Jesus or God?

In yesterday’ stop along the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? blog tour, Jim West demurred over my articulation of the ministry of Jesus. This seemed like a good, old-fashioned substantive disagreement, or at least, a place where sounding the note with the right emphasis might be important.

On p. 100 of JHILBP, I say, “Jesus came… to form that family of God around himself.” To which Jim replies:

Jesus doesn’t seek to form anything around himself- he seeks to form a people of God around God, the Father. Kirk’s (apparently Barthian) Christocentrism has led him astray. Jesus was theocentric to the core. His will was to do the will of the Father. Nothing less, and nothing more. For Jesus, it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the Father.

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Jim is the third person ever, and the third person in the past week, to call me a Barthian and/or Neo-Orthodox. You will forever be on the top three list in applying the label to me! Well done!

The difficulty in responding to the paragraph is that I don’t want to say that Jim’s wrong, that it’s not about God but rather about Jesus. However, what I want to say is that the way in which Jesus’ ministry is about God is by being about Jesus.

Jesus is the one in and through whom God’s kingdom is dawning in the world. Jesus is the King of God’s coming Kingdom (at least as that story is told in the Gospels).

Let’s bring this down to the ground level of the Biblical stories.

Jim rightly says that Jesus comes to do the will of the Father (John 6:38; cf. 4:34). But Jesus then turns, in chapter 6 of John, and immediately says, “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him will have eternal life” (6:40). The way in which people on earth faithfully respond to God is by faithfully responding to Jesus.

This is what I mean by Jesus coming to form a community around himself–to reject Jesus is to reject the Father, to accept Jesus is to accept the Father. This, in contrast to either everyone already being part of the people of God, in contrast to people being delineated the people of God simply by keeping Torah and faithfully worshiping according to the OT prescriptions, and in contrast to Jesus simply saying that the previously given covenant is sufficient to delineate God’s people.

Similarly, in a passage I discuss more than once in my book, Jesus says, in a statement that would seem to be to Jim’s point, “whoever does God’s will is my mother, sister, and brother” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

But how are these people worthy of the approval as those who “do God’s will”?

“Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, ‘Look, here are my mother and my brothers'” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

Sitting at Jesus’ feet, following Jesus, puts one within the will of God. Jesus does form a community around himself. Following him becomes the defining marker of the people of God. Yes, it is the people of God, the Father, who are formed; yes, it is the will of God, the Father, that is done. But it is done by following Jesus.

It wasn’t about Jesus?

No, this we cannot say. Jesus places himself in the middle of everything–“Whoever hears these words of mine and does them…” (Matt 7); “Whoever is ashamed of me in this wicked and perverse generation…” (Mk 8); “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Lk 4); “He came to his own… To all who received him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Jn 4).

Though each Gospel tells its own story of Jesus, each agrees on this: Jesus is the way to the Father, the one in and through whom the people of God is being reformed. It is, of course, about God, because “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” says Jesus in John. Or, “Jesus was a man, testified to by God,” says Peter in Acts.

So while I don’t want to disagree with Jim that this mission is about the Father, I can’t see how the Gospel narratives allow for this mission to be about the Father without it being also about the son.

Missional Institutions?

An idea has been rumbling around, if ill-formed, in my mind for the past couple of months.

There we were, seminary professors, church pastors, and Christian leader types, having some pretty awesome and fun and challenging conversation about the missional calling of the church. And something about the setting, the gathering of folks I was truly honored to be on stage with, made me wonder if we were the group of people whom folks should be listening to about the church in mission.

Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.

Yesterday’s stop on the blog tour raised questions about how definitive cruciformity is of our Christian calling. The fact of the matter is (moving on from yesterday’s conversations) that my attempts at fidelity to Jesus very rarely, if ever, look like the cross. Many folks have influential positions and large followings–they have power. Well… I guess I might say, we have power, to a certain extent.

And as I reflected on this yesterday, I wrestled with the impossible possibility of cruciformity being institutionalized. Self-giving, self-sacrifice, death–these are not the principles of faithful administration of a large organization.

Let’s see if we can put these things together.

During the Newbigin conversation, N. T. Wright brought up the need for the church to speak truth to power, to which Pamela Wilhelms replied, “We can’t do that because we are power–or at least, dependent on it.” Our churches, our denominations, our seminaries are funded by the very power dollars that everyone complains about getting the free ride during the financial crisis; the 1% underwrite the very possibility of our having such a meeting, of churches sustained to the extent that we can have large buildings, multiple persons on staff, heavy educational requirements, and the like.

So here’s where I was sitting somewhat uncomfortably, and would love some discussion with you: to what extent can those of us who work within, depend upon, and serve through large Christian organizations speak meaningfully about “the mission of God”?

Are we free enough from the needs of self-preservation to tell the church that the mission of God is a holistic, cosmic mission of reconciliation that the church is too small to contain?

