Tuesday, May 26, 2009

James Dunn on the Appeal of the Early Church

In chapter 30 of Christianity in the Making, James Dunn tackles the issue of Paul and his churches. Specifically, he seeks to indentify how people in the first century would have categorized this new group called a "church" compared to the existing social groups of the time. Dunn compares the church to associations, cults, schools, and synagogues and concludes that the church had similarities and differences to all of these groups.

At the end of the chapter, Dunn has a great section on what would have drawn people to the church as opposed to other contemporary groups. He lists nine reasons people would have been drawn to the early church:

1. The transformative power of Paul's message. People's lives were being changed as a result of their encounter with God in the early church.

2. Striking experiences of the Spirit and of power. God was at work in new and amazing ways in the early church. People were getting healed, demons were being exorcized, and the poor were being provided for.

3. The promise of eternal life. The Christian hope is one of resurrection from the dead.

4. The draw of union with a man who conquered death. Jesus stood out as unique among men.

5. Religious devotion. People are always looking for a serious religion. Christianity provided this without demanding judaizing.

6. The completeness of the religion. Christianity is a sound faith that adequately answers many of mankind's most difficult philosophical and religious questions.

7. Good food. Many of the early Christians were poor and would have looked forward to the communal meals.

8. Community. Then as now, people struggled with loneliness and anxiety. The church provided them with a sense of belonging.

9. Openness to members of varying social status. The church was a place where Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor could all eat and fellowship together.

These are great insights from Dunn. How many of these could be said of our churches today?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The End of the Spiritual Life

No, not my spiritual life. Just the ten-week class I taught. Tuesday was the last day of the class.

Teaching this class has been one of the most valuable things that I have done in recent memory. I think the reason that I enjoyed it so much was because it forced me to get out of theoretical models of spiritual growth and into what has worked for me. I had to wrestle with questions like, "How does God really work in my life?" and "How do people really change?"

Sometimes I feel that churches are a lot like the Land of Oz and pastors are like the Wizard. All my life I had this notion that the spiritual life was about "victorious Christian living." I read in the Bible and I heard in church that Christianity was this dynamic relationship with God. Everyone in church talked about how wonderful Jesus was and great it was to have a personal relationship with him.

Now, I had a nagging sensation that God was out there, but I didn't experience anything close to what most of the people in my church were talking about. I assumed it was my fault. Maybe I wasn't praying enough. Maybe I wasn't reading my Bible enough. Maybe I needed to witness more and buy more Christian trinkets.

So I did all that stuff.

And it didn't work.

Then I went to college and seminary and studied Reformed theology. It was new and different and exciting and intellectual. It had Bible verses for everything. It was air-tight. What's that? You're an Arminian? You must not read your Bible! What's that? You had a spiritual experience? Everyone knows our experiences are subjective. You can't base your faith on that! Come, read this Bible verse and find out what your faith experience should look like.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Reformed theology and theologians. I give it a hard time, but I do it in the same way that Jeff Foxworthy makes fun of rednecks.

But my main beef with Reformed theology is that it doesn't work. Sure, they have a Bible verse for everything and a fantastic explanation of God's sweeping purpose for the universe and how that should play out in my personal life. But I find that their explanations of the way the spiritual life should work have no correspondence to the way life does work. Or at least the way my life works.

Going to seminary was like peeking behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz. When I say that, I don't mean the part about going to class; I mean the part about living with other seminary students. These people were to be leaders of spiritual communities across the globe, and yet they acted like everyone else. I guess I had always thought that even if I wasn't experiencing spiritual bliss, even if I wasn't living victoriously, there was someone out there who was. Most of the time, I thought that person was my pastor. When I lived with 1000 other future pastors, I realized that a lot of the stories we told about normative Christian living were fantasies. The Wizard of Oz wasn't as great and powerful as everyone made him out to be.

I don't want to use smoke and mirrors to promote a fantasy. I don't want to preach a message that isn't true to my life. I don't want my sermons to be what Caedmon's Call refers to as "an expensive ad for something cheap." So, as I put together the curriculum for the Spiritual Life class, I was forced to wrestle with the question of what was normative for the Christian experience. I found my answers in N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Gordon Fee, Philip Yancey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others.

