor even as a physical rite that brings about a new state of affairs through a powerful experience, but as a rite that genuinely did something to us, whether or not it was accompanied by an experience. Paul’s point is that Baptism made us new people. Whilst Baptism might well be a powerful experience for us, it is not the experience that makes us new people. Baptism is like adoption in this respect. Adoption makes me a new person and brings me into new relationships, whatever I feel about it. Adoption may be a profound and powerful experience of deliverance and love or the adopted child might not remember the time of their adoption. Either way the significance of adoption remains. This is the way that Paul appeals to Baptism, I believe. Baptism changed me, whether I felt it or not or appreciated it or not. I now have to reckon that change to be true and live in terms of it.

A World of Desires

Leithart makes a good observation:—

John’s suggestion that the world is made up not only of “things” (TA EN TO KOSMO, v. 15) but of desires is a rich insight. He doesn’t limit the world merely to the artifacts that are evident in the world, nor to the institutions and practices of the world. The plural reference in verse 15 covers these multiple manifestations of the world, but at the heart of what John calls the world, the source from which the world flows, is desire. To put it more sociologically, (sinful) human culture – its institutions, practices, products – are all embodiments of evil desire or boastfulness. John hints that we should evaluate the world not only on the basis of what’s done or what things it contains, but on the basis of desire. And desire has a multiple relationship with culture: Desires are the “contents” of culture – culture is made up of embodied dreams, aspirations, lusts; on the other hand, the world is the source of desire, evoking certain kinds of desire. John’s sociology thus encourages us to ask what desires are embodied in roads, buildings, automobiles, iPods, coffee, customs, schools, and so on. John encourages us to seek to penetrate below the surface of cultural life to the desires that are provoking and provoked by the world.

James Jordan, N.T. Wright, and Double Resurrection

James Jordan has argued that the Scriptures teach two resurrections and justifications. The final justification is a justification that includes the person’s works and is only possible once the first justification has taken place. We cannot do any good works until the initial justification has taken place. In support of this notion Jordan cites Numbers 19. In Numbers 19, when a person has become contaminated through contact with a corpse, they go through two stages of purification. They are purified on the third day and on the seventh day their purification is completed with a final purification and baptism (quite possibly the ‘baptism for the dead’ referred to in 1 Corinthians 15; certainly the most likely contender in my estimation).

Most contemporary Christians would believe that such a passage is far too obscure to play any role in our doctrine of justification and that Paul’s theology never could have been informed by such a thing. This is the natural response for Protestants, who have very little time for liturgy. The assumption is that the ‘Bible’ is the only place where God’s revelation of saving truths is to be found. There are a number of problems with this notion. Chief among them is the fact that what we call the ‘Bible’ is a relatively recent creation. The people of God of previous ages encountered the Scriptures in the form of liturgical performance not as we do, by reading words off the pages of our mass-produced, privately-owned Bibles. It should not surprise us that, approaching the Scriptures as they do, most modern Christians make little sense out of it.

Once we appreciate this, we will need to reweight the significance of different parts of the Scriptures. The book of Leviticus, for example, is one of the most important books in the OT canon. Obscure as it may seem to us, the book of Leviticus shaped the daily worship of Israel. You will not really understand books like Romans until you have grasped something of the message of Leviticus.

Numbers 19 is a good example of a text that seems insignificant to us, but would have been many times more significant to an Israelite. In a time of higher mortality, when death was not something that took place away from the context of life in modern hospital wards, people would be far more likely to come into contact with corpses. The Israelite who came in contact with a corpse would have to go through the week long ritual of Numbers 19. Living out such a biblical text for a week’s period of time at a moment that was most probably one of profound personal transition following the death of a friend or relative would likely cause Numbers 19 to leave a far deeper impression on your consciousness than it does for the modern reader of the book of Numbers. One would not regard Numbers 19 as an obscure text.

Numbers 19 presents us with a baptismal resurrection. The person who has become unclean through contact with a corpse is separated from the realm of fellowship with God and is symbolically dead as a consequence of his contact with the dead body. They are only restored to the life of fellowship with God through a baptism.

Jordan insists that the ‘resurrection’ of the third day, whilst analogous to the ‘resurrection’ of the seventh day, is a distinct event. It does not ‘participate’ in the resurrection of the seventh day. The third day justification is not a case of the seventh day justification being brought forward into the present. Nor, for that matter, is the seventh day justification merely a reiteration, recognition or validation of the third day justification.

