Browsed by
Category: Bible Passages

Paul and the Law Tangle

Paul and the Law Tangle

I’m working through key elements of Galatians 3 & 4 tonight and drawing in some material from Romans and elsewhere. My main topic will be to look at Paul’s use of the word “law” in these passages. My main references other than the Bible text will be Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide pp. 43-47 and Meditations on the Letters of Paul, Chapter VIII, pp. 89-97

Here’s a sample:

No Jew would deny the wisdom of Torah, or disavow its validity. Neither did Paul. When arguing for the universality of God’s promise to Abraham, and that all those who like Abraham have faith in God are justified before God, Paul asks rhetorically, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). For that to be the case, Paul must have in mind more than one way of seeing the authority of the law, or the way it functions. (p. 92)

The chapter in Herold Weiss’s book (Meditations) is one of the most helpful presentations I’ve found on this subject.

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

 You foolish Galatians! Who put you under a spell? Was not Jesus the Messiah clearly portrayed before your very eyes as having been crucified? I want to learn only one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the actions of the Law or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2, ISV, from BibleGateway)

I only managed to discuss about the first five verses of Galatians during my Thursday night Bible study. Next week I’ll look some at the Spirit and the Law in Romans as well as in the rest of this chapter.

There are two key points I see in the two verses I quoted.

  1. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was “clearly portrayed” to them as crucified. How is that? They obviously didn’t all witness the actual crucifixion. The answer, I think, is that Paul, both in words and in life, portrayed a crucified savior. It’s worthwhile to think about how this might work and how we might each portray Christ crucified to others.
  2. The Galatians should know, according to Paul, by the fact that they received the Spirit. Now how do they know that they have received the Spirit? There are many ways in which people claim to be able to know. Pentecostals might pick speaking in tongues. Holiness Christians might look to the presence of holiness in the life. But I would suggest that this is primarily an internal experience. Yes, a genuine internal experience will bear fruit, but the question here is not whether someone else can tell, but what you know yourself. Paul had likely heard the testimonies of those impacted by his portrayal of Christ crucified, and having heard those, he was shocked that one could abandon such an experience for someone else.

I suspect, in fact, that for many of the readers/hearers of this letter, the reminder of that experience did, in fact, have a serious impact on their thinking. Why indeed am I looking for another way to receive something I already have? What do I think will be better about my life in the Spirit following circumcision.

Teachers and preachers might take a lesson here about trusting the experience of their hearers. Refresh their memory; remind them of their experience. Trust the Spirit.

Here’s my video.

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfectionism is an interesting trait, and can be quite destructive. United Methodist pastors are still asked whether they are going on toward perfection, though I have found few who expressed great comfort with the required “yes” answer, and not a few who had their fingers crossed.

The line comes from Hebrews 6:1, and the more I study Hebrews, the less I see this in terms of attaining a moral standard. John Wesley himself made it clear that “Christian perfection” would be a gift of God, given by grace, and not an attainment (repeatedly stated in his compilation A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).

But what is the perfection to which a Christian should go on toward?

Before I look at that, let’s ask about the verb that is being rendered by “going on” here. This is almost universally translated actively, taking it as a middle voice. (Let me skip all the arguments about the middle voice here and just say that in this context, a middle does justify an active translation.) But it can also be taken as passive, and I think it should.

Let me quote David Allen:

…The verb may be construed in the middle voice in the sense of “to bring oneself forward,” but most likely it should be taken as passive, suggesting God as the one who moves the readers along to the desired goal. Christians are dependent upon God and his grace to enable them to press forward to maturity. (Hebrews, The New American Commentary, p. 400 [Nook Edition])

(I was helped to a decision on this in a discussion with Dr. David Alan Black, who should not be blamed for the rest of this post!)

This fits well with what I see as the message of Hebrews in general, which I summarize as “get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination.” Human action is called for in the book of Hebrews, yet it is always action that is empowered by God, and not by us.

But the other side of this is what sort of perfection is involved. In learning we’re often told to go find the definition of a word in the dictionary and then we think we understand a passage we’re reading. For building language skill, that’s not a bad plan. But for coming to understand a relatively complex piece of theology, it leaves something to be desired.

Biblical languages students start by learning glosses for (a word or phrase seen as an equivalent), then learning that there are numerous possible glosses and that the lexicon provides such lists. After they have become skilled at this process, one hopes they will learn to work with definitions and semantic ranges for the words. But even at that stage, the tendency is to discover what a word means in scripture and then to force that meaning into the text.

I think that’s what is happening here. We see this verse as demanding that we continue the quest to attain a state of moral perfection. But in the book of Hebrews our task is to continue in Jesus, our High Priest. If we stay the course with Him, we will attain the promises. (I’m not going to reference everything here. Many of these are themes stated repeatedly and in different ways through the book.)

We might also consider the perfection of Jesus, who is “perfected” through suffering (Hebrews 2:10). Clearly, Jesus is not brought to a state of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, he is being perfected as a High Priest, acquainted with all our weaknesses (Hebrew 4:14-16) but also above us all in all ways (Hebrews 7:26-27), the perfect person to be the communicator or mediator between God and humanity. In this case we’re looking at a definition on the order of “totally suited to accomplish a particular mission.”

