Sundays With St. Paul: Wright’s Syllogism of Paul’s “curse”…

During our final class discussion yesterday, we read and talked about Galatians 3:10-14:

“For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ – in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”[1]

For this week’s post, I simply wanted to share a passage from N. T. Wright’s Climax of the Covenant and see what everyone thought of his suggestion. Wright sets up a counter syllogism to that accepted by Westerholm, Hill, Gundry, and others[2] as such:

a. All who embrace Torah are thereby embracing Israel’s national way of life;
b. Israel as a nation has suffered, historically, the curse which the Torah held out for her if she did not keep it;
c. Therefore all who embrace Torah now are under this curse.[3]

Wright notes that this syllogism rests on an assumption that:

a. Israel as a whole is under the curse if she fails to keep Torah;
b. Israel as a whole failed to keep Torah;
c. Therefore Israel is under the curse.[4]

Here is what he has to say about the syllogisms he presents:

“This way of reading the passage has the additional advantage that no Jew would have disagreed with Paul’s premise. As long as we persist in reading v. 10 as a statement of the sin of all individuals, it is easy to suggest that there might in principle be exceptions, especially if one were to read Romans 2.14 ff. in that sort of way. And it has likewise been easy for Sanders, Räisänen and others to suggest that this blanket denunciation of all humans, or all Jews, as sinners, is simply the reflex of Paul’s conviction that salvation is to be found in Christ and nowhere else. One must paint the world black, artificially and against the evidence if necessary, so that the light of Christ may shine the stronger. But if Paul is thinking of Israel as a whole, and of the curse of Deuteronomy not in terms of the future post mortem damnation which hangs over the heads of sinners, but in Deuteronomy’s own terms as Israel’s exile, her subjugation at the hands of pagans, then no Jew of Paul’s day would dream of denying that the exile had indeed happened, and few would deny that the real return from exile – the glorious future predicted in Isaiah or Ezekiel, for instance – was yet to be realized. When might it come about that the Gentiles would change from being the agents of Israel’s curse, the oppressors through whom the darker side of the covenant was being fulfilled, and become the objects of the blessing of Abraham? Paul, starting from the agreed premise that Israel had suffered the curse and was still waiting for the blessing that should follow, has simply drawn the whole train of thought on to Jesus and the Spirit.”[5]

Do you think Paul is thinking in individualistic terms in Gal. 3:10-14? Or does what Wright present have more merit – the notion of Israel as a nation (as well as those who submit to their “national way of life”) being under the curse? Is there another way of going about Gal. 3:10-14 that you think is better?

This is part of a series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Feel free to read it there or read other posts by other bloggers.

 

[1] New Revised Standard Version

[2] Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 144

[3] Ibid., 147

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 147-48

Sundays With St. Paul: An Introduction to Paul and the Law…

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is titled “Paul and the Law” and deals with precisely those two things: Paul and the Torah (“law,” “teaching,” or “instruction” in Hebrew). After only two weeks of the class, I’ve read so much that I’ve felt the need to write some thoughts down to help process. Thus we arrive to “Sundays With  St. Paul.”

Years ago, over at Near Emmaus, there once was a blog series titled, “Wednesdays With Wright,” which walked through various passages from some of N.T. Wright’s work and simply stirred the pot of discussion within the blogging community (this is slightly over-simplifying their discussions – well worth the read). My goal with this series is essentially the same: to stir the pot of discussion regarding the apostle Paul, his letters, the Torah, and the world from which he arose (although, I must admit I’m a little bummed I don’t have the cool acronym Near Emmaus had. But I do imagine I’ll be dealing with N.T. Wright’s work regarding Paul).

With as much as I would like to give an exhaustive account about Paul, I think I would be overbooking myself given the amount of reading, writing, and research I have this semester. No doubt, such background knowledge is crucial to understanding Paul. But I sense such background information will arise when and where it is needed. Instead, I’d like to share some things I’ve read and discuss the ideas represented within – both in matters pertaining to faith and biblical scholarship (despite what might be said, the two worlds of faith and scholarship are compatible).

