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ancient-apocryphal-gospelsThanks to WJKP for sending along a review copy of this new textbook by Markus Bockmuehl. This is the latest in the Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church series, which is itself a subset of the Interpretation commentary series.

The book begins with a 54 page chapter defining an ancient Christian Gospel. Since there are about eighty documents which fall under the category “gospel,” Bockmuehl must carefully define what he will include in this book. In his conclusion he comments “the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (226). There are no narrative apocryphal gospels which attempt to tell the story of Jesus from baptism to resurrection, although they all seem to presuppose the general outline of the canonical gospels.

After this introduction, Bockmuehl offers a chapter infancy gospels (such as James and Thomas), ministry Gospels (Egerton and “secret Mark”), Passion Gospels (such as the Gospel of Peter), and post-resurrection gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip).

Bockmuehl also concludes these apocryphal gospels were not suppressed from the canon and the evidence overwhelmingly indicate no one thought these gospels would supersede the canonical gospels. Many were in fact produced as private literature and intentionally hidden. As Bockmuehl says, these gospels did not “become apocryphal but remained so” (232). This is important since much of what is written on these gospels is sensationalism at its worst. These are the lost gospels, or the gospels the Church did not want people to read. In fact, only a small percentage of the literature surveyed in this book could be considered subversive by the orthodox church. For example, Bockmuehl considers the Gospel of Jesus as “antagonistic” (234), but most of this literature is not dark, heretical knowledge.

So why read this literature? The non-canonical gospels bear witness to a wide variety of early Christian thinking. The first few centuries of the church were far more diverse than many overly-optimistic church histories would lead you to believe. This diversity also indicates the difficulties of dealing with who Jesus was as presented by the four canonical gospels.

The book includes an extensive 47 page bibliography may be worth the price of the book by itself.

Look for a full review soon.

 

I had the opportunity to preach on January 1, 2017: click here to see the video or listen to the audio, scroll to the bottom of this page to choose.

I chose Romans 5:1-12 as my text, since New Year’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the past twelve months and consider “what kind of a year it has been.” For 2016, most people are saying it was a terrible year, and it has been for world events, and for people in this church. We naturally look forward to a new year with hope it is going to get better. Chances are it will be just as bad, putting our hope for happiness in the lives of celebrities (old celebrities die and they will once again in 2017) or politicians to work out solutions for war and the economy (politicians lie and they will again in 2016).

Paul describes the real reason we can have hope in Romans 5:1-11. Since we have been made right with God, we have peace with God and we have a hope for the future in which we can rejoice.

We have been justified by faith, therefore we have access to God (5:1-5).  Since we have been justified by faith (like Abraham), we experience peace with God rather than wrath (5:1). The wrath of God has been satisfied in the death of Jesus so that those who are in Christ by faith experience peace, not wrath. Paul uses an aorist passive participle (Δικαιωθέντες) to indicate we did not justify ourselves, but also that this justification is an accomplished fact (Kruse, Romans, 225). Our experience of peace, however, is a present tense verb (ἔχομεν), having been justified in the past, we are now in a state of peace with God.

The peace Paul has in mind is not inner peace (although the Gospel can lead to real personal peace). But in the context of Romans, Paul has in mind peace which results from the cessation of the enmity humans have with God. In chapters 1-3, all humans were enemies of God now we have peace with God because he has done something in Christ to create a situation of peace. In Ephesians 2:11-22, for example, after he describes Gentile alienation from God, he declares it is the work of Jesus on the cross that “brings close” Jews and Gentiles.

Related imageSince we have peace with God, we have access to the Father (5:2a). In order to have access to a king, one must have appropriate status. The word translated access (προσαγωγή) is used by Xenophon, for example, to describe those who have access to the Persian king Cyrus (Cyr. 7, 5, 45). The same word appears in Ephesians 2:18 to describe Jews and Gentiles having access to God the Father through the same Spirit.

The one who is in Christ has the appropriate status to enter into the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, later Paul will expand this metaphor by describing us as adopted into the family of God, so that we can call God abba, father.

We have this access by means of the grace “in which we stand.” Both “have” and “stand” are perfect tense verbs, indicating a complete action in the past (accepting God’s grace through faith, being justified), but also an action with continuing relevance at the present time. We currently stand in the grace God has given, and we currently have access to the Father because of what he has already done.

