Yeah…But Which Context?

As a seminary student I hear a lot about contextualization. It has become something of a buzz word in contemporary evangelicalism. Generally, when someone talks about contextualization as it relates to Christianity they are referring to the idea that the Christian message must somehow be made culturally relevant to people today. We are thousands of years and half a world away from the world of the Bible. So, how do we make the Bible relevant to today’s world? This is the question that contextualization addresses. It is not a question without merit. I have no intention of denying the importance of helping people to think about the scriptures in a fresh way. But I want to use the issue to turn the question the other way. Instead of asking how we can relate the Bible to our culture, I propose that we should just as often ask how we ourselves can relate to the culture of the Bible. The first question is one that moves from ancient to modern times. The second is one that moves from modern to ancient times.

My concern is that we get so caught up with trying to make the Bible relevant or meaningful in our modern context that we all too often forget to try to understand what the Bible meant in its original context. Or we do not expend the necessary energy to understand the Bible in its original context. Every serious student of the scriptures should make a life long habit of studying the world in which the scriptures were written. We are bound to misunderstand the text if we do not also understand its original context.

I realize that the person with a family and a job will not be able to devote time to extensive and detailed reading in the social context of the ancient near east and Hellenistic world. However, this does not mean that attention must never be devoted to these periods. We find time to read novels or watch sitcoms. Should we not also find time to read history? Especially considering that it is the history of the world in which the Bible was written.

That the average career and family man cannot devote full time study to the text and its social context also indicates the importance of a pastor who devotes significant time to such study. It is the pastor’s responsibility to faithfully preach and teach the scriptures. But how can he do this if he does not understand the world in which the sacred texts were composed? The faithful pastor must also be something of an historian as well. The pastor who spends sufficient time preparing to preach or teach by reading good commentaries will accomplish this. A good commentary will always bring the historical and social context to bear on the interpretation of a text. I fear though that all too often the pastor tries so diligently to relate the text to his congregation that he neglects the task of relating the congregation to the text. It is amazing how clear some difficult passages become when the social context is considered.

This means that the faithful preacher will have to read some history. For example, the pastor preaching in Romans should grapple with its social context which occupies the final four chapters, a full 25%, of the letter. Who are the two groups called upon to welcome each other in Romans 14? What is the relationship between Paul’s ethical exhortation to these particular people and the theology in chapters 1-11? Why does the letter come to its final climax in calling the Jew and Gentile to glorify God together? How do these questions relate to Paul’s pending mission to Spain? These questions can only be addressed through reading in the social context of Christianity in first century Rome. Unfortunately, the social context of Romans Christianity has been widely neglected in the interpretation and the preaching of Romans.

The importance of understanding the historical context of the text also means that the preacher should read the books Paul was reading. This may mean wrestling with Aristotle who may have coined the term “natural/carnal man” (Gk. psychikos anthropos) used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:14. It appears that the term did not originally refer to man at his worst but to man at his best, supremely educated and contributing positively to the state and to society. Paul appears to be saying that the best the Graeco-Roman world had to offer is not able to understand the things of the Spirit of God.

The issue of contextualization, then, may not always be an issue of moving from ancient to modern. Rather, it is often an issue of the reverse, moving from modern to ancient. The preacher is particularly responsible for making sure that his preaching is consistent with what was actually happening when the preached texts were written. The thorough preacher will be able to relate the congregation to the text as well as the text to the congregation. The movement goes both ways.

Circumcision and Faith

I read the introduction to Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (eds. Schreiner and Wright, B&H, 2006) this morning. The authors make this statement:

“The view of paedobaptism affirmed by the Reformed tradition is fraught with inconsistency: as evangelicals they believe that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, but as paedobaptists they give the sign of that faith (baptism) to those who have not excercised faith (infants). It is primarily this theology that we are trying to correct in this book” (7).

Having not yet read the rest of the book, it would be inappropriate to argue against the claim that paedobaptists inconsistently give the sign of faith (baptism) to those who have not excersized faith (infants). However, it is appropriate to raise an important question for reflection as the coming argument is considered.

