Defence of Paul the misrepresented Apostle

I have spent a good part of today reading Fleming Rutledge’s acclaimed book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). So far, I have only read the Introduction and chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’, but already I have been engrossed by the book. I have been particularly impressed by Rutledge’s clear and engaging writing, her commitment to orthodox theology even when it is not popular, and her engagement with a wide array of writers from different ages (from Origen to Anselm to Bonhoeffer to Beker).

As I have recently been encouraging my Pauline Theology students to read Paul carefully and sympathetically, I was pleased to see a section of her Introduction offering advocacy for Paul the Apostle in the face of frequent misrepresentation. She writes (p. 25):

The “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis) is rightly traced to the influence of Paul. Strangely, this in itself may be one reason for its neglect today. The great apostle to the Gentiles is widely misunderstood, impugned, or ignored. Many church members not only lack understanding of his letters, but often direct a distinct animus against Paul himself, personally, and read his letters through hostile lenses if they read him at all. His personal idiosyncrasies and liabilities have been magnified in the popular mind to the point he has become a caricature of himself. His confidence is regarded as conceit, his passion for the gospel as intolerance, his attitude towards the Jews as anti-Semitism, his views about women as misogynist, his teaching about sexuality as benighted, his preaching of Christ as obsessive. It requires some degree of effort to begin to understand that most of these characterizations are both unfair and inaccurate.

I will be reading this substantial tome for some time to come. Based on my reading so far, I expect to find it a rich learning experience (even-perhaps especially-where I see things differently). If you are interested to read another reader’s reflections on the book, I came across this review by Andrew Wilson on the Gospel Coalition site today. It is worth a look.

Engage in Mission

Today, HTC hosted the UCCF Mission Tour. We were pleased to have representatives of several mission agencies with us, and a good number of students and staff came together (in both Dingwall and Glasgow) to listen, to pray and to consider how we can be involved in global mission.

HTC gives a high priority to global mission, not least because theological education plays an important part in global mission. The ‘Cape Town Commitment‘ of the Lausanne Movement states,

‘The mission of the Church on earth is to serve the mission of God, and the mission of theological education is to strengthen and accompany the mission of the Church. Theological education serves first to train those who lead the Church as pastor-teachers, equipping them to teach the truth of God’s Word with faithfulness, relevance and clarity; and second, to equip all God’s people for the missional task of understanding and relevantly communicating God’s truth in every cultural context. Theological education engages in spiritual warfare, as “we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” [2 Cor 10:4-5]’

The Cape Town Commitment, IIF.4

Since the Mission Tour visits CUs in various universities, we began by watching a very effective short video on the work of UCCF/IFES. You can watch it here. Please do take some time to watch it.

We also read and considered the text of Matthew 9:35-38:

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’

I considered this text in a chapter I wrote for a book a few years ago and I am always glad to come back to it, particularly as it presents readers with the compassion of Jesus as a central motivation for mission. It is also striking that Jesus’ disciples become the answer to their (presumed) prayers in Matthew 10!

Mission is such an important subject that it deserves careful thought and study. Some excellent books on mission have been published in recent years. Among many, I will mention only two.

First, Chris Wright, International Director of Langham Partnership, has written a readable book, entitled The Mission of God’s People, that combines sound biblical theology with application to the life and mission of the church. He regards these as inseparable:

‘There should be no theology that does not relate to the mission of the church – either by being generated out of the church’s mission or by inspiring and shaping it. And there should be no mission of the church carried on without deep theological roots in the soil of the Bible.
No theology without missional impact; no mission without theological foundations.’

Christopher J. H. Wright
The Mission of God’s People
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p. 20.

Later in his book, Wright considers what it means to know God:

‘… to know God is to be challenged to make God known. It is to be entrusted with knowledge that God wants to be shared. That is what makes it missional. For behind all our mission stands the unshakeable determination of God to be known throughout his whole creation as the living God. God’s will to be known is what makes our mission not only imperative but also possible.’

Christopher J. H. Wright
The Mission of God’s People
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p. 152

More recently, Michael Goheen has witten, Introducing Christian Mission Today, which provides a wide-ranging survey of biblical, historical and contemporary aspects of the study of mission. Goheen offers a brief definition of ‘mission’, as follows,

‘Mission is the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole person in the whole world.’

