Friday, November 30, 2007

From the archives: Frank Thielman on the 'center' of Paul's Theology

Once in awhile I thought it would be nice to reproduce a thought-provoking piece from my former blog, Pauline Perspectives. This particular post originally appeared on February 27, 2007 and garnered some interesting discussion. Without further ado, to the post we go!

Frank Thielman, Presbyterian professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and author of Theology of the New Testament: a Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Zondervan, 2006), approaches the problem of identifying the 'center' of Paul's theology in this manner:

The confusing variety of proposals probably results from two causes. First, interpreters of Paul who speak of a 'center' for his theology have different understandings of how broad or narrow the chosen 'center' ought ot be. Should the 'center' be some theological principle from which everything else is derived- a sort of theological first cause? Or should we understand the center more narrowly to make it more useful in distinguishing Paul's theology from other Christian theologies? Second, the theological presuppositions of interpreters seem to play a hand in many assessments of Paul's 'center.' Lutherans tend to see 'justification by faith' as the center, Roman Catholics tend to speak of something like 'Christocentric soterilogy,' and Reformed theologians seem to favor 'redemptive history.'
It is possible, however, to overcome these two problems. First, if articulation of a 'center' is to be useful in organizing Paul's occassional and unsystematic theological statements, it seems necessary to focus on a theological theme that is broad enough to account for other important themes, yet not so broad that it becomes useless in articulating the distinctive nature of Paul's theology. (italics mine) If this is right, then 'justification by faith,' although an important subtheme of Paul's theology, may be too specific to do justice to other elements. By contrast, 'Christocentric soteriology' may be too broad to indicate Paul's distinctive concerns since much of the New Testament could fit under this heading.
Second, although presuppositions are unavoidable, it is possible to resist the temptation to vindicate them by implausible readings of the text. One way to avoid the inappropriate incursion of presuppositions into the search for a center to Paul's theology is to insist that our 'center' must be something that Paul explicitly says is important to him. (italics mine) Since Paul is a coherent theologian and we have a large corpus of theologically oriented letters from him, it seems reasonable to expect him to provide us with a 'center' for his theology that will be useful in filling the gaps between his divergent theological expressions.
God's graciousness toward his weak and sinful creatures fills both these criteria (italics original). Although it is an important concern within non-Pauline New Testament texts as well, the extent to which Paul speaks of the gracious nature of God's character is distinctive. It grounds his approach to such widely differing problems as the imposition of the Jewish law on Gentile believers in Galatia (Gal. 1:6; 5:6), a divisive elitism in Corinth that arises from the church's indigenous Greco-Roman culture (1 Cor. 1:26-31), the lagging of the Corinthian contribution to Paul's collection for the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:1, 6-7), and, at the end of Paul's life, Timothy's need for encouragement not to be ashamed of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8-9). It is, moreover, a concept that Paul himself identifies as central to his understanding of the gospel. To set God's grace aside, he says, is to imply that Christ died for nothing (Gal. 3:21) (pp.231-232).

So do you agree with Thielman's assessments? What would you characterize as the 'center' of Paul's theology? Does Paul even have a 'center' and if so how do we arrive at it? Personally, I think Thielman is on the right track here, but I'm curious about your thoughts.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

One of my great hobby horses outside of New Testament studies is reading and learning about the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Recently, I was asked for a wish list for Christmas and invariably as I do every year, I listed a couple of Lincoln books. Well, this year I have found what looks to be a real gem titled, Lincoln's Christianity by Michael Burkhimer. To get a flavor for Burkhimer's thesis it reads:

In Lincoln's Christianity, Michael Burkhimer examines the entire history of the president's interaction with religion—accounts from those who knew him, his own letters and writings, the books he read—to reveal a man who did not believe in orthodox Christian precepts (and might have had a hard time getting elected today) yet, by his example, was a person and president who most truly embodied Christian teachings.

Lincoln's religious beliefs have always been the source of controversy and brought to mind a book review I did in seminary four years ago on Allen C. Guelzo's Redeemer President.

I have reproduced it in full here:

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1999.

