Monday, 30 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (35/50) – His Saving Victory on the Cross: Finished!

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-fifth of the fifty emails.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:28-30

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19-20

We anticipate the dawn of a new day in the resurrection, but, for the moment at least, we pause at Good Friday. And pause we must, for the biblical story makes no sense without this. And as we pause, we join with Christians around the globe and through the ages who have confessed the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross, for our faith makes no sense without this.

The cross, of course, is where the gospels – and Jesus – have been heading since the start. As he does so, he takes on the role of the servant spoken of in Isaiah 53, suffering and dying on behalf of others. That it happens at Passover time gives his death an ‘exodus’ flavour, as Jesus brings about a new release for the people of God, inaugurating a new covenant in his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins.

The predicament of human beings, so apparent in the biblical story – rebellion against God and the judgment it deserves – are dealt with at the cross, interpreted in the early church as a demonstration of God’s love, as a victory over the powers of darkness, as a sacrifice of one in the place of others which makes forgiveness possible, which brings about reconciliation with God and with each other, and more besides.

The work of the cross is applied personally, though not privately, for it is the place where the wisdom and power of God are demonstrated to the world. And Paul makes clear the comprehensive nature of what has been accomplished – not just on our behalf, but on behalf of the whole of creation. Jesus’ death is God’s chosen means of restoring ‘all things’, liberating men and women – and creation itself – from sin and bondage, with the guarantee that one day evil will be removed completely.

So the cross stands not just at the peak of the gospels but at the climax of the entire history of salvation. Everything in the biblical story leads up to and away from this point; everything is understood in the light it casts, a light extending forward to the final victory when all things will be fully restored.

Meanwhile, that light illumines our discipleship and mission as we seek to make sense of the cross and be shaped by it, knowing that we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

For further reflection and action:

1. All four gospels devote considerable space to the death of Jesus and the events leading up to it. Not for nothing have they been called ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’. Reflect on how far you agree whether or not this is a good description of the gospels.

2. The pattern of the cross and resurrection is one of ‘suffering’ followed by ‘glory’. If Christian discipleship involves a call to follow the way of the cross, think of the moments in your life or the lives of others where this pattern has been evident.

3. How does the cross transform the ‘ordinary’ stuff of life (the ‘all things’ of Colossians 1), and how do we follow the way of the cross in the ‘ordinary’ stuff of life?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Missional Journal 3, 6 (2009)

I receive the email version of Missional Journal, written by David G. Dunbar of Biblical Seminary.

The latest issue – 3, 6 (November 2009) – helpfully profiles two recent books…

Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Leadership Network Publications (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

… one of which (Belcher) I’m familiar with, and which has already generated some interest in the blogosphere, the other of which has not caught my eye until now.

The book titles above are linked to the respective publishers’ websites, where pdf excerpts of the books can be downloaded.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Regent’s Reviews 1, 1 (2009)

It has just come to my attention that Regent’s Park College in Oxford recently relaunched Regent’s Reviews, an online publication of book reviews, birthed by current postgraduate students Andy Goodliff and Matthew Tennant. The book reviews are written ‘with an eye to the needs of those engaged in pastoral practice’.

The first volume (available as a pdf here) carries a special focus on recent books written by Baptists in light of the 400th celebration of Baptist beginnings.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (34/50) – His Dramatic Actions: Jesus – Dangerous Revolutionary or Maverick Showman?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-fourth of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’… Jesus said to him… ‘so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’
Matthew 17:24-27

What was Jesus? Dangerous revolutionary or maverick showman? Neither… Or was he both?

Dangerous revolutionaries are defined by the number of their trained followers (Jesus had twelve), their weaponry (the disciples had two swords) and their subversive rhetoric (in spite of all expectations, Jesus never advocated rebellion). Nevertheless, as those twelve became hundreds, they ‘turned the world upside down’. How? Not by violence but by the subversive power of Jesus’ teaching, and his sacrificial love.

Maverick showmen are characterised by unpredictability and an eye to their audience. Jesus constantly broke the mould of convention, wrong-footing not only his critics but sometimes also his disciples. Healing and casting out demons might have been expected from someone who was gradually revealing himself as ‘more than a prophet’. But turning water into wine? Feeding 5,000 people from five barley loaves and two fishes? Planting a four-drachma coin in the mouth of a fish?

