A Good Prospect

James Dunn summarizes the section of his Pauline theology on “Christ Crucified” by saying poignantly:
At the end of all discussion, Paul’s message as God’s ambassador on Christ’s behalf is stark. Christ’s death offers an effective response to the power of death and its sting (sin). That response itself is death. Those who choose ignore that response will find that their death is their own, as they choose, and that’s that – finis. But for those who find in Christ’s death the answer to sin and death, who identify with him in his death, there is the prospect of sharing with him also in his resurrection beyond death (233).

Eschatology is Everything

I’m reading a lot on the Apostle Paul these days. And among the many things I’m learning, one stands out from the others: for Paul, eschatology is everything. His view of “last things” soaks his theological thinking. You cannot escape it. It’s pervasive. I’ve read this before, of course. But it is now taking root in my own thinking in a new and exciting way.
Consider, for Paul that justification is the present faith-anticipation of the eschatological verdict. Sanctification is the Spirit-life of the future come into the present. Salvation itself is a matter of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, which is the first fruits of the final resurrection of the people of God. The presence of the Spirit in the Church marks it out as an eschatological community. And the Mosaic Law, though it was a good thing, is now obsolete because it was intended for an age that has now ended with the coming of the Christ and the Spirit. More could be said, but you get the picture.
But why is Paul’s theology so pervasively eschatological? I am persuaded that it is because of his all-consuming focus on Christ. The first coming of Christ was an eschatological event which inaugurated the eschatological kingdom of God. His death on the cross is the decisive end of the old age; his resurrection the decisive beginning of the new. As already observed, his resurrection is also the initial phase of the general resurrection, his new life the beginning of the new creation that will find its ultimate consummation upon his return. Let’s not forget that Paul’s eschatology is not fully realized; to suggest as much would be a grave misunderstanding of his thought. But Paul did believe himself to be living at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. And the crucial difference was the presence of the Messiah, Jesus Christ the Lord. And because of that, for Paul, eschatology is everything.

St. Andrews on the Rise in New Testament Studies

The news out this morning is that Professor Scott Hafemann, currently of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has accepted a post as Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews. His prior work has focused on Pauline studies and biblical theology; he is currently writing a commentary on the Petrine epistles and Jude, along with a book on Pauline theology. Hafemann’s responsibilities at St. Andrews will include teaching and research. 
With the recent addition of N.T. Wright to their faculty and now Hafemann, St. Andrews is quickly becoming a top-notch place to study the New Testament. I suspect their pool of applications will be getting much deeper, not least, I imagine, from students with an evangelical tendency. It should be interesting to see how things develop there over the next few years.

Decarnating Jesus

Amidst the celebration of the death of death through the victory of God in Christ that is the joy of Easter, there sometimes come discordant voices who insist on twisting the scriptures and casting aspersion on the resurrected Lord. One of those voices this Easter season is Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who, for many years now, has been one of the chief antagonists of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Borg has gone on the offensive against the resurrection once again this year with a post entitled: The Resurrection of Jesus: Physical/Bodily or Spiritual/Mystical? The article claims that Jesus’ resurrection should not be understood as a resurrection of the body but as a “really real” spiritual resurrection, and through mystical experience a person can come to know or experience the really real. This so-called “spiritual” resurrection is, for Borg, distinctly non-bodily:
[W]hat would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?
I intend to raise three points of response to this article – two critiquing aspects of the argument and one considering its implications.
First, the question of how Jesus can be bodily present in a place and yet “all around us and with us, present everywhere” is a relentlessly modernistic question that didn’t seem to trouble the early church and, I suspect, doesn’t trouble many post-moderns, who are often quite comfortable with mystery and tension. And the question is easily answered using the language of the New Testament authors themselves. In Acts, Jesus ascends bodily to the throne of heaven and the right hand of the Father, and there he is present, yet he sends the Holy Spirit to be his presence in the world to embolden and empower his disciples for the mission of making disciples. The New Testament affirms both the bodily nature of Christ’s resurrection and the pervasive presence of God in Christ through the Spirit. Indeed, the Spirit is even sometimes called the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:11). This is, of course, the kind of biblical language that led the early church fathers to begin using trinitarian language in describing the mysterious existence of the one God revealed as three persons. A truly trinitarian theology sees no problem with Christ being bodily present in heaven and yet widely present in the Spirit. Mysterious? Certainly. But neither meaningless nor contradictory.
Second, Borg insists that resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse. Strangely, though, he goes on to reflect on the importance of Easter by saying that Jesus could not be held by the tomb:
The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.
This is a most peculiar way of speaking. If resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then presumably his corpse would have remained in the tomb. And would not the tomb have continued to hold him? And when his disciples began to go around saying that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been resurrected, would not a simple inspection of the entombed corpse of Jesus put an end to all that fanciful talk. The reality is that if resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then there is no resurrection. He is not Lord; the tomb has held him; he is not loose in the world; he is not here; and the kingdom of God is a farce. Borg’s argument virtually deconstructs itself.
Third, what are the implications of this allegedly non-physical resurrection? There was a common axiom among the early church fathers that provides a helpful angle into this discussion. In describing the relationship between incarnation and redemption, the fathers often said: whatever is assumed (in the incarnation) is redeemed, and whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. This is a helpful perspective for considering the implications of a non-bodily resurrection, because if the resurrection is only spiritual/mystical and not physical/bodily, if a body has not been assumed in the resurrection, then it is far from clear that redemption extends to embodied life, which is bad news for all of us who live as embodied persons. If Jesus does not assume a body in his resurrection, then it is unclear how redemption can have anything to do with us. In fact, it would seem that it does not, and we are left helpless in our sinful state. 
Further, if the resurrection is non-bodily, then it is difficult to understand why the incarnation was necessary in the first place. This point is behind the title of this post: Decarnating Jesus. If incarnation is to take on human flesh, then decarnation is to cast it off. If the resurrection and redemption are non-bodily, why did the Son of God need to take on a body in the first place? In Borg’s line of thought, the incarnation seems to be something of an add-on that doesn’t really have much to do with anything.
Also, a non-physical resurrection denigrates physicality. That is, if redemption is a purely spiritual and non-physical reality, then why should we think physicality and the physical world matter at all? Forget stewardship of creation. Forget feeding the hungry. The sooner they starve to death, the sooner they are delivered from this lowly physical state to a higher spiritual salvation.
The bodily resurrection of Christ is the ground of embodied dignity, the ground of serving and ministering to other embodied persons. The resurrection of Christ’s body is God’s declaration that bodies are important; creation is important; physicality is important and good. 
Borg’s decarnational theology is basically warmed-over gnosticism, the implications of which denigrate embodied life and undermine the goodness of God’s physical creation. This leads logically to an escapist theology in which bodily existence is bad and spirituality is good, and hope is for freedom from the former for the pure experience of the latter. The problem is that God said his physical creation was good. God imprinted embodied human beings with his own divine image. God likes bodies. And God raised Jesus’ body from the dead for our full redemption and for the full redemption of all that he made. Anything less is decarnating Jesus. 

