Theology as a Way of Life?

I hate to get too predictable, but you can imagine how I responded when I saw the following in a recent advert from Paternoster Press:

James McClendon is right to assert that Theology is ‘not merely a reading strategy by which the church can understand Scripture; it is a way—for us, it is the way—of Christian existence itself’.

Disclaimers: (1) I do not know where James McClendon says this, therefore I do not have a larger context for interpreting what “theology” means here. (2) I do not know who this “us” is of whom he speaks.

Image: dan /

Let me also say, first and foremost, that there are some ways that I can see myself affirming this sentence. If by “theology” you mean, “Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is resurrected Lord,” then I agree that this mini-narrative of Christian theology provides both the hermeneutical lens for making sense of scripture and provides us with the way of Christian existence itself.

If this is the life of Christ, after all, then we who are dubbed “little Christs” are called to renarrate this life in our own.

But of course, my concern is that this is not what the phrase means at all.

My concern is that it has taken a typical Evangelical mistake (relying on the Bible as though the Bible is THE thing, rather than Christ being THE thing) and pushed it back one further level from the appropriate target, landing on Christian theological articulations as THE things that determine faithful Christian faith and practice.

“The way,” of course, is Jesus.

The Bible testifies to Jesus as the way God has provided for the life of God’s creatures. It is one step removed from the person and his narrative, but is the access we have and the God-given interpretation of the saving story.

Theology in the traditional sense is a second step removed, as it reflects on what the Bible has said about Jesus who is the way and the God who provided Him.

If I’m reading the paragraph fairly, the claim that theology is the way of Christian existence is a door to a world in which theology forms the hermeneutic, identity, and praxis of a community. In such a world, articulating the correct theology becomes its own good–the very faithful practice God hopes for from Christians.

If theology is the way of Christian life itself, then mental constructions and statements of right belief become the markers of Christian life. And in so doing, following Christ along the way of the cross, being ambassadors of the message of reconciliation, feeding the hungry, caring for the parentless, embracing the outsider–all of these become second-order responses, and lie far from the center of faithful Christian practice.

But perhaps we can just agree (hard as it is for my inner 8 to say such a thing):

The theology by which we understand scripture is that Jesus is God’s messiah, given up on the cross and then raised and enthroned at God’s right hand.

This theology of the Christ is our way of life, because it means that all of our life should be a giving up of ourselves in order that all creation might live under the freedom of the risen Christ’s lordship.

Now that’s a “theology as the way of Christian existence” I can get behind–a theology in which theology itself is eclipsed by the Christ of whom it speaks.

Obeying the Law, Becoming God

On human divinity in early Judaism:

But the lawgiver of the Jews ventures upon a more bold assertion even than this, inasmuch as he was, as it is reported, a student and practiser of plain philosophy; and so he teaches that the man who is wholly possessed with the love of God and who serves the living God alone, is no longer man, but actually God, being indeed the God of men… (Philo, “Every Good Person is Free,” 43.

The God(s) of John 3:16 and John 3:18

I have a lot of theologically like-minded friends who are looking to the future and questioning what we’ve grown up hearing. The idea of a final judgment that might go ill for some sits ill with many of us.

Well, perhaps the issue isn’t quite that it might go ill for some, but that it might go ill for many; better: that it might go ill for almost everyone who has ever lived, while a small number, represented by faithful followers of Jesus, will be cleared to enter the age to come.

I am sympathetic.

But my Evangelical conscience calls me back to the biblical story and makes me ask if I’m experiencing sympathy pains for “niceness” at the expense of “love.” Or, to put it differently, when we reject ideas of judgment and/or perdition, are we clinging to the God of John 3:16-17 at the expense of the God of John 3:18?

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” (John 3:16-21, CEB)

The love of God soaks this passage through: here is one of the great Johannine pictures of what love means in the biblical story: God so loved the world that God gave the Son. The Son so loved the world that He gave Himself.

But with the giving of the gift, with the advent of the light, there is also the possibility that people will spurn the gift, that we will choose to walk in darkness.

“Whoever does not believe is already judged.”

This pattern runs throughout scripture, where God graciously gives, people reject, and then God both disciplines and pursues.

But in the face of the great gift, if we reject it, might there not be final word from God that says, “Thy will be done,” without turning God into a cosmic bully?

Without making the mistake of turning the good news into the bad news of “You’re all going to Hell! See how much God loves you!” can we still confess ultimate consequences for the decisions we make on earth with respect to the call of God?

Can the God of John 3:16 also be the God of John 3:18? How?


To Story or Not to Story?

Englewood Review of Books has done me the great honor of reviewing Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The reviewer wasn’t so sure about Jesus and the story of Israel.

Though this is surely an appealing narrative, it is troubled by one problem: Paul never uses it…

While I fully concur with Kirk that stories are necessary because they show and instruct rather than simply tell the truth that we are, indeed, caught up in a grand story, I am not so sure that it is a story so easily narrated.

