Friday 25 December 2009

Joy to the World!

Taking his inspiration from Psalm 98, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), wrote this hymn about Christ’s second coming at the end of the age rather than his birth; but it still remains one of my favourite carols.

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the Earth! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, and wonders, of his love.

Thursday 24 December 2009

The Bible in Transmission (Winter 2009): Economic Life: Crisis and Reform

The latest issue of The Bible in Transmission, published by the Bible Society, is now online, containing the following articles:

Chris Sunderland

Alan Storkey
A Biblical Economic Reformation

Prabhu Guptara
Changing Values: Transforming the Global Economy

Robert Van Der Weyer
Against Usury: Solving the Financial and Economic Crisis

Sharon Thresher
The Reality of Poverty and Debt in the UK: What Can the Church Do?

Vinoth Ramachandra
Globalisation and the Poor

Rob Saner-Haigh
Dancing to a Different Drum: Economic Justice, Shalom and the Financial Crisis

Ian Christie
Ecology and Economic Growth

James Catford
News from Bible Society

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Exploring Biblical Themes (3): Humanity

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 2 November 2009.]

‘When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?’

So asks the poet of Psalm 8, reminding us that the quest to discover the significance of human existence didn’t begin with disaffected philosophers in the 1960s, but reaches back through the centuries. So long as humans have been asking questions, it seems, we have asked the question, What does it mean to be human?

And it should come as no surprise that the Bible has something to say about this – not just on its first few pages, but all the way through.

It’s a humbling picture, actually, as we read in Genesis 2:7 that ‘the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’. That’s a powerful reminder of the connection between us and the ground, that we are – quite literally – ‘earthlings’, designed by God to live in the world he made as living beings, embodied beings, personal beings, relational beings. It also says something about our total dependence on God. And in different places, the Bible has much to say about the stuff of human life – work, marriage, family, sex, suffering, death and the hope for what comes after.

But if there is humility, there is honour too, as we are also told in Genesis 1:26-27 that we are made in the image of God. In this image-saturated world, we ourselves are the images that really count – images made according to the specifications of our Creator.

Of all God’s creation, only humans are singled out as made in the image of God, created to be like God in some sense – but like God in what sense?

It used to be common to think that the image of God meant factors like the ability to think, to reason, or even to speak. And of course, we give thanks that we have the capacity for emotion and imagination, for intellect and communication – like God himself – although it’s not apparent that his ‘image’ should be identified with these things.

What is clear in Genesis is that men and women together constitute the image of God, that humans are made for relationship with each other as well as with God, such that relationship with God and relationship with others is fundamental to true humanity, and we are less than human without it. And this relational aspect is important at a time when there has been a heavy focus on the inward self (the me who knows things) or the fragmentary self (the me who doesn’t really know who I am anymore) rather than the relational self (the me who relates to others).

But even so, we cannot limit what it means to be created in the image of God simply to being made male and female – because it’s clear that animals are also created as male and female. Gender distinction is not limited to humanity, but extends to dolphins and chickens and elephants as well. This doesn’t mean gender is unimportant or incidental. On the contrary, if anything, it makes it even more significant. It shows gender distinction is part of the warp and woof of God’s creation – but not necessarily the most significant point about being made in his image.

More significant is that being made in the image of God has to do with the vocation of men and women to rule creation, to reflect something of God’s own rule. That seems to be clear in Genesis 1:26, where God says, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all creatures that move along the ground’. Humans are charged with the task of ‘dominion’ on behalf of other creatures as God’s representatives or stewards.

And, that’s reinforced in verse 28, which says that ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’.

Cultures surrounding Israel told stories of people being made as slaves of the gods, with the language of ‘image’ applied only to kings. In Genesis, however, all human beings are created in the image of God, giving all men and women a status and responsibility not found in other worldviews. The delegation of God’s rule over the world is given not to a king or to a select class of people, but to humanity. All humans are God’s living images on earth, called on to exercise his loving rule.

As the poet of Psalm 8 says, in response to his own question about human beings:

‘You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet…’

Which, of course, raises all sorts of questions about how exercise our stewardship appropriately, in a way that involves exploration not exploitation, dominion not dominance.

And although they are now distorted by sin, men and women still bear God’s image, and those tasks of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ and ‘ruling’ have not been taken away. In the first place, of course, it refers to the building of families, the growing of crops and breeding of animals, the tending of the garden. Creation requires cultivation.

But such cultivation provides the basis for the organisation of society, and includes by extension the development of culture and civilisation – building houses, designing clothes, writing poetry, playing chess. These are the ‘mundane’ ways in which we exercise our creation mandate, as we represent God’s rule over every type of cultural activity, in relationship with others, and in a way that reflects God’s own nurturing, creative hand.

But then, when we come to the New Testament, whatever we say about humanity now has to take account of Christ, not least because the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, reminding us once again – by the way – of the importance of bodily existence.

Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (as Paul puts it in Colossians 1:15), the one who exercises complete rule over all aspects of the created world. He is the new Adam (as Paul says elsewhere, in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). And in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul can speak of ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, reminding us of Hebrews 1:3, where Jesus is said to be ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’.

At the very least, Christ as the image of God means he now truly represents God to creation in the way the first humans were called upon to do so. But beyond that it becomes clear that Jesus establishes a new humanity of those who are conformed according to that image, in fulfilment of what God intended from the very beginning.

And there are past, present and future dimensions to this. In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul tells us that we have put off an old mode of humanity, an old self, and ‘have put on the new self’. But the same passage goes on to speak of a continuous aspect to this transformation, as that new self ‘is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’. We are, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. And this transformation awaits a point in the future when, at the resurrection, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:49, ‘just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man’.

But it’s also apparent in Paul’s letters that this transformation takes place within a network of relationships in the church.

The vision of Ephesians makes clear that what’s at stake is the re-formation of humanity into a new people of God. In 2:1-10, Paul reminds us that when we were dead in trespasses and sins, God made us alive in Christ, and we are saved by grace through faith, brought back into relationship with God. But then, as he goes on in 2:11-22, he tells us that not only is the vertical dimension with God dealt with, so is the horizontal one. Where Jews and Gentiles were once alienated from one another, Christ has broken down that dividing wall and made them into ‘one new humanity’. Formerly, we were enemies of God and alienated from one another; but now, through Christ’s death, we have been made one new person – reconciled to God and to each other.

Then it becomes clear in Ephesians 4:17 onwards (as it does in Colossians too) that this change in status requires a corresponding change in character – that we are to live in a way that matches our calling, putting off our old self and putting on the new self (4:22-24). Those who have been made alive in Christ are now renewed in the likeness of Christ.

So, not only does Jesus bear the image of God in perfect form, but those who are incorporated into Christ are in a process of being restored in God’s image, so that only through Christ are we able to fulfil our destiny as human beings – which means patterning ourselves on Jesus, but doing so together as the body of Christ, looking forward to our complete transformation at the end.

All of which means that the image of God ties together the uniqueness of humanity in creation, the incarnation of Christ, our ongoing formation in the church, and the future resurrection body.

In all this, we begin and end with God himself, like the writer of Psalm 8 does – ‘Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.’

Further Reading

Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 169-85
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on ‘the ecclesiological structure’ and ‘the ethical structure’ of the new man.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 138-47.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 23-33.
A brief overview at an accessible level.

