N.T. Wright on ‘The Shape of Paul’s Theology’

Below is a very good video in which N.T. Wright gives a fifteen minute introduction to the shape of the Apostle Paul’s theology. There are some things, I think, of particular note as you watch.

First, there is what Wright does not mention – in this case neither Paul’s theology of justification or the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (and no, the two are not coterminous as some assume). This will be troubling to a great many evangelicals who consider justification in some form to be the epicenter of Paul’s theology. On this we should remember however, that even the conservative Reformed theologian Thomas Schreiner does not think justification is Paul’s theological center. Schreiner says that what God has done in Christ and Jesus himself is Paul’s center. (See for instance his chapter in Four Views on the Apostle Paul and his interview with Credo magazine.)

Second, Wright does us a great service by placing Paul in his first century context as the Jewish theologian he was. Too much of Paul talk has simply read Martin Luther’s problems with personal guilt and his issues with the medieval Catholic church back onto PauI. I think this sort of anachronism has overdetermined how Reformed and Evangelical theology since has treated ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ and ‘justification’ – these things being stripped from their narrative context and ‘systematized’ as it were, such that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith became basic shorthand for and equated with the gospel. (For more on this see Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.)

The problem here, of course is that Paul was not a first century Martin Luther and the Judaism of Paul’s day was not the first century equivalent of the medieval Catholic church. Now, Paul surely does have a theology of justification by faith and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith does say some things that are true. However, I would still say that 1) we get justification in Paul wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification and 2) we get the gospel itself wrong when it is simply equated with the Reformation doctrine of justification (which in American evangelicalism becomes further reduced to something like the ‘plan of individual salvation’).

Third, Wright’s mention for Christians to speak truth to power is instructive for the church in the U.S. during an election year when too many Christians are content to be pandered too with superficial God talk and do not have the wherewithal to avoid being used as pawns in American politics (left, right, and in between). Pay special attention here to Wright’s comments with Romans 1:14-16 in the background. I think here we get some important background that informs as to precisely what ‘gospel’ Paul was not ashamed of in Romans (and it has very little to do with our modern plan of salvation). Wright’s comments on I Thessalonians 5:2 concerning ‘peace and security’ as a Roman state slogan and a ‘giant con’ and a ‘protection racket’ I think has an important parallel for present day American Christians who embrace too readily the peace, security, prosperity, success, or happiness of the civil religion of Americanism or one’s political platform. As Wright states, ‘Jesus is the reality of which Caesar [and the Democrats, Republicans, or any other political ideology] is the parody.’ The gospel of the cruciform King Jesus should call into question ALL other political ideologies. ‘Jesus is Lord [King], Caesar is not’ forms the basic identity forming ‘politics’ and paradigmatic narrative for God’s people in Paul’s thought.

Fourth, in the second half of the video Wright sums up the three big themes of Paul’s theology as monotheism (or one God), election (or one people of God), and eschatology (or one future for God’s world). Each of these Wright emphasizes, gains a trinitarian focus as they have been rethought and reworked by Paul in light of the faithfulness of Jesus as the Messiah and the experience of the Spirit. With all this, Wright is summarizing the thrust of much of the argument in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective which has been instrumental in helping me to grasp Paul’s thought here and the integrating my own focus on trinitarian theology with narrative (and even missional) theology. I highly recommend it.

(HT: —of Paper, Pints, and Tweed)

Stanley Hauerwas on ‘Public’ vs ‘Private’

Stanley Hauerwas has become one of my favorite theologians and ethicists. He has a way of seeing possibility in seemingly disparate theological sources that most would think could never go together (who else could bring Karl Barth and Yoder together in a way that really does work). Hauerwas also displays a consistent knack for questioning the categories, concepts, and conditions of modernism which many others unquestionably accept as being ‘obviously’ true.

