The New Perspective on Paul ?!?

Even those minimally informed about the goings-on of New Testament studies in academia will have heard of “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The NPP is perhaps one of the most controversial topics in contemporary Pauline studies. This should not be surprising given its claim that much of the theology that came from the Reformation, and has since dominated Protestantism, was either misguided or simply in error. Volume upon volume has been written from the many sides tangled up in this issue. I say many sides because it is not clear that there is a single perspective among those of the NPP camp. Indeed, many have written on the NPP, but the three names most commonly associated with it are: E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright. Of these three I am most familiar with Wright’s work. I recommend Simon Gathercole’s recent article in Christianity Today (Aug. 2007) as a helpful survey and assessment of the issues in the debate.

The NPP really got kicked off in 1977 with Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. According to Gathercole, “[Sanders] argued that both pre-Christian Judaism and its successor, rabbinic Judaism, had just as strong an emphasis on grace as Pauline Christianity did” (24). For Sanders, the fact that Israel was God’s elect people indicated that Judaism was, and always had been, a religion of grace. An Israelite never kept the Mosaic law because it was a way of gaining merit before God in order to enter into relationship with him. Israel was already in a relationship with God because he chose them to be. Thus, for Sanders, the “works of the law” were ways of staying in the covenant rather than ways of getting in the covenant. The implication of this thesis is that reformers like Luther and Calvin had erroneously read their controversy with Roman Catholicism back onto the Judaism of Paul’s day by making it out to be a religion of works righteousness. Sanders’ work was a major contribution to historical Jewish studies. However, in the world of biblical studies, it was found wanting. One outcome of Sanders’ work is certain; Protestant readings of Paul had to be reevaluated.

This is where Dunn, who coined the phrase “New Perspective on Paul” and Wright come in. These two have attempted to give theological revision to Sanders’ thesis that 1st century Judaism was not a religion of works righteousness. Wright has argued that “works of the law” were neither about getting in nor staying in the covenant. Rather, “works of the law” were about how you knew who was in the covenant. Sabbath observance, food laws, and circumcision were strict ethnic boundary markers, or badges, that delineated the elect people of God, namely Israel. For Wright then, justification by faith, as an answer to works of the law becomes an issue of how you know who is in the new covenant of God in Christ as opposed to how you get into the covenant. In technical terms, justification by faith is more about ecclesiology (theology of the church) than soteriology (theology of salvation). This claim has sent traditional Protestants into a frenzy holding strongly that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is about how God deals with sin and saves sinners. I wonder, though, if this is not a false dichotomy. Is justification not about both who is in the church and about salvation as well? Certainly it is the case that those who are in the church are the ones caught up in God’s purposes for salvation. And those who are being saved are in the church. I think Wright tries to hold these two together, but it is not quite clear. If I ever get the chance to ask him, I will.

There is much more that could be said about the NPP, and it has been said in other places. No doubt this will remain a topic of debate for many years. That said, I’ve found Wright’s thinking on justification to be helpful. As I noted above, there are some questions I would ask given the opportunity, but I’ve found very little to which I would object in his What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans 1997). It is an accessible and helpful introduction to Wright’s version of the NPP. His criticisms of traditional Protestant thinking on justification strike me as valid and worth considering. At the moment I lean towards Wright’s take on the NPP. However,for me, the jury is still out. I’m not sure I understand the complexities and the implications of the issue. As always, there is much more reading to be done.

Grace and peace,


Which Comes First: the water or the Spirit?

Some of our friends in the baptist tradition are presently having a discussion over whether or not a paedobaptist (infant baptizer) should be allowed to be a member of a credobaptist (believer baptizer) local church. The discussion has also included the question as to whether or not a credobaptist local church should deny a paedobaptist access to Communion at our Lord’s Table. Some of the well known participants in the discussion include: John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan. Here is a link to a summary of the discussion. The conversation was kicked off when Piper came under the conviction that someone baptized as an infant who clearly believed in Christ as Lord should be allowed to be a member of his church without being rebaptized as a believer if he honestly believed his infant baptism to be valid. Piper, of course, does not believe infant baptism to be valid. However, he has come to the conviction that no child of God should be refused membership in a local church. He has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to have his local church’s constitution changed to allow those baptized as infants to become members. I applaud Piper’s convictions on this matter and hope that others will follow his lead so that we may begin to get beyond this rather sterile debate.

