More on Campbell, 100 pages in…

[I continue my running thoughts on Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. I've chosen to switch to second person address since DAC has been around and read the blog and interacted here, and because I know him. Plus, there's no point pretending that we're all objective and dispassionate or that there's not a real human being on the other side of the engagement.]

Ok, Douglas, so I’m about 100 pages into the Tome. I feel like I’m in the room with you–I can hear you voice saying almost every sentence. I like how well it captures your voice.

More substantively, I think you’ve nailed a couple of issues that have plagued Reformed theology (and it’s been more plagued in these the closer it’s stuck to its roots).

Two that stick out to me are the identity of God and ethics. These are tied together, of course. The whole idea of a God who’s defined predominantly by abstract categories, and whose holiness is tied to an abstract, non-historical law is deeply problematic. We can have such a God and voila! we’re only left with a dozen or so possible deities in history that might fit that profile. The connection between God and Israel in particular is crucial for understanding Paul’s God and Paul’s story of salvation.

The ethics piece that you hit on at the end of ch. 3 is also spot on. Folks who put justification by faith at the center of their theology often intentionally underplay obedience, even the possibility for obedience once people have received the Spirit! Moreover, the whole idea that there is a transhistorical moral law means that the Christ-event has no substantive role to play in shaping Christian ethics. In fact, there is no “Christian” ethics at all. A vague Judeo-Christian ethic, tagged “moral law,” takes care of everything.

Your argument gives some important gains here, and mark genuine progress (or a genuine alternative) to a less Pauline, less biblical, and overall less Christian alternative.

I have a few areas where I’m not sure I’m with you, or where I’m afraid that you might have sold the farm already.

First, I’m not yet convinced that “justification theory” entails forward thinking, in-time movement from experiencing plight to experiencing solution. Why can this articulation not be, as Sanders suggests, an a priori argument that Paul makes based on a posteriori convictions? We do things like this all the time. When was the last time I wrote an academic paper that reenacted the line of thinking that I used to come to a position myself? No, we become convinced of things and then we construct artificial arguments to lead other people to our conclusions. Might the same not be said for arguments in favor of justification theory?

Second, I’m struggling with what, or better, who, justification theory is supposed to represent. This is the problem of the straw man that you bring up, and that I expressed my concern over in my first post. In short, when I read your exposition of what justification theory must be, I at the same time am aware of a conservative Calvinist, union-with-Christ-centered Reformed tradition that does not hold what you say Justification Theory entails. In other words, I find myself saying, “Nice argument, if there’s anyone who holds that position.”

This pushes back, I think, to the question of how necessary the description of the theory is. And I’m not convinced that it must be such as you’ve laid it out. Must a two-edged epistemology be self-referentially incoherent? Why not simply paradoxical (but true)?

At any rate, because I’m aware of a Reformed Tradition that makes justification a sub-set of union with Christ (and I, like you, am not at all interested in contractually governed narratives of salvation), I find that the argument doesn’t quite land as one might hope.

Finally, I have to say that I’m a bit worried that you sold the farm in the small print excursus at the end of ch. 3.

Before you got there, I kept thinking, “If Campbell is right about the incompatibility between justification and the alternative, we not only lose Rom 1-4, we lose a heck of a lot of the rest of the NT as well. This is a reconceptualizing not only of salvation but of God in a post-biblical world.”

In your excursus, when you acknowledge that the God of justification theory, including judgment and wrath, is a recurring component of Paul’s theology, I wonder if the whole house doesn’t crumble? It indicates that Paul’s thought is not developed as singularly as the remainder of the argument seems to insist. There is a picture of the God of the Justification Theory who seems to act in accordance with the expectations of Justification Theory. This would seem to undermine the rigorous antinomy that the book depends on. If the God of each system is incompatible–and yet present throughout Paul’s thought, how much more these two different models of salvation?

Indeed, the distaste for the God of violence, coercion, and wrath seems to cause another problem, which is the relationship between Paul’s God and the God of the Old Testament. It seems that this is part of who God is throughout both testaments, and I wonder if you lose too much by insisting on a different vision altogether?

I continue to enjoy the read. I’m looking over your review of Sanders right now and appreciating it very much. I recall a footnote in my book in which I said something like, “It’s interesting to think that if you define salvation in Judaism as we do salvation in Paul (coming through the eschatological judgment), then salvation in Sanders’ scheme is by nomism–works.” I think we’re on the same page with some of those concerns about the significance of PPJ.

More later.

Disclaimer: I am reviewing a copy of this book that I received for free from Eerdmans Publishing Company, though with no stipulation either that I would review it or that I would review it favorably.

