Archive for the ‘Theological interpretation’ Category

Philippians 2 and the Story we tell this Sunday

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

As we approach Palm/Passion Sunday, I want to offer some reflections on Philippians 2 from my forthcoming article on this text, which is called “The Apologetic and Missional Impulse of Phil 2:6-11 in the Context of the Letter.” Philippians 2:5(6)-11 is the epistle reading in the lectionary for this Sunday. Non-lectionary-based churches should feel free to use it, too!

I would like to reflect directly, theologically and missionally, on our own context for reading Phil 2:6-11. I have suggested that it is the church’s master story that it recites in some form, as creed or poem or hymn, when it gathers for worship. The story’s immediate context suggests that the story it tells is inextricably connected both to its larger life together as koin?nia in the Spirit (2:1-4) and to its mission in the world (2:12-16).

Thus to recite the story liturgically is to remember the narrative shape of the One who, by the power of the Spirit, lives among us (and within whom we live) to form and re-form us into his image such that our individual and corporate narratives more faithfully resemble his. Worship of this God as Father, Son, and Spirit is therefore an exercise in spiritual formation for faithful living—for ethics and mission, if you will.

Part of that worship—its high point if we follow the trajectory of the story—is confessing “Jesus is Lord.” To confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit is relatively easy to do in the safety of a community of the like-minded. But as a group of Christians makes this confession week in and week out, or (better) day in and day out, and as it keeps that confession connected to the larger story, it becomes empowered to live and proclaim that story faithfully outside of its own walls.

Here the insights of Aristotle and Thomas on virtue are worth considering. We become what we practice. Our liturgical habits make it possible, or not, to live and tell the story faithfully, even naturally, over time. Churches that dispense with the telling of the story, perhaps in the interest of sensitivity to “seekers,” will eventually have nothing identifiably Christian to say, either to themselves or to those seekers. But since everyone, and every community, needs a master story, a new one will fill the void, and the new master story will carry with it a new, and most likely alien, ethic and mission. The final consequence of this creedal amnesia will be that the church has nothing left to live for or, if necessary, to die for, that faithfully embodies the story of Jesus. (Parenthetically, this same consequence is likely for those with sacramental amnesia, though we learn that from the Corinthians [1 Cor 11:17-34] rather than the Philippians.) The church will, instead, call on its children to live and die (and even kill) for some allegedly noble cause, almost certainly one that is ethnic or nationalistic in nature. It will have come, thereby, full circle, reaping the whirlwind of its fear of confession. By neglecting the story and confession of Jesus as universal Lord, the Lord who rules as Suffering Servant, the church will substitute the universal Lord for a tribal deity and the Suffering Servant for a conquering king. Sadly, this has too often been the pattern of the church throughout its history, especially in its mission.

I would submit that the intrusion of an alien master story, and the ongoing re-conversion of the church to that pseudo-gospel, is the greatest and most persistent sin of the church, at least in the United States, today. From presidential claims, both Democrat and Republican, that the United States is the light of the world and the hope for human freedom, to the language of “mission” that permeates military discourse, to talk of “redemptive violence,” to the incorporation of nationalistic holidays and devotion into the liturgical life of the church, the church is constantly bombarded with temptations to honor an alien Lord with an alien mission in the world.

By telling and re-telling the church’s true master story, however, the church is empowered to cast off this alien master story and is prepared to live the story missionally and faithfully.

Wouldn’t Palm/Passion Sunday take on new meaning if we really understood, preached, and lived Philippians 2 as our master story and—most importantly—allowed it to challenge those alien master stories that seek to replace it?

Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down”

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I have just finished writing a brief book review of Kavin Rowe’s 2009 book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Kavin is a young and exciting New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, and the book is a fantastic exegetical and theological treatment of Acts.

Here is the beginning of the forthcoming review:

Few books are truly paradigm-shifting or landscape-altering. Yet this new book from Kavin Rowe has the potential to be such a book, to, in effect, turn the world of scholarship on Acts upside down. (Or, better, rightside up.) More importantly, it is a book that can reinvigorate the contemporary church as we corporately continue the world-changing narrative begun at Pentecost, recounted in Luke’s second volume, and deftly interpreted by Rowe.

Rowe’s objective, then, is twofold. First, he seeks to overturn, through careful exegesis, what he takes to be a fundamental misinterpretation of Acts that has reigned for nearly 300 years. This misreading claims that Acts is an apology for Christianity’s harmlessness toward Rome and thus a rationale for the harmonious coexistence of church and empire. Second, Rowe wishes simultaneously to read Acts as “lively political theology” (p. 7) and a “culture-forming narrative” (p. 4) that can provide both a theological framework and various theological resources for issues we face in the 21st century.