With as many biographies already written about Lincoln, one would assume that there would not be any stones unturned. Lincoln’s legacy has often been viewed through a Christian lens. Themes in Lincoln’s presidency readily lend to those assumptions, such as his ability to lead the nation through its darkest hour, claiming guidance from “Providence,” and his assassination on Good Friday. These factors all serve to give Lincoln a Messiah-like quality, and have remained relatively unchallenged until recently.
Allen C. Guelzo, dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College, and Grace F. Kea Professor of American History, manages to piece together a Lincoln never before studied by biographers in the past. Far from the Christian and backwoods lawyer turned president that he is often been portrayed as, the author paints a convincing picture of Lincoln’s personal and public life as one shaped out of intellectual curiosity, skepticism, and the determination for self-improvement. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President traces Lincoln’s intellectual roots to the religious, social and political movements of his day: Calvinism, the Enlightenment, and classical liberalism. These factors would ultimately guide Lincoln to associate himself closely with the Whig party.
According to Guelzo, Lincoln’s affiliation with Whig thought was due to the rejection of his father’s lifestyle, modeled after the Jeffersonian agrarian economics that he despised. If Jefferson’s vision of America illustrated the virtues of self-sufficiency, the Whigs vision was concerned with self-advancement highlighted by their vision of a national banking system, investments in internal improvements in canals and railroads, and the advocacy of high-tariffs to safeguard American businesses. These factors guaranteed Lincoln’s support of the party as he affirmed himself “an old-line Henry Clay Whig.” According to Guelzo, the lifestyle of Lincoln’s father as a subsistent farmer also shaped Lincoln’s attitudes about slavery. Lincoln believed this Jeffersonian and later Jacksonian democracy lead to economic slavery by restraining people from self-advancement. Although Lincoln’s liberal inclinations fit well with the Whig ideal, his religious thoughts were shaped more by identifying with the skeptical thought of Thomas Paine.
This skepticism, according to the author was rooted in Lincoln’s rigid Calvinistic upbringing. Guelzo writes,
“It was also a Calvinism which Lincoln rejected, partly because it was his father’s religion, partly because he could make no intellectual sense of it; and yet it was ingrained so deeply into him that his mental instincts would always yield easily to any argument in favor of determinism or predestination, in favor of the helplessness of humanity to please God, in favor of melancholy as the proper estimate of the human condition.” (20)

This melancholy regarding the human condition forged what Lincoln deemed his “Doctrine of Necessity.” Lincoln’s “doctrine” held the belief that human beings did not possess free will or the moral responsibility for their actions. Instead of responding based with free will, Lincoln believed that human beings responded to “motives.” These motives always appealed to the self-interest, and lead to a fatalistic world-view from Lincoln. According to Guelzo, Lincoln’s view of God then was not one of a redeemer but an impenetrable judge. He writes,
“If Lincoln’s concept of God looked like anything else on offer, it was not the orthodox
Trinitarian God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit described by the Old School theologians, but a truncated one with God the Father-remote austere, all-powerful, uncommunicative-and neither Son or Spirit.” (153)

Lincoln’s thoughts were anything but static, however. Guelzo notes two important shifts in his thinking that lead to shifting attitudes about slavery and ultimately God.
The first major shift occurred in 1854 during the Lincoln-Douglas debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and continued through the demise of the Whig Party causing Lincoln to join the newly formed Republican Party. According to the author, Lincoln expanded his views on slavery to encompass a moral overtone. Originally, Lincoln’s views on slavery contained Whig leanings emphasizing that slavery was wrong because it fostered pride in the ownership of slaves, denying the motivation for self-improvement. Once Lincoln understood that slaves yearned for self-improvement, he was able to relate to them on a human level. Despite this significant change in thinking, Lincoln still would not affirm his total support of the abolition of slavery.
The second shift in thinking came during the Civil War in 1861 and 1862. Guelzo demonstrates that Lincoln began to reevaluate the meaning of providence when the war continued with no foreseeable end in sight. Previously Lincoln viewed providence as an impersonal law that governed human affairs, but following numerous defeats and mounting causalities, he believed that providence was addressing him, demanding that slavery needed to end. The author writes,
“Lincoln had come, by the circle of a lifetime and the disasters of the war, to confront once again the Calvinistic God who could not be captured or domesticated into Tom Paine’s Almighty Architect, who possessed a conscious will to intervene, challenge, and reshape human destinies without regard for historical process, the voice out of the whirlwind speaking to the American Job.” (327)