Each of these three miracles demonstrates Jesus’ authority over the material world, his unorthodox way of paying his tax showing that he is lord even of money. The water into wine miracle is described as a sign, through which Jesus revealed his glory (John 2:11). There is thus a sense in which Jesus might be called a showman. Although seemingly impromptu, his miracles point to his identity as the Son of God.

Others of his dramatic actions, however, had nothing miraculous about them. Outraged by the antics of the money changers in the temple courts he overthrew their tables, scattering money and animals. Whether this happened on two separate occasions or on one, it was a provocative public display of his authority.

At the other end of the spectrum, we sit as flies on the wall while Jesus, their ‘Lord and Master’ stripped off and washed his disciples’ feet. And then, in the privacy of that upper room, he took bread and wine and passed them round, as lasting symbols of his body and blood.

Always one step ahead of us – this is our Lord.

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. In spite of his unpredictability, there is a coherence and consistency in Jesus’ actions. What does my behaviour reveal about me, and about the Lord I claim to follow?

2. Jesus was a colourful character – certainly not simply ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’. How is this an encouragement to us creatively to express our personalities, rather than conforming to an imagined norm of what a Christian ought to look like?

3. Looking at the contexts in which Jesus performed these actions, we see his sensitiveness to human need, and his understanding of his culture and of the human heart. Pray that you, and members of your church, may have a similar awareness of the world, and the people, around us.

Aspects of Theological Interpretation 8

[This is the eighth of twelve posts outlining a number of streams in the current interest in theological interpretation, paying particular attention to recent treatments. For earlier introductions to theological interpretation, see here, here, and here.]

#1 – Its uneasy relationship with historical criticism

#2 – Its disputed overlap with biblical theology

#3 – Its natural affinity with precritical interpretation

#4 – Its noteworthy exemplar in Karl Barth

#5 – Its relative comfort with multiple interpretations

#6 – Its significant emphasis on the role of the community of faith

#7 – Its contested dependence on ‘general’ hermeneutics

#8. Its careful attention to the role of the canon and typology

Although there are important historical issues related to the formation of the canon, the hermeneutical concerns are here foregrounded. As Cummins notes:

‘On the overall question of the canon, there is a general recognition that trying to trace its emergence and delineate its contours can be an instructive (if inexact) enterprise, but that in the end this is a secondary endeavour. What is of the utmost importance is that the church has received as providentially provided a sufficiently stable and cohesive body of texts which in its final form constitutes the rule or norm of Christian faith, practice and worship.’

[S.A. Cummins, ‘The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recent Contributions by Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz and Francis Watson’, Currents in Biblical Research 2, 2 (2004), 179-96, at 187-88. In addition, see: J.G. McConville, ‘Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19, 2 (2001), 134-57; Robert W. Wall, ‘Canonical Context and Canonical Conversations’, in Joel B. Green and Max Turner (eds.), Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 165-82; David S. Yeago, ‘The Bible: The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation Revisited’, in James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (eds.), Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 49-93, at 70-85.]

Where historical-critical approaches have generally been able to set aside confessional issues, those interested in theological interpretation acknowledge and seek to study the ways in which Scripture functions as ‘canon’ in and for faith communities.

[For a polemical exploration of canon as an ecclesiastical straitjacket exercising imperialistic control and enforcing particular ideological views, see George Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001). Aichele’s thesis that the canon ‘prevents readers from freely reading the texts of the Bible’ (12) doesn’t sit well with theological readings. Once Scriptures are said to constitute a canon, the Bible becomes a single message, where the texts refer to themselves, commenting on each other, controlling their meaning, filtering out other meanings that might conflict with the larger whole. Loveday Alexander, ‘God’s Frozen Word: Canonicity and the Dilemmas of Biblical Studies Today’, Expository Times 117, 6 (2006), 237-42 notes that the concept of canon carries authoritarian dogmatic overtones, and biblical studies has lost the skill of inhabiting the canonical text in a liberating and creative manner. More positively, note the thesis of William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), that ‘canon’ is not an epistemological criterion so much as an ecclesial means of grace. Scripture belongs to the realm of soteriology rather than epistemology, with the important entailment that readers of Scripture are to know God rather than know how to know God. Although it remains a moot point as to whether epistemology and soteriology should be played off against one another in this fashion, Abraham’s call to recover the use of Scripture for spiritual formation, as that which shapes the believing community, is consonant with the broader concerns here explored.]

Regularly associated with such approaches is a focus on the final form of the text recognised as canonical.

