Sunday, 28 February 2010

Tim Keller on Praying the Psalms

Some helpful, brief notes from Tim Keller (and maybe some others associated with Redeemer Presbyterian Church) on Praying the Psalms

1. The Psalms teach us to pray through imitation and response

2. The Psalms take us deep into our own hearts

3. Most importantly, the Psalms force us to deal with God as he is, not as we wish he was

Along with some suggestions:

• Try to understand a Psalm before praying it
• Linger over a Psalm
• Use the Psalms to praise God
• Use an order to guide you

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Jeremy Pierce on Commentaries on the Psalms

Jeremy Pierce who blogs as Parableman occasionally provides very helpful reviews of commentaries on biblical books. A few years ago, he profiled Psalms here, which is worth looking at for his succinct summaries of the major English-language commentaries on Psalms published up to January 2006 (with a few updates inserted since then).

Lutheran Society for Missiology

I just stumbled (as one does) across the Lutheran Society for Missiology – ‘your first stop for Lutheran mission research’ – which (according to the website):

• provides a forum for missiological research and critical reflection from a Lutheran perspective
• publishes books and articles, especially case studies, which treat issues related to the study and practice of mission work
• serves as a portal for accessing information from other Lutheran, and also evangelical, mission societies
• promotes cutting-edge approaches to mission efforts through publications, recognition and awards

The society also publishes a journal – Missio Apostolica – with a significant number of essays available online, some of which have caught my eye – David Bosch on being a disciple, Robert Kolb on the five great commissions, David Scaer on Matthew as a catechism, and more besides.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart on the Psalms

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 143:

‘The selection of psalms, which is the voice of Yahweh’s people singing to him in praise and prayer, functions also to remind them – and us – of the central role of worship in the biblical story, worship that focuses on the living God by recalling his essential goodness and love and his wondrous deeds on their behalf.’

Billington’s Bookshelf 2009

[I’ve posted a version of the below as a web article for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and thought I’d post it here as well. The idea was to profile some books published on the Bible during 2009. The mention of an item does not preclude either earlier or subsequent mention elsewhere on the blog!]

Alan Stibbs, Understanding, Expounding and Obeying God’s Word: Methods and Advice to Help You Study and Apply the Bible (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2009).

Three books, first published between 1950 and 1960, are here brought together for this ‘Alan Stibbs Trilogy’. Although the language might feel a little dated here and there, the wisdom and practical advice transfers well across the decades. A former missionary in China and then Principal at Oak Hill Theological College, Stibbs shows his love for Scripture and his desire to help those who themselves want to help others understand the Bible.

The original order of publication – Understanding, Obeying, and Expounding – has here been altered. That doesn’t matter, providing all three are present – not just between the covers of this book but in our own engagement with God through Scripture. ‘Understanding God’s Word’ provides practical tips in discovering what the Bible says and means. ‘Expounding God’s Word’ is not just for preachers but for all those who lead Bible studies or find themselves in any position to help others understand Scripture. ‘Obeying God’s Word’ recognises that understanding and expounding alone are not enough unless they make a difference to what we believe and how we live.

Tim Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

Drawing on the deep wells of those who have gone before as well as utilising insights from contemporary philosophy of language, Tim Ward provides a rich and excellent treatment of Scripture from an evangelical perspective. He sets the Bible in the context of the communicative action of the triune God – showing the link between what God says and how God acts – in creation and redemption, such that to believe and obey God’s word is to believe and obey God himself. Well worth reading and then reading again.

Dean Flemming, Philippians, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2009), and Michael F. Bird, Colossians and Philemon: A New Covenant Commentary, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene: Cascade, 2009).

It would be too easy to become cynical about the seeming proliferation of commentaries on the Bible. That would be a shame, since commentary writing has an ancient pedigree; it reminds us of our place as the most recent in a long line of those who have gone before us, who themselves have sought to understand and expound the Bible for the benefit of others. Most of all, commentary writing keeps us close to Scripture. It is a mark of a commitment to the notion that this collection of texts matters. So it is that I was pleased to come across these two new-ish commentary series during 2009 which will continue to help new generations of God’s people get to grips with his word.

The ‘New Beacon Bible Commentary’ is written by scholars in the Wesleyan tradition. Beyond that, the commentary is distinctive in dividing its comments into three sections: behind the text (providing information necessary to understand the text: the historical situation, the literary context, etc.), in the text (exploring what the text says in its grammar and words and in Scripture as a whole), and from the text (looking at other issues such as theological significance and application).

The contributors to the ‘New Covenant Commentary Series’ come from diverse backgrounds, denominationally and from around the world, supporting its intention ‘to engage in the task of biblical interpretation and theological reflection from the perspective of the global church’. As well as commenting on the text in its own context, the series aims to provide windows into community formation (‘how the text shapes the mission and character of the believing community’) and ministerial formation (‘how the text shapes the ministry of Christian leaders’).

Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

More technical than the other books mentioned here, this stimulating work looks at the question of our relationship to the earth, particularly as that is portrayed in the Old Testament. Drawing on ‘agrarian theory’ in her reading of Scripture, Davis uses agrarianism as a lens for reading biblical texts and finds them illumined in the process – particularly where agrarianism is seen not just as a narrow concern with farming but in broader terms as ‘a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures’.

Looking at a variety of passages from Law, Psalms, Wisdom, Prophecy, and historical narrative, Davis shows how many texts assume an agricultural setting where farmers had to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature to survive. An agrarian perspective sheds light on passages in Leviticus, for instance, where it becomes clear that lists of seemingly obscure laws assume the reality of a web of relationships between humans, animals, and the earth. Adopting an agrian perspective, Davis suggests, enables us to be more sensitive to these issues and, in the process, to find in the Old Testament a source for prayer, reflection, and action.

Not only does this provide a reminder of the ‘goodness’ of creation and a challenge to use the earth sustainably, it also underscores the dangers of a dualistic Christianity that shuns physical reality as inherently evil or not as valuable.

Keith Mathison, From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009).