Below is a short video in which Hauerwas gives some food for thought on matters which seem especially important in today’s political and cultural landscape:

  • He touches on the issues of pluralism and secularism and our posture as Christians within a pluralistic milieu.
  • He calls Christians in particular to be a people who care about truth telling (especially pertinent during an election year in which many Christians are as willing as anyone else to tolerate lies as long as their guy wins).
  • He issues a call for the need of “eloquent and disciplined speech for the formation of a people who love the right things rightly” (with a little tweaking, a great statement on the task of theology and the church in my opinion).
  • And in the process he questions the very assumptions of modernity behind the notions of both ‘public’ and ‘private’ (and the attendant splitting or dichotomizing of public and private in modernity) which a great many seem to simply take for granted.

Should Faith Be Private? from CPX on Vimeo.

(HT: Allan Bevere & John Byron)

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 1): Reflections for the Eighth Week of Pentecost

The Gospel text for the eight week of Pentecost: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (CEB)

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.31 Many people were coming and going, so there was no time to eat. He said to the apostles, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” 32 They departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place.

33 Many people saw them leaving and recognized them, so they ran ahead from all the cities and arrived before them. 34 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.

53 When Jesus and his disciples had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret, anchored the boat, 54 and came ashore. People immediately recognized Jesus 55 and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 Wherever he went—villages, cities, or farming communities—they would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed.

I had some great reflections for today on the Gospel lectionary reading. As is my practice I started the previous Sunday afternoon and began to soak my meditations in the readings for the week. It came as no surprise that the bolded portion of the text above is the phrase that jumped out at me in my lectio divina readings, and is the phrase that I began to shape my thoughts around for this post. Sabbath … rest … shalom … and my own personal Sabbath rhythms that I follow filled my mind and heart as I meditated all week. It all fit like a glove with the sermon, the most memorable line from Jerry (our pastor) being, “If you feel ministry is like pushing a train uphill, get off the tracks!” Great advice and all this would have been a great post. I was looking forward to it … really I was. But these reflections will have to wait for some other time.

Unless you live under a rock or are a hermit you will have heard by now about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of the most recent Batman movie. A terrible, unspeakable, tragic evil has, once again, occurred. If you’re like me you’re thinking this sort of thing is getting far to frequent – what’s going on here? In the aftermath my Twitter and Facebook feeds were abuzz with all sorts of Christian responses and calls for prayer. Some of these responses were typically cliché like ‘God has a greater plan in mind’. One that I still can’t believe I read said, ‘God took these people so that He could reach more people later.’ I have also heard some say that it’s a sin to question God – ever, even now.

I realize that the first one is meant to be comforting, but as my wife and I have walked through the grief and despair of the death of three of our babies and heard this numerous times … all I can say is its not! Its rather unhelpful speculation that honestly makes God out to be rather capricious. The second quote just renders divine providence down to a cold, calculating mathematics game. Let me say this clearly: in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like we have seen recently, if this is all you have to say, or if you are going to tell people it’s a sin to question God … please for the sake of our liberating King (even if you mean well) at most offer your presence but don’t say anything. I’ve been through this on both sides (the comforting one as a chaplain and the one comforted) and I have never seen these responses help. So stop, please.

But there were still other responses filling up Twitter and Facebook as well. Some prayed that God would use this to cause people realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus would reveal himself in this tragedy. Many others offered prayers that the victims and their families would be able to find and rejoice in the comfort of the Lord. Many posted verses like Romans 8:28 to say that not even tragedies like this shooting can separate them from God’s love. But as one well schooled in the grief of the tangible absence of three of my own children daily it felt like something was missing.

I wondered … where are the calls for lament, the cries of a cruciform people on behalf of a world that needs to be put right?

Lament is something our culture in general and the church in North America in particular is not good at. Lament is no longer native to the language of most Westernized, modern Christianity … and we are all the poorer for it. Sure it may be something some study about, but its not something most actually do; and its sure not the first thing most think about, even in response to manifestations of evil and suffering like we saw in Aurora this past weekend.

I think if we’re honest it would have to be admitted that when confronted directly with anguish, suffering, grief, and despair most are uncomfortable and driven to relieve this discomfort with some sort of explanation. Well intentioned as they may be, they seek to ‘say’ something, perhaps even something good, but in the end skip over the experience of anguish, suffering, and grief altogether. Ultimately, what is meant to comfort actually hurts.

