Archive for December, 2009

Avent III: A Season for Receiving

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Continuing my reading of the book Watch for the Light in Advent, I shared a portion of it once again with my adult class on 1 Corinthians at church. The reading for the day was from our Methodist bishop in North Alabama (and former Dean of the Duke University chapel) Will Willimon.

Bishop Willimon asks whether looking at Christmas as a season of giving may be theologically problematic, at least in one respect: It can lead us to think that we are not only good and generous people, but also self-sufficient. He writes:

I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story—the one according to Luke not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we—with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities—had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was to receive it….

The first word of the church, a people born out of so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers before we are givers. Discipleship teaches us the art of seeing our lives as gifts. That’s tough, because I would rather see myself as a giver. I want power—to stand on my own, take charge, set things to rights, perhaps to help those who have nothing. I don’t like picturing myself as dependent, needy, empty-handed….

It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts. “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace,” wrote John Wesley a long time ago….

This is often the way God loves us [referring to God's promise to King Ahaz of a baby, not a bigger army---Isaiah 7]: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. With our advanced degrees, armies, government programs, material comforts and self-fulfillment techniques, we assume that religion is about giving a little of our power in order to confirm to ourselves that we are indeed as self-sufficient as we claim.

Then this stranger comes to us, blesses us with a gift, and calls us to see ourselves as we are—empty-handed recipients of a gracious God who, rather than leave us to our own devices, gave us a baby.

For Us and For our Salvation (Phil 2:5-11)

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Last month I preached at New Hope Community Church near Baltimore at the invitation of my former student, Pastor Jason Poling. It can be heard here, if anyone is interested. Philippians 2 is one of my all-time favorite texts.

Advent II: A Modest Proposal

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

My church adult class on 1 Corinthians was at chapter 10 on Sunday, which happened also to be the second Sunday in Advent and communion Sunday (yes, we are one of those impoverished churches that still only eats from the hand of God’s grace and remembers the cross monthly, despite the pleadings of our forbear Wesley—but back to my main point).

The text is Paul’s warning to the cocky Corinthians not to fall into (or stay in) idolatry and thus risk their salvation, as in fact the Israelites who built the golden calf did. Why? Because participation in the Lord’s supper must be an exclusive fellowship that does not permit communing with other, so-called deities, since such deities are in fact demonic, opposed to the one God.

We had begun with some reflection about the lack of a proper Advent in the West, both in general and in particular as a season of repentance. We talked briefly about the difference between both joy and repentance and “holiday frolicking.” All of this was in response to some words from William Stringfellow, found in the book Watch for the Light. Two of his paragraphs follow:

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much lass observed. The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is, superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent. But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent….

For all the greeting card and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe outbursts of either frolicking or rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the message and sentiment of Advent. And… that seems to be ratified by Jesus himself.

The discussion of 1 Corinthians 10 eventually merged with Stringfellow and turned to how communion/the Eucharist ought to help us identify and exclude our idolatries (deep stuff, to be sure), especially in the season of Advent understood as a time of repentance. To cut to the chase, I raised the question, “Has the the celebration of Christmas in this country become idolatrous?” The previous discussion had been so rich that the following discussion was, too—not a trite, old lament about the commercialization of Christmas but a profound theological analysis and discussion of possible alternatives.

One modest proposal that was mentioned was for the church to consider (a) giving more gifts (animals, wells, etc.) on behalf of others through World Vision, the Heifer Project, Habitat, etc. and (b) switching the day on which we exchange (fewer!) gifts. Many people have already begun doing (a), but (b) would be more of a challenge, to be sure.

It would not, however, be without precedent. December 6 (Feast of St. Nicholas) and January 6 (Epiphany/Feast of the Magi) are already gift-giving days in other cultures. Could we Christians in the West move in one of those directions as a direct attack on Christmas as it is currently celebrated?

In the past I’ve suggested moving the entire celebration of Christ’s birth out of December, but that would really mess up the liturgical year and 16oo years of church tradition, neither of which is very appealing or pragmatic. But reducing and moving our gift-giving may be both. What to you think?

Campbell Followup

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

Sean the Baptist has some thoughts on the SBL review, to which Douglas has responded. Sean has a link to my discussion here. Unfortunately, however, Sean has me saying that Douglas says Rom 1-3 in toto is speech-in-character, and Douglas takes his word on it in a post that accuses me of unintentional misrepresentation. So …

Douglas, Sean and all—

Just for the record: in the text of my SBL response and, therefore (I think) always on my blog, I only said that 1:18-32 (not all of Rom 1-3) was speech-in-character according to Douglas. Unless I am mistaken about the blog posts, then, Sean and Douglas are (unintentionally) mistaken here and I have NOT misrepresented Douglas.