At 800 pages long, and wearing its scholarship lightly, this is essentially a survey of the entire Bible which is sensitive to the progressive unfolding of God’s covenant and kingdom we find there.

Don’t be misled by the title: ‘eschatology’ often refers more narrowly to the ‘last things’; more broadly it refers to the whole of God’s plan of redemption from beginning to end being worked out in salvation history – looking not only at the consummation of all things at the end, but the various stages which unfold on the way to the end. It is this overarching promise of redemption that Mathison traces through the entire Bible in an engaging study.

Exploring how each book of the Bible develops the theme of ‘promise and fulfilment’ that culminates in the coming of Christ, and showing how individual texts fit into the overarching story, this is the kind of book which – without too much trouble – could be used by those who enjoy reading the Bible through in a year and would like to use something which provided a trusted guide along the way.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Larry J. Waters on Missio Dei in Job

Larry J. Waters, ‘Missio Dei in the Book of Job’, Bibliotheca Sacra 166, 661 (2009), 19-34.

As Waters notes, ‘in studies of Job, God’s redemptive purpose and action in relation to missions is rarely addressed’ (19).


‘Since missio Dei can be seen as God on a mission, involved in humankind’s existence and eternal destiny, and actively making Himself known for redemptive purposes, Job is one of the first illustrations of individuals used by God to demonstrate that mission. Job’s struggle with suffering and a false theology contrary to grace, Elihu’s corrective measures guiding Job into God’s presence, and God’s remarkable and unusual speeches are all a part of the missio Dei in communicating His loving concern for humanity’ (20).

According to Waters, God was ‘on mission’ through Job, using Job’s experience ‘to reveal Himself to Job’s world’ (23), showing that ‘within the true doctrine of retribution there was room for exceptions to a fixed formula for the working of God’s justice and sovereignty in the lives of His people’ (27).

Waters cites several examples – Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, David, Daniel and his three friends, God’s prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the apostles – to show that ‘God’s mission was and continues to be advanced through the suffering of His people’ (30).

Suffering believers, according to Waters, ‘can use their experience as a means for drawing people to Christ’ (33), and ‘to demonstrate faith in God in spite of the suffering’ (34).

Larry J. Waters on Suffering in Job

Larry J. Waters, ‘Reflections on Suffering from the Book of Job’, Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (1997), 436-51.

A link to a pdf of this article can be found towards the bottom of this page.

He concludes with 16 points:

1. God is not to be limited to a preconceived notion of retribution/recompense theology.

2. Sin is not always the basis for suffering.

3. Accepting false tenets about suffering can cause one to blame and challenge God.

4. A retributive/recompensive theology distorts God’s ways and confines Him to human standards of interpretation.

5. Satan is behind this false concept and delights in using it to afflict the righteous.

6. The devil’s world is unfair and unjust, and even though people may misunderstand the ways of God and the “why’s” of life, having a personal relationship with God is the only way one can know justice.

7. Life is more than a series of absurdities and unexplainable pains that simply must be endured. Instead life for believers is linked with God’s unseen purpose.

8. People do not always know all the facts, nor is such knowledge necessary for living a life of faith.

9. God’s wisdom is above human wisdom.

10. God’s blessings are based solely on grace, not on a traditional, legalistic formula.

11. Suffering can be faced with faith and trust in a loving, gracious God even when there is no immediately satisfying logical or rational reason to do so.

12. God does allow suffering, pain, and even death, if they best serve His purposes.

13. Prosperity theology has no place in God’s grace plan.

14. Suffering can have a preventive purpose.

15. The greatest of saints struggle with the problem of undeserved suffering and will continue to do so.

16. Because God’s people are intimately related to Him, suffering is often specifically designed to glorify God in the unseen war with Satan.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Christian Concern for Our Nation

The legal team at Christian Concern for Our Nation have produced some short booklets (between 12 and 20 pages each) available for free download (with contribution encouraged) on their resources page. They seek to explain the importance of the sanctity of life and free speech as well provide information on how the law currently stands on these issues.

The following booklets are available:


Protecting the Embryo: Why It’s Essential

Freedom to Evangelise and Freedom of Speech

How Suicide Killing of Human Life Became a Human Right in the United Kingdom

Citizen Ethics Network

A colleague has drawn my attention to what looks like an interesting document published by Citizen Ethics Network.

According to their website, the Network exists ‘to promote this debate [about ‘the ethics required for humans to reach their full potential’] and to renew the ethical underpinnings of economic, political and daily life’.

The 68-page pamphlet – Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis – is divided into the following four parts, each with various contributors:

Part 1: How do we decide our values?

Part 2: Economics as if ethics matters

Part 3: What kind of politics do we want?

Part 4: Building a life in common

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (45/50) – Living Between the Times

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-fifth of the fifty emails.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us… The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Romans 8:18, 21-24

This passage is one of many where Paul expresses the tension between how things are now and how they will be one day. That tension – part and parcel of everyday discipleship – is bound up with the biblical storyline: that which is promised under the old covenant receives a measure of fulfilment in Jesus and the church, but still awaits future consummation.

So it is that Jesus announces the arrival and presence of God’s reign in his ministry, and demonstrates its power in mighty works which bring restoration and renewal. And yet, he also calls on disciples to pray, ‘Your kingdom come’, and to watch and wait for the complete exercise of God’s rule in the future. Rightly it has been said that we live in the period between the decisive battle and the definitive victory.

For Paul too, there is an ‘already’ and a ‘not yet’ aspect to Christian experience. The new age has broken into the present age, such that we enjoy ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ while awaiting the full harvest. Indeed, the current experience of birth pains will give way to eventual relief. Perhaps reminiscent of the portrayal in Exodus 2:23-24 of the Israelites ‘groaning’ in their Egyptian slavery, Paul depicts salvation as a setting free from bondage, applying the imagery not just to men and women, but to the entire created order – yet one more reminder of the comprehensive scope of God’s work in Christ, where such liberation is not simply ‘internal’ or ‘spiritual’, but the ‘redemption of our bodies’, and of creation itself.