Jordan argues that Jesus’ original hearers would have heard the background of Numbers 19 when Jesus claimed that He would be raised on the third day. They would not have believed that there was only one resurrection awaiting them in the future (or, if they did, they shouldn’t have). Rather, they would have expected two resurrections, an initial one and a later final and consummative one. The NT teaching of two resurrections in such places as John 5 and Revelation 20 was not, therefore, a theological novelty (whilst Jordan does not believe that the first resurrection in these passages refers to quite the same thing, they can be seen as evidence for his basic point). There is an initial resurrection, followed by a later, final resurrection.

The pattern of two justifications is something that Jordan does not merely see in Numbers 19. One can also see this pattern in the sacrifices of Israel as the tribute/memorial offering, in which human works can be presented to and accepted by God on the basis of the earlier sacrifices. One can see it in Christian worship in the relationship between Baptism, which is initial justification, and the Eucharist, which foreshadows final justification in which our works are taken into account (symbolically presented to God in the bringing forward of the bread and the wine and own offerings in the offertory).

Jordan contrasts his position to that of N.T. Wright, claiming that Wright shares the same error as most Reformed approaches, which presume that justification is one event. Whilst most Reformed approaches see final justification merely as a reiteration of present justification, Wright errs by seeing present justification as being based on the bringing forward of future justification through the work of Christ. As Wright argues, what the Jews had expected to take place at the end of history had taken place in the middle of history in the case of one Person.

I have yet to be convinced that Jordan’s position is as far removed from Wright’s position as he generally presents it to be. Jordan claims that Wright holds to only one justification and that he holds to two, the first apart from works and the second including the person with all of his works. Jordan presents Wright as holding to a position in which God plays games with time, by bringing the future into the present.

I believe that this a misleading way to portray Wright’s position. Wright’s position is rather that the single future event of justification has taken place ahead of time in the case of one Person. There is no monkeying with time here. On the basis of this ‘bringing forward’ of the event of justification we can enjoy a present justification on the basis of faith, the positive verdict corresponding with a later verdict on the last day that will be delivered on the basis of the whole life lived.

The point where Wright might seem to be suggesting that God is tinkering with time is better understood as a claim that the future event is already present in principle — or in embryo — in the case of Jesus Christ and that we participate in an event that awaits us in the future as we are united to Jesus Christ. There is a single event of justification, which has different stages to it. There are not ultimately two separate justifications, but two phases of the one justification. This, it seems to me, is perfectly biblical as well. If justification is to be seen in the event of the resurrection of the dead, then it seems that we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a single event with different stages, not two separate events. Christ is the firstfruits of the event, which for us largely awaits us in the future. This future event is truly anticipated as we are united to Christ in Baptism. I think that Wright is correct to hold that there is ultimately only one justification, with plurality to be found within it. I also believe that his claim that the end of history has taken place in the middle of history is essentially true, provided that we add the proper qualifications and do not presume a meddling with time on God’s part.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Jordan is perfectly right to claim that there are plenty of OT reasons to argue that justification was not regarded as a single event awaiting Israel at one point at the end of history (although I would like to see some evidence from extra-canonical Second Temple Jewish texts that people actually held what Jordan argues is the OT position). A plurality of phases to the one justification was not a surprising development of OT belief in the NT, but was anticipated in many and varied ways in the OT text. Wright is wrong to see a two-stage justification as a teaching peculiar to the NT.

The weight of Wright’s understanding of justification is placed on a single event of justification, which, surprisingly (in the light of Christ’s resurrection), has two separate phases. The weight of common Reformed understandings of justification seems to be placed on a single event of justification that takes place by faith on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ and will be reiterated in the future. Wright disagrees with such a position in its failure to give proper weight to a future justification on the basis of the whole life lived as essential to the single event of justification.

I believe that Wright would take issue with Jordan’s position in other ways. I imagine that he would argue that Jordan detaches the two phases of justification too sharply. Rather than seeing the future justification as already having occurred in principle but yet to be fully realized in our cases, Jordan’s position sometimes seems to present justification in the present as an event to which a future event must be added. It is the idea of future justification as the addition of a new justification separate from the present justification that Wright would take issue with. Future justification for Wright is rather the consummation of the single event that is already present in embryo through the resurrection of Christ. It is a distinct phase of the single event, but the event itself cannot be split into two events.