[See Christopher R. Seitz, ‘The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation’, in Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, Al Wolters (eds.), Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series Vol. 7 (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 58-110, esp. 65-68, 73-76, 84-89. See also his Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), where the final form of the book of the Twelve is taken seriously as a whole work, demonstrating its capacity to build a bridge ‘from the past to the future and, in so doing, to provide generous hermeneutical guidelines on how that prophetic word encloses our times as well’ (24).]

For Christian interpreters, the status and role of the Old Testament is particularly important.

[Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 34-41; Rolf P. Knierim, ‘On the Interpretation of the Old Testament by the Church’, Ex Auditu 16 (2000), 55-76.]

Moberly thus notes:

‘Whatever the importance of attending to the scriptures of Israel in their own right, it is fundamental for the Christian faith that the God of Israel is known as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our starting-point must in some way be the contextualization of Israel’s scriptures within Christian faith.’

[R. Walter L. Moberly, ‘The Canon of the Old Testament: Some Historical and Hermeneutical Reflections from a Western Perspective’, in Ivan Z. Dimitrov, James D.G. Dunn, Ulrich Luz, and Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr (eds.), Das Alte Testament als christliche Bible in orthodoxer und westlicher Sicht, Wissenschaftliche untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 239-57, here 254.]

Luke 24:13-35 is illuminating in this respect (cf. John 5:39, 46-47).

[See, e.g., Karl Paul Donfried, Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic, Companions to the New Testament (New York: Crossroad, 2006), 21-31; Richard B. Hays, ‘Can the Gospels Teach us How to Read the Old Testament?’, Pro Ecclesia 11, 4 (2002), 402-18, esp. 415-18; R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45-70 (‘Christ as the Key to Scripture: The Journey to Emmaus’), revisited more recently in ‘Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 79-100; see also D. Brent Laytham, ‘Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, 1 (2007), 101-15.]

The travellers on the road to Emmaus are not rebuked for not believing Jesus, but for not believing the prophets (24:25); and Jesus does not offer them esoteric revelation, but exposition from the Scriptures (24:27). The story of Jesus ‘needs to be set in a context beyond itself… So, as Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jewish Scripture, Jewish Scripture cannot be understood apart from Jesus; what is needed is an interpretation which relates the two – and it is this that Jesus provides (Moberly, Bible, Theology, and Faith, 51). Israel’s Scriptures ‘provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus’ (Moberly, ‘Christ in All the Scriptures?’, 80).

Perhaps most significant in Christian reflection on the canon of Scripture is the work of Brevard S. Childs.

[See the essays in Christopher Seitz and Kathryn Greene-McCreight (eds.), Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), a diverse collection reflecting the breadth of Childs’ own engagement with Scripture.]

With the canonical approach associated with Childs comes a focus on the final form of the biblical texts, and a concern to take seriously the role of Scripture in the church and in Christian formation.

[For his interaction with recent English and German scholarship, see Brevard S. Childs, ‘The Canon in Recent Studies: Reflections on an Era’, Pro Ecclesia 14, 1 (2005), 26-45, reprinted in Bartholomew et al. (eds), Canon, 33-57. In ‘Toward Recovering Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 6, 1 (1997), 16-26, he argues for a ‘multi-level approach to Scripture’, taking into account ‘the distinct contexts in which the text operates’ (22). See also his ‘Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation’, Scottish Journal of Theology 58, 4 (2005), 375-92, in which he argues, among other things, that Wolterstorff’s application of speech act theory does not deal adequately ‘with the function of the Christian canon which shaped the church’s traditions in such a way to provide a rule-of-faith for the theological guidance of subsequent generations of readers’ (375).]

Childs holds to the relatively independent but complementary witness of the Old and New testaments to the ‘divine reality’ of the text’s witness (articulated and worked out most fully in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible [London: SCM, 1992]). With more than a nod to Childs, Christopher Seitz seeks to reconnect the Testaments where they have become disconnected in Christian theology.

[Christopher R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), passim. Charles J. Scalise also builds on Childs’ work: Hermeneutics as Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 8 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1994); From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996). More recently, also following in Childs’ wake, Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, trans. David E. Orton, Tools for Biblical Study 7 (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005) focuses on the received form of the text, offers a ‘retelling’ of the Hebrew Bible (à la von Rad) before looking at its theological themes, arguing that Christians can and must interpret the Hebrew Bible on its own terms.]

It should be noted, however, that even scholars who agree on the need to take the canon into account disagree on whether the Old Testament is to be read on its own terms apart from interpreting it with reference to Christ.