That may sound like a typical, rather facile political reading of a New Testament book: “critique of empire.” But it is not. Rather, Rowe offers a carefully nuanced, dialectical, and theologically rich analysis of the narrative texture of Acts that he summarizes in the phrase “New culture, yes—coup, no” (pp. 5, 91, 150). That is, the apocalypse of God in the life, death, and especially resurrection of Jesus offers humanity the culture of God—a whole new, integrated, theocentric way of believing and living—that destabilizes the existing culture, even as it is not in the least seditious or interested in political power.

One thing (among many) I really like about this book is Kavin’s careful attention to both the narrative of Acts and Luke’s “cultural encyclopedia”—the cultural intertexts, the social world reflected in the text, etc. Few scholars are as attentive to both as he is, and my appreciation for both is always strengthened when I read Acts (as I did last month) with students on-site in Turkey and Greece.

This book has many implications, not only for the study of Acts, but also for the church. Kavin does not spell all of these out, though he does devote a chapter to hermeneutical issues and the book is implicitly theological throughout. The gospel he finds narrated in Acts is one that both undermines fundamental aspects of existing culture and offers a new culture—more than beliefs, a worldview, or practices, but encompassing all of the above in an integrated Way that first de-stabilizes and then re-creates religion, philosophy, economics, politics, and more.

Highly recommended.

The “Best” NT Introduction(s)?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I have not taught a basic NT survey in more than a decade, but I am now supervising an independent-study NT survey and am both thinking about writing a NT survey text with a theological bent and possibly teaching the course again.

So I am wondering (1) which NT intro(s) others like, or dislike, and why, and (2) whether you think there is a need for another one (of the making of NT intros there is no end!). If you say yes to #2, what would be the elements of the ideal NT intro, or at least the one you think needs to be written?

Here are some thoughts about the ones I have known and used:

1. Luke Timothy Johnson’s second edition from Fortress is my favorite because he attends so carefully and richly to the NT text in its literary and theological dimensions. It is not at all user-friendly, however—no illustrations or even maps—but I hope the third edition, soon to be out, will correct that problem.

2. The one I am using with the student this term is Mark Alan Powell’s new book from Baker. I always like Powell’s work, and this book is no exception. It has tables (I love tables!) and art and maps galore. It’s very user friendly, but it is a bit thin for a text at the seminary or graduate level, so I am supplementing it with some videos by Luke Johnson, NT Wright, and Bart Ehrman.

3. My old friend Bart Ehrman’s Oxford intro, now in its 77th edition and 17th form (abridged, abbreviated, condensed, full-length, etc.) ( :-) ), is a model of clear writing and user-friendliness, with tables, art, and other graphics. It’s good as far as it goes, but it deliberately displays no theological interests.

4. I used Raymond Brown’s massive Doubleday tome with a class when it first came out and was surprised at how well it was received, especially since it looks like an encyclopedia. Brown was a good writer and master of the secondary literature. There are good summary tables of basic data (who/what/when/where, etc.) for each writing but only a few other graphics. His treatment of the gospels is basically a mini-commentary on each from beginning to end; the rest of the NT is treated differently and more topically. I would not use it again as the main text, however.

5. I have only skimmed parts of David deSilva’s equally massive IVP NT introduction, with its stress on application to ministry. I’ve had some former students use it with him in the D.Min. program at David’s school, but I think it would only work in certain settings. (Our student body has more lay people than current or future clergy.)

6. The Eerdmans NT survey by Joel Green, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Paul Achtmeier is solid and well done, though less thorough than some and not as theologically rich as, say, Johnson.

So what do you all think?

N.T. Wright for Everyone and Upcoming Conference

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Each year Wheaton College near Chicago holds a conference on theology. This year’s conference, which I hope to attend, will be on the work of Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright on Jesus and on Paul. There are excellent—no, world-class—participants (Jeremy Begbie, Markus Bockmuehl, Richard Hays, Edith Humphrey, Sylvia Keesmaat, Nick Perrin, Marianne Meye Thomson, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Brian Walsh) plus, of course, presentations by the good bishop himself.

As part of the run-up to the conference, Bishop Wright’s former teaching assistant, Nijay Gupta (Ph.D., Durham), and some other folk are posting short papers to introduce people to NTW’s work. Nijay’s excellent summary of NTW’s work on Paul is introduced here and can be found in full here.

Richard Hays Interview

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

Over at the blog Hesed we ‘emet, my good friend Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School has been interviewed by a former student, John Anderson, now a Ph.D. candidate at Baylor. We learn something of Richard’s spiritual and theological journey, gain insight into his interests, and receive a foretaste of his forthcoming book on the use of the OT in the Gospels. A fine interview of a fine man and scholar.

Seven Deadly Spirits in Revelation 2-3

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I first read Revelation seriously (or at least responsibly) with Dr. Bruce Metzger at Princeton Seminary, first as his student and then as his teaching fellow. I’ve been fascinated with the book, and the seven messages in chapters 2-3, ever since. And I am now finishing a little book called Reading Revelation Responsibly, which should come out from Cascade in the spring.