I’ve replied in the comments section, and would invite you to head on over there to jump in and join the conversation:

One of the recurring issues in NT scholarship has to do with what has been dubbed an “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Those who look to Ernst Käsemann and J. Louis Martyn as mentors tend in this direction. The point is something like this: God’s act in Christ is a radical in-breaking into the cosmos, not a development from within a continuous narrative.

…But there is an important point of push-back that has to be offered to this dichotomy, and is being offered in various venues; namely, that the dichotomy is a false one. (click here to read the rest)

Reimagining Faith: Faithfulness

One of the most important debates in NT scholarship for the past 30 years or so has been the interpretation of the Greek phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou; “the faith of Christ”).

Basically, it comes down to this: is Paul talking about “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “the faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive) when he uses this phrase?

In this case, “faithfulness of Christ” would mean Jesus’ faithfulness in going to the cross.

Can pistis mean “faithfulness”?

The answer is decidedly, “Yes.”

In fact, the most unequivocal use of pistis in the book of Romans is one in which it clearly means “faithfulness” rather than faith, and is used in a “subjective genitive” construction.

In Rom 3:3, Paul is reflecting on the “faithlessness” of some who did not believe the gospel. He contrasts this with the faithfulness of God. “Their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God, can it?”

Faithfulness of God is the English rendering of τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ (ten pistin tou theou; “the faith of God”).

Might this help with the conversation we’ve been having here since the end of last week?

The starting question was what we do with final judgment based on works within a system of theology that strongly emphasizes justification (initial judgment?) based on faith.

On Saturday I suggested that we rethink “faith in Christ” as “faithing into Christ,” or “believing unto union with Christ.”

Today I want to raise the question of whether thinking in terms of “faithfulness” might better capture what Paul is after than our normal idea of “belief”?

In order for this to work, we’ll have to rethink the faith versus works contrast. In Romans and Galatians, there are particular works that Paul is eager to deny are at the heart of justification–those that define Jewish people as a particular set-apart people; works that indicate conversion to Judaism as such.

No, says Paul, Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish. Faithing into Christ is enough.

Within this framework, Paul’s claim in Romans 1 makes much more sense. The goal of his ministry is to bring about “the obedience of faith” or, “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles.

Not faith alone, but an obedient faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness in going to death on the cross for us, perhaps our part in continuing the story is to respond with a Christ-shaped faithfulness of our own.

Believing into Christ means faithfulness to the Christian story, a lived faithfulness that puts that story on display in our own communities, our own lives.

Reimagining Faith: Into Christ

Yesterday we did a bit of thinking about the apparently strange juxtaposition of justification by faith and final judgment based on works.

I’ve been wondering if there are a couple of roads we might run down to reconceive what saving faith looks like.

The first facet worth exploring is the conjunction of faith with our union with Christ. Put simply: what if we started thinking less of “believing in Jesus” and more of “believing that brings us into Christ”?

How would this help? A couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, being “in Christ” is in part about occupying a certain kind of space. It is not simply the space in which we are united with others in the body of Christ–though that is true as well.

It is also about occupying the cosmic space that has been freed from the rule of sin and law and death (Rom 5-8). This means that faithing into Christ means being part of the new creation in which faithfulness to God is the only possible way of life.

Second, being “in Christ” here on earth entails not simply occupying space, but occupying a defining narrative. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.

To be united with Christ in his death entails a calling, a core identity, that demands a certain way of life: laying down our own lives so that others might live. Faithing into Christ means entering a story of salvific self-giving.

But it also means being part of a story that resolves in salvific resurrection life. If “occupying cosmic space” is part of the “already” aspect of being united with the resurrected Christ, what I’m talking about here is the “not yet” aspect. We will one day be united with Christ in full and final resurrection life.

But you see–this is the reward, extended at the final judgement, for those who have been faithful to God. Faithing into Christ means that the story we enter and live out in our communal and personal narratives will meet the same climactic conclusion as Christ’s own self-giving story of love.

When we think of “belief resulting in union with Christ,” we are speaking of a narrative of salvation rather than a one-off moment in the past that can be dissociated from what comes next.

There is a necessary way of life that results in a final judgment that affirms the cruciform story of the faithful.

Saved by Grace, Judged by Works?

The final judgment is a culminating moment in the story of God. This means that if we are participating in that story, our own narratives are going to somehow walk a path that takes us from our life here and now through that judgment and out the other side as God’s vindicated people.

Inspired by Scot McKnight’s post on judgment a couple days ago and by finishing up my Romans-Revelation course on Wednesday night, I want to explore one particular dimension of final judgment in the NT. Here it is:

Every time the New Testament indicates the basis of the final judgment, that basis is the works of the people who are being judged.

This is a hard one for us in the Protestant tradition. Ours is a world that has generated conflicts about “lordship salvation,” and where “once saved always saved” has been a watch word of comfort for our churches.

More specifically, our salvation looks to grace alone by faith alone. And this has made us slow to accept the centrality of works in that final experience of salvation.