[See especially Christoper R. Seitz, ‘Christological Interpretation of Texts and Trinitarian Claims to Truth: An Engagement with Francis Watson’s Text and Truth’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 209-26, and Francis Watson, ‘The Old Testament as Christian Scripture: A Response to Professor Seitz’, Scottish Journal of Theology 52, 2 (1999), 227-32.]

This is connected with continued debates about how far christological approaches to the Old Testament should be subsumed under, or even give way, to ‘trinitarian’ approaches.

[Alan G. Padgett, ‘The Canonical Sense of Scripture: Trinitarian or Christocentric?’, Dialog 45, 1 (2006), 36-43; Brent A. Strawn, ‘And These Three Are One: A Trinitarian Critique of Christological Approaches to the Old Testament’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 31, 2 (2004), 191-210.]

Seitz follows Childs’ lead here, holding that Christian theologians should listen to the distinct voice of the Old Testament rather than begin with the New Testament and then wonder how ‘politely to work around’ the Old (‘Christological Interpretation’, 226). The church understands Jesus against the larger horizon of Old Testament expectation; the Old Testament does not simply provide background for the gospel; it is part of the fabric of the gospel itself. The Scriptures witness to God in Israel and in Christ, such that what holds the canon together is not a theological abstraction, but the God who made a covenant with Israel and who raised Jesus from the dead (Seitz, Word Without End, 8, and see 13-27, 251-62; Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001], 131-44, 177-90).

Francis Watson remains unconvinced, fearing that Seitz does not give sufficient attention to the dialectic between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The identification of the God of Israel in the Old Testament as the God of Jesus Christ in the New Testament ‘will only be apparent if, without losing their distinctiveness, the Old and New Testaments are seen to be constituted as old and new only in relation to the other and to the definitive disclosure in Jesus of the triune God that both separates them and unites them. As there is no New Testament without the Old, so there is no Old Testament without the New’ (‘Old Testament’, 228).

Finally, in relation to canon, we should note briefly the increased interest in typology and figural interpretation.

[Stephen E. Fowl, ‘Theological and Ideological Strategies of Biblical Interpretation’, in Michael J. Gorman (ed.), Scripture: An Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 163-75, at 171-73; Stanley D. Walters (ed.), Go Figure! Figuration in Biblical Interpretation, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2008).]

Seitz notes that ‘the term figural entails a literary dimension’ in the way that materials are related to one another, with an undergirding ‘theological conviction… that God is acting consistently and comprehensibly across time’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 8). Moreover, figural reading involves a commitment to a ‘distinctive understanding of time and providence, based upon the canonical coherence of Christian Scripture’ (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 16, worked out more fully in various essays gathered together in Figured Out).

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Michael Horton on Christ at the Centre

Mark Galli from Christianity Today interviews Michael Horton (here) about the substance of his two recent books – Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life – the major concern being that our lives and churches be driven by the gospel.

Here are some of the lines:

‘The question is not whether we have imperatives in Scripture. The question is whether the imperatives are all we are getting, because people assume we already know the gospel – and we don’t.’

‘The gospel isn’t “Follow Jesus’ example” or “Transform your life” or “How to raise good children.” The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners – even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus, which we all are on our best days.’

‘In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. All that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.’

‘The gospel is not even my conversion experience. If somebody asks me what the gospel is, I’m not going to talk about me; I’m going to talk about Christ.’

‘The Good News is not that Jesus has made it possible for you to make him Lord and Savior. The Good News is that he has actually saved and liberated you, and that he is your Savior.’

Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, 2 (2009)

The latest edition of the Journal of Theological Interpretation arrived this morning, containing the following articles:

R.W.L. Moberly
What Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?

Michael Allen
Exodus 3 after the Hellenization Thesis

David C. Tollerton
Reading Job as Theological Disruption for a Post-Holocaust World

Bradley C. Gregory
‘The Sennacherib Error’ in Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentary on the Twelve Prophets: Light from the History of Interpretation

Kit Barker
Speech Act Theory, Dual Authorship, and Canonical Hermeneutics: Making Sense of Sensus Plenior

Joshua W. Jipp
Ancient, Modern, and Future Interpretations of Romans 1:3-4: Reception History and Biblical Interpretation

Derek Cooper
Reformation Responses to Novatianism: 16th-Century Interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6

Nathan MacDonald
Israel and the Old Testament Story in Irenaeus’s Presentation of the Rule of Faith

Darren Sarisky
Review Article: Exegesis and Participation

Michael Pasquarello III
Review Article: Back to the Future: The Promise of Recent Theological Commentary

Friday, 20 November 2009


KLICE – The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics – describes its vision as seeking ‘to contribute a Christian perspective to public debates about ethics in the UK’.