To begin, then, I’d like to introduce a few names we’ve read in the past two weeks who have had a significant impact on the study of Paul. Since I’m barely dipping my toes into this particular study, anyone who has read the original works of these scholars is welcome to provide insights, push back, and/or offer clarification where needed. The texts we’ve been reading for class are Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics and Frank Thielman’s Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach.

Sanders

E.P. Sanders is the first name I’d like to discuss primarily because he focuses on the backdrop to Paul’s world. As Westerholm states, “In comparing Paul with Palestinian Judaism, Sanders examines not individual motifs common to both, but the ‘patterns of religion’ they represent,” (129). Sanders defines these “patterns” as “how getting in and staying in are understood,” (as quoted in Westerholm, 129).

One pattern that Sanders finds within every Judaic witness of this time he describes as “covenantal nomism,” which is “the notion that a Jew’s standing before God is secured by God’s election of Israel as his covenant people […] and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace,” (Westerholm, 129; his emphasis). Another way of talking about this notion is that it wasn’t a “works-based” process wherein devout Jews would earn their standing with God. Rather, obeying the law was an act in “response” to grace already given from God.

We may ask at this point, why did Paul seem so opposed to the law, then? If Sanders’ suggestion is true, then what’s Paul real peeve with the law? As Frank Thielman points out, Sanders thinks Paul’s real issue is that Judaism “is not Christianity,” (Thielman, 36). However, this is where I’d like to introduce another scholar: Krister Stendahl.

Stendahl

In the discussion of what was Paul’s problem with the law, Stendahl thinks it wasn’t an “inner struggle with sin,” but instead the ramifications of trying to uphold the law. Paul seemed more concerned about what sticking to the law might mean for the Gentile believers: “[Paul] wrestled with the problem of Israel’s law, not because his conscience was tormented by a failure to keep its commands, but because it appeared to bar the access of Gentiles to the people of God,” (Westerholm, 147). To understand Stendahl’s stance another way, Paul was speaking more to the Jewish-Gentile separation than to any matter of conscience.

What Stendahl finds when we treat Paul’s struggle with the law as a matter of his own internal conscience is that we make it our own. “Here the (redefined) law is understood as given ‘to make man see his desperate need for a Savior,’” (Westerholm, 148). Once one sees their need for a savior, then they’ve followed the path of Paul and can embrace the grace of Christ. Not only is “the age of the law” rekindled when it shouldn’t be, but it’s rekindled in a way it was never meant to, which, as Stendahl argues, then distorts our understanding of the Mosaic law and especially of how Paul is actually defending the law in Romans 7 (Westerholm, 149).

What I find interesting about Stendahl’s focus is that it hints at what Paul was really concerned with. Yet where Stendahl seems to hint at, another scholar, and the final one I’ll discuss for this post, James D. G. Dunn, hits the nail on the head.

Dunn

According to Frank Thielman’s summary, Dunn agreed “heartily with Sanders […] that the old Protestant picture of Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness must be abandoned, and he endorses the description of Judaism as ‘covenantal nomism,’” (41). Yet he takes this a step further and targets the “social function” of the law; that even while it was an indicator of Israel’s unique relationship with God, it was being used “as a racial barrier to exclude Gentiles from entrance into the people of God,” (42). As discussed earlier, Stendahl mentioned this, but yet focused on the “introspective conscience” aspect and how it was blotting out Paul’s context. Dunn places his focus on this social function and argues this is what Paul was opposed to: an elitism that kept people out when Christ is inviting people in.

Again, this is a very brief overview of what I’ve been reading, which is also a brief overview of the entire study revolving around Paul. But these scholars bring up things I might have never thought about while reading Paul’s letters – especially how he wasn’t, as these scholars suggest, targeting a “works-based” Judaism (that may not have even existed in Paul’s time!).

In future posts I hope to focus a little more on only one or two scholars, especially as I dive deeper and deeper into my research topic. For now, though, I think this is sufficient to get the ball rolling and hopefully create some nuance in our dialogue about Paul.

What do you think of Paul’s apparent negativity toward the law? Is there a negative tone? And what do you think all this means for modern day Christians and our understanding of what Paul is actually trying to say?