Ultimately, I think the Christian life boils down to a couple of things--read your Bible, pray, hang out with other Christians, and take the kingdom of God to the world. I have found that people change when they do two things: (1) they decide they really want to change (i.e. repentance), and (2) they find accountability (i.e. confession).

Is God active in our world in our lives? Absolutely. Does e really change people? Without a doubt. Is the Christian life one of "victory" and "bliss"? Not in my experience. That's why I hope for something more (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Piper on Wright and the New Perspective

I just finished John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is a response to this book, so I thought I would read Piper's book before getting in to Wright's.

I love N.T. Wright. He's a great thinker and a brilliant communicator. That being said, I don't buy into all of his ideas on Paul. I am more along the James Dunn line of thought with a little Seyoon Kim and Francis Watson thrown in for good measure. (If you don't know who these guys are, Wright and Dunn are the leading proponents of the "New Perspective on Paul.")

Since a criticism against Wright is a criticism of the New Perspective, I felt the need to offer some thoughts. However, instead of blasting Piper for what was not good, I thought it might be more helpful to discuss the strongest points of his book. Piper brings up three points that make me think. First, there is his discussion on what makes the Gospel "good news." Really, this boils down to the importance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Second, there is his discussion of the role of "good works" in salvation. Third (and most significant), is the question of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer.

First, there is the issue of what makes the Gospel "good news." Wright argues that the Gospel isn't substitutionary atonement and going to heaven when you die; it's the message that God is making all things to right through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wright does not deny substitutionary atonement; he just says it's not the Gospel.

Piper cites 1 Corinthians 15:1–9:
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received--that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [bold and italics mine]
The issue here is the meaning and significance of the word "for" in verse 3 is. Piper argues that the Gospel is only "good news" if it is "good news" for me. In other words, until I realize that there is nothing I can do to save myself and that I am a hopeless sinner destined for damnation, I can't be saved. Thus, an essential part of the Gospel is the theology of substitutionary atonement.

To understand the Gospel, do you just have to affirm that Jesus died for sins and rose again, or do you have to understand the theology of substitutionary atonement that lies behind that word "for"? In other words, if someone believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but does not completely understand grace (i.e. they think that their works are of some benefit to their salvation), are they saved? Or does their lack of understanding of grace disqualify them from the kingdom of God?

Second, Piper discusses the role that works play in salvation. One serious weakness of the Reformed tradition is that in emphasizing the antithesis between "faith" and "good works," they fail to explain the plethora of passages in which Paul praises good works and presents them as normative to the Christian life.

Wright says that future justification is based on the Spirit-enabled good works that the believer does in this life. The major support for this is Romans 8:13, "(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" and Romans 2:13, "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous." In other words, when someone believes the Gospel, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit by grace through faith. The work of the Holy Spirit necessarily leads to good works which lead to justification. So:

Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works=>future justification (based on Spirit-enabled works)

Piper, on the other hand, argues that future justification is based on the works of Christ imputed to the believer. However, Piper also argues that good works are normative for the believer, even going so far as to call them "necessary evidence." So:

Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works and future justification (based on imputed works)

Is there a meaningful difference between these two models? Both agree that salvation is by grace through faith. Both believe that justification is both now and future. Both agree that works are necessary. The difference is that Wright says that works are a necessary part of justification and Piper says that they are a necessary evidence. If the evidence is "necessary," how is it not a "part"?

Third, Piper discusses Wright's view on imputation and union with Christ. I really appreciated the chapters on this issue because Piper clearly differentiated Wright's views from the Reformed position. As much as Wright wants to claim that he is in line with the Reformed tradition, when it comes to imputation, he is not.

Imputation is the idea that when we are united to Christ through faith/baptism (Rom 6), Christ's righteous works are imputed to us through this union. So, it's not just that we are forgiven of our sins, but we are also given a stockpile of righteous deeds that Christ did on earth. He takes our sin; we get his righteousness. The classic proof-text for this is 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God."