I believe that both Jordan and Wright have important things to teach us here. I believe that Jordan’s treatment of OT evidence is helpful and can serve to counteract some of the weaknesses of Wright’s position on that front. Jordan’s position is also useful in counteracting the weak view of the final judgment in relation to justification that one finds in many Reformed contexts. Whilst I believe that his stress on two events of justification goes a little too far, the idea of justification having two distinct — albeit closely interrelated — phases is very helpful and can help to balance Wright out a bit.

On the other hand, I think that Wright is correct to teach the unity of justification. Present justification by faith is an accurate anticipation of future justification according to works and is in many senses a bringing forward of the final verdict. Although the fullness of the event of resurrection and justification await us in the future, this will involve conforming to what has already become true of Christ. For that reason, the resurrection of the ’seventh day’ is already anticipated in the resurrection of the ‘third day’. Wright also clearly distinguishes present justification from final justification, even whilst closely interrelating them.

I think that some questions remain for Wright’s position, that could be helped by some of the emphases that one find in Jordan. Wright helpfully sees the future verdict of final justification as being present in the vindication of Christ in His resurrection. Jordan does not like any “already/not yet” approach to understanding redemptive history that would suggest that the future comes into the present in Christ, or anything like that. “Already/not yet” for Jordan is understood in terms of a linear timeline in which the future breaking into the present has little place.

I do not share Jordan’s position on this matter and believe that a purely linear account of redemptive history is insufficient. However, I believe that a linear approach to redemptive history is an essential perspective that must be retained and is too easily neglected. Without denying that the future has in some sense arrived in the present, we can see redemptive history as a continuing progression with stages that have yet to take place.

However, and this point is crucial, redemptive history can truly be viewed, not so much a progression beyond Christ’s resurrection, as a progression into Christ’s resurrection (I am not sure that Wright does justice to this either). This is where the “already/not yet” approach has so much to offer us. History is cyclical as well as linear. History is taken up in the resurrected Christ. What awaits us in the future is a full entry into something that has already taken place. This full entry will involve new redemptive historical events, but there is an important sense in which these events are not events that involve any progression beyond what has already taken place in Christ. It is this point that Jordan fails to do full justice to, whilst presenting us with the oft-forgotten perspective in which redemptive history involves a genuine progression beyond the resurrection.

Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

Over the last few days Peter Leithart has posted two posts that have really resonated with issues that I have been thinking about of late. The following are some extensive thoughts sparked off by Leithart’s own comments. (more…)

Sunday School Material

I have only skim read some parts of it, but, from my first impressions, there is some superb Sunday School material here for any church that wishes to encourage its children and young people to engage with the Bible on a more than superficial level. It also draws heavily on the scriptural insights of James Jordan and Peter Leithart.

Wright Questions Please!

Over the next week or two I hope to follow up my talk on Wright’s understanding of Jesus with talks on his understanding of Paul. Within those talks I will particularly focus on Wright’s understanding of justification. My aim is to preemptively address most of the criticisms that are levelled against Wright by exploring his theology on its own terms. I don’t want to spend more time than necessary responding to the critics.

I intend to conclude this series of talks with a talk responding to any burning questions that people might have regarding Wright’s work on Jesus and Paul, or even about the man himself. If anyone has such questions please send them to me. If you have encountered a particular criticism of Wright and you are not sure how best to answer it, if there is an aspect of his thought that simply puzzles you, if you want clarification of his position on a particular matter, please leave your question. You can write them in the comments of this post or my audio posts, or send them to my e-mail address. I will try to answer the best questions in my final talk. The best questions will be searching, relevant, helpful and of interest to a number of listeners. Critics of Wright are especially welcome.

N.T. Wright Lectures


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Richard Hays on Romans 4:23-24

Calvin’s reading of the text, although it contains an element of truth, treats Abraham too much as an exemplary individual and neglects Paul’s strong emphasis on Abraham as an inclusive representative figure. We must recall that several of the “promise” texts in Genesis that are crucial for Paul’s interpretation of Abraham (e.g., Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) declare that all nations will be blessed “in” Abraham. In Gal 3:8 Paul, taking the idea of participation in Abraham very seriously, quotes precisely this promise, apparently conflating Gen 12:3 with 18:18 and/or 22:18. In Rom 4 the same idea surfaces in verses 9-12 when Paul first applies the words of Ps 32:1-2 to Abraham and then asks whether this blessing (on Abraham) applies to Jews and Gentiles. The clear implication is that the blessing pronounced on Abraham applies vicariously to others who are his “seed.” This is precisely the point of view of verse 13, which regards the promise as applicable to “Abraham, or to his seed.”

