Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ascension Day

The church celebrates Jesus' ascension into heaven today. I don't know that the event is "bigger" than Christmas or Easter, but it does mark the day that history definitively changed. Jesus comes to the throne on the clouds of heaven, and takes his seat at the right hand of power. This is an earth-shaking event, as Peter points out a few days later on Pentecost.

Jesus reigns.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gal 3.12 in Hays' The Faith of Jesus Christ

So I'm toward the end of Richard B. Hays' The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3.1-4.11, and I get to the point where Hays deals with Gal 3.12, "the law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them.'" Hays' solution to the puzzle of Paul invocation of Lev 18.5? Hays argues (actually, he asserts) that Paul rejects Lev 18.5 as simply untrue.

Talk about swallowing a camel. As if the apostle would reject a part of the OT Scriptures -- which he holds to be God-breathed -- as false. (Perhaps I'll later blog on what I suspect is the solution to the puzzle, that Paul is simply articulating the idea that the law is self-consciously transitory -- an idea argued at length in the book of Hebrews -- and the idea that Paul subsequently develops in the remainder of Galatians.)

But back to Hays. I have no problem buying the argument that Gal 3.22 (and other similar texts) should be rendered "the faith of Jesus Christ" rather than "faith in Jesus Christ." I think it dovetails quite nicely with the notion that the gospel is the proclamation of the objective fact of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. That Jesus underwent the cross, not with divine omniscience, but in faith, trusting in God to raise him from the dead, seems quite reasonable to me. (Perhaps at another time I'll also blog on the idea that Jesus' prayer in the Garden wasn't a prayer to be spared from drinking the cup at all, but was a prayer for resurrection -- that the cup "pass away" after he had begun drinking it.) Hays' grammatical point, as he points out, also very nicely brings together Christology and soteriology. (Not that theological convenience should persuade us where the exegetical argument does not.)

But, as Hays points out, the narrow exegetical point has been recognized. So one cannot cobble together a dissertation from that. Hays then seeks to develop a broader argument on the entire passage of Gal 3.1 through Gal 4.11.

While there are insights aplenty throughout the book, his howler regarding Gal 3.12 simply waves away a (the?) central puzzle of that passage. Once he makes that move, it's easy for him -- or anyone else for that matter -- to make the rest of Paul's argument cohere. I thought it a pretty cheap move, and makes the book much less interesting than if Hays had worked out an argument that did not entail Paul's rejecting as untrue that which he would never have rejected as untrue.

Simply as an intellectual matter, the puzzle of Gal 3 is fun to work on only if one posits that the Lev 18.5 quotation in Gal 3.12 is true, and must square with the rest of Paul's argument. Assuming it away just assumes away the challenge of the puzzle, and therefore assumes away much of the interest in Hays' "solution" to the puzzle.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Wright on Exclusivism & the Gospel

N.T. Wright argues that the major failing of the Judaism(s) of Jesus' time was their prideful exclusivity. In his book, Climax of the Covenant, and elsewhere, Wright argues that a version of ethnic or racial exclusivism resulted in the exclusion of Gentiles from Israel.

While part of the argument seems right, I don't think Wright nails the argument. (I don't either, mind you. I'm just noting why I don't so far find Wright's argument convincing.)

First, the part that is right: Jesus' public ministry begins in Luke with preaching that God's grace extends to Gentiles (Lk 4.25-27). In response, those listening to him in the synagogue seek to kill him (vv. 28-29). This certainly dovetails with OT themes such as those found in Jonah, where Jonah bitterly laments the grace that God shows to Nineveh. Since the promise to Abraham is that, through him, God will bless the Gentiles -- a promise that Paul identifies as the Gospel (Gal 3.8) -- then opposition to doing this is an attack on the very purpose for which God called Israel into existence. So this attitude can't be a good thing for Israel's relationship with God.

That being said, it seems to me that there must be something more at work here than ethnic exclusivism. After all, Jesus himself reports that the scribes and Pharisees were zealous for Gentile converts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (Mt 23.15).
Similarly, from the beginning, those who were circumcised included people not physically related to Abraham (Gn 17.12, 23). Indeed, the large majority of those circumcised were not physically related to Abraham (Gn 14.14). Foreigners would become as a "native of the land," receiving all privileges thereof, via circumcision (Ex 12.48).

Membership in Israel was therefore not a closed classification. The Jews with whom Jesus repeatedly clashed were in fact zealous for converts.

Further, while I imagine that circumcision is more painful than baptism, there is nothing in principle in circumcision that prevented Israel from thinking of their mission to be to "Go forth and circumcise all nations, teaching them to observe all that Yahweh commanded you." Israel could bring Gentiles into God's kingdom via circumcision, much the same as the church brings nonbelievers into God's kingdom via baptism.

So given that the category of "Israel" was in fact an open classification in which non-Israelites could become Israelites via circumcision, and given that the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' day wanted to turn non-Israelites into Israelites, I don't see that ethnic "exclusivism" on the part of Israelites can be the specific problem that Jesus and Paul contrast with the Gospel. It has to be something else.

I won't hazard a guess now regarding what that something else is. But I remain unconvinced that Wright's answer is the correct one.