Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: D.H. Williams, Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this book. Williams says in his preface that he intended it as a companion volume to Evangelicals and Tradition. It is, basically, a collection of illustrative texts from the early church, arranged thematically, designed to complement and support Williams' arguments for a greater appreciation of tradition and the ancient church. The texts are edited by Williams, occasionally translated or altered by him. The volume comes with a short introductory essay which echoes some of his argument from the earlier volume.

Overall, I suppose this resource does make a welcome contribution, providing a usable and useful collection of texts on various themes. Nonetheless, I am still left wondering what to do with it? So, thanks, but I'm not sure what for...

Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future)

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, v

I don't have a lot to say on this brief chapter. It's entitled "The possibility of Non-violent Resistance", and Yoder takes just a few pages to put the case that there existed in the Jewish context of Jesus the mental possibility of a non-violent resistance, not merely a violent Zealot option. He points to two incidents, one involving Roman standards brought into Jerusalem with Pilate as procurator, and the second with the attempt to set up a statue of Caligula in the temple, both of which were met with large scale Jewish dissent of a non-violent (and effective) nature.

Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, i

This slender volume contains two essays, presented as lectures, in 1957, translated from German into English. In this post and the next, I will briefly outline Yoder's arguments in each essay.

The first essay is entitled, 'The State in the New Testament', and Yoder begins by seeking to ask 1. What does the Bible say? 2. How are we to apply that?

In the first part, Yoder then outlines 2 theses statements (He says he will outline 4, but only 2 appear clearly):
1. "The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand." (p18) Yoder is speaking of the state primarily as "the order of the sword" (p19), rather than the modern administrative complex we generally refer to. He traces the state's function in scripture as an expression of God's grace aimed at redemption by the preservation of life and existence. He notes that the most frequently appearing OT text in the NT is Ps 110:1, and that the NT understands the State as one of those 'enemies' hostile to the Messiah and triumphed over in the cross. Yoder concludes his first thesis by reaffirming that the state is 'pagan', but that God uses this nonetheless for his purposes.

2. "The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross." (p21) Once you grasp Yoder's two mandates, the basis for his theology and social ethic becomes apparent, if not obvious. To follow Christ is to pattern and participate in the triumph over evil by way of the cross - sacrificial love unto death. Yoder then points to 1 Tim 2:1ff, as the text that best helps us relate the two mandates, "Saving people and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth were not achievements of the Roman Empire" (p22). The mandate of the state exists to keep evil in check, only in service to the superior mandate of hte church, to overcome evil. The state's existence serves the church (and not vice versa)

Yoder then goes on to speak of hte limits of the state, and suggests that the state is not addressed by Christian standards, but on its own terms is to be called to act justly. He goes on to identify the state as a Pagan institution through a number of considerations. By reading Rom 12:19 alongside Rom 13:4, he poses the dilemma of how one can both exact vengeance and live/proclaim the gospel of forgiveness (cf. 1 Cor 6:7). Further, he briefly compares the pattern of Holy War in the OT as Divine Deliverance with the later wars of the kings, confronted by the prophets for their idolatrous reliance on military strength. In the NT, he addresses his consideration to Jesus, and points out the reality of temptations to Jesus to wield the sword, following a Zealot-Messiah conception. Jesus rejects this mandate, and instead chooses the cross.

Two objections are then considered: a) aren't Christians handing over to 'the devil' the state? He rejoins that if the sovereignty of God is believed, then even the pagan powers are under God's ultimate control. b) Christians who do this are parasites, taking the protection but refusing the burden of the state. Yoder takes Origen's response to Celsus - that through the work of the church, Christians contribute more, not less, to the state. [I would further add that Christians are more than willing to forgo State 'protection' to be faithful to their mandate]

The second section then considers the question of application. Yoder's initial point is that the majority of thinkers claim, or at least practice, that the differences between the NT and our situation make this NT picture irrelevant. Thus, ethics takes it starting point elsewhere. Yoder says this is inadequate, and seeks to evaluate the changes that have taken place and what relevance they have.

Yoder begins by challenging the notion of 'progress', especially that Constantine and co. marked a change for the better. He notes seven changes that have taken place:
1. Instead of persecution, the church is recognised and favoured. Yoder: this does not change the church-state relation.
2. The number of Christians is a majority, so it is no longer possible to leave it in the hands of non-Christians. Yoder: this isn't actually true, but represents the shift from 'Christian' designating a believer to being an ethno-social tag. Secondly, that majorities should rule is far from obvious.
3. Political leaders have become Christians. Yoder: In what sense can the Christian act as a non-Christian in their state-office.
4. The requirement of military service (ie, conscription et sim.). Yoder: Ït does not follow that a military responsibility is a Christian responsibility" (p39-40).
5. Distinction between the welfare and totalitarian state. This is the first point at which Yoder does recognise a significant difference. His response is to articulate that Christians may be involved in 'the state' in a broader sense, but cannot be bound up in the "violence of the sword" (p40) which remains intrinsic to the state's essence.
6. The desire to have a universal ethic. Yoder responds that it makes no sense to hold non-Christians to a Christian ethic that is centered on Jesus, experienced forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
7. Democracy as statehood. Yoder suggests that the idea that citizens are the state is not really true. "There is no absolute difference, only a relative difference, between a democracy and other forms of statehood." (p42)