And so, in this time between the times, we are called to witness to the ends of the earth. But that mission – in keeping with what will be – is all-embracing, as we make known God’s rule over the whole of life, announcing it with our lips as well as embodying it in our lives. Seeking to avoid both defeatism (claiming too little) and triumphalism (claiming too much), we can testify to the wide-ranging sweep of God’s renewing power in politics and parenting, in economics and education, in art and athletics – being realistic about current ‘bondage’, but all the while looking forward to the complete restoration of what was originally declared ‘good’.

Such is our confidence and expectation – our hope. May that hope of the full disclosure of God’s reign shape each of us in the here and now.

For further reflection and action:

1. In line with the reference to ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ in Romans 8:23, reflect further on Ephesians 1:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul calls the Spirit a ‘deposit’, that which guarantees our future inheritance. In what ways is our present experience of the Spirit a foretaste of the future?

2. During today, if you’re able to do so, pause every so often to think about how the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ works itself out in your daily life.

3. To the Corinthians who think they have everything now, Paul emphasises that complete salvation lies in the future, at the resurrection – because he wants to downplay their triumphalism. In Colossians and Ephesians, on the other hand, he emphasises the present salvation we enjoy – already seated, as we are, with Christ in heavenly places. What are the dangers in thinking we have received everything now? What are the dangers of downplaying what we have already received? Which end of the tension do you gravitate towards, and why?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Alan J. Roxburgh on Missional Mapmaking

The latest newsletter from Roxburgh Missional Network has come through, profiling a brand new book by Alan Roxburgh himself – Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

This comes hard on the heels of his Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), co-written with M. Scott Boren – which I have read, mostly enjoyed, and about which I might one day post an entry.

Meanwhile, there is an interview here with Roxburgh, where it is also possible (after a fairly painless registration process) to download a sample chapter of the new book.

Scripture Bulletin

Thanks to Mark Goodacre (New Testament Gateway) for drawing our attention to Scripture Bulletin, a (largely overlooked IMHO) peer-reviewed journal published twice yearly by the Catholic Biblical Society of Great Britain. As of this year, Scripture Bulletin is being published exclusively online, where articles may be downloaded in pdf format.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Gregory W. Parsons on Understanding and Proclaiming Job

Greg W. Parsons, ‘Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Job’, Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (1994), 393-413.

Parsons comments on the general neglect of preaching from the book of Job (due to the difficulty of understanding it, and of dealing with the theological and philosophical questions it raises). In this light, he seeks to offer some specific guidelines for understanding and communicating the book.

Suggested hermeneutical guidelines for Job

• Interpret individual passages in light of the overall literary structure (as a unit) and main purpose of the book

• Recognize the various literary forms and devices utilized by the author to communicate his message

• Interpret the book of Job in light of the larger context of ancient wisdom literature, both biblical and extrabiblical

• Have a proper understanding of the relationship of Job to the New Testament

Preliminary homiletical guidelines for Job

• Preach every passage as part of the whole story of the book

• In light of one’s own culture and community, utilize the universal aspects of Job (as part of wisdom literature) as potential clues for a timeless message

• Explore the New Testament as the primary key to answer Job’s questions and to make valid application for today

• Explore the use of drama as a vehicle for communicating the message of Job

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Tom Wright on Virtue

Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn (London: SPCK, 2010), xiii + 258pp., ISBN 9780281061440.

I have today picked up a copy of Tom Wright’s latest book, this one essentially on virtue ethics. It’s billed as the third in a trilogy along with Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, though it’s not immediately apparent whether that was intentional. It would be easier to see it as a kind of sequel to Surprised by Hope, this one dealing with (as he puts it in the Preface) ‘the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed’.

Although I’m certain to have quibbles here and there, I have been looking forward to seeing this one ever since I read a few weeks back an interview with Tom Wright (about the book) by Trevin Wax, available here.

All strength to his prolific output.

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 10

[This is the tenth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

#6 – Its significant emphasis on the role of the community of faith

#7 – Its contested dependence on ‘general’ hermeneutics

#8. Its careful attention to the role of the canon and typology

#9. Its renewed reflection on the doctrine of Scripture

#10. Its increasing interest in reception history

Increased interest in theological interpretation has gone hand in hand with an increased appreciation for a study of the ‘reception history’ (Rezeptionsgeschichte) or the ‘history of effects’ (Wirkungsgeschichte) of biblical texts.

[While Wirkungsgeschichte is associated mostly with Hans Georg Gadamer, Rezeptionsgeschichte comes largely from the work of his student, Hans Robert Jauss: Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti, Theory and History of Literature 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). In fact, Thiselton traces ‘history of effects’ back to Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911): ‘Meaning in the public world is largely perceived in relation to some “effect” (Wirkung). Thus Dilthey prepares the ground for Gadamer’s notion of a “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte) or “effective history”.’ See Anthony C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, Scottish Journal of Theology Current Issues in Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 62.]

In view here is the observation that each successive reading of a text shapes the ‘horizon of expectation’ which subsequent readers bring, and so condition how it is understood. Since our horizon has been formed partly by the text and the tradition generated by its interpretation, the presuppositions we bring to the text and the questions we ask of the text are partly the result of our response to that tradition.

[See Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics in the Twenty-First Century: A Programmatic Reappraisal’, in Thiselton on Hermeneutics, Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 33-50, at 39-45. Cf. also the discussion of Rezeptionsästhetik and speech-act theory as a reconfiguration of reader-response criticism in Anthony C. Thiselton, ‘Communicative Action and Promise in Interdisciplinary, Biblical, and Theological Hermeneutics’, in Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout, and Anthony C. Thiselton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 191-208.]

The notion of a ‘gap’ between past and present is thus misleading, for there is a ‘much more complex dynamic interrelationship’, in which ‘there can be no self-contained past or present’, but rather ‘a continuing responsible participation in the history of the text’s effects as we try to fuse our horizons without confusing them’.

[Frances M. Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians, Biblical Foundations in Theology (London: SPCK, 1987), 152.]

