Chronological Snobbery and the Question of Christ

Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called “chronological snobbery.” For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I’m reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It’s called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:

In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14). 

Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time. 

Why John Wesley was not Pelagian (@SoWhat_Podcast, #UMC)

The new episode of the So What? Podcast went live this morning. In this edition we continue the discussion of Pelagius and Pelagianism. It was particularly fun to get clear on the Wesleyan critique of Pelagianism and how it differs from the Reformed (or Calvinistic) critique. There’s also some great Wesley quotes on original sin. Check it out below or subscribe in iTunes. And don’t forget to give us review.

Reading Romans in Context: A Review (@Zondervan, @bencblackwell)

Context is everything. That’s the first rule for interpreting scripture (or any other text, for that matter). The rule refers first to the immediate context of a biblical passage, and it serves to remind us that responsible readers are not at liberty to extract a verse and do with it as they please. A good case in point is the common use of Philippians 4:13 by professional athletes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The verse is appropriated as something of a divine pep-talk to motivate the competitor to excellence and ultimate victory over his foes. The problem is that the original intent of the verse has nothing to do with any of that. It was composed with thanksgiving for the power of God to sustain a suffering missionary awaiting the possibility of martyrdom. It is about the strength of Christ that enables that apostle (and the readers) to persevere with faithful contentedness in the face of persecution. So, if you need encouragement as you suffer for Christ, by all means turn to Philippians 4:13. If you are competing in a televised sporting event for tens of thousands of fawning fans, perhaps you should look elsewhere.
Beyond the immediate setting of a particular passage are other important levels of context that bear on interpretation. Among other things, I teach my students to interpret a passage with a view to its place within the context of the book-as-a-whole and, if available, the larger body of work by the author in question. We also talk about historical context, which brings me to Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston (check out their blog).* This book puts Paul in conversation with other Jewish writers of roughly the same period to shed light on the argument of Paul’s most important letter. The non-scriptural material has been well-known by biblical scholars for a long time. This book, however, makes key portions of that material available in a non-technical and introductory format. That means you don’t need a theology degree to read and benefit from this volume.
The book has 172 pages of text (not including glossary and indices) divided into 20 brief chapters. The chapters progress through the text of Romans usually taking a chapter or less of text and setting it alongside another Jewish text that deals with similar themes. For example, Sarah Whittle looks at “circumcision of the heart” in Romans 2 alongside the book of Jubilees (chapter 3). Chapter 5 by Jonathan A. Linebaugh compares the all-important Romans 3:21-31 to the Epistle of Enoch to consider the highly debated topic of the revelation of God’s righteousness. Chapter 6 by Mariam J. Kamell considers the similarities and differences between Paul’s understanding of Abraham in Romans 4 and the interpretation of Abraham in Sirach. Chapter 12 takes up the topic of glorification in Romans 8 by reading it in light of Adam’s loss of glory as portrayed in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve. The relationship between hospitality and meals is the focus of chapter 18 by Nijay Gupta, who compares Romans 14 and 15 to 1 Maccabees. The thing to understand is that the argument of Romans is not historically isolated. The letter was not written in a vacuum. It takes its place among a variety of ancient Jewish thinkers intent on dealing with similar issues. Sometimes Paul agrees with them; sometimes he does not. The better we understand those dynamics, the better we will understand the Bible. This value of this book is the way it makes those matters available to a broader range of readers.

I’ll add that the essays are well-written, clear, and unburdened by lengthy footnotes. The chapters tend to proceed by introducing the theme to be considered in the passage from Romans (e.g. circumcision, salvation, the Law). This is followed by a short introduction of a relevant non-scriptural text. The remainder of each chapter is then given to putting Romans in dialogue with that text. The aim is to shed light on scripture by considering areas of agreement and disagreement between Romans and the additional text. For readers who find their appetites whet, the end of each chapter gives recommendations for further reading in relevant ancient texts and important secondary studies by scholars in the field.

