Biblical Theology

the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination

I was struck by something as I prepared to speak on the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians a couple of weeks back. At the end of the chapter, Paul sketches out what it looked like for them to become Christian (verses 9b-10):

You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The three key features of this brief verbal sketch belong together — almost self-evidently. Right?

But according to Jeffrey Weima (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old), the combination of terms Paul puts together here is highly unusual.

‘Living and true God’ is an utterly unique description for Paul, drawing together significant strands of God’s self-presentation in the Old Testament. Likewise, the actions of ‘turning to God’ (from idols) and ‘serving’ him alone are only directly correlated in 1 Samuel 7.3.

This got me wondering: What moved Paul to put these ideas together?

Then it struck me. Although the may not occur together in the space of a single verse (or even across a few verses), these ideas all appear in roughly this constellation in Isaiah 40-66.

Isaiah’s majestic vision of God’s intervention to comfort Israel and restore Zion begins with a New Exodus and culminates in a New Creation, repeatedly striking the following notes:

  • The folly of idolatry (and the corresponding need to repent).
  • The truth/faithfulness and living authority of Israel’s God.
  • And the eschatological scene of the Great Assize, in which God judges his enemies and vindicates his faithful servant.

Isaiah reworks the familiar themes of Old Testament faith — monotheism and the supremacy of Israel’s God — against an eschatological backdrop. And this takes us straight to the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination!

why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies

I don’t know about you, but I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

I mean I like all the pyrotechnics. I suck in my breath along with everyone else when they do something visually gob-smacking with the new technology.

I guess I even appreciate the realism of seeing characters that look like I could reach out and touch and interact with them.

I recognise the power of its immersive effect. I can see how it might help me suspend my disbelief when I’m watching a romance unfold between giant blue warriors (or whatever).

So … yeah, it’s a great storytelling advice. It can help absorb and entertain me for two or three hours (although Ethan and Joel Coen’s True Grit is a resolutely 2D experience that thoroughly absorbed and entertained me).

But I’m yet to be convinced that it can really help a film move me — whether to tears or laughter or seat-clenching anticipation or fist-pumping exultation.

In the end, I feel that the ‘reality’ promised by 3D technology is overrated. What I want from my movies is not reality but life.

I want movies to live. Rather than being things I simply watch, I want them to be things that get a grip on me: lifting me, shaking me, dropping me, cracking open the world in whole new (and even uncomfortable) ways.

What I want is something a little bit like what the literary critic Eric Auerbach famously says biblical narrative offers (Mimesis, page 15):

Far from seeking … merely to make us forget our reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

That’s why I’m yet to be convinced about 3D movies.

the all-purpose theological trump card (iii)

It’s probably about time I answered for my outrageous suggestion about the possibility of overstating the importance of the story of Israel.

And I’d like to strengthen my original suggestion. Not only does the grand narrative of God’s promises worked out through Israel and climactically fulfilled in Jesus not solve every theological problem, I believe that it actually creates some of the most enduring ones.

This is not to say that it doesn’t recast or relativise many theological (and exegetical) problems. I’ve gone on record as a card-carrying believer in its importance in the case of the problem of evil as well as of the squabble over the precise connotation of daily in ‘Give us today our daily bread’.

But some of the toughest questions in Christology aren’t quite so lucky.

I have in mind questions about how to maintain the integrity of Christ’s divine and human natures without jeopardising their relationship with one another.

These are the kind of questions that make contemporary theologians shuffle their feet and look down (because these theologians are good post-Enlightenment thinkers and therefore cagey about metaphysics).

Take John Calvin’s approach, for example. His description of the person and work of Christ has been (justifiably) described as ‘classical’ and even ‘catholic’. And yet this is not because Calvin — willingly or unwillingly — accommodated metaphysical questions against the better impulses of his Protestant hostility to speculation.

Rather, a careful study of the train of thought running through Book 2 of his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals that it’s precisely his attention to the story of Israel that leads him to pose questions about what it might mean and how it might work for God the Son to enter into and take to himself our human plight.

Of course, Calvin’s attention to Israel’s story does shed fresh light on these old problems — most famously in his elevation of the ‘offices’ of Christ (as prophet, king and priest) to a position of pivotal importance in his account of who Jesus is and what he achieved.

But it’s also the very thing that serves up the Christological questions, rendering them inescapable and necessary to tackle — even if some of the answers Calvin provides must be judged finally unsatisfactory…

the all-purpose theological trump card (ii)

Late last week I dared to suggest that we can make too much of the story of Israel — particularly if we imagine that it can unravel every theological tangle.