One early example of such a consideration is Gerhard Ebeling’s comparison of different traditions’ interpretations of biblical texts.

[Gerhard Ebeling, ‘Church History as the History of the Exposition of Holy Scripture’, in The Word of God as Tradition: Historical Studies Interpreting the Divisions of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 11-31.]

More recently, Karlfried Froehlich has sought to continue Ebeling’s task:

‘I have become convinced myself that historical “understanding” of a biblical text cannot stop with the elucidation of its prehistory and of its historical Sitz im Leben, with its focus on the intention of the author. Understanding must take into account the text’s past-history as... the way in which the text itself can function as a source of human self-interpretation in a variety of contexts, and thus, through its historical interpretations, is participating in the shaping of life.’

[Karlfried Froehlich, ‘Church History and the Bible’, in Mark S. Burrows and Paul Rorem (eds.), Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfried Froehlich on His Sixtieth Birthday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1-15, here 9.]

This, then, is more than a mere history of interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte), but is concerned with impact of texts on ecclesial and non-ecclesial communities (Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 40). Different individuals, communities and traditions read the same passages in different situations and against different backgrounds, and ‘these variations of expectation promote an “openness to tradition” that enhances engagement with texts, and enlarges and extends the horizons of the self to listen to “the other”’ (Thiselton, ‘Resituating Hermeneutics’, 44). Along these lines, Wirkungsgeschichte has been a prominent and noted feature of Ulrich Luz’s work on Matthew, and has become increasingly associated with Thiselton’s oeuvre.

[See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 95-99 for discussion; Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001); Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005); and esp. Matthew in History, Interpretation, Influence and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994). More generally, see his ‘The Contribution of Reception History to a Theology of the New Testament’, in Christopher Rowland and Christopher Tuckett (eds.), The Nature of New Testament Theology: Essays in Honour of Robert Morgan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 123-34; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). See also Craig G. Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, Anthony C. Thiselton (eds.), Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 6 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005), 377-436 (Part 4: Issues in Reception History and Reception Theory, with essays by François Bovon, Andrew Gregory, and Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal Parsons); Angus Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 133 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 7-9.]

It is also a distinctive feature of the Blackwell Bible Commentary Series (published by Blackwell, edited by David M. Gunn, Judith Kovacs, Christopher Rowland, and John Sawyer).

Strong encouragement has come from some quarters to make ‘history of effects’ an integral part of New Testament exegesis and theology.

[Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 64-68, and see 121-36 (‘The Icon of Peter and Paul Between History and Reception’), and 161-88 (‘Living Memory and Apostolic History’).]

Wirkungsgeschichte has the potential to draw together insights from a variety of approaches to texts. New Testament scholars, suggests Bockmuehl, should ‘adopt the history of the influence of the New Testament as an integral and indeed inescapable part of the exercise in which they are engaged’ (Seeing the Word, 64-65). It preserves an interest in history as well as reception.

[So also Stefan Klint, ‘After Story – a Return to History? Introducing Reception Criticism as an Exegetical Approach’, Studia Theologica 54, 2 (2000), 87-106.]

It shows how the meaning of the text is ‘deeply intertwined with its own tradition of hearing and heeding, interpretation and performance’; it links synchronic and diachronic approaches, as well as biblical studies and historical theology, and might also serve to draw in systematic theologians to reflect on the relationship between systematic theology and biblical studies (Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word, 65-66). Furthermore, ‘it offers a more holistic reading of the biblical text’, and provides a way of paying attention to ‘the social, as well as theological, context which conditioned the interpretation’.

[Christopher Rowland, ‘Wirkungsgeschichte: Central or Peripheral to Biblical Exegesis?’, Scripture Bulletin 36, 1 (2006), 1-11, here 7-8.]

Monday, 15 February 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (44/50) – The New Israel

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-fourth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ. To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces… You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 1:1; 2:9-10

The Lord called to (Moses) from the mountain and said… ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Peter wrote to the churches of Asia Minor, small fellowships of Jews and Gentiles and gave them a new and powerful identity, using the titles given by God to the newly formed nation of Israel at Sinai.

As we read the New Testament documents, we can see how the writers are being led by the Holy Spirit into a new understanding of what it means to be the people of God; that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have taken them into a new dispensation, a new age. Now Jew and Gentile together are the church, the redeemed people of God. But this did not mean simply that Gentiles should become Jews, grafted in to all that Judaism entailed, law and regulations for living, temple and sacrifices, land and ethnic identity. Nor did it mean that these were swept away and forgotten as a new faith sprang into life.

Now all the great symbolic identity markers of Israel are pulled into focus, finding their true and final meaning through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is our sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11-14), his body the temple destroyed and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). Now we, as Christians, are also identified as temples of the Holy Spirit, both individually and together (2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21). Now there is no longer one ethnic group in one geographically outlined land, but new communities of ‘saints from every tribe and language and people and nation, a kingdom and priests serving our God’ (Revelation 5:9). As Stephen Sizer (Christian Zionism, IVP, 2004) notes: ‘The church is Israel renewed and restored in Christ, but now enlarged to embrace people of all nations.’ All the heritage of Israel, from Abraham through David to John the Baptist, has been transformed into the heritage of his redeemed and chosen people throughout the earth.

And Israel’s call – their identity and role with respect to the world – is now taken up by the church, by all followers of Christ. God’s mission to bless all nations continues to be worked out through us, his people – wherever we may find ourselves ‘scattered’ – placed in the world for the sake of the world.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. There is a group in the United States who have started a fund to rebuild the temple. Some Christians believe God has a special plan for Israel and that the return of Jews to Palestine in the 20th century is part of that plan. Interpretations of some of the prophecies in the Old Testament lie behind much of the complexities and tragedies of Middle East politics. If you want to think further about this, read Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? (Lion, 2002) and Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism (IVP, 2004).

2. If there are no chosen nations, no ethnicities special to God, no land with a particular and unique blessing, but all barriers are broken down and Christians are all one in Christ, what are the implications for our churches? Are there divisions that still affect our lives together?