In view of all this, we may begin to suspect that Rom 4:23-24 carries a similar meaning, which may be paraphrased as follows: “Scripture says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ However, it was not just reckoned to him as an individual: these words apply also to us (who believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead) to whom righteousness is going to be reckoned (vicariously, because we are Abraham’s seed).” This way of reading the text should not be understood as antithetical to the customary interpretation. Clearly there is an analogy between Abraham’s faith and the faith of the Christian believer; Paul chooses to stress this analogy not only in the characterization of “us” as οι πιστευοντες (v. 24) but also in his approval (v. 12) of “those who walk in the footsteps of the faith which our father Abraham had while he was uncircumcised.” The dichotomy between receiving a blessing vicariously as a result of the archetype’s faith/obedience (“in Abraham”) and receiving a blessing through reenacting the faith/obedience of the archetype (“like Abraham”) is our dichotomy, not Paul’s. Paul sees the two as indissoluble. Because we participate in the blessing pronounced upon him, we mirror his faith; because our faith parallels his, we may be said to be his seed. Paul would be content, I think, with either formulation. [The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture, 80-81]

Understood this way, the faith of Abraham relates primarily, not to the faith of the individual Christian, but to the faith of Jesus Christ. Abraham was a covenant head, just as Christ is. As Peter Leithart points out, the ordo salutis of Abraham’s life is, in many respects atypical of the regular believer. Abraham’s descendents entered into the verdict of ‘righteous’ proclaimed over Abraham. Isaac received the seal of the righteousness of faith as an infant. The justification of Abraham’s descendents was dissimilar in many respects to Abraham’s own. It was an entering into Abraham’s righteous status as they entered into his faith.

The same is true of the new covenant believer. We enter into the faith of Jesus Christ and the status of righteous given to Him at the resurrection. Entering into the faith of Jesus Christ involves both the receiving of a blessing vicariously and the reenacting of Christ’s own faith by the power of the Spirit.

This is one of the truths that N.T. Wright tries to uphold in his doctrine of justification. God sees faith and declares that the person is forgiven and a member of the family promised to Abraham. Wright wants to retain both the fact we are declared righteous because we enter into the verdict declared over Christ and vicariously receive His blessings through faith and the fact that we are declared righteous because by the new life of the Spirit the believer reenacts Christ’s faith in his own life.

Review of Gaffin

By Faith, Not By SightMark Traphagen has started reviewing Richard Gaffin’s latest publication, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation. This is one book that I look forward to getting my hands on. Unfortunately, what has been said concerning his critique of the NPP so far isn’t exactly encouraging — “Gaffin asserts that NPP advocates view justification almost entirely (or perhaps even just entirely) to be about ecclesiology rather than soteriology”. However, having screened that out, I am sure that Gaffin will have helpful things to say. I have greatly enjoyed all of the other books of his that I have read so far. Perhaps I will get a copy when I have finished Jakob Van Bruggen’s Paul: Pioneer for Israel’s Messiah.

Update: Part II of Mark’s review has just been posted.

Update 2: Part III here.

Update 3: Part IV

Wright on Historical Readings of Romans

The dismissal of “works of the law” as the means of justification has all kinds of overtones. Paul’s fundamental meaning is that no Jew can use possession of the Torah, and performance of its key symbolic “works” of ethnic demarcation, as demonstrations in the present time that they belong to the eschatological people of God, the people who will inherit the age to come. Torah is incapable of performing this function: When appealed to, it reminds its possessors of their own sin.

This Israel-specific and context-specific argument and meaning, vital though it is, must send off warning signals in other spheres as well. To the Roman moralist of Paul’s day, it might have said that clear thought and noble intention were not enough; the clearer the thought, the nobler the intention, the more this clarity and nobility would condemn the actual behavior. To an anxious monk of the early sixteenth century, fretting about his own justification, Paul’s words rang other bells. Performance of Christian duties is not enough. Despite the Reformation, the message had still not been heard by the devout John Wesley, until a fresh hearing of Luther’s commentary on Galatians caused light to dawn. In the post-Enlightenment period, many, including many Christians, have assumed that “the law,” here and elsewhere, refers to the Kantian ideal of a categorical moral imperative suspended over all humans, and have preached this “law” to make people recognize their guilt, in order then to declare the gospel to them.

