Deliverance of God, Some Stimulating Thoughts…

I’ve just come through a couple of really interesting chapters in Douglas Campbell’s Deliverance of God, ch. 4 on Judaism and ch. 5 on the question of Paul’s conversion. Rather than give summaries or engaging the arguments Douglas cares about, I want to draw attention to one major point he makes in which he scores a critical blow against some justification theories and then to one suggestion he makes that I find fascinating.

First, the body blow.

Campbell had noted previously that the role of the Law in what he calls “Justification Theory” is preparatory. It shows that there is a bar that any rational human will realize cannot be cleared. When we recognize this we become frightfully distraught and turn to God to save us by grace.

Such a theory of Law makes the Law downright loathsome. Cf. Luther.

Thus, any person who had been so conditioned by the Law, coming to faith in Christ, would naturally abandon the Law more or less immediately. In fact, it would be impossible to be a Christian without abandoning the Law.

Although Campbell does not draw on Acts or Galatians 2 or Paul’s insistence that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, the very presence of a law-keeping, conservative Jewish Christianity, validated by the apostles in Jerusalem if no one else, means that Justification Theory’s reading of place and purpose of the Law has gone seriously wrong. Law-keeping Christianity is a massive problem.

The other interesting suggestion, coming up in a similar vein, was that Paul himself preached law-observant Jesus following in the early years after his conversion. One argument from silence is that the issue of Law did not come up during his first visit to Jerusalem, when he hung out with James and Cephas. The suggestion Campbell makes is that this manifestation of Christianity arose at Antioch, and Paul learned it and adopted it there.

The piece of information that is more tantalizing in this respect is Galatians 5:11: “If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?” “Still” preach circumcision? When were you preaching it before? Paul never presents himself as a Jewish missionary before his conversion, rather a persecutor of the Jewish-Christian church.

Might he, in his early years, preached a Jewish Christianity even to his Gentile converts? Fascinating thought…

Disclaimer: I received a gratis copy of this book from Eerdmans, though with no stipulations either that I would review it or review it favorably.

Being Handed Over, Being a Child, Being Exclusive

I confess: it takes a lot sometimes for me to see what Luke’s up to in the way he strings together the Jesus stories. But today I’ve been pondering a possible thread through three pericopes: Jesus’ passion prediction, the disciples subsequent arguing over greatness, and their confession about stopping a guy from exorcising (all in ch. 9).

First, in a striking juxtaposition, Luke tells us that Jesus responds to everyone being astounded at all the things he was doing by saying to his disciples, “Listen carefully to these words, ‘For the son of man is about to be given over into the hands of people.’” Greatness is going to be turned on its head. The mighty, powerful one will be handed over to sinners.

It’s worth pondering whether Jesus said, “Listen to these words” prospectively (“what I’m about to tell you,” NIV) or retrospectively, (“Listen to what these people are saying, and hold it together with the next part of the story.”). The latter, incidentally, is how Peter preaches Jesus in Acts 2.

But in any event, Jesus’ falling into the hands of sinners is set in striking juxtaposition with people’s glorification of him. And, the disciples’ deafness to the calamity is put on display by their own visions of glory.

The disciples get into a dispute about greatness. Interesting, isn’t it, that division arises when people are pursuing greatness? There’s a connection here between unity and humility. A call to oneness will only be successful when that oneness is predicated on the gospel narrative that turns the world on its head: the narrative of the handed-over Messiah as God’s agent who embraces the world.

<aside> Incidentally, this is why I’m quite sure that a narrative hermeneutic is more fundamentally Christian than a Trinitarian hermeneutic. A Trinitarian hermeneutic, or even one that simply reads the stories as telling us about “God” does not contain the inherently self-emptying dimension of the cruciform narrative of Jesus. If you want to say that this is exactly the kind of God who exists as 3 in 1, I’ll not fight with you on that, but only point out that such a claim entails a cruciform, narrative hermeneutic to interpret God. The narrative is the thing, the description trails behind. But a Trinitarian hermeneutic, could very well leave the disciples’ quest in place as inherently legitimate, a questing after the sort of greatness that God has put on display in his acts of creation and providence. </aside>

Jesus takes a child and puts it in their midst, telling them that to receive such a one in Christ’s name is to receive not only the child but Christ and the Father as well. The “name of Christ” will recur in the next story as well. The question for me is why is receiving such a child a sign of greatness and a creator of unity with God?

My initial thought is that this is, itself, an enactment of the reception God brings to us in the gospel of Christ. It is a reenactment of the narrative. Note how it turns the expectations of the disciples on their heads. They are, rather Corinthian-like, thinking about their own greatness in the kingdom. The child is a reminder of the opposite. Moreover, to accept the child is to associate with the child, spurning the pursuit of greatness and the halls of power. It is to become the least by embracing the least. This is the way to greatness.

