The State of New Testament Studies: A Quick Review

The field of New Testament studies is vast. And it’s growing at a remarkable pace. That reality is both exciting and discouraging. Exciting because these all-important documents are getting the attention they deserve and the field as a whole continues to thrive. Discouraging because no single person could possibly keep up with all the literature. In light of that, we can be grateful to Scot McKnight and Nijay Gupta for editing a new book titled The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Current Research (Baker Academic) which brings together a top-notch group of New Testament scholars to survey the major developments in their areas of specialization.

The contributions fall into four major sections. Part 1 is on the ancient context of the New Testament and attends to the relationship between early Christianity and the Roman Empire along with attitudes toward women in the ancient world. Part 2 takes up questions related to interpretation with chapters focused on hermeneutics, Old Testament use in the New Testament, the genre of the canonical Gospels, and developments in the study of Greek. Part 3 contains essays generally oriented around the relationship between history and theology in scholarship on Jesus, Paul, eschatology, and ethics. The final section is Part 4, which contains chapters surveying scholarship on most of the New Testament texts.

I found the book fascinating. One of the challenges with edited volumes is maintaining a sense of coherence between chapters written by different authors. This navigates that challenge well. In general, the chapters do a good job surveying the major movements in each area. They consistently relate newer scholarship to older scholarship and every chapter draws attention to voices that have been marginalized in the interpretation of the New Testament. The chapters focused on my area of specialization (i.e., Paul) helpfully clarified a few matters regarding how different streams in Pauline scholarship relate to one another. And the chapters focused on areas of the NT beyond my specialization were particularly helpful in orienting me to the major emphases in those discussions.

I will say that I would have liked to have seen more on Paul in Part 4. The only text from Paul that gets serious and extended treatment as a text is Romans, which means the rest of the Pauline corpus (and the extensive scholarship on it) was dealt with to a lesser degree than other New Testament documents. I think I understand the editorial choice here. Romans is useful for orienting people to Pauline scholarship, and more chapters on other letters in the Pauline collection would have made an already lengthy book even more so. Nevertheless, I would have very much enjoyed a chapter on the Corinthian correspondence and some attention to the shorter letters. Of course, this is no reason not to read the book. If anything, it’s a testament to its value. Upon reading a nearly 500 page book, I found myself wanting more.

The book will be most useful to graduate students in biblical studies. Every New Testament PhD student should read the whole thing. It will be immensely valuable in navigating the intimidating mountain of secondary literature with which students need to become familiar, and many chapters draw attention to potentially fruitful avenues for future study. Established scholars will already be familiar with much of the material, and will find the book most helpful in orienting them to areas of the New Testament that might lie outside their established research agendas. Academically-minded pastors may also find the book of interest.

All in all, I’m happy to recommend The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research. I plan to keep my copy close at hand and expect to consult it often.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Hey Wesleyans, Let’s Stop Talking about 3 Types of Grace

It happens all the time. We Wesleyans love to talk about what are often called three types of grace – prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. The problem is that there are not three types of grace. There is only one type of grace, the type that joins a person to Christ and saves that person from sin and death. The three adjectives we use to modify the word “grace” are not referring to different types of grace; they are referring to different times of grace.

Grace is not a substance

Part of the problem is that we seem to think of grace as if it’s a substance – a substance that comes in different types. If you do not yet know Jesus, then you get the prevenient sort of grace. If you are in the moment of meeting Jesus, you need the justifying type of grace. If you’ve already met Jesus, you get sanctifying grace. And we are left erroneously thinking  in terms of different things.

But grace is not a thing that God gives us. Grace just means gift. And when the Bible talks about God’s grace, it means God’s gift of himself to us in a way that rescues us from condemnation and slavery to sin. Grace is union with God in Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That’s a single reality, not a range of substances or types of things. There is no grace outside of Jesus. So, when we think about grace, we need to be thinking about union with a person named Jesus. We need to be thinking about how Jesus gives us access to the Father. We need to be thinking about how the Spirit renews us as a consequence of our union with Christ. When we think about grace, we don’t need to be thinking about some thing or things. We need to be thinking about reconciliation with God.

