Can I Really Trust The Bible?

September 23, 2014 — 2 Comments

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There are many theological questions today. At the base of all of them is the question, “Can I really trust the Bible?” Until you’ve really settled that in your mind, all other questions really are up for debate. Without an outside authority in which you can trust, everything’s pretty speculative in the theological realm.

Thankfully, there are many good books on the subject. Few however are under 100 pages and could be easily digested in a single sitting. Able to accomplish both those standards is Barry Cooper’s Can I really trust the Bible? And other questions about Scripture, truth and how God speaks. Part of The Good Book Company’s  Questions Christians Ask series 1 this book, like all the others, is a little meatier than a booklet, but still pretty compact. If you want a significant theological question answered in short order, this is the book for you.

Cooper’s book is split into 5 chapters. At first, I was confused looking at the table of contents because it looks like chapters 1 and 2 share the same title (“Does the Bible claim to be God’s Word?”). This is also true of chapters 3 and 4 (“Does the Bible seem to be God’s Word?”). Upon closer inspection, the subtitles of each chapter is what actually sets them apart.

Chapter 1 is focused on what Jesus thought about the Old Testament, as well as what New Testament writers thought about it. Chapter 2 on the other hand is focused more on the nature of truth and the Bible’s claims to it. Chapter 3 is focused more on the writing of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, whereas chapter 4 is focused on issues of the collection of New Testament documents. The final chapter, “Does the Bible prove to be God’s Word?” focuses on how the Bible proves itself true in your life as you trust it is God’s Word.

Along the way, Cooper devotes time to side bar questions like:

  • What’s inside the Bible?
  • Isn’t the argument for Scripture circular?
  • Isn’t the Bible socially, culturally, and sexually out of date?
  • Hasn’t the Bible been used to justify terrible things?
  • Isn’t reported/oral information unreliable?
  • How can I trust in the Bible when it has miracles in it?
  • Are there any non-biblical documents which support biblical history?
  • Aren’t some of the stories from Jesus’ life just legends and later additions?
  • Who’s to say the Qu’ran isn’t also God’s Word?
  • Aren’t the stories in the Bible about Jesus just re-hashes of pre-biblical myths?
  • If God really wants to speak to us through the Bible, why is some of it so hard to understand?

Seems like a lot of ground to cover right? It is, but I think Cooper does a fine job of answering questions concisely based on solid evidence. His answers certainly aren’t exhaustive and some readers may want far more detail. However, it is key to keep in mind that this book is primarily for believers who are already on-board with Christianity. I would suggest this book is good for inquisitive high school or college students in the context of youth group or Bible class. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this book for really perplexed skeptics who are asking one tough question after another and have done their homework on atheistic rebuttals. This might be a good conversation started in that case, but I imagine the answers here might seem to “neat.”

For younger Christians who are asking some good, yet tough questions about how and why we should trust the Bible, this is a great little resource. It’s definitely something I think a high school student could easily read through on their own. Ideally, reading through this book with a friend as part of an on-going conversation is the way to go. If that’s what you’re looking for in your discipleship endeavors, consider giving this book a try!


Barry Cooper, Can I really trust the Bible? And other questions about Scripture, truth and how God speaks. Epsom, Surrey, UK. The Good Book Company, July 2014. 81 pp. Paperback, $7.99.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to The Good Book Company for the review copy!

Here’s a promo video for the book:

Notes:

  1. Which also includes a book I previously review, Is God anti-gay?

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Earlier this month, Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth released. You can get to know him a little better and find out what’s on his book shelf here, as well as read an extensive interview on the book here.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, his book is part of the rotating bundle given away to members. You can read my write up to get a 30,000 ft. overview and join Christ and Pop Culture to get the book for free. You can also read this rundown of 20 Truths from The Stories We Tell (half of which are in the introduction and first two chapters).

A couple of weeks back, I started some interaction with Cosper’s work. The plan was to resume Monday with chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 is kind of a short theology of story and storytelling. Cosper explains how from the Christian point of view, the world is not only full of stories, but all these stories are part of one larger overarching story.