3. In his book, The Radical Disciple (IVP, 2010), John Stott writes: ‘I doubt if there is any New Testament text which gives a more varied and balanced account of what it means to be a disciple than 1 Peter 2:1-17.’ Read the passage, and reflect on his assessment of its ‘varied and balanced account’.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Gregory W. Parsons on Literary Features of Job

Gregory W. Parsons, ‘Literary Features of the Book of Job’, Bibliotheca Sacra 138, 551 (1981), 213-29.

Literary genre

Attempts to fit the book of Job into one overarching literary genre, according to Parsons, fail to do justice ‘to the complex nature of its literary fabric’ (213).

Three major categories have been suggested:

• Lawsuit – by Job against God in which the friends serve as witnesses.

• Lament – noting that personal lament begins (ch. 3) and ends (chs. 29-31) the dialogue.

• Controversy dialogue – similar to disputation or contest literature in the ancient Near East.

Parsons concludes that the author skillfully weaves these three types together ‘in order to serve the function of the book’ (215).

Literary devices

Parsons discusses two literary devices used by the writer of Job:

• Irony – both dramatic irony (in that the readers and the heavenly court share knowledge of which Job and his friends are unaware) and verbal irony (used in different ways throughout the cycle of speeches).

• Mythopoeic language – ‘perhaps more prominent in Job than in any other biblical book’ (218), with allusions borrowed from the ancient near Eastern cultural milieu to ‘stress the contrast between the uniquely sovereign Lord who operates by grace and the ancient Near Eastern gods who were bound by the dogma of retribution’ (220).

N.T. Wright on God and Government

The latest newsletter from Theos has come through. It reports that Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, delivered a lecture in parliament on Wednesday 10 February 2010, as part of the ‘God and Government’ project, sponsored by Theos and the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.

The full text of the lecture is kindly made available here, with a response by Jonathan Chaplin (Director, KLICE) here.

Here is part of Wright’s conclusion to whet the appetite:

‘The call to allow God back into the heart of government does not mean... that our politicians should imagine that a hot line to God will give them “correct” answers on the urgent problems they face. It does mean that, whether the politicians are believers or not, the Christian church has a vocation to create a climate of opinion in which the cry of the poor can be heard more easily, the summons to peace will sound more sweetly than the trumpet of war, and the challenge to faithful marriage will be recognised as the way to personal and social maturity and stability. No doubt all things need nuancing. No doubt there are many hard cases and surprising twists and turns of ethical and political argument. But what we must aim for, and not be distracted from by clever but specious arguments, is the continuing place in our society, all the way up to government itself, for the liberating, re-humanising, healing news that Jesus is the world’s true Lord; that he has broken the power and tyranny of evil; and now delegates to his followers the task of living out that victory in the face of chaos and tyranny.’

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Vern Sheridan Poythress on Language

Vern Sheridan Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

This entire book – all 416 pages of it – is freely available as a (4.2MB) pdf here.

In a strong recommendation, John Frame writes of Poythress’ books, including this one:

‘Not only are these books expertly researched and cogently argued, but they are explicitly Christian in their starting point, method, and conclusion (to use a phrase of Cornelius Van Til). Poythress does not merely claim that these disciplines allow a place for God, or that a theistic worldview provides useful context, or that engagement in such studies is somehow useful to Christians. Rather, he comes right in your face with the claims of Christ: All of these studies are grounded in the nature and work of the triune God, and nothing can be rightly understood apart from him. God is not merely a possibility, not merely a conclusion, but the starting point for any understanding at all.’

He continues:

‘So in the present book on language, Poythress shows that the foundation of human speech is the speech between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that without God meaningful language would be impossible.’

There are some early reviews of the book here (by Forrest W. Schultz) and here (by John Starke).

And there is a two-part interview with Poythress about the book here and here.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Gregory W. Parsons on the Structure and Purpose of Job

Gregory W. Parsons, ‘The Structure and Purpose of the Book of Job’, Bibliotheca Sacra 138, 550 (1981), 139-57.

‘Structure’ and ‘purpose’ go together here, as Parsons seeks to determine the major purpose of the book of Job through its structure.

Assuming the unity of the book of Job, Parsons notes that it consists of a ‘prose framework’ (chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17) ‘which encloses an intricate poetic body’ (139). That the poetic dialogue fizzles out is ‘indicative of the bankruptcy and futility of dialogue when both Job and the three friends assume the retribution dogma’ (140). The Elihu speeches (Job 32-37), according to Parsons, ‘set the stage for the Yahweh speeches’ which are themselves ‘the culmination of the skillfully designed poetic body of the book’ (141) requiring no challenge at the end.

For Parsons, the purpose of the book is ‘to show that the proper relationship between God and man is based solely on the sovereign grace of God and man’s response of faith and submissive trust’ (142).

Certain key themes are used by the author of the book to serve this purpose:

• Divine retribution – it’s evident to the friends that Job is suffering judgment for some sin; Job too operates with a concept of retribution, thinking God is punishing him for sin – though unjustly. God’s speeches, however, contain ‘a subtle refutation of the dogma of divine retribution’. The restoration of Job at the end of the book is not a reward or payment, ‘but a free gift based solely on God’s sovereign grace’ (145).

• Creation motif – creation language is used through the poetic dialogue, but ‘the Lord’s speeches (which are saturated with the creation motif) demonstrate that God’s sovereign cosmic power was not the retributive justice (as the friends had argued) nor the “uncontrolled caprice” (as Job had perceived it) of an impersonal cosmos, but rather the majestic omnipotence and mysterious creative genius of a personal and gracious God’ (147).

• Legal metaphors – which are regularly used concerning Job’s disputed innocence, along with Job’s desire for an impartial arbitrator to mediate between him and God. In the end, the Lord functions as Job’s judge and legal advisory, and ignores his plea for vindication, revealing the bankruptcy of conceiving the God-human relationship along the lines of legal justice.