This is in contrast to anyone who tries to obtain salvation through works. Since they are not justified by faith (and adopted into the family of God), they never really do have access to God. In Second Temple period Judaism, one did not directly approach God. Only the high priest could enter the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, others can only approach so far (court of men, women, gentiles, etc.)  In the worship of Greco-Roman gods, one did not approach them directly nor were humans granted access to a god. This access to the Father is a remarkable claim in the ancient world!

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.inddGorman, Michael J. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 351 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

In this new monograph Michael Gorman asserts the apostle Paul wanted his communities to not only believe the gospel, to become the gospel by participating in the life and mission of God (2). Gorman describes local churches as “colonies of cruciformity” Gorman has already contributed two books with similar themes (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009). This book intends to develop this view of Paul’s theology of participation by reading Paul missionally. After two introductory chapters, Gorman examines becoming faith, hope and love in 1 Thessalonians, the story of Christ in Philippians, the gospel of peace in Ephesians, and the justice of God in 1-2 Corinthians and Romans.

In this book Gorman argues Paul “expected the salvation of God to spread throughout the world not only by means of his own Gospel ministry but also by means of the participation of his converts in various house churches” (61). In fact, the church was to be a “living exegesis” of the gospel of God (43).

Gorman uses Philippians 2:6-11 as a model of the gospel several times in the book. He calls this text a “missional Christology for a missional people” (109). The pattern of these verses is “although [x] status, not [y] selfishness, but [z] self-renunciation and self-giving.” In Philippians, Jesus as the status of “form of God” [x], but did not consider than status as something to be exploited [y], but rather he emptied himself so that he could give himself on the cross [z]. Chapter 4 contains a careful exegesis of these verses and Gorman describes them as Paul’s master text. Gorman shows how Paul’s example in 1 Thessalonians 2 or 1 Corinthians 9 follows this same pattern (87), but also Paul’s expectation for his churches are similarly modeled.

But Gorman is not advocating some bland lifestyle evangelism. Using the Thessalonian church as an example, it appears their faithfulness to the gospel was public and in some way brought them into conflict with their culture, perhaps even leading to the death of some members of the congregation because of their faithful witness (74; although he admits this is a minority view in footnote 24, I am inclined to agree). In addition to this, those who have expressed public faith in the gospel would have face questions from friends and family about their abandonment of cultic activity. This would include a rejection of family gods, but also civic and imperial worship. This would be interpreted as impious and unpatriotic behavior, potentially leading to persecution (95). Gorman says “one cannot speak of the ‘good news’ of Jesus as ‘Lord’ without focusing on the countercultural religious and political claims of this story” (134). The gospel itself challenges the false master story of the Roman world. If the church is actually living out the gospel in their lives then they will challenge culture in very real ways which will lead naturally to persecution.

Gorman spends two chapters on the church as the embodiment of peace. Chapter 5 is a biblical theology of peace which defines peace as shalom, the fullness of life promised by God (143). Although Western Christians tend to think of peace in the Pauline letters as “peace with God,” Gorman follows N. T. Wright in arguing peace is central to both Paul’s soteriology and ecclesiology. Certainly reconciliation with God is important for Paul, but peace within the community is constantly repeated throughout Paul’s letters. If a local church is an embodiment of the gospel, and peace with God is central to that gospel, then peace with one another must be an important component of how a church lives out the gospel in a community. Gorman sees the peacemaking mission of the church as an anticipatory participation in the coming eschatological kingdom of peace (162, almost an “already/not yet” argument).

To support this, Gorman offers a detailed reading of Ephesians. Ephesians refers to peace eight times, including the introduction (1:2) and conclusion (6:15) of the letter. Before looking at the way Ephesians describes peace, Gorman must deal with several obvious objections to using Ephesians as a model for Pauline ecclesiology. He deals with the authorship problem briefly by stating that Paul is the genius behind the letter regardless of who wrote it. A second problem with Ephesians is the alleged patriarchy of Ephesians 5:22-6-9. Although there are various ways to deal with this problem, Gorman points out the peace of the gospel ought to effect all relationships in which believers participate, so that if a male head of a household is acting peaceably, then he cannot mistreat his wife, children or slaves (186).