Campbell Review (final)

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

First of all, please note that I agree strongly with two main things in Douglas’s book that may have been lost since my reviews began:

1. That Romans 1-3, and indeed all of Romans, has often been misread and misused.

2. That Paul’s gospel is inherently apocalyptic, transformative, etc. I said a lot about this early on.

Secondly, please note that Chris Tilling at Chrisendom is graciously allowing Douglas and me to carry on the debate about chapters 1-3, though I suspect that’s about to wind down.

Thirdly, here’s my counter-proposal to Douglas’s reading of Rom 1-3:

The Retrospective Character and Function of Romans 1-3
I have argued that the allegedly “prospective” character of Romans 1-3 should not be confused either with Paul’s basic understanding of the structure of the gospel itself or with the structure of the “plan of salvation” that Paul presented to potential converts. I now want to argue that Romans 1-3, as part of the rhetorical and theological structure of the letter to the Romans—not of Paul’s gospel or preaching— is exactly what Douglas says it is not: a retrospective argument.

In his recent commentary on Romans, Craig Keener shows in two very helpful tables how the language of Romans 2—about seeking (or doing) good, glory, honor, immortality, righteousness, peace, etc., and also boasting, knowing God’s will, and being a light—has parallels throughout Romans 5-15 in Paul’s descriptions of the lives of believers. That is, believers actually do what Romans 2 says people need to do to be considered among the justified and to have eternal life. Keener does not claim, however, that this means that Paul is describing believers (whether Gentile or not) in chapter two. Rather, Keener suggests, Paul is letting us know that believers actually do what humanity as a whole should do but cannot do. This does not imply salvation by merit but rather a profound transformation, a reversal and an empowerment. Furthermore, as I argue in my SBL paper “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” Romans 12-15 is the en-Christed reversal of the “in Adam” situation of Romans 1. (In the question-and-answer session at SBL, Seyoon Kim mentioned to Douglas that he had written an article showing the strong connections between 1:18-32 and the later parts of the letter, asking how that would affect his [Douglas’s] thesis. Douglas responded, “If you’re right, I’m wrong.”)

It is highly unlikely that Paul based his description of believers in chapters 5 and following on his prior understanding of humanity’s condition and God’s requirements. It is, instead, the other way around. Romans 2—indeed all of Rom 1:18—3:20—is, in other words, a retrospective argument, a retrospective reassessment of the human condition, of the problem in light of the solution.

In other words, Paul can only say, and does only say, what he claims in Romans 1-3 on the basis of his conviction, in Christ and the Spirit, that God really does judge on the basis of performance because God really has delivered those in Christ from the realm of Sin and really has empowered them with the Spirit to embody the demands of the covenant and thus “fulfill the just requirement of the Law” (Rom 8:4). This retrospective perspective allows Paul to engage in what many might call extreme hyperbole, about Gentiles or Jews or both, to make a point that he knows only in Christ: that Gentiles and Jews alike are required to love God and neighbor, yet are totally unable and unwilling to do so, excusing themselves and both accusing and misleading others.

So what is the function of Rom 1:18-3:20 when we recognize that it is a retrospective argument made by Paul himself, and not a prospective one made by a hypothetical, underdetermined, Teacher? It has three functions:

1. Leveling the Playing Field: The Common Condition
Rom 1:18—3:20 levels the playing field, not among potential converts—whom Paul does not even address in the letter—but among Roman believers in Rome. This leveling occurs retrospectively, only in light of Christ.

Written by someone in Christ for an audience also in Christ, but of course formerly not in Christ, 1:18—3:20 lets the Roman believers know that they have all—each one and everyone—been delivered from Sin their master (3:9), no matter what their background or particular set of sins. Gentiles may have sinned one way, and Jews quite another—or perhaps not so differently. Paul’s point is that the symptoms may vary, but the disease is the same: addiction to Sin, bondage to Sin. Indeed, it is crucial for Paul to put on display the vast variety of sins in the world and in the past lives of his addressees. Why? So that he may stress his simple and universal diagnosis and his simple and universal solution—bondage to Sin and liberative, participatory justification—which Douglas rightly describes and which Paul hopes will make sense to all the believers at Rome, causing them to recognize their absolute equality before God, not merely as one-time sinners of different types (which invites competition) but as one-time slaves to Sin (which does not). As such, not only the past but also the present differences among them matter far less than the common plight from which they have been rescued and to which their previous lives of varying modes of sinfulness bore witness. In retrospect, the believers should recognize their past, dark commonality so that they may recognize and embody the new, bright commonality they have in Christ.

