Book Notice: Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (@cenpastheo, @IVPAcademic)

When it comes to sex, evangelical Christians tend to be known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. That’s why we need this new book and why I’m grateful to have had opportunity to contribute a chapter. The book is Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic), and it’s a collection of essays from the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. Contributors consider the topic in light of scripture, history, theology, aesthetics, and culture. One recurring theme is the need for those who take a traditional view of marriage and sexuality to spend more time working on a positive theology of marriage. This book makes a significant contribution to that endeavor. You can read the contents at the IVP Academic site. Here are the endorsements:

“Pastors minister; theologians seek-and minister-understanding. Ministering understanding of how the Bible addresses real-world issues is the great privilege and responsibility of the pastor theologian. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson have put together a whole ministry team that ministers understanding worth its weight in gold on one of the most socially complicated, politically fraught, yet existentially unavoidable issues of our day or any: human sexuality. In an age where the male/female duality is in danger of becoming extinct, these essays serve as salient reminders of the beauty and mystery of God’s created order: ‘Male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27).

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL

For Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, the ideal of the pastor-scholar is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. The example they set through their Center for Pastor Theologians is an invitation to practice ecclesial theology. So is their new volume of thoughtful essays on God’s beautiful, well-ordered, and yet mysterious purposes for human sexuality-a book that demonstrates the value and relevance of having a community of wise scholars ‘do’ theology in the service of the church.

-Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College

There’s a public conversation about human sexuality happening nearly everywhere today, but this book helpfully locates it right at the intersection of the pastoral and the theological. Beauty, Order, and Mystery provides a remarkably easy introduction to a vexed set of issues because the chapters are approachable and accessible even as they display deep reflection and up-to-date learning. In this particular multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.

-Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

In biblical theology, human life is embodied life.

No gnostic anthropology around here. A thoughtful reminder from Robert Gundry that full humanness requires embodiment:

The separation of spirit from body affects the spirit as well as the body. In the Biblical perspective, the physical body is just as essential to life which is life indeed as is the spirit. Barring the effects of sin (which touch the spirit, too), the body as such does not shackle the spirit. It provides the spirit with an organ of expression and action, just as the spirit provides the body with animation and direction. By total separation, then, body and spirit die together. The whole man dies. 

The Biblical touchstone for truly human life is not consciousness of the spirit, let alone the material being of a physical object such as the body. Rather, man is fully himself in the unity of his body and spirit in order that the body may be animated and the spirit may express itself in obedience to God. Both parts of the human constitution share in the dignity of the divine image. That dignity lies in man’s service to God as a representative caretaker over the material creation. For such a task, man needs a physical medium of action. Neither spirit nor body gains precedence over the other. Each gains in unity with the other. Each loses separation from the other.

From Robert H. Gundry, Sōma in Biblical Theology: With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology, (SNTSMS 29, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1976), 159-160. 

Gordon McConville on "The Challenge of Being Human"

I was excited to learn last night that Professor Gordon McConville of my own University of Gloucestershire will deliver the annual lecture at the upcoming meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) later this year. My own research is in the area of Pauline anthropology and the question of what it means to be human particularly with regard to embodiment; so I was also excited to find that Professor McConville will be delivering a paper entitled, “‘How like an angel!’: The Challenge of Being Human.” Here’s the abstract:
Hamlet’s take on Psalm 8:5 (Act 2 Sc. 2) highlights the contradiction between the enormous potential of human beings and their mortality, ‘this quintessence of dust’. A biblical theology of humanity also moves between these poles. Human destiny is written in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. But what does this leave to be said about human potential in a fallen world, and related concepts such as creativity, excellence, professionalism, and power? The lecture explores what the divine ascription of ‘goodness’ might mean for the human being’s sense of purpose in the world (Gen. 1:31). It finds its resources mainly but not exclusively in the Old Testament, and aims to make a contribution to Christian thinking on the subject. Key words in the approach taken are ‘embodiment’ and ‘engagement’. 
I had the chance to meet Professor McConville during a visit to the University last fall, and I found him to be very kind and personable. He is certainly a world-class scholar of the Old Testament, and I’m confident that he will deliver a very stimulating lecture. Other IBR sessions are on also on the topic of “Biblical Conceptions of Humanity: The Image of God.” So, if you are going to be at SBL, it looks like the IBR sessions will be well worth attending. 