I am an intrigued outside observer and have little or nothing riding on the outcome of the discussion. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring up some helpful biblical observations regarding baptism. These comments will be brief. For those of you who are interested in more detailed work I recommend Troubled Waters by Ben Witherington. My upcoming comments will amount to summaries of his detailed work (credit where credit is due).

1. The book of Acts provides a variety of scenarios in which persons are baptized, and these scenarios give no prescriptive account for whether or not one must first be a Christian. In fact, Acts 2:38 indicates that one may be baptized prior to receiving the Spirit. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (NRSV). The order is clearly repentance followed by water baptism followed by the gift of the Spirit. It must be stressed that without the Spirit no one is a Christian. Thus, Peter is saying that one may be baptized prior to becoming a Christian. Acts 8:15-17 gives us an example of some men whom the apostles had baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus but who had not yet received the Spirit. Conclusion: the apostles baptized these persons prior to their becoming Christians.

Some will certainly point out that the mention of repentance prior to water baptism in Acts 2:38 rules out infant baptism. However, I am not making a case for infant baptism from this text. Rather, I am merely trying to indicate that the sign (water) may precede the thing signified (Spirit). This text has nothing to do with infant baptism. It is about the initial missionary baptisms after Pentecost. It does not speak to the issue of what to do with children born to Christian parents. I take it to be descriptive and not prescriptive.

In Acts 10:44-48 we are given an account of an occasion where water baptism comes after the reception of the Spirit. The Judeans with Peter were amazed that the Spirit had been given to Gentiles. But they could not refuse the evidence nor could they withhold water baptism from those on whom the Spirit had fallen.

The point is this: Acts presents us with accounts of water baptism preceding Spirit reception as well as Spirit reception preceding water baptism. This should substantiate my earlier point that Acts should not be read as prescriptive or normative in matters of baptism. Rather, it provides us with descriptive accounts of the first missionary efforts of the church. It should be clear though, from Acts 2 and 8, that water baptism may be thought of as a rite preparing one to receive the Spirit.

2. It is commonly said that the Greek verb baptizo means “to dip or immerse”. Thus, pouring or sprinkling are not true modes of baptism. This, however, is simply not the case. The meaning of a word is not found in the dictionary or lexicon. The meaning of a word is found in the contexts in which the word is used. The Didache, an early Christian document from the late first or second century, indicates that baptizo and its cognates can refer to immersion in water or the pouring of water on the head. The Greek baptizo refers to a ceremonial washing or water rite. It does not necessarily refer to immersion in water.

These observations are not intended as an argument for one theology of baptism or another. They are merely intended to demonstrate that the biblical evidence does not necessarily fit into our systematic categories. We need to do a better job of studying the texts themselves to understand what they do and do not say about baptism. My hope and prayer is that the current discussion will help to pave the way out of this debate.

Grace and peace,


Feels Like Going Home

I discovered the music of Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love a few years ago during my undergrad days at Auburn University. It wasn’t long before I set out to get my hands on as many of Bill’s albums as I could find. His sometimes startlingly honest lyrics atop the raw sound of Americana/Alt. Country chord progressions resonated with the deep places of my soul. The music was a constant companion for several years during both good times and bad. Sometimes I even got the chance to ride to Atlanta or Athens to catch a show with some friends. Those were good days. Those days couldn’t last forever though, and like so many fans I was sadened to hear the news that the Vigilantes had disbanded. Bill continued to make music solo but for whatever reason I didn’t follow as closely as before. I was getting ready to start seminary and was spending more time reading and listening to sermons than I was listening to albums. However, when Naomi and I began preparing to move to Kentucky, I realized I would be closer to the parts of the country that Bill regularly toured in, and I hoped to catch a show or two while in the area. To my pleasant surprise a show was scheduled for about a month and a half after we moved here. So, last night Naomi and I went to hear Bill sing. It was a great show and a great night. Bill kicked the evening off with ‘Solar System’, a personal favorite, and played several ‘Audible Sigh’ era tunes as well as some newer ones as well. He has an incredible stage presence and is able to capture an audience with lyrics that demand reflection and a combination of sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes haunting melodies. The evening was topped off by the vocal and piano accompaniment of Bill’s wife, Muriah Rose. The piano was especially moving on ‘Resplendent’. Hearing these songs gave me that experience of getting back to a treasured time in my past to which I had not been in a long time. It feels a lot like going home. I think I’ll start keeping up with Bill’s work again, and I commend it to my readers. It’s some of the best I’ve ever heard (by the way…the above picture is of me and Bill).