He then argues the book of Ephesians demonstrates that Christ’s death reconciles people to God, but also people to one another (192). To emphasize one or the other is to miss the point of “Christ as peacemaker.” But the church is not simply to “be peace,” but rather they are to keep the peace. If shalom means harmony, then the local church ought to be a place characterized by the same cruciform love that created the church (196). Peacemaking cannot reduced to a nebulous imitation of Christ or God, although it certainly includes “putting on” Christ.

Each chapter concludes with a brief example of a ministry which is “being the gospel” in a particular community. For example, after arguing Paul expects his churches to be peacemakers, Gorman illustrates describes Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical ministry which seeks nonviolent alternatives in Palestine, Iraq, Columbia or other war-torn regions. For the church as the justice of God, Gorman draws attention to Mary’s Cradle in Bluefield, West Virginia, a ministry associated with Trinity United Methodist Church. The ministry provides assistance for pregnant women and offers a range of services for women. These illustrations are helpful because they provide concrete examples of how local churches can think creatively to be the gospel in their communities.

Conclusion. I have always been associated with Christian organizations which were decidedly evangelistic although not always intentional in how they live out the gospel in a community. Missionaries went off someplace and did missions and the local church supported that mission with prayer and money. But this is not what Paul envisioned when he planted local churches in specific communities. Gorman shows Paul’s “missionary strategy” was to create local manifestations of the gospel, local churches, which then could reach into their communities as a living gospel. I agree with Gorman’s assessment that some churches are hearing a call to be the gospel through a “renewed imagination.” In Becoming the Gospel Gorman provides a solid exegetical, biblical foundation for local church involvement in local communities.

The Eerdmans podcast has a two-part interview with Gorman (episodes 14 and 15) and Gorman answered a few questions on Eerdworld about this book.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Porter, Stanley E. The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought and Letters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 487 pp. Pb; $40.   Link to Eerdmans

Stanley Porter’s new introduction to Paul is intended as an updated and reworked version of his Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (written with Lee Martin McDonald, Hendrickson, 2000). Porter argues for many traditional views in this book, such as Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters of Paul and the unity of the letters. He rejects pseudonymity as an explanation for the Prison and Pastoral epistles. Since the book is intended for use in the classroom, Porter presents alternative views as well. In addition, he more or less rejects the New Perspective on Paul, offering some sharp criticisms of Sanders and Dunn especially in his discussion of the Law (111-121). Porter has one or two ideas in the book which he considers “new territory” in Pauline studies, such as his belief Paul had seen and heard Jesus during his earthly ministry or that Paul himself was the major force behind collecting his letters.

porter-aposlte-paulThe first part of this book includes six chapters dealing with Paul’s life and letters. There are more issues which could be included in this section, but for the most part these are issues Porter has already written on in the past. Each chapter in this section concludes with a bibliography divided into basic and advanced categories.

In his first chapter, Porter describes “Paul the person” (including appearance, upbringing and education, relationship with Rome, occupation, etc.) Porter evaluates what is usually said about Paul’s background and concludes his associate with Gamaliel is highly likely, although he did not progress far in the Greco-Roman educational system. With respect to citizenship. Porter agrees with Bruce Rapske that it is plausible Paul was a citizen of Rome and a devout Jew at the same time.

There are two problems with this view. First, Paul never refers to his citizenship in his letters and second, Roman citizens would have been required to participate in the imperial cult. Porter points out that Roman citizenship did not require participation in Emperor Worship until the second century and Jews may have been given some level of autonomy which allowed them to avoid this practice. He includes a short section on Paul’s conversion. Although Paul’s experience is similar to a prophetic call, the term conversion is “entirely appropriate to describe what happened to Paul” (31, contra the New Perspective).

Porter covers one additional topic in this section which will be more controversial: Did Paul know Jesus? The consensus view is Paul did not meet Jesus nor hear him preach. Porter claims this is an unwarranted assumption based on 2 Corinthians 5:16. Porter points out that Jesus and Paul lived “intertwined parallel lives.” Since Paul was in Jerusalem and studying as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, it would be remarkable if he had not at least heard about Jesus. Second, Porter thinks Acts and Paul’s letters include claims to having heard Jesus teach. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul states “have I not seen the Lord?”