An Easter Hymn by N.T. Wright

Yesterday, I featured the opening chorus from N.T. Wright’s Easter Oratorio, a moving piece that is devotionally meaningful, biblically faithful, and theologically substantial. As I looked through the rest of the oratorio, I discovered the final verse is an appropriate reflection for the celebration of Easter morning that is likewise meaningful and substantial. So, I thought I’d share this Easter Hymn from N.T. Wright:

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem
Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.
How Judah’s Lion burst his chains,
And crushed the serpent’s head;
And brought with him, from death’s domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.
From hell’s devouring jaws the prey
Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.
Triumphant in his glory now
His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.
While joyful thus his praise we sing,
His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.
All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

A Meditation for Holy Saturday by N.T. Wright

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that N.T. Wright is a prolific writer of books. It turns out that he is something of a poet as well. Working with composer Paul Spicer, Wright has written the text for an Easter Oratorio that tells the story of the resurrection from chapters 20 and 21 of John’s gospel. The opening chorus is a fitting meditation for this Holy Saturday:
On the seventh day God rested
in the darkness of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
all his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent,
and the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
and the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
and the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices
cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
in the darkness of the spring.
Rest well, indeed. For tomorrow there is work to be done and a grave to be conquered.

N.T. Wright on Biblical Universalism

Here’s another resource for those who might find themselves engaged in the recently revived Universalism debate. Also from Themelios 4:2, this one is by N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham and now of the University of St. Andrews. Wright is a widely known and respected New Testament scholar, who, I am persuaded, is able to write books faster than I am able to read them.
The article is called Towards a Biblical View of Universalism, and Wright’s aim is twofold. He intends first to dismantle universalistic interpretations of some New Testament texts that are commonly marshaled in favor of universal salvation for all people without exception. He intends second to interpret those same texts in light of their contexts as describing a salvation that is universalistic in that it is not restricted to a single ethnicity.
Wright argues that a major issue in early Christianity was Jewish particularism, the belief that God’s saving purposes were limited to their own people-group, and that one needed to become a Jew in order to become a follower of Christ. Another problem was Gentile snobbery, the belief that God was quite done with the Jews and had expanded his purposes beyond their borders leaving them all behind. Against both these views, Paul believed that the God revealed in Jesus Christ was God of Jews and Gentiles (Rom 3:29). So, biblical universalism is not the belief that salvation is given to all without exception, but that salvation is available in Christ to all without distinction.
Wright summarizes some implications of the distinction:
Biblical ‘universalism’, therefore, consists in this, that in Christ God has revealed the one way of salvation for all men alike, irrespective of race, sex, colour or status. This biblical ‘universalism’ (unlike the other sort) gives the strongest motives for evangelism, namely, the love of God and of men. (This itself is evidence that we are thinking biblically here.) This view specifically excludes the other sort of ‘universalism’, because scripture and experience alike tell us that many do miss the one way of salvation which God has provided. This is a sad fact, and the present writer in no ways enjoys recording it, any more than Paul in Romans 9-11 looked with pleasure on his kinsmen’s fate. Yet it cannot be ignored if we wish to remain true to scripture or really to love our fellow men. If the house is on fire, the most loving thing to do is to raise the alarm.
The article is not all that long and contains a great deal of help on how better to understand the passages often used to support Universalism of the usual sort. It’s well worth a read and will be helpful when you find yourself sipping a hot coffee and engaged in charitable debate.

Have you heard this alternative reading of the ‘universal’ passages before? Do you find it helpful? Unhelpful? Do you agree with Wright’s suggestion that Universalism undermines evangelism? Why? Why not?