J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).
A full and illuminating discussion of the notion of ‘the image of God’ in Genesis 1 against its ancient Near Eastern background and an exploration of its ethical implications for today.


Biblefresh is a partnership of over fifty organisations (including LICC, where I work), joining forces to help Christians and churches grow in our appetite and confidence in the Scriptures during 2011 (coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible). The initiative hopes to offer a host of ideas and resources to inspire and equip people, churches and local communities to read, study, meditate, listen, learn and live the Bible.

The venture will be supported by a website (from January 2010 onwards), where it is possible to register your interest by signing up for regular updates.

There are ten events happening around the UK in the early part of next year to share the vision of Biblefresh with church leaders. Get to one if you can.

Nottingham (19 January, 1.30-4.30)
St John’s College, Chilwell Lane, Bramcote, Nottingham, NG9 3DS
Speakers include Christina Baxter and David Shearman, with worship led by Trent Vineyard

Glasgow (25 January)
International Christian College, 110 St James Road, Glasgow, G4 0PS
Networking event, hosted by Fred Drummond, David Miller, Elaine Duncan and Krish Kandiah

Durham (26 January)
St John’s College, 3 South Bailey, Durham, DH1 3RJ
Speakers include David Wilkinson and Krish Kandiah

Cardiff (28 January, 1.30-4.15)
City Temple, Cowbridge Road East, Cardiff CF11 9AD
Speakers tbc, with worship led by City Temple musicians

Belfast (1-4 February)
Part of the Kingdom Come conference at Spires Conference Centre
Email for more information

Exeter (3 February, 12.30-2.00)
Belmont Chapel, Western Way, Exeter, EX1 2DB
Church leaders’ lunch with presentation from Rob Cotton

Manchester (10 February, 12.00-2.00)
A Fresh Thinking event, with lunch and a networking opportunity, as well as input from Krish Kandiah

Liverpool (16 March)
Organised in conjunction with Together for the Harvest – further details tbc

Bournemouth (18 March, 1.30-4.30)
Moorlands College, Sopley, Christchurch, Dorset, BH23 7AT
Speakers include Steve Brady, Colin Bennett, Alistair Mckitterick and Rob Cotton

London (mid March)
Details tbc

Please register by emailing your name and the location of the event to

Tuesday 22 December 2009

John Coffey on Reclaiming a Biblical Theology of Liberation

John Coffey, ‘“To Release the Oppressed”: Reclaiming a Biblical Theology of Liberation’, Cambridge Papers 18, 4 (December 2009).

The latest news from the Jubilee Centre reports the publication of a new Cambridge Paper by John Coffey on issues related to slavery and freedom.

A summary is available here, and the full paper is available here.

Word for the Week: Of Astrologers, Magicians, and Bungling Sorcerers

The ‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’ series, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, will re-start on Monday 4 January 2010.

Meanwhile, the below Word for the Week message was sent out to subscribers this week. It’s close to a blog entry posted around this time last year, itself drawing heavily on Mark Allan Powell’s enormously helpful book, Chasing the Eastern Star: Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
Matthew 2:1-2

At Christmas, we sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’…

By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.

So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.

It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.

The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.

Let’s celebrate that this Christmastime.

Monday 21 December 2009

Catalyst 36, 1 (2009)

The latest issue of Catalyst, one of my favourite online theological journals, is now available, with the following articles:

Joel B. Green
Building a New Testament Library: Matthew–Acts

Jeffrey E. Greenway
Reflections in the Wesley Study Bible

Jackson Lashier
A Protestant Resourcement: Why Theological Education Must Include the Fathers

Henry H. Knight III
Consider Wesley

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart on Job

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 129:

‘The book of Job has an important place in the biblical story, not only by calling us to total trust in God even in the most trying of situations but also by preparing the way for Jesus Christ, who as the incarnate God gives the ultimate answer to Job’s question by assuming the role of innocent sufferer – only in his case to bear the sins of the entire world.’

Lee Beach on Esther and Preaching

Lee Beach, ‘Preaching Subversively: The Book of Esther as a Homiletical Model’, McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 10 (2008-2009), 75-100.

Lee Beach seeks to analyse both how the book of Esther functions as ‘a narrative designed to encourage and instruct Israel during their exile’ and ‘how such a narrative approach could be suggestive as a contemporary homiletical method’ (75).

Along the way, he’s interested in addressing the question – using Esther as a model – whether a ‘narrative sermon can speak powerfully about God without ever mentioning his name’ (76).

The article unfolds in three main parts:

1. Narrative as a theological and homiletical tool
This brief section refers to the ‘constitutive power of narrative’, how story can ‘reshape and define the world for us’, and how sermons are likewise ‘foundational avenues for shaping the theological and ethical life of a church’ (77).

2. Esther: a theological narrative without divine reference
Beach here summarises different dimensions of Esther: as exilic literature (a narrative ‘designed to embody… a diasporic lifestyle that demonstrated wisdom for exilic living’, 79), as a diasporic advice story (portraying people thriving in a displaced context), and as advice to a disaporic people (teaching Jews ‘how to live a productive life in the Diaspora’, 81).

He also looks at clues for God’s presence in the story (the possible veiled reference to divine sovereignty in 4:14, the call to fasting, the coincidences and reversals, the mass ‘conversions’ of Persians to Judaism), suggesting that God’s absence is ‘a literary device and teaching technique’ to show that ‘Yahweh is “experienced” in his absence’ (85). Moreover, he concludes, since Esther has now been incorporated into the canon, ‘it must be given a theological reading’ (86).

3. The sermon: Esther as a homiletical model
This, the fullest part of the article, is where Beach addresses his question of whether Esther can serve as a model for contemporary homiletics. He does so in four stages

• Foundations for Esther as a homiletical model – he mentions Nathan’s parable to David in 2 Samuel 12 which elicits the desired response from David without using the divine name; then there are Jesus’ parables which lack explicit reference to the name of God.

• ‘Preaching subversively’ as an effective approach – making little or no reference to the name of God can be a way of preaching subversively, drawing people into a story.

• A scripturally generated approach to narrative – Beach acknowledges the potential danger of rooting preaching in narrative theories alone rather than particular biblical narratives, but argues that his approach ‘stands in opposition to such charges and seeks to find narrative structures that are fully employed by the Scriptures themselves’ (89). With Esther (and with the parables of Jesus, for instance), ‘a narrative is constructed that seeks to intermingle human experience with biblical perspectives on that experience, ultimately seeking to interpret and shape that experience in a way that absorbs people’s experience into the biblical view of the world’ (90).

• Essential practices for using Esther as a homiletical model – such as locatedness (a sermon that speaks of things that are identifiable to its audience, like Esther does, using familiar terms and experiences), clues (allowing the hearer to deduce the presence of God in a narrative even where his name is not mentioned), the exemplary behavior of the main characters (helping people identify who the ‘heroes’ are), and the sermon as key interpretive clue (where, like the location of Esther in the canon, the sermon itself is augmented by other elements in a church worship service – including songs, prayers, brief concluding statement, and final benediction).

Monday 14 December 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (37/50) – His Commission to Disciple All Nations: The Great Project

‘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 thirty-seventh of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Matthew 28:18-20

With a world-changing chapter Matthew rounds off his gospel. Jesus bursts from death to life, and the church is commissioned to turn the world upside down.