Understandably, I was pinned in the comments for failing to specify how and where this might happen. So I’m going to try to make good my negligence.

Before I do, though, let me give just two examples of how and where I find the story of Israel theologically illuminating.

To begin with, I feel it sheds light on many details of exegesis — especially in the Gospels.

For instance, I was recently reading about how to understand the request we make in the Lord’s prayer for God to give us our ‘daily bread’. Commentators apparently argue over how best to translate the word behind ‘daily’.

It can get quite involved. But, as Halden has recently argued, the debate is thoroughly recast when we pay the probable reference to God’s provision of manna in the desert:

When Jesus then instructs his disciples to pray for “our daily bread” ought we not … realize that in calling his followers to pray in this way Jesus is calling us back into the desert with Israel. Out of the security of land, possessions, cultural production and into a life of sojourning in which we, once again, are given to depend, quite literally on God for the essentials of survival?

Likewise, I find that proper attention to the story of Israel puts a whole new spin on some classical bigger picture problems.

Take the problem of evil, for example. Rather than an abstract equation to be balanced, the goodness and all-powerfulness of God collides with the evil reality of evil in Israel’s concrete historical experience.

In the face of evil, the Old Testament points relentlessly forward to the (eschatological) future instead of backward in the manner typical of theodicy (e.g., to human free will or an angelic rebellion).

This response gathers momentum as it bounces around what Richard Hays calls ‘the prophetic sounding chamber’ of Israel’s exile. A momentum thoroughly alien to the environment of an air-conditioned tutorial room…

the all-purpose theological trump card?

I used to think the story of Israel was the all-purpose theological trump card.

But now I’m having second thoughts.

You see, I’ve signed up for a reading group tackling the whole New Perspective on Paul issue — focussing on the in-print tussle between John Piper and N. T. Wright.

I’m excited about sinking my teeth into it. And I’m especially looking forward to getting our Bibles open so we can weigh up what we read — whichever highly respected teacher and pastor penned it.

But I’ve just finished reading the (extended) introduction to Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Towards the end, he caps off a discussion of the representative role stitched into Israel’s expectations about the Messiah like this (page 84):

Once we grasp the essentially Jewish categories of thought with which Paul is working, many problems in a de-Judaised systematic theology are transcended.

Wright’s point here is well made — particularly in relation to the mistaken attempt to play off representation against substitution. And I can’t help but sympathise with him.

I’ve long felt that many of the knots we tie ourselves in when it comes to Christian doctrine and ethics can be significantly slackened by attending to the story of Israel, God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, and the overarching biblical narrative.

I don’t doubt that reference to the story of God’s dealings with Israel (which reaches its climax with Jesus) can throw fresh light on old questions.

But I’m starting to wonder if we might be overplaying it.

What’s your sense? What issues has Israel — and the overall plot-line of Scripture — illuminated for you? And where has it been less helpful than you imagined?

what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

a providential coincidence?

We’ve just finished a series on Ruth at church. And one of the things that struck me is how significant coincidences are in moving the story forward — people ‘just happening’ to be in the right place at the right time, like at the start of chapter 4.

My impression is that this is a pretty common feature of biblical narrative (I’d like to wrestle with its significance in the Gospels one day).

Gustave Dore, 'The Gleaners'

And yet for all that the story may work to highlight the contingent and fortuitous nature of each occasion like this, it also constantly invites us to see God’s providential hand — even in the most surprising turn of events. In this case at least, Calvin’s insistence that it is unwarranted to speak of ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ is on the money (Institutes I.xvi.2, 8-9).

Nevertheless, recognising this ought not obscure the fact that things didn’t have to turn out as they do. And, in fact, the way things do turn out is nothing short of an expectation-shattering reversal of pretty much every foreseeable possibility at the end of chapter 1.

What I think we glimpse in Ruth is the good and faithfully loving God of Israel invading this tragic human situation so that he can put things right (rather than completing or bringing to fruition its latent tendencies). That is, I think the Book of Ruth operates with what contemporary theologians have begun to speak of as an apocalyptic view of God’s action in history. And in so doing, it proves marvellously able to testify to the sovereign God’s gracious — and surprising — work without thereby ironing out all the agony and messiness of human history and agency.