I might use this sense in recommending someone for a job. The “perfect” candidate is not one who is never going to make any mistakes, nor is he necessarily a person who is known never to engage in sexual misconduct off the job. Rather, that candidate is the person who is fully qualified to carry out the assigned tasks. It doesn’t mean he’s not wonderful in all those other ways; it’s just not the element in view.

Thus Jesus can be perfect and need perfecting all at the same time, and we see this developed from Hebrews 2-4. Hebrews 5:9, which immediately precedes our passage (I consider 5:11-14 as the first step in an argument that continues in 6:1. The chapter break separates this in a less than helpful manner.

So now we look at the state of the audience. They are stuck at basics and not ready to understand the discussion of Melchizedek which he wants to start. So having noted both the weakness and what strength would look like, he suggests that we lay aside the basics (the milk) and go on to the meat, whereupon he does precisely that.

“Let us be moved along toward perfection …” calls us away from basics and on to the meaning of this high priesthood. There is, I believe, a call to action and yes, to holiness, in moving on doctrinally, but the call here is to get past basic thinking and move on toward more mature thinking. Let your minds be perfected.

As I’ve commented before, students of Hebrews often divide the book into doctrinal presentations and exhortations. It’s not entirely wrong to differentiate, but I don’t believe these two elements are all that separated for him. The understanding of the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ is, in itself, a call to new action.

“Being carried on” or “being moved on” toward perfection is passive in form, but being carried by Christ is a rather active passivity, as we might deduce from Hebrews 11. Note how the preparation for solid food is through exercising one’s faculties.

Active passivity. Gracious working. It might just describe life “in Christ”!


(This post’s featured image is licensed from Adobe Stock, #115932220. It is not in the public domain.)

 

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

We’re going to start our look at Paul’s soteriology by reading Galatians 2:15-3:18 and looking at Bruce Epperly’s fourth lesson in Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, “The Dynamics of Grace.” Here’s a quote:

Three key words are present in Galatians – grace, justification, and faith. Put simply, grace is God’s love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is victorious over sin and liberates us to live freely through God’s Spirit. Grace can’t be earned, but is God’s loving gift for all who have gone astray. Earning God’s love by following the law ends up separating us from the grace of God. God gives us everything, but we want to justify ourselves as if the cross and resurrection never occurred. We can’t nullify God’s grace by our dependence on Jewish law; but we can diminish our experience of grace. (p. 34)

Tonight I’m going to talk about some views of what salvation is, what we are saved from, what we are saved to, and how this is accomplished.

Experience, Authority, and Paul (Galatians 1:1-2:14)

Experience, Authority, and Paul (Galatians 1:1-2:14)

Last night for my perspectives on Paul series I reviewed what we’ve discussed so far and wrapped up my discussion of Paul’s claim to authority as an apostle. I can summarize this as follows: The Bible records religious experience, i.e., people’s experience of God in one way or another. (Even revelation, such as a vision, is an experience of the divine.) In order to understand, or even better, connect with the same narrative, one needs experience.

Beyond the summary, let me note that my own personal experience of the moment is not decisive and authoritative. Yet experience does eventually become authoritative within a particular tradition.

I mentioned some books I worked on at the end of last year as well as others I consulted. Here are some books and notes.

Philosophy for Believers by Edward W. H. Vick. In particular, chapter 6, “Experience and God.”

Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers by Alden Thompson. I was working on this in December. I think one of the key contributions Alden makes to the discussion is to focus so strongly on observing the process of inspiration in progress. One might say, “experiencing the experience.”

The Ground of God: Contemplative Prayer for the Conteporary Spirit by Donna Marie Ennis. I brought this book in simply because it reflects spiritual experience. Often the intellectual approach reflected by biblical exegesis and systematic theology is contrasted and opposed to a mystical approach. I think an ideal will mix both experience and intellectual study. It was fun to read Alden’s and Donna’s books over the same period of time.

Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. Bruce takes a fresh and refreshing approach to Paul. Often progressive writers dismiss Paul while more conservative writers read him in a narrow way. Bruce is a progressive, but he sees Paul as a creative, challenging, and exciting pioneer of theological thought.

Meditations on the Letters of Paul by Herold Weiss. Herold’s approach to Paul is incredibly helpful with a series of essays on themes Paul addresses. This is his second book subtitled “Exercises in Biblical Theology.” The first was Meditations on According to John. One of the key contributions, I think, is to help bring together biblical exegesis and theological reflection, which are often divorced, unfortunately.

So here’s the video:

God Perfected through Suffering

God Perfected through Suffering

For it was appropriate for
    him,
        for whom everything exists
            and
        through whom everything exists,
    in bringing many children to glory,
        the pioneer of their salvation
    to perfect
        through suffering

(Hebrews 2:10, very literal)

I wouldn’t suggest that any Greek students translate the way I just did, or your Greek teacher may suggest you learn English. I’m trying to bring the focus onto certain things and it’s sometimes hard to gauge what this is going to do for readers of the English text that results.