Tim Keller on Apologetics

‘Tim Keller Reasons with America: A New York Pastor Explains Why he’s Taking his Ministry Model on the Road: Interview by Susan Wunderink’, Reformed Perspectives Magazine 12, 7 (2010).

This is a record of an old-ish interview with Tim Keller on issues related to his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008)… still worth reading.

Here are the questions and points put to him:

• Are the doubts that believers face the same as the doubts that unbelievers face?

• You reject marketing apologetics like, ‘Christianity is better than the alternatives, so choose Christianity.’ Why?

• Why have you avoided using arguments from intelligent design in your apologetics?

• Do you hear a lot of ‘I can’t believe in Christianity because I believe in science’?

• The recent Pew study talked about changing patterns of belief in America. Has that affected your apologetics ministry?

• Many Christians say that the rationality of Christians’ faith is not the obstacle for unbelievers; they reject Christianity because of what they see as bad behavior and toxic attitudes.

• What are the changes that you see for your ministry?

Monday, 8 February 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (43/50) – How RU CU L8R Love Paul: The Church Tackles Problems Within and Without

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-third of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.
Philippians 3:1

No Royal Mail, no telephones, no email, no text messaging. How were the apostles to communicate with the numerous churches that sprang up in the years after Jesus’ resurrection?

The New Testament letters are a priceless resource for us, 2000 years later, containing the bulk of the doctrinal and ethical teaching that have defined the Christian life and informed the church through the ages. But what were they to their original recipients? If not their lifeblood (that, surely, was the Spirit of Jesus himself), then their sustenance, their diet, their nutrition.

The letters give us astonishing insight into the life of these early churches, and a unique body of teaching. Writing to the Romans, Paul establishes the essential principle of justification by faith in Christ (3:21-5:1); to the Galatians, who were being pressed to observe the Jewish law in addition to their faith (2:11-3:25), he becomes passionate about it: ’Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ (3:3); while James, recognising that some Christians were beginning to presume too much on their faith, argues that genuine faith has to express itself in action: ‘faith in itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (2:17).

All the writers underpin their moral and ethical teaching with theological principles, though the letters differ in style, and in the situations that they address. While Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Colossians, for example, seek to correct false teaching from outside the church, others, particularly the Corinthian correspondence, highlight problems and dilemmas that were causing trouble within the church.

His approach to these particular issues establishes broader principles, from which we can extrapolate principles relevant to our own day. ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?’ he demands, ‘Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!’ (1 Corinthians 6:15). Other examples include the Corinthians’ question about eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:4-13). Again, he tells the Corinthians, ‘You are the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and on this fact he builds his teaching about the church.

Above all else, however, the epistles interpret Christ, revealing him in his glory and his sacrificial love, and giving hope to his people in every age.

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. Reflect on the significance that the New Testament contains several letters addressed to the particular situations and needs of different churches. How might this help in our application of them to today?

2. How far are we willing to subject our own churches and denominations to the probing light of the epistles? Do we personally allow ourselves to be challenged, in our thinking and behaviour, by the great truths they expound?

3. Can we seek, in our generation, to revive or maintain the art of letter-writing, to bring truth, encouragement and hope to others? How might we do so?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

American Theological Inquiry 3, 1 (2010)

American Theological Inquiry is a biannual journal of theology, culture and history, formed in 2007. Its purpose is ‘to provide an inter-tradition forum for scholars who affirm the historic Ecumenical Creeds of Christendom to constructively communicate contemporary theologies, developments, ideas, commentaries, and insights pertaining to theology, culture, and history toward reforming and elevating Western Christianity’.

The issues are free to download as pdfs, and they typically contain an interesting mix of biblical, theological, and historical reflection, along with a good section of book reviews.

The contents of the most recent volume – 3, 1 (2010) – are as follows:


Gannon Murphy
On Nepsis and the Spirit of the Age

Patristical Reading

St. Ignatius of Antioch
Epistolary Selections


W. Berry Norwood
The Church Fathers and the Deity of Christ

J.V. Fesko
Preaching as a Means of Grace and the Doctrine of Sanctification: A Reformed Perspective

Michael A. G. Haykin
‘He Went About Doing Good’: Eighteenth-Century Particular Baptists on the Necessity of Good Works

Robert Wood
The Catholic Philosopher and Metaphysics

Glenn B. Siniscalchi
In Defense of Christian Theistic Metaethics

J. Lyle Story
The Dynamic, Relational, and Loving Purpose of God

Ken Deusterman
Stephen Charnock’s Doctrine of God: An Anthology of the Existence and Attributes of God

In Honor of the Rev. Dr. John McKenzie

Editor’s Note

Tony Campbell
God and Suffering—’It Happens’: Job’s Silent Solution

Jean-Marie de la Trinité
The Reverend John L. McKenzie (1910-1991): A Personal Memoir

Book Reviews

Friday, 5 February 2010

John Stott on the Radical Disciple

[This review has been written for eg 25 (March 2010), a publication of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham: IVP, 2010), 144pp., ISBN 9781844744213.

Following in the wake of the recent biography of John Stott (Roger Steer, Inside Story: The Life of John Stott, Nottingham: IVP, 2009) comes the final book – his 51st – from the man himself. That this is a ‘farewell’ to his readers should make us pause. What, we ought to wonder, is on his heart? In a word, discipleship – of the radical sort. In fact, Stott considers eight ‘often neglected’ characteristics of discipleship, the kind of discipleship which is – as the subtitle makes clear – wholehearted, the whole heart affecting the whole of life.

The first mark is non-conformity, with radical discipleship involving ‘a call to develop a Christian counterculture, a call to engagement without compromise’, rejecting the pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism, and narcissism so prevalent in contemporary culture. Such a path also involves a call to Christlikeness, being like Christ in his incarnation, service, love, patient endurance, and mission. Then there is maturity – of the kind described in Colossians 1:28-29, rooted in ‘a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ’ as Lord of creation and Lord of the church – so that we might grow to maturity ourselves and present others mature as well.