Failure of Exile and Theological Interpretation (3)

Last week we started looking at the question of how to read Isaiah’s failed anticipations of restoration from exile as Christian scripture (part 1, part 2).

At this point in my life I remain skeptical of the value of creedal “narratives” to help us find our way, or of Trinitarian hermeneutics to do much better. In this, I recognize that I am stepping away from a broad and powerful stream of Christian biblical interpretation. So they’re probably right. You’ve been warned.

What we see happening in 2d and 3d Isaiah is a commitment to Israel’s God, and the faithfulness of Israel’s God, despite the failure of the prophetic word to materialize. Despite the fact that these are prophetic texts and not stories per se, I’d argue that the texts are engaged in a process of narratival reimagination. The telos of the story is the same (the glorification of Israel by her God), the faithfulness of the main character, God, is never called into question. But the other players and the plot itself will have to be reconfigured in light of recent developments.

There are myriad ways in which the issue of failed return from exile is picked up in the New Testament. The introduction of John the Baptist with the words of Isa 40 are an invitation to read the subsequent story of Jesus’ ministry as a fulfillment of 2d (and 3d) Isaiah’s vision of restoration from exile and/or Second Exodus.

We mustn’t miss the implications. The second and third rewritings of Isaiah’s hopes for return from exile were not the end of the narrative reimagination. Now the retelling itself is reconceived as occurring hundreds of years after the original prophecy was supposed to come to pass.

This Christian rereading of Isaiah requires both that the historical problem of non-fulfillment and the theological conviction of God’s faithfulness to his promises be fully in play. The prophecies will now be reread in light of the conviction that Jesus has brought about restoration, healing, transformation, and the restoration of the Davidic kingship.

To give a Christian reading of the Isaiah text is, in part, to refuse to stop reading it in its historical context. If we stop there and apply it to our lives we are truncating the process by which the story meets us today. It meets us through the claims of the NT writers that Jesus’ ministry is the means by which all these hopes are fulfilled.

We must reimagine the story as it comes to an unexpected turn in the first century, where the people are gathered without being drawn to Jerusalem, where the Messiah reigns without displacing the foreigners, where God provides deliverance without transferring ownership of Israel’s land.

Most of all, the story is now defined by the death of Jesus as the means for God’s great rescue operation. That narrative moment relativizes and transforms early expectations. This is, at heart, what it means to give a Christian rereading of these texts: to see how the Christ event not only fulfills, but embodies and especially transforms the expectations created by the OT telling of the story.

But the place where we started was in the realization that one of the most important expectations of the exile was that it was to be transformative. Those who returned were supposed to be newly and uniquely faithful to Israel’s God.

And for all the promises of Spirit and new creation, all the hopefulness of a transformation that breaks into the present, we don’t see the end of this yet. Why give a Christian reading if it isn’t any more ultimate than the earlier reading? What does it mean to be confronted by this text in our communities? What does it look like to apply it to our lives as, specifically, Christians?

Stay tuned.

The Wrong Question?

Yesterday our church group read Psalm 6 together.

A psalm of lament, the prose is interrupted abruptly at one point with, “But you–how long, o Lord?”

It seems to me that we, in our day and time, are more apt to ask, “Why?” as though it’s a strange occurrence that bad things should happen to us.

I wonder if we’re asking the wrong question, based on the wrong assumption?

If God is primarily defined as the God who is in relationship with a given people based on certain acts of salvation, then the surprise is not that bad things happen, but that when bad things happen to that people God might let them sweat it out for a while before intervening to set things right.

Do we, because of an abstract notion of God as “good” spring to the question of “Why?”, too little remembering the narrated identity of our God?

How long, O lord?

Or, perhaps better now, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

A Well-Storied Lent

Ok, so last Wednesday I went all grumpy on the idea of Lent, suggesting that it might be getting the Christian story wrong. The back-story on that one is that I have wrestled on and off with the power of rediscovery of church tradition to be a divisive force in the church. The same dynamic I witness with people who get all excited about a particular kind of theology (especially Reformed, but not exclusively) I see working at times in my friends who discover liturgy and church calendar (often through Anglican or Episcopal churches).

But far be it from me to only advocate for one side of an argument, especially when I can come back four days later and offer the other with a good conscience. So I will.

It has struck me over the past several days that Lent has the potential to open our eyes to the fundamental narrative dynamic of the Christian life, namely, its cross-shaped character.

Last year I was teaching my course on Acts-Revelation. I told the class that in the summer I’d be teaching “The Cross in the New Testament,” and they asked, “How is that different from this class?!” That’s when I knew I’d done well.

For a people and nation glutted on excess, power, comfort, and glory, Lent can be a salutary reentry into the cruciform narrative of Christianity. We follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus means to walk the way of the cross.