There are many books out there that aim to shed light on the historical context of the New Testament, and many of them are written on a level accessible by non-specialists. These books often proceed with a survey of major themes, groups, and historical events (e.g. Jewish eschatology, Messianic expectations). Let me be clear: this is essential and important work. I’m glad those resources are available. Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.
All in all, I’m very glad the editors and contributors have published this book. I only hope they plan to produce further volumes that do the same thing with the rest of Paul’s letters.
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*Many thanks to the good people at Zondervan for providing a complimentary review copy. 

What can St. Patrick teach us about Christian Perfection?

Whether using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity or running the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick is known for many legendary and even fanciful acts. But as Philip Freeman observes in his biography St. Patrick of Ireland, “The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends” (xvii). Patrick left us two documents – one letter and a short autobiography – that shed a great deal of light on his life and his passion for the gospel, missions, and the people of Ireland. Patrick’s missionary zeal is particularly remarkable when the trauma of his childhood is taken into account. 

Some may be surprised to find that Patrick was not originally from Ireland. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. Kidnapped at the age of fifteen, he was ripped from his bed in the middle of the night, bound, and taken by ship to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Though his father and grandfather were members of the clergy, Patrick himself was not a believer. He found, however, that captivity transformed him into a praying man. He further found that the more he prayed, the more he believed in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. After six years of grueling slave labor, Patrick managed to escape and survived the perilous journey home to Britain where he was reunited with his parents. There is a strong sense of divine providence that governed Patrick’s life. According to Freeman, “No one taken by Irish raiders had been known to return alive. No one had ever escaped from Ireland” (44).

A Surprising Call

Perhaps the single most striking thing about Patrick’s life is his eagerness to return to the land of his captivity in order to preach the gospel and plant churches there. This is where I think Patrick’s life is of particularly helpful as we reflect on the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Once home, Patrick began to discern through a series of dreams that God was leading him to seek religious orders and return to Ireland as a missionary and pastor to the very people who had consigned him to a life of slavery. When you read Patrick’s account of his calling and his commitment to return in ministry to Ireland, the strength of his single-minded commitment is clear, especially in light of the opposition he received from his family, friends, and other clergy. He would offer his life in obedience motivated by love for God in love for the Irish. Patrick’s singular focus resonates strongly with Wesley’s formulation of holiness.

Christian Perfection as Enemy Love

When Jesus commanded his followers to “be perfect”, he did so in the context of his teaching on love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus’ exhortation to be perfect is not referring to some sort of absolute perfectionism. Instead, the perfect command is specifically an imperative to love enemies and pray for persecutors. In short, when Jesus says be perfect, he means love your enemies. Jesus illustrates the point by saying that God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, the point was clear that God gives what is necessary for life to all without regard to their relative goodness or wickedness. When the people of God express love to those who would do them harm, they are obeying Jesus’ command to be perfect.

A Perfect Model

Patrick’s desire to love his former captors out of obedient love to God was a shock to his contemporaries. He wrote in his Confession that his fellow clergy did not understand why he wanted “to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God” (§ 46). Nevertheless, Patrick was unreservedly set apart to his calling. He writes: 

“Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name…There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God’s debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God” (§§ 37-38). 

If you want a model of obedience to Jesus’ command to be perfect by loving enemies, you need look no further than St. Patrick of  Ireland.

Contemporary discussions of Christian perfection digress all too often into debates over whether one can stop sinning and be truly perfect, though we forget that John Wesley rejected any language of “sinless perfection”. If you could ask Wesley what he meant by Christian perfection, he would tell you that it is a heart of pure intention overflowing in love for God and others. Patrick’s singular devotion to the call of God to love his enemies provides a concrete example of Wesley’s doctrine. Nothing would stand in Patrick’s way as he put all his energy into fulfilling the law of love, not only for his friends, especially for his enemies. 

Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy’s earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I’m grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I’m unpersuaded by Balcomb’s rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 
Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the “Creed raises far more questions than it answers.” Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I’m reminded of the chapter entitled “If you don’t get it, you’ve got it,” in Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ’s coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb’s essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb’s critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.
First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, “It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him.” Well, if by “believe” you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It’s easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 
Second, Balcomb’s insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn’t really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it’s no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith – faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
Do we need the Creed?
Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb’s argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let’s not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages. 

Review: The Quest for the Trinity (@ivpacademic) by Stephen R. Holmes

We continue in the midst of what has often been called a “Trinitarian revival,” but with The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that the revival would be more properly termed a revision. He writes:

I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable (xv).

Having spent the last several years dipping into the literature on the doctrine of God, both ancient and modern, I was, to say the least, somewhat jarred by this claim. The so-called revival has been received with enthusiasm by many in all the major Christian traditions, and welcomed as a promising foundation for ecumenical dialog. After all, if there is one thing Christians can agree on, it is the Trinity. That Holmes would challenge the consensus by arguing that the contemporary debates are in fact a departure from the historic formulations of the doctrine of God points to the value of this book. Whether or not one agrees with Holmes, anyone interested in the doctrine of God and the way it has been handled by modern theologians will have to engage the argument of this book.
That argument begins with a survey of 20th century treatments of the Trinity including the particularly noteworthy contributions of Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulous (chapter 1). Among the contemporary writers Holmes finds a common interest in locating the doctrine of God in the gospel narratives, a focus on the personal nature of God, the entanglement of the life of God with world history, and the univocal use of language with regard to God and the created order. Chapter 2 takes up the biblical material and provides a critical analysis of the way the relevant texts have often been read. The rest of the book (chapters 3-9) traces the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled from the Patristic period to the present.
Holmes finds general consensus with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity up through the time of the Reformation. He even casts doubt on the oft repeated idea that the doctrine of the Trinity was lost prior to the present revival of interest. Even during the anti-Trinitarianism of the Enlightenment, there were numerous theologians arguing for the historic doctrine. From the ancient church through to the Reformation, Holmes identifies a common interest in using all of scripture (not just the gospels) as a basis for Trinitarian thinking, an insistence on the ineffable and simple unity of the divine nature, and the recognition that language about God could be adequate, though always inexact. When compared with the many and various approaches to the Trinity in the modern period, Holmes finds these concepts generally absent and sometimes even rejected. As a result, he sees the extensive interest in and writing on the Trinity as a departure from the historic doctrine. Holmes certainly recognizes what is at stake if he is right about the irreconcilable differences between the ancients and the moderns. If the more recent formulations are right, then “we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God” (2). 
In my judgment, Holmes is correct that many modern theologians depart in substantial ways from the historic formulations of the Trinity, though I am hesitant to issue a blanket statement that all recent writers commit such a departure. I think we must recognize that the task of modern Trinitarian theology is not quite the same as that of the ancients. The ancients had the great responsibility of forging language that accurately reflected the truth about God in scripture and the worship of God in the church. Theirs was a foundational task, and we do not have to repeat the work that they have already done so well. The task of Trinitarian theology in the present is to explore the implications of the historic doctrine. It sometimes sounds as if Holmes is suggesting that anything other than a repetition of the ancient formulations is a departure from them; but is it not the case that we can stand on their work to consider further and unforeseen implications?  Holmes is certainly right that some modern writers completely revise the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the charge is less clearly substantiated against others. Each new contribution must be weighed on its own merits and evaluated with regard to the degree that it faithfully builds on those who have gone before.
The Quest for the Trinity has much to commend it. Holmes’ detailed account of the doctrine of God from the early church up to the present will greatly benefit anyone interested in understanding the historical development of Trinitarianism and will make it a valuable text in courses on the doctrine of God and historical theology. The summaries of the historic formulations give us a criteria to help us judge the degree to which new contributions stand in continuity with or break from the central components of the doctrine. All in all, this is a very valuable book that will help us approach the doctrine of God with heightened care and increased critical awareness. 
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*Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of The Quest for the Trinity.