The consensus view is this prefers to the Damascus Road experience, but Porter calls this “sheer assumption” (35). Since the context concerns the other apostles (who had seen Jesus during his lifetime and after the resurrection), it is possible Paul also refers to seeing Jesus in the same way. He also points out Paul refers to “Jesus our Lord” rather than his more typical “Christ Jesus.”  Porter admits each of his points are “slender threads,” but he concludes it is at least plausible Paul heard Jesus teach (38). For the details of this argument, see Porter’s monograph When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History (Cambridge, 2016).

The final issue Porter treats in this chapter is the value of the book of Acts for understanding Paul. The traditional view that Luke was a physician who was a close friend and traveling companion of Paul after Acts 16 has been challenged. There are in fact many chronological details in the letters of Paul which are not reflected in the book of Acts (Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, for example). He presents five common arguments against the idea the writer of Acts knew Paul and provides an answer for each, concluding that the book of Acts “can be used to reconstruct a fairly coherent chronology of Paul’s life” (44). The writer of Acts was not a disciple of Paul, but he does reinforce the picture of Paul drawn from the letters.

In Chapter 2 Porter develops a Pauline chronology using the letters and the book of Acts. For the most part Porter’s chronology of Paul’s life and ministry is more or less traditional, with the exception of his dating of Galatians for the earliest letter of Paul, prior to the conference in Acts 15. He offers a six-point outline of Paul’s career beginning with his conversion in A.D. 33 and ending with his re-imprisonment in 64-65 and execution as late as 67. He places the letters into this outline, several times if there is significant debate over the date (Galatians, for example). This chapter also includes the evidence for several of Paul’s imprisonments, including Ephesus (not mentioned in Acts) and Corinth (“this view has very little to commend it,” 67). Other than a dismissive footnote, Porter does not interact with the recent contribution by Douglas Campbell’s Framing Paul (Eerdmans 2015).

Chapter 3 discusses potential backgrounds to Paul’s thought. He divides the evidence into two sections, Greco-Roman or Jewish. Porter surveys Paul’s Greco-Roman influence beginning with his use of Greek and epistolary style as well as his contact with the larger Hellenistic world. With respect to his Jewish background, Porter discusses Paul’s interpretation of Scripture (clearly more Jewish than Greek). He includes teaching in synagogues in this section, although this method of ministry is not mentioned in the letters. As Porter points out, this may be in part a result of Paul’s short time doing synagogue ministry in each city, and the fact it often ended in disaster (92).

Porter offers a short survey of Pauline theology in Chapter 4. He divide the material into two categories. First, there are a number of fundamental beliefs Paul clearly holds but does not argue. For example, Paul believes in God, although he does not argue for his existence nor is there a sustained theological statement in the letters on what he believes about God. Porter includes Jesus as messiah as well as Jesus as divine in this category as well. A second category is “developed beliefs.” These are theological beliefs which are developed at greater length than the fundamental beliefs and are consequently the subject of more scholarly debate. For example, Porter includes justification and Paul’s view of the Law under this heading and spends significant space discussing the challenge of the New Perspective on Paul on these two important issues. There are short sections on reconciliation, sanctification, salvation, the triumph of God the gospel, the church, and Jesus’s death and resurrection. Although there are some eschatological ideas in the section on God’s triumph and the resurrection, contemporary interest in Paul’s view of the future should result in a more robust section on Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Some of this material does appear in the section on 1 Thessalonians, although remarkably there is very little on 2 Thessalonians 2.

Chapter 5 deals with Paul as a letter writer, a topic which has become very popular in recent years. Porter therefore briefly comments on the purposes of the letters and the use of amanuenses, but the main section of the chapter is a short introduction to the form of ancient Greek letters as applied to Paul’s epistles. There are similarities, but also important differences. For example, Paul makes use of paraenesis, “concentrated groups of admonishments regarding Christian behavior” (149), although it is difficult to distinguish how these sections relate to the bod of the letters.

Chapter 6 includes two related topics concerning authorship and the Pauline canon. Porter has written on the topic of pseudonymity in other contexts and concludes rather strongly that pseudonymity was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as is sometimes claimed, and less so among Christian literature. There are examples of “noble lies” in which a writer attempts to deceive their readers by creating a new letter in the voice of an authority such as Paul, but as Porter points out, even a noble lie is still a lie. In this section he interacts with Bart Ehrman (Forgeries and Counterforgeries, Oxford 2013), concluding that his criteria are “highly subjective and ultimately indecisive” (166). For Porter, the real problem with pseudonymity in the New Testament is the implication of deception both in terms of the author and the audience. For example, if 1 Timothy was not written by Paul to Timothy, then the whole situation of the letter is a deception. Therefore Porter finds it more plausible to accept all thirteen letters as coming from Paul.