Not least since God’s plan for reconciliation embraces all things, creation-care will be a distinguishing mark of the radical disciple. Avoiding both the deification of nature as well as the exploitation of nature, our care for creation will reflect our love for the Creator. Alongside this is the characteristic of simplicity – rooted theologically in creation, stewardship, the new community and the Lord’s return, with implications for everything from personal lifestyle to international development, justice and politics, and evangelism, since ‘the call to a responsible lifestyle must not be divorced from the call to responsible witness’.

The characteristic of balance is shown in an engaging and illuminating treatment of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – the highlight of the book for me – showing how Peter unpacks a series of metaphors, each of which carries an obligation: as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones called to fellowship, as holy priests called to worship, as God’s own people called to witness, as aliens and strangers called to holiness, and as servants of God called to citizenship. Our ‘comprehensive identity’ as followers of Christ is found in the balance between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, being called to both worship and work, and to pilgrimage and citizenship.

A chapter on dependence offers some insight into the man himself, with a moving personal testimony of his own sense of weakness as well as dependence on the love and care of others, and an encouragement to carry one another’s burdens. All of which serves as a prelude to the final characteristic of death, recognising that the ‘paradoxical principle of life through death’ operates in relation to our salvation and discipleship, in mission, persecution and martyrdom, and as we face mortality and the death of our physical body with the promise of resurrection life.

Stott himself acknowledges that it is a selective portrait, but it is no less rich for that. Beyond the wisdom of the individual chapters are the threads that run through the whole book. What emerges is a portrayal of discipleship that is rooted in Scripture, focused on Jesus, and earthed in the desire to see Christ formed in the lives of fellow followers. Written with clarity, humility, and an obvious love for God and others, it seems fitting that this modest offering should be his last book. It is striking, but seems wholly appropriate, that the farewell highlights the needs of others – eloquent testimony not just to the integrity of the man himself, but to the Christ he serves. Those who would seek to live as whole-life disciples today will draw much encouragement and inspiration from these pages and from the example of a life lived well.

Peter Meadows on Being Busy

A friend and former colleague has drawn my attention (via a Facebook link) to this blog entry by Peter Meadows:

Could it be my fault I’m ‘this’ busy?

His three helpful points are:

(1) We foolishly believe our value is based on what we do or achieve rather than who we are.

(2) We fail to recognise that saying ‘yes’ to ‘this’ means saying ‘no’ to ‘that’.

(3) We don’t say ‘no’ because we are not clear enough about what we have said ‘yes’ to.

Unusual personal reflection coming up…

Unless I am completely lacking in self-awareness, I don’t have a personal problem with point 1. (As in, I don’t do things or say ‘yes’ to things out of some system that attaches value to what I do or achieve… although nor do I want to diminish the importance of taking into account what people do ‘do’ or ‘achieve’, as if that has no significance whatsoever.)

Points 2 and 3, however, are much more interesting to me…

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

IVP Academic Alert 19, 2 (2010)

The Spring 2010 issue of Academic Alert from IVP is available here, profiling new and recent publications, including a book (published by SPCK in the UK) by Anthony Thiselton on the apostle Paul, and a book by Mark Shaw on 20th-century revivals, arguing that – from a global perspective – revivals ‘are at the epicenter of the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the twentieth century’.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Exploring Biblical Themes (4): Sin

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 1 February 2010.]

In 1973, the American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, published a book called Whatever Became of Sin? Menninger was voicing a widespread suspicion that the idea of ‘sin’ was slowly evaporating from everyday life. Over a generation later, there’s very little evidence that that trend has reversed.

Interestingly, we’re acutely aware of evil in the world – brutal regimes, harsh dictatorships, extensive famine, social injustices – but there appears to be much less talk about personal morality. We see it mostly in the headlines of the tabloids as the course of the latest celebrity affair is tracked, or we see it in something like the sense of outrage expressed over MPs’ expenses – someone else’s failings, not mine.

But, almost from the very first page, the Bible everywhere assumes the reality of sin, and that it is not only real but also pervasive, affecting every part of life. Men and women whose worldview is formed by Scripture know that something is broken in the universe – us, apart from anything else – so that everything is marred, cracked, damaged, and distorted in some way. So yes, it is seen in the examples of evil we’ve just mentioned. But it’s also seen in the way our bodies get diseased and eventually give way to death. And it’s seen in the way we relate to each other – from the petty squabbles between kids in the playground to the emotional manipulations in the bedroom to the snide innuendoes around the water cooler to the power politics of massive nations.

Beyond all these, most importantly of all, is our relationship with God…

Sin is described in various ways in Scripture – as rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, ingratitude, getting dirty, wandering, trespass, transgression, failure, and more besides. And the Bible also provides many examples of specific sins. Writing about men and women in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘they have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity’, that ‘they are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice’, that ‘they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy’ (1:29-31). Like other biblical writers, Paul is aware that sin is seen not just in particular acts, but in our very being, with the whole of life tainted. So, as much as these acts are often directed against fellow human beings, they are fundamentally a mark of our ruptured and rebellious relationship with God.

And sin leads to judgment. At the end of that catalogue of acts in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them’ (1:32). Paul makes it clear several times, not just in Romans 6:23, that ‘the wages of sin is death’.

That’s completely of a piece with the rest of the Bible – whether we immerse ourselves in the stories told in Genesis or Judges or Samuel, or wrestle with the laws in Leviticus, or reflect on the folly of living without God in Proverbs, or listen to the preaching of the prophets, or pray with David, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge’ (Psalm 51:4).

It’s perhaps seen most clearly of all in Genesis 3, which nicely describes the dynamics of sin, the move from temptation to disobedience to consequences.

We have the crafty serpent who begins by questioning God’s word – ‘Did God really say…?’ (Genesis 3:1) – before contradicting God’s word – ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4). Not only does he remove the threat of judgment, but puts something positive in its place: ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:5).