Christians also hold that people are created in God’s image. Being made in a storyteller’s image leads to being storytellers ourselves. Cosper says:

There is nothing new under the sun, and our stories— no matter how fresh and new they might feel— are all a way of “playing in the dirt,” wrestling with creation, reimagining it, working with it, and making it new. Our stories have a way of fitting into the bigger story of redemption that overshadows all of life and all of history. Because that bigger story is the dirt box in which all the other stories play.

The storyteller’s raw material is the stuff of ordinary, everyday life: relationships, conflicts, love, loss, and suffering. Behind that raw material is the bigger picture of which we’re participants. We live in a world that was meant for glory, but is now tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways.

And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection. (33-34)

Cosper then explains how we tend to tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. Ultimately, our stories are our hopeful attempts to reckon with whether or not every sad thing will become untrue. In that light, Cosper says:

This is a book about stories and how they reveal the heart’s longing for the gospel. In particular, it looks at how this deep desire is evident in pop culture. It’s common to argue that The Odyssey or King Lear reveals depths about the human heart; I happen to think the same can be said (though in different ways) about Dexter and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The overarching story of redemption history— the old, old story— can be told through the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation . God made the world, sin corrupted it, Jesus redeemed it, and one fine day, God will ultimately restore it. That’s the story of the Bible, start to finish.

I believe that the stories we tell can be examined and understood in this light. The creative impulses of the human heart are always probing at these elements of redemption history because they are our story and they are our hope— even if it’s the misguided hope of one writing a poem to an unknown god in Acts 17 or of one believing that a win on American Idol will satisfy his soul. Throughout the book, I’ll use these movements of the old, old story— creation, fall, redemption, and consummation— to look at the ways we’re telling our stories today. (37-38)

Before getting farther into his analysis of the stories we tell, Cosper asks “How far is too far?” in chapter 2. This is certainly a perennial Christian question when it comes to culture in general and movies in particular. Cosper sees this as the wrong question, rooted in either an “overanxious teenager” or “church lady” mentality. One wants to know the line to bump up to it as close as possible; the other to ensure that there is a line and others observe it. Cosper then explains:

The question itself is simply the wrong question. Those who ask, how far is too far?— whether at the movie theater or the youth group— have, in a way, shown their hand, revealing a heart that misunderstands what it means to be a Christian in the world. Our engagement should be motivated by neither the thrill of sin nor the thrill of religion, but by the thrill of the gospel. (42)

Cosper, in good triperspectival fashion, works through three aspects of the gospel: the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of the cross, and the gospel of grace. In the middle of those three, he circles back to the original question (how far is too far?) and says:

In the light of the gospel, we can see that all that’s good about TV and movies belongs to God (the gospel of the kingdom), and much of this book will look at the good. As suspicious as I am of television and movies, I believe there’s a lot of good in them . The stories we are telling are indeed forming our hearts and minds, and not all of that formation is bad.

That said , the gospel also tells us that the world is a fallen place (the gospel of the cross), and the stories we tell are no exception to that rule. Enmeshed with the good is the bad. If we tell stories (as many argue) to know who we are, then our stories reveal that we are indeed creatures of glory and depravity. Our world desperately needs a Savior willing to sacrifice everything for us. (51-52)

Then in relation to the gospel of grace he says:

It calls us, most of all, to a kind of thoughtful, mature engagement. We should think deeply about the media we consume because it will have a long-term effect on the way we look at the world. We should think about the way entertainment exploits real people— both trained actors and also the subjects of “reality television,” turning their plights, struggles, and vices into cheap entertainment. We should think about the reasons we are laughing or crying, about the ways that our stories are promising redemption, salvation, and “the good life.” (53)

After laying this kind of groundwork, Cosper tackles the question of conscience and community. He notes that together, they “can go a long way to guarding your heart as you step into the theater or turn on your TV. This kind of thoughtful engagement requires us to make connections between our media consumption and our hearts. Cultivating a sensitivity to your conscience will lead you away from much trouble, and community will be there to guard you from blind spots and self-deception (54-55).”

