Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jesus Have I Loved Blog Tour Stop #3: Ch.2, New Creation and the Kingdom of God

(Welcome to Stop #3 of the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Blog Tour! Check out the blog tour hub to see the previous posts and enter to win five books on Paul from Baker Academic here.)

Many of us in our church experiences have been given a rather incomplete, and frankly, wrong-headed picture of the salvation Jesus offers. We have been indoctrinated into the Romans Road to Salvation and have bought into a "me-centered, escapist system" (32). Further, Paul is seen to purport such an individualistic vision of salvation. What does the phrase, "Jesus is Lord" really mean? How is the "kingdom of God" that Jesus proclaimed the gospel? When we turn to the Gospels and examine Jesus' life, 
We begin to be gripped with a far more expansive vision of Jesus' lordship as a state of affairs that we are called to align ourselves to. Tugging on any of these threads will begin to unravel the fabric of an individualistic and escapist gospel tapestry (32).
So begins chapter 2, "New Creation and the Kingdom of God" in J.R. Daniel Kirk's, Jesus 
Have I Loved, but Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. Kirk, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, states that the goal of this chapter is to:
...have shown that Jesus' enacting of the dominion of God and Paul's vision of new creation in the resurrected Christ are complementary visions of a holistically restored cosmos (32; italics mine).
(First, a disclaimer: There is much grist for the mill here, and in a short blog post I can hardly interact with all of what Kirk writes here, so selectivity will be the key. In other words, "Go buy the book!")

Kirk begins by rightly acknowledging that as we read the Gospels we are confronted with a Jesus who teaches, exorcises demons, heals, has table-fellowship with sinners, etc. What do the Jesus' stories found here have to do with our forgiveness as sinners and Christ's atoning work? Is our view of Jesus too small? Indeed, Kirk remarks provocatively,
The gospel proclamations that formed so many of us in church youth groups and campus ministries have no need for the story of Jesus' life (33; italics mine).
Kirk begins his analysis of this problem by drawing the reader back to Israel's story and the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3 (33-35). Here, we find the "primal vision of the Kingdom of God" (Gen.1:26-28) where humanity was given dominion to rule God's world as his vice-regents. Moreover, humanity was created in God's image to one, rule the world on God's behalf, and two, to enjoy a direct relationship with God as his sons and daughters with no need for adoption. This is all prior to Genesis 3, where indeed, these privileges that humanity enjoy are broken with the fall. The rest of the OT demonstrates that God still chooses his representatives to exorcise dominion of the earth (e.g. Abraham, Israel, various kings, etc.), but this story will only be resolved when the "biblical story's chief protagonist comes on the scene" (35).

Kirk follows this stage-setter with an examination of Mark's Gospel (35-39), where he finds Jesus teachings and actions interpret one another. For instance, this can be seen in Jesus' actions of restoring the  appointing disciples (1:16-20), thereby demonstrating the missional character of God's reign on earth. Moreover, Jesus' speaking on behalf of God, his healings, etc., all point to Jesus restoring the Kingdom of God by reclaiming the position Adam had lost as God's spokesperson, and in the latter, he mediates God's rule in the world by displacing the demonic forces that enslave humanity. Much more could and needs to be said here, but Kirk's encapsulation of Jesus' role will suffice as he describes him as
...the agent of the reign of God because he is the human being entrusted by God with the task of restoring humanity's God-subjected and God-ordained rule to the world. This means that the dominion of God entails newly creating not only humanity's relationship with God but also humanity's broken bodies, broken social systems, enslaved existence under ruling powers- every facet of the world gone wrong, from our relationship with god above to our standing vis-√†-vis  plants, dirt, and water below (38-39).
The reign of God, despite its rectification of a broken world, is overshadowed with judgment, as Mark's Gospel points to the cross. Jesus redefines the role of Messiah by centering it around the cross, but Kirk stresses that this is no way condemns creation, but rather in very Wrightian prose (Kirk definitely echoes him from time-to-time!),
The notion that Jesus' ministry is simply one of judgment gives rise to a version of sub-Christian hope that looks forward to flight out of this world into another- a 'hope' that is sufficiently biblical. Neither naively creation-affirming nor hopelessly creation-condemning, the kingdom of God is a ministry of creation's restoration. It is creation-redeeming and creation-healing. Only such a ministry can bring the biblical narrative to a triumphant climax without ceding defeat to the intruding powers (the creation-condemning mistake) or ignoring that the powers of sin, death, injustice, and brokenness hold God's creation in thrall (the creation-affirming mistake). The kingdom of God is at hand in the undoing of all the sin and death and brokenness and disorder that mar the very good world of God (39).
Next, Paul and his language of 'new creation' takes center stage in the second half of the chapter (40-52). Kirk notes that this is one of the fundamental problems of reconciling Jesus' teaching of the kingdom of God with Paul's view of new creation. Paul, in fact, never refers to the kingdom of God or Jesus's miracles or community formation. For Paul, and the formulation "Jesus is Lord," centers around Jesus' resurrection and that this meant Jesus is Lord over all things, indeed, all of creation. The connection of resurrection and lordship are inextricably bound in Paul as Romans 1:3-4 attests. It is here that Jesus's adoption and enthronement take place at his resurrection. Kirk summarizes that the "earthly Jesus's  ministry of the kingdom that we read about in the Gospels echoes through the ministry of Jesus the resurrected Lord as depicted in Paul's letters" (42). Many of the same issues that Jesus faced head-on are also present in Paul's epistles. Galatians speaks of elementary principles, powers that enslave humanity, sin and death are presented as an enslaving power in Romans 5. The resurrection defeats these hostile powers (Romans 6) and simultaneously brings this future resurrection into the present. 1 Cor 12:28 and its mention of the offices of apostles, prophets, and teachers demonstrate that there are those who speak for God, again a privilege that humanity had lost when Adam ceded to the serpent. Moreover, Paul's mission to the gentiles highlights the one requirement for those outside of Israel is the same in the end found in the Gospels, that acceptance of Jesus is the only requirement.