Here are some quick thoughts about the significance of works as part of the final judgment:

  • The NT writers assume that it is possible for the people of God to live in such a way as to please God.
  • The NT writers assume that those who are truly God’s people will, in fact, live in this God-pleasing way.
  • The NT writers (and Jesus!) assume that these God-pleasing lives will distinguish God’s people from those who are outside the Christian community.
  • These previous points together indicate another assumption, that the people who are brought into the community will live out their calling in such a way that they will, in the end, be vindicated.
  • The final judgment plays a role in exhorting the people of God to the faithfulness to which they have been called–and this is a real exhortation with real consequences for failure.
  • The final judgment plays a role in comforting the people of God who, most often in this life, will not see themselves rewarded for their faithfulness to the heavenly economy.

All of this got me wondering about the social conditions that give rise to different ways of thinking and talking about the final judgment.

Much of our hesitation about it seems to stem from our personal disconnect with the last point. Final judgment is good news for people who know that their faithfulness to God is bringing them real life hardship, and perhaps even death.

Final judgment is not good news for people in power, for people who exercise judgment. If there is a world upheaval and a putting of the top run on the bottom and the bottom on top at the End, then those of us who sit perched atop the world’s power structures don’t have much use for the final judgment in our systems.

Theologically, this raises questions about how we should understand the connection between our salvation by grace and the works entailed in final salvation. We might need to find better ways of holding onto the life of faithfulness that is expected as the outcome of placing our faith in the God of the crucified and risen Christ.

Is there a good news about getting in that corresponds to the life that is expected for those who comprise this family of God?

What do you think? Is a final judgment according to works problematic for how we understand salvation in our churches?

Pagels on Revelation

Yesterday, Elaine Pagels was on NPR’s Fresh Air discussing her new book on Revelation.

The interview was interesting on a number of levels. She discussed the place that the book of Revelation has had in the history of interpretation, and how it was likely intended to be read in its first-century context.

Pagels located John’s Christianity as a Jewish branch that had not experienced disruption with its Jewish roots. I found this perspective to be quite different from what others have intimated about the Apocalypse.

At any rate, the interview is worth listening to, if nothing else to find out once and for all what 666 means.

The book is called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

The Gospel We Find?

In talking about the Bible as (not) an owners manual for life, we discussed the connection between expectations of the Bible / assumptions about what the Bible is, what we look for / hope for from the Bible, and what we actually find when we turn to it.

A similar problem besets our articulations of the gospel message itself. What is the “good news” that the Bible proclaims or reflects?

Each year I teach a course on Romans through Revelation. That’s a lot of documents.

Is there one gospel message that holds it all together?

I remember listening in on ordination exams in a conservative Reformed context. There, the gospel was often thought of in terms of “justification by faith.” I remember one guy would always ask candidates, “Can you name two passages from the Old Testament which preach the gospel of justification by faith?” Not so coincidentally, every candidate named the only two passages in the OT where the language of “righteousness” and “belief” are found together.

This is merely illustrative: there are ways we can think about the gospel that limit us severely, such that we might even find ourselves saying, as some of the pastors Scot McKnight talks about in King Jesus Gospel, that Jesus didn’t preach the gospel. That’s when we know we’ve backed ourselves into a corner.

Image: Stuart Miles /

But is that the best we can do? Or is there a larger all-encompassing word of “good news” that can pick up a larger swath of both NT and OT?

Here, I think that the quest for the center of Paul’s thought is helpful and instructive. While some might argue that Paul’s gospel is something like justification by faith or union with Christ in his death and resurrection, I’d say that both are looking at the wrong end of the stick.

These are ways of talking about our participation in the gospel, the potential impact of the good news on us, rather than the good news itself.

We get closer to the good news itself when we talk about what God has done in Christ himself, than we get when we talk about how that Christ event comes to benefit us. In other words, the accomplishment of salvation is the gospel, and the application of salvation is the ramification of the good news–or what makes it good news to me.

So how about something like this: the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all things.

What does crucifixion mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? Hebrews? 1 John? Revelation?). But it is a representative and (usually) reparative act. It is not simply a person who died, but the Messiah, the king, the representative ruler over God’s people.

What does resurrection mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? 1 Peter? Hebrews? Revelation?). But at the heart of it is the reality that Jesus is the enthroned master over all things and therefore the one who is to be both celebrated and obeyed by all the nations of the earth.

What do you think? Too vague? Too specific? Not clearly enough “good news”? How do you articulate the gospel in such a way that it can be borne witness to by such a diverse collection of texts? Or is that even a possibility? Is “the” gospel too much to ask our Bible for?


No Country for Old Qoheleth

Over the past couple of weeks, the Reel Spirituality folks have posted the first two parts of a three part series I’ve written on Coen Brothers films and biblical wisdom literature.

The first was on True Grit and Proverbs, the second on A Serious Man and Job. Today’s installment is on the Qoheleth-haunted landscape of No Country for Old Men.

No Country for Old Men operates within the world of vanity, an absent God, nothing new under the sun, and unaccountable actions that we discover in Qoheleth.

The film, like the Cormac McCarthy book it is based on, tells the story of Sherriff Ed Tom Bell hunting Anton Chigurh who is, in turn, hunting Llewelyn Moss, a character we first meet when he is, yes, hunting. But… (read the rest at Reel Spirituality)

Telling the story of the story-bound God