As he closes, Cosper makes an important admission regarding his own conscience that is worth taking to heart:

I confess that in the months that have passed since proposing this book, researching it, and actually beginning to write it, I’ve experienced a personal transformation in how I think about TV and movies. Author Harold Best once remarked to me that as he got older, he simultaneously became more convicted of his freedom in the gospel to engage culture, and his own sinfulness. The result was that while he believed in a great and wide freedom in Christ, he exercised his freedom in a far more limited way than he had when he was younger.

Researching this book has had a similar effect on me. Examining why we tell stories and thinking about the formative effect they have on our lives has caused me to be less enthusiastic about certain shows and movies , and more enthusiastic about others. I’m more sensitive to what I think is exploitive and dehumanizing, and less enamored with certain writers, directors, and actors. (55-56)

To me, that shows someone who is thoughtfully engaging with the world of stories, but is sensitive to how the Spirit may be working in his own heart. Instead of simply deploying “freedom in Christ” as a license to watch any and everything, Cosper models a willingness to engage as well as a willingness to pull back from certain content that he now sees differently.

I’ve seen my own attitude change in this regard as I’ve grown through my 20’s. There are certain shows that I don’t watch anymore that I once did and there are certain shows that I’d like to watch, but just don’t feel like I should. I’m not obligated to engage everything, I’m just obligated (I think) to engage thoughtfully with what I do watch. As we move on in Cosper’s book, we’ll get plenty of food for thought for doing just that kind of engagement.

I’m always on the lookout for interesting and fun (my definition) ways to learn and teach philosophy. That’s part of why I’ve been posting the 8-bit Philosophy videos. I recently came across another way: superhero comics.

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You can follow Supergatari on Twitter, and pick up a copy of the book for only $3 over at Amazon. Much like 8-Bit Philosophy, there is also a YouTube channel.

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[This post is part of Reviewing The Life of Book Reviewing]

I think before really talking about techniques or trade secrets when it comes to book reviews, it’s worth asking why. Why would you want to review books? I think of several reasons, but if it’s something you’re going to make a habit of, you should probably have a good reason. Of all the reasons you might have, let me suggest one to avoid.

Don’t review books in order to get free books.

I’m saying this of course as someone who, in large part, did just that. I originally reviewed books because it was an assignment for my Soteriology class. I had already been blogging, and thought posting the reviews on my site would make for nice posts. Shortly after doing that, I discovered that other people did that as well. Not only that, you could get the books for free if you asked the publishers. At the time, I was a recently married seminary student on a budget so the words “free” and “books” together really spoke to my heart. By the time I graduated, I had contacts with a few publishers and was starting to regularly get free books to review.

In the years post-seminary, I expanded by publishing contacts and also got more aggressive in requests. This was primarily because I wanted to capitalize on free books, because, well, that whole budget thing. Initially, I pretty much took advantage of any free book on offer from the publishers I was in contact with. I quickly realized this was a mistake, mainly because you end up with a lot of books to read that you might not particularly care for.

I made adjustments, and only requested books I actually wanted. This seemed like the perfect strategy to save money on books and always have a nice reading stack at my disposal. After a while, a curious thing happened. I began finding myself with way more books than I really had time to read (not surprising). But more importantly, I began finding myself with books that I had specifically asked for that I didn’t really enjoy reading.

The problem, in hindsight, was that the thrill of getting a free book had clouded my judgment in evaluating whether I really should read that book in the first place. I have pretty wide interests within biblical and theological studies. If something looked interesting, my first thought was to request it for review. For the most part, I was getting yeses, and so my appetite for reading was more or less unchecked.

Eventually, this led to a hobby or supplemental scholarly activity taking more of my time than it really deserved. The irony is that if I had been more focused on getting new music students and finding additional work, I could have just bought books outright. The money saving strategy was actually handicapping my time.

It took time to figure all this out, but it all could have been solved if I had not made getting free books a motivation for book reviewing. It’s a wonderful perk, but it shouldn’t be your main concern. Your main concern should be the evaluation of the books that you are reviewing, whether or not you got them for free. Consider the free books an advantage, but not a reason for doing what you do. In the end, you may just find yourself inundated with books you have no interest in reading or reviewing. Or worse, you may become another victim of book lust. That’s definitely were I was, but thankfully, I think I’m on the road to recovery. I hope at least!

