Posts Tagged ‘Pauline Theology’

A few weeks back I preached a message on Psalm 87, with reference to Colossians 1:21-23.  I’m drawn to the “once… but now” contrast of the Colossians passage.  I find it powerful in reminding me what God has done in Christ.  I was curious if there are other passages in Scripture that use this same basic construction and came up with 4, all from Paul.  I’m going to spend more time researching this, particularly passages where “but now” is present.  In the meantime here’s a handy little table of the first set, with some explanation given below:


Once (pote)

But now (nuni de)


Col 1:21-23 Once you were alienated from God and  enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death if you continue in your faith, do not move from the hope in the gospel.
Col 3:7-8 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now… (because you have been raised with Christ- v1) you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these…
Eph 2:11-22 Therefore, remember that formerly … you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. destroyed barrier of hostility, peace, reconciliation, fellows citizens and members of God’s household, built together- vv14-22
Philemon 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you but now… he has become useful both to you and to me  (because he has become my son- v10) receive Onesimus back as a brother- v16

There are practical implications &/or commands in these passages.  Again, these might be stated clearly and succinctly (both Colossians passages and Philemon) or explained in more detail (Ephesians).  The key here is to recognize the “but now” time frame, which we currently experience because of Christ, ought to have a tangible impact on our lives.  I structured the chart the way I did because I found some common elements, even if they are, in a couple cases, unstated but understood.  For example, at the risk of giving a Sunday School answer, the key to the “but now” portion is Jesus.  It is explicitly stated in the Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 passages, and understood from the context in both the Colossians 3 and Philemon passages.  I inserted a relevant reference to this in the latter passages.

The aspect of this little study that stands out to me the most is the theme of reconciliation (again, sometimes explicitly stated and sometimes alluded to).  The Colossians 3 passage is probably the least clear, although one could make a case that the Colossians are to reconcile their actions with their new reality in Christ (3:1).  But there are two main areas of reconciliation I see in the other passages.

One is reconciliation between people and God (Col 1:22; Eph 2:13, 16, 18).  Both Colossians 1 and Ephesians 2 state this clearly.  Just look at the phrases used: alienated from God, enemies (of God) because of sinful behavior, separate from Christ, without hope and without God in this world.  But now, reconciliation has come because of what Christ has done.  Both of these passages refer to Christ’s death on the cross, in our place for our sins.  It is very clear that reconciliation is only possible because of what Christ has done on the cross.

The second type of reconciliation we see here is reconciliation within the body of Christ itself.  There are two main types:

Reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  What were once two “people” are now one in Christ.  The language here is very strong- the Gentiles are now full members of God’s people.  The practical outworking of this should be seen in the unity of the body of Christ (which is the consistent, overarching practical theme in Ephesians in various forms).

In Philemon we see this theme of reconciliation on a smaller, but no less important, scale.  Instead of two massive groupings of humanity becoming one, we see Paul pleading with a slave owner to receive his runaway slave back as a brother in Christ.  Because Onesimus is no longer to be viewed as a piece of property but a brother in Christ, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus must change.

It is because of the first type of reconciliation- between God and us- that reconciliation between people is possible.  The gospel message is the great equalizer.  No one escapes the fact that they are an enemy of God in need of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.  That puts all people, no matter their ethnicity or station in life, on a level playing field.  Because we were once enemies of God now reconciled to him, we can reconcile with those who are currently separated from us.

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Whereas last year I had a hard time naming 5 good books I read in 2009, I’m having trouble keeping it to 5 for 2010.  Actually, I forgot The Cross and Christian Ministry and The Prodigal God last year, so the list would have been pretty good.  I started making my list earlier this year to avoid the same mistake.  As with previous years, this list is comprised of books I read for the first time this year, not that were published this year.  In fact, I don’t think I even read 5 books published in 2010.  Unlike previous years, I’m giving an order to this, in order of ascending appreciation.  Interestingly, despite the fact I reviewed 10 books this year for publishers, none of the books on this list were from them. 

This list does not include revised editions of books I’ve previously read, otherwise Jesus and the Gospels: 2nd Edition would have made the cut. 

5. Conforming to Christ in Community, by Jim Samra

I first mentioned this book back in June, and as I’ve thought back on the books I read this year, this one stood out as a strong one because of it’s usefulness, despite it’s dissertationy feel (because… um… it’s a dissertation).  I’m currently reading Samra’s scaled down book on the value of the church, which is also quite good, but my guess is that I’ll revisit this one when I want to refresh myself on Paul’s teaching on the church and its importance for the maturation of Christians. 