Seasons of grace

So, what should we make of these three terms – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying? In theology, these terms don’t refer to substances, they describe the work of the Holy Spirit in distinct periods of time as he draws us into union with Christ, unites us to Christ, and works out the implications of that union with Christ in all of life. Prevenient grace describes the work of the Spirit through the gospel before conversion that draws us to Jesus by convicting us of sin and enabling us to repent and believe. The Latin word “prevenient” only means “to come before.” Justifying grace is the forgiveness of sin and experience of peace with God that comes from the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. This is not a different thing; it is the beginning of a new season of life – one in which we are reconciled to God in Christ. The reality is still union with Christ. The difference is two periods of time, one in which that new reality is anticipated and the other in which that new reality is realized. Likewise with sanctifying grace. Again, grace isn’t describing a thing in itself but the work of a person (the Holy Spirit!). The language of sanctification encapsulates the new period of time after our initial union with Christ in which the Holy Spirit renews us and works out the many and varied implications of our union with Christ. The adjectives are describing a range of temporal realities, distinct periods in time, seasons in God’s economy of grace in our lives, not distinct substances or types of grace.

Grace is grace all the way through. It’s the work of the Spirit to draw us to Christ (prevenient), unite us to Christ (justifying), and form Christ in us (sanctifying). We do better thinking of these in terms of a single continuous work that stretches out over time. This is about seasons of growth in reconciled relationship with Jesus rather than different sorts of things that happen to us. So, dear Wesleyan friends, can we agree to stop talking about three types of grace?

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Falling Away or Cut Off? Romans and the Question of Apostasy

I’ve recently had the opportunity to contribute to a three-part series of essays on the question of apostasy. The essays are being published at the Center for Pastor Theologians blog and will be written by fellows of the Center from different eccesial traditions who (consequently) handle the question in somewhat different ways. My contribution was posted today. Here’s the intro:

The recent departure of Joshua Harris not only from Christian ministry but from Christianity altogether has brought questions regarding apostasy and falling away to the forefront of recent evangelical dialogue. Can a true believer fall from grace? If someone commits apostasy, were they ever really saved? If it is indeed possible to lose your salvation, how does it happen? What’s the condition? How should we understand the notion of perseverance? What do key biblical texts say about the issue?

You can read the rest at the CPT blog. If the CPT is new to you, be sure to check out the other resources on the site. I’ll also add links to the other contributions once they go live.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Why Calvinism Gets Election in Romans 9 Wrong


There are a number of reasons I’m not a Calvinist. One of them stems from the problematic way Calvinism frames the biblical doctrine of election. In this video, I consider how God’s choice of Abraham’s family (over others) shapes the way we should read the language of election in Romans 9-11.  Watch the video below. Then click over to YouTube and subscribe to my channel to get notifications when new content is posted.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

#GC2019 Interview Roundup (#UMC)

I’ve recently had the opportunity to be interviewed on a couple of podcasts regarding the outcomes and implications of the United Methodist Church special session of General Conference earlier this year. This post puts all the links in one place.

The first one was came on The Kuyperian Commentary and was hosted by Pastor Uri Brito. You can listen here.

The second interview came in two parts on The Pastor Theologians Podcast hosted by Todd Wilson and Zach Wagner.

I’m grateful to have had these invitations. Feel free to chime in with comments and questions. Thanks for listening.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

John Wesley Asks: Who is a Gospel Minister? #UMC

 

The answer comes in his essay: “Thoughts Concerning Gospel Ministers”:

Who is a Gospel Minister, in the full, scriptural sense of the word? He, and he alone, of whatever denomination, that does declare the whole counsel of God; that does preach the whole gospel, even justification and sanctification, preparatory to glory. He that does not put asunder what God has joined, but publishes alike, “Christ dying for us, and Christ living in us”. He that constantly applies all this to the hearts of the hearers, being willing to spend and be spent for them; having himself the mind which was in Christ, and steadily walking as Christ also walked; he, and he alone, can with propriety be termed a Gospel Minister.

Let it be particularly observed, if the gospel be “glad tidings of great salvation which shall be to all people”, then those are, in the full sense, Gospel Ministers who proclaim the “great salvation”; that is, salvation from all (both inward and outward) sin, into ” all the mind that was in Christ Jesus”; and likewise proclaim offers of this salvation to every child of man. This honorable title is therefore vilely prostituted, when it is given to any but those who testify “that God willeth all men to be saved”, and “to be perfect as their Father which is in heaven is perfect”.