In a sense this is a briefing for the work that was to follow the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which empowered the church for its mission. It was a briefing that told them what their mission was to be, that also tells also what our mission is to be.

It is, so to speak, a briefing sandwich – the meat: Jesus’ command; the bread, without which the whole thing would fall apart: Jesus’ affirmation and promise. Entitled and enabled by his authority (28:18), and encouraged and strengthened by his presence (28:20), his people are sent into the world.

And indeed it is to the world that they are sent – to all nations, not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles – to likely and unlikely people.

Jesus commissions them to make not simply converts but disciples, followers of Jesus, wholly and unconditionally committed to him. Learners, always learning through following. But the command is not so much to be a disciple (after all, that’s what Jesus’ followers were already – they had left all in order to follow him) but to make disciples of others. Might the lack of this be something that is contributing to the leakage of people from our churches? This, after all, remains the task of the church, whether through specific discipleship teaching or through individual mentoring.

Interestingly, ‘make disciples’ is the only command in these verses. The other verbs are all present participles. ‘Going’ is what Jesus actually said: going about your everyday life with new values and a new sense of purpose, or following the Lord’s call to the ends of the earth – make disciples. And integral to the process of making whole-life disciples are both baptising (and thus initiating them into the church) and teaching ‘everything’ he has ‘commanded’.

This then is our mission – to be whole-life disciples who make whole-life disciples.

Will we embrace it?

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. I need to do a health check on my own life – am I truly a whole-life disciple, or are there areas of my life that I am reluctant to surrender to Christ’s lordship?

2. In making plans for the future, how will this Great Commission influence my decisions?

3. Are there Christian friends, or members of your church, whom you might more intentionally seek to disciple?

4. If you feel that you need someone to mentor you, can you identify someone you might approach? What is it that makes them ‘fit for purpose’?

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Encounters 31 (2009) on Technology and Mission

This issue of Encounters from Redcliffe College explores how technology in general, and digital media in particular, is impacting mission. It takes in a number of key issues, including ‘the role of IT in mission, the place and potential of internet-based evangelism, and the vital importance of video for engaging with the current and forthcoming generation of new missionaries and their peers’.

Krish Kandiah and Andy Rowell on Lesslie Newbigin

Coinciding with the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin’s birth, Krish Kandiah – Executive Director of Churches in Mission for the Evangelical Alliance UK, and all-round great guy – has written this brief piece on Newbigin for Christianity Today

Krish Kandiah, ‘The Missionary Who Wouldn’t Retire’, Christianity Today 54, 1 (January 2010).

And, as per his comment in the previous post, Andy Rowell (of ‘Church Leadership Conversations’), currently a third-year ThD student at Duke Divinity School, has posted on ‘Ten Things You Probably Did Not Know about Lesslie Newbigin in Honor of the Centennial of his Birth’, which is well worth checking out.

Monday 7 December 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (36/50) – His Powerful Resurrection: Alleluia! He is Risen!

‘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 thirty-sixth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance… On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.
John 20:1, 19

A new day, a new dawn – a new creation. Just as the first infinitesimal part of a second at the beginning of the universe was a unique and unrepeated moment, so the resurrection of Jesus, Saviour, Lord and God, was the first, unique, unprecedented, without parallel moment when God’s promised new creation began. For without the resurrection, the cross is a defeat; there is no forgiveness, no salvation, no new life and no hope beyond death. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now we know that ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ is a truth that will be fulfilled for us who are his, when he comes again in glory and the new heaven and the new earth will be fully realised. As Tom Wright puts it in his book, Surprised by Hope, ‘With Jesus of Nazareth there is not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation’ (78).

It took some time for the amazing truth of the resurrection with all its stunning implications to dawn on the disciples, from their disbelief when the women came back from the tomb and told them it was so, to Peter’s Spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost and Paul’s dramatic words to the Colossians – ‘He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’ (1:18-19).

Meanwhile, what are the implications for everyday life?

Tom Wright again: ‘Because the early Christians believed that “resurrection” had begun with Jesus, and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness’ (57).

Those who belong to Jesus are called to whole-life discipleship, to the resurrection life of the kingdom, whereby in every corner of our lives we are charged with transforming the present, as far as we were able, in the light of that future.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. If you are part of a home group or prayer group, it might be interesting and possibly helpful to ask each other these questions. How do we think Jesus’ resurrection relates to our own survival after death? Will we have resurrection bodies or will we survive as ‘souls’ freed from physical form? Tom Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), has some biblical – but surprising – answers.

2. Isaiah 38:9-20 records Hezekiah’s poem about being close to death. Compare his sentiments with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15.

3. Looking back, are you able to identify those times when you were bringing resurrection life into daily activities? Some may point to running an allotment, or teaching a child to read, or sitting with a friend in hospital, or encouraging a colleague at work, or giving money to good causes, etc. How would it change our days if we began each one reminding ourselves of that we are agents of resurrection transformation?

Gabriel Fackre on the Doctrine of Revelation

Gabriel Fackre, The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation, Edinburgh Studies in Constructive Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Following the previous entry on the book by Gregory C. Higgins which tries to match a distinctive emphasis of a particular theologian on to a specific part of the biblical story line, I was reminded of Gabriel Fackre’s 1997 volume on the doctrine of revelation which does something similar.

As well as containing individual narratives, the Bible tells an ‘overarching story’, and Fackre explores the doctrine of revelation from this perspective, tracing it through various stages of the biblical story. God is revealed as the main character in a continuous and coherent narrative, divided into several ‘chapters’ – creation, fall, covenant with Noah, covenant with Israel, Jesus Christ, Scripture, the Church, salvation, and the consummation.

Fackre uses the narrative structure as a framework in which to discuss the views of various theologians on revelation. Some theologians, he claims, choose to focus on one phase in the narrative rather than another. But why not look at the whole story?

He takes his cue from William Abraham:

‘Divine revelation must not be approached in independence from delineating the divine activity through which God reveals Himself. To pick out any one act or activity as the essence of revelation is to miss the total picture, yet this is what has happened in the history of the doctrine of revelation. One generation focuses on divine creation as the bearer of revelation; another in reaction focuses on divine speaking to prophets and apostles; another focuses on Jesus Christ as the bearer of revelation; another highlights the supreme significance of the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit; yet another argues that revelation comes only at the end of history… What unites each element to the other is a narrative of God’s action that stretches from creation to the end.’

[William J. Abraham, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 13.]

Fackre thus seeks for a more comprehensive approach to revelation.

After an Introduction (outlining models of revelation and his own narrative interpretation), and a Prologue (on God, ‘the trinitarian source of disclosure’), the individual chapter titles are as follows:

1. Creation: The Invitation to know God
2. The Fall: The Noetic Consequences of Sin
3. The Covenant with Noah: The Grace of Preservation
4. The Covenant with Israel: Elective Action
5. Jesus Christ: Incarnate Action
6. Scripture: Inspiration
7. The Church: Ecclesial Illumination
8. Salvation: Personal Illumination
9. Consummation: Eschatological Illumination

In the epilogue he writes:

‘Viewed from the vantage point of the journey traversed, the Christian doctrine of revelation affirms that the triune God by a common grace gives sustaining glimpses of the divine purpose, and by anticipatory action in Israel and definitive incarnation in Jesus Christ discloses who God is and what God wills, as communicated to us by inspired Scripture appropriated by an illumined church and believer, and revealed in its full glory at the End’ (226).