The second part of this chapter is likely to be more controversial. Rarely does an introduction to Paul’s letters treat the formation of the Pauline canon in any detail. The standard way of explaining the Pauline collection is a slow evolution of the canon over the 150 years since Paul’s death, perhaps with the final collection occurring after a period of lapsed interest in Paul. On the other hand, there are several competing theories concerning an individual who collected the letters, such as Timothy or a “Pauline school.” For Porter, these suggestions are on the right track, but who better than Paul to select the letters to be collected and circulated in his name? Porter supports his assertion by pointing to the common literary practice of retaining a copy of a letter after it was sent. In this view, Paul retained “official” copies of all this letters, from which he selected some for inclusion in a Pauline corpus. This might account for why some letters such as the Corinthian Correspondence are missing. They have been lost during Paul’s travels, or simply not included by Paul’s own decision (although Porter does not suggest this, the “severe letter” to Corinth could have been omitted by Paul since it was no longer relevant after he was reconciled with the church). Porter has worked out an interesting scenario, although it is built largely on assumptions and silence.

The second part of the book consists of six chapters of introductory material for the Pauline letters in chronological order (Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, the Prison Epistles, and the Pastoral Epistles). Each chapter covers any unique background issues unique to the letter, then Porter summarizes the contents. For example, the north vs. south Galatia theories, the order to 1-2 Thessalonians, the unity of Romans, etc. Each chapter concludes with a basic bibliography divided into commentaries and monographs.

Conclusion. In the introduction to the book, Porter expresses his initial hope that this book would serve as an up-to-date replacement for F. F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, although by the time he finished his book it ended up different than Bruce (xi). To a large extent, Porter’s Paul the Apostle is a worthy successor to Bruce’s classic book on Paul. Although he provides a tenacious defense of many traditional views (such as authorship, continuity with Acts), Porter does not simply repeat standard arguments typically found in Pauline introductions. His presentation of alternative views makes this an ideal textbook for a seminary class on Paul’s letters. But the book is written in a clear style which will make in accessible to pastors, teachers or anyone interested in the “state of Pauline studies” today.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

In Romans 14 Paul is trying to guide congregations to preserve the unity of the body of Christ despite having a wide variety of views on some practices. He mentions two in particular, considering some days sacred and eating some types of foods.

Esteeming one day over another may refer to when the Roman congregations chose to gather. The natural assumption is Jewish Christian congregations continued to worship on the Sabbath. Primarily Gentile congregations met whenever they could, apparently settling on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

Image result for bacon wrapped cheeseburgerEating and abstaining may refer to Jewish food taboos. Again, when a primarily Jewish congregation shared a meal, the food would have been purchased and prepared with attention to cleanliness (i.e., not meat sacrificed to idols, nothing forbidden in Leviticus), etc. Primarily Gentile congregations may not have adopted Jewish food laws, accepting all foods as clean after one gives things for the Lord for the food. However, it is likely some Gentiles did choose to avoid food sacrificed to idols.

What matters for Paul is living one’s life “for the Lord” and not for ourselves. This means the one who is in Christ (a living sacrifice, one who is living in a way that promotes unity in the body of Christ), ought to voluntarily set aside preferences in deference to others.

Voluntarily setting something aside is the key to understanding the principle Paul wants to establish here. Like Jesus, who set aside certain rights he had as a member of the Godhead in order to become human (Phil 2:5-6), so to the member of the body of Christ in the present age must set aside their privileges the may legitimately be owed in order to preserve the unity of the Body of Christ.

Paul is not discussion sinful practices, but what are often called preferences. He is not talking about Gentiles visiting a prostitute (as he is in 1 Corinthians 6), since that is a practice incompatible with being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the nature of the strong/weak in this passage: the person with weak faith considers eating food to be a mark of spirituality and therefore breaking those convictions would be a sin.

Does this only work one direction? A person who does not eat unclean food cannot “give up” their preferences and eat unclean food to make a Gentile feel comfortable? For example, if a person today is a vegetarian, can they “give up their conviction” and share meat with someone who eats meat? If I were to share a meal with a Seventh-Day Adventist, for example, I would have no problem eating any food they served. But they may have a serious problem eating something I serve. If I have a meal in an Israeli hotel, it is far easier for me to eat kosher than to insist on my rights and have the kitchen make me a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger.