New Video: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (2 Corinthians 12)

We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. In this video, Dr. Matt O’Reilly explains why it was necessary – and how our weaknesses can be a theater Jesus’ power.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

 

A Home for Everyone? (#OneChurchPlanMyths #UMC)

Does the so-called One Church Plan create a “home for everyone” in the United Methodist Church? That’s the question in this second installment of #OneChurchPlanMyths. The claim comes in this video where the suggestion is made that the so-called One Church Plan makes a home for everyone by removing language in the Book of Discipline that says same-sex practices are incompatible with Christian teaching. The idea is that the removal of that sort of language also removes a barrier to some from full participation in the life of the Church. With this post I argue that the removal of one barrier actually creates another, which means the so-called One Church Plan doesn’t actually create a “home for everyone.” That claim is a myth.

Except for them

The problem with the myth in question is the untold numbers of people who’ve said they won’t be at home in a denomination that makes such a change. Many who affirm the current stance of the Church have being saying for decades that they will be forced to leave the UMC, if it were to change its position, a position that (as is noted in the video) has been in place almost 50 years. I vividly recall as a ministry candidate twenty years ago how other traditional folks were saying that if the Church changes its position on sexuality, they could not stay. Their conviction was that such a change would mean the UMC could no longer be their denominational home.

More recently, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has reminded the larger Church that the adoption of the so-called One Church Plan is “untenable” and would force the formation of a new Methodist denomination. It’s worth remembering that this is not a new posture taken by these folks. Conservatives have been saying this for a very, very long time. What’s new is the amount of pressure and influence being presently given to changing the Church’s definition of marriage and its ordination standards. So, the question is: how can the so-called One Church Plan be a home for everyone when a significant number of United Methodists have been saying for decades that they cannot live under such a plan? And therein lies the myth. The so-called One Church plan doesn’t make a home for everyone. It makes a home for everyone except the people who can’t live with it.

What’s even more striking is that the so-called One Church plan is the only plan (to my knowledge) that any major group has officially said it cannot live with. No one has said they’ll feel forced from their home if the Connectional Conference Plan passes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any Progressive groups who’ve officially said they’ll leave if a version of the Traditional Plan passes. I do know of some individuals who’ve said as much, but no group-as-a-whole. Again, leave a comment and let me know if I’ve missed an announcement of that sort. Somehow, the only plan under which a significant constituency has publicly said it would feel forced out of its home is the one plan that alleges to be a home for everyone. Curious that.

It’s not working

The video also rationalizes the so-called One Church Plan with the suggestion that we are already living in a situation that resembles the results of that plan. The idea is that we currently live in a Church where people disagree on the matter of human sexuality. We’ve now have Progressives, Centrists, and Traditionalists in one Church. The so-called One Church Plan makes adjustments to affirm this and moves us forward. The argument is supposed to make you think: Oh, well if we already have it, what’s the problem with passing it? What’s strange about this line of reasoning is that what we have now isn’t working. At the risk of sounding repetitive, we are living in conflict that has spanned nearly 50 years. Why should we think a plan that reflects where we are will resolve that conflict? Why should we think it won’t exacerbate the conflict instead?

Earlier this week we sorted out the myth of neutrality. You can call this one the  myth of “a home for everyone.” And the point is this. Whether you support the so-called One Church Plan or not, let’s at least be honest about what it does and doesn’t do. The so-called One Church Plan is the quickest and most likely route to a full split. It will make a substantial number of United Methodists feel as if they’ve lost their home. It’s doesn’t make a home for everyone. Don’t believe the myth.

Stay tuned. More #OneChurchPlanMyths to come.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

 

The Myth of Neutrality (#OneChurchPlanMyths #UMC)

The people called Methodists are feeling the pressure right now. We are just over a month away from a special session of General Conference called to settle our decades-long conflict over the matter of human sexuality. Folks familiar with this conflict likely already know that a proposal known as the “One Church Plan” is being promoted with vigor by a number of bishops and a group known as the “Uniting Methodists.” In fact, the so-called One Church Plan is said to have the support of a majority of bishops, which is unsurprising, though the exact number of that majority is unclear.

Among other things, this plan would remove the current restrictions on UMC clergy and churches from blessing same-sex unions. It would change the definition of marriage from the union of one man and one woman to the union of two persons. It also provides protections for clergy who choose not to solemnize same-sex unions. The plan is supposed to be a compromise because it removes restrictive language without adding an  explicit affirmation of same-sex unions. By neither condemning nor approving same-sex unions, this plan gives the appearance of neutrality and offers freedom to clergy to follow their convictions. In this post, I will argue that such neutrality is a myth. If the so-called One Church Plan passes, it would constitute a full-affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex practices.