Grace and peace,


The Gospel of Jesus…???, #3

Given the discussion in previous posts about James Robinson’s book The Gospel of Jesus, it may not surprise you that he does not affirm the biblical and traditional understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. Robinson is careful with his words. Instead of using negative terms to boldly and forthrightly deny that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Robinson chooses to explain the resurrection positively in terms of the disciples’ “experience” of Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Robinson claims that:

He goes on to say, “it is neither the empty tomb nor the appearances that created the Easter faith. It is, rather, the other way around” (207). Robinson describes Easter as an “experience” had by Jesus’ followers after he was killed. He does not think of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as an historical event. Rather, it is an inner and spiritual experience where the disciples realized that Jesus’ sayings still rang true and that they were responsible for spreading his message after his death.

One by one, then in smaller or larger groups, the disciples experienced Jesus still calling on them to continue his message and lifestyle. Thus he reentered their lives as they experienced anew the reality of his message and in turn were commissioned to carry it on just as he had. This is the experience that was and is the reality of Easter (206).

The problem with this theory (aside from it’s rejection of scriptural testimony) is that it does not even begin to offer a compelling historical explanation for the claim of earliest Christianity that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead. As early as twenty years after the crucifixion the resurrection was already woven deeply into the life and mission of the Christian movement. This is clearly demonstrated in the earliest available Christian documents, namely the letters of Paul from the late 40’s and early 50’s AD. So the historian must ask and answer the question of why the early church stuck with the claim that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead.

Some on both the popular and scholarly level have proposed various answers to this question. Some have argued that Jesus never actually died. Instead, he simply blacked out on the cross. Thought to be dead by the Romans Jesus was put in the tomb where he was resuscitated and then went on with his mission. First, this is an insult to the Roman soldiers. They were professional killers and they did their job well. It is historically implausible to claim that Jesus was not dead when he was taken off the cross. Second, a beaten and battered Jesus would hardly compel anyone to claim that Jesus “had gone through death and out the other side” (for both points see: N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 127). Some have argued that the early Christians simply made up the resurrection as something of a political power play. A quick reading of Paul’s prison letters, along with texts like 2 Cor. 11, should quickly dispel such a silly notion. By the end of the first century Christians were being persecuted. They were not gaining political power.

So, what happened on Easter morning? Some of the finest thinking I’ve encountered on this subject has come from the Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. I recommend his book The Challenge of Jesus (InterVarsity, 1999) as an excellent and accessible introduction to matters concerning historical Jesus research. If this book whets your appetite you can follow it’s trail to more extensive treatments of the subject. First, it is important to note what exactly was meant by the word “resurrection” in the first century. Wright demonstrates in chapter five that first century Jews had ways of talking about what happened to a person when they died. Language which referred to the departed as being spirits or angels was common. There are also texts which speak of God keeping the souls of the righteous dead safe. So, if a first century Jew had an “experience” of a dear departed one communicating with them from beyond the grave, they had language to describe that experience and it was the language of souls and spirits and dreams and such. Never did they use the language of resurrection to describe the experience of being communicated with by the deceased. That, simply put, was not what resurrection meant. This is the primary deficiency in Robinson’s thinking on the subject of Easter. He claims that the disciples had an “experience” of Jesus that convinced them that his sayings were true even though he was dead. There is no historical reason to think the disciples would have referred to this experience as resurrection. In fact, they most certainly would not have. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day the term resurrection always referred to bodies being raised from death to life.

Messianic movements were not uncommon in the 150 years either side of Jesus, and Wright points out that one of two options were available to first century Jews whose Messianic leader was killed by the Romans. They either gave up the movement or found themselves a new Messianic figure. There are examples of both in the first centuries BC and AD. Clearly, the Christians did not give up their movement. Neither did they find themselves another leader. As Wright points out James, the brother of Jesus, would have been an obvious replacement as he became a pillar of the Jerusalem church. Instead, the Christians persisted in claiming that, despite the crucifixion, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and the proof was his bodily resurrection. Something unexpected happened on Easter that caused the disciples to believe and proclaim this good news. The only plausible historical explanation is that Jesus was indeed raised bodily from the dead. It is implausible to think that an inner experience of communication from beyond the grave caused the early Christians to create the story of the resurrection. It was indeed the empty tomb and bodily appearances of the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth that compelled his followers to go out preaching the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead!