It is far easier for the meat-eater to give up their conviction and eat only vegetables. This is certainly true on a physical level. But more importantly, with respect to convictions, the meat-eater is not violating a principle of their faith, but the vegetarian would be “sinning” with respect to their own world view.

There is a clear application of this principle for the modern church. First, I think there are some easy examples: If a member of congregation prefers one style of music for worship, they ought to be able to set that preference aside in order to reach people for Jesus Christ.

But I can imagine other situations which would make some Christians more uncomfortable. Could a pastor drink a beer with someone in order to not make a beer drinking member of their congregation comfortable? What about a pastor trying to reach a person in the south who is offered a wad of chewing tobacco. Could they accept the offer without violating their conscience? It is critically important to observe Paul is talking about practices which are not important for salvation in the present age nor is he talking about sinful practices (even if the weaker brother thinks they might be).

As I said in the previous post, both the weak and the strong are believers, and both are welcome in Christian worship and fellowship. For Paul, these are not matters to divide churches or break fellowship over. What are some problems you have encountered trying to find the right balance between preferences in local congregations?

strong-and-weakAlthough it is possible Paul includes this section as a general commentary on how Jews and Gentiles ought to get along in mixed congregations, it is likely he has heard something about a specific conflict in the house churches in Rome. He describes some of the believers as weak and others as strong and admonishes the strong to not pass judgment on the weak.

Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?

Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.

After surveying several options, Cranfield concludes the weak are those who desire to continue to observe the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. If this is the case, it is a similar situation to the Gentiles in Galatia who are being encouraged to fully convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.

It is possible this weak/strong discussion is an extension of the “meat sacrificed to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians, as suggested by Mark Reasoner. If so, then the weak might be the Jew, and the strong the Gentile. This suggestion has some merit since Paul wrote Romans from Corinth after the period of conflict had come to a close (after 2 Corinthians). It is possible his experience with the Corinthian believers colors his comments to the Romans who may be struggling with similar issues.

Jewett draws attention to a brief exchanged in Horace in which one character does not wish to speak on the Sabbath because he is “a small man of weakness, one of many” (Jewett, Romans, 834; Horace Sat. 1.9.67–72). Reasoner used this line to argue “the person excessively observant in a foreign religion who matched the ‘weak’ caricature was known to Horace’s audience.” (Reasoner, 54).

What has always impressed me about this passage is that Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”

Regardless of the practices of the weak, their faith is sufficient for Paul to consider them to be Christians. He does not tell the Roman congregations to expel them from the church like the young man in 1 Corinthians 5, nor does he admonish them like he the wealthy in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community. Both are equally welcome at a communal meal where the Lord’s Table is being celebrated.

This issue has important ramifications for Christian fellowship in the present church. Churches often draw lines where they should not, or fail to draw lines when they should. Are there people who are often excluded from fellowship because of some practice (or non-practice)?

Bibliography: Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak: Romans 14:1-15:13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

bush-worst-everIn the previous post, I argued that Paul commands obedience to the government.  I pointed out that the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment.  Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!

The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I might have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc. The issue that they are raising is important as well: America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy. There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).

Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.

trump-neroFor me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility.  I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?

I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life. These members of the new creation will then transform society.  Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.  All shared food and fellowship equally.  That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.

An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55.  In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor. I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor. Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.

I think the church does a good job on some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, much more could be done. I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem. There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.

What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements?  What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?

Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.

Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.

What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel against the government then?

impeach-obamaI think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.

Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

humble-sign

In order to define how we ought to think of one another, Paul redefines how we related to one another. First, he says we ought to think with humility. The ESV “more highly than we ought” is a translation of a single Greek word (ὑπερφρονέω). It used only here in the New Testament. Although it can be used in a positive sense of “excel in intelligence” it is usually negative, “to be haughty” (BDAG).

Second, we ought to consider one another with sober judgment. The noun (σωφρονέω) has the sense of reasonable, sensible action. Paul uses this same word in 2 Cor 5:13 with the sense of “be in my right mind.” Grammatically this phrase is an articular infinitive expressing purpose (εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν), modifying another infinitive. We are to think of others first because it is the right way to think. To put ourselves first would be non-sensible thinking, something to be avoided.