In closing, Yoder provides several observations of application for thinking about the state today:
1. "The question is not whether we have a responsibility to the state, but how we fulfill our responsibility."(p43)
2. The NT remains normative concerning the state's role with respect to violence. Other parts of the state are to be evaluated in relation to that.
3. "one form of political responsibility is to refuse...to participate in the life of the state" (p44)
4. The history of states is not all history.
5. The state exists to maintain order. When it seeks a higher purpose, it tends to self-idolatry.
6. Human officials do not give up human autonomy.
7. Christian responsibility is linked to being able to step aside when asked to act non-Christianly.
8. The question is not "Is this forbidden?" but to look for the greatest opportunities of service.
9. We will not act as if everybody is a Christian.
10. There is no grounds for self-righteous withdrawal, but rather for engagement with the world.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church

(I read this book earlier in the year, but posted a review elsewhere. I'm reposting this partly as part of my agenda on this blog, partly in preparation for an upcoming review here)

D.H. Williams' book appeals best to those who are already somewhere close to his camp, evangelicals who identify with things like paleo-orthodoxy, ancient-future, etc..

As someone somewhere over near that camp, it's a very welcome book, the first of a number of books in a series entitled Evangelical Ressourcement, aimed at bringing some of the riches of tradition to bear on the contemporary, evangelical, church.

Williams lays out a strong and extensive case for the importance and value of tradition. The book has 5 main chapters.

The first deals with "Conversion and Construction". Williams deals with how in the early church people were converted, and the body of teaching and faith they dealt with was not a nicely printed leather-bound 'bible', but a body of teachings handed-down, with limits and principles and some scriptures, in a word a 'tradition'. he explores the nature of early tradition, how it emerged and was constructed as a real entity aimed at guaranteeing the church's memory.

The second chapter deals with the early church as canonical, in which Williams makes a case that not all 'traditions' are 'Tradition', and that the apostolic and patristic eras really do function canonically - as a standard of judgment, for later developments. He lays out how that tradition interacts within itself to define orthodoxy, and how it is received in later history.

The third chapter, deals with the thorny question evangelicals always need to face down - whether tradition and scripture are separate sources of authority. Protestantism has generally defined itself on the answer that scripture alone has authority. Williams builds a strong and persuasive answer that the patristic and medieval church never thought of the two as separate streams of authority or teaching at all, but tradition as rooted in, flowing out of, and ensuring right-reading, of the scriptures. Williams warns of the dangers of hyper-individualism in approaching the scriptures, and of sola scriptura becoming nuda scriptura.

The fourth chapter deals with an equally 'evangelical'-prompted question, and explores in short-form the doctrine of justification in the fathers, and how that fits with a reformed protestant perspective.
The fifth chapter highlights a number of the types of sources of the early fathers, really as a very mini-introduction to what sort of texts they produced and why and some samples.

Overall, Williams' book is an exhortation, more than an introduction. It's aimed at persuading readers, and particularly pastors and theologians of evangelical stock, of their need to, and the value of, re-engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly the normative traditions of the early church fathers, especially if they are not to wander and drift astray in the contemporary days. It's a fine book and a good read. 3 stars

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, iv

The title of his fourth chapter, 'God will fight for Us', is an excellent indication of where Yoder is going in it. It's a brief attempt not to answer, but to reframe the question, of war and the Old Testament. Yoder points out that the question is generally frame as an ethical, generalised, and legalistic question, and then brought to the OT which has its own agenda.

Instead, Yoder points out that we need to read the scriptures as a story, and that the believing Israelite would not have read the story in that way. The strand of that story that Yoder teases out is God's salvation of his people, and he traces this through the Exodus event, the wars of conquest, the wars of the kingdom, right through to the post-exilic period. Yoder's point in all this is that the focus is on the deliverance of God, sometimes without violence, sometimes through violence, but often over and against politico-military strategy and reliance. His point is further strengthened by considering the way a lot of modern-ethically-problematic material (holy wars, Abraham/Isaac, etc) is framed cultically and non-problematically in the historico-social context. We impose questions that would have made no sense back then.