I hope everyone has had a great Sunday.

God bless.

Earth Restored, Not Ignored…

Ever since taking Dr. Falk’s classes in the winter term of last year, a previously-held idea has been under renovation. When I first started hearing about Jesus and how Christianity works, I understood it to be this sort of “ticket to heaven” idea. You believe in Jesus, get baptized, and give about ten percent of your money each week and you’re good to go. What I didn’t understand back then was the context from which the Gospels – and even Jesus – emerged.

Understanding ancient Jewish thought is absolutely crucial to understanding the New Testament. Why? Well, for the most part, the authors of the New Testament were Jewish and most of the characters as well. The setting of the Gospels almost never leaves Judea and frequently visits Jerusalem. So yeah, it’s kind of important to know how an ancient Jew might understand what Jesus said and did.

In his book, How God Became King, N.T. Wright fleshes this out much more directly. He focuses on the expression “eternal life” as it reads in English and clarifies the understanding a little. As it has been used in most of Western Christianity, “eternal life” seems to mean heaven with a sense of disembodiment from the earth – as if heaven was a distant place far from earth. “That is Plato, not the Bible,” Wright states (Pg. 44). He then goes on to give a more Jewish understanding of “eternal life.”

The Greek phrase zoe aionios (I’m going off of Wright’s understanding entirely; I know very few Greek words or phrases) usually has the translation of “eternal life” or “everlasting life.” So when we read John 3:16, as Wright says, we understand that Jesus died for us so that we may be rescued from this world and join God in heaven. Here’s the problem:

“In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two ‘aions’ (we sometimes use the word ‘eon’ in that sense): the ‘present age,’ ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the ‘age to come,’ ha-olam ha-ba.”

In other words, we shouldn’t understand “eternal life” or “everlasting life” in the sense of living in some disembodied realm away from earth, but rather in a sense of time still within the physical earth. As Wright points out, ancient Jews believed the “age to come” was when God would bring about peace, justice, and healing in the world. There was no sense of them ever leaving the world:

“The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.”

With this view, it begins to look like we aren’t leaving anytime soon. And if you ask me, that’s how it should be. Believing that we will one day be brought away from this world and placed in a disembodied realm for time eternal leads to the belief that this world and this life and the things we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter. It suggests that once we get our ticket to heaven, we can pretty much do whatever we want – including actively avoiding loving our neighbor or taking care of the earth. But if the truth of the matter is that God’s intention for His future kingdom involves this earth we inhabit today, then it seems we’d be foolish to pack our bags to board our flight “home”; because the plane would never show up.

Wright’s final point gets the message across:

“When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life.”

Wright isn’t saying that going to heaven isn’t part of the process; he’s saying that it isn’t the end of the process – far from it. He’s saying that God’s big idea is to renew and restore His creation – the world we live in and the earth we inhabit. Eternity will be spent in that world of “on earth as it is in heaven.” When God came to earth to dwell among men, He didn’t do it for just a quick visit. He came to lay the foundation for and inaugurate His kingdom’s arrival. He came to start not just a fight, but a war. When Jesus first proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matt. 4:17), he was declaring God’s invasion. He was declaring war for what is rightfully His: Creation.

Rethinking eternal life with God is tough. We want to believe that peace is only possible if we leave this world and never return, but, as Wright discusses, we’d be doing something that not even God intends. Our tickets to heaven (if we mean “heaven” as in an eternal realm away from earth) are then useless. It’s really uncomfortable to think so because we used to believe they were everything. But our hope should not be placed in systematic beliefs; our hope should be placed in Jesus – especially if it means we have to roll up our sleeves and get involved with God’s invasion. It’s really the only way to guarantee our presence in the fully restored heaven and earth.

God bless.

The Empty Tomb…

“Serious Christianity begins when Jesus comes out of the tomb on Easter morning,” – N.T. Wright (borrowed from Near Emmaus’ post)

Since Holy Week has arrived, I’ve begun reading through the Gospel of Mark. I chose this gospel specifically because it contains a narrative structure which emphasizes the miraculous act of Jesus rising from the grave. Why do I think this? Because the original copy of Mark’s gospel ended with Mary Magdalene and Mary (Jesus’ mother?) encountering an angel at Jesus’ empty tomb and running away scared. No Great Commission. Just an empty tomb and an angel.

