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Archive for April, 2010

Special thanks to Adrianna at IVP for a review copy of this book.

Anthony Thiselton is a well-known figure in contemporary biblical studies, a man crossing a number of specializations: New Testament exegete, systematician, philosopher (especially as it relates to hermeneutics).  In this little volume (162 pages of text) the reader is treated to a little bit of everything: a summary of Paul’s life and teaching (Thiselton the NT scholar), forays into Paul’s contribution to Christian doctrine (Thiselton the systematician), and even a final chapter on Paul and postmodern thought (Thiselton the philosopher).  Thiselton is a rare breed in that he is quite capable in all of these areas, and even rarer for offering The Living Paul, a book written for those perhaps unfamiliar with Paul and the debates surrounding his writings.

For much of the book, Thiselton succeeds in providing an informed and stimulating “introduction to the Apostle’s life and thought” (as the subtitle goes).  His opening chapters on “obstacles to appreciating Paul” are helpful, particularly his discussion of “new creation” (which is essentially Thiselton fleshing out the “already/not yet” in Paul’s writings).

One helpful aspect of the book was how Thiselton situated Paul the letter writer in his discussion of Paul the travelling missionary pastor.  This helps the reader understand how letters such as 1-2 Thessalonians and the Corinthians letters fit into Paul’s ministry as a missionary rather than seeing them as detached from his church planting (after all, Paul the Letter Writer and Paul the Missionary both fall under his role as Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles).  Unfortunately, Thiselton does not carry this out for all of Paul’s letters, including overviews of some within various chapters.  Because of this, this book is not the ideal place to get an overview of each Pauline letter, but it does help to tie the letters into his broader ministry and theology, something that can be lost with other approaches.

Chapters 5, 6 & 7 showcase Thiselton’s abilities as a theologian.  With admirable clarity he demonstrates how Paul sets the stage for later articulations of the Trinity, noting that neither Jesus nor the Spirit are created beings in Pauline theology, and that God, Jesus and the Spirit co-operate in remarkable ways (in creation, redemption, prayer, and so on).  There are a couple points that will cause discomfort for some readers: his reliance on Moltmann’s understanding of God co-suffering with Jesus, and his claim that many have an understanding of spiritual gifts that is “too supernatural” (I know of many missionaries and third-world believers who would laugh at this claim).  I also found it interesting that Thiselton, while engaging multiple scholars, does not interact with Gordon Fee’s massive book on the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters.  But all in all I found these chapters stimulating and creatively presented.

Perhaps my favorite chapter (16) was his treatment of eschatology.  He ably and concisely demonstrates the weakness of many contemporary evangelical approaches.  “Paul is less interested in individual destiny, or survival of death, and ‘heaven’, than in the three great corporate and cosmic events of the resurrection, the last judgement, and the Parousia of Christ” (p135).  He also rejects the approach of Bultmann which sees eschatological passages as dealing strictly with present behavior, as well as attempts to equate Paul’s hope with “secular progressivism.”  His discussion of the resurrection of the body and Christ’s return explains Paul’s thought clearly without losing the audience at hand.  If someone is looking for a succinct treatment of 1 Corinthians 15 to recommend, this is it.

The last chapter on “Paul and postmodernity” was an interesting read, though I’m afraid that someone without at least a basic familiarity to postmodern philosophy will be easily lost.  If this book were being used in a church study group, it would be best to have someone on hand well versed in these discussions to explain the issues and why they matter.

This book, as good as it is, is not without some problems, as I see them.  First, the constant reference to the disputed nature of some of the Pauline corpus (Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles) gets tiresome quickly.  I would much prefer Thiselton note the debate early in the book, chose a side and stick with it.  Instead, he annoys the reader with “if we allow Pauline authorship of Ephesians” and “the perhaps deutero-Pauline Pastorals” type comments throughout the book.

Second, there were a few times when Thiselton would refer to a scholar, but never cite that person’s work.  Thus, while I now know that Terence Donaldson defends the “New Perspective on Paul,” I know neither who Terence Donaldson is nor what he has written on the subject.  Why mention him at all?