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Last week, we continued our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 Today, we’ll move on to Part II of the book. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this. Below I’ll give you the rundown on the first two chapters in this part of the book (chapters 6 & 7). Next week, we’ll look at chapter 8 and a brief summary of the first two parts of the book (which also complete the first volume of the book).

A Bird in The Hand? The Symbolic Praxis of Paul’s World

In Part II, Wright transitions from Paul’s world to the apostle’s worldview. Readers of Wright will be fairly familiar with his analysis. He gives the lengthiest exposition of his method in New Testament and The People of God, but he recalls that and applies it anew with Paul here. As he says,

Having spoken of four elements in the worldview-analysis, I propose in this opening chapter to deal with two together: symbol and praxis. This is not for want of material, to pad out two otherwise thin analyses. Rather, it is due to the frustrating fact that, when it comes to ‘symbols’, the earliest Christians have left us virtually nothing. (352)

The section that follows then looks at the symbolic praxis of the three worlds Paul inhabited. First, Judaism, then the surrounding pagan world, and lastly the symbols specifically associated with the Roman Empire.

Having completed this exposition, Wright then says,

The previous section has made it clear just how naked and exposed Paul’s worldview must have seemed. Shorn of its most obvious Jewish symbolic universe, and refusing to embrace that of Greek wisdom or Roman imperialism, let alone the ‘religion’ which subsisted somewhere in between, it must often have seemed difficult to envisage what life was now all about. (384)

The discussion that follows is propelled by the following questions:

with what symbols, and symbolic praxis, did Paul fill the void created by the abandonment of those rich and powerful Jewish symbols, and by the refusal to take up in their place the symbols proffered by the surrounding pagan culture? In sharper terms, how did Paul resacralize the void? Did he, as some seem to suppose (reflecting, we may guess, the desacralized world of western modernism), offer only an internal personal religious experience and hope, leaving the rest of the cosmos as a flat, materialist landscape? Or were there ways he tried to recapture, by another route, the Jewish dream of yhwh revealing himself to bring justice to the world and filling it with his knowledge and glory, or indeed the pagan sense of a world somehow full of divinity? (386-387)

Wright groups answers according to what the symbols communicate. First are symbols pointing toward Christians as the one people of the one God. Next are symbols that connect people to the Messiah, which then leads to an exposition of the praxis of the messianic movement. Along with this is Wright’s exposition of the praxis of a renewed humanity.

Wright concludes from all of this that “The symbols and the praxis link directly to the story and the questions. The single community, rooted in this strange, new messianic monotheism, has a narrative, tells a narrative, lives by a narrative; but it is a complex and integrated multiple narrative, and we must explore it step by step in the next chapter.” (454)

The Plot, The Plan and The Storied Worldview

Here, Wright moves into more detail about the story of this messianic movement. Riffing on Jane Austen, he opens the chapter saying “It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that a sensible worldview equipped with appropriate symbolic praxis must be in want of a story (456).” After further introductory matters, Wright turns to an explanation of the nature of plots, sub-plots and narrative themes.This brief scaffolding allows him to place the various stories at work in the Paul’s worldview.

As Wright sees it, the outer story is one of God and creation, or more specifically, the one true God’s plan for his created world. Wright sees the coming of the kingdom of God as the main outer story on which everything else hangs.

The first sub-plot for Wright is the story of humanity. Specifically, it is the story of humans created in the image of the one true God and given a vocation. These image bearers fail in their initial calling, and subsequently rescued and reinstated.

Related to this story, but not necessarily within it, is the story of Israel. Specifically, God’s calling of Israel to be a means by which humanity is rescued and restored. Within the story of Israel is the story of Torah, which has multiple layers.