Michael W. Goheen
Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 26.

(Goheen indicates that this definition draws on the wording of earlier definitions, such as those developed by the Lausanne Movement.)

In addition to his own clearly-written material, Goheen includes selected quotations from numerous notable missiologists, which makes this book a valuable, up-to-date introduction to the study of mission.

One of the most significant chapters in Goheen’s book (particularly for readers in ‘the West’) is a substantial ‘survey of the global church’ (pp. 187-224). This highlights the remarkable growth of the Christian Church in the ‘Global South’.

I encourage readers to read these books if they have the opportunity.

I left our meeting today both encouraged regarding the many ways in which global mission is already taking place and challenged regarding how I may participate in global mission more fully, whether locally or internationally.

Mission agencies that have visited us at Mission Tours (this year and in previous years) include: AIM, Pioneers, Mission Africa, OM, OMF, SIM, UFM, WEC. If you are thinking of getting involved, I am certain that colleagues at any one of these agencies would be pleased to speak with you.

Recently, many churches have sung Keith and Kristen Getty’s revision of an old hymn entitled, ‘Facing a Task Unfinished’, as a means of reflecting on the urgency of global mission. If you haven’t heard it, please take a few minutes to listen to it here and here.

It was good to be reminded of the role we can play in global mission, but also that the initiator and enabler of global mission is ‘the Lord of the harvest’.

Watch lectures by top scholars given at the Lanier Theological Library

The Lanier Theological Library, in Houston, Texas, is a beautiful library. If you live close enough to it to visit it and use its resources, I am sure that you will find it a great benefit.

If you live elsewhere, however, you can still benefit from one aspect of the library’s provision. The LTL regularly hosts public lectures by excellent scholars, recordings of which are made freely available to anyone who wishes to watch them online. Recent speakers include Simon Gathercole, Michael Bird, Peter Williams, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham.

I was particularly interested to see that Professor Larry Hurtado, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, recently gave a lecture covering some of the material from his recent book, Destroyer of the Gods (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016). It is a fascinating lecture and I recommend it to you.

I encourage students and other interested readers to have a look at the wide selection of topics and speakers available, and to take every opportunity to learn from them.

(Re)discovering Mere Christianity

It took me some time to discover the writings of C. S. Lewis. While many people enter the world of Narnia, like the human characters in the stories, as a child, I was married and in my twenties before I discovered who Aslan was.

As far as I remember, it would also have been around the same time that I discovered Lewis’s writings on Christianity, and Mere Christianity in particular.

Over the past few months, I have been re-reading this remarkable book once again. And, once again, I have been struck by the memorable phrases in Lewis’s prose, the astonishing success of the book, and its significance in the experience of so many people.

And yet it seems like such an unlikely recipe for a success story. A middle-aged professor of literature; and a collection of wartime radio broadcasts, lightly edited. There was nothing ‘cool’ about Lewis, and the language certainly feels a little ‘quaint’ (if not worse) to modern readers (‘it might lead you to become a prig’, p. 70). And yet numerous Christians testify to some role for this little book in their own conversion.

To recognise the success of Mere Christianity is not, of course, to claim that it is faultless. There are plenty of places where I would disagree with comments made by Lewis, or would express a thought in different words. Yet, overall, Lewis does a masterful job of presenting key aspects of Christianity in a manner that can be understood and appreciated by a wide range of readers.

Almost a year ago, Justin Taylor published an interview with Professor George Marsden, relating to the publication of Marsden’s ‘biography’ of Mere Christianity. This interview contains some interesting detail concerning Marsden’s own encounter with the book, as well as an outline of the stages of development of the material up to its final form.

Lewis’s form of argument might be considered ‘philosophical’, in that it appeals to what seems evident to people in general (he suggests that his argument might be considered ‘philosophy’ on p. 28). As you read through the pages of the book, you will look in vain for biblical exposition, even when Lewis assumes information drawn from the Bible.

So, for example, Lewis concludes his opening chapter with the following two summary points:

First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in (p. 8).

Some Christian readers will struggle with the lack of reference to Scripture. And it is certainly the case that only Scripture can serve as the Christian’s authority for faith and practice. Yet, Lewis also denies the sceptical reader the opportunity to reject his argument on the grounds that it is based on Scripture.