Lincoln’s new understanding of providence enabled him to pen the Emancipation Proclamation, despite political risk. However, Lincoln’s admittance of the divine personality of providence did not draw him closer to religion, but served instead to reinforce the wide distance that separated him from God. Guelzo concludes that Lincoln’s faith could be best be summed up as a “…deep sense of helplessness before a distant and implacable Judge who revealed himself only through crisis and death, whom Lincoln would have wanted to love if only the Judge had given him the grace to do the loving.” (446)
Guelzo’s portrayal of Lincoln is lucid, balanced, and original. Many of the myths that have turned Lincoln into a strong Christian are effectively exposed by the author as an inaccurate attempt to portray Lincoln as a Messiah-like figure by early biographers. Instead, Guelzo depicts Lincoln as a man plagued by doubts, whose thought was closely aligned with others such as Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, who questioned the complete sincerity of faith in a Calvinistic God. Guelzo is successful in tracing Lincoln’s thought due to his remarkable grasp of the secondary literature of Lincoln’s time. Despite the enormity of the sources used, the author is successful in producing a very readable book.
No aspect of Lincoln’s life is untreated in this intellectual biography. Lincoln’s early years, his romances and marriage, his legal and political career, his disdain for abolitionists, his modified views of slavery, his strained relationships with cabinet members and Union Army generals, are all uncovered by Guelzo and are treated with the same rigorous care that is characteristic of the remainder of the book. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President provides the ideal starting point for anyone interested in Lincoln’s life.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

N.T. Wright on Doug Moo + Online Resources

In the now-famous N.T. Wright interview with Trevin Wax, the latter asks Wright about his critics concerning the New Perspective such as D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Doug Moo. See what Wright has to say concerning Moo:

Moo is in a different category again. Doug Moo, I would say, is a much greater Pauline scholar than either of the two I just mentioned. One of the things I really respect about Doug Moo is that he is constantly grappling with the text. Where he hears the text saying something which is not what his tradition would have said, he will go with the text. I won’t always agree with his exegesis, but there is a relentless scholarly honesty about him which I really tip my hat off to.

Incidentally, there are several fine resources of Doug Moo's that can be found online. First, his paper "Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment" presented at the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) Spring conference (2007) in Wheaton is available, along with an MP3 of the lecture. Secondly, has four MP3's of expostions Moo gave on Colossians at the John Bunyan Conference (2006). Finally, Moo has a really cool website that he shares with his wife, Jenny that details their world-class photography of beautiful nature scenes. One can even order a print for his/her home! Included on this website his a link called "Doug's Biblical Studies" where one discovers some of Moo's forthcoming projects such as a Colossians/Philemon commentary for the Pillar series, Galatians for BECNT, and a Pauline Theology for Zondervan!

As an aside, I am always delighted when someone of Moo's caliber makes some of their writings/lectures available online. It really gives a boost to academic interaction. Way to go, Doug!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hans-Josef Klauck on Res Gestae

Hans-Josef Klauck in his outstanding The Religious Context of Early Christianity, comments that the Res Gestae Divi Augusti ("The Deeds of the Divine Augustus"), a funerary inscription written by Augustus denoting his achievements as emperor, downplays some of the explicit language used by the imperial cult in Asia. Here, Klauck writes, Augustus is at his diplomatic best, referring to himself by his diplomatic title 'princeps' "and with similar reserve he merely indicates a sacral elevation of his person."(298)
Klauck goes on to write that this was the prevailing attitude of Augustus in Rome. However, Klauck that this reticence to worship Augustus as a god was merely on the surface:

Augustus was not officially declared to be a god during his lifetime, but every possibility stopping short of such veneration was exploited. Augustus was not the direct object of religious veneration, but his 'genius' was venerated, i.e. his benevolent protector spirit, or in abstract terms the genius that guided him. The fact that two laurel trees were set up at his doorposts indicates that a separate object of veneration was his 'numen', the divine power which dwelt in him. (299)

After mentioning that at banquets (both private and public) toasts were made in his honor and that the Senate chose to honor him with the designation "Augustus" translated in Greek to Sebastos, meaning 'sanctified,' 'venerable', 'exalted', etc., The Secular Games were held in 17 BCE "celebrating the dawn of the new age which would once more be governed by ancient values such as fides, pax, honor, pudor and virtus. The Roman tendency to deify abstract concepts favoured the veneration of such entities as concordia, victoria, and pax Augusta." (299)

Moreover, "the pax Romana was seen as the great achievement of the Augustan age; and it was precisely this state of peace, so long unknown until then, that earned Augustus genuine gratitude and veneration." (299)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

To Blurb or not to Blurb?: That is the question!

Many of you are well aware of the discussions swirling around the biblioblogosphere concerning Tom Schreiner's forthcoming New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. If not I refer you to Ben Witherington's post which got the whole thing started: "For God so loved Himself?" Is God a narcissist? Others, such as John Piper and Denny Burke have done an ample job of responding to Witheringon's criticisms, so I won't rehash the arguments from this debate.