Lastly, the clarity with which Thiselton writes (praised above) is inconsistent.  Maybe I was tired, but while reading his chapter on justification, I got confused- and I’m familiar with the discussion!  While a scholar will appreciate the brief summary, I have no idea how any layperson (the audience of the book, mind you), with little-to-no orientation to the discussion, would be able to keep up.  The problem is that Thiselton spends too much time surveying the various approaches (this happens in other chapters, but it kills this one).  There were simply too many names thrown about to be helpful.  What I wanted was Thiselton’s thoughts on Paul’s doctrine of justification (after all, I’m reading Thiselton’s book!), but had trouble sifting through the discussion to discern his view.  Interestingly, I’d make the same criticism about his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians

Does Thiselton succeed in offering an accessible guide to Paul’s life and thought?  For the most part, yes.  There are portions of the book that are simply outstanding and would benefit anyone who reads it.  But there are other points when I’m just not sure he hits the target audience.  The teacher in the local church (which is what I do and the perspective from which I write this review) would do well to refer to The Living Paul in preparation and could even have certain chapters picked out for church members to read, either leaving out the more confusing portions, or taking extra time to explain them.

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Churches that have grown up in the intensely private and individualistic ethos of Western culture find Paul’s call for corporate accountability disturbing.  Our beloved canon within the canon has become Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” which we misinterpret to mean, “I won’t judge you if you won’t judge me.”  … This Matthean text is an important warning against hyopcritical self-righteousness, but it does not in any way preclude the church’s corporate responsiblity, as sketched here in 1 Corinthians 5, for disciplining members who flagrantly violate the will of the God for the community.  The fact that the church so rarely exercises disciplinary function is a sign of its unfaithfulness.  Our failure to do so is often justified in the name of enlightened tolerance of differences, but in fact “tolerance” can become a euphemism for indifference and lack of moral courage.

Richard B Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, p89

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What Happened to Onesimus?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon on Philemon until the other day.  In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever heard it referenced is using v6 (“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith”) to support evangelism, which sounds like a reasonable application in some English translations (notably the NIV), though probably not the actual meaning.  At any rate, until I heard a two-part Doug Moo sermon, I’d never heard someone exposit the text.

There are probably a couple reasons for this: it’s very short, Paul doesn’t outright condemn slavery like we might want him to, and we don’t know the ending to the story.  We have no biblical reference to Philemon’s reaction to Paul’s letter.  Did he take advantage of the Roman laws which would permit him to punish severely, even with death?  Did he set Onesimus free?  Did Onesimus return to his position as slave, but with the fellowship of his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ?  All of these, and probably more, are possibilities.

I don’t think we can come to a strong conclusion to this question, though I think I lean toward Onesimus being set free by Philemon.  I’ll look at 3 points of evidence, though the 3rd is the one that is most intriguing to me.

  1. Toward the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells them that he is sending Tychicus to them (probably the letter carrier), along with Onesimus.  Let’s assume for a second that this is the same Onesimus we encounter in Philemon.  Is this a clue that he was set free and became a part of Paul’s ministry team?  That’s possible, though I tend to think that Philemon and Colossians were sent together (notice that many of the same people send their greetings at the end of both letters).  I should note that it is possible that Philemon was written earlier, and Colossians would be evidence that Philemon was emancipated.  I just don’t think that’s the most natural way to understand this connection.
  2. Ignatius, writing sometime around 110AD, refers to the bishop in Ephesus, Onesimus.  Is this the same Onesimus?  That certainly is possible.  If Onesimus was a fairly young man when Paul wrote to Philemon, it is possible that this could be the same man, though 50 years older.  Unfortunately, there is no certainty these refer to the same person.  Onesimus was a relatively common name, though I think more study can be done on this (maybe it has been, I don’t know).  Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable,” which makes sense since he was a slave.  Were most people with the name “Onesimus” slaves?  If so, what are the chances there would be a bishop with that name?  If it is a slave name, then I’d argue this makes the likelihood of them being the same person greater (though I wouldn’t die on this hill).
  3. One thought I’ve had but have never really encountered (but I may have forgotten) is considering the implications of the very existence of the letter.  If Philemon rejected Paul’s request to accept Onesimus back as a brother (even if he didn’t grant him full emancipation), would this letter still exist?  Would it have been copied and circulated?  It’s not as if this were a public letter in the sense of 1-2 Corinthians or Galatians (though Philemon apparently wasn’t the only person to read it).  One of those letters would have been much more likely to be copied, even if it didn’t have the effect Paul would have liked.  All it would take would be for one house church to agree with it, copy it and distribute it.  Paul’s letter to Philemon, on the other hand, would probably not exist if Philemon refused to grant Paul his wish.

We still cannot say for sure what happened.  I suppose it’s possible that someone else had access to this letter and copied it, though I still think the same issue applies: if the situation ended poorly, why would anyone keep it?  I think the evidence points toward there being a “happy ending.”  What exactly that “happy ending” is… well… that’s harder to tell.  Was he returned to Paul?  Was he granted freedom and stayed with Philemon and his household?  Was he kept on as a slave, albeit with an entirely different relationship to his master?  We’ll never know, but I’m betting he ended up with a far better result than if Paul had never written the letter to begin with.