Ok, Jesus, so we can be like you, receive people in your name, and then we’ll be great. Got it. So, just checking here, this still means folks have to be with us, right? I mean, we’re the center of blessing and everything, so we still control the boundaries, right? So, like, this guy we saw casting out demons in your name, we were right to put a stop to that since he’s not following with us, right?

*sigh*

No. Wrong again. Part of the point of this whole thing is that Jesus, not the disciples, is the set-binder. To act in his name is to be on the mission of God. To act in his name by receiving a child, or to act in his name by casting out a demon. Unity is found in the gospel narrative which places Jesus at the center of kingdom of God.

As the intramural oneness was undone by hoping that, as an individual, the disciple is greater than the next guy (thereby failing to live into the narrative of the humble messiah), the inter-group oneness was undone by hoping that, as a group, the disciples were greater than the next guys (thereby failing to live into the narrative of an all-determining Jesus). The former is failure of the individuals to live into the gospel story, the latter is the failure of the group.

Indeed, the surprising turn of phrase that caught me off guard in 9:50 was when Jesus said not “whoever is not against us is for us,” but instead, “whoever is not against you is for you.” Your good is assessed, Jesus indicates, by seeing how my work is being done in the world–whether by your hands or not.

And, we’d all better hope, there seems to be a lot of “or not” going around.

“I called, and you did not answer…”

Just a quick little “hmmm…” observation today.

A recurring theme in the OT (I’m thinking especially of psalms, with a little shake of Jonah thrown in for good measure) is “I called to you and…”

Typically, this is followed by, “You answered me.” Sometimes it’s a bit more dire: “Out of the depths I cried to you and you heard me.”

Reading Isaiah, I discovered the opposite and found it striking: “I called to you, and you did not answer” (Isa 65:12).

Of course, in this case, God is the speaker. The motif is reversed as God takes up the words typically ascribed to people in their distress. In the time of distress, again and again, we read that when “I call on YHWH, he answered me.” But when the shoe is on the other foot, who can deliver the reputation of YHWH? Who can act in faithfulness?

“I called and you did not answer; I spoke and you did not hear. You did evil in my sight and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isa 65:12).

Failure of Exile and Theological Interpretation (4)

In the first forays we took in to 1st Isaiah’s expectations of return from exile, I suggested that Isaiah proclaims an expectation that the exile itself will be purifying and atoning for the people’s sins. Moreover, I advocated reading 2d and 3d Isaiah as responses, at least in part, to the failure of these prophecies. The people was not transformed, did not get their new hearts, and come to think of it didn’t get a glorious restoration, either. There was a historical (and theological?) problem that generated creative reengagement with the prophecies. The old narrative was transformed in light of the current circumstance.

One conviction necessary for such reworking is tied to Israel’s understanding of God. It’s not simply that YHWH really is God, or that the true God will always be faithful and true, but that God’s identity is wrapped up with the people to whom he has bound his name.

God is not true in the abstract, God is true to Israel. Thus, to echo yesterday’s post, the question is not, “Why, O Lord?” but “How long, O Lord?” Or, if you’re a prophet, “Yet a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, says the Lord…”

Last time, reflected on how the lingering failure of the promised restoration enables the Gospel writers to renarrate the hoped-for renewal. John’s is the voice of Isaiah 40, and Jesus the agent of God’s promised deliverance. Isaiah’s promises of transformation can only be read through that climactic episode in the story.

And yet, the church today does not look like that gloriously restored people. We claim to have the Spirit that adopts us as God’s children, and yet we do not live out the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We claim to be indwelt by the Spirit who at last enables us to be transformed from the inside out–to become those heart-circumcised people who are obedience to God, and yet we do not perfectly obey God (or even, very often, show forth the sort of systematic obedience that might distinguish us from the world).

Between resurrection and return of Jesus we find ourselves in the peculiar position of having to say both that the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision has arrived in the unexpected guise of a crucified and risen messiah; and, at the same time, that we await the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision when the heavenly Zion comes down as the capital city of the new earth.

Christians must renarrate the story for our moment. We must reread Isaiah in light of Jesus and say that he is the means for fulfillment. And we must reread its hopes for the future in light of the New Testament’s already/not-yet eschatology.

1st Isaiah was speaking about us, but about who we’ve only begun to be and who we will fully be only in the future. And living faithfully in light of Isaiah’s vision will depend upon our willingness to serve a God whose means for bringing His story to its telos are always open to surprising turns in response to His people. It is a Christian reading only if it recognizes that the God who spoke through Isaiah speaks also in the surprising continuation of the story in Christ, in the sometimes baffling continuance of it in the church by the power of the Spirit, and who will speak its “Amen” yet sometime in the future.

The inherent paradox in a Christian hermeneutic of the OT is captured for me by Martin Buber, as I quoted yesterday in one of the comments: “To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished.” (M. Buber, “The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,” in Jewish Perspectives on Christianity, ed. F. Rothschild, p. 131.)

Yes, “already accomplished”–and that as the prophets foretold, whether they knew it or not.

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.
-jrdk

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.

Telling the story of the story-bound God