What Yoder does next is slightly unexpected. He's not here interested in elaborating a study of war and peace in the OT. Instead, he makes the point that with this kind of story, that believing Israelites in Jesus' day had an expectation that God could act in these kinds of ways. That Jesus' use of "the language of liberation and revolution, announcing a restoration of 'lingdom' community and a new pattern of life, without predicting or authorizing particular violent techniques for achieving his good ends, ... he need not have seemed to his listeners to be a dreamer." (p84)

Yoder then applies this leverage against the contemporary reader of Jesus. We assume that a generalised Jubilee, or a non-violent withdrawal of an enemy force, are highly improbably, if not downright impossible. So, we conclude Jesus could hardly have been talking of those kinds of things. But that is not the hearing Jesus would have received.

Likewise we treat apocalyptic sounding claims as "off the map", but the kinds of things Jesus is talking have a theological-historical grounding in the story of Israel in the Scriptures, so that "Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom was unacceptable to most of his listeners not because they thought it could not happen but because they feared it might, and that it would bring down judgment on them" (p85 Author's emphasis).

Personal thoughts: While it would have been great for Yoder to do far more work on the OT ethical material, that's not his aim here. And I should go and read some other texts for that myself. I do think Yoder's strategy is logically and persuasively powerful. We do approach the text with those kinds of wrong questions, and so fail to hear the texts on their own terms.

The same also applies to arguments I hear from Christians against my position. They practically, if not theoretically, think in terms of realpolitik, politico-military 'necessity', and success/failure. The idea of divine deliverance, of God acting in history, and of faithfulness and martyrdom being the marks of Christian 'success', are paid lip service and swept aside in ethical thinking.

RefTagger: Why it's good

RefTagger is basically a javascript tool that provides a link and a pop-up tool-tip for bible references, like John 1:1. I love it, because it enables you to write posts with bible references, without needing to quote material that isn't strictly pertinent to your flow of thought, but still have it present. I find it frustrating reading books where the author says, "So we see X, Y, Z (cf. Jn 1:1, 2:4, 5:16, 7:8)" (I just randomly selected those verses). Not because the author has done anything wrong, but simply because I'm about 0% likely to read those references if there not in the text, but neither do I want them in the text. Reftagger solves that problem - they're there but not there. Give it a go.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, iii

In Yoder's third chapter, he explores 'The Implications of the Jubilee', drawing strongly upon the work of André Trocmé. The major material of this chapter launches from Luke 4:18-19, and investigates the language of debt, remission, and so forth throughout the Synoptics. Yoder makes the case that Jesus was proclaiming the Jubilee year, with its provision of a fallow year, redistribution of capital, remission of debts, and liberation of slaves.

The strength of this chapter is probably best found in the detail to socio-historical setting of the gospel materials. The language of debt found in the Lord's prayer, and the reading of the parables of Jesus, seriously suggest that Jesus had specific, practical social agendas relating to the fulfilment of the law of Moses, not in the strict legalistic adherence of the Pharisees (ie, tithing spices and studiously avoiding doing good on the Sabbath), but in the truly humanitarian and 'good'-orientation of the Torah.

To some extent, this strikes me as one of the weakest of Yoder's chapters. I confess, I haven't read Trocmé's work on the subject, but I find the full-blown case for Jubilee practice overstretched. Nonetheless, it adds considerably to the thesis that Jesus has things to say about 'social ethics', and more than simply opinions - he is practicing a new social ethic and creating a new social order in his disciples.

Ethics: those who don't care and those who don't care

In recent times I have been equally struck by two different circumstances/observations that are very telling about people's attitudes towards ethics and morality.

The first is something Byron observed a little while back. On trying to tell people that he was doing a PhD on ethics, most people are a little bewildered about why he would do that. Aren't we post-ethical? I think this reveals a telling point about most people's ethics: don't murder anyone and you're free to pursue almost any kind of life you want. Morality has become almost obsolete, and so ethics is irrelevant.

The second is an observation from my wife that when you tell Christians you are a vegetarian, they almost inevitably begin to try and convince you that you should be eating meat, and feel like your moral stance is condemning them. I suspect this reveals an equally troubling point about those who have subscribed to an ethical position - they are unable to deal with alternatives.

This is true both within and without Christian spheres, and vegetarianism provides a good case study in our age (in which environmentalism is the new religion). Many people feel compelled to react to the news that you are a vegetarian by trying to persuade you how wrong it is, largely I believe because they are not comfortable with the moral difference you have introduced into the relationship, and are trying to correct it by conforming you to their position. Failing that, they may well resort to social pressure - jokes, snide comments, relentless down-putting of one's position.

Accompanying this is often the inability to accept that within an ethical system their could exist moral difference that didn't need to be resolved. This is particularly important, I feel, within Christianity. I'm fine with being a vegetarian and you not being one, because not all moral decisions are reducible to 'sin issues', let alone 'salvation issues'. If you saw the world as I did and read the scriptures as I do, I have no doubt you'd be compelled to the same conclusions, but until you do, you are entirely free to make a conscience call on vegetarianism. Why won't you let others do the same?

New Sermons

New Sermons Uploaded!