What strikes me is that Witherington actually writes a blurb for Schreiner's N.T. Theology, a volume in which he is very critical. I am not so naive as to think that one has to be in 100% agreement with an author one is reviewing, and to Witherington's credit he states this in the blurb, but I'm wondering how helpful blurbs are for those of us who are avid book purchasers.

I was once told by a professor of mine not to buy books on the basis of the blurbs on the back, but I am still inclined to purchase something when I see the likes of an N.T. Wright, James Dunn, John Barclay, Gordon Fee, Richard Bauckham, etc. endorsing a book and its contents, than I am a book with no blurbs whatsoever.

So how important are blurbs? Should the criteria for buying books include questions such as: Is it the scholar's in whose opinion you respect? Is it the author him/her self? Is it the publisher? Is it the subject matter?

Let me know what you think.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Vintage Fee: Reflections on Colossians 2:2-3

Colossians 2:2-3: "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."(NIV)

Very rarely is one persuaded to reflect and worship when reading an exegetical study, but that was exactly what happened when I was in the middle of reviewing Gordon Fee's magisterial Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Some of you may wince at the above statement, but often scholarly work never penetrates more than the intellect. It is rare to find a world-class exegete that can move your heart as well, but this is exactly what Fee accomplishes throughout this study and especially in this moment of brilliance concerning Colossians 2:2-3:

...Even though most of Paul's concern from this point on is with Christ as Redeemer, he has felt compelled at the beginning to present Christ as fully divine: preexistent, Creator, the one in whom all the fullness of the Deity dwells, and the ultimate revealer of the 'mystery' of God. And all of this, apparently, is to deforck the powers and divest them of whatever hold they may have on the Colossian believers.... (And now for the good stuff !)

And this calls for a final word. One of the tragedies of this kind of exegetical exercise occurs if we focus on the 'meaning' of the passage and thus lose the Pauline focus altogether, which is on the utter greatness and glory of Christ. In trying to 'get it right' with regard to what Paul says, we are in constant danger of 'getting it wrong' as to why he says it at all--the ever-present danger of doing with this grand passage what Jesus castigated the Pharisees for doing with the law: to turn from worship and adoration to fine-tuning our exegesis and thus never returning to worship and adoration. To do that, I would argue, would in the end defeat the Christology altogether. We simply have not entered into an understanding of Paul's understanding of his Lord if we are not drawn into his absolute adoration and devotion. In the end, this passage should cause us to genuflect more than gesture (316-317).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Once More Caesar's gospel

"Jesus is the One who has the message of 'the good news of the kingdom of God'(Lk 4:43), the reign of peace which shows the pax-Romana up for what it is--in words placed on the lips of the chieftain of the British tribes, 'to violence, robbery, and rapine they give the lying name of 'government'; they create a desert and call it 'peace'" (Tacitus Agricola 30; quoted from deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 329).
All the discussions swirling around the blogosphere concerning Paul's gospel vis-à-vis Caesar's, or more specifically Barclay v. Wright after the recent events at SBL, have got me recalling other useful items I have read on the topic.

Scanning my library, I came upon a relevant quote to the debate from Michael Gorman in his Apostle of the Crucified Lord. It should be noted that Gorman and Wright are very similar in their approach to this subject, but nevertheless this quote is worth presenting in full:

Augustus was the bringer, and his successors the guarantors, of peace and security--in a word, of salvation. This was his 'evangel' or good news (euangelion/euangelia), as an inscription from 9 B.C. at Priene, not far from Ephesus in the province of Asia, asserts about the Savior(sotēr) Augustus:
'[S]ince the Caesar through his appearance(epiphanein) has exceeded the hopes of all former good messages (euangelia), surpassing not only the benefators that came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future will surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his good messages (euangelia)...' This inscription echoes the sentiment expressed by Horace in poem (Carmen saeculare) written in 17 B.C. for games in honor of Augustus: 'Already faith and peace and honor and ancient modesty and neglected virtue have courage to come back, and blessed plenty with the full horn is seen.' Similarly, a sheperd's speechin Virgil's Eclogues (1.6-8) contains this claim about Augustus: [I]t is a god who wrought for us this peace--for a god he shall never be to me; often shall a tender lamb from our folds stain his altar.'

As magnificent benefactors, Augustus and his imperial successors were given (or took themselves) titles such as Savior, God and Lord. The emperor was 'equal to God' (cf. Phil 2:6 where this is predicated of Christ). Although most emperors did not require the actual worship of themselves as a god(notable exceptions being Caligula [Gaius], who ruled from 37 to 41, and possibly Domitian, who ruled from 81-96), the power and might of the imperial office made each of them recipients of godlike honors simply by being emperor of Rome.