It has recently launched a new website which is more user-friendly than the old one and with expanded content. The site contains a number of resources, including archives of the very useful Ethics in Brief.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Themelios 34, 3 (2009)

The latest volume of Themelios is now online in several formats, with the contents as follows:

D.A. Carson

Carl Trueman
Minority Report: Lest We Forget

Dane C. Ortlund
Christocentrism: An Asymmetrical Trinitarianism?

David VanDrunen
Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38-42

Mark Rogers
‘Deliver Us From the Evil One’: Martin Luther on Prayer

Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
Pastoral Pensées: Power in Preaching: Delight (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), Part 3 of 3

Book Reviews

Monday, 16 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (33/50) – His Teaching in Parables: Listen! Whoever Has Ears...

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-third of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Then the disciples came to him and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.’
Matthew 13:10-11, 16

Jesus taught in parables – longish ones with characters and plot (the prodigal son), ones with detailed, sometimes allegorical, interpretations (the sower), short metaphors (the woman making bread with yeast). Sometimes we know the context. Jesus stood in a boat, Matthew tells us, to tell the story of the sower to a large crowd on the shore. Afterwards the disciples asked him what it meant and he explained. More often there is no explanation. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son and his elder brother, in Luke 15, are told with two groups listening – ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’.

Over the centuries the parables have presented some knotty problems. Did Jesus just make up stories or was the sower, for example, up on the hill above him doing exactly what Jesus says? Is the story of the man paying the same wages however long the men had worked any guide for employers? Is there just one truth, or should we be teasing out every element of the story? Will we really be able to watch the damned from heaven as in the story of Dives and Lazarus?

Unlike the first three gospels, John never uses the word ‘parable’. But his use of extended metaphors – light and darkness, sheep and shepherds, hunger and the bread of life, thirst and living water – help us to see that Jesus is building on parables and metaphors used by the prophets of the Old Testament.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question in Matthew 13:11 gives us a clue, maybe even the key, to what is involved when he teaches in parables. Inherent in every parable, short or long, is a question – Do you understand? Are your ears and eyes open to the truth? Here is truth – the truth of the Kingdom coming from the King – truth revealed, coming like a bolt of lightning, a life-changing revelation. Jesus is not being abstruse. He is drawing a picture, with which we can immediately engage, but which carries a truth we may miss. A humble, passionate desire to know him and his will for us begins our understanding and appropriation of parable truth. In addition, those whose own eyes have been opened will want to alert others to the presence and power of the kingdom, inviting people to listen and respond when the king calls.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read Ezekiel 34:1-24. Then read Luke 15. Who is listening to Jesus (Luke 15:1)? To whom is Jesus speaking directly? What would you imagine to be the dynamics between Jesus and his listeners as the three stories unfold?

2. Look at the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The legal expert wants to know who qualifies as a neighbour whom he should love. Imagine you are leading a study of the parable, and you ask the group this question before reading it. How do you think they would reply? In the telling of the story, what are the main points that Jesus is making about neighbour love?

3. How far should Jesus’ teaching in parables provide a model for communicating with others today? How often do we use examples from everyday life? How often do we restrict ourselves to one telling point, rather than attempting to touch on everything we think someone should know?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Gerald J. Mast on Catechism in the Worshipping Community

Gerald J. Mast, ‘Catechism in the Worshipping Community’, Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics (2007), 86-91.

Taking a cue from Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal about doctrine being ‘a stage on which the enactment of Scripture unfolds in the life of the Church’ (86), with the church as a ‘theater of the gospel’ and its members a ‘company of performers’ (87, citing Vanhoozer), Mast provides a short but helpful review article exploring the significance of worship, liturgy, and everyday practices in ‘shaping the hearts and minds of growing believers’ (86).

He marries three suggestive points about catechesis with three significant books.

1. Catechesis through Worship

Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007).

Chan seeks to correct what he sees as a weak evangelical doctrine of the church ‘by highlighting the neglected arts and habits of Christian worship that make the body of Christ visible in time and space’. Habits of worship, cultivated by the church, ‘are themselves the doxological fulfilment of the Church’s mission’ (87). Mast notes that Chan’s approach raises questions about conventional practices that separate the worship of God from the mission of the church (87-88).