In fact, I suspect it’s only such a view of history that will enable us to hold God’s sovereignty together with the reality of human history and agency, so that we can echo Peter’s words about that most providential of coincidences — the death of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2.23)…

re: claiming the Old Testament — wrap up

In an important sense, after the previous three posts in this serious (which I kicked off back HERE), there’s really not much more to be said to wrap up. It shouldn’t be that hard to john the dots between what we’ve seen so far about passages like 1 Samuel 15 and the New Testament proclamation of what God has achieved in the resurrection of the crucified Messiah Jesus.

Let me briefly sketch out how I would see the dots joining:

First, in Jesus God has decisively done what we saw he was on about even in this dark corner of the Old Testament — that is, he has vindicated himself and his Messiah, redeeming and perfecting his good creation in the process and proving himself just in his judgement.

Second, he’s done this by definitively dealing with evil. God has gone to its root in person — both through Israel and in Israel’s place as her truly obedient and representative king. And he’s graciously turned evil’s own momentum against it, breaking its deadly circuit of violence on the cross.

And third, as a consequence of this, he’s opened up to us participation in his sin-uprooting and creation-renewing work. Yet he’s done this in a fundamentally theologically distinct manner to the manner in which he called Israel to participate in his work in 1 Samuel 15.

As such, the slaughter of the Amalekites is not some awkward — and preferably forgotten — part of our past that we’d best keep hidden in the deep recesses of the cupboard. It’s a necessary component in our history — and the history of God’s surprising ways with his creation — that God has himself brought to completion. And he’s brought it to completion in a way that (a) goes far beyond even what we see in passages like 1 Samuel 15 and (b) nevertheless does so graciously, working in the midst of, with and through human agency in doing his work. Or as Paul summarises God’s long-term project in and through (and in spite of) Israel: God has finally condemned sin in the flesh by the power of his Spirit in the crucifixion of the Messiah…

re: claiming the Old Testament — part four

OK. I’ve stalled long enough. In wrestling with 1 Samuel 15 so far, I’ve made two suggestions:

  1. Passages like this speak of God’s judgement not ethic cleansing; and
  2. Here, God both employs his people as an instrument of divine justice and reveals that they too need to be judged.

The time has come to put these two suggestions together and make one final claim (before wrapping up this series): The God revealed in these passages is no inanimate totem that Israel — and their anointed king — can manipulate to lend legitimacy to their savage and imperialistic pretensions. Rather, he is living and active, justly setting about dealing with sin — going to the root of the problem, deep in the human heart — and yet dealing with it graciously.

What I mean is this: Although he’d be perfectly entitled to do so, the God who meets us in 1 Samuel 15 doesn’t simply sweep aside sin and evil — and, along with it, those of us who’ve become entangled with sin and evil (as at once perpetrators and victims). Instead, he graciously works with the grain of human lives and history.

We see, on the one side, God’s undiscriminating justice as he condemns Saul (and Israel) for disobedience:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

1 Samuel goes to great pains to stress that the holy God isn’t automatically and unconditionally on Israel’s side (e.g., in the Ark narrative running through chapters 4-7). There’s obvious bilateralism in God’s demand that Israel and her king must obey him. (In this we’re given clear evidence that Deuteronomic theology — with its blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience — has left its stamp on the history being recounted here.)

On the other side, though, we see God’s graciousness — rooted no doubt in the loving unilateralism of his covenant with Abraham, the unconditional frame within which the conditional stuff sits (even in Deuteronomy). Surprisingly, he continues to work out his purposes in and through his rebellious people. So even when God himself (through Samuel) has to ‘finish the job’ commissioned at the start of this chapter, it’s the completion of a human work rather than its repudiation.

It’s not easy to see how these two threads of God’s character are woven together in 1 Samuel (or in the Old Testament as a whole). Indeed, there are moments — Hosea 11.1-9, for example — when the holiness and the love of God appear irreconcilable, generating a momentum towards the future that leads us to Jesus…

re: claiming the Old Testament — part three

The first point I made about the slaughter of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 concerned its rationale. I argued that it wasn’t so much a case of ethnic cleansing to ensure the Israelites were a racially pure people as a case of divine judgement (or ‘theological cleansing’) in the service of God’s intention to renew creation, clearing a space in which human beings can dwell with him.

My second point develops this: God’s chief problem in employing Israel — and Israel’s anointed king (Messiah) — as the instrument of his judgement (dealing with sin by punishing sinners) is not that this wholesale slaughter goes too far but that it doesn’t go far enough.

Strap in. I’m going to try to defend this claim…  Continue reading