I think this text is one of those that we tend to discount, because what it’s actually saying is a bit startling. In his commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that this text forms a sort of envelope with 2:18, and that the verses between are a carefully structured argument. I quite agree, but I want to just bring your attention to the stark initial statement. Johnson emphasizes how outrageous this concept would be in the Greek world. I would suggest it would sound outrageous just about anywhere. When a Bible writer says something that sounds outrageous we have our defensive mechanisms: Discounting (take 20% or 30% off the rough edges), find a balancing text so we can believe that one instead, or just move on to something more edifying.

In this case I think we tend to focus on the suffering, since we have heard the story of the cross so many times. That was something shocking to those who first heard it, but it has become routine now, not that when we’re called to suffer as Christ did, we take that very seriously. We  tend to think we’re suffering for Jesus every time we have a bad day. No, we’re just living in the world. Some days just aren’t as nice as others!

But the idea that the Son, described in such majestic terms in Hebrews 1:1-4 is to be made perfect, or perhaps complete, through suffering is a little bit more difficult. Luke 2:52 notwithstanding, we tend to think of Jesus in majesty all the way through. Just look at all the halos around the baby Jesus in art. I suspect not so much halo spotting by Mary. In Hebrews, we’ll hear this theme many times, one of the key ones is 5:9, where “having been made complete he became the means of eternal salvation.

I’d suggest two points here that we avoid, and we need to affirm and absorb instead:

  1. God is much more involve in and impacted by our lives and situation. The incarnation may have been an event in history, but it’s also an eternal reality. God is much more involved. We sometimes wobble between transcendence and immanence. God has no problem with both.
  2. The suffering and death of Jesus was a necessary part of atonement, in different ways. I do not affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the singular theory expressing the truth of the atonement. It is, in my view, just one metaphor that helps us think about our salvation. But if we think incarnation, to be complete it must be real, and, well, complete. Becoming human and then not facing death would be to become something other than human; rather, it would be a contradiction. So Jesus became complete as the means of our salvation by living and dying as we do.

As difficult as it is sometimes to keep this in focus, salvation requires both the glory and the suffering. And when we are called to suffer, or even given the gift both of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him (Philippians 1:29).

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that could involve more than some mild annoyances.

Checking Facts and the Authorship of Hebrews

Checking Facts and the Authorship of Hebrews

Dave Black just posted a note on the authorship of Hebrews which brings up an important point: Fact checking. This comes up all over the place these days. It’s so easy to just quote something you’ve heard or to reference a secondary source when a primary source is available. As an editor I’m reminded of this constantly when I look up quotes in books or check references. Sometimes one must cite a secondary source, but most commonly one can find a way to access the information directly.

So assuming you read Dave’s post (which I copied to our Topical Line Drives site so we’d have a permanent link), did you follow his advice: “Look up these verses for yourself if you like”?

I remain unconvinced that Paul wrote Hebrews, and I actually find the issue less critical than others do. I think one can look at the book itself and figure back to the issues that were important to the author. It’s nice to know authorship, but when it’s uncertain, I dislike making conclusions that depend on a specific answer to a complicated question. I’ve switched from the “anyone but Paul” school to the “uncertain authorship, but Paul is possible” option after reading (and publishing) Dave’s book.

But that conclusion is less important than the broader one: Do you get as close to the source as you can in checking facts?

Credit to One of My Teachers

Credit to One of My Teachers

Today in Sunday School class the teacher referred back to challenge I had presented to the calls some time ago. I had suggested reading the prophecies of Isaiah, particularly 2nd Isaiah (40-55) without our “Jesus colored glasses.” I don’t suggest this not because I think Christian readings are inappropriate, but rather because it helps give you a sense of history. Place yourself as best as you can into the place and time from which the prophecies were spoken.

Professor J. Paul Grove
J. Paul Grove

Our Sunday School teacher today, Melinda Henry, brought this challenge back to the class, after she had taken it herself. In her experience an teaching it led to placing ourselves into these prophecies, particularly the servant passages, and seeing there the call to be a servant in just that way.

When she did this I was reminded of when I was first challenged to read this passages in a different way. My undergraduate major in Biblical Languages was offered by the School of Theology at Walla Walla College (now a university). Thus most of my classes were taken with students who were preparing for pastoral ministry.

I took a class in Hebrew prophets from J. Paul Grove, and I confess that I didn’t really like it that much. He was the one to first challenge me to read Isaiah in that fashion. In addition, he had the requirement that we produce three sermon outlines per week derived from the texts we were studying. I hated that requirement and even tried to get out of it by pointing out that I wasn’t going to be a preacher. But the professor insisted.

It was a great experience and has stuck with me ever since. Paul Grove has gone on to his rest (as they would say in his SDA tradition), but I wanted to express my gratitude for pointing me toward some ideas I have used repeatedly in the years since, even though I thought it was wasted effort at the time.