N.T. Wright hits it dead on the money: Christianity begins at the resurrection. Why? Because, in the ancient context, it was bizarre. It was an unbelievable story, but yet enough people believed back then that it thrives today – they even died because they believed this story. Mark’s ending to Jesus’ narrative causes the reader to wake up, go back to the beginning of the Gospel, and reread the entire story. The culmination of Jesus’ life wasn’t the cross; it was the empty tomb.

His empty tomb meant He wasn’t just another prisoner being publicly executed. Well then why was He executed? And thus the inquiring mind begins to seek out the truth around Jesus all because the story of the resurrection was told to them.

And yet we like to dwell on the cross as the center of Christianity. No doubt, it reveals quite a great deal about God, His love for humanity, and so on. But any experienced Christian will tell you that they didn’t become a Christian because they heard about Jesus’ death; they became a Christian because He rose from that death. Easter is not only about celebrating the remission of our sins – although that is a great thing to rejoice over. It’s about celebrating our King’s defeat of death. Or to put it even shorter: It’s about celebrating our King.

What exactly does it mean, though, to celebrate our King for His resurrection that Easter morning? Why is that a big deal? N.T. Wright writes in another of his works that Christ’s resurrected body is an allusion to our own future selves. What he means is, Jesus’ resurrection from the grave is foreshadowing our own transition into the completed life. No, I’m not talking about us rising from our bodies as pure spirits into heaven; I’m talking about our bodies being intertwined with our souls in such a way that, as John’s Gospel depicts, our spiritual and physical forms are one in the same. We will be completely and perfectly renewed.

It means our focus in this world isn’t about the things in this world: fame, money, possessions, or even the more desirable things like marriage, raising children, etc. Our focus in this life is beyond all those things, which in a strange way makes having those things all the more enjoyable. You’ll enjoy your friends more when you know and realize they aren’t what your life depends upon. Likewise, you’ll enjoy your marriage more when you know you can be content without it.

If our purpose in this world isn’t about the things within this world, then why do anything at all about anything? Why should I care about a world that God will simply resurrect and renew anyway? Well, for starters, because Jesus means to reign in this world, not just in some distant heavenly realm. Our bodies, our lives, and everything we do in this world matters. It all matters because it’s all a part of ushering in God’s kingdom. If Jesus says we will reap what we sow, then if we sow a bad seed by not taking care of our bodies, not working to care for our neighbors, not taking care of the environment (yeah, God cares for His creation, too), then in all likelihood we may not reap anything good from it.

My focus this week – what I aim to meditate and pray over – is the empty tomb and its meaning. I want to get a glimpse of what my purpose in the next world might be so that I can get started in this one. Jesus was beaten beyond recognition for ushering in God’s kingdom. There is a very serious message for those of us who believe Him to be a foreshadowing example for us to follow: We could be brutally murdered for believing all of this. But even with this serious warning there is a serious promise: There is life after it. And not just any life: life with the Author and Source of Life.

Death will reach everyone one of us, like it or not. What the empty tomb reveals about those who profess Jesus as Lord, God, and Savior, though, is that death does not have to be the end. It can merely be the transition from one life to the next. We must choose.

I’m sorry if I appear to be rambling; it is nearly one in the morning and I’m drained of energy. But I hope I’ve made my point clear: The Resurrection – the literal rising of Jesus’ dead and mutilated body into a renewed and perfected body – is a very serious matter to Christianity. It’s what caused a stir about Jesus, which caused many to reflect over His teachings and write them down. It’s what caused many to believe – even to their deaths – that Jesus was God’s Son. And it’s what has kept Christianity alive to today.

As the week rolls on, take some time to think/meditate over the resurrection’s meaning. And not just the “covered my sins” part, but also what’s beyond life in this world. Is living with God really going to be us just sitting around on clouds doing random little things or is it going to be something like a completely new adventure? Is God really going to cast our bodies aside and leave them beyond or is He going to bring them out of the grave, too? By what we have to go off of, I’d say it’s going to be a totally new kind of life with totally new kinds of bodies.