Worship, according to Chan, should be shaped by the Word and the sacraments, where ‘the Word proclaims the coming reign of God’, and ‘the Eucharistic meal makes that reign visible in the present’. The incorporation of new members into the church via catechism must ‘prepare candidates for membership to participate rightly in worship’ (88).

Catechism has focused on three elements: confession of the triune God in the creed, following the Ten Commandments, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Chan maintains that such a framework allows issues of discipleship to be addressed – the creed helping us ‘to address a world of religious pluralism’, the Commandments speaking ‘against the grain of market-centered consumer capitalism’, and the Lord’s Prayer challenging ‘an exchange-focused economy that breeds poverty and homelessness’ (88).

2. Catechesis in a Countercultural Community

Debra Dean Murphy, Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Murphy critiques religious education programmes that ‘abstract the values they inculcate from the particular faith traditions in which they had been embedded’, as well as the kind of public theology that ‘seeks to reduce Christian particularity to commonly held civic virtues such as freedom and justice’. Instead, she ‘establishes an agenda for Christian catechesis that instead of making church members into polite and contributing citizens will rather identify them with the countercultural community of the Church and with alternate ways of knowing that are rooted in the counter-story of Jesus’ (89).

Both Chan and Murphy assume that church members will be best formed through recovering the ancient traditions and habits of the church. Mast considers it unlikely that these can do so by themselves, suggesting that ‘for Christians to be truly shaped into the life and mind of Christ, they must break down not just the division between basement education and sanctuary worship but also the barrier between the gathered and the scattered body’ (89).

3. Catechesis through Embodied Discipleship

Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003).

Here a case is made ‘that practices of discipleship are as significant, if not more so, than the classical liturgical habits in developing countercultural Christians’. For Shenk, ‘theological knowledge cannot be abstracted from embodied discipleship; yet the embodied practices... are not so much the recitation of classical creeds or the weekly Eucharist but such mundane and practical acts of Christian discipleship as rejection of the sword and oaths, reading and discussing Scripture, faithful family life, and voluntary service’ (90).

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Peter Hicks and Henry H. Knight on Evangelicals and Truth

Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth: A Creative Proposal for a Postmodern Age (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 240pp., ISBN 0851114571.

Henry H. Knight III, A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 253pp., ISBN 068700960X.

[The following book reviews were first published on London School of Theology’s website in May 1998.]

The titles of these two books share three significant words: ‘Evangelical’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Postmodern’. Like so many others recently [sic] (e.g., Carson, Grenz, McGrath, Middleton and Walsh, Wells), Hicks and Knight recognise that we live in the twilight of modernity – in a ‘postmodern’ world – with the challenge to provide a basis for evangelicalism’s insistence on truth, but in a way which moves beyond a reliance on Enlightenment norms.

Hicks begins with a brief survey of the issue of ‘truth’ (From Plato to Postmodernism). In part 2 (Evangelicals and truth yesterday and today), he analyses what significant figures in the story of evangelicalism have said about the philosophy of knowledge and truth. In part 3 (Evangelicals and truth tomorrow), he explores what distinctives evangelicalism may offer today in face of the collapse of truth.

For Hicks, God himself is the basis for truth, and God communicates truth to men and women in a variety of ways – personally, experientially, and verbally. Further, we must let go of the claims of absolute certainty which the Enlightenment sought to establish, and work with a more ‘multi-dimensional’ view of truth related to every part of our creaturehood – factual, moral, personal, practical, spiritual… He writes:

‘The understanding of truth as something broad, and the holistic nature of our relationship with the truth, means that we can satisfactorily incorporate into our concept of truth the range of emphasis covered by evangelical and other thinkers. We do not have to make a choice between truth as propositional and truth as personal; it is both. It is historical, and it is existential. It is factual, and it is relational. It is particular, and it is eternal. It is doctrine, and it is life.’

Knight begins with a summary of the nature of evangelicalism, before dividing his book into three parts: (1) postmodernity and the truth of the Gospel; (2) revelation and the truth of Scripture; (3) redemption and the character of God. So, when it comes to Scripture, for instance, must Scripture be ‘propositional’ to be true (as some evangelicals nursed in the arms of modernist philosophy might insist)? Knight offers an alternative approach in keeping with how narrative, metaphor and other literary forms make truth claims about God, ourselves and the world.