Is Neutrality Possible?

The notion of neutrality in the so-called One Church Plan comes with the newly proposed definition of marriage. The imprecise “union of two persons” allegedly steers the narrow way between condemning same-sex unions and affirming them.  When inquisitive souls ask what the UMC stance on marriage is, proponents of the so-called One Church Plan want to be able to say that we’re not taking sides. You know, like Switzerland. The truth is that neutrality – like so much else –  is easier said than done.

Ecclesial Sleight of Hand

There is a simple reason United Methodist neutrality with regard to sexuality  will be impossible (despite the definitions in the so-called One Church Plan). The reason is that neutrality isn’t real. It’s a myth. There’s no such thing. “Why is that?” you ask. Because the proposed and allegedly neutral definition of marriage invites us to put all our attention on one question without considering another. Consider an analogy. The so-called One Church Plan is like a magician asking school children to look at his left hand while his right hand drops a rabbit in a hat. What I mean is this. While it is important, the key question is not how the UMC defines marriage (the magician’s left hand). The key question is what General Conference authorizes clergy to do (his right hand). What pastoral authority does General Conference authoritatively grant?

Remember that line you used to hear near the end of a wedding ceremony: “…by the power vested in me by the United Methodist Church…” It isn’t said as often anymore, but you’ll understand the point. When a United Methodist clergy person performs a wedding, she or he is acting as an instrument and on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Clergy do not have the inherent authority to solemnize a marriage covenant. That authority is delegated. The body that delegates that authority is responsible for defining how it is used. And if the General Conference authorizes United Methodist clergy to solemnize same-sex unions, the the General Conference is giving it’s blessing to those unions. And it is giving that blessing on behalf of the global United Methodist Church for which it speaks. To summarize the point, if General Conference authorizes clergy to perform same-sex unions, then General Conference is offering positive affirmation to those unions. There is no neutrality there.

Don’t Believe the Myth

Whether you like the so-called One Church Plan or not, you need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Don’t believe the myth. The plan is not neutral. Rather, it constitutes an affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex unions as good, holy, and right in the eyes of God and the Church. If you have difficulty understanding why traditional folks refuse to abide the so-called One Church Plan. This is why. We see through the myth of neutrality.

If you’d like to read more, consider Matt’s chapter “What Makes Sex Beautiful? Marriage, Aesthetics, and the Image of God in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Sexuality (IVP Academic).

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

John Wesley on Voting (and American Politics)

To state the obvious, American politics are polarized. That polarization has cultivated a lack of civility. That incivility has resulted in both sides demonizing the other and, at times, engaging in acts of violence. When citizens begin engaging in violence against political opponents, their society is in danger. A republic cannot be maintained without debate marked by civility and charity.

How to Vote

The temptation to speak evil of those with whom we disagree politically is not new. John Wesley was concerned about it in the 18th century. And he had some wisdom for the people called Methodists as they considered the candidates for whom they would vote. As we head into the midterm elections next week, we would do well to follow his advice. Wesley had three points to keep in mind, which he recorded in his journal from October 6, 1774. He wrote: “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

  1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
  2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,
  3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

Don’t sell your vote. Don’t speak evil of your opponents. Keep a generous spirit toward those who disagree with you. Three essential elements of healthy and constructive political engagement.

Can the Church lead?

What is perhaps most tragic is that the demonization of political opponents has been perpetuated by many in the Church. And this is true on both sides of the aisle. Christians on the left and Christians on the right have both participated in less than charitable tactics and speech in the effort to advance their political views and agendas.  Rather than leading the way in robust political discourse, the Church has sadly participated in the degradation of healthy debate.

Love your (political) enemies

Wesley’s three points are only an application of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44). It is absolutely impossible to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemies and, at the same time, speak evil and sharpen your spirit against political opponents. That is not to suggest we avoid political debate. Rather, it is to avoid unhealthy shouting matches in order to make space for rigorous, yet charitable, political debate. Detest is not synonymous with debate. To the contrary, it’s actually quite difficult to debate people we detest. What we need is political discourse that is thoughtful, clear, and  charitable, all the while taking the points on which we diverge with the utmost seriousness.

My prayer is that we have not gone too far down the path of incivility. Perhaps we can repent and return to political debate that honors God and one another. Perhaps the people of God can even lead the way.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.