These are important overtones of Paul’s statement here, but they are not its fundamental note. If we play an overtone, thinking it to be a fundamental, we shall set off new and different sets of overtones, which will not then harmonize with Paul’s original sound. Sadly, this has occurred again and again, not least within the Reformation tradition, which, eager for the universal relevance and the essential pro me (i.e., “for me”) of the gospel, and regarding Israel mainly as a classic example of the wrong way of approaching God or “religion,” has created a would-be “Pauline” theology in which half of what Paul was most eager to say in Romans has been screened out. Provided, however, one is careful to tell again the unique story of Israel and Jesus, not as an example of something else but as the fundamental truth of the gospel, many of the things the Reformers wanted to insist on can be retained and, indeed, enhanced. [The Letter to the Romans (NIB volume 10) pp.463-464]

2TJ

This sounds like an interesting book.

Pentecost


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Bauckham’s New Book on the Gospels

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Last October I had the privilege of hearing Richard Bauckham (a lecturer in the University of Saint Andrews) give a lecture on many of the subjects that will be dealt with in his forthcoming book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (I posted my notes from the lecture here). I had all but forgotten about the book, until Chris Tilling’s post reminded me of it. This will be a must-read book, whether or not it lives up to Chris’s expectation that it might be ‘the most important publication on the historical Jesus to be written in the last fifty years.’ Pre-order it now at a very reasonable price. Also keep an eye on Chris’s blog for the forthcoming interview with Bauckham.

While I am about it, I will also alert you all to another important recent publication by Richard Bauckham (Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Jon).

Regeneration

I have long held that the biblical references to ‘regeneration’ and being ‘born again’ need to be understood to be referring, not primarily to individual conversion, but to the new creation ushered in through the work of Jesus Christ. They are numerous arguments in favour of this position. In fact, I find it hard to understand how people who have read their whole Bibles with any degree of care could interpret these terms in any other way. Everything seems to point to this reading. I do not want to lay out the case for this understanding from scratch, but I will briefly rehearse some of the lines of reasoning here. I couldn’t find many of my thoughts on this subject online, and I wanted to write some brief notes here. I apologize to those of you for whom such a position is olde hatte.

The locus classicus for the concept of being ‘born again’ is, of course, John 3. Here Jesus is addressing Nicodemus, a teacher and a ruler of the Jews. He does not merely address Nicodemus as a private individual, but in his public role as Israel’s teacher (v.10). It should be observed that in Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’ (v.7), the ‘you’ is a plural one.

I believe that there is every reason to believe that Nicodemus was a pious and faithful Jew, who genuinely believed in YHWH. However, he was not ‘born again’. The rebirth that Jesus is speaking of here is not a component of a timeless ordo salutis, nor is it primarily something that happens to detached individuals. Rather, it is a redemptive historical event that is about to take place. There are a number of elements of the context that support such an understanding.

Firstly, it should be appreciated that Jesus is speaking of entry into the ‘kingdom of God’. Whilst countless years of misuse of such language have trained us to regard the concept of ‘entering the kingdom’ as ‘going to heaven when we die’, this was certainly not what Jesus had in mind. In the gospels the kingdom of God / kingdom of heaven is ‘the new world-order, in heaven and on earth, produced by the revolutionary changes brought about in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Covenant in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.’ Jesus is telling Nicodemus what is necessary if he is to become part of this new world order and questioning his failure to understand the things that He is speaking of.

In Matthew 11:11 Jesus speaks of John the Baptist as the greatest of those ‘born of women’, but argues that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. One wonders why Christ would use the terminology ‘among those born of women’ to refer to John if there were not some sort of intended contrast to be drawn with those belonging to the kingdom, who have received a new birth, and those who still belong to the old world order, like John the Baptist.

A second thing to notice is the reference to the Holy Spirit. Throughout John’s gospel the Spirit is seen as a gift that is still expected. The gospel explicitly teaches that the Spirit was yet to be given (John 7:37-39), strong indication that Jesus is speaking of a primarily redemptive historical blessing in His conversation with Nicodemus.

The third point that we must recognize is the flesh/spirit contrast in John 3:6. The flesh/spirit distinction is used in a very particular way in John’s gospel and in the NT in general. This is loaded terminology, referring to a distinction between the old and new world orders. The old world order is the world order of the flesh; the new world order is that which is formed by the Spirit. This distinction is especially clear in the Pauline corpus, but it is also to be seen in John’s gospel.