The phrase "new creation" for Paul describes "the effects of Jesus's resurrection and suggests that this itself is the world Christians inhabit and are called to bring into existence" (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; p.45). Kirk notes that Romans 8 needs to be approached with a new set of questions and that Paul invites us to read it in conversation with the creation narratives and specifically the language of "image bearing"  (cf. Gen 1:26), with the dual emphasis of adoption as God's child (cf. Rom 1:4) and the implications that this relationship takes on the appointment to rule on God's behalf. Our adoption will take place at the resurrection (8:23), but our future invades the present so that even now we are God's children (8:16). For Kirk, "new creation is not simply something we look forward to; it is something in which we already participate" (47).

 I will end with what I believe is the essential question Kirk asks, namely, "How should we relate to this  world in the present given that God has a glorious plan drawn up for its future?"(48) Although Paul may not answer this dilemma directly, Kirk believes he can fill in the narrative gaps to answer this correctly. Jesus' death and resurrection are definitive for both are present and future life. We accomplish this by pursuing holiness and the obedience brings aspects of our future life into the present. To take this further, into how we take part in community in the new creation, is by bearing God's image in our "self-giving love" that expresses "our kinship with those to whom we are united by the Spirit" (49).


Unlike the rest of this post, my comments here will be brief. First, I believe Kirk is successful in demonstrating the comprehensive nature of both Jesus's vision of the kingdom of God and Paul's new creation. Additionally, I believe Kirk has been successful in his correlation of these distinct, yet complementary concepts. Second, Kirk's diagnosis of the western emphasis on the individual and hence, the teaching of salvation that has been promulgated in most churches, is spot on. I only wish I had read a book like this when I was an undergrad, instead of the group that came to my dorm room teaching me the Romans Road to Salvation. It was all about me and my relationship with Jesus. Kirk shows that Jesus' kingdom vision and Paul's teaching of 'new creation' fly in the face of this notion. Third, and I think this is where Kirk is extremely astute, he is careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as he does not ignore the individual's need for forgiveness and salvation. Many times when author's rail against the western concept of salvation, the individual is simply dismissed in disgust. Not so with Kirk. I believe he strikes the right balance on this throughout.

I really have no quibbles with this chapter as I found Kirk interesting, convincing, and extremely quotable (as I'm sure readers of the post noticed as well!). So in that vein, I would like to quote Kirk as he comes to the end of this stimulating chapter:

Jesus is Lord because he is the first person to live his life as a true human: perfectly in submission to God and perfectly faithful in bringing the Word and reign of God to bear on the earth.
What it means, then, for us to be followers of Jesus is to live into the full potential of our God-given humanness... (52).

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