In Romans 4:11, Paul tells us that, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he ws still uncircumcised.” Interestingly, Paul here connects faith and circumcision. Abraham himself was justified before God by faith. Abraham’s circumcision was a sign of the righteous declaration received from God on the condition of his faith. As Douglas Wilson says in his book To A Thousand Generations, “his was a case of believers circumcision” (74) because Abraham received the sign of his by faith righteousness after the fact of his faith. In Abraham’s case, the sign came after the thing signified.

However, Abraham went on to circumcise his children and his physical descendents did the same. Why did they do this? Because God commanded them to and to do it on the eighth day after the birth of the child (Gen. 17:12). God commanded Abraham to give his eight day old descendents the mark which Paul says was a sign of the righteousness had by faith. These questions must be raised: Why did God command Abraham to give his sons a sign of righteousness by faith before they had any righteousness by faith by virtue of their infancy? Did the circumcision of Abraham’s descendents signify something different from Abraham’s own circumcision? Why, in the case of Abraham’s descendents, did the sign (circumcision) precede the thing signified (faith-righteousness)? Did Abraham, under the commandment of God, inconsistently give the sign of faith (circumcision) to those who had not exercized faith (infants)? It is even more interesting that the sign of righteousness by faith was given to those who did not have righteousness by faith especially considering the fact that many of Abraham’s descendents would never come to faith at all despite the fact that they bore on their bodies the sign of that faith.

Let me emphasize, I am not presently arguing against the thesis of this book. I haven’t read the argument yet. However, the thesis of this book immediately raises the above pertinent questions. Perhaps the authors will be able to supply adequate answers to these important questions.

Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ by Thomas R. Schreiner

I’ve just finished reading Tom Schreiner’s Pauline theology, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (IVP, 2001), and I must say that I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Schreiner’s style is engaging; his scholarship, impressive; his evangelical passion, refreshing. The book is not without shortcomings, but, all in all, I found it to be both an informative and pleasurable read.
Schreiner’s central claim is that the foundation of Paul’s theology is the “centrality of God in Christ” (18). The conversation in which this volume takes part has heard a range of voices arguing that the center of Paul’s theology is anything from justification to reconciliation, apocalyptic, salvation history, or the fulfillment of God’s promises. Schreiner argues that to emphasize any of these important Pauline themes to the neglect others is to do injustice to Paul’s theology and to the God whom Paul preached revealed in Christ who is himself the justifier, reconciler, revealer, savior, and promise giver. I think Schreiner is essentially right in his thesis, and his work in this book demonstrates the cogency of his claim.
The book champions a number of strengths. First, unlike many Pauline theologies, Schreiner uses all thirteen of the letters attributed to Paul to conduct his inductive study of Paul’s theology. Authentic Pauline authorship of six letters claiming to be from Paul has been widely disputed by a significant number of scholars. Many of these arguments suggest that the disputed letters are theologically inconsistent with the so-called authentic Paulines. One of the major contributions of this volume is the demonstration of broad theological consistency across all thirteen of the Pauline epistles. It is easy to see how scholars who emphasize a particular theme (e.g., justification) as the center of Paul’s theology might conclude that the letters which do not emphasize that them are not authentically Pauline. Schreiner shows, though, that if the foundation of Paul’s thought is the glory of God in Christ, then all thirteen letters are easily seen as flowing from the same pen.
Another important contribution is Schreiner’s claim that Paul’s missionary vocation was formative for his theology. Paul’s missionary vocation has been regularly neglected in studies of his theology. Schreiner emphasizes the fact that it was Paul’s God given vocation to preach the gospel of Christ that energized his mission and helped shape his theology. Understanding Paul as a missionary helps the reader to understand his letters as pastoral wisdom given to particular churches to ensure their faithfulness to Christ.
Unfortunately, Schreiner reads Paul through Calvinistic lenses which leads him into several misreadings of important themes in Paul’s letters. One of these misreadings has to do with Paul’s theology of election. Schreiner rightly points out that Paul’s theology of election must be understood in light of the Old Testament scriptures (237), and he rightly notes that “Israel was God’s elect people on whom God placed his favor and love” (237-238). However, Schreiner forsakes the corporate categories of election of the Old Testament scriptures for unconditional individual election. He supports this argument by appealing to various texts, not least of all Romans 9:10-13 where God chooses Jacob and not Esau. The following objection may be made to reading this text as individual election to salvation. Paul is quoting Gen. 25 and Mal. 1. Both of these texts clearly have a corporate or national entity in view. God says to Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other and the elder shall serve the younger ” (Gen. 25:23). And in Mal. 1:2-3 The prophetic word, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau,” is directed to the people of Israel. Categories in the Old Testament texts from which Paul quotes use corporate categories. Schreiner argues against corporate categories on the grounds that, “the attempt to divide groups and individuals is logically flawed. Groups are made up of individuals” (245). While groups and individuals cannot be entirely separated, there is a distinction between the two. In the Old Testament, proselytes who were formerly outside the elect community could enter into it while original members of the covenant could commit apostasy and suffer the curses of the covenant being cut off from their people. We see that the elect community could remain while the individuals within the community could change. As a unit, Romans 9-11 contains the most quotes from the Old Testament in any Pauline passage. The Old Testament understanding of election cannot be discarded when interpreting this text.
Schreiner’s understanding of election is logically related to other misreadings of Paul’s letters. For example, he also affirms that “Genuine faith is always persevering faith,” (272) against the idea that true believers can commit actual apostasy (cf. 277). I do not have time to interact with this claim in detail, but I will note that Paul regularly warns the faithful about the possibility of judgment for faithlessness (Rom. 11:17-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-14). He even appears to note the possibility of his own apostasy (1 Cor. 9:26-27). Schreiner takes these warnings as a means of God’s effectual grace to give true believers the gift of perseverance (287-288). In my view, this seems to undermine the reality of the warning.
Again, I must say that I enjoyed this book immensely. I find Schreiner to be a joy to read even when I disagree with him. This book is a good introduction to Pauline theology from the Calvinistic tradition within Protestantism. However, it should not be read as representative of, or even consistent with, the majority of the history of Christian thought. Many biblically minded and Christ exalting believers have read the scriptures quite differently. For this reason, Schreiner’s work must be read critically. The book has a great deal to offer, but the reader should be aware of its significant shortcomings.

The Lord of the Table

“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealously?” 1 Cor. 10:21-22a

The Apostle Paul offers relatively little reflection on the Christian practice and significance of the Lord’s Supper in his letters. If not for 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 we wouldn’t know any of Paul’s thinking about Communion. The above verse is Paul’s first mention of the Communion meal and it comes as Paul is warning the Corinthians about the danger of apostasy or falling into destruction (1 Cor. 10:12-14). It is in this context that Paul brings up “the cup of blessing that we bless” and “the bread that we break” (16). He says that the cup is a “sharing in the blood of Christ” and the bread is a “sharing in the body of Christ” (16). The cup seems to indicate fellowship with Christ through the New Covenant in his blood (cf. 11:25) while the bread appears to indicate the fellowship and unity in the Church, the body of Christ. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (17). So, we might say that the meal involves both vertical participation with Christ and horizontal participation with the Church. To partake at the Lord’s table somehow involves both fellowship with Christ and fellowship with his Church.

Paul goes on to use the Lord’s Supper to create distinction between Communion and the cultic meals which were held as part of worship to pagan gods. Paul does not acknowledge the existence of other gods and actually declares that when the pagans sacrifice, “they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (20). It is at this point that we encounter the verses italicized above. You cannot go eat at Jesus’ table and then go eat at the table of demons. Now we modern folks may read this and think little of it. After all, I don’t know anyone who sacrifices to idols and eats at the table of demons. However, this injunction could be particularly troubling to a craftsman in first century Corinth. In the Greco-Roman world, one had to be a member of a trade guild to obtain material with which to work. This would include material like lumber or metal. Each trade guild had its own patron deity and the guild meetings would involve a meal in honor of the deity. The reason this would be a problem for Christians should be clear. Paul is saying that you cannot come to the Lord’s table on the first day of the week and then go off to the table of a false god on the second day of the week. Even if that is how you obtain the material you need to practice your trade and provide for your family.

