Patristic Perspectives on Theodicy: A Review of “Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought”

patristic-sufferingThe wounds of the world feel especially exposed this year. I’m sure this can be truly said about many times, but the sense of exhaustion with violence and turmoil, and of deep longing for genuine peace, seems especially palpable these days. Nonna Verna Harrison confesses in the introduction of Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought that, “questions about God, suffering, and evil arise from a heart full of anguish. They tear at our faith in an age when faith seems weak anyway” (p.x). In the face of things like the mystery of pain and evil, one reasonable response is to turn to the past in order to see what wisdom can be gleaned from the early Christian tradition about how to think about these questions (p.x).

Therefore, the essays in Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought occupy themselves with explorations of how various figures from the Patristic period grappled with the problem of God, suffering, and evil. Theologians from both the early Christian West and East are included in the book’s pages. Hence, Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria all receive extended engagement from the volume’s contributors, which include the likes of John Behr, Gary A. Anderson, and Kallistos Ware. Continue reading

Exploring John Goldingay’s “Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures”

biblical-theology-goldingay

*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. 

Biblical theology, as a whole, is a somewhat new discipline. It was not generally received as a separate study of theology until the late 1700s, and even after being differentiated, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between theology and biblical theology. Biblical theology seeks, as best it can, to replicate the theology of the Bible itself, not inside of current frameworks.

In doing so, biblical theologians hope to let the Bible speak for itself rather than following current epistemological trends, such as foundationalism, postmodernism, or even denominationalism. This type of theology has been made popular recently by thinkers like Graeme Goldsworthy, Kevin Vanhoozer, Geerhardus Vos, and Meredith Kline. In Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures, John Goldingay seeks to differentiate his work by answering a somewhat different question: “What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two Testaments [the First and the New Testaments]?” (p.13).

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Understanding Paul’s Identity: A Review of Michael F. Bird’s “An Anomalous Jew”

michael-bird-paulAn Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird’s newly published addition to the field of Pauline scholarship, begins with the obvious: the Apostle Paul was a Jew. Paul was born into a Jewish family and spent his early years studying the Torah. As he grew older, he became a Pharisee, and according to both Luke’s description in Acts and Paul’s own words in Galatians, he worked actively to eradicate the young Christian movement before himself becoming a follower of Jesus.

In the introduction, Bird draws attention to the fact that, even as a Christ-believer working among the Gentiles, Paul expressed concern for his “kindred according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3, NRSV) and affirmed the value of Israel’s election and covenants (p.2). In sum, the man was deeply Jewish. What makes the issue complicated, though, is that Paul also said some things that, as Bird puts it, “no Torah-affirming Jew could seemingly say” (p.3). Continue reading

Interpretation as Craft: Looking at David Starling’s “Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship”

hermeneutics-as-apprenticeshipIn the introduction to Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, David Starling suggests that scriptural interpretation should be thought of as “requiring not just sweat but skill, and not just skill but character” (p.17). Throughout the book’s pages he emphasizes that readers should consider biblical hermeneutics to be, not merely an austere set of rules for interpreting the Bible, but also a craft that one participates and grows in.

Part of what Starling seeks to address in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship is the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” present in Protestant and evangelical hermeneutics (pp.7-8). One way of defining the issue can be found in Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. In this book, Smith essentially asks how it can be that, given the claims made by many evangelicals about the clarity and accessibility of Scripture, there are still significant disagreements amongst sincere, devoted, and intelligent evangelical readers about how to best understand and interpret it (The Bible Made Impossible, p.17). Continue reading

A Review of John Goldingay’s “Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel”

israels-gospelFor some people, their initial forays into the Old Testament go something like my first attempt at reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It was one of the first real works of theology that I ever read, and I began with much enthusiasm. However, due to a combination of inexperience with studying theology and the fact that I was reading a work translated from German, my progress slowed the farther I got into the book. I completed The Cost of Discipleship—a challenging and truly worthwhile read—fully aware of the tenuous nature of my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s words.