Sunday 6 December 2009

Gregory C. Higgins on Contemporary Theologies

Gregory C. Higgins, Wrestling with the Questions: An Introduction to Contemporary Theologies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), xiv + 230pp., ISBN 9780800663797.

Here’s a book with an interesting modus operandi. Higgins not only provides a concise overview of ten major 20th- and 21st-century theologians, but manages to link the work of each one to a particular part of the biblical story line, as follows:

Chapter 1
Creation: Rosemary Radford Ruether and Feminist Theology
What does it mean to be human in God’s image?

Chapter 2
Exodus: Gustavo Gutiérrez and Liberation Theology
How does Christian faith relate to socioeconomic conditions?

Chapter 3
Conquest: Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism
How should Christians employ power in a fallen world?

Chapter 4
Exile: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Secular Theology
Is God present in the world?

Chapter 5
Restoration: Sallie McFague and Liberal Theology
What can Christians learn from the wider culture?

Chapter 6
Incarnation: Karl Rahner and Neo-Thomism
What is the meaning of Christ for twenty-first-century Christians?

Chapter 7
Crucifixion: Jürgen Moltmann and Political Theology
What is the meaning of Christ’s death?

Chapter 8
Resurrection: Stanley Hauerwas and Postliberal Theology
What does the resurrection mean for Christian life?

Chapter 9
Pentecost: John Cobb Jr. and Pluralism
How does Christianity relate to other religions?

Chapter 10
The End of Time: Wolfhart Pannenberg and Hermeneutical Theology
Is there a final goal for human history?

Each chapter follows a similar format, including an opening key question, a ‘looking ahead’ summary, a biographical section, discussion questions, and suggested reading.

The Introduction and first chapter are available to download as samples.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Robert L. Plummer on the Parables in the Gospels

Robert L. Plummer, ‘Parables in the Gospels: History of Interpretation and Hermeneutical Guidelines’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009), 4-11.

After looking briefly at defining parables (concluding that ‘the most fundamental component… is that there must be a comparison’, 4), Plummer looks at the history of interpretation of parables and then offers some guidelines for interpreting parables.

His very brief history of interpretation takes in the usual suspects from the gospel writers themselves right through to the present day (4-7).

More helpful are his hermeneutical guidelines (7-10). He begins by noting that Jesus ‘often employed parables to teach about the kingdom of God’, and that the kingdom theme ‘is often expressed through three main theological sub-motifs: “the graciousness of God, the demands of discipleship, and the dangers of disobedience”’ (7, citing Craig Blomberg).

As for ‘hermeneutical guidelines’:

• Determine the main point(s) of the parable – noting that some (e.g., Robert Stein) think we should look for one main point, while others (e.g., Craig Blomberg) think we should look for two or three main points, normally connected with the main characters or items in the parable. He notes Stein’s additional questions which help identify what the main point might be: (1) who are the main characters? (2) what occurs at the end? (3) what occurs in direct discourse? (4) who/what gets the most space?

• Recognise stock imagery in the parables – e.g., Father, Master, Judge, Shepherd, King, Son, Vineyard, Vine, Fig tree, Sheep, Servant, Enemy, Harvest, Wedding feast.

• Note striking or unexpected details – e.g., the massive difference between the amount of the two debts owed (Matthew 18:23-35); the brash persistence of the widow (Luke 18:1-8); the indignity of an older man running (Luke 15:20).

• Do not press all details for meaning – e.g., the new clothes, shoes, ring, banquet, etc. in Luke 15:22-23.

• Pay attention to the literary and historical context of the parable – e.g., Luke 18:1 (‘Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up’); Luke 15:1-3 (Jesus welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners as the context for the giving of the three ‘lost’ parables); Luke 10:25-29, 36-37 (Jesus’ exchange with someone about who one’s ‘neighbour’ is around the telling of the good samaritan).

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology on the Parables of Jesus

Volume 13.3 (2009) of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to preaching and teaching the parables of Jesus. As usual, the editorial is available for download as are two of the articles:

Robert L. Plummer
Parables in the Gospels: History of Interpretation and Hermeneutical Guidelines

Jonathan T. Pennington
Matthew 13 and the Function of the Parables in the First Gospel

Nick Spencer on Darwin and God

Nick Spencer, Director of Studies at Theos, delivered the 2009 Charles Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey on 24 November on ‘Darwin and God’. The lecture (available to read here) traces what we can know of Darwin’s religious biography.

Monday 30 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (35/50) – His Saving Victory on the Cross: Finished!

‘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 thirty-fifth of the fifty emails.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:28-30

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19-20

We anticipate the dawn of a new day in the resurrection, but, for the moment at least, we pause at Good Friday. And pause we must, for the biblical story makes no sense without this. And as we pause, we join with Christians around the globe and through the ages who have confessed the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross, for our faith makes no sense without this.

The cross, of course, is where the gospels – and Jesus – have been heading since the start. As he does so, he takes on the role of the servant spoken of in Isaiah 53, suffering and dying on behalf of others. That it happens at Passover time gives his death an ‘exodus’ flavour, as Jesus brings about a new release for the people of God, inaugurating a new covenant in his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins.

The predicament of human beings, so apparent in the biblical story – rebellion against God and the judgment it deserves – are dealt with at the cross, interpreted in the early church as a demonstration of God’s love, as a victory over the powers of darkness, as a sacrifice of one in the place of others which makes forgiveness possible, which brings about reconciliation with God and with each other, and more besides.

The work of the cross is applied personally, though not privately, for it is the place where the wisdom and power of God are demonstrated to the world. And Paul makes clear the comprehensive nature of what has been accomplished – not just on our behalf, but on behalf of the whole of creation. Jesus’ death is God’s chosen means of restoring ‘all things’, liberating men and women – and creation itself – from sin and bondage, with the guarantee that one day evil will be removed completely.

So the cross stands not just at the peak of the gospels but at the climax of the entire history of salvation. Everything in the biblical story leads up to and away from this point; everything is understood in the light it casts, a light extending forward to the final victory when all things will be fully restored.

Meanwhile, that light illumines our discipleship and mission as we seek to make sense of the cross and be shaped by it, knowing that we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

For further reflection and action:

1. All four gospels devote considerable space to the death of Jesus and the events leading up to it. Not for nothing have they been called ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’. Reflect on how far you agree whether or not this is a good description of the gospels.

2. The pattern of the cross and resurrection is one of ‘suffering’ followed by ‘glory’. If Christian discipleship involves a call to follow the way of the cross, think of the moments in your life or the lives of others where this pattern has been evident.

3. How does the cross transform the ‘ordinary’ stuff of life (the ‘all things’ of Colossians 1), and how do we follow the way of the cross in the ‘ordinary’ stuff of life?

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Missional Journal 3, 6 (2009)

I receive the email version of Missional Journal, written by David G. Dunbar of Biblical Seminary.