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A final word needs to be said about the considerable importance of this letter to today’s church.  The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways- these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today.  Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the ‘weakness’ of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13:1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13; 6:12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40)- these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as to those to whom they were first spoken.

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, pp19-20.

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Richard Bauckham’s book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is, in my opinion, the best book written on Revelation (at least for a non-commentary).  Among many strong points, he demonstrates the intentional contrast between the city of Babylon (which is Rome for John’s readers), portrayed as the harlot (chapters 17-18) and the New Jerusalem, seen in chapters 21-22.  I’ve mentioned previously how I’m trying to understand better how Revelation works as a narrative, and the use of contrast is a fairly common literary device in narratives.  I present Bauckham’s breakdown of this contrast (from pages 131-132).

  1. The chaste bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:2, 9) vs. the harlot with whom the kings of the earth fornicate (17:2)
  2. Her splendour is the glory of God (21:11-21) vs. Babylon’s splendour from exploiting her empire (17:4; 18:12-13, 16)
  3. The nations walk by her light, which is the glory of God (21:24) vs. Babylon’s corruption and deception of the nations (17:2, 18:3, 23; 19:2)
  4. The kings of the earth bring their glory into her (i.e., their worship and submission to God: 21:24) vs. Babylon rules over the kings of the earth (17:18)
  5. They bring the glory and honour of the nations into her (i.e., glory to God: 21:26) vs. Babylon’s luxurious wealth extorted from all the world (18:12-17)
  6. Uncleannes, abomination, and falsehood are excluded (21:27) vs. Babylon’s abominations, impurities, deceptions (18:12-17)
  7. The water of life and the tree of life for the healing of the nations (21:6; 22:1-2) vs. Babylon’s wine which makes the nations drunk (14:8; 17:2; 18:3)
  8. Life and healing (22:1-2) vs. the blood of slaughter (17:6; 18:24)
  9. God’s people are called to enter the New Jerusalem (22:14) vs. God’s people are called to come out of Babylon (18:4)

I find this list not only to be a convincing demonstration of the intentional juxtaposition of the two cities, I also find it convicting.  How often do we settle for accepting life in Babylon when we were made for the New Jerusalem?

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We’re about to embark on a three week course on Revelation at our church’s training school, taught by none other than the great Danny.  To help him out, I sent him a list of points that he will want to stress in the class, to avoid common pitfalls.  I only had six points; he gave me the seventh, making the number appropriate for Revelation.  See if you can spot how many errors there are in our suggestions, and please comment with some of your own:

<sarcasm>

  1. Try to think about what each element in Revelation (bowls, beasts, trumpets, frogs, locusts) represents today, since John probably saw images of 21st century technology (locusts=helicopters?) and didn’t know what to call them.
  2. Don’t worry about the Old Testament.  All of the imagery in Revelation is fresh, and unique to John’s letter.  If you search through the OT, especially the prophetical books, you’ll just get bogged down.
  3. Think chronologically.  John is meticulous about placing things in chronological order.  It will help you decide which dispensation he is talking about, and calculate the dates of certain events.**
  4. If you don’t have enough time to read the whole book, you can focus on two things:  (a) What ‘666’ means, and (b) how to interpret 20:1-10.  These are summary headings of what John is saying, and are keys to interpretation.  If you preach 20:1-10, you’ve preached Revelation; no two passages are more important and exhaustive of the book’s meaning.  Christian eschatology is the millenium.
  5. Bear in mind that Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that is eschatological in nature, and exclusively so.  The other NT writers, Jesus inclusive, simply do not address it.
  6. Read the “Left Behind” series to get a clearer picture of what John is talking about.
  7. Make sure you clip news articles regarding the Middle East to compare to Revelation.  You never know when an evil dictator will be revealed to have his first, middle and last names with 6 letters each.

</sarcasm>

Related to the snarkiness above, you’ll note that I’ve not posted in many a week.  As evidenced above, this is mostly because I have nothing interesting to say these days.  Although nobody has complained, I’m hoping to get one (serious) post in before my next child is born, which is in roughly 3 weeks.

**I drive by a stop sign on my way to work that has a bumper sticker on the back of it reading “Jesus is returning on October 21, 1992.”  Clearly these folks didn’t take point #3 to heart.

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Wright on the Resurrection

Derek at Covenant of Love posted this video this morning.  Thought I’d steal it and post it here. 

Happy Easter!

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