Are we free enough from the power of wealth to speak the prophetic word that, at times, needs to be spoken when an economic system becomes a source of injustice? or a hindrance to justice more generally?

Does the fact that are already filled, already rich, already kings (to paraphrase Paul’s mockery of the non-cruciform Corinthians in 1 Cor 4) render our voice mute when it comes to awakening people to the call of the mission of God?

Resurrection by Crucifixion

Today’s post is prompted by a confluence of two streams: teaching in the Corinthian correspondence and AKMA’s thoughts in review of my chapter on ethics, “Living the Jesus Narrative.” The question these two have raised to my mind is, “What does the in-breaking of resurrection into this life look like [according to Paul]?”

In both Thessalonians and Corinthians Paul uses language to speak of the reception of the gospel, the effect of his ministry, that seems to be anything but cruciform. When the gospel comes through Paul, it arrives with “power and Spirit” (1 Cor 2:4; 1 Thess 1:5). Paul can speak of the signs of a true apostle accompanying him: signs, wonders, and miracles (2:12).

Paradoxically, however, this power is shown to be God’s power precisely because it comes in the midst of suffering:

We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. (1 Thess 1:5-6, CEB)

How do you know that this joy, power, and Spirit are genuinely from God? Because they come in spite of your own suffering, says Paul; because they come despite the powerlessness of the messenger, and because in coming through such suffering they cohere with the gospel of Christ crucified.

I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:3-5, CEB)

Resurrection looks like the power of God being made known through, and in the midst of, the weakness, suffering, and persecution that are the embodiment of the cross. More particularly, Paul’s vision of resurrection life now seems to be most sharply in focus when he speaks of his own suffering bringing life, by the Spirit, to others: “We always carry about the dying of Jesus in our mortal flesh so that the life of Jesus also may be made known in us.. So, death works in us, but life in you.”

As the self-giving Christ brings life to the cosmos, so the self-giving Christians bring life to those to whom they speak.

AKMA pushes me on some important questions that I feel I have no good answers to. How do we do ministry like this? For one thing, cruciformity cannot be institutionalized. It is the antithesis of the institution, which must always live, at least in part, to perpetuate itself.

What happens if a good and lowly sufferer does well? What if her church takes off? What if she gets a PhD? What if, horror of horrors, her book sells?! What if we are filled? What if we are already rich? What if we have become kings–while the apostles are being exhibited last of all as people condemned to death?

I don’t have a clear or easy answer.

I suppose that persons more godly than myself can make myriad small decisions to embrace the way of the cross such that their success continues to be a manifestation of the power of God.

I know of a couple of godly, exceptional NT scholars who have made some self-sacrificial decisions in terms of career and public visibility in order to care for ailing family members. From the midst of their self-giving so that others might live, beauty and strength shines forth.

I know teachers who aren’t great communicators (cf. 1 Cor 2:1-5), but whose life and message transform the students who come across their paths.

That’s a start.

Akma has more questions, challenging questions on his page today. I’m guessing he wants to go some other directions with resurrection. I have a few more places I’d like to go with it as well. Maybe later…

Blog Tour, Day 3

Today, the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Blog Tour goes to the Matrix and Missional land, with a review of ch. 3, “Christianity as Community.”

Think that Paul’s idea of Christianity is, basically, getting you, yourself, and you right before God? Think again…

James McGrath’s thoughts are here.

Look for Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s at

If Ephesians Used Colossians…

I’m doing some digging about in Colossians these days, so you’ll probably find an unusual concentration of Colossians related throughts on the blog for the next few weeks.

One perennial question about Colossians is who wrote it. The letter speaks of church as a more universal entity than the localized communities we see in, say, the Corinthian correspondence. The letter seems to have a more realized eschatology (you are now raised with Christ) in contrast to the reserve evidenced in, say, Romans (we will also live with him).

And, Colossians seems to be a source for the writing of Ephesians, which shares much of the same material, theological bents, and interests. Ephesians is less widely accepted as Pauline than Colossians.

In reflecting on this use of Colossians by Ephesians, James Dunn suggests that the literary dependence is a slight mark on the “non-Pauline” side of the ledger for weighing who wrote Colossians. His argument: Colossians was a model for Ephesians of what a post-Pauline letter should look like.

But I’ve wondered if the use of Colossians by Ephesians doesn’t enter a mark on the other side of this great balancing act. If one was to choose a letter on which to model one’s one post-Pauline correspondence, wouldn’t one choose a letter that he thought to be from Paul’s own hand? If I wanted to further the thought of Paul by writing a Pauline letter, I would seek out the work of the master himself rather than the work of an apprentice.

There are lots of arguments for and against the authorship of various letters. But what do you think about this one? If someone copied Colossians as a model, to write a post-Pauline letter, does that indicate that the writer of Ephesians sees Colossians as Paul’s? or as a first, really strong effort to republish Paul’s thoughts under Paul’s own name?