The latest issue – 3, 6 (November 2009) – helpfully profiles two recent books…

Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Leadership Network Publications (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

… one of which (Belcher) I’m familiar with, and which has already generated some interest in the blogosphere, the other of which has not caught my eye until now.

The book titles above are linked to the respective publishers’ websites, where pdf excerpts of the books can be downloaded.

Monday 23 November 2009

Regent’s Reviews 1, 1 (2009)

It has just come to my attention that Regent’s Park College in Oxford recently relaunched Regent’s Reviews, an online publication of book reviews, birthed by current postgraduate students Andy Goodliff and Matthew Tennant. The book reviews are written ‘with an eye to the needs of those engaged in pastoral practice’.

The first volume (available as a pdf here) carries a special focus on recent books written by Baptists in light of the 400th celebration of Baptist beginnings.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (34/50) – His Dramatic Actions: Jesus – Dangerous Revolutionary or Maverick Showman?

‘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 thirty-fourth of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’… Jesus said to him… ‘so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’
Matthew 17:24-27

What was Jesus? Dangerous revolutionary or maverick showman? Neither… Or was he both?

Dangerous revolutionaries are defined by the number of their trained followers (Jesus had twelve), their weaponry (the disciples had two swords) and their subversive rhetoric (in spite of all expectations, Jesus never advocated rebellion). Nevertheless, as those twelve became hundreds, they ‘turned the world upside down’. How? Not by violence but by the subversive power of Jesus’ teaching, and his sacrificial love.

Maverick showmen are characterised by unpredictability and an eye to their audience. Jesus constantly broke the mould of convention, wrong-footing not only his critics but sometimes also his disciples. Healing and casting out demons might have been expected from someone who was gradually revealing himself as ‘more than a prophet’. But turning water into wine? Feeding 5,000 people from five barley loaves and two fishes? Planting a four-drachma coin in the mouth of a fish?

Each of these three miracles demonstrates Jesus’ authority over the material world, his unorthodox way of paying his tax showing that he is lord even of money. The water into wine miracle is described as a sign, through which Jesus revealed his glory (John 2:11). There is thus a sense in which Jesus might be called a showman. Although seemingly impromptu, his miracles point to his identity as the Son of God.

Others of his dramatic actions, however, had nothing miraculous about them. Outraged by the antics of the money changers in the temple courts he overthrew their tables, scattering money and animals. Whether this happened on two separate occasions or on one, it was a provocative public display of his authority.

At the other end of the spectrum, we sit as flies on the wall while Jesus, their ‘Lord and Master’ stripped off and washed his disciples’ feet. And then, in the privacy of that upper room, he took bread and wine and passed them round, as lasting symbols of his body and blood.

Always one step ahead of us – this is our Lord.

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. In spite of his unpredictability, there is a coherence and consistency in Jesus’ actions. What does my behaviour reveal about me, and about the Lord I claim to follow?

2. Jesus was a colourful character – certainly not simply ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’. How is this an encouragement to us creatively to express our personalities, rather than conforming to an imagined norm of what a Christian ought to look like?

3. Looking at the contexts in which Jesus performed these actions, we see his sensitiveness to human need, and his understanding of his culture and of the human heart. Pray that you, and members of your church, may have a similar awareness of the world, and the people, around us.

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 8

[This is the eighth 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

Although there are important historical issues related to the formation of the canon, the hermeneutical concerns are here foregrounded. As Cummins notes:

‘On the overall question of the canon, there is a general recognition that trying to trace its emergence and delineate its contours can be an instructive (if inexact) enterprise, but that in the end this is a secondary endeavour. What is of the utmost importance is that the church has received as providentially provided a sufficiently stable and cohesive body of texts which in its final form constitutes the rule or norm of Christian faith, practice and worship.’

[S.A. Cummins, ‘The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson’, Currents in Biblical Research 2, 2 (2004), 179-96, at 187-88. In addition, see: J.G. McConville, ‘Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19, 2 (2001), 134-57; Robert W. Wall, ‘Canonical Context and Canonical Conversations’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 165-82; David S. Yeago, ‘The Bible: The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation Revisited’, in James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (eds.), Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 49-93, at 70-85.]

Where historical-critical approaches have generally been able to set aside confessional issues, those interested in theological interpretation acknowledge and seek to study the ways in which Scripture functions as ‘canon’ in and for faith communities.

[For a polemical exploration of canon as an ecclesiastical straitjacket exercising imperialistic control and enforcing particular ideological views, see George Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001). Aichele’s thesis that the canon ‘prevents readers from freely reading the texts of the Bible’ (12) doesn’t sit well with theological readings. Once Scriptures are said to constitute a canon, the Bible becomes a single message, where the texts refer to themselves, commenting on each other, controlling their meaning, filtering out other meanings that might conflict with the larger whole. Loveday Alexander, ‘God’s Frozen Word: Canonicity and the Dilemmas of Biblical Studies Today’, Expository Times 117, 6 (2006), 237-42 notes that the concept of canon carries authoritarian dogmatic overtones, and biblical studies has lost the skill of inhabiting the canonical text in a liberating and creative manner. More positively, note the thesis of William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), that ‘canon’ is not an epistemological criterion so much as an ecclesial means of grace. Scripture belongs to the realm of soteriology rather than epistemology, with the important entailment that readers of Scripture are to know God rather than know how to know God. Although it remains a moot point as to whether epistemology and soteriology should be played off against one another in this fashion, Abraham’s call to recover the use of Scripture for spiritual formation, as that which shapes the believing community, is consonant with the broader concerns here explored.]

Regularly associated with such approaches is a focus on the final form of the text recognised as canonical.

[See Christopher R. Seitz, ‘The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation’, in Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, Al Wolters (eds.), Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 7 (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 58-110, esp. 65-68, 73-76, 84-89. See also his Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), where the final form of the book of the Twelve is taken seriously as a whole work, demonstrating its capacity to build a bridge ‘from the past to the future and, in so doing, to provide generous hermeneutical guidelines on how that prophetic word encloses our times as well’ (24).]

For Christian interpreters, the status and role of the Old Testament is particularly important.

[Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 34-41; Rolf P. Knierim, ‘On the Interpretation of the Old Testament by the Church’, Ex Auditu 16 (2000), 55-76.]

Moberly thus notes:

‘Whatever the importance of attending to the scriptures of Israel in their own right, it is fundamental for the Christian faith that the God of Israel is known as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our starting-point must in some way be the contextualization of Israel’s scriptures within Christian faith.’

[R. Walter L. Moberly, ‘The Canon of the Old Testament: Some Historical and Hermeneutical Reflections from a Western Perspective’, in Ivan Z. Dimitrov, James D.G. Dunn, Ulrich Luz, and Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr (eds.), Das Alte Testament als christliche Bible in orthodoxer und westlicher Sicht, Wissenschaftliche untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 239-57, here 254.]

Luke 24:13-35 is illuminating in this respect (cf. John 5:39, 46-47).

[See, e.g., Karl Paul Donfried, Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic, Companions to the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 2006), 21-31; Richard B. Hays, ‘Can the Gospels Teach us How to Read the Old Testament?’, Pro Ecclesia 11, 4 (2002), 402-18, esp. 415-18; R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45-70 (‘Christ as the Key to Scripture: The Journey to Emmaus’), revisited more recently in ‘Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 79-100; see also D. Brent Laytham, ‘Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 101-15.]