What does the resurrection mean to you?

Spring’s Reading List…

Since I’m still going through scholastic withdrawals, I’ve picked up several books to read over the next couple weeks and/or months. I’m still working on several books from my previous reading list(s), but little by little, I think I’ve made some room for a few more. And since I seem to read more attentively when reading several instead of only one, I’m hoping these will prove fruitful in the long run.

Below is a list of four books that were all released this year. Three of them seem to have the potential of overlapping in subject matter while the other seems it will remain in its own category. I’m presenting them here mostly to invite discussions and feedback as I go through them. I’m hoping for several posts about each.

Peter Enns: The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins

What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins

Actually, I've been "reading" this for a couple months :-/...

Technically I’ve already started this one. However, work got crazy busy at one point and before I knew it, it was an entire month before I picked it up again. So, with the spring rain keeping me indoors, I’ve decided to restart Enns’ new work.

I’ve never read anything from Peter Enns except for a couple blog posts. If he writes in this book like he does on his blog, I think I’m in for a treat. For starters, I believe he has a refreshing view on inerrancy (as well as his colleagues). Secondly, he seriously considers cultural context – this I remember from when I first began this book. Where I left off the first time was when he was describing the various names for God in the book of Genesis. As I’ve read in John J. Collins’ Intro to the Hebrew Bible, these different names suggest the possibility of different sources compiled together to produce the one book of Genesis (or the several books of the Torah). It’ll be interesting to see where Enns goes from here.

John Dominic Crossan: The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus

How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus

Interested yet skeptical...

I’m not so sure I like the subtitle; seems to be stretching something too far. But I’m looking forward to how he presents it. I appreciated his collective work with Marcus Borg in The First Paul, so there might be a few gems to find in here. Although, after reading the summary on the back of the cover, I’m a little uneasy regardless of what I’ve read from Crossan before. “Crossan also shows how [the] four gospel writers ended up undermining Jesus’ true message of God’s kingdom – that of bring peace and justice for all.” It remains to be determined whether Crossan believes the writers did this as a side product or as something intentional – as something they had set out to do all along. Extra care will be required for this one.

Bart D. Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Interested and excited...

I’ve written rather negatively about Ehrman in the past, but I’ve also written positively about him, too. Overall, I disagree with many of his conclusions, but yet greatly appreciate his critiques. What he wrote in Misquoting Jesus reaffirmed my distaste for inerrancy arguments while directing my faith toward God rather than a doctrine. I know that he probably did not intend to, but his critiques have really helped to strengthen my faith.

This book seems to be one that might do just that: reaffirm and strengthen my beliefs in God and His son Jesus. One thing I’m aware of, though, is that he isn’t writing for members of the faith. Rather, he seems to be writing on behalf of Bible scholars and historians. Nevertheless, I’m excited to read how one of the more prominent Bible critics of our time defends Jesus’ historicity – that is, how he believes that Jesus actually did live and walk as a real person. Whatever other claims he may or may not make along the way will probably require a dose of salt, but overall I’m eager to read his new book.

N.T. Wright: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

Stoked...

I get the sense that this is somehow communicating with Crossan’s work in some way. Even if it isn’t, I think both Wright and Crossan will discuss similar passages and have many counterpoints to each other. I’ve read plenty of N. T. Wright and have enjoyed every bit of his works. However, that’s no excuse to turn off a critical mind. In fact, in the scholarly world it’s somewhat of a disgrace if all one does is flatter another’s work rather than question some of the holes. What this simply means is that I must be open to the possibility of disagreeing with Wright on some things.

All in all, I’m very excited for another month or two of reading. Unlike most school terms, everything I read nowadays is entirely of my own choosing. So know that when I’m reading The Hobbit, The Problem of Pain, The Hunger Games, The Sun Also Rises, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, or any of the ones mentioned above (all of which have bookmarks indicating that I’ve at least started to read them), I’m doing so because I want to; not because I have to.