In Rom 1:18–32 Paul argued humans have lost some of their rationality when they reject the clear revelation of God existence and attributes. No he is able to say to those who are “in Christ” that they can think reasonably and sensibly, but the outcome of that sensible thinking his service to others.

Third, Paul uses the phrase “according to the measure of faith given to us.” This can be taken several ways in the context of spiritual gifts. The verb (μερίζω) refers to dividing something up and allotting or distributing it to a group. For example in Mark 6:41 Jesus divides the fish and bread amongst the disciples to distribute to the crowd.  With this in mind, some have argued God has given varying levels of spiritual gifts to individuals so that some have more (and are held more responsible) and some have less (and are therefore less responsible) for how they use that gift.

The problem is some individuals will appear to have more faith than others. This would naturally lead to an inequality in the body of Christ. In addition it implies that someone with less faith is somehow less able to serve God. But that is not the way faith works in the Pauline letters. In 1 Cor 10:13 the word is used to describe God assigning an “area of influence” for believers, so that the believer exercises their gifts in the area to which God has called them to work. In this view, all are given the same thing (the Holy Spirit and his enablement to do ministry), but the area of that influence varies.

It is better to understand the word measure as the standard by which each individual this judge. In this view, a person is the judge by the measure of faith they have been giving rather than the measure of faith another person has been given.  “Paul defines ‘sober-mindedness’ as the refusal to impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” (Jewett, 742).

This is radically different than the way the Greco-Roman world thought. Jewett cites Aristotle, who thought humans “should make themselves immortal through the exercise of reason” (Jewett, 741). Sober mindedness is a kind of “divine element in humankind.” But for Paul, our ability to think rationally is part of the image of God and is corrupted by sin.

Humans often think rationally, but it is inconsistent, twisted and (to use Paul’s metaphor), less-than-sober. What is an example of applying “humble thinking” to how the children of God relate to their world? If Jewett is right and humble-mindedness is “impose the standard of one’s own relationship with God onto others” – how does that work in an evangelical community where the preaching of the Gospel is a key value?

 

Paul says in Romans 12:1-2 that the one who is in Christ is to present themselves as a living sacrifice by renewing the way they think about the world. This is in contrast to conforming to the way the world answers the big questions about life.

confusing-street-signThe result of this changed thinking is knowledge “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God. If we do really renew our minds and change the way we think about things, then we can discern the will of God in new situations. The phrase εἰς τo δοκιμάζειν is an articular infinitive used to indicate the purpose of the renewing of our mind, it is for the purpose of discerning the will of God. In a given situation, transformed thinking may very well be radically different than the culturally accepted answer.

Early Christians encountered many ways in which their new found faith called into question the way the Greco-Roman world things. Although Paul will list many examples in Romans 12-15, there are many more issues which will come up as Christianity comes into contact with the world. It cannot be the case that Paul will cover ever potential issue which might arise as more Gentiles commit their lives to Christ. Some things may seem obvious to us. It seems remarkable someone might ask if a Christian is permitted go to a temple, share in a sacred meal and enjoy the company of prostitutes. The Greco-Roman worldview might not object to this behavior, but transforming the way one thinks about marriage and sexual unions will result in a different view.

But the good and perfect will of God may change in a given situation. For example: Should Christians serve in the Roman military? It may possible for someone to serve Rome without worshiping the gods of Rome (on the analogy of Daniel serving Babylon), but is service to the Roman military a proper career for the first century Christian? What about a soldier who converts Christianity, can he continue to serve?

This process of thinking about new ways in which God’s will applies to new situations is a function of the Spirit of God in every generation (one cold ask about serving in the army of a Christian king in the middle ages, or a Chinese Christian who must serve in the army by Chinese law, or an American Christian serving in the modern military. If killing is the issue, can a Christian serve as a police officer, or in an industry which supports the military industry?

Any number of medical ethical issues can be included here, since Christians in the twenty-first century are the first to think through beginning of life, quality of life and end of life issues in ways no other generation of the church needed to think.

These are all important questions which people with renewed minds much continually think through in any given context. When the believer is yielded to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will continually renew our minds so that we think more clearly about important issues which go beyond the text of the Bible.

What are some other issues which perhaps have changed over the years for Christians with respect to God’s will?

 

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Christian Theology

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