Decarnating Jesus

Amidst the celebration of the death of death through the victory of God in Christ that is the joy of Easter, there sometimes come discordant voices who insist on twisting the scriptures and casting aspersion on the resurrected Lord. One of those voices this Easter season is Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who, for many years now, has been one of the chief antagonists of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Borg has gone on the offensive against the resurrection once again this year with a post entitled: The Resurrection of Jesus: Physical/Bodily or Spiritual/Mystical? The article claims that Jesus’ resurrection should not be understood as a resurrection of the body but as a “really real” spiritual resurrection, and through mystical experience a person can come to know or experience the really real. This so-called “spiritual” resurrection is, for Borg, distinctly non-bodily:
[W]hat would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?
I intend to raise three points of response to this article – two critiquing aspects of the argument and one considering its implications.
First, the question of how Jesus can be bodily present in a place and yet “all around us and with us, present everywhere” is a relentlessly modernistic question that didn’t seem to trouble the early church and, I suspect, doesn’t trouble many post-moderns, who are often quite comfortable with mystery and tension. And the question is easily answered using the language of the New Testament authors themselves. In Acts, Jesus ascends bodily to the throne of heaven and the right hand of the Father, and there he is present, yet he sends the Holy Spirit to be his presence in the world to embolden and empower his disciples for the mission of making disciples. The New Testament affirms both the bodily nature of Christ’s resurrection and the pervasive presence of God in Christ through the Spirit. Indeed, the Spirit is even sometimes called the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:11). This is, of course, the kind of biblical language that led the early church fathers to begin using trinitarian language in describing the mysterious existence of the one God revealed as three persons. A truly trinitarian theology sees no problem with Christ being bodily present in heaven and yet widely present in the Spirit. Mysterious? Certainly. But neither meaningless nor contradictory.
Second, Borg insists that resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse. Strangely, though, he goes on to reflect on the importance of Easter by saying that Jesus could not be held by the tomb:
The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.
This is a most peculiar way of speaking. If resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then presumably his corpse would have remained in the tomb. And would not the tomb have continued to hold him? And when his disciples began to go around saying that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been resurrected, would not a simple inspection of the entombed corpse of Jesus put an end to all that fanciful talk. The reality is that if resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then there is no resurrection. He is not Lord; the tomb has held him; he is not loose in the world; he is not here; and the kingdom of God is a farce. Borg’s argument virtually deconstructs itself.
Third, what are the implications of this allegedly non-physical resurrection? There was a common axiom among the early church fathers that provides a helpful angle into this discussion. In describing the relationship between incarnation and redemption, the fathers often said: whatever is assumed (in the incarnation) is redeemed, and whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. This is a helpful perspective for considering the implications of a non-bodily resurrection, because if the resurrection is only spiritual/mystical and not physical/bodily, if a body has not been assumed in the resurrection, then it is far from clear that redemption extends to embodied life, which is bad news for all of us who live as embodied persons. If Jesus does not assume a body in his resurrection, then it is unclear how redemption can have anything to do with us. In fact, it would seem that it does not, and we are left helpless in our sinful state. 
Further, if the resurrection is non-bodily, then it is difficult to understand why the incarnation was necessary in the first place. This point is behind the title of this post: Decarnating Jesus. If incarnation is to take on human flesh, then decarnation is to cast it off. If the resurrection and redemption are non-bodily, why did the Son of God need to take on a body in the first place? In Borg’s line of thought, the incarnation seems to be something of an add-on that doesn’t really have much to do with anything.
Also, a non-physical resurrection denigrates physicality. That is, if redemption is a purely spiritual and non-physical reality, then why should we think physicality and the physical world matter at all? Forget stewardship of creation. Forget feeding the hungry. The sooner they starve to death, the sooner they are delivered from this lowly physical state to a higher spiritual salvation.
The bodily resurrection of Christ is the ground of embodied dignity, the ground of serving and ministering to other embodied persons. The resurrection of Christ’s body is God’s declaration that bodies are important; creation is important; physicality is important and good. 
Borg’s decarnational theology is basically warmed-over gnosticism, the implications of which denigrate embodied life and undermine the goodness of God’s physical creation. This leads logically to an escapist theology in which bodily existence is bad and spirituality is good, and hope is for freedom from the former for the pure experience of the latter. The problem is that God said his physical creation was good. God imprinted embodied human beings with his own divine image. God likes bodies. And God raised Jesus’ body from the dead for our full redemption and for the full redemption of all that he made. Anything less is decarnating Jesus. 