4. The Pentateuch as Narrative, by John Sailhamer

I mentioned this book a couple months back as my new “curveball” book for the Pentateuch.  When I need a slightly different take, or someone to help me make connections within the Pentateuch that I easily miss, John Sailhamer is my guy.  It’s hard to think of the first five books of the Bible as disjointed and boring after reading Sailhamer. 

3. Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, by M. Tsering

The world of Tibetan Buddhism is a fascinating one, and its worldview couldn’t be much more different from the biblical one.  This book is a wonderful introduction to this worldview, and offers many suggestions how to share Christ with those who hold it.  This book is so well done that I think anyone interested in missions and cross-cultural evangelism would do well to read it because many of the principles are universal. 

2. A Call to Spiritual Reformation, by D A Carson

I read a lot of Carson this year, so much so that I could have done a top 5 just with Carson books and they’d all be very good.  I opted not to include more than one Carson book.  The God Who Is There is outstanding, I’ve benefitted greatly from the two volumes of For the Love of God during my morning quiet times.  I could add Collected Writings on Scripture and make it 5 (Scandalous wouldn’t quite make the cut).  But when I needed a boost in my prayer life, I turned to this book and it delivered.  So I chose this one out of the many because of the impact it had on me personally.  Using the prayers in Paul as a guide to our own prayers seems like such an obvious approach, I wonder why I had never thought of it.  I’ve read a lot of Carson, not just this year but in previous years, but this is my favorite and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

1. Salvation Belongs to Our God, by Christopher J H Wright

Despite also reading The Mission of God, which is Wright’s massive and more detailed book demonstrating the missional character of God, this shorter book stands as my favorite of the year.  As I mentioned in my review, I ended up taking 33 pages of notes on it!  It’s not that I agree with everything in this book, in fact I’d say I agreed more with the previous book on this list than this one.  But Wright captivated me with his ability to place things in the context of the biblical story in a compelling manner.  This is biblical theology done well.

Looking Ahead

My reading load for 2011 will be much smaller due to some major constraints on my personal time.  However, I am currently reading John Jefferson Davis’ Worship and the Reality of God, Jim Samra’s The Gift of Church and will soon be starting Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.  On top of that, I plan on reading David Platt’s Radical and John Piper’s Think, and Ron Jaworski’s The Games that Changed the Game.  The first three will all be reviewed here; the other 3 may get a mention.  I’d be interested to know what books BBG readers enjoyed reading this year, so feel free to leave a comment.

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Being Conformed to Christ in Community: A Study of Maturity, Maturation and the Local Church in the Undisputed Pauline Epistles, by James Samra.  This book is the published version of Jim Samra’s Oxford dissertation in the Library of New Testament Studies series.  Full disclosure: Samra is the senior pastor of a church in Michigan, where my wife’s uncle also pastors.  He (my uncle-in-law) is the one who gave me this book because he thought I’d be interested, and he was right.  It is a rare dissertation that makes me say, “this would make a great teaching in the church.”  In fact, I think some of this work might show up in his upcoming release, The Gift of the Church Being Conformed to Christ in Community is a bit dissertationy, which keeps it from being ideal for church goers, but the fruit of Samra’s labor begs to be distilled in a more popular format.  For Samra, the process of maturation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, and this process is intended to be lived out and aided by life in the local church (note the emphasis on ‘process’).  To give a taste, Samra sees 5 components to the process of maturity: 1) identifying with Christ; 2) enduring suffering; 3) experiencing the presence of God; 4) receiving and living out wisdom from God; and 5) imitating a godly example (p168).  While this book showcases Samra’s skills as a New Testament scholar, I was more blessed by his obviously pastoral concern for the church.  I look forward to his next book.

Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists, by M. Tsering.  I remember hearing an Asian pastor once say “it is 10 times harder for a Buddhist to come to Christ than a Muslim.”  The opinion was obviously observational, and perhaps hyperbolic, but gets at a major issue in sharing Christ with a Buddhist: the Buddhist worldview is far removed from a Christian one.  This book deals specifically with Tibetan Buddhism, which is, in many ways, quite removed from the earliest (some might say ‘purist’) forms of Buddhism.  Tsering gives an overview of the religious history of Tibet, showing the movement from early shamanism to modern Tibetan Buddhism, which is essentially a combination of Buddhism and shamanism.  He surveys the worldview of Tibetan Buddhists and the struggles of reaching them with the gospel (both historically and strategically).  There are wonderfully helpful tidbits throughout the book.  Anyone interested in the intersection between Buddhism and Christianity, or even in cross-cultural missions more broadly, would benefit from reading this book.

