Friday, July 28, 2006

Hays' "Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul"

I was pretty disappointed in Richard B. Hays' book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Not that there weren't insights here and there, but I thought the two big points were, respectively, obvious and wrong (or at least pretty wrong).

The first big point Hays makes is the overall theme of the book -- that the Old Testament Scriptures formed the woof and weave of the sources upon which Paul drew. I guess this is a controversial proposition in some circles. Nonetheless, pick up commentaries or sermons from ancient times to modern, and we see authors turning to the Old Testament to understand Paul use of those Scriptures.

The second big argument Hays advances is that Paul's letters are "ecclesiocentric" rather than "Christocentric."

I think there's an important insight in that claim. But Hays takes it too far. He seems to want to run a dividing wall between the two concepts, essentially claiming that what is predicated of Christ cannot also be predicated of the church, and vice versa. So, he concludes, Paul just basically disagrees with the more Christocentric New-Testament authors.

I don't buy it. If one takes the idea that the church is the body of Christ as a central concept in Paul's letters -- and I do -- then ecclesiocentricity and Christocentricity cannot be pitted against one another. Paul's letters are "ecclesiocentric" because of the distinctive nature of his ministry expressed through these letters to these churches. But this hardly makes these letters any less Christocentric in principle. What is predicated of Christ can be predicated of his body, the church. (That's probably an overstatement, but it's true enough with regard to the elements of Hays' argument.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Meeting Jesus in Meeting the Needy

I've wondered about an aspect of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 25. The text is well known: "For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me" (vv.35-38).

At the very least, Jesus is teaching us that when we serve others that we serve him. I guess I've wondered if the text goes further than that -- that Jesus is not speaking figuratively when he says that you gave "me" something to eat, that you gave "me" drink, that you invited "me" in or that you came to "me" in prison. Rather, we literally draw near to Christ in drawing near in service to the needy.

A related notion is that the church is Christ's body and that we draw near to Christ when we assemble with the church (Heb 10.19, w/ vv. 22, 25). To be sure, the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned do not necessarily need to be Christian. Nonetheless, Jesus seems to say in these verses that we meet him when we meet with the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to argue for some sort of universalism.)

The thing is that Christ changes us. He changes us when we meet him in his word, when we meet him in the sacrament of the altar (and baptism), and when we meet him in his body. And Jesus changes us when we meet him among the needy. To put it weirdly -- because it seems to invert the direction of "service" -- Jesus is actually in the needy ministering to us.

Perhaps that pushes it too far. But if it is true, I wonder whether one could then say that serving others is thereby a means by which we receive grace, and therefore such service belongs to the realm of promise rather than realm of law (to use Lutheran categories). If so, then we serve because of grace and promise rather than serve out of fear and command.

Or does that sound way too liberation theology-ey?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Did Luther affirm the "ip" in Tulip?

I recently read through J. Theodore Mueller's translation of Luther's commentary on Romans. It wasn't an "academic" translation, but it had sat on my shelf long enough with me only dipping into a couple of chapters every now and then.

Any way, a passage in Luther's commentary on Romans 9 caught my attention. He was commenting on this passage: "The scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth (9:17)."

Luther wrote: "These words mean: I desired to show you that the power of deliverance lies alone in me and not in the ability, merit and righteousness of any other. For this reason I hardened you and freed Israel. This power he . . . illustrated before in the case of the two brothers, Esau and Jacob, namely, that is the divine election of grace that saves, and that those surely will be saved who are elected" (p. 140 bolded emphasis added).

While I would be loath to turn a throw-away line into an affirmation of systematic theology, the bolded phrase did sound a bit to me like the "ip" in the Calvinist's "Tulip." For those who do not know, in "Tulip," each letter stands for a distinctive doctrine: T = total depravity, u & l something else, the "ip" refers to "irresistible grace" and the "perseverance of the saints." (At least I think they do.) I think the "ip" means that God will save every person he elects. And that sounds sort of similar to what Luther writes (at least as translated). I'll have to take another look at "predestination" in the confessions. They do affirm a high doctrine of election, but I don't recall that they treat the "ip" question in any detail.

Of course, in popular Lutheran piety, I've heard it affirmed over and over that while God affords people the opportunity to be saved, people can always refuse God's grace. (That would be a denial of "ip.") Of course, that's true as an existential matter (a point even the discerning Calvinist agrees with), but the Calvinist wants to talk about God's power over the soul at this point.

Quite often, at least in my experience, the Calvinist also wants to claim that the "ip" is a source of comfort and assurance for the Christian. But that obviously cannot be. Affirming that God saves those he elects as an abstract matter entails nothing about whether an individual is actually a member of the elect. Our assurance before God comes only from now trusting our trustworthy God to save us through Jesus Christ, it does not come from affirming one or another doctrine of election.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Jesus, Second Adam & True Israel

Two brief comments (both of which I assume commentators have regularly pointed out, but which I've only just noticed).

First, Luke inserts his genealogy between Jesus' baptism and his temptation in the wilderness. While parts of the genealogy might be of intrinsic interest, it seems apparent that Luke's genealogy aims to teach us that Jesus is the second Adam. After Jesus' baptism a voice declares that Jesus is "my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased" (Lk 3.22). Luke then inserts the genealogy which ends in v. 38 with "(son) of Adam, (son) of God." The implication is that Jesus is the son of God in the same direct way that Adam was the son of God.

So, too, in the book of Mark, Satan approaches Jesus to tempt him, just as he approached Adam.

The differences between the account of Adam and the account of Jesus are just as compelling as the similarities, however. Adam faced Satan in the Garden surrounded by good food; Jesus faces Satan in the wilderness after fasting for 40 days. Adam sins, Jesus does not.

The passage ends recording that "when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time" (4.13). Jesus did not struggle with earthly authorities -- the Roman and Jewish leaders were epiphenomenona -- Jesus struggled against Satan throughout his earthly ministry. This, too, is the foe against which the Church truly struggles.

A second thought: Matthew records that Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus and Mary to protect him from Herod. There is of course an irony here in that the messiah is taken in exile to Egypt, the land of oppression and slavery, for salvation from the king of Israel.

Matthew then applies a statement to Jesus that Moses applied to Israel, "Out of Egypt did I call my son" (Mt 2.15, Ex 4.22). He thereby identifies Jesus with Israel, while pointing out that Jesus must flee from Israel (or official Israel, at least).

The ironic, thematic identification of official Israel as the Egypt-oppressor resounds throughout the Gospels.