Loving Paul Blog Tour: Day 2

Today’s chapter in the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? blog tour is “New Creation and the Kingdom of God.”

Posts are up by Matt Montonini and Tim Gombis.

This chapter lays my understating of how Paul articulates something akin to the “kingdom of God” proclamation we meet so often in the Synoptic Gospels.

Also, Andrew Perriman has a few thoughts in review, in anticipation of his official Blog Tour post next Monday.

Introduction: Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?

Welcome to Day 1 of the blog tour for Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christiaminnity!

I get to help introduce the book, and Nijay Gupta will be blogging his thoughts on ch. 1, “Jesus Stories in the Gospels and Paul.” (Update here’s Nijay’s post.)

Also, Julie Clawson, who will be blogging on the women chapter next Monday, has an overview post today.

If you haven’t had a chance to peruse the book yet, you can download the introduction and a sample chapter here.

There are two things going on in this book at the same time.

As the title indicates, the book is for everyone who has ever thought to themselves, “Jesus have I loved, but Paul… well… not so much.”

I have been there myself.

One of the first memories I have of reading Paul was going through his “foolishness of boasting” chapters at the end of 2 Corinthians. I thought he did sound foolish, and arrogant, and otherwise unlikeable.

Other folks have had deeper issues with him.

I begin the book with a story about my grandfather, who grew up in Holland in the early part of the 20th century. He is a fan of Jesus’ “true Christianity,” and not so much a fan of “that rascal Paul.” The rise of liberal theology in Europe trickled down to his understanding of who the Jesus of the Bible is, and how that Jesus contrasts with who he understands Paul to be.

Others of us rebel against the angry Paul of Galatians, the misogynist Paul of 1 Timothy, the Reformed Theologian Paul of Romans, and the judgmental Paul of… well… everywhere.

So what hope is there for reclaiming Paul for followers of Jesus? The answer to the problem of Paul opens into the second task the book hopes to accomplish.

I hope to show through the book that Paul is, at root, a narrative theologian, reframing the stories of God, Israel, Messiah, and Salvation around Jesus as crucified and risen king.

As I do this, I lay out the story that Jesus enacts in the Gospels and set it side-by-side the story that Paul himself tells. Both are stories of God’s renewal of the cosmos: Jesus using the language of the Kingdom of God, Paul using the category of new creation. Both envision the family of God being reformed around Jesus–so that community is a core component of the salvation Jesus brings. Both summon would-be Jesus followers to obedience–and hold up Jesus’ self-giving love as the heart of Christian faith and practice.

Thus, the book is not only for people who don’t like Paul. It’s for everyone who wants to wrestle with, and learn together about, larger questions of how the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular, hold together.

It is in light of the shared story of the God of Israel redeeming the world to Godself in Jesus Christ that I argue for a Paul who is much closer to Jesus than often imagined. And, Paul is a surprising ally for the mission of Jesus in general, and for important issues such as equal treatment of women and social justice in particular.

Enjoy the tour, check out the giveaway, and happy reading!

Jesus Laden with Sins

Great words from Karl Barth posted by Halden:

as the Son of His Father, elected and ordained from all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins, confessed them as such, and therewith confessed that He was baptised in prospect of God’s kingdom, judgment and forgiveness. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He. No one was as needy. No one was so utterly human, because so wholly fellow-human. No one confessed his sins so sincerely, so truly as his own, without side-glances at others.

More context here.

Idols, Sex, and Rock ‘n Roll


In stereotypical anti-pagan polemics in the ancient world, Jewish argument would go something like this: those guys worship idols, which leads to all sorts of sexual lasciviousness, which (of course!) leads to the further degradations we see in society such as thieving and drunkenness and rebellion.

You can see this reflected in Romans 1: they rejected God, served the creature and images of it; therefore God gave them over to shameful lusts; moreover they are treacherous, reckless, conceited, and the like. This, in turn, seems to be riffing off the wisdom of Solomon. See also 1 Thess, where turning to the living God from idols (1:9) entails, first and foremost eschewing sexual immorality–not living in lustful passion like those Gentiles (4:1ff.)!


This is the exact opposite of how many of us in evangelical-like church circles think.

For us, it’s get those kids under control (they’re doing all these little tell-tale things like disobeying their parents) or next thing you know they’re going to be having sex, which is the step on the slippery slope that will keep them from church forever.

I’m not saying that the ancients or us were right or wrong, and I can set the countdown timer at 10 seconds, at which time I know there will be a comment telling me that people who have done these smaller things we look at have abandoned worship of God already.

The point, really, was simply an observation: we see things flowing uphill from little, pervasive failures, through the biggies like sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, and finally up to a denial of God.

In the context where alternative worship, through idols in particular, was a live option, the ancient Jewish people (including Paul) saw things flowing downhill, from a fundamental denial of God through “big sins” like sleeping with your step-mom, and on to a life filled with every little annoyance and perturbation and sin you could think of.

Telling the story of the story-bound God