In Romans we see that Christ comes in the flesh as the descendent of David and dies in the flesh, rising again by the Spirit as the ‘Son of God with power’ (Romans 1:3-4). This is what I believe is in view when the NT speaks of regeneration and being ‘born again’. Not only is Christ the firstborn over all creation, He is also the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15-20). He is the twice-born. This is one of the reasons why, I believe, Paul so closely connects the resurrection of Christ with His divine sonship (e.g. Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4).

The connection between resurrection and new birth is a close one throughout the NT. A classic example can be found in Romans 8, where the themes of adoption, new birth, the contrast between flesh and Spirit and the like are all quite pronounced. The creation is groaning for new birth and those who have been born of the Spirit are the firstfruits of the long-awaited new creation. The curse of the womb is broken as Christ is born of the virgin; the curse of the tomb as Christ is re-born from the dead.

The OT seems to give further support for such an understanding of regeneration and new birth. In John 3, Ezekiel 36:25-27 and 37:1-14 are easy to discern in the background. These passages speak of national restoration by the work of the Holy Spirit. The wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wishes, is going to bring dead Israel back to life. These are all promises of new covenant (which, as N.T. Wright observes, must entail new creation). I have dealt with the subject of new covenant at length in the past, and will not cover it again here.

Does such a reading dismiss any use of regeneration to apply to the individual? No. However, it gives clear priority to the redemptive historical fact of regeneration on Easter morning and the Day of Pentecost. Our personal regeneration is coming to participate in this Regeneration. The work of the Spirit is of cosmic proportions and throws open new horizons in the world outside that we never knew existed. In so doing, the Spirit also throws open new horizons within ourselves. Our lives are expanded in every dimension. Regeneration does not just make me into a new creature; it knits me into a new creation order. In Christ we experience the firstfruits of the regenerating Spirit, forming the Church as the new world order.

This perspective refocuses our attention. For many Reformed people the doctrine of regeneration is just that—a doctrine and little more. In my understanding regeneration is a fact of redemptive history. When I speak of ‘regeneration’ I do not refer to an element of an abstract theological construct called the ordo salutis, at least not primarily. Rather, I am speaking of an event that took place in history, primarily in the resurrection of Christ and the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost. I am speaking in terms of an event in an open story in which we find ourselves, rather than in terms of a doctrine within a closed and detached theological system.

The more that I engage with the NT in terms of this perspective, the more sense that it makes. In the past I have wondered whether there is further support for such a reading of John 3 within the Johannine literature. Yesterday the whole issue was brought to my attention again. The following verses come to mind as possible places where the theme appears in John’s gospel and the book of Revelation.

In John 16:21 there is a reference to a woman groaning in travail, until she delivers a son. The context is that of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. I do not believe that this analogy is accidental. The great birth that Israel was awaiting was not so much the incarnation (first birth) of Christ, but His regeneration/resurrection (and in Him the regeneration of all things). John 19:25-27 may be another passage that sheds light on this question. The scene with Mary and John at the foot of the cross may be understood in the light of this theme. Mary, representing the OT people of God, receives her long-awaited son in John, who represents the Church, the people of Israel reborn from the dead. After this has taken place, Jesus knows that His work has been accomplished (19:28).

I also wonder whether Revelation 12, although it is often understood as a reference to Christ’s incarnation, might not be a reference to His regeneration. Jesus’ rebirth from the dead is the great event that Israel was groaning for. This might explain the rapid movement from birth to ascension described in verses 4-5.

Anyway, enough rambling. It is well past my bedtime.

A Taster of


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God Crucified

God CrucifiedI have found N.T. Wright’s treatments of the manner in which Christology can make sense within the framework of Jewish Monotheism very helpful in the past. Many others have commented on the manner in which his explorations of this have shed light on what is, for many, a vexing problem. Wright makes clear that the claims that the NT makes for Jesus are not inconsistent with the demands of Second Temple Jewish Monotheism.

When I started reading Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified yesterday, I expected to find many of the same issues dealt with, in much the same way as they are in Wright. Although much of the same ground is covered, this small book goes quite a bit further, in my opinion, than any of Wright’s published treatments to date (although Wright does have some insightful observations in his latest Paul book). If you have ever felt that NT Christology is in any sense a departure from the monotheism of the OT, this book is for you. If you have ever wished that you could more articulately defend your faith to those who deny that Christ is God, reading this book will be well worth your while (you should be able to read it in one two-hour sitting). (more…)