The Gospel of Jesus…???, #2

As is clear from my previous post I think Robinson’s argument in The Gospel of Jesus that the Sayings Gospel Q is the best source for understanding the historical Jesus is without scholarly merit. The book is not without some value though. Robinson argues against fanciful novelists who portray Jesus engaged in romantic entanglements with Mary Magdalene. He also outlines Jesus’ radical perspective on family relationships which has been the subject of historical inquiry exploring how Jesus’ escaped being sidelined as a deviant, instead becoming the leader of a Messianic movement, given the things he said about family in a time where the family defined the individual. He even claims to place Jesus within the Jewish context of the first century. However, on this matter his efforts are less than adequate. One problem is that Robinson credits the judgment sayings of Jesus to later redactions of Q which were subsequently included in Matthew and Luke. Robinson argues that Jesus’ own historical message was, “focused on life in the here and now, the reality of God reigning” (117). Thus, for Robinson, the authentic message of Jesus to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors was the essence of his kingdom announcement and thoroughly incompatible with the wrathful judgment sayings which, Robinson supposes, must have been written onto the lips of Jesus by the church after the Jewish war (66-70 A.D.) to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as the consequence of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. The author claims that, “Jesus’ sunny experience of God showering love even on the bad and unjust gave way to the grim experience of a God of vengeance” (119).
For Robinson, the sunny experience of God’s love is the essence of the kingdom of God with which the concept of judgment is incompatible. However, this does not place Jesus firmly in his Jewish context. The announcement of the kingdom of God, which Robinson rightly explains as the reality of God’s reign on earth, always involved the judgment of God against those nations which oppressed his people. Psalm 2 claims that God’s anointed king will possess the nations and rule over them and warns kings not to oppress the people of Yahweh. Isaiah 65 promises that those who forsake the Lord will be destined for the sword while those who seek the Lord will be blessed. Malachi says of the coming messenger, “who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…Then I will draw near to you for judgment” (3:2-3, 5). Malachi ends by announcing blessing for the faithful and judgment for the evildoer (3:16-4:3). The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, which might have been written contemporary with Jesus, announces blessing for the righteous and punishment for the ungodly (3:1-13). Throughout the history of Israel the reign of God meant vindication for God’s people and judgment for their oppressors. Certainly God’s reign is called into question if the oppressors remain in power.
The judgment sayings of Jesus fit perfectly within the context of historical prophecy. The most plausible understanding of Jesus’ kingdom announcement, as reported in the canonical gospels, is that it involves both a call to share God’s character and the declaration of judgment against the evil oppressors. This element of Jesus’ message is similar to that of John the Baptist and would explain why both men garnered followings. They reminded the people of the prophets of old.
A second weakness in Robinson’s portrait of Jesus is that it does not explain why Jesus went to the cross. Any historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life must account for the end of his life at the hands of the Romans. It makes no sense to say that Jesus’ message of love for one’s enemies offended the Jews and/or the Romans so they crucified him. Certainly the Roman occupiers would have welcomed a Jew who called his kinsmen to love them despite the high taxes. The crucifixion makes excellent sense, however, if Jesus were announcing judgment against those who persist in treachery and portraying himself as God’s anointed ruler or Messiah. A message like that, if correct, meant that the temple establishment would be out of a job and the Romans would ultimately be dethroned. A message like that will get you on a cross.
Once again the historical evidence demonstrates that the canonical gospels provide us with trustworthy accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Gospel of Jesus…???, #1