With all this in mind, one is in a better position to understand what Jesus is up to in the Gospels. As Wright explains,

[E]verything Paul says about Jesus belongs within one or more of the other stories, of the story of the creator and the cosmos, of the story of God and humankind and/or the story of God and Israel. Because these three layers of plot interlock in the way I have described, what Paul says about Jesus, and what he could have said were he to have laid out his worldview-narrative end to end for us to contemplate, makes the sense it does as the crucial factor within those other narratives. Thus there really is, in one sense, a Pauline ‘story of Jesus’, but it is always the story of how Jesus enables the other stories to proceed to their appointed resolution. (517)

Wright then elaborates,

When we see the logical integration of the three main narratives for which we argued earlier (God and creation, God and humans, God and Israel), we can see how, in the actual argument of Romans, Paul moves from Jesus the Messiah as ‘the faithful Israelite’, fulfilling the salvific role of Israel on behalf of humanity (chapters 3 and 4), through ‘the embodiment of God’s love’, rescuing humans from the plight of sin and death (5:6–11), to the great statement, cryptic and dense but vital as the very heart of everything, of the Adam-narrative, which grounds the God-and-creation narrative itself (5:12–21, pointing ahead to 8:18–27). (530)

He then says,

Paul has thus pulled together the key narratives in the form of a single summary story from Adam to the Messiah, and on to ‘the life of the age to come’. He can then draw on this messianic narrative as the framework and context ‘in which’ Messiah-people find their identity. They die with him and rise with him, bringing them into a new life ‘to God’, in which, like freed slaves, they are able to, and required to, resist the lure of the old slave-master. This can then be summarized in terms of 5:20, where Torah intruded into the Adam-Messiah sequence: Torah bound Israel to Adam, but the death of the ‘old human being’ in 6:6 means that Torah no longer has any hold on those who have ‘died through the Messiah’s body’ (7:4, reaching back to 6:2–11 and 6:14). They are now, exactly as in 2:25–9 or 2 Corinthians 3, able to serve God ‘in the newness of the spirit, not the oldness of the letter’. The ‘story of Jesus’ at this point is the story of the Messiah ‘in whom’ people die and rise, leaving the ‘present evil age’ where the Torah still condemns Israel, and entering into the ‘age to come’ in which resurrection life already happens. (532)

Ultimately as Wright sees it,

As we move from letter to letter, and passage to passage, we can see that, within a much richer worldview-narrative than is normally imagined, Paul has grasped the point that the Messiah embodies and enacts the creative power and saving love of God the creator himself; that he is the true Adam, reflecting God’s image and glory into the world; that he is the true Israel, rescuing Adam and so the world from their plight; and that, as Messiah, he stands over against even Israel, doing for Israel, and hence for Adam and the world, what they could not do for themselves. Once we recognize this set of narratives at the worldview level of the Apostle, passage after passage makes fresh sense. (536)

With all this in mind, Wright has one final chapter in which he will flesh out Paul’s worldview. It is actually the shortest of this part of the book, but ties many of the preceding threads together. I will probably quote rather liberally to summarize (like I’ve just done above) since Wright does such a good job of summarizing what would otherwise be a sprawling argument.

Notes:

  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!

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In my summer reading, I spent a lot of time with books on Paul (well, one book in particular). That meant also spending a good amount of time reading about justification. In a couple of instances, that was the focus of the entire book. One of those was Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered. The other was R. Michael Allen’s Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and the Controversies.

Allen’s book is composed of three parts, each of which has two chapters. The first part is focused on groundwork and the connection between the gospel and justification. The second part is focused more on Christology and how Christ is for us in the gospel. The final part is more pneumatological and looks at the Christian life in both personal and corporate dimension.

Often, Allen will open a chapter with a clearly defined thesis statement. The first two chapter are a defense of the following thesis (3):

The gospel is the glorious news that the God who has life in himself freely shares that life with us and, when we refuse that life in sin, graciously gives us life yet again in Christ [chapter 1]. While participation in God is the goal of the gospel, justification is the ground of that sanctifying fellowship [chapter 2].

Chapter 3 unpacks the thesis that “in eternal life of the perfect God, the divine Son pleases the Father in the Spirit and, therefore, the divine Son trusts the Father by the Spirit’s power during his earthly pilgrimage, constituting himself perfect and pleasing to his heavenly Father (77).”