I still have a beef: that churches would make things all dreary and stop saying “Hallelujah” and all that during these 46 days. In the spirit of those who break their fast on Sunday, I’d suggest that the church itself needs to observe such non-observance as well.

Why? Because the great surprise of the gospel narrative is that we sing “Hallelujah” not in spite of the cross but because of it. We sing hallelujah both because the Lamb has been slain and because we conquer with him through our blood and the word of our testimony.

So yes, be sober. Yes, sacrifice. Yes, exercise renewed discipline. But let’s not forget that these are the reasons to praise as much as (or more than) they are the things that need to be overcome in order to join the heavenly chorus.

[Editor's note: the writer has chosen to give up his Lenten discipline of not observing Lent--but only on Sundays when we all break our fasts in honor of the resurrection of Jesus.]

The Failure of Exile and Theological Interpretation (2)

In Thursday’s post, I raised the question of how we should be reading the Bible. What does it mean to be engaged in biblical theology and/or theological interpretation of scripture? The upshot of my discussion of the history of the discipline was that theological readings of the Bible are only as valuable as their ability to (1) articulate a storied theology that changes and develops; and (2) help us deal with difficult passages.

In this case, the question is: how can theological interpretation help us read, interpret, and apply passages of failed prophecy having to do with Israel’s return from exile?

Of course, to even pose the question in this way indicates that one level of interpretation has already been given: the prophecies indicate x, but history contains y. As much as such a reading might be the product of “historical critical” scholarship, I’d suggest that this was the conclusion, already, of the writers of Isa 40-55 and 56-66.

In the first half of Isaiah, we get hints of several reasons for the exile and hopes for what it might accomplish. Not only is the exile supposed to be punitive (punishing Israel for its injustice, idolatry, etc.), it is also supposed to be atoning and transformative. The hopes of return from exile expressed in the book are not only that the people will return, but that they will be a purified people, now capable of and actually making good on obedience to God and justice toward one another. This is the kind of people that is supposed to be restored with glory, ruling over the nations.

But the return is not so glorious, the nations are not subjected or drawn to Israel, and perhaps most importantly the people are not changed.

I want to suggest that this problem is a driving force behind 2d Isaiah: It is introduced by a wonderful song of consolation, saying that yes, the exile was punitive, and yes, it was even atoning (her penalty is paid, she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins).

But the story isn’t quite resolving as hoped. Yhwh is faithful to the end, but this faithfulness is going to be put on display in the face of the withering, failing covenant faithfulness of people, which is beautiful like a flower today, blown away by the wind tomorrow (Isa 40:6-8).

The story of restoration is rewritten, based on the conviction that YHWH is faithful to his covenant people, and will find a way to enact his faithfulness even when his servant Israel proves itself, even after exile, to be blind and deaf (42:19). Yes, he will restore the blind and deaf (43:8).

The story is rewritten so that the goal of a restored, transformed, and glorified people remains the vision of Israel’s God, though the means for its accomplishment must now be revisited. Will it be through a servant named Cyrus? Or through a suffering servant, perhaps the prophet himself, who will be faithful as Israel was called to be faithful, punished as Israel was punished, make atonement as Israel’s exile was to make atonement–but this time as a faithful one whose punishment will be effective?

The theological ability to rewrite the story in this fashion depends on identifying God as the God of Israel. Many of our contemporary understandings of what scripture are (inerrant, for example) depend on an idea of God that is less tied to the story and therefore cannot acknowledge this transformation. A God whose deity is defined simply in absolute categories of Truth and Unchangingness posits a scripture that absolutely True and therefore whose meaning is Unchanging.

It is, I would suggest, only a story-bound God (a covenantally defined God, if you prefer), the God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who can be put on display as faithful and constant even when his prophets’ visions of the future fail to materialize.

So what does theological interpretation of the failure of return from exile look like? It looks, first, like a willingness to rewrite the story in light of who our theos (G0d) is. In the case of second Isaiah, the covenant keeping God who will bring about that restoration under changed circumstances. In the case of third Isaiah, the God who, if restoration does not bring glory and transformation, will bring glorious transformation to the Zion that’s been restored without glory.

Of course, none of this tells us what it means, yet, to read the failure of exile as Christians. The story continues to be rewritten, so we’ll attend to that next time.

You Heard It Here Last: Phil Ryken as Wheaton President

The hits keep rolling for those who might have hoped that a presidential vacancy would enable their schools to move forward in a broader direction while staying deeply rooted in its past. First Baylor, now Wheaton.

Word on the street is the Phil Ryken, all around nice guy and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, is Wheaton’s selection for its next president.