2. Indicating the Common Goal
In Rom 1:18—3:20 Paul also wishes to point out the common goal that God has for all humanity and specifically, by implication, for the community of believers at Rome. He describes this goal in a variety of general terms: seeking the good, life, immortality, eternal life, etc. Paul never negates these and, in fact (as we have just argued), says they are fulfilled and received in Christ. To be sure, he does negate the alleged means to this goal to which some in Rome may still subscribe (possession of the Law or of “boundary markers,” or performance of certain deeds). But the goal remains intact, and this goal makes its first appearance in 1:18—3:20. Without the statement of this goal in the early chapters of Romans, its (re)appearance in later chapters as the consequence of being in Christ has far less theological and rhetorical force. Paul wants his readers in Rome to know that whatever their different backgrounds, the common grace in which they stand and the common glory to which they are headed (5:1-11) has nothing whatsoever to do with their previous lives of either sinfulness or (supposed) goodness. Everything they have and are is because of God’s transforming, liberating grace given in Christ, made effective by the Spirit.

3. Foreshadowing, by Antithesis, the Common Life in Christ
In Rom 1:18—3:20 Paul also provides us with hints about the very structure of the new life that his liberated Roman auditors are living, or ought to be living together in Christ. It can be summarized as a life of “righteousness” (5:17, 19; 6:13-20; 9:30-31; 10:4-6; 14:7) in contrast to a common condition in which none is righteous (3:10; cf. 2:13). Just as the unique sins of those described in 1:18-32, the unique sins of those described in chapter 2, and the common plight of those two groups, summarized in 3:9-20, are directed negatively against both God and other humans, so also the structure of the new life is one directed positively toward both God (6:11-22; chap. 8; 12:1-2) and others (chaps. 12-15). Furthermore, just as the former way of life involved the entire person—body, mind, and heart—so also the new life involves body, mind, and heart. This relationship of the past life—retrospectively understood and narrated—to the present life is succinctly described in Rom 12:1-2 but also, and more fully, in chapter 6, chapter 8, and the rest of chapter 12 through the middle of chapter 15.

The very structure of justification/salvation as it is outlined in Romans 5-8 requires that the “now” be contrasted with a “then” (6:21 and all of chap. 6) and bridged by a “no longer” (e.g., 6:13). (Similarly, see 1 Cor 6:11.) Without a description of the erroneous way of life, the solution makes less sense, if it makes any at all. Thus the problem, though not known to Paul, and perhaps not to his audience, before entrance into Christ, now needs to be a fundamental part of all believers’ self-understanding and theology.

In Douglas’s schema, we rightly hear that Paul’s soteriology is liberative (e.g., p. 658, with reference to Rom 3:23; pp. 663-65, et passim), but we must ask, “liberation from what?” What does life in Adam (“Adamic slavery,” p. 664) look like? What sins does Sin generate in the human community, and what are the practical consequences of Sin? What is the concrete nature of the “ontological prison” (p. 669) from which we have been rescued? If our friends’ lives are characterized by awful idolatries and/or behaviors that destroy themselves and others, can they be rescued, too? Rom 1:18—3:20 provides the Pauline answer to these kinds of questions.

To be sure, Paul wants his readers/auditors in Rome to agree that no one can be saved by a gospel that speaks of God’s just requirements and coming wrath, yet this is not because these claims are false or inappropriate, but only because they are insufficient; they are not the totality of the gospel. Perhaps sin and judgment do not need to be preached in detail, if at all, in advance of “the good news”; but if we concur that Paul preached about Jesus’ cross and God’s resurrection as the divine means of human liberation and salvation, inquiring minds may want to ask, “Liberation and salvation from what?” If they do, I submit, both Paul and we need to be able to give an answer that resembles the early chapters of Romans. And it might not always be a bad idea, for Paul or for us, to give our retrospective answer to potential converts prospectively, that is, prior to their entrance into Christ, even if that is not what Paul is doing in Romans.

The major difference between Douglas’s reading and mine is that he characterizes his as forensic-liberative (p. 669), whereas I would say forensic-liberative-restorative, and therefore covenantal. This suggests that 1:18—3:20 is in fact positively connected to chapters 5-8 and beyond. Is Paul’s gospel apocalyptic and participatory? Absolutely. But is it antithetical to 1:18—3:20? Absolutely not!