Please do not be afraid to comment or question on any of the posts I write spawning from what I read. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about them now: To provoke discussions about rather controversial issues if only to stir our own thoughts. Who knows, you and I might actually agree on a thing or two.

God bless.

Baptism Part 7: Introduction to Christian Baptism…

Baptism gets interesting when it’s brought to Christianity. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, ritual immersion plays a major role in the belief system and practice at Qumran. But in the New Testament, there is a rich diversity of what baptism means and how it’s practiced. It’s difficult – probably near impossible – to give one decisive meaning for baptism, which then makes it essential to look at each text in and of itself to see what possible meanings can be deduced.

In my paper I broke it down to five main spheres of influence: John’s baptism (which combines the various Gospel views), Paul’s baptism (drawing from Galatians 3:27-29 and Ephesians 4:5), Acts 19:1-7 (which is an interesting turning point in the Christian baptism), 1st Peter 3:21, and – since it was a discussion of early Christianity and not just New Testament Christianity – Didache 7, which probably has more of a philosophical interpretation than the others.

I really didn’t get to discuss these varying facets at any real length, just briefly highlighting one or two main points. But since I’m not trying to fit any 12-15 page limitation, I’m hoping to break open each of these more fully. Also, after writing two 13-page papers on people being dunked in water, I’ve noticed other verses and passages in the NT that offer an interesting view of baptism and I’m looking forward to discussing those as well.

Right now, my plan for this next set of posts is to implement Gerd Theissen’s thoughts mixed with a couple other scholars (Everett Ferguson, N.T. Wright, and others). Theissen’s book, The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World, acted as the framework of thought for Dr. Falk’s Early Christianity class in the winter, so I thought it’d be interesting to present some of his main points and invite readers into some of the discussions we had as a class.

Since from here on out is a long discussion on Christian baptism, I think it’d be best to title this set of posts as such; “Christian Baptism.” Of course there will be references back to Qumran or Greco-Roman washing rituals to discuss certain similarities, but ultimately my focus will be on the New Testament books as well as some of the non-canonical books (books that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the New Testament).

Ultimately the goal is to see/discuss the formulation of Christian thought regarding baptism’s role in following Christ. Was it simply an initiatory rite or could an early Jewish-Christian still partake in purity rituals? Was it thought of as simply a metaphor or did one need to physically be baptized? In answering and/or discussing these questions, I’m hoping to read through the New Testament and relevant books to see the evidence with fresh eyes. As scholars indicate, we can’t look into the minds of the New Testament authors and know what they were thinking when they penned their letters/gospels. But what we can do is read the text for what it is and go from there.

As N.T. Wright says, though, it can’t simply be a discussion based on speculation and mystical fantasy; there must be some grounding in historical evidence. Currently I’m reading his book The New Testament and the People of God, which I hope will provide some historical insight that isn’t otherwise present in the New Testament. I’ll also borrow information from Bart Ehrman and his textbook, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament.

There isn’t much time left in the summer, so I’m hoping to milk it for all it’s worth. Once again, though, I open the floor to any who would like to share questions, thoughts, or possible conclusions on the various things I write. What drove both my religious studies classes last winter wasn’t a long series of lectures from Professor Falk (although I’d pay just as much for that as well). No, what drove those seminars were the class discussions. Students’ thoughts were shared, challenged, and refined and I’m hoping something similar happens through these posts.

***For all the previous posts on baptism/ritual immersion, please click here or the “Baptism” tab on the side.

Love Wins: A Review of Rob Bell’s Book…

Salvation is a hot-button topic in modern-day Christianity. To some, maybe even most, it’s a matter of either being “in” or being “out.” There’s no middle ground. No fence-sitters allowed here. I used to be in this camp. All that mattered to me was that I was saved and it was a command from God to let everybody know that they had better join me or suffer the consequences of hell. Black and white. Cut and dry. That’s how it is.

And then I actually started reading the Bible.

Rob Bell is a controversial pastor – albeit unintentionally. I believe the man believes in what he preaches and what he teaches, so when he says he never meant to be an upstart, I believe him. It isn’t a noble cause to dedicate one’s life to simply stirring the pot, to shake things up a bit. Martin Luther wanted to restore Catholicism, not start Protestantism. He had a noble goal in mind, but the masses reacted in such a way that he had no choice but to separate. With that said, I think we have a similar case when looking at Rob Bell.