Chapter 4 does not have such a clearly stated thesis but is focused on defending the Reformers’ understanding of Christ’s faith and the Christian faith. Here, Allen delves into the pistou Christou debate, but from the perspective of Christian dogmatics rather than as a New Testament scholar.

In chapter 5, Allen tackles the relationship between justification and sanctification. He draws heavily from the Exodus story and uses that to inform his understanding of our standing before God and our obedience in following him. Chapter 6 continues the discussion but focused on the corporate dimension. Allen argues that “the church is a pilgrim people, founded upon and fueled by the triune God of love; therefore, our thinking about the church must be rightly based on our Christology and pneumatology, each befitting the economy of salvation and the eschatological shape of the kingdom of God.”

As compared to Westerholm, this book is much more jargony. That’s not particularly a defect. Allen’s writing is still digestible, but it is not accessible in the wider way that Westerholm’s is. That is not necessarily part of his goal, but I found the book less enticing to read. Readers who are comfortable with the prose style of academic theology (I am, but do not enjoy reading it) may not have any particular issues.

Style aside, Allen makes his central points clearly, although I would disagree considerably with one of them. Specifically, I refer to his contention that justification is the “ground” of our fellowship with God (see above quote). Both our fellowship and our justification are grounded in our union with Christ. Justification, like sanctification, is a fruit of our union. For a detailed defense of this, you should read Marcus Paul Johnson’s One With Christ. While it might be dogmatically defensible to construe justification as the ground of our fellowship with God, I don’t think it is exegetically defensible and Allen didn’t give me any reason to think otherwise. I realize that this is an on-going debate with wider Reformed theology and there are many respectable scholars and pastors who would be inclined to agree with Allen about the ground of our fellowship with God being justification. So, while I think this is wrong, it is surely not a heretical view. I just think it makes more theological sense to see union with Christ as the ground of everything, including justification.

Another minor quibble I have, and this may relate to the previous one, is the dated interaction with N. T. Wright. This is the part of the review where I offer the typical disclaimer explaining to you that I don’t agree with everything N. T. Wright says and so I’m not an apologist for each and every one of his positions on Paul. I did however read his entire Paul and The Faithfulness of God over the summer to actually wrestle with what his views are. Allen, though he is critical of Wright, only cites his 1997 work, but also lets readers know that “scholars continue to poke holes in his claims (109),” even though no scholars are footnoted. This is also the only interaction with Wright in the book. Though Allen isn’t obligated to interact with Wright, it seems fairly appropriate given the title of the book. I would have liked to see him interact more with Wright and with more recent works of his, even if he were brief and critical in doing so. At the very least, Allen could have directed readers to someone with a similar perspective who had done so.

In any event, neither of the two issues should be considered major. If you are looking for a book that is going deeper into the doctrine of justification using the resources of Christian dogmatics past and present, this book is certainly one that should be on your radar. If you are looking for extended engagement with the New Perspective, this isn’t your book, but then again, it isn’t trying to be. Instead, Allen is offering readers what he thinks is a constructive way forward for Christian theology to affirm the doctrine of justification in all its fullness and connect it tightly with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


R. Michael Allen, Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, October, 2013. 208 pp. Paperback, $21.99.

Buy itAmazon

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

As a Christian, I can think of several better answers, but this is about the best you can do from an atheistic perspective.

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Last week, we actually started our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 Today, we’ll continue and finish Part I of the book. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this. For now, we’ll focus on chapters 3-5 and round out Wright’s view of Paul’s world.

Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of The Greeks

Here, Wright turns from first century Judaism to first century Greek philosophy. The early Christians had obvious religious ties, but Wright notes three things they did that were more commonly associated with philosophy:

First, they presented a case for a different order of reality, a divine reality which cut across the normal assumptions. They told stories about a creator God and the world, stories which had points of intersection with things that the pagans said about god(s) and the world but which started and finished in different places and included necessary but unprecedented elements in the middle. Second, they argued for, and themselves modelled, a particular way of life, a way which would before long be a cause of remark, sometimes curious and sometimes hostile, among their neighbours. Third, they constructed and maintained communities which ignored the normal ties of kinship, local or geographical identity, or language—not to mention gender or class. (202)