Its kind of like trying to serve someone by bringing them a hot cup of coffee and then spilling the coffee on them.

I’m not saying praying for people to rejoice in the Lord or to find joy in the Lord is wrong … it’s a good prayer – it’s just not timely, it’s not the fitting response up front. In the immediate aftermath of such tragedy it can even come across as insensitive. When evil and suffering enter into our experience, we MUST acknowledge it first before we can authentically rejoice in the Lord or any other way. Lament gives us a way of making this acknowledgement.

Our normal responses, born out of our own discomfort, are generally ways of avoiding ‘going there’ – of acknowledging the experience of suffering and anguish. The act of lamenting is hard. Lament requires that we actually inhabit our own discomfort rather than run from it and requires that we enter into the experience of the suffering of the ‘other’ rather than avoid it. But this is what the Jesus story and mission of God require of us.

We must cry out in lament because there exists the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God, there exists those places where the kingdom is not manifest. We must cry out in lament because the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit moves us into the suffering of the ‘other’ – into incarnation. We must cry out in lament because even our liberating King Jesus cried out ‘Abba, Father’ and ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Daniel Kirk says,

We must remember that Jesus’ cry, “Abba, Father,” is a cry of lament, because here our words are said to echo his.

It is the Spirit of God by which we cry out, “Abba, Father,” showing that we are God’s children and heirs–”if, indeed, we suffer with him in order that we might also be glorified with him.”

This is a cry of suffering and lament.

It is a cry that wells up simply because of how the world is–a place where God’s power has been usurped. And usurped repeatedly.

We cry out, not only for our own suffering, but for suffering with Christ which is a suffering whose deliverance yields the age to come.

The whole creation awaits the revealing of these sons–no longer suffering, but glorified and redeemed.

The creation awaits the answer of God to the laments of God’s people.

God answered Jesus.

He raised him from the dead.

This newness of life spills over, such that it is ours. Now. Already. Even as we live into it by the way of the cross, and by taking up our own cry, “Abba, Father,” on behalf of the many, even as Jesus himself cried out on behalf of the many.

For those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus, lament is not optional.

Inclusion in the triune, divine life of Father, Son, and Spirit means participation in the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit. Union with Christ means participation in the cruciform sufferings of Christ. When we forsake lament we fail to take up the sufferings of our Lord and we lose the language … the liturgy of a cruciform, New Creation people who live ‘in between’.

Kirk continues,

As long as the world is not as it should be.

As long as children are trafficked for sex.

As long as women are enslaved for their bodies.

As long as stomachs rumble with no bread to quiet them.

As long as tongues swell with no water to shrink them.

As long as money defines justice with no one to declare it bankrupt.

As long as bankruptcy overtakes people entrapped in cycles of injustice.

As long as our lives are taken from us by cancer and bullets and cars.

As long as there is a world that needs to be set to rights, there must be a people standing up for that world in the presence of God. There must be a people living out the world’s suffering in the presence of a father with the power to deliver.

There must be a people who cry out, “Abba, Father,” even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This people of lamentation is none other than the people of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus himself.

As people of the kingdom, we cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King.

Prayer for the Week:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer of Lament in the aftermath of Evil/Tragedy:

O Holy One, I can no longer see.
Blinded by tears
that will not cease,
I can only cry out to you
and listen
for your footsteps.

Are you, too, O God,
blinded by tears?
Have you watched this world
pile its hate
onto the faces
of your little ones
until your eyes are so filled with tears
that you cannot see me
waiting for you?
Are you, O God,
deafened by the expletives
of destruction and death?
Have you heard
so many obscenities
that you cannot hear
my moaning?
O God, if you are blind,
can’t you hold out
your hand to me?
If you’re deaf,
can’t you call my name?

How long, O God,
am I to sit
on the plain of blindness?

How long am I to listen
to the profanity
of my enemies
who mock:
“Where is your God now?”

Show them, O my God,
that you remember.
Reach out your hand
and dry my eyes
that I might see
a new beginning.
Open your mouth
and call me by name
that I might know
you remember me.
Claim me that I might
announce in the marketplace
that my God is here.

O my heart,
give thanks!
My God is here even
in the midst of destruction.