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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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Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

Michael Bird is a rising young voice amongst New Testament scholars.  An Australian by birth who now teaches in Scotland, he has made himself notable for good scholarship, offering mediating positions between debating parties and blogging (over at Euangelion, which we have linked to the right).  In some senses, he’s rare in the world of Bible scholars, particularly in two ways: he avoids idiosyncrasies (i.e., he doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind) and he’s fairly funny.  Both of these points come up in this book.

Introducing Paul is an excellent and compact guide to Paul and his letters, or as the subtitle states, “The Man, His Mission and His Message.”  The back cover of the book purports to aim for “beginning students and laypeople,” an audience Bird seems particularly suited for.  His discussion is in depth enough to get past the surface level and to the heart of the issues, but not bogged down in details to the point of obscuring the message of Paul.

Bird introduces Paul using five dominant images: persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor and martyr.  One comes away with the understanding that Paul was not merely a dogmatic theologian looking to wield his authority, but rather a church planter and pastor who eagerly sought the health of his churches.  His theological work was intended to serve and strengthen the church.

There are a number of good points to highlight from this book.  Included is a chapter on the gospel and its terminology, as well as Greco-Roman uses of those same terms to give the reader an idea of how words like “gospel” or “savior” would have been understood in Paul’s day.  This point has been made by many scholars, of course, but Bird actually puts quotations from ancient writings to make his point.  Bird gives a brief overview of the “stories behind the story,” dealing with Abraham, the church, Israel, etc.  I could see bits and pieces of various scholars throughout this chapter, but it was presented in a fresh way that made it enjoyable to learn all over again.

On the debate over justification (most popularly in the Piper vs. Wright showdown), Bird notes that “imputation” is never explicitly stated in Paul but it is an undeniable extension of what is clearly taught, namely “incorporated righteousness” (to use Bird’s term).  Bird also allows a greater place for the resurrection of Jesus than many evangelicals, who often relegate it to “proof of what God did on the cross” (p166).  The “wretched man” of Romans 7 is not Paul as a Christian, but rather written from the point of view of a “pre-Christian.”  There were even moments of personal conviction in this book, especially in his chapter on “gospelizing.”

There are, of course, areas where I was not in full agreement, though they were few and relatively unimportant.  I noticed some grammatical issues, such as a relative clause that stands alone as a sentence.  Which is poor English.  Paul wasn’t referring to offending people when he warns against causing someone to stumble in 1 Corinthians 8 (p152).  Paul is actually talking about leading a brother or sister to act against their conscience, and therefore sin.

While I greatly appreciated the emphasis on the Greco-Roman background of certain terms in Paul, as noted above, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Old Testament could have received more space.  After all, didn’t Isaiah have something to say about the “good news” of salvation?  Old Testament references are offered in the helpful chart on pages 87-88, but the Greco-Roman parallels receive paragraphs instead.

A subsection specifically designated for the Holy Spirit would have been helpful, too.  It’s not that I disagreed with what Bird had to say about the Holy Spirit, but the references were scattered throughout the book.  Since there is no subject index, one couldn’t simply look there to find the references; nor is there anything in the bibliography that stood out as a book dedicated to the subject (Gordon Fee, anyone?).  But the main reason I point this out is because of the book’s intended audience.  Sure, scholars know where to look in this book to find out what Bird thinks of Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit.  They’ve read widely enough on the subject that they know the types of places that scholars will place the discussion.  But the audience of this book is “beginning students and laypeople.”  These are the kinds of people who will want to find a quicker route to what they’re looking for, but will come up disappointed.  It’s a shame, too, because Bird has a strong grasp of Paul’s view of the Spirit, who is active in more ways than many Christians think.

But those points should not detract from the high regard I have for this book.  Bird has a done a remarkable job of making Paul make sense.  I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t do well to read this book, which hits its target audience very well.  I also think that anyone preaching or teaching on Paul’s letters ought to read this book to help them place each letter in the context of Paul’s life and ministry.

I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough.  Bird has a wonderful gift for communicating difficult concepts in an enjoyable -at times witty- manner, but still serious enough given the subject matter.  Bird, like Paul himself, is not content in the ivory tower, but seems to have the goal of helping build the church.  If we can hear Paul’s message in our time, the church can only more faithfully reflect the image of Christ.  Michael Bird helps us hear Paul’s message.

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