Life in the Spirit

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Romans 8:9

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the Christian life is about more than forgiveness of sin. Don’t get me wrong! Forgiveness is hugely important. But it’s not the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. One of the ways that scripture describes the ongoing process of Christian discipleship is with the language of living in the Spirit. But what is life in the Spirit? How is this new life nurtured and developed? What is it’s goal?
Romans 8 is one of the chief places that the Apostle Paul develops the theme of life in the Spirit, and he does so in contrast to life in the flesh. When Paul uses these terms flesh and Spirit, he is referring to opposing powers or principles of control. The Spirit is God’s own Holy Spirit who indwells believers and empowers them to live transformed lives that honor and please God. The flesh is the opposite controlling power that is antagonistic to the work of God’s Spirit. In developing these concepts Paul invites his reader to ask: Am I controlled by the flesh or the Spirit? He also wants his readers to begin reflecting on what it looks like to live under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit as they seek to live in ways that are honoring to God.
Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind.
Paul makes just this point when he says, “For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). Being transformed into the likeness of Christ begins with the life of the mind, which means that as believers we need to be intentional about the way we order our habits of thinking. There are innumerable voices out there vying for a piece of our thought life. From radio to TV, billboards to social networking, someone wants us to think about their show, their product, their idea, or their agenda. The question for us is whether our thoughts will be shaped by those voices or by the Spirit of God.
But how do we develop habits of mind that are shaped by the Spirit? The Church has often pointed to the means of grace as concrete and specific tools used by God to transform our thinking and our living. Regular study of scripture alone and with a group, prayer, corporate worship, and sharing in the sacramental life of the Church are only a few ways that we can develop a disciplined thought life. Memorizing scripture is enormously important as well. My grandfather has made a habit of memorizing several chapters of scripture at a time (and sometimes even whole books!). It’s not hard to guess what occupies his thinking most of the time. Life in the Spirit begins with the life of the mind. Who is shaping our thinking?
Life in the Spirit is life free from sin.
The struggle against sin is sometimes so profound that it’s almost impossible to believe that God’s Spirit intends us to live lives that are pleasing to God, lives free from sin. But no matter how tough it may be to believe, Paul makes just this point by implication in Romans 8:7-9. He claims that the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It is not willing submit to God; indeed, it is not able to submit to God. Then Paul says something staggering: “You are not in the flesh.” Here’s the logic: those that are in the flesh are unable to please God. You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Therefore, you are able to please God. If Paul is right that those in whom the Spirit dwells are able to please God, then he must mean that those who have the Spirit are able to successfully resist temptation to sin, because sin is not pleasing to God.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Christians to sin. I am saying that life in bondage to sin is not God’s design for the normal Christian life. Life in the Spirit means that the Spirit empowers people to obey God, to honor God, to resist those things that bring feelings of guilt and condemnation. It turns out that the good news is better than we could of imagined. Not only is the penalty of our sin forgiven, but the power of our sin is destroyed. Life in the Spirit means life free from sin.
Life in the Spirit is holiness now and resurrection later
Many times when we talk about life in the Spirit and the holiness that is the fruit of life in the Spirit, we forget that this life is driving forward towards a goal, and that goal is nothing less than resurrection from the dead. We catch a glimpse of this in Romans 8:11 where Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” For Paul, God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus, if the Spirit of God dwell in us believers, then we have the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead along with Christ. The presence of the Spirit in the present produces the transformed life of Christlikeness and holiness; the presence of the Spirit also guarantees the future resurrection of the body when Christ returns. This is important because death is a consequence of sin, and until death is defeated and its effects reversed, the consequence remains. Life in the Spirit means the full overthrow of all the effects of sin. Bondage to sin is broken in the present; the death that is the result of sin is reversed in the future. And that is good news.
So, life in the Spirit begins with the transformation of our thinking and works its way out into every aspect of our living as we await the day when death will be fully and finally overthrown and our bodies raised from the dead. Christian discipleship is about much more than forgiveness. The question is: Are we living in the Spirit?