Wright, on the other hand, says that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not teach the Reformed doctrine of imputation and that the idea that righteousness is a substance that can be passed from one person to another is a category mistake. You don't possess righteousness, you are righteous. Wright says that justification is based on real righteousness that comes about by the work of the Spirit. He offers an alternate view of 2 Corinthians 5:21 that (in his opinion) does more justice to the "ambassadors" theme of the context. In my opinion, Wright's interpretation of this passage is a little weak.

However, if I could help Wright here, I might point out that 2 Cor 5:21 says nothing of the means by which people become the righteousness of God. The word "imputation" is nowhere in the verse. Does 2 Cor 5:21 demand imputation, or can Wright's view be fit into it?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit 7 (Last One)

Having just finished Gordon Fee's, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, I thought it might be cool to do a series of posts featuring quotes from the book on the Holy Spirit.

In this final quote from Fee, he discusses the role of prayer in Paul’s “Spirit-uality.”

Prayer, therefore, is not simply our cry of desperation or our 'grocery list' of requests that we bring before our heavenly Abba; prayer is an activity inspired by God himself, through his Holy Spirit. It is God siding with his people and, by his own empowering presence, the Spirit of God himself, bringing forth prayer that is in keeping with his will and his ways.

It is probably impossible to understand Paul as a theologian, if one does not take this dimension of his 'Spirit-uality' with full seriousness. A prayerless life is one of practical atheism. As one who himself lived in and by the Spirit, Paul understood prayer in particular to be the special prompting of the Spirit, leading him to thanksgiving for others and petition 'in the Spirit,' even when he did not know for what specifically to pray. Whatever else 'life in the Spirit' meant for Paul, it meant a life devoted to prayer, accompanied by joy and thanksgiving. (867–868)

Good stuff. I love the line about the prayerless life and practical atheism.

This is the final post about Fee’s book. Like I said, it is one of the best NT theology books I’ve ever read.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Got Dude Questions?

These guys have the manswers.

Holistic Spirituality

The final lesson in my Spiritual Life class was on holistic spirituality. I thought of some things to say, but then I watched Rob Bell's Everything Is Spiritual and I thought, "Wow. This guy says it way better than I ever could." So, we watched the movie instead.

In the movie, Bell says (I am paraphrasing), "While I won't deny that something special happens when God's people come together to worship, I think sometimes our emphasis on God being there makes us forget that God is here." In other words, while God may be present in a special way when the church gathers together to worship, we can't forget that everything that we do is a spiritual act (1 Corinthians 10:31). We can't compartmentalize our lives into "spiritual things" and "not spiritual things."

One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Bell says (again paraphrasing), "So you can't say, 'I'm just not in to spiritual things.' Are you human? . . . Too late! The issue isn't whether you are spiritual; it's whether your eyes are open to see it."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Should We Abandon the Word "Sin" in Our Dialogue with Non-Christians?

I am wading through volume 2 of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, and I am becoming more and more convinced that he is the smartest man alive. I don't know what to do with all of his arguments and conclusions, but I have to admit he has thought out all of his positions. Not only is he an expert in biblical, historical, and systematic theology, but he is also conversant in the cutting-edge ideas of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology. His work is truly amazing.

Chapter 8 of his work is called "The Dignity and Misery of Humanity." In it, he suggests we replace the word "sin" with "misery" in our vocabulary. He writes:

To speak of human misery is better than using the classical theological doctrine of sin to describe our situation of lostness when we are far from God. The term "misery" sums up our detachment from God, our autonomy, and all the resultant consequences. It brings out more clearly than the term "sin" itself the relation between sin and its ramifications. The term "alienation" has a similar breadth. it has two sides, both an action we take and a situation we find ourselves in. We can alienate ourselves from someone, and we can be in a state of alienation. In the German equivalent Entfremdung is etymologically close to die Fremde (the foreign country), with the implied thought of being away from one's own country (cf. the English "alien"). Alienated from God, we live in the misery of separation from God, far away from the home of our own identity.
Pannenberg suggests we talk about "misery" or "alienation" instead of sin. Note that it is not because of the negative connotations of the word "sin" that he makes this suggestion, but because the other terms are clearer. "Sin" is a theological term that is unclear to non-theologians. "Misery" and "alienation" are more understandable anthropological terms that communicate the same idea.