The travellers on the road to Emmaus are not rebuked for not believing Jesus, but for not believing the prophets (24:25); and Jesus does not offer them esoteric revelation, but exposition from the Scriptures (24:27). The story of Jesus ‘needs to be set in a context beyond itself… So, as Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jewish Scripture, Jewish Scripture cannot be understood apart from Jesus; what is needed is an interpretation which relates the two – and it is this that Jesus provides (Moberly, Bible, Theology, and Faith, 51). Israel’s Scriptures ‘provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus’ (Moberly, ‘Christ in All the Scriptures?’, 80).

Perhaps most significant in Christian reflection on the canon of Scripture is the work of Brevard S. Childs.

[See the essays in Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Greene-McCreight (eds.), Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), a diverse collection reflecting the breadth of Childs’ own engagement with Scripture.]

With the canonical approach associated with Childs comes a focus on the final form of the biblical texts, and a concern to take seriously the role of Scripture in the church and in Christian formation.

[For his interaction with recent English and German scholarship, see Brevard S. Childs, ‘The Canon in Recent Studies: Reflections on an Era’, Pro Ecclesia 14, 1 (2005), 26-45, reprinted in Bartholomew et al. (eds), Canon, 33-57. In ‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 (1997), 16-26, he argues for a ‘multi-level approach to Scripture’, taking into account ‘the distinct contexts in which the text operates’ (22). See also his ‘Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 4 (2005), 375-92, in which he argues, among other things, that Wolterstorff’s application of speech act theory does not deal adequately ‘with the function of the Christian canon which shaped the church’s traditions in such a way to provide a rule-of-faith for the theological guidance of subsequent generations of readers’ (375).]

Childs holds to the relatively independent but complementary witness of the Old and New testaments to the ‘divine reality’ of the text’s witness (articulated and worked out most fully in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible [London: SCM, 1992]). With more than a nod to Childs, Christopher Seitz seeks to reconnect the Testaments where they have become disconnected in Christian theology.

[Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), passim. Charles J. Scalise also builds on Childs’ work: Hermeneutics as Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 8 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1994); From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996). More recently, also following in Childs’ wake, Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005) focuses on the received form of the text, offers a ‘retelling’ of the Hebrew Bible (à la von Rad) before looking at its theological themes, arguing that Christians can and must interpret the Hebrew Bible on its own terms.]

It should be noted, however, that even scholars who agree on the need to take the canon into account disagree on whether the Old Testament is to be read on its own terms apart from interpreting it with reference to Christ.

[See especially Christoper R. Seitz, ‘Christological Interpretation of Texts and Trinitarian Claims to Truth: An Engagement with Francis Watson’s Text and Truth’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 209-26, and Francis Watson, ‘The Old Testament as Christian Scripture: A Response to Professor Seitz’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 227-32.]

This is connected with continued debates about how far christological approaches to the Old Testament should be subsumed under, or even give way, to ‘trinitarian’ approaches.

[Alan G. Padgett, ‘The Canonical Sense of Scripture: Trinitarian or Christocentric?’, Dialog 45, 1 (2006), 36-43; Brent A. Strawn, ‘And These Three Are One: A Trinitarian Critique of Christological Approaches to the Old Testament’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 31, 2 (2004), 191-210.]

Seitz follows Childs’ lead here, holding that Christian theologians should listen to the distinct voice of the Old Testament rather than begin with the New Testament and then wonder how ‘politely to work around’ the Old (‘Christological Interpretation’, 226). The church understands Jesus against the larger horizon of Old Testament expectation; the Old Testament does not simply provide background for the gospel; it is part of the fabric of the gospel itself. The Scriptures witness to God in Israel and in Christ, such that what holds the canon together is not a theological abstraction, but the God who made a covenant with Israel and who raised Jesus from the dead (Seitz, Word Without End, 8, and see 13-27, 251-62; Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001], 131-44, 177-90).

Francis Watson remains unconvinced, fearing that Seitz does not give sufficient attention to the dialectic between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The identification of the God of Israel in the Old Testament as the God of Jesus Christ in the New Testament ‘will only be apparent if, without losing their distinctiveness, the Old and New Testaments are seen to be constituted as old and new only in relation to the other and to the definitive disclosure in Jesus of the triune God that both separates them and unites them. As there is no New Testament without the Old, so there is no Old Testament without the New’ (‘Old Testament’, 228).

Finally, in relation to canon, we should note briefly the increased interest in typology and figural interpretation.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Theological and Ideological Strategies of Biblical Interpretation’, in Michael J. Gorman (ed.), Scripture: An Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 163-75, at 171-73; Stanley D. Walters (ed.), Go Figure! Figuration in Biblical Interpretation, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2008).]

Seitz notes that ‘the term figural entails a literary dimension’ in the way that materials are related to one another, with an undergirding ‘theological conviction… that God is acting consistently and comprehensibly across time’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 8). Moreover, figural reading involves a commitment to a ‘distinctive understanding of time and providence, based upon the canonical coherence of Christian Scripture’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 16, worked out more fully in various essays gathered together in Figured Out).

Saturday 21 November 2009

Michael Horton on Christ at the Centre

Mark Galli from Christianity Today interviews Michael Horton (here) about the substance of his two recent books – Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life – the major concern being that our lives and churches be driven by the gospel.

Here are some of the lines:

‘The question is not whether we have imperatives in Scripture. The question is whether the imperatives are all we are getting, because people assume we already know the gospel – and we don’t.’

‘The gospel isn’t “Follow Jesus’ example” or “Transform your life” or “How to raise good children.” The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners – even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus, which we all are on our best days.’

‘In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. All that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.’

‘The gospel is not even my conversion experience. If somebody asks me what the gospel is, I’m not going to talk about me; I’m going to talk about Christ.’

‘The Good News is not that Jesus has made it possible for you to make him Lord and Savior. The Good News is that he has actually saved and liberated you, and that he is your Savior.’

Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, 2 (2009)

The latest edition of the Journal of Theological Interpretation arrived this morning, containing the following articles:

R.W.L. Moberly
What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?

Michael Allen
Exodus 3 after the Hellenization Thesis

David C. Tollerton
Reading Job as Theological Disruption for a Post-Holocaust World

Bradley C. Gregory
‘The Sennacherib Error’ in Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentary on the Twelve Prophets: Light from the History of Interpretation

Kit Barker
Speech Act Theory, Dual Authorship, and Canonical Hermeneutics: Making Sense of Sensus Plenior

Joshua W. Jipp
Ancient, Modern, and Future Interpretations of Romans 1:3-4: Reception History and Biblical Interpretation

Derek Cooper
Reformation Responses to Novatianism: 16th-Century Interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6

Nathan MacDonald
Israel and the Old Testament Story in Irenaeus’s Presentation of the Rule of Faith

Darren Sarisky
Review Article: Exegesis and Participation

Michael Pasquarello III
Review Article: Back to the Future: The Promise of Recent Theological Commentary

Friday 20 November 2009


KLICE – The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics – describes its vision as seeking ‘to contribute a Christian perspective to public debates about ethics in the UK’.