It’s not easy to say exactly what is meant by that phrase, ‘knowing good and evil’. The best guess is that it means not merely knowing, but deciding what is good and evil. God made things and pronounced them good. But now, humans make their choice as to what will be good and evil, and so take on themselves the prerogatives of God. They are tempted to be like God, to put themselves in the place where they decide what is good and evil, so that they can follow their own direction rather than God’s direction. Adam and Eve were created to be God’s vice-regents, to exercise rule over creation on God’s behalf. But now they rebel against that commission, asserting their own authority to rule as they see fit.

And there are consequences to that as the passage goes on to show. With their objective guilt before God comes the subjective sense or consequence of guilt – shame (3:7). There is broken relationship with God (3:8-10), and they adopt a victim mentality, trying to duck responsibility for what’s happened (3:11-13).

God curses the serpent (3:14), but not Adam and Eve – although they do suffer the judgment and consequences of sin, including death itself (3:15-19).

Of course, on the whole biblical landscape, their sin was not an isolated act; it carried consequences for the rest of humanity. Romans 5:12-21 shows that Adam has passed on his sin to his posterity, bringing death not just on himself but on the entire human race. Romans 5:19 seems quite clear, where Paul says that ‘through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners’.

We see that even in the stories that follow Genesis 3 – in sibling rivalry, murder, warfare, and the wickedness that leads to the judgment of the flood, the pride of the builders of Babel.

That’s why Christians have said that sin is not merely this or that bad thing we do, which perhaps can be removed by more knowledge or moral effort; rather, it is the whole orientation of human existence. Sinful men and women are hopelessly lost, incapable of doing anything to save themselves. We are ‘enemies’ of God, as Romans 5:8 says, and so grace comes completely from the outside, and is done for us, not by us.

But there is grace!

There is grace from the garden of Eden onwards as God promises that the serpent will be destroyed, as he supplies Adam and Eve with clothes, puts a protective mark on Cain, establishes a covenant with the whole of creation after the flood, begins his plan of salvation with Abraham, liberates his people and provides a system of sacrifices so that he might dwell with them, shows himself determined throughout the history of Israel to keep his promise to bless all nations, a plan which comes to its culmination in Jesus, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19, ‘that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’.

Repentance and faith are necessary, of course, but these too are only possible because of God’s grace. We come to our senses, turn around and make the journey home, to discover the lavishly rich welcome of a loving father, along with the promise of Jesus that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15).

So, God does not leave humans or the world in sin. He promises to restore them and it, and he acts to restore them and it. And it’s a restoration which extends to the whole of creation. As Paul says in Romans 8:21, ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God’.

Where sin pollutes and distorts and destroys our relationships with God, with others, and with the created world, God will – on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross – make all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5). Meanwhile, we look forward to that new heaven and new earth where there will be ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).

Further Reading
Most books on Christian doctrine will contain a chapter or section on the doctrine of sin, and these could be worth checking out. In addition, the following books, written at different levels, will allow those interested to explore a biblical theology of sin in more detail.

G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).
A full and focused study of idolatry in Scripture, arguing that we take on the characteristics of what we worship.

Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 1997).
Densely argued, but a significant work.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 29-36.
A brief treatment.

John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology Volume 2: Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 254-349.
A lengthy chapter (under the title of ‘The Nightmare’) in a lengthy book by a significant Old Testament scholar.

Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, the Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
An academic work and a demanding read, which takes up the task of showing how a theology of sin can help explain the reality of contemporary society and the self-understanding of Christians in ways that secular analyses of social relationships cannot manage.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 147-58.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 34-44.
A brief overview at an accessible level.

Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 509-45.
A helpful discussion of what the New Testament says about ‘the problem of sin’.

Mike Starkey, What’s Wrong? Understanding Sin Today (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2001).
Probably the best overall introduction to the area; light, but well written and closely argued.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (42/50) – Acts of God: The Church Continues God’s Mission to the World

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-second of the fifty emails.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord… The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
Acts 11:19-21, 26

Luke makes it clear that the account he tells in Acts is a continuation of the same story he began in his gospel (1:1-2). In fact, it is the next phase of the story that goes back to God’s promise to Abraham and the vocation of Israel to be a light to the nations. That calling, embodied supremely in Jesus, is now passed on to his followers as they continue God’s mission, bearing witness – across cultural and racial and geographical boundaries – that his salvation will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (1:8).

The biggest personality, of course, is Paul, who makes three separate journeys, travelling throughout the Roman Empire, proclaiming Jesus, establishing churches, returning to instruct them or writing to them.

But it is equally apparent that the work was carried out by ‘ordinary’ believers, who spread the word wherever they went (8:4). We don’t know the names of those who established the church in Antioch; but we do know that it was this multi-cultural mix of Jewish and Gentile believers who were first given the designation ‘Christian’. And it is this church that becomes the base for sending out others – Barnabas and Paul, no less (13:1-3) – launching a mission into the wider Roman world. Rightly the church carries out God’s work in its own place, and rightly it keeps in mind that the gospel is for all nations.

Beyond numerical growth, it’s also apparent that the work of the Spirit is embodied in the lives of the new communities formed – in prayer and worship, in distinct patterns of life together, in following teaching, in economic practices – such that the church is not just one more social organisation within Roman society, but a community which by its very nature is a witness that God’s kingdom is present. Faith, then, is not merely private or interior, but lived on the public stage, engaged in the world.

Throughout, the centre of gravity is God himself – where mission is not what the church does, but what God does through the church. The same gracious God, the same exalted Christ, the same powerful Spirit, and the same amazing plan means we too play a part in the continual unfolding of this story – witnessing to a renewed relationship with God and the restoration of the whole of life under the lordship of Christ.

For further reflection and action:

1. How would you describe the influence and role played by the book of Acts in (a) your own life as a Christian, and (b) the life and ministry of the church to which you belong?

2. Read some passages in Acts (e.g., 2:42-47; 11:19-21; 13:1-3) which describe the early Christian communities. What are the recurring characteristics, and what picture of the church is built up from passages like these?

3. What might be some of the problems with using Acts as a ‘blueprint’ for churches today? How do we decide what applies and does not apply in our own time and place?