Exodus 11-13: The Passover
Exodus 13-18: Wilderness Wanderings
The Jesus of Revelation
Exodus 19-20: The Sinai Covenant
Exodus 32: The Golden Calf
Exodus 25-31, 35-40: The Tabernacle
Greed is Idolatry : Colossians 3:5
Stewardship : Luke 16:1-15

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, ii

Yoder begins his reading of Luke with the songs of Lk 1-2, noting their announcement of an "agent of radical social change" (p22). He helpfully notes that the language of the annunciation(s) cannot be interpreted as 'spiritual', as if they were mistaken in their hopes. If that were the case, Luke would have written differently, and marked the error of such expectations. He then skips forward to Luke 3:21-4:14, traditionally the baptism and temptation of Jesus (Commissioning and Testing in Yoder's work). He notes that Lk 3:22 with its allusion to Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1 merges the themes of enthronement and suffering servant. Yoder then engages in a persuasive reading of the temptation narrative in terms of the "ways of being king" (p25), laid out as feeding the masses, "the idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism" (p26), and a triumphant appearance of a religious messiah to refor the religio-political status quo. Jesus' rejection of these temptations leads to his paradigmatic platform in Luke 4:14ff and Isa 61:1-2. Yoder unpacks this in terms of the Jubilee Year, particularly its prophetic understanding. The second thrust of his proclamation is the new age of Gentile inclusion, which would undercut any nationalistic egocentricism in receiving the Jubilee proclamation (p32).

From Luke 6:12ff, Yoder sees Jesus responding to the backlash to his work with the organisation of a "new social reality" (p33) centered on the 12. Yoder interprets the basis of this new social reality as a reaffirmation of the platform established in Luke 4:14ff. He then focuses on the feeding in the desert, noting it as the "culmination of the popular Galilean ministry and the transition both to a ministry centered more on the disciples and to the approach to Jerusalem" (p35). Luke 9:22 heralds the alternative to the crown of the Welfare King, the cross of Jerusalem. From this point on the cross looms over the Jesus-band. Yoder interprets Luke 12-14 in terms of the cost of discipleship, highlighting the point of Luke 14:25ff as Jesus "calling into being a community of voluntary commitment, willing for the sake of its calling to take upon itself the hostility of the given society" (p37). Yoder again and again points out that Jesus does not "reprimand his disciples for expecting him to establish some new social order, as he would have had to do if the thesis of the only-spiritual kingdom were to prevail. He rather reprimands them for having misunderstood the character of that new social order which he does intent to set up" (p38). The point of distinction is not spiritual, or visibility, but the alternative lifestyle of the social alternative.

In the triumphal entry and temple-cleansing, Yoder sees Jesus at the peak of his opportunity to seize power in some kind of coup d'etat. Jesus instead withdraws to Bethany, and the moment passes. "Every pericope in the section 19:47-22:2 reflects in some way the confrontation of two social systems and Jesus' rejection of the status quo." (p44) Passing on to the Arrest of Jesus, Yoder lays down the interpretation of "Let this cup pass from me?" in real terms - what is the alternative to the cross? This is now Jesus' last opportunity to take up Satan's temptation, the option of a divine crusade and a Zealot-like kingship (p48). In dealing with the trial and crucifixion, Yoder continues to point out what should be obvious - if Jesus was some apolitical spiritual leader, why would he be such a threat in the way that he is, and crucified as "King of the Jews". Luke 24:21 "is not just one more tesitomy to the disciples' obtuse failure to get Jesus' real point; it is an eyewitness report of the way Jesus had been heard." (p51)

Yoder concludes his chapter with the point he has been making throughout - Jesus' call is "to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life".

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, i

I've just started re-reading (for the 4th or 5th time), John Howard Yoder's classic work, The Politics of Jesus, and I thought I would take the opportunity to blog my way through it, giving some succinct summaries for those of you unfamiliar with Yoder.

In his opening chapter, Yoder sets out the context and thesis of his work. His primary concern is to investigate whether Jesus has a social ethic, and whether that is relevant in any way. Yoder sets up his question against the backdrop of ethical approaches that tend to make Jesus irrelevant for (social) ethics. He lists six particular ways this has played out, including seeing Jesus as interested only in an 'interim' ethic because of an imminent eschatology, seeing Jesus as only interested in personal ethics (e.g. restricted to a 'village sociology'), and so forth. One of the the irrelevance-strategies is to sideline 'dogmatic Jesus' - that Jesus came to die for sins and the life he lived is almost immaterial and irrelevant alongside that.

The radical thing about Yoder is that he very perceptively notes that Jesus is not normative for mainstream ethics. Mainstream ethical approaches sideline Jesus' behaviour and teaching, and instead ground their norms in something else, whether nature, natural order, reason, a creation order, et cetera. The very ability to point out this situation immediately raises its absurdity. For a distinctly Christian ethic, shouldn't Jesus be normative?