It has recently launched a new website which is more user-friendly than the old one and with expanded content. The site contains a number of resources, including archives of the very useful Ethics in Brief.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Themelios 34, 3 (2009)

The latest volume of Themelios is now online in several formats, with the contents as follows:

D.A. Carson

Carl Trueman
Minority Report: Lest We Forget

Dane C. Ortlund
Christocentrism: An Asymmetrical Trinitarianism?

David VanDrunen
Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38-42

Mark Rogers
‘Deliver Us From the Evil One’: Martin Luther on Prayer

Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
Pastoral Pensées: Power in Preaching: Delight (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), Part 3 of 3

Book Reviews

Monday 16 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (33/50) – His Teaching in Parables: Listen! Whoever Has Ears...

‘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 thirty-third of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Then the disciples came to him and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.’
Matthew 13:10-11, 16

Jesus taught in parables – longish ones with characters and plot (the prodigal son), ones with detailed, sometimes allegorical, interpretations (the sower), short metaphors (the woman making bread with yeast). Sometimes we know the context. Jesus stood in a boat, Matthew tells us, to tell the story of the sower to a large crowd on the shore. Afterwards the disciples asked him what it meant and he explained. More often there is no explanation. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son and his elder brother, in Luke 15, are told with two groups listening – ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’.

Over the centuries the parables have presented some knotty problems. Did Jesus just make up stories or was the sower, for example, up on the hill above him doing exactly what Jesus says? Is the story of the man paying the same wages however long the men had worked any guide for employers? Is there just one truth, or should we be teasing out every element of the story? Will we really be able to watch the damned from heaven as in the story of Dives and Lazarus?

Unlike the first three gospels, John never uses the word ‘parable’. But his use of extended metaphors – light and darkness, sheep and shepherds, hunger and the bread of life, thirst and living water – help us to see that Jesus is building on parables and metaphors used by the prophets of the Old Testament.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question in Matthew 13:11 gives us a clue, maybe even the key, to what is involved when he teaches in parables. Inherent in every parable, short or long, is a question – Do you understand? Are your ears and eyes open to the truth? Here is truth – the truth of the Kingdom coming from the King – truth revealed, coming like a bolt of lightning, a life-changing revelation. Jesus is not being abstruse. He is drawing a picture, with which we can immediately engage, but which carries a truth we may miss. A humble, passionate desire to know him and his will for us begins our understanding and appropriation of parable truth. In addition, those whose own eyes have been opened will want to alert others to the presence and power of the kingdom, inviting people to listen and respond when the king calls.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read Ezekiel 34:1-24. Then read Luke 15. Who is listening to Jesus (Luke 15:1)? To whom is Jesus speaking directly? What would you imagine to be the dynamics between Jesus and his listeners as the three stories unfold?

2. Look at the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The legal expert wants to know who qualifies as a neighbour whom he should love. Imagine you are leading a study of the parable, and you ask the group this question before reading it. How do you think they would reply? In the telling of the story, what are the main points that Jesus is making about neighbour love?

3. How far should Jesus’ teaching in parables provide a model for communicating with others today? How often do we use examples from everyday life? How often do we restrict ourselves to one telling point, rather than attempting to touch on everything we think someone should know?

Friday 13 November 2009

Gerald J. Mast on Catechism in the Worshipping Community

Gerald J. Mast, ‘Catechism in the Worshipping Community’, Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics (2007), 86-91.

Taking a cue from Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal about doctrine being ‘a stage on which the enactment of Scripture unfolds in the life of the Church’ (86), with the church as a ‘theater of the gospel’ and its members a ‘company of performers’ (87, citing Vanhoozer), Mast provides a short but helpful review article exploring the significance of worship, liturgy, and everyday practices in ‘shaping the hearts and minds of growing believers’ (86).

He marries three suggestive points about catechesis with three significant books.

1. Catechesis through Worship

Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007).

Chan seeks to correct what he sees as a weak evangelical doctrine of the church ‘by highlighting the neglected arts and habits of Christian worship that make the body of Christ visible in time and space’. Habits of worship, cultivated by the church, ‘are themselves the doxological fulfilment of the Church’s mission’ (87). Mast notes that Chan’s approach raises questions about conventional practices that separate the worship of God from the mission of the church (87-88).

Worship, according to Chan, should be shaped by the Word and the sacraments, where ‘the Word proclaims the coming reign of God’, and ‘the Eucharistic meal makes that reign visible in the present’. The incorporation of new members into the church via catechism must ‘prepare candidates for membership to participate rightly in worship’ (88).

Catechism has focused on three elements: confession of the triune God in the creed, following the Ten Commandments, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Chan maintains that such a framework allows issues of discipleship to be addressed – the creed helping us ‘to address a world of religious pluralism’, the Commandments speaking ‘against the grain of market-centered consumer capitalism’, and the Lord’s Prayer challenging ‘an exchange-focused economy that breeds poverty and homelessness’ (88).

2. Catechesis in a Countercultural Community

Debra Dean Murphy, Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Murphy critiques religious education programmes that ‘abstract the values they inculcate from the particular faith traditions in which they had been embedded’, as well as the kind of public theology that ‘seeks to reduce Christian particularity to commonly held civic virtues such as freedom and justice’. Instead, she ‘establishes an agenda for Christian catechesis that instead of making church members into polite and contributing citizens will rather identify them with the countercultural community of the Church and with alternate ways of knowing that are rooted in the counter-story of Jesus’ (89).

Both Chan and Murphy assume that church members will be best formed through recovering the ancient traditions and habits of the church. Mast considers it unlikely that these can do so by themselves, suggesting that ‘for Christians to be truly shaped into the life and mind of Christ, they must break down not just the division between basement education and sanctuary worship but also the barrier between the gathered and the scattered body’ (89).

3. Catechesis through Embodied Discipleship

Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003).

Here a case is made ‘that practices of discipleship are as significant, if not more so, than the classical liturgical habits in developing countercultural Christians’. For Shenk, ‘theological knowledge cannot be abstracted from embodied discipleship; yet the embodied practices... are not so much the recitation of classical creeds or the weekly Eucharist but such mundane and practical acts of Christian discipleship as rejection of the sword and oaths, reading and discussing Scripture, faithful family life, and voluntary service’ (90).

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Peter Hicks and Henry H. Knight on Evangelicals and Truth

Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth: A Creative Proposal for a Postmodern Age (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 240pp., ISBN 0851114571.

Henry H. Knight III, A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 253pp., ISBN 068700960X.

[The following book reviews were first published on London School of Theology’s website in May 1998.]

The titles of these two books share three significant words: ‘Evangelical’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Postmodern’. Like so many others recently [sic] (e.g., Carson, Grenz, McGrath, Middleton and Walsh, Wells), Hicks and Knight recognise that we live in the twilight of modernity – in a ‘postmodern’ world – with the challenge to provide a basis for evangelicalism’s insistence on truth, but in a way which moves beyond a reliance on Enlightenment norms.

Hicks begins with a brief survey of the issue of ‘truth’ (From Plato to Postmodernism). In part 2 (Evangelicals and truth yesterday and today), he analyses what significant figures in the story of evangelicalism have said about the philosophy of knowledge and truth. In part 3 (Evangelicals and truth tomorrow), he explores what distinctives evangelicalism may offer today in face of the collapse of truth.