The point here is that there is only one Lord, and his name is Jesus. To come to his table is to announce your singular devotion to his lordship. The Communion table is an affirmation of the supremacy of Christ everywhere and in everything. To go eat at another table, or at the table of demons, is to deny the supreme lordship of Christ.

This should also be troubling to thoughtful Christians who perceive that the modern Church is often fighting for a place at any number of tables while forgetting the centrality of our Lord’s table. We want our voice to be heard. We want to be heard at the school board, but we don’t want to declare that Jesus is lord over our children’s education. We want to be heard at the city council meetings and we want a place at the lobbying table to make our voice heard in Congress. But we don’t want to remind the governing authorities that Jesus is lord and that they are his servants (Rom. 13:4). We just want to get our turn to vote. The problem is that when we run off to sit down at any old table in order to be heard, then we are implicitly denying the lordship of Christ. Some might respond by saying that we cannot positively impact society if we don’t get involved in the conversation. I’m not saying that Christians should not be involved in the conversation. I am saying that we should not play by their rules. We do not have to choose between bad and worse. Sometimes making our voice heard means walking away from the table when everyone else at the table denies the supremacy of Christ.

It is only when we forsake our Lord’s table that we lose our voice. The Church should make its prophetic voice heard in society by sitting only at the table of our Lord and refusing to be seated at any table where Christ is not seated at the head of the table.

Arminians, Scripture, and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are sometimes characterized as believing that a true Christian can commit apostasy and fall irreparably away from grace and salvation. This, however, is not an accurate depiction of Arminian theology. There certainly are Arminians who hold the view that a true believer can commit real apostasy, but there are are also many who identify themselves as Arminians and believe that God will guard and keep all true Christians enabling them to persevere to the end. In the latter view, perseverance is a demonstration of authentic saving faith. Both views are consistent with other affirmations that all Arminians hold in common including total or radical depravity, conditional election, unlimited atonement, and resistible grace.

It may help to know that the discussion over perseverance within Arminianism goes all the way back to the Reformation and can be seen in one of the earliest and foundational documents in the Arminian tradition. The Five Articles of Remonstrance, written in 1610 by followers of James Arminius, outline the Arminian opposition to unconditional predestination. In describing the Arminian belief in the grace given power of the Christian to successfully strive against temptation, the fifth article states,

“But whether [those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith] are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered to them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind” (emphasis mine).

This statement is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the Arminian commitment to biblically grounded doctrine. To depart from biblical authority is to depart from authentic Arminianism. Second, it demonstrates that Arminians have historically acknowledged the tension in Scripture over the issue of perseverance and have made room in their ranks for both positions. The Remonstrants were not primarily interested in opposing the budding Calvinism of the Reformation. They were first and foremost interested in rightly understanding and faithfully teaching Christian Scripture. This commitment to the Bible yielded a tension within the Arminian tradition which reflects a tension in Scripture, and, thus, there is room within Arminiasm for those who believe in the final perseverance of the saints and those who believe in the possibility that a true believer may commit real apostasy.

Critics of Arminianism should take note of this distinction in their characterizations of Arminian theology. Fairness in debate requires good will and a faithful attempt to properly portray the position of those who disagree. Describing Arminian theology narrowly as believing that one can fall from grace is a misrepresentation of the Arminian tradition.

I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) who resist the Arminian label because they believe in the final perseverance of the saints and have heard Arminianism defined narrowly as including a belief in real apostasy. It is important for Arminians to be clear that there is room in our camp for both positions. On occasion, I will hear someone referred to as a “two point Calvinist” indicating that they believe in total depravity and perseverance of the saints. In response, it is important to note that a two point Calvinist isn’t much of one. In fact, a two point Calvinist makes for a fine Arminian.