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
*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)
For many Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the more intimidating parts of the New Testament. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Romans is, after all, an undeniably complex letter, with both occasional and systematic dimensions. And in case we forget its historic significance, the Pauline scholar Michael Gorman reminds us that “Romans has spawned conversions, doctrines, disputations, and even a few reformations” (2004, p.338).
A feeling of slight trepidation when embarking on a study of Romans might then actually be entirely appropriate. It’s a shame, though, when this causes Christians to shy away from reading the letter at all. “[While] it is clearly a book that challenges the best minds in the community,” Eugene Peterson points out, “The scholars are here to help us read it, not read it for us” (2009, p.261).
Hopefully, these introductory comments can help us better appreciate the usefulness of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s brief and illuminating book, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. In it, she reflects theologically on the significance of Paul’s letter for those who might not otherwise know where to start. As Gaventa explains in the preface, “This book on Romans is intended for people who would not normally read a book about Romans” (p.xiii). Continue reading
In each of the four canonical Gospels, extended attention is given to the events that led up to and culminated in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection. It’s for this reason that the gospel accounts have sometimes been described as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Without taking away from the obvious importance placed by the gospel writers on the cross and resurrection, though, I think it’s also worth pointing out how much space is given (at least in the synoptic Gospels) to Jesus’ parables.
Jesus was known for being a storyteller. In fact, Richard Lischer notes in Reading the Parables that in the synoptic gospels, “the parables constitute approximately 35 percent of everything Jesus is reported to have said” (2014, p.5). Mark even tells his readers that when it came to the surrounding crowds, “He [Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable” (4:34a, NRSV). Of course, the function of the parables in Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom is not without controversy. In some places—especially in Mark—it is uncertain whether the parables were told in order to conceal or reveal. Regardless, it’s clear that the telling of parables formed an important rhythm in Jesus’ ministry. Continue reading
In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a pretty astonishing claim: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:46, NRSV). Similarly, Luke remarks in his account of Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that “he [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27, NRSV).
In one way or another, this claim that the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection took place “according to the scriptures” sits at the heart of the Christian confession. But what does it mean to say that Moses wrote about Jesus? In the modern era, these sorts of claims have fallen on rather hard times. In the introduction of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Richard B. Hays brings up the German scholar Udo Schnelle, who brushes aside the possibility of doing “biblical theology” because “the Old Testament is silent about Jesus Christ” (p.3). Hays suggests that the writers of the New Testament would be surprised to learn this. For them, Christ’s resurrection provided the integrative “hermeneutical clue” that allowed them to reread Israel’s Scriptures with fresh eyes and find Jesus prefigured in them (p.3). Hays explains that one of the goals of his book is to offer: Continue reading
*This post is by guest writer Ryan Parsons. He’s a longtime friend and great conversation partner. Ryan recently graduated from Appalachian State University with an M.A. in History and plans to begin seminary in the near future.
Celebrated pastor and author Tim Keller has identified a perplexing problem in the American Church, a particular discrepancy between belief and behavior. Churches do not appear to be drawing the same crowds that Jesus Himself drew. Keller argues in The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith that churches are actually drawing flocks of people who resemble those who were most offended by Jesus’ message (pp.18-19). Even among lifelong churchgoers, there seems to be a lack of understanding as to how the gospel should shape everyday life (pp.xv-xvi). Keller takes pains to stress that “God’s reckless grace” should be “our greatest hope” and “a life-changing experience” (p.xx). How can a genuine experience and knowledge of God’s grace not change how we live?
Keller uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a platform to convey the gospel to both seekers and lifelong Christians, contending that “if the teaching of Jesus is likened to a lake, this famous Parable … would be one of the clearest spots where we can see all the way to the bottom” (pp.xvi-xvii). He argues that the traditional focus of the parable is wrong, given that both the younger brother and the elder brother represent “a different way to be alienated from God” (p.9). Perhaps we should instead think of it as the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons” (p.20). Before salvation, Keller suggests, each believer was either a younger brother or an elder brother; that we either tried to find happiness and fulfillment through self-discovery or moral conformity (p.34). In other words, we can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or attempting to keep all of them diligently (p.42). Continue reading
In Sacred Tradition in the New Testament, Stanley Porter takes an extended look at the use of Israel’s Scriptures in the writings of the New Testament (NT). It’s clear that the Old Testament (OT) was crucially significant for the NT’s authors. But even if that’s agreed upon, and despite the spilling of much literal ink and the shedding of much metaphorical blood, legitimate questions remain. What led the writers of the NT to interpret the OT in the ways they did? How should we determine when a passage from the OT is being used in the NT, especially if the reference is indirect or subtle? These are the kinds of questions that Porter, a professor at McMaster Divinity College, seeks to explore.
Porter develops a number of proposals in Sacred Tradition in the New Testament. One of them is that the study of the OT’s use in the NT should shift away from the strict investigation of individual OT verses and onto broader themes, concepts and figures (p.49). In the introduction, he writes, “My approach to the use of sacred tradition tries to find more significant passages or themes within the OT and explore their use in the NT” (p.x). By sacred tradition, it should be noted that Porter basically means the OT, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls and some Hellenistic texts (p.3).
Before he begins tracing the NT development of OT themes and figures, though, Porter first attempts to bring greater methodological precision and clarity to the conversation (p.2). Continue reading