Yoder's proposal is thus to read portions of the NT canon, and specifically Luke, "with the constantly pressing question, 'Is there here a social ethic?'" (p11), with the aim to tease out the relevance of Jesus for social ethics, and the normativity of Jesus.

Little Piece of Gold: p7-8, footnotes. Yoder is speaking about a classic work of Sheldon's and the slogan, "Do what Jesus would do" (sound familiar? WWJD anyone?), and Yoder makes the point that this becomes, "do the right at all costs", but that 'the right' is knowable apart from Jesus. Yoder's whole thesis is this: a truly Christian ethic knows what the right is by and in and through Jesus life, death, and resurrection.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pax Christi: Luke 22:36

Luke 22:36 is often debated and used as a proof-text in arguments over pacifism. In the following post I will read it in context, and show that major traditional understandings are flawed, and that the verse is not a simple deal-breaker for a Christian pacifism.

The context of the passage is set up by the whole narrative thread, picking up from the start of the chapter: the decision of Judas to betray Jesus, the Last Supper, and the prediction of Peter's Betrayal in v31-34. In Luke 22:35 Jesus asks them:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?”
They said, “Nothing.”

Referring back to Luke 9:3. In that former context, Jesus sent them out on a missionary journey to Israelites, with the expectation that those who received them would show due hospitality, so that there was no need for provisioning. There is no mention of a sword in the Luke 9:1-5 context. The response of the disciples here points to the provision of God, and Jesus' question functions didactically to remind them of a previously learnt lesson. We then come to the difficult verse, Luke 22:36:

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Jesus echoes his former instruction, but reverses its direction. Now there will be a need for provisioning. Why is that? I suggest that the need for provisions here is the consequence of the change in hospitality that is about to ensue - no longer will their missionary activity be received by faithful Israelites awaiting a Messiah. The disciples from this point on will experience a hostility patterned on Jesus' own experience.

In this context, the command concerning the sword (it is framed as a 3rd person imperative, which to some extent distances it from the immediate context), has been read in a number of ways. Some have seen it as an instruction to arm themselves for future self-defence, a sword being a standard protection from robbers. Others have read it metaphorically, as spiritual armament for 'battle'. Neither of these is adequate to the ongoing context. While it is true that most of the NT, especially the Pauline material, uses military language metaphorically, it is difficult to read the sword here as metaphorical, given the literal nature of the rest of the command. Luke 22:37-38:

For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me:
‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’
For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
38And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”
And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Jesus continues his instructions with an explicit reference to Isa 53:12. The disciples do not respond to this, but instead reply to his very practical statement in v36, with "Here are two swords". The clear implication is that the disciples are already in possession of two swords, and probably have been for some time. Now, everything about this passage so far turns on how we read Jesus' reply, "It is enough."

Enough for what? To go back to our comments on v35, it is very difficult to see how two swords will be sufficient for anything - it isn't sufficient in the arrest scene to ward off that band. It's hardly sufficient for traveling bands of apostolic missionaries (especially if they followed a Luke 9 two by two pattern), to ward off robbers. The sufficiency of two swords is ironic, and must be read against two other texts. Firstly, the immediate context of v37 provides the sufficiency of which Jesus speaks. Two swords are enough to fulfil the scripture, "with the lawless he was reckoned" (my translation; lawless is a plural substantive). When you read Luke 22:52, and Jesus asks if they have come out as against a robber, the implied answer is 'Yes', because that is how the band of temple-officers and their chiefs is portrayed, and the armament of Jesus' companions, and their violence in Lk 22:49-51 fulfils this very scripture.

Secondly, Jesus' words "It is enough" function as a summary rebuke, as "Enough!" might in English. The disciples haven't got the import of what Jesus has said, though ironically they will fulfil that scripture, and Jesus' wording alludes to Dt 3:26 LXX, where God angrily breaks off from speaking to Moses.

The flow of the narrative from this point on continues to reinforce this understanding. Jesus offers no resistance, though he of anyone is supremely qualified to legitimate self-defence. His disciple does not wait for the answer of Lk 22:49, "shall we strike?", but strikes immediately. Jesus' response is again a summary rebuke, "No more of this!" (Lk 22:51), and heals the high-priest's slave's ear, reversing the violence done.

Why don't the disciples act differently? I surmise, that as with most of Jesus' teachings, the disciples fail to grasp the implications of Jesus' words until post-resurrection. It is only then they understand the shape of Jesus' life as cross-directed, and will begin to understand that to follow Jesus is likewise to surrender self-determination and take up one's cross. That will include an entire re-evaluation of the meaning of death, and thus the sufficiency of the sword.