For Hicks, God himself is the basis for truth, and God communicates truth to men and women in a variety of ways – personally, experientially, and verbally. Further, we must let go of the claims of absolute certainty which the Enlightenment sought to establish, and work with a more ‘multi-dimensional’ view of truth related to every part of our creaturehood – factual, moral, personal, practical, spiritual… He writes:

‘The understanding of truth as something broad, and the holistic nature of our relationship with the truth, means that we can satisfactorily incorporate into our concept of truth the range of emphasis covered by evangelical and other thinkers. We do not have to make a choice between truth as propositional and truth as personal; it is both. It is historical, and it is existential. It is factual, and it is relational. It is particular, and it is eternal. It is doctrine, and it is life.’

Knight begins with a summary of the nature of evangelicalism, before dividing his book into three parts: (1) postmodernity and the truth of the Gospel; (2) revelation and the truth of Scripture; (3) redemption and the character of God. So, when it comes to Scripture, for instance, must Scripture be ‘propositional’ to be true (as some evangelicals nursed in the arms of modernist philosophy might insist)? Knight offers an alternative approach in keeping with how narrative, metaphor and other literary forms make truth claims about God, ourselves and the world.

Does Christian truth have a future in the postmodern world? It does. But not on rational and propositional grounds. Knight advocates a ‘critical realist’ approach to truth: that is to say, truth claims do correspond to reality (‘realism’), but only by continued reflection on the provisional nature of those claims (‘critical’).

Both books offer excellent surveys of past and current thinkers (Hicks is stronger on historical figures, while Knight gives more place to contemporary theologians). Both books give a strong place to the Christian community, tradition, spirituality, and the role of ‘signs and wonders’.

And both books come highly recommended. There is much to agree with and disagree with here, but no-one will be able to evade the challenge of engaging with the issues outlined.

Monday 9 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (32/50) – His Radical Demands: Love

‘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 thirty-second of the fifty emails.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Matthew 5:17

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
Matthew 22:35-40

Matthew 5-7 – the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – sets out the way of life of those who belong to the kingdom. And from beginning to end, it assumes a world we know – where people hurt others through anger, where women are demeaned through lust, where marriages collapse, where Christians are persecuted, where people tread on our toes, where we worry about what to eat and wear even while others are forced to beg. Sound familiar?

We live in this world, but we do so as Jesus’ disciples, disciples of the one who, according to his own claim, fulfils the Law and the Prophets. Faithfulness to Jesus entails faithfulness to all that has gone before in God’s dealings with his people through lawgiver and prophet – but only as Jesus fulfils it. Which means that the Sermon on the Mount is not just about getting to the ‘true meaning’ of the Law, but knowing and following the one to whom the Law points. Far from setting aside the Law and the Prophets, Jesus carries them into a new era of fulfilment in which his authoritative voice will govern the disciples’ obedience.

Matthew 7:12 reinforces what is apparent throughout the Sermon – that our discipleship happens in relationship not just with God but with others. Jesus declares that our doing to others what we would have them to do to us is the Law and the Prophets (echoing 5:17), the true direction in which the Old Testament points.

He makes the same point to the lawyer in Matthew 22:34-40, where the whole Law and the Prophets are said to ‘hang on’ love for God and neighbour. The Old Testament continues in full force for disciples of Christ, but – mediated through Jesus who fulfils it – its regulations are understood and embodied as expressions of love of God and of one’s neighbour being worked out in every aspect of life.

All of which shows that Jesus’ teaching is not concerned with constructing a system of disembodied rules, but with re-orientating the whole of life around a new reality – God’s inbreaking reign. Jesus’ exhortations are not faceless demands, but presuppose certain things about him and about the kingdom he brings, which means that the Law and Prophets are no longer the centre of gravity – Jesus is. We are not just called to live a particular lifestyle but to follow a peerless Lord.

For further reflection and action:

1. The principle to emerge from Matthew 5:17-20 appears to be that all the Old Testament law applies to Christians, but none of it applies apart from its fulfilment in Christ; its validity continues only with reference to him. Look at the examples in Matthew 5:21-48 to see how this works out in practice.

2. Why might it be important not to abstract Jesus’ demands from the story told in the gospel as a whole, which reaches its culmination in the death and resurrection?

3. For Paul too, love is the fulfilment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; cf. Galatians 5:13-15). Think and pray about your week ahead – at work and at home – and the opportunities you will have to express love for God and love for others.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Charles M. Olsen on Rhythms of Spiritual Formation

Charles M. Olsen, ‘Waltzing to the Eternal Rhythms’.

This link above is to last week’s electronic newsletter from The Alban Institute.

Olsen joins with a considerable number of others who have been reminding us recently that ‘the seasons of the church year tell the story of the life of Christ and God’s redemptive work in the world’ which create space in the cycle of the year for teaching others and deepening personal faith, allowing us to ‘connect our own personal and group stories to a larger picture and mine them for wisdom from a deep and rich history of faith’.

Olsen focuses on the three primary Christian festivals – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – connecting these with the trinitarian work of God: the giving Father (Christmas), the risen Son (Easter), and the indwelling Spirit (Pentecost).

But he suggests that each of these has a prelude (that which leads up to the festivals) and a postlude (that which flows from the festivals) as well, corresponding to three moments of spiritual formation – letting go, naming God’s presence, and taking hold. Hence there are three triads, what Olsen calls ‘the waltz of the gospel – one, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three’. The journey of faith, he writes, ‘becomes a lilting waltz, not a rigid march’, where the ‘unfolding narratives in our life connect with the church seasons and the eternal rhythms of the gospel’.

The article is adapted from Olsen’s book:

Charles M. Olsen, The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories (Herndon: The Alban Institute, 2009).

I’m reading the book at the moment and while some of it goes against the grain of my Hot-Protestant Nonconformist (liturgy-might-just-be-of-the-devil) tendencies, I’m interested in this sort of work which is seeking to connect individual believers and whole congregations back into the big story of God’s redemptive work.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Patrick D. Miller on Esther

Patrick D. Miller, ‘For Such a Time as This’ (2006).

The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary makes available online their Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture.

The theme for 2006 was ‘For Such a Time as This’, taking its cue from Esther 4:14.

They write:

‘Esther’s is a story of tenacious courage, a willingness to follow God’s call, and a firm trust that the community of faith will survive by the grace of God. Her story provides a rich theme for the 2006 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, for we live in a time when courage is often called for in ministry and when many challenges face the church and its young people. These lectures address a range of topics within this theme, including the future of the church, the nature of time, the practice of lament, and the call for youth to speak out.’

Interesting and useful though they may be, it’s not at all clear to me that the lectures engage terribly much with the book of Esther – with the exception of Patrick Miller’s piece.

His discussion takes in ‘time’, Esther, Mordecai, and God. About Esther he asks whether there are features of the story and her role that are paradigmatic and instructive for ‘such a time as this’, and suggests the following three:

1. ‘Such a time as this requires both realism and courage… [which] is evident all through the report of this young woman’s response to what happens. Heroism may finally characterize her act, but her perspective is quite realistic – about herself and her situation’ (65).

2. Such a time as this ‘suggests that what is needed is the joining of wisdom and faith, of sensible thinking with commitment to the faith and practices that have kept the community through thick and thin’ (66).

3. ‘In such a time as this, the young person of this story knows that in relation to her elders she is both bound and free – bound to listen and free to act’ (67).