I will conclude my contribution to this conversation by quoting Douglas’s own conclusion about the work of Stowers:

In sum, [his] rereading is simultaneously brilliant, insightful, polemical, and muddled. His difficulties should not be allowed to overshadow his positive contributions (perhaps damning them by association), but neither should they be overlooked. In the quest for a radical interpretive solution, [his] rereading of Romans is an important forerunner, but not the main event. (p. 465)

Reviewing Campbell (6) / SBL 2009 Report (3)

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

My previous post dealt with formal issues in Douglas’s misreading of Romans 1-3 as containing speech-in-character, etc. This post deals with the material issue of perspective in Romans 1-3. It is adapted from my SBL panel review of his book The Deliverance of God.

Douglas contends that much of Romans 1-3 is a prospective argument about God and sin(s), and punishment and justification by merit/deeds, an argument made without reference to God’s apocalyptic deliverance in Christ, rather than a retrospective one made precisely in light of that divine deliverance in Christ. I contend that this is a major interpretive error. How does Douglas make this mistake?

Douglas makes the mistake of identifying Romans 1-3 as a prospective argument, a prospectively arrived-at “vestibule” (e.g., p. 331, referring specifically to 1:18—3:20) that is a supposedly necessary component of the gospel—the bad news before the good news—for two reasons. First, he makes a faulty assumption, and second, he (functionally) forgets an all-important datum.

(1) Douglas’s faulty assumption is that because Romans 1-3 has been interpreted prospectively, it therefore functions in Romans as a prospective argument. That is, because it has been received theologically in a prospective manner, it also functions rhetorically in a prospective way. So, for instance, if the “Four Spiritual Laws” tract (which Douglas discusses on pp. 291-92, saying “one could hardly wish for a crisper account” of Justification theory [p. 292] or something similar begins with quotations from Romans 1-3, then Romans 1-3 must be the actual starting point of the gospel according to Paul if we believe that Romans 1-3 is in fact the word of Paul.

But this is obviously not necessarily the case. It could very well be that Paul has a rhetorical purpose for starting where he does in this particular letter. The rhetorical location of a text may not—and in this case, I would argue, does not—correspond to the theological location of the claims contained in that text in the theology of the person who composed the text. Rhetorical primacy does not mean theological primacy. There is no reason to conclude that Paul’s understanding of the structure of the gospel corresponds precisely to the structure of Romans.

(2) This leads to the second reason for Douglas’s error: he seems to forget—at least in dealing with the place of Romans 1-3— that Romans is written to believers, to those who already believe the gospel. Of course I do not really think that Douglas forgets the nature of the audience, but the argument of the book is that these chapters are misread as Paul’s words only if they are rightly read as the words of someone else trying to prepare his audience with the bad news they must understand in order to come to faith. This argument depends on effectively forgetting that Romans is not written in order to convert non-believers but to persuade believers.

For instance, in a critique of Richard Hays’s reading of 1:18-32 as a “homiletical sting operation” against the judgmental person, Douglas argues that Richard’s “conventional reading” of the passage (i.e. that Paul agrees theologically with the content of the sting operation and especially with the idea of divine retributive justice in 1:32a) means that the rhetoric is “designed to jolt the [judgmental] figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others” (p. 363). I do not know how to read this sentence without concluding that Douglas’s argument against Richard depends on an assumption that all such “conventional readings” claim that Romans is a tract for non-believers, designed to convince them of the error of judgmentalism and bring them to salvation (see also p. 323). Is that really Paul’s point in writing to those already “saved?” Richard would certainly not agree that it is. The early chapters of Romans are not a “preaching template for conversion,” as Douglas characterizes their content, even if some “conventional readings” may have taken them that way. If misreading them as such is in large part the reason for rejecting their being representative of Paul’s theology, then the “need” for that conclusion is significantly reduced.

To summarize my argument here: not only does the structure of Romans differ from the structure of the gospel, but also (a) the sequence of Romans does not mean that Paul is trying to call unbelieving sinners to recognize their sin, repent, and be saved—for they are already believers; and (b) Paul’s presentation of the gospel when he did preach to non-believers may also have differed markedly from the structure of Romans, and particularly from the narrative sequence of problem to solution that we find in the early part of the letter.

Furthermore, if Paul’s evangelistic presentation of the gospel differed from what we find in the rhetorical and narrative structure of Romans, we should not be surprised that Paul’s summaries of the gospel for believers (e.g., 1 Cor 15) also differ markedly from the narrative and rhetorical structure of the early chapters of Romans, a difference that Douglas wrongly thinks is strong support for his thesis.

Put differently: Douglas may think that the only way to read the bulk of the theological content of Romans 1-3 is as the misguided, fundamentalist (his word) opening of an evangelistic tract composed by someone with whom Paul radically disagrees. In the next post I will provide an alternative reading of the function of Romans 1-3.