There is a further line of interpretation that I have not explored here. Yoder picks it up marvellously in The Politics of Jesus. That is that the real temptation and choice of "Remove this cup from me" (Lk 22:42), is the choice between atoning sacrifice and forgiveness, against messianic violence and the consummation of the Kingdom with divine judgment. The choice of the disciples to engage in armed insurrection literalises that choice in historical reality, but it is the very choice that Jesus rejects.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Martyrdom and Discipleship

The initial impetus for this post comes from listening to Tim Chester speak on "Making Disciples for Missional Church", available from Total Church Conference 2008

The one who follows Jesus is one who has made a choice to follow Jesus in 'the way of the cross'. This does not mean, and has never meant, self-denial or asceticism, but has always meant quite specifically that choosing to follow Jesus commits one to a life that embraces and makes potential a particular kind of death, that is the death of the martyr.

One problem of (western) Christians is a tendency to convert by stages. A person believes in Jesus, and then slowly gets convinced that this will mean certain consequences, a certain christian lifestyle, and held up as some kind of heroic end-stage, they might possibly attain to the faith of a martyr, as if martyrs were special super-heroes of Christian faith. This is, in fact, partly a function of the non-persecution of Christians. For those converted in the context of persecution and hostility, the choice to convert is made with the threat and real possibility of martyrdom, so that the choice to live for Jesus is already the choice to die for Jesus. Once the choice to die for Jesus is made, much of the rest easily falls into line. For every Christian, the choice to embrace Jesus is the choice to die for Jesus.

In contemporary usage, 'martyr' tends to denote those who die for a cause. I want to suggest that such an understanding is inadequate for the shape of contemporary understandings of the word, as well as for its historical usage. Cinema provides a ready example. Considers films that end with the death of the protagonist. Those that end with a death that effects a purposeful outcome, we consider examples of heroic martyrdom. The martyr dies and their death achieves their goal. Thus, we correlate the sacrifice of the self as the means of the outcome. The question is never, or at least rarely, raised - could the outcome have been achieved by other means? Nonetheless, the heroic dimension only exists because of the efficacy of the action. Conversely, films that end with the death of the protagonist which either aims for no purpose and thus has no efficacy, or falls short of the purposed goal, are real tragedies. The person who dies for their cause inefficaciously, might be called a 'martyr', but the real evaluation of their death is that it was pointless, vain, futile, meaningless. The politeness of martyr-rhetoric, not to mention speaking-ill of the dead, might prohibit us from saying so, but that is the cold, hard truth.

Come then to Jesus. Jesus neatly embraces both the standard and the historical usage of 'martyr', in that he both dies for a cause (or better, 'a purpose'), and he dies as a witness. The New Testament neatly preserves the usage of 'martyr' as witness, and in Jesus' case it is particularly apt. John's Gospel contains a long motif of trial, witness, and truth through chapters 1-12, and John 8:40 neatly connects the desire to put him to death with his claim to speak the truth. Likewise, Jesus before Pilate is questioned about being a King, replies that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). Jesus witnesses to the truth, and ultimately is crucified for his witness.

Yet, the death of a witness is not an efficacious death. If Jesus is who so many make him out to be, a rather inoffensive teacher of morality, or free-love, or humanism, the cause of his death is difficult to locate, but its purpose becomes totally obscured. If Jesus dies and fails, he is not a martyr, he is a tragedy. At best one might assert that his willingness to die for his beliefs witnesses to the depths of his convictions. Yet if those convictions include the certainty of his resurrection (Mark 8:31), and his Messianic significance, then this too would be in vain, since his convictions are false.

This is why the Atonement stands at the heart of understanding 'the way of the cross'. 1 John 4:10 speaks of the Father sending the Son for this very purpose, atonement. The efficacy of Jesus' death, and the cause for which he is martyred, is to reconcile sinners to God by the atoning sacrifice of himself for our sins. In achieving his purpose, Jesus' death is transformed from tragedy to heroic martyrdom; it is only in this sense that Jesus can truly be heralded as a martyr.

The whole pattern of Christian life is modeled on this centre. The imitation of Jesus means that Christians are sent, as he was sent, to witness to the truth and to reconcile sinners to God. I emphasise the latter, because this is precisely the point at which come Cross-centered thinking goes astray. There is no value in self-denial, asceticism, suffering, and the like, in and of themselves , because it cannot effect what Jesus' suffering effected, the once for all atonement for sin. Instead, Christians proclaim the same message as Jesus, with pronouns modified - Jesus calls sinners to repent and follow himself, we call sinners to repent and follow him too.

In this way Christian discipleship is severed from the compulsive need to be efficacious. Indeed, if we grasp the implications of the Sovereignty of God, we realise that whenever we do die, it is because God is pleased to call us home and give us rest from our cruciform lives. Into this scenario, the martyrdom of Christians is characterised by a peculiarly dual-nature. Rev 12:11 reads

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they loved not their lives even unto death

The whole theme of conquering in the book is closely tied to the death of the Lamb, so that the reader is left in no doubt that Christ's atoning sacrifice is also his glorious victory. In this sense, the death of Christian martyrs has no efficacy - they conquer 'by the blood of the Lamb'. Yet, John is quick to link this with 'and by the word of their testimony (witness)', signifying that it is their confession, their repentance and lived-out cruciform discipleship, that has united them with the efficacious victory of the Lamb, Christ's atoning death. This is borne-out by the final clause in this verse 'and they did not love their lives even unto death', which links their death as the persecuted, like to Jesus, with their witness to and of Jesus, with Jesus' own witness-bearing atoning death.

