Putting Paul in his Place? A Review of “Steward of God’s Mysteries” by Jerry L. Sumney

How should we understand Paul’s significance as a leader in the early Christian movement? He was a passionate, strong-willed man, and his legacy has been deeply influential. In his missionary efforts, Paul was remarkably successful at planting and fostering communities of Jesus followers in towns and cities scattered across the Roman Empire, and in the course of these efforts, he was no stranger to disagreement or conflict. Remarks in his own letters and other New Testament passages like Acts 21-22 give ample evidence for this.

But how did Paul’s theological convictions stand in relation to the rest of the early church? This is the basic question probed by Jerry L. Sumney, who currently teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, in his new book, Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. It’s not surprising that there were some differences between Paul and his contemporaries, given the real theological diversity present in the first-century church. That strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial statement. However, some go further and take a somewhat more radical position, contending that Paul more or less “invented” Christianity as we know it today. It is with these thinkers that Sumney engages in most of his book’s pages. Continue reading

Seeking to Recover an Overlooked Metaphor: Thomas Andrew Bennett’s “Labor of God”

Thomas Andrew Bennett is convinced that something has gone awry when it comes to how many Christians speak about the cross. Near the beginning of his new book, Labor of God, he suggests that most of the traditional atonement metaphors have become stale, or as he puts it, “toothless through long repetition” (p.1). Consequently, the Christian confession of a crucified messiah—which Paul called “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23, NRSV)—no longer carries with it the sense of shock, mystery, or absurdity that he thinks it originally did (pp.1-2).

Given Bennett’s perspective, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him push for the development of fresh, alternative atonement metaphors, ones free from the weight of past use in the Christian tradition. However, he thinks the route forward actually consists in retrieval rather than innovation (p.2). Inspired by passages from the Old Testament and the Johannine literature, as well as the works of Medieval figures like St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich, Bennett advocates for retrieving an oft-neglected metaphor: “The image of the cross of Christ as God’s labor to bring about spiritual birth” (p.5). By embracing this image, he is convinced we can revitalize atonement theology and recover a fresh appreciation for the “radically gracious self-giving love” embodied by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection (p.5).  Continue reading

Here We Are, Slaves to This Day: A Review of “Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright” Edited by James M. Scott

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

At their best, good conversations are lively, wide-ranging, and sometimes even surprising. They push us to consider ideas from new angles and hammer out with fresh clarity why we see things the way we do. It’s not always easy to find these kinds of discussions, but the essays that make up Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright demonstrate for the most part what thoughtful scholarly discussion is meant to look like. The contributors are generally successful at avoiding the twin pitfalls of uncritical acceptance and blunt rejection in their responses to N.T. Wright’s influential (and controversial) proposal regarding the notion of ongoing exile as an influential “controlling narrative” for many Second Temple Jews and early Jesus followers (8).

The book opens with a lengthy essay by Wright himself giving a fresh articulation of his thesis. He delves into passages like Deuteronomy 27-33, with its sequence of sin-exile-restoration, and the great prayers of Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9, as well as other literature from the Second Temple period like the Dead Sea Scrolls, all in order to demonstrate that many Jews saw themselves as continuing to live in a state of exile, even though a large number of them had geographically returned to the land of Israel (21-22). Turning to his critics, Wright asks:

Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed and Israel’s sins forgiven?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over? (35)

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Apocalyptic Readings in Romans: Reviewing “Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8”

What does it mean to read Paul as an apocalyptic theologian? This isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, and for some the term itself can feel a bit off-putting. If nothing else, though, it means contextualizing Paul by placing him in conversation with the many apocalyptic texts produced during the Second Temple period—such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra—and looking to see what these writings reveal about the underlying shape of his theological convictions.

In another (related) sense, reading Paul with an apocalyptic lens has to do with highlighting theological emphases such as, among other things, understanding the death and resurrection of Christ to be primarily a redemptive event that marked the overthrow of Sin and Death. In the words of prominent Pauline scholar Martinus C. de Boer, an apocalyptic construal of Paul’s gospel has “everything to do with the invasive action of God in this world to deliver human beings from this present evil age” (2002, p.33).

Pride of place for sparking off this line of scholarship is generally given to the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Ernst Käsemann, who was deeply impacted by his experience of the German church struggle and the Second World War. Following Käsemann, the ranks of those studying Paul’s writings through an apocalyptic lens continued to grow throughout the rest of the 20th century, and currently all signs point to it remaining a lively part Pauline studies in the years to come. The essays that make up Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 come together to give readers a deeply interesting and well-rounded introduction to most of the major ideas and figures currently shaping this way of reading Paul, with essays by contributors like de Boer himself and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, along with a thoughtful afterward by J. Louis Martyn.   Continue reading

Seeking Reunion for Christ’s Sake: A Review of “Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?” by Peter Kreeft

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

I should probably blame my interest in ecumenism on books. Reading theology introduced me to the voices of genuine and deeply learned men and women living out their faith in a wide variety of Christian traditions, and while I happily worship as part of a United Methodist congregation, I know my spiritual life wouldn’t be the same without the writings of Catholics like Thomas Merton, Anglicans like N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams, and Presbyterians like Eugene Peterson, just to name a few. This experience has given me a deep-seated appreciation for the depth and breadth of common ground shared by believers of all stripes—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—and it’s made me rather wary of works that exhibit more sectarian tendencies, arguing either explicitly or implicitly that only certain parts of the Church are “real” followers of Jesus.