In his book The Gospel of Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) James M. Robinson aims to get in touch with the original gospel preached by Jesus’ which, according to the author, has been, “hidden behind the gospel of the church” (1). The first chapter, entitled “The Lost Gospel of Jesus,” lays out the basics of Robinson’s method. He intends to peel back the layers of later add-ons to Matthew, Mark, and Luke in order to distinguish between the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus and the later theology written onto the lips of Jesus by the early church. John’s gospel is of little use to Robinson since it, “reflects more of the church’s gospel about Jesus than it does the gospel of Jesus himself” (4). To the synoptic sources Robinson adds the so-called “Sayings Gospel Q” formerly known only as “Q” (from the German Quelle meaning “source”). Q is a hypothetical source reconstructed from those sayings of Jesus which appear in Matthew and Luke but are absent from Mark. The hypothesis goes basically like this: Much of Mark’s text appears in Matthew and Luke. Thus, Matthew and Luke must have each had a copy of Mark making it the earliest of the three synoptic gospels. However, there is material in both Matthew and Luke which is not found in Mark indicating that they shared another common source. For lack of a better name this source is now known as Q. The difficulty with the Q hypothesis is that it is just that, a hypothesis. No one has ever seen an original manuscript of Q because one does not exist. So Robinson and others have taken it upon themselves to reconstruct the Sayings Gospel Q. The reconstruction project took the sayings of Jesus common to both Matthew and Luke and compiled them into a single volume. Word variation among the common sayings sometimes made the reconstruction task difficult so the Q scholars calculated the probability of the original wording. Various editions of Q have been published in both Greek and English. The critical edition contains the technical details of probability while popular versions contain the text with a minimum of technical notes. This task has huge historical importance for Robinson, “Since the reconstructed Sayings Gospel Q is the best source that exists today to get back to what Jesus actually had to say…” (9, emphases mine).
There are, however, some weaknesses to Robinson’s argument that the hypothetical Q is the best source for knowing what Jesus said and who he was. First, as noted above, is simply the fact that Q remains a hypothesis. Robinson has never seen an original manuscript of Q yet he still claims that it is the best source for who Jesus was. Certainly the gospel writers had sources. Luke tells us as much in the opening verses of his gospel (1:1-4). But to claim to reconstruct one of these sources word for word without having seen a manuscript and then to say it is the best source for understanding Jesus is outrageous. This is especially true when one considers that we have the four very early and widely used canonical gospels. At the very least, it is very shaky scholarly ground to say that a reconstruction of a hypothetical document is the best source we have for the historical Jesus of Nazareth. At most, it is not scholarly at all.
A second problem with arguing that Q is the best source for understanding Jesus is that the sayings of Q have no narrative context in which to be interpreted. The miscellaneous sayings of Q can mean almost anything because there is no story within which they can be understood. As Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary has said, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” For example, it is only by the narrative context of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors in Luke 15:1 and the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees in 15:2 that we can properly understand the parable of the prodigal son later in the same chapter. Jesus is telling the parable to explain what he is doing by eating with the disenfranchised and to critique his grumbling opposition. Reading the parable apart from this context has created a variety of interpretations that misses the sharp point that the Jesus of history was making in his unique cultural context (cf. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 126- 127). With no narrative we do not know who the sayings of Jesus are directed to or what they really mean. We cannot know with certainty what, if any, power systems they were intended to subvert or reinforce. Nor can we know how they fit into Jesus’ life and ministry as a whole. The reader is left to create any reading he or she would like because there is no thought-flow to aid in interpretation. How can this be the best source for who Jesus was and what he said and did? The answer is a simple one. It cannot.
Robinson’s position is disconcerting for evangelical Christians who take the canonical gospels to be trustworthy sources for the words and deeds of Jesus. There is much more to be said, but I must take it up at another time. At the danger of judging this book by its cover, I’ll conclude by noting the irony of the book’s subtitle, “In Search of the Original Good News” which is emblazoned on the cover atop a painting by Hendrik de Clerck of a very Caucasian looking Jesus. Historical? Original? I think not.

"This is my Father’s World"

Naomi and I took a short trip to Cincinnati over the last two days. A short get-a-way is always good before getting back into the fall routine of work and school. On Friday we visited the Cincinnati Zoo (from the picture you can see that Paw Paw was right “not all the monkeys live in the zoo”). Since we moved to Kentucky last month I have been constantly overwhelmed by the the beauty of God’s creative work in the world. Kentucky is an amazing place with beautiful landscapes, and our time at the zoo served once again to confirm the brilliance and creativity of Yahweh our God. I was fascinated by creatures such as the polar bear whose large feet work like snowshoes evenly distributing its weight over a large area to keep it from sinking in the snow. I was captivated by the artistic design of the zebra, the immensity of the elephant, and the humorous intelligence of a primate carefully closing a shoe box after taking food out rather than simply discarding it.
Experiences like these make me look forward to the day when Christ returns to reign bodily on the earth fully and finally setting all creation free from its bondage to decay to be enjoyed and cultivated forever by the children of God (Romans 8:18-25). Indeed, as we look forward to the day when all things in heaven and all things on earth are brought together under Christ, we can celebrate with the hymn writer:

This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!
This is my Father’s world: why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heaven’s ring! God reigns let the earth be glad!

Grace and peace,