It is in this sense that martyrdom as death is truly a baptism of blood, as some of the Fathers described it, since in martyrdom the Christian makes a final confession, a final clinging to the truth that Jesus died for them, and demonstrates in word and deed that they have repented and believed. This corresponds to the public witness of repentance and faith and the symbolic death of the baptismal rite, and in the case of a catechumen like Perpetua, truly is their baptism, a graphic and literal fulfillment of the symbolism of Rev 7:14.

One of the great failings of western evangelicalism is a failure to make explicit and live explicitly the truth that the choice to 'trust in Jesus' is, at one and at once, the embrace of 'the way of the cross', which may end in martyrdom. Death, of course, is not the end that Christians aim for, but the very real expectation that it is a regular and expected consequence of a Jesus-like life, shapes that choice right from the start. In this light, taking up one's cross to follow Jesus is to accept martyrdom, even embrace martyrdom, and to make the whole of one's life cross-shaped.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John's Gospel

This volume, by Köstenberger and Swain, as part of the NSBT series of publications, attempts to summarise and synthesise the doctrine of the trinity within John's Gospel. It falls into three parts. The first of these, and shortest, deal with Historical Context, and specifically Jewish monotheism. Much of the groundwork in this section builds on work by Hurtado and Bauckham, both of whom I was reasonably familiar with, and so I gained little personally from this section. Nonetheless, given contemporary debates over 2nd Temple Judaism, it forms an important preliminary element to the book.

The second part is slightly more substantive, treating the biblical data, in turn, for God, Father, Son, and Spirit, in the gospel. There was nothing stunning about these chapters, but they are clear and well-formulated, and save one from doing this kind of digging through the text oneself. Insofar as that is the goal, Part 2 deals admirably with the four subjects. I was pleased to see distinct treatments of Son, Son of God, and Son of Man elements in the Sonship chapter, since these are unhelpfully collapsed in some studies. Understanding 'Son of God' as a messianic designation roughly equivalent to 'king of Israel' (p81) is an important step, though one that is not always maintained throughout the work. The final chapter of this section, ch 6, seems wasted paper - 2 pages of what you have just read, and each of those chapters has a summary and conclusion of its own. This is a tendency throughout the book, to over-summarise in conclusion.

The real worth of this book comes through in the weightier third section, Theological Reflections. Ch 7 shares some very insightful elements of Trinitarian Christology from John (including excellent treatment of the persons of the Trinity, and how John works on the unity of essence and distinction of persons, in relationship to the Son), Ch 8 then does an equally helpful extension of the same kind of thinking to the Spirit. Ch 9 relates a trinitarian theology of mission in John's gospel, and involves elements of Köstenberger's earlier work on both biblical theology of mission as well as John's gospel itself. The main argument here is that John's missiology is deeply trinitarian, and his trinitarian theology emerges as a result of his trinitarian missiology, though this is about the order of knowing, not of being, as they carefully note (well, in a footnote). Their almost two page critique of Yong seemed a little out of place here (p162-3). Ch 10 concludes the bulk of the study with a detailed treatment of ch 17, and engages the contemporary debate concerning the immanent and economic Trinity. I found their account of a pactum salutis revealed in ch 17 far more convincing than speculative constructions of inner-trinitarian covenant theology I have encountered elsewhere, precisely because they did the work to show that the Triune God works in salvation characteristically as each person of the Trinity, and this is revealed as a pre-temporal plan and work that is centered on the glorification of the Son in his death, resurrection and ascension.

Like others, I found the foot-noting a real problem. Footnotes refer to Author and Year, but leave the reader to refer to the bibliography to note the exact work; this is a real hassle, especially for authors with multiple works. It would hardly have increased the length to provide fuller bibliographic details in the footnotes. The regular summaries and conclusions are a little painful, especially for a straight-through read, though they may well be useful for a quick referencing or locating of relevant passages. The first two sections of the book are largely groundwork, but will provide a quick overview of their subject. The real value of this work certainly lies in its third section, and I expect to be making some real profit from it when turning to both patristic trinitarian theology, and Johannine Christology, over the next 12 months.

A fine work, 4 stars.

Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John's Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beliefs and Ideas

Often I hear that our preaching needs to have more application. I struggle with this, not because I think application shouldn't be a crucial element, but because of the kind of application people seem to be after. Many people are wont to look at the scriptures as if they were a manual for life. They want teaching that goes from the big ideas, but then breaks it down into outcomes and procedures. The problem is, the scriptures stubbornly refuse that kind of application.