What do you think? When speaking to a non-Christian audience, should we present Jesus as the answer to our "sin" problem, or our "misery" problem? Is the meaning of the word "sin" so unclear to those outside of our tradition that it has lost its value in extra-community dialogue?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Outward Disciplines (The Spiritual Life and Mission)

We talked about "outward" or "missional" disciplines last Tuesday in my Spiritual Life class. We considered the issue of how disciplines relate to mission.

In Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren lists four interpretations of God's mission (the list was not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative).
A. God wants to heal the world. In order to do so, God recruits coworkers who must be healthy so they don't spread more sickness, and health care workers so they don't just keep good health to themselves. Unfortunately, there are no completely healthy people for God to work with. So in the spiritual formation process, God starts with unhealthy people and first helps them become healthier, so they can be put to work bringing health to others, and to the world.

B. God wants to heal individuals. Individuals (we might call them "souls") are God's primary concern. If there are more and more healthy individuals, the world will become a healthier place as a by-product.

C. God only cares about the world. You as an individual don't really count. Your private or personal life is your private or personal concern; just be sure you vote and work for social justice (or the spread of capitalism, communism, liberalism, or conservatism, whatever).

D. God only cares about the individual. This whole world will soon be disposed of, so all that matters are individual soals.
Which of these sounds best to you, and how does your decision affect your view of spiritual formation and/or disciplines?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit 6

Having just finished Gordon Fee's, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, I thought it might be cool to do a series of posts featuring quotes from the book on the Holy Spirit.

In this passage, Fee discusses Galatians 5:16–18, “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

That leads finally to the question that is less exegetical than existential. 'That is all fine and good,' it is often said, 'but how does one go about walking in the Spirit' so as not to live from the perspective of the flesh? The best answer to that question is still the exegetical one, not the existential or formulaic one. Paul, of course, is speaking from within a historical context in which the Spirit was the primary, experienced reality in the Christian life, as 3:2–5 has made plain. This appeal to the Galatians, therefore, is just that, an appeal to 'go on walking by the very same Spirit by which you came to faith and with whom God still richly supplies you, including by the working of miracles in your midst.' That is, a powerful and experiential--supernatural, if you will--presuppositional base lies behind this imperative.

But it comes by way of imperative, not by way of passive indicative (as in v. 18). Life in the Spirit is not passive submission to the Spirit to do a supernatural work in one's life; rather, it requires conscious effort, so that the indwelling Spirit may accomplish his ends in one's life. One is urged to 'walk by the Spirit' or 'live by the Spirit' by deliberately 'conforming one's life to the Spirit' (v. 25). If such a person is also described as being 'led by the Spirit,' that does no mean passively; it means to rise up and follow the Spirit by walking in obedience to the Spirit's desire. (433)

Fee makes a great point that the command “walk by the Spirit” is an imperative and not a passive indicative (“you will be led by the Spirit”).

One of the things that I struggle with in Reformed theology and other monergistic systems is the question, “Why does Christian A grow when Christian B does not?” In a monergistic system, the answer has to be “Because God empowers Christian A to grow and He does not empower Christian B to grow.” That sucks for Christian B.

I think Galatians 5 shows that Paul was more synergistic in his understanding of spiritual growth. Sure, spirituality is a work of the Spirit. We can’t grow ourselves by shear will power. But we can resist the Spirit, and we do have the responsibility to walk in the Spirit.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday is for Friends Article on Jesus Creed

Scot McKnight posted another one of my articles for his Friday is for Friends segment.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Michael Horton on Joel Osteen

Michael Horton's writings were very influential to the development of my theology of spirituality. I highly recommend In the Face of God, written when Blackaby's Experiencing God and Sonic Flood were all the rage. He is one of the top Reformed thinkers out there.