His book, Love Wins, is a good book. I have read it. I have spent some time pondering a lot of the things he brings up. Whether he wanted to be a pot-stirrer or not, he’s very good at stirring the mind to engage the text of Scripture. There are passages like Matthew 10:22; 24:13 or Luke 21:19 that talk about enduring to the end in order to be saved. Or how about Matthew 25:31-46 and Jesus talking about allowing the sheep to enter because of the love they showed to people – regardless of whether or not they actually knew Him? All of a sudden the black and white packaging around the message of salvation becomes much more colorful.

No, Rob Bell never once says that everyone’s getting into heaven regardless of what they do in this life. He is not a Universalist, although there may be echoes of this in some regards. After reading his book and understanding some of the issues he raises, though, I’m beginning to wonder if he sometimes sounds universalistic only because there are some echoes of universalism in Scripture? I completely understand that this question makes a lot of people uncomfortable and that isn’t my intention here; I merely ask the question to provoke one’s mind towards God. This is also what I believe to be Bell’s agenda; stir the mind in a way that draws one closer to understanding God.

I am personally not a Universalist. It just doesn’t make sense to me. In all honesty, I think Universalism, if taken to the extreme, leads to complete apathy where we just don’t care about anything we do in this life because no matter what we’re joining God in eternity. That’s not what we have when we come to Christianity. The Christian view is that everyone – including the ones who like to brag about their salvation – is going to be held accountable before God for the lives we lived here. Where Bell’s book goes from this point is into a discussion of what happens after one gives an account to God. Hell? Eternal punishment?

One of the most interesting points he raises in the first chapter is the idea of an eternal hell where people are constantly conscientiously punished. Think about it. You live 50, 60, 70 years apart from Christ and because you never came to accept Him you’re now punished for the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of years? That doesn’t really make much sense to me either. That, as Bell says, doesn’t sound like a just God.

Bell’s main argument is that we choose our own hells. We’re capable of choosing freely, aren’t we? That’s what enables true love, as C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity. So if we’re able to choose freely, then, as Bell argues, we’ll get what we want… but also the baggage that comes with it.

A story in Scripture that he highlights is the rich man who Jesus tells to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man walks away devastated by that commandment because he had many possessions. Now, Bell’s point with this story is that the rich man seems to have continued hardening his heart towards the will of God. He didn’t want to give up what he had; he chose his own hell and will suffer the consequences after he dies, which is another interesting discussion from Bell. He rightly suggests that we ultimately don’t know whether or not we get second chances after we die. Near the end of the book he convincingly argues that we shouldn’t wait to find out the hard way, but you see his point: It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that we don’t get another chance after this life to repent to God.

What I found lacking with his book, however, is any discussion of the “elect” passages in Scripture. There are plenty: Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:27; Luke 18:7; Romans 8:33; 11:7; 1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:10; and Titus 1:1 just to name a few. All of these passages seem to indicate that there are certain elected individuals who will be with God for eternity. Bell raises the issue towards the beginning, but doesn’t address it directly later on.

Also what I didn’t appreciate from the book was the lacking discussion of resurrection. Perhaps it’s because I’m also reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, which deals with resurrection directly, but I find it to be a crucial discussion especially when dealing with eschatology (end times theology). As Wright argues, heaven is not the final destination; the resurrected world is.

Looking over his book now, though, I find it impossible for a full discussion on every tributary of eschatology to fit into a 198-page book. Rob Bell is a smart man; much smarter than the kind who would think he wrapped everything up in such a short amount of text. It wasn’t his intention to discuss everything fully, but rather to get the discussion going. Given the chaos that has been stirred in the Christian society, I think he did just that. Only, I think he raised a lot more emotions than discussions.