Does Christian truth have a future in the postmodern world? It does. But not on rational and propositional grounds. Knight advocates a ‘critical realist’ approach to truth: that is to say, truth claims do correspond to reality (‘realism’), but only by continued reflection on the provisional nature of those claims (‘critical’).

Both books offer excellent surveys of past and current thinkers (Hicks is stronger on historical figures, while Knight gives more place to contemporary theologians). Both books give a strong place to the Christian community, tradition, spirituality, and the role of ‘signs and wonders’.

And both books come highly recommended. There is much to agree with and disagree with here, but no-one will be able to evade the challenge of engaging with the issues outlined.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (32/50) – His Radical Demands: Love

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-second of the fifty emails.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Matthew 5:17

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
Matthew 22:35-40

Matthew 5-7 – the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – sets out the way of life of those who belong to the kingdom. And from beginning to end, it assumes a world we know – where people hurt others through anger, where women are demeaned through lust, where marriages collapse, where Christians are persecuted, where people tread on our toes, where we worry about what to eat and wear even while others are forced to beg. Sound familiar?

We live in this world, but we do so as Jesus’ disciples, disciples of the one who, according to his own claim, fulfils the Law and the Prophets. Faithfulness to Jesus entails faithfulness to all that has gone before in God’s dealings with his people through lawgiver and prophet – but only as Jesus fulfils it. Which means that the Sermon on the Mount is not just about getting to the ‘true meaning’ of the Law, but knowing and following the one to whom the Law points. Far from setting aside the Law and the Prophets, Jesus carries them into a new era of fulfilment in which his authoritative voice will govern the disciples’ obedience.

Matthew 7:12 reinforces what is apparent throughout the Sermon – that our discipleship happens in relationship not just with God but with others. Jesus declares that our doing to others what we would have them to do to us is the Law and the Prophets (echoing 5:17), the true direction in which the Old Testament points.

He makes the same point to the lawyer in Matthew 22:34-40, where the whole Law and the Prophets are said to ‘hang on’ love for God and neighbour. The Old Testament continues in full force for disciples of Christ, but – mediated through Jesus who fulfils it – its regulations are understood and embodied as expressions of love of God and of one’s neighbour being worked out in every aspect of life.

All of which shows that Jesus’ teaching is not concerned with constructing a system of disembodied rules, but with re-orientating the whole of life around a new reality – God’s inbreaking reign. Jesus’ exhortations are not faceless demands, but presuppose certain things about him and about the kingdom he brings, which means that the Law and Prophets are no longer the centre of gravity – Jesus is. We are not just called to live a particular lifestyle but to follow a peerless Lord.

For further reflection and action:

1. The principle to emerge from Matthew 5:17-20 appears to be that all the Old Testament law applies to Christians, but none of it applies apart from its fulfilment in Christ; its validity continues only with reference to him. Look at the examples in Matthew 5:21-48 to see how this works out in practice.

2. Why might it be important not to abstract Jesus’ demands from the story told in the gospel as a whole, which reaches its culmination in the death and resurrection?

3. For Paul too, love is the fulfilment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; cf. Galatians 5:13-15). Think and pray about your week ahead – at work and at home – and the opportunities you will have to express love for God and love for others.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Charles M. Olsen on Rhythms of Spiritual Formation

Charles M. Olsen, ‘Waltzing to the Eternal Rhythms’.

This link above is to last week’s electronic newsletter from The Alban Institute.

Olsen joins with a considerable number of others who have been reminding us recently that ‘the seasons of the church year tell the story of the life of Christ and God’s redemptive work in the world’ which create space in the cycle of the year for teaching others and deepening personal faith, allowing us to ‘connect our own personal and group stories to a larger picture and mine them for wisdom from a deep and rich history of faith’.

Olsen focuses on the three primary Christian festivals – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – connecting these with the trinitarian work of God: the giving Father (Christmas), the risen Son (Easter), and the indwelling Spirit (Pentecost).

But he suggests that each of these has a prelude (that which leads up to the festivals) and a postlude (that which flows from the festivals) as well, corresponding to three moments of spiritual formation – letting go, naming God’s presence, and taking hold. Hence there are three triads, what Olsen calls ‘the waltz of the gospel – one, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three’. The journey of faith, he writes, ‘becomes a lilting waltz, not a rigid march’, where the ‘unfolding narratives in our life connect with the church seasons and the eternal rhythms of the gospel’.

The article is adapted from Olsen’s book:

Charles M. Olsen, The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories (Herndon: The Alban Institute, 2009).