Given this, Wright will spend this chapter placing Paul on the map of first century philosophers. To do this, he will sketch a brief history of Greek philosophy. He starts with pre-Socratics, moves through Plato and Aristotle, and then concludes with two schools of thought. Those schools are the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Wright then makes the key point of the chapter:

Here is perhaps the most important thing in this chapter for today’s readers of Paul to take to heart. Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two, particularly at the level of assumptions, is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the word ‘god’, we think at once of a distant, detached divinity—as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do—we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos. (213)

With this in mind, Wright focuses on four leading Stoic thinkers: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. He then compares the Cynics and Skeptics before sketching what he considers a basic first century philosophical worldview.

Wright closes the chapter showing a typical Jewish response to Greek philosophy via the Wisdom of Solomon. In conclusion he says.

When we ask, therefore, what has happened in the Wisdom of Solomon to the traditional topics of logic, physics and ethics, the answer must be that they are all present, but in a strikingly transformed mode. The underlying ‘logic’, the means whereby the writer apparently claims to know what can be said, is not simply the combination of accurate sense-impressions and clear reasoning. It is the scriptures of Israel, and particularly the narratives of the exodus and the monarchy. The ‘physics’, the account of the world’s creation and constitution, is a fresh reading of Genesis, with sophia filling in the picture. The ‘ethics’ is both a fresh statement of the Stoic development of Aristotle’s system of virtues and a fresh reading of the biblical tradition of ‘righteousness’. Athene’s owl has peered into the darkness and come back to report what he has seen; but, at the same time, the birds which hovered overhead to protect the wandering Israelites have told their own story. (243)

A Cock For Asclepius: “Religion” and “Culture” in Paul’s World

Wright now turns his attention to the wider world of first century religious and cultural practices. Wright initially shied away from treating “religion” as a separate chapter, but ultimately decided, “Hey, why not?” (he gives a more extended reason, p. 251).

After his all too brief survey of the religious terrain, Wright says,

This extremely brief summary of complex matters is, again, not merely of antiquarian interest. It is vital if we are to sense the flavour of life in a Roman environment; and much of Paul’s most important work was carried out in a Roman environment, albeit overlaid on a Greek base and with plenty of other imported material coming in alongside. Though we must address such questions properly much later, a moment’s thought will make it clear that Paul, in founding a ‘church’ in Corinth or Philippi or elsewhere, was not setting up a new ‘religion’ in any of the kind of senses we have been exploring. He seems to have had no interest in a sacred calendar, and indeed at one point has harsh words for those who do. He never suggests that one should sacrifice animals, whether to eat them or to inspect their entrails. He never indicates that one ought to pay attention to thunderstorms, or to the flight of particular birds. The sacred texts he interprets are of a very different order to the Sibylline Books. He does not attempt to establish anything remotely corresponding to the priesthoods of either Greece or Rome. (273)

While religion might not be the best category for analyzing what Paul was doing, “it is certainly a key and basic element in what his contemporaries will have seen him doing and heard him saying. And with ‘religion’, in all of these complex senses, we are dealing with what today we might call ‘the fabric of society’, the things which held people together and gave shape and meaning to their personal and corporate life (274).”

In his concluding reflections, Wright says,

The main thing to emerge for our purposes from this short survey is that what Cicero and others referred to loosely with the word religio penetrated more or less every area of life. From the home, with its hearth and household gods, right up to great affairs of state, noble works of art and culture, and the most important public buildings and civic ceremonies, ‘religion’ was everywhere, because the gods were everywhere. Paul, as ‘apostle to the gentiles’, believed himself to be sent by the one God of Israel into this world of many gods. (274)

Worth noting as well, is the Jewish response:

It is as well known today as it was in the ancient world that the Jews would have nothing, or next to nothing, to do with all this range of ‘religion’. They denied the existence of the pagan divinities. They regarded pagan worship, offered to cult objects, as ‘idolatry’ in the full biblical sense. They believed that pagan life was a distorted version of the genuine humanness to which the one God had called Israel and would, in principle, want to call the whole world. They did their best to remain detached and separate from the whole thing. (276)

While a short chapter, it does help to give a feel for the way religion permeated every day life in the ancient world. Christianity certainly fits into this religious territory in Paul’s account, but it is not merely a religion, and it is noticeably different than the pagan approach (similar though it may be in some respects).