Jews(and thus the earliest 'Christians') enjoyed exemption from certain aspects of Roman life, including the imperial cult. Needless to say, however, any movement or message that appeared to displace the emperor from his throne would be understood as counterimperial and anti-Roman (cf. Acts 17:1-9; pp.17-18).

Did Paul pit his gospel against Caesar's?

John Barclay's latest critique of Paul's view (or lack there of) concerning the Roman Empire is breathtakingly brilliant. In sum, Barclay argues that Paul's gospel is not concerned with the Roman Empire per se as he is with those that comprise 'the archic powers', all the powers that are aligned against God and his purposes. Rather for Barclay, Caesar should not be seen lurking in the shadows of the Pauline text, and should be relegated to the status of insignificance along with the other 'archic powers.'
I find Barclay's suggestion helpful as it guards against the scholarly fad to read Caesar into texts where he does not belong, but I am wondering if Barclay's resistance in allowing such terms such as Kyrios, eirene, euangellion, parousia, etc. to have anti-imperial overtones is pushing his stance too far the other way. Certainly, Paul does not explicitly single the Roman Empire out, but does he really have to? Much like trying to reconstruct Paul's churches in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, etc., there is much Paul does not tell the 21st century reader, because he is relying on the shared knowledge he had with the 1st Century reader! There is an implicit conversation taking place there! Would Paul then have to draw special attention to the Roman Empire, who in Paul's day ruled the then known world?
I think if we are to pit Barclay v. Wright based on the one session at SBL, then I believe that Barclay won the 'debate.' However, one should be careful in how quickly we dismiss Paul's rhetoric concerning the Roman Empire. This conversation is not over, and Caesar could still be the 'naked emperor' rather than the 'emperor who isn't there' at all!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Wright Interview; SBL sessions on MP3

As I am sure most bibliobloggers are aware, Trevin Wax has recorded an MP3 interview with none other than N.T. Wright. The interview offers a full transcript as well and covers everything from the origins of Wright's faith to the doctrine of Justification (Protestant as well as Catholic circles) to forthcoming projects from the bishop's pen. The interviews were the product of Wright's recent visit to Asbury Seminary and should be required listening for his critics and his admirers alike.

Kudos also belong to one Andy Rowell, a Doctor of Theology student at Duke, who has contributed MP3's of 3 separate sessions at SBL. They include Richard Bauckham's response in the Synoptic Gospels section to the critique of his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses; N.T. Wright's lecture "God in Public-The Bible and Politics in Tommorrow's World;" and Wright and Barclay's "debate" in the Pauline Epistles section titled "Paul and Empire." Having attended the last of these myself, I would highly recommend listening through the entire MP3.

I hope this is a recurrent theme in Biblical scholarship that those with tech savvy instincts
continue to provide the academia and the broader public with lectures from meetings such as SBL for year's to come. Way to go Trevin and Andy!

Reflections on SBL

I had a great time in San Diego. It was a chance to catch up with old friends like John Byron, Mike Bird, Andrew Das, Allan Bevere, Dave Capes and Mike Gorman and to take in some lively sessions that featured the likes of Ross Wagner, Francis Watson, John Barclay, N.T. Wright and John Goldingay.

Moreover, I had the opportunity to take in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Natural History Museum and the San Diego Zoo. Wow, what a treat these two places were! Well worth the time and the expense.

The book stalls, the receptions and the IBR meetings were the other highlights.

My head is still swimming and I hope to write more anon concerning some of my observations while there.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mike Gorman on Paul's Gospel

Mike Gorman's latest Reading Paul is a delightful introduction to the study of Paul. I like what I am reading thus far and I really enjoy what Gorman says about the Pauline gospel:

According to Paul, the gospel of God is not a set
of propositions; it is the account of the planned, executed, and
soon-to-be-consummated benevolent intervention of God into the history of
Israel, human history more generally, and the entire cosmos to set right a world
gone awry
(italics original; 44).

The comment sounds much like N.T. Wright whom along with Richard Hays Gorman mentions in his acknowledgements as strong influences on his interpretation of Paul (x).
Do you think Gorman is correct? What definition would you give for Paul's gospel?

Welcome to my New Blog!

Hey, folks! I have decided after some discussions with good friend Allan Bevere at SBL (more on that later) to expand my blog to include interests in addition to Pauline studies, namely, the rest of the NT. I hope you will find this site more useful and I will make a conscious effort to blog more often.

So welcome aboard and enjoy!