It would not do Rob Bell any justice for me to close the door on the discussions he raises. What I mean is; if you’re interested, buy or borrow the book, read it for yourself with no one else’s opinion influencing your own (or, as I like to say, with no literary goggles), and then join the discussion. Too often, I think, we over-emphasize loving God with all our hearts, souls, and strengths that we forget to do so with our minds. It’s at this point I turn to C.S. Lewis:

“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself,”Mere Christianity, 78

Religious Drama and Rob Bell…

Religious discussions often frustrate me. It’s not religion in general, nor is it discussions of religion that I have a problem with. Rather, it’s the drama of modern-day debates about beliefs and theologies and doctrines that irritates me. Earlier today I read a blog about Rob Bell and his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Justin Taylor, the author of the blog, gives his view of Bell’s beliefs (or how he understands them anyway) and then essentially states where he stands in it all.

That doesn’t bother me.

Bloggers do that all the time.

I’m doing that right now.

But when I hopped onto Twitter and noticed that Rob Bell was trending, I thought I’d take a look as to why. And what I found was very irritating, even appalling. Most people who posted about Rob Bell had cast him off as destined for hell because of his beliefs (as if they had a say in his fate). One post even went so far as to say, “Rob Bell, when you feel the flames of hell tickling at your feet… then you’ll believe.”

Simply disgusting.

There were some who defended Bell and still others merely posting a link to the blog I read and those few tweets helped give a little balance to the whole controversy. And yet it still bugs me that we as followers of Christ feel entitled to cast someone into hell because his beliefs don’t align with the rest of ours. I’m not defending Bell’s theology; that’s a different discussion. But what I absolutely hate is the need to make a huge dramatic scene about someone’s beliefs… especially when they aren’t new.

Rob Bell’s seemingly-Universalist beliefs have been known for a while; he just wasn’t as hard-lined about them as he is now. (I must add that it is not entirely clear if Bell believes in Universalism; see here.) To my understanding of Universalism, it says we’re all going to heaven no matter what we believe. This doesn’t really excite me in any way. If I believe that hedonism is the real path that we should all follow, then by practicing what Christianity regards as sin, I’ll be able to join those Christians in heaven? It does not make any sense. But this is my opinion.

What I am more frustrated with, though, is the whole need for a controversy. Why do we feel the need to draw a line in the sand between those who are “right” and those who are “wrong”? Didn’t Jesus affiliate Himself on a regular basis with those who were “wrong”? Didn’t He say that He came to call sinners to repentance? And yet we say goodbye to Rob Bell and people like him because he has a “sinful” theology. It smells like hypocrisy to me.

According to his video, which the blog also posted, Rob Bell is – in his mind – preaching a loving God. And yet we have the nerve to say he’s going to hell? Whether he is or isn’t a heretic is irrelevant; what is relevant is the fact that the decision of his salvation does not belong to any one of us. We’ll say, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus is the Way,” but the Bible also says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged,” (Matt. 7:1-2). Condemn yourself if you want to condemn others.

Rob Bell’s beliefs are part of a discussion. Joining that discussion means keeping our own judgments about those who disagree with us to ourselves. We can state our beliefs, we can explain why we believe them; that’s encouraged in conversation. What isn’t encouraged is casting our judgment onto those who believe something different. That’s what causes a lot of wars. People die in wars. Why should we keep the religious drama going when we want to live?

In regards to the discussion, I must say that I believe Jesus and Jesus alone is the Way to eternal salvation with God. I have believed that from day one, was aggressive about it early on, but now realize that an aggressive gospel such as that of Jesus is a contradiction in terms. Jesus’ gospel is there whether we deny it or embrace it. He doesn’t want us to follow Him because a few preachers screamed at us that we’re going to hell if we don’t; He wants us to follow Him because we want to follow Him. He wants our hearts. He wants us to choose Him.

If there is a stance I’m taking, it’s this: I have made the decision to live my life according to Jesus and His teaching. Whether or not Bell’s theology is right or wrong doesn’t matter to me; that’s Rob Bell’s decision. I should decide whether I agree or disagree with his beliefs, but I cannot determine his eternal placement.  Nobody except Jesus will decide if I’m going to be with Him in heaven (or the resurrected world – see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope) or cast down to hell. According to the words of Jesus, the same will apply to Bell. But Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Judge (Matthew 25).