I had numerous opportunities to hear Phil preach when we lived in the Philadelphia area in the late ’90s. Very good preacher. And by all accounts, a really nice guy.

But he is also a member of the Board of Trustees that helped Peter Lillback and Carl Truemann stage a kangaroo court to deal with Peter Enns. And that is reflective of not just his theology, but his theological posture. He is not one for theological innovation. Deeply committed to the Reformed Tradition, he often sides in denominational-type disputes with those who seem to think there’s nothing left to say that the Puritans didn’t already take care of.

Maybe breathing the air of a more broadly evangelical place will help move Ryken along? I do hope so, and I pray for a good future for him and for Wheaton.

But for now, I’m saddened that the alumni petition to serious consider a woman and minority was not only to no avail, but shunned in favor of someone who wouldn’t approve of a woman taking a pulpit, or a minority’s voice reshaping our understanding of the Bible’s theology.

Sorry, my wonderfully creative, out-of-the-box Wheaton alumni friends. Maybe next time.

Boo… Theologically Manipulated Translation. Boo…

Ok, class. Get out your black highlighters and your pencils! We’re going to play, “Correct your sanitized translation!”

We’ll start by all turning to the same passage: Galatians 5:6. Is everyone there? Great!

What does your translation say that faith does? “In Christ Jesus, neither does circumcision avail nor uncircumcision but faith ______ through love.” What’s in the blank?

(Sarcasm alert!) Now a casual reader of the Greek might think that because ἐνεργουμένη means “working” or “being at work” that we should translate this “faith working through love”. But since we know that we’re saved by faith and not by works, that can’t possibly be what it means! So let’s try “faith expressing itself through love”! Perfect! (/Sarcasm alert!)

Seriously, people. The thing says “faith working through love.” If your bible says “expressing itself”: get out the black highlighter, highlight that bad boy, and write in “working” in its place.

What sort of faith does Paul hope to see? “The obedience of faith” (Romans 1); “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1); and, yes, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5).

Faith and works go together. Don’t let your translation hoodwinkle [sic.] you.

You Are What You Worship–Choose Your God Wisely

This morning Karyn Traphagen of Boulders to Bits fame drew my attention to a fascinating article in the Washington Post.

The article reviews a book entitled How God Changes Your Brain. In part, it seems, the upshot is that we must be careful in choosing what God we worship–we will be changed:

“But Newberg’s research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.”

As another friend pointed out, the research is not simply about religion per se, but serves as encouragement and warning to any number of activities that both reflect and determine our beliefs:

For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

The work also seems commendable for its refusal to allow the findings of neuroscience to weigh in on whether or not there’s a God. Describing religious experiences does not tell us where they come from or to what they may truly be directed.

Take and read. (And, make sure that the God you worship isn’t a jerk.)

Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

I heard another one of the stories yesterday. A church in a property dispute. Yes, the resolution was one in which there was some reconciliation at the end, it was story of the surprising power of God showing up in an unexpected place.

But the story was still there. A congregation shut down from above. A building confiscated in the courts. Mounds of money spent on litigation. Oh yeah–and (sarcasm alert) all this happened so as to put the gospel on display for the Christian people of San Francisco who clearly don’t need a beautiful witness since they flock to church in droves every Sunday.


Court was the last straw in my decision not to join a church affiliated with a mainline denomination when we moved out to San Francisco 18 months ago.

I was having a conversation with a woman who wanted to appeal a decision of the local Presbytery. Fair enough. I get that.

And so she got together a cadre of like-minded wealthy churches who were going to help spring for the $100,000+ in legal bills the fight would cost.

Ok, I don’t get that anymore. And maybe I shouldn’t have gotten it in the first place.

I’ve been blogging this week about Sam Wells’ Improvisation, a book full of hope that a people deeply entrenched in their drama will be able to improvise faithfully in their ecclesial settings. The problem is, we can’t even play the story right when we’ve got the script right in front of us.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chides the Corinthians for taking each other to court. The beginning of the chapter outlines a series of ways in which such action undermines the narrative of the gospel: the saints will participate in the final judgment, can’t we then judge matters of this world without taking it before the secular courts? we’re going to judge angels, how about matters of this life?

Actually, says Paul, how to deal with the lawsuits is secondary: it’s already a defeat for you that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Cor 6:7).

But no the story of the American dream is too powerful for our denominations. I have a right to stuff. Even if I didn’t put any money into it, it’s mine. Even if I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, it’s mine and I’ll take it.

I confess, that for all my delight in narrative theology, and resonance with Wells’ narrativally derived improvisational ethics, I often find it difficult to believe that much of it is true–because the church so rarely becomes a living witness to the story it claims as its own.

Telling the story of the story-bound God