Meanwhile… in a recent book, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation’s Letters for Today’s Church, T. Scott Daniels suggests that five of the seven churches addressed in Rev 2-3 have a dominant, deadly sin—and hence a message for us about avoiding those corporate sins in our own context. The other two (Smyrna and Philadelphia), which are commended and not at all censured, could have developed a spirit opposite that for which they are praised. Daniels contends that each of the churches has, or could have, such a specific deadly sin because it has developed an ethos, a kind of corporate personality, and that every church in every age has such a distinctive collective spirit. These “unholy spirits” (my term) are:

• Ephesus: the spirit of boundary keeping, or ungenerous orthodoxy
• Smyrna: the spirit of consumerism
• Pergamum: the spirit of accommodation, or failed witness
• Thyatira: the spirit of privatized faith, or dividing body and soul
• Sardis: the spirit of apathetic faith
• Philadelphia: the spirit of fear
• Laodicea: the spirit of self-sufficiency

The point of Rev 2-3, when heard faithfully today, is to listen for the Spirit of God identifying our own church’s peculiar unholy spirit and offering us the presence and grace of Christ to transform us into a more faithful people of God.

The book is not cutting-edge scholarship, but it is excellent biblical interpretation grounded in good exegesis.

I am wondering which church I belong to… Are you?

Conversion Once Again

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

At the North Park symposium (see previous post and all the great comments) we had lots of energetic conversation about conversion. Some common elements that emerged:

1. Conversion is about transformation.
2. Conversion is a process, even when it appears to be more instantaneous and dramatic.
3. Conversion is adoption of (or incorporation into) a new master story. For Christians, it is an initial and ongoing experience of death and resurrection.
4. Conversion involves activity on the part of the one being converted, God, and the community into which conversion is happening.
5. Conversion does not necessarily mean a change in “religion.”
6. Conversion is a radical reorientation, not only to God, but also to others.
7. Conversion, in some sense, means whatever someone says it is; it’s in the eye of the beholder. (I would add that this descriptive account is insufficient for Christians, and that a more prescriptive account is needed.)

At the conference I gave a fairly substantive response to a fascinating paper on “Peter’s Conversion(s)” by Oxford’s Markus Bockmuehl. He looked at the “memory” of Peter in early Christian art and writing, proceeding backward from about the fourth century.

My response concluded as follows:

The church in its wisdom celebrates Peter and Paul on two days in the same month, days that now open and close (January 18, 25) the week of prayer for Christian unity, and again in June on the same day (June 29) to remember their martrydoms. Perhaps, in addition to symbols of Jewish and Gentile unity, and maybe today also especially Catholic (Peter) and Protestant (Paul) unity, these symbols of unity can also celebrate the unity-in-diversity of two sorts of conversion: the instantaneous, more or less, and the prolonged, or the one that has several significant moments of transformation. This too may represent a more Protestant versus a more Catholic understanding of conversion, on the whole, though there are plenty of Catholics with Paul-like stories and Protestants with Peter-like stories. Perhaps we can learn from one another on this matter of Petrine-Pauline similarity and difference. Conversion is incorporation into the master story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It can happen instantly, or in fits and starts. In either case it either is, or becomes, a process of ongoing death and resurrection, of living into the initial experience, whether we identify that initial reality as baptism or conversion or salvation or being born again or whatever. Even Paul acknowledged the need for ongoing conversion, both for his churches (especially the Corinthians, as Stephen Chester has shown in Conversion at Corinth) and, in some sense, for himself: “I die every day; I press on” (1 Cor 15:31; Phil 3:12-14). Which means also for us.

Conversion—What is it?

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I am currently in Chicago at the North Park Seminary’s annual Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, meeting friends old and new and having great conversation about conversion, the theme of the symposium.

One of the big questions that keeps coming up is very simple: What do we mean by the word conversion?

Any takers?

Guess Who?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

The following quotation is from the first paragraph of a preface I am writing to a collection of essays by one individual. Who do you think it is?

Of very few people can it be legitimately said that their work fundamentally reconfigured the landscape of two theological disciplines. But if there is anyone in recent memory who would be worthy of such an accolade, it is ________. The two disciplines are, of course, theological ethics and biblical studies—though ________ would cringe at their separation, and [his/her] work was both explicitly and implicitly a prolonged exercise in maintaining their indissoluble union. For ________, to hear the word rightly was to do the word publicly.

Biblical Scholars on YouTube!

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Thanks to Chris Tilling over at Christendom for pointing us to the fine videos provided by St. John’s College Nottingham. Featured are Tom Wright, Richard Bauckham, Richard Burridge, Anthony Thiselton, the late Graham Stanton, and others.


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