If it is valid to describe Lewis’s approach as ‘philosophical’, we should not assume that this implies ‘abstract’ or ‘academic’. One of the most striking characteristics of Mere Christianity is how ‘down to earth’ it feels. Lewis constantly draws on analogies from daily human experience to illustrate his points. Yet, he also challenges sloppy thinking, pressing his readers to examine their own reasoning. An example of this involves a measure of autobiography on Lewis’s part:

If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong? And for many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling ‘whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?’ But then that threw me back into another difficulty. My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning (p. 38).

Perhaps the most famous part of Mere Christianity is Lewis’s ‘Trilemma’, the choice of three possible responses to Jesus:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (p. 58).

It is true, as Craig Blomberg has pointed out, that a further option might be added to ‘Liar, Lunatic, or Lord’: ‘Legend’. Yet, in my opinion, the rhetorical power of Lewis’s presentation of the content of the gospels remains.

Although the passage just quoted is particularly famous, I have come to appreciate deeply a very short statement:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world (p. 136).

Here Lewis appeals to the concept sometimes described by the German term, Sehnsucht (‘yearning’, ‘pining’, ‘longing’). In this memorable little saying, Lewis expresses the ultimate hope of all desires that are not, perhaps cannot be, fully satisfied in this life.

Is Lewis’s book an irresistible apologetic for the gospel? No! Many have read it, and rejected Lewis’s arguments, sometimes dismissing them as unsophisticated. But many others have found Lewis’s careful thought, expressed skilfully in memorable phrases and images, to be captivating and a means by which they are persuaded to accept the truth of the Christian gospel. Many have also found in Lewis’s arguments a model for persuasively presenting the Christian faith to a sceptical world more than half a century after Mere Christianity was published.

Lewis’s closing words in this remarkable book demonstrate as clearly as any just how well he had grasped the gospel, and how fully the gospel had grasped him.

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in (pp. 227-28).

What more needs to be said?

If you haven’t read Mere Christianity, or if, like me, you haven’t read it for a while, why not (re)discover it today?

‘The Heart of Paul’s Theology’ from Third Millennium Ministries

Students taking my ‘Pauline Theology’ module, along with others interested in the subject, may wish to watch a short series of videos by Professor Reggie Kidd (RTS, Orlando) on ‘The Heart of Paul’s Theology‘. The lectures include an overview of Paul’s theology and a discussion of Galatians.

You may also be interested in a series of lectures by Professor Craig Blomberg (Denver Seminary) at the Biblical Training site that, among other topics, introduce Paul and his letters.

Essays in honour of Prof. Fika Janse van Rensburg

Last year, I was privileged to contribute an essay to a collection of essays presented to my friend, Professor Fika Janse van Rensburg, of North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Rather than publication in book form, this celebratory collection of essays (‘Festschrift‘) was published in the theological journal of NWU, In die Skriflig / In Luce Verbi (‘In the light of Scripture’). The essays are freely available in full to read online or download. My contribution, entitled ‘”Hope kept in heaven” in Colossians and 1 Peter’, can be downloaded here. An earlier version of this article had previously been presented in oral form to the New Testament Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship in July 2015.

I would encourage students and fellow-researchers to keep South African journals, including In die Skriflig, in mind. Many quality articles, by authors from South Africa and beyond, can be accessed without cost. While many articles are published in Afrikaans, several are published in English. And, anyway, it won’t take too long to pick up some Afrikaans!

I hope some readers will find my article, along with others available on this site, useful.

Geniet dit! (‘Enjoy it!’)

Discover Paul with the Bible Project

I am teaching a module on ‘Pauline Theology’ this semester. One of the most challenging aspects of Paul’s writings for students is simply the volume of material that Paul wrote, often involving quite intricate argumentation. How do you become familiar with the content and structure of Paul’s letters?

Although there is no substitute for direct engagement with the text of Paul’s letters (whether by reading or by listening to an audio version, such as the wonderful reading of the NIV by David Suchet), the Bible Project team has produced a series of short videos on every biblical document, which I have found particularly helpful for grasping the broad contours of biblical texts.

This series of videos is based on well-informed scholarship, but is presented in a clear and engaging manner that is helpful for anyone interested in the Bible, not just theological students. You can watch the first video on Romans 1-4 here. I challenge you not to get hooked on the whole series!