I came across something he wrote in 2007--an evaluation of Joel Osteen's message. It's not shocking that a Reformed theologian would disapprove of Osteen's message, but I think Horton's thoughts are especially good. He quotes Christian Smith in calling Osteen's message "moralistic, therapeutic deism." Ouch.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I like this picture of my son Zack.

Scot McKnight on the New Perspective

Scot McKnight is starting a new series on the New Perspective on Paul. In 2007, John Piper wrote a book critiquing N.T. Wright's view of justification, and Wright's response will be published in America later this month (it was published earlier this year in the UK). McKnight will be going through Wright's new book, but he started the series with a brief summary of the New Perspective. He highlights the major contributors--E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright.

I am about halfway through Piper's critique of Wright. I thought I would read it before reading Wright's new book. I have been taking notes, and I am considering doing a series on how I would respond to Piper.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Life Entwined 1--Connecting to God

On Sunday, April 26th I taught the first message in our new series called Life Entwined: Weaving the Branches of Faith. At Believers Fellowship, we believe that there are three branches to the Christian faith: Connecting to God, Living in Community, and Engaging the World. These three branches cannot be separated and they are not a series. You cannot have one without the other two. The series is about weaving together the three branches.

We are going to do this series every year. Last year Gary did "Connecting to God" and I did "Living in Community" and "Engaging the World." This year we switched.

I spoke from Romans 8:12–17 on "connecting to God by the Holy Spirit." You can listen here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Gordon Fee on the Holy Spirit 5

Having just finished Gordon Fee's, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, I thought it might be cool to do a series of posts featuring quotes from the book on the Holy Spirit.

In this passage, Fee is introducing Spirit theology in the Book of Galatians. He mentions Galatians 6:8, “because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (NET). He also discusses Galatians 5:18–24:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (NET)
Fee writes:

But for Paul all is not automatic. One must sow to the Spirit (6:8) and be led by the Spirit (5:18); indeed, 'if we live [= have been brought to life after the crucifixion of the flesh, v. 24] by the Spirit,' we must therefore also 'accordingly behave by the Spirit' (v. 25). Thus the Spirit not only stands at the beginning of Christian existence, but is the key ingredient to Paul's understanding of the whole of that existence. Accordingly, the final argument (5:13–6:10) becomes one of the most significant in the corpus for our understanding of Pauline ethics as Spirit-empowered Christ-likeness lived out in Christian community as loving servanthood. (370)
Fee makes the great point that even though the Holy Spirit is the sole cause of spiritual growth in the Christian (he calls it “Spirit-empowered Christ-likeness”), all is not automatic. The believer is called to “sow to the Spirit” and “live according to the Spirit.”

In my spiritual life class, I used gardening as an illustration. There is nothing that we can do to “make” a plant grow. Plants grow according to the wonder of Creation. However, there is much we can do to sabotage a plant’s growth. Without water, proper sunlight, and good soil, a plant isn’t going to grow. Likewise, we have a responsibility to make sure that we are getting plenty of water, sunlight and soil so that the Holy Spirit can work in us for Christ-likeness.

What do you think of the analogy and Fee’s description of spiritual growth as “Spirit-empowered Christ-likeness lived out in Christian community as loving servanthood”?

Friday, May 1, 2009

IMonk--Evangelical Untouchables 4

Michael Spencer has posted the fourth installment of the Evangelical Untouchables. This week we were asked our opinion of formal church membership. You can read my response here.

The Spiritual Life and the Church

In his book It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, Tod Bolsinger writes, "The church is not a helpful thing for my individual spiritual journey. The church is the journey."

He calls the church an "ontologically irreducible organism." In other words, the church cannot be broken down into parts. It isn't like a club, where autonomous individuals come together based on a common interest or goal. It's more like an organism, where each "member" has a vital role in the whole but cannot survive outside of it. He gets this from the "body of Christ" langauge in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 3–4.

What do you think about this? If this is sound, what does that mean for those who "love Jesus but want nothing to do with 'organized' religion'"?