Given all these things, it’s understandable why I felt a spark of excitement upon finding out that Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft was working on a book exploring the question of how Protestants and Catholics can learn from one another. In terms of structure and style, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? is inspired by Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, and it shows (117). Kreeft is a gifted communicator, writing in a direct style that for the most part stays away from overly-technical theological language. Continue reading

Loving All Our Fellow Creatures: Exploring William Greenway’s “Agape Ethics”

We inhabit a world slowly coming to grips with the increasingly urgent challenge of climate change. In this time of ecological crisis, daring to believe that God’s love extends to all creation, not just humanity, and that the value of the surrounding world doesn’t depend wholly on its usefulness to us, is a costly yet necessary risk. It’s a time for remembering that we are part of a vast, complex, and remarkably interconnected world.

This is the sort of perspective offered up by the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. In one of his essays, he writes, “All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together… in this world,” adding that, “From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship… because all are creatures” (2015, p.96).

In his 2016 book, Agape Ethics, William Greenway echoes this affirmation and gives it deeper philosophical justification by drawing on the works of 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (p.39). Both the substance and even language style of Greenway’s writing reflect the deep imprint of Levinas on him. Throughout the book, he seeks to nudge readers towards coming alive to “having been seized by love for every creature,” without, of course, overlooking the pain and suffering that is also present throughout creation (pp.4-7).  Continue reading

The Meanings of our Words: Reviewing Anthony Thiselton’s “Doubt, Faith, and Certainty”

doubt faith and certaintyIs faith mainly intellectual assent or heartfelt trust? Does the presence of doubt signify unbelief, or is it a sign of honest, mature reflection? Will certainty always remain elusive? In Doubt, Faith, and CertaintyAnthony C. Thiselton takes up a host of questions like these for the sake of developing more nuanced and healthy ways of understanding these closely related theological concepts. 

Of course, crafting better definitions sounds like a rather dry exercise, and Thiselton does stray into the weeds at times, but for him it’s done out of a practical desire to provide some help and solace for those grappling with these concerns in real life. Though Thiselton seeks to address all kinds of readers in this book, some will most likely struggle with his writing style. At times it can be quite dense and technical, so nonspecialist readers shouldn’t be surprised if they happen to find themselves turning to a dictionary of philosophical terms every once in a while. The book’s structure is fairly straightforward, though, and his overarching thesis isn’t too hard to grasp:

This book carries a simple message. On doubt, it argues that while some degree of doubt in some circumstances may perhaps be bad, in different situations doubts may stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning. In fact, the message remains the same for doubt, faith, and certainty: none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings. (p.vii)

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A More Nuanced Form of Canonical Interpretation? Gary A. Anderson’s “Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament”

Reading the Old Testament with contextual sensitivity and theological depth can be difficult. It’s all too easy for people to assume they already know what the text is saying or to treat the Old Testament as a mere backdrop for the New Testament. University of Notre Dame professor Gary A. Anderson is well aware of these dangers, but he doesn’t let them dissuade him from reading the Old Testament with doctrinal reflection in mind.

On the first page of Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, he reveals the admittedly ambitious aim of the book: to demonstrate that “theological doctrines need not be a hindrance to exegesis but, when properly deployed, play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p.xi). In the world of biblical studies, this can be seen as a pretty provocative claim. Some scholars worry this type of approach inevitably overlooks the continued place of these scriptures in the Jewish canon and leads to the error of triumphalistic supersessionism. Anderson himself acknowledges the importance of these concerns, and he reassures readers that his Old Testament studies “take the Jewish character and integrity of the text with utmost seriousness” (p.xii). Continue reading

Pursuing Wisdom: A Review of “Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature”

*This post is by guest writer Chris Wermeskerch. Chris is currently a M.Div. student at Northern Seminary. He loves memes, theology, Star Wars, and God. Not always in that order. 

Collecting essays from an eclectic range of scholars and theologians, David Firth and Lindsay Wilson have created a unique package in Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature. The title is, in a way, a bit of a misnomer. More than a straightforward commentary on the four traditional wisdom books, this collection discusses a wide range of scholarship on the canon as a whole, really. This is part of the book’s overall strength, but unfortunately, it stands as a weakness toward the end of the book.

The book starts with an overview of the study of Old Testament Wisdom literature today. As a seminarian, I felt like this would be too much of a review for me. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see which avenues were explored in this section. Questions were raised related to the genre of the books, the definition of wisdom, and a history of the study of the wisdom books. I found this part to be interesting, being both well-paced and well-researched. Continue reading

Should I not Pity…?: A Review of Phillip Cary’s Commentary on Jonah

The book of Jonah is short, but its brevity does nothing to reduce the significance of the theological questions it raises. In Phillip Cary’s 2008 commentary on Jonah, he shows that those who have the courage and humility to let Jonah’s story confront them will be challenged to deepen their understanding of God’s mercy and wrestle once again with the meaning of the proclamation in Exodus 34:7 that the LORD is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV).

Cary approaches Jonah with both literary and theological sensitivity, pointing out relevant storytelling and rhetorical features, bringing the rest of the Christian canon into conversation with the text, and reflecting on how the book of Jonah might have challenged those who first encountered it. He also explores ways in which Jonah can continue to challenge Christian readers today.

Unfortunately, some studies of Jonah get tangled up in questions of historicity to the degree that the heart of the story—the expansive depth of God’s patience and mercy—can be missed. While some read Jonah as a historical narrative, there are a number of reasons for thinking that this is a misunderstanding of Jonah’s genre. Regardless of one’s position on the historicity of Jonah, though, most readers can hopefully agree that the main focus of the story is on the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Continue reading