Should United Methodist Website Be Expected to Maintain Church’s Doctrinal Standards?

Should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? If a recent piece titled “Every heart inclined to both good, evil” and written by Rev. Michael Williams is any indication, the answer is: evidently not. In the article, written for the United Methodist News Service and posted on the denominational website, Rev. Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, claims boldly that “good and evil are inclinations of every human heart.” Williams argues that his position is properly drawn from John Wesley’s own theology. Not only is this a poor reading of Wesley, it is a direct contradiction to the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.
Article VII of our United Methodist Articles of Religion states that “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” This corruption of human nature is known as “original sin” and, according to the United Methodist Church, is naturally engendered in every human being. Rev. Williams’ position that “good, like evil, is a capacity of every human heart” is clearly contradictory to United Methodist belief. Indeed, Article VIII indicates that no human being has naturally the power to do good works. In short, Williams’ understanding of human nature is deficient when held against the doctrinal standards of our denomination.
Williams attempts to build his case on John Wesley’s General Rules, the first two of which have been popularly abridged as “Do no harm” and “Do good.” But such a reading of Wesley neglects key sources for his understanding of a person’s natural capacities and inclinations. Two extended quotes will make the point. The first is from his sermon on “Original Sin,” in which Wesley wrote:
“No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in; But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it” (Works, VI:59).
And in his sermon on “The New Birth”:
“And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam’s loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires…While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up. He is in the same condition as if he had them not” (Works, VI:68, 70).
Wesley was no optimist when it came to natural human ability for good. Instead, he affirmed with historic Christianity that human beings are depraved and spiritually dead. We come into the world with no love for God and no capacity for good. Williams claims that “For Wesley, the possibility of doing good or harm resulted from the free will God gives us to choose to follow one inclination over another.” But this is not so. For Wesley, human beings are in bondage to sin and not free at all. God in his great kindness and through his preventing grace mercifully frees us to act aright. The idea that human beings have some natural neutrality to choose either good or evil carries the stench of Pelagianism and has no basis in the theology of John Wesley.
The present problem is not merely that Rev. Williams, a minister in the United Methodist Church, has a profoundly non-Methodist anthropology. The larger and more severe problem is that the editors of the United Methodist News Service had the audacity to publish the article on the denomination’s official website. Do not our doctrinal standards apply to material written there? Should opinions which contradict the established beliefs of our Church be published online for all to see? I could find no disclaimer stating that the views of the author are not necessarily the views of the United Methodist Church, and I lament that some unsuspecting reader might stumble across this article and be misled to believe that this is the common doctrine of the people called Methodists, for it certainly is not.
Let us return then to our original question: should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? My answer is a resounding yes. The only appropriate action for the editors is to retract this article and take care not to make such a grievous error again.
*Thanks to Duke student Jonathan Andersen & Joseph at Methodist Thinker for drawing my attention to the article by Rev. Williams.

Wesley & the Dehumanizing Beastliness of Sin

One recurring theme in John Wesley’s sermon on “The General Deliverance” is the contrast between human beings and animals, the “brute creation” as he terms it. For Wesley, the key difference between the two is that humanity is capable of knowing, loving, and enjoying God while the brutes are not. This leads him to conclude that those humans who are “without God in the world” have been reduced to the level of animals. So Wesley:
If it is this which distinguishes men from beasts,-that they are creatures capable of God, capable of knowing and loving and enjoying him; then whoever is “without God in the world,” whoever does not know or love or enjoy God, and is not careful about the matter, does, in effect, disclaim the nature of man, and degrade himself to a beast…These sons of men are undoubtedly beasts; and that by their own act and deed; for they deliberately and wilfully disclaim the sole characteristic of human nature. It is true, they may have a share of reason; they have speech and they walk erect; but they have not the mark, the only mark, which totally separates man from the brute creation…They are equally without God in the world; “so that a man” of this kind “hath no pre-eminence above a beast” (III.11, emphasis added).
Key is the connection that he makes between degradation to the level of beast and the deliberate and willful nature of the action. Desiring to rule ourselves freely rather than be ruled by the good and wise Creator, we become enslaved to dehumanization. It is humanity’s rebellion that leads to our ruin; it is sin that makes man no more than a beast.