I think the Old Testament can sometimes seem similarly foreign and intimidating, and some Christians get discouraged when they immerse themselves in it for the first time. For readers in this situation, a wise guide is helpful. I found John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, the first book in his sprawling three volume series on the Old Testament (which he prefers to call the First Testament), to be a helpful resource for becoming better acquainted with shape and nature of the Old Testament’s story. Continue reading

Approaches to Reading the Parables

fancy-treeIn 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

What Does Worship Really Look Like?

forest-cottageWhen it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?

This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2). Continue reading

Reading Paul Missionally: A Review of Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel”

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.indd*Note: we previously looked at Cruciformity here, and Inhabiting the Cruciform God here.

Michael Gorman’s 2015 book, Becoming the Gospel, takes an illuminating look at Paul’s perspective on the Church’s participation in the mission of God (missio Dei). It forms the final entry in what Gorman calls a “partly accidental” trilogy—the first book being Cruciformity (2001) and the second Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009) (pp.2-3). In Cruciformity, Gorman argued that the cruciform, self-giving love of Christ found in Paul’s writings, and especially expressed in the Philippian Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:6-11), formed the center of both Paul’s theology and spirituality.

Inhabiting the Cruciform God extended the main argument of Cruciformity by seeking to show that, “For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God,” meaning that “for Paul cruciformity… is really theoformity, or theosis” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.4). Starting from this premise, he developed a reading of Paul’s letters that weaved together the (sometimes) seemingly opposed frameworks of legal/forensic and participatory understandings of justification and salvation, arguing that far from being opposed to one another, these forensic and participatory categories are more like two sides of the same coin. Therefore, one can say that justification in Paul can also be understood as the beginning of “an experience of participating in Christ’s resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.40). Continue reading

Reviving the Church’s Imagination: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition”

pictures at a theological exhibition

In the eyes of a fair number of Christians today, the imagination doesn’t seem to count for very much—or at least that’s how Kevin Vanhoozer describes the current landscape in the introduction to his new essay collection Pictures at a Theological ExhibitionHe believes that many evangelicals unfortunately view the imagination essentially as “a factory for producing images of things that are not there” (p.18). “Maybe it’s important for telling good stories at night or writing gripping novels, but it’s not that important for theology,” they might say.

When the imagination isn’t considered theologically useful, it seems like the value of analytic activities like systematic theology tend to get over-emphasized while artistic expressions like poetry get marginalized. For Vanhoozer, though, both systematic theology and poetry have important roles to play in the Christian life. He writes, “We need both the clarity of crisp concepts and the intricacy of lush metaphors in order to get sound, life-giving doctrine” (p.13). His overall indictment is that many contemporary believers don’t think having a developed biblical imagination matters. In a world where “many Christians are [simultaneously] suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life,” this is a sadly ironic state of affairs (p.20).

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Reading as a Communal Activity: A Review of C. Christopher Smith’s “Reading for the Common Good”

reading for the common goodReading normally seems like a pretty private affair, something one does late into the night after everyone else has finally fallen asleep, or in order to better pass the time on a train. While it’s not that hard to find people (rightly) arguing for the importance of thoughtful reading habits when it comes to becoming more deeply rooted theologically on a personal level, it seems more unusual to find it regarded as something with significant implications for community life.

In his new book, Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith acknowledges this fact, but nevertheless develops a compelling case for why reading can (and should) play an important part in helping local church communities discern wisely how to take part in God’s work in the world (p.20). Near the beginning of the book, Smith makes clear one of his main points: when the practice of reading is done well, it can do much to help local churches and their surrounding neighborhoods flourish. He clarifies what he means by adding that:

The term flourishing comes from roots that mean “flower”‘ to flourish is to bloom, to emerge into the full glory for which God has created us… Thus in these pages we will explore the sort of reading that moves us toward flourishing in our churches, our neighborhoods and the world at large. (p.21).

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