I’m reading the book at the moment and while some of it goes against the grain of my Hot-Protestant Nonconformist (liturgy-might-just-be-of-the-devil) tendencies, I’m interested in this sort of work which is seeking to connect individual believers and whole congregations back into the big story of God’s redemptive work.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Patrick D. Miller on Esther

Patrick D. Miller, ‘For Such a Time as This’ (2006).

The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary makes available online their Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture.

The theme for 2006 was ‘For Such a Time as This’, taking its cue from Esther 4:14.

They write:

‘Esther’s is a story of tenacious courage, a willingness to follow God’s call, and a firm trust that the community of faith will survive by the grace of God. Her story provides a rich theme for the 2006 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, for we live in a time when courage is often called for in ministry and when many challenges face the church and its young people. These lectures address a range of topics within this theme, including the future of the church, the nature of time, the practice of lament, and the call for youth to speak out.’

Interesting and useful though they may be, it’s not at all clear to me that the lectures engage terribly much with the book of Esther – with the exception of Patrick Miller’s piece.

His discussion takes in ‘time’, Esther, Mordecai, and God. About Esther he asks whether there are features of the story and her role that are paradigmatic and instructive for ‘such a time as this’, and suggests the following three:

1. ‘Such a time as this requires both realism and courage… [which] is evident all through the report of this young woman’s response to what happens. Heroism may finally characterize her act, but her perspective is quite realistic – about herself and her situation’ (65).

2. Such a time as this ‘suggests that what is needed is the joining of wisdom and faith, of sensible thinking with commitment to the faith and practices that have kept the community through thick and thin’ (66).

3. ‘In such a time as this, the young person of this story knows that in relation to her elders she is both bound and free – bound to listen and free to act’ (67).

Monday, 2 November 2009

Australian Presbyterian on Esther

No. 547 (April 2003) of the Australian Presbyterian (nearly always worth a look) was devoted to Esther (issue available as a pdf here).

Most significant, in my opinion, is an interview with Karen Jobes (who wrote the volume on Esther in Zondervan’s NIV Application Commentary series) which covers the history of the interpretation of Esther, the literary qualities of the book, its historicity, its main theological contributions, and more besides.

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (31/50) – His Prophetic Call to Israel: He Came To His Own...

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-first of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and news of him spread… he went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue… He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
Luke 4:14-17

It was an ordinary Sabbath, with the people of Nazareth in the synagogue together. Except that day a young man they knew, the son of a local carpenter, had returned to the town. They had heard widespread praise of his teaching in other parts of Galilee and now he was in their synagogue, about to read from Isaiah.

Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Luke 4:17-19

And then he said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’.

Here at this local event in the local synagogue, Jesus spoke to the people and they responded. At first they spoke well of him, pleased with the success of a local man, looking forward to seeing some miracles, perhaps. But he continued to speak, challenging them to see that just as Israel had rejected the prophets, so he too would not be understood here in his home town. And as Elijah and Elisha had gone beyond Israel to the Gentiles to perform their miracles, so too Israel would find that God’s new kingdom would bless the poor, the prisoner, the outcast, and the Gentile. This was too much for them, and they became so angry that they tried to kill him.

Here and many more times, the gospel writers report Jesus’ challenges to Israel, and especially to her leaders. They were waiting for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, for a proper and complete return from exile, for a Messiah who would throw out the Gentile conquerors, restore Israel’s ancient borders, restore her ethnic purity and enforce her laws. Jesus, Israel’s true Messiah, challenged them to a different agenda – to seek the lost sheep, take back the repentant sons, care for the widows and orphans, welcome the alien and stranger, demonstrate to the world the love and mercy of their God and recognise his Lordship. He challenged them to look at their own history and to open their ears to the prophets of their past, to Isaiah and to Amos, to Jeremiah and to Habakkuk.

Some would indeed respond, but, then as now, many would be blind and deaf to the Saviour of the world.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. In Romans chapters 9, 10 and 11 Paul deals at length with the status of the Jews who have rejected Christ. These are difficult chapters and a good commentary helps us to understand them. But reading 9:1-5, 30-33 and 10:1-4 will give you a flavour of Paul’s argument.

2. Do you have friends and family who are content with their view on life and are indignant at attempts to present the gospel to them? Why not find two or three Christians and pray regularly together for the Holy Spirit’s work in those lives and for wisdom and discernment in your approach.