It's not that that kind of application is wrong, or shouldn't be done. It's rather that, I consider it to be a far more individual and specific kind of application, that needs the application to a person's context. And that is not the kind of application one can meaningfully make in large-group teaching.

On the other hand, I think one of the consistent rhetorical and ideological strategies of the biblical texts is to teach us to see things differently. By re-orienting and re-constructing our vision of reality, we come to hold different beliefs. And that is what I want to achieve in sermons and other large-group teaching practices - to change beliefs.

I suspect the desire for application comes because of a disconnect in belief and ideas in the western mind. If you believe something, it will change the way you act. If you hold notional ideas, you can be as correct as you want, but nothing will change in the way you act. This distinction is very helpful, because it goes a long way to explaining the constant battle over 'intellectual faith' that people tend to toss around. People readily understand the gospel, readily hold the idea of the gospel, but if they truly believed the gospel you would see it in their lives.

This also goes a long way to explaining the concerns over whether a person can lose their salvation. So long as we conflate belief and idea-holding, we'll have this conflict. But if a person believes the gospel, they will live it out and they will persevere, and so the question is a dead question. Belief is evident by its fruit, Ideas are only evident in confession. The great danger, is that gospel Ideas can be held by people who hold beliefs that are vaguely christianesque, and result in behaviour that counterfeits gospel-action. Both a belief in the gospel and a belief in works-righteousness, for example, will play themselves out in good works, but from such different motives! and with such different results!

Church and Heaven

Many people's idea of (Christian) heaven is shaped by their experience of church.
So, if church is boring, lots of singing, and basically a big meeting, then no wonder they think heaven involves a lot of singing with harps, and the suspicion it might be quite boring.

But, if church is a community of people who share their lives and live under the reign of king Jesus, and worship is honouring Jesus in all of life from the mundane to the sublime, then why wouldn't our picture of heaven by the glorified version of the same?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

ethics: book recommendations

I was asked about book recommendations on ethics. Here are my four choice picks

The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics
Hays is a top-notch NT scholar. I don’t agree with everything he says about the NT, but I think his ethics text is an excellent example of how to do ethics in a theoretical and exegetical framework.

Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics
To be honest, I have not read this book in its entirety, but I have read several of O’Donovan’s other works. O’Donovan probably represents the most thought-through and sophisticated evangelical ethicist today. This book outlines his approach to ethics overall, and is well worth the read. Slightly convoluted at points. My major criticism of O’Donovan concerns his political theology and the ethics of war.

The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill.
Hill’s book is far more straightforward than O’Donovan’s, but is working from roughly the same framework. Hill is an easy entry-point, explaining things from the start, but his ethical theory is powerful, radical, and his book seeks to apply it sensitively to contemporary ethical issues.

The Politics of Jesus
Yoder’s classic work, ‘The Politics of Jesus’, remains an indispensable read. I believe Yoder shows how to take Jesus seriously for one’s ethics, and unlike Hauerwas and many who have followed that line, Yoder has a convincing biblical ethic of Christo-centric non-violence that does not neglect a classic doctrine of atonement, but arguably depends and is integrated with it. My major criticism of contemporary christian pacifism is that most strands of it are allied with theological trends that are dubious at best, heretical at worst. Yoder provides a powerful counterpoint and alternative, and his work deserves more and more attention.

I would also encourage a careful consideration of the NT scriptures and how they deal with the OT Law, particularly both Matthew’s Gospel, and a nuanced and extensive consideration of Paul. Our ability to read the integrity of the scriptural canon in large part depends upon the full scope of the NT witness

Monday, November 03, 2008

Pax Christi: Treating the Outsider

The problem with many attempts to maintain a stance of just way is that the follow a pattern of OT ethics that is radicalised in the NT. In the OT ethical concerns are largely confined to the covenant community, and while some of those concerns are extended to the "alien in your midst", generally non-Israelites are treated as "other". One temptation of those defending Just War is to read a similar pattern into the NT - that christian love and non-resistance is practiced primarily within the covenant community, and only be extension to outsiders. There are two great flaws with this thinking. The first is that very few Just War thinkers are prepared to constitute the Church as a political entity like Israel was, and to follow through their logic. If they did, they would be forced to leave their homes and take up arms for their persecuted brothers in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. One cannot take up arms to defend one's nation if one isn't prepared to take up arms to defend the church.

The second, and greater flaw, is that Jesus radicalises the concept of 'neighbour', and while the NT maintains boundaries of inside/outside the covenant community, more and more the distinction is one of discipline and primary care, not a duality of ethical stance, so that the bombshell of the Good Samaritan parable is predicated on the idea that the love of neighbour excludes the outsider, and Jesus' radical idea is that not only is the same ethical stance to be taken towards the outsider, but in his story it is the outsider who takes the right ethical stance at all. For Jesus, love of neighbour is no longer an idea that reaches a limit within the community, but is a love that extends as far as it is able.