The Eagle Has Landed: Rome and The Challenge of Empire

Wright closes out this section by moving to politics. In a way though, this is an extension of the religious discussion. Setting context, Wright says,

By the time Paul was born, the empire of Augustus Caesar stretched from one sea to another—the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to the English Channel—and from the river Euphrates to the ends of the known world, the far western outposts of Spain and France. There, of course, lay the problem for the devout Jew: that was more or less the extent of empire which the Psalmist had promised to the Messiah. Whether many Romans knew or cared we may doubt. Rome’s military adventures had not been undertaken in obedience to such ancient visions. It had acquired its foreign territories piecemeal. One conquest led to another and, with tax and treasure flowing in to the centre, it became advantageous to annex the next country, and then the next, first as allies, then as buffer zones, then as clients, and finally as a new piece of straightforwardly ‘Roman’ territory. Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die. (284)

From here, Wright sketches a brief history of Roman emperors, starting just after Julius Caesar, on to Augustus, and ending with Vespasian. With a feel for how the empire was established (or at least how it solidified around the turn of BC to AD), Wright then turns his eye to the rhetoric this empire employed. To clarify, he says,

It was not by military force alone that Augustus consolidated his power, or that his successors maintained it. It has been shown in great detail that from the beginning the empire used every available means in art, architecture, literature and culture in general—everything from tiny coins to the rebuilding of entire city centres—to communicate to the Roman people near and far the message that Augustus’s rise to power was the great new moment for which Rome, and indeed the whole world, had been waiting. This is what I mean, in this broad sense and in the present context, by ‘rhetoric.’ (294)

Key to his analysis of the Roman empire’s rhetoric is how the empire constructed a narrative in which it was the culmination of where the story was going. This then leads to a discussion of the “religion” of empire, or more commonly, the imperial cult. From here, Wright then traces how the emperor was gradually “divinized.”

Concerning this and other Roman perspectives on deities, Wright says,

The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match. (342-343)

Wright then concludes the chapter and the book as a whole with a typical rhetorical flourish of his own:

The birds that had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon had come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light. Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occurred which, upstaging even the ancient cult and priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, would bring healing at every level. Instead of the eagle with its talons and claws, Jesus summoned people to a different kind of empire: peacemaking, mercy, humility and a passion for genuine and restorative justice. Saul of Tarsus, born and bred a Pharisee in a world shaped by the wisdom of Greece, the religion of the east, and the empire of Rome, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that this Jesus had called him, Saul, to take the ‘good news’ of his death, resurrection and universal lordship into the world of wisdom, religion and empire. That transformative vocation, articulated through the worldview which it provided and the theology which it produced, is the subject of the rest of this book. Earlier three birds on a tree; now only the one. (346-347)

Notes:

  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!

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One of my favorite book series is New Studies in Biblical Theology. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but I’ll say it again (and probably again). This summer I actually read quite a few volumes in the series that were either new or that I hadn’t gotten around to before now. One of those in the new category is Brian Rosner’s Paul and The Law: Keeping The Commandments of God. I read it during a beach weekend, because that’s what I do, and as usual, was not disappointed.

Though most scholars come to a study like this via Romans or Galatians, Rosner comes via 1 Corinthians and Paul’s ethics and Jewish background (13). His goal is to “bring some neglected evidence to the discussion and to defend some proposals that sharpen and build on the work of others (13).” His main focus is on “what Paul does with the law, especially for questions of conduct,” rather than on what Paul says about the law.

Chapter 1 open by noting many of the attendant puzzles related to Paul and the law. A key verse for the study is introduced (1 Corinthians 7:19) and terms are defined. The New Perspective on Paul enters into the discussion. As Rosner wraps up, he summarizes his basic outlook and maps out the way ahead:

In his letters Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation and rejection of the law as ‘law covenant (chapters 2 and 3) and its replacement by other things (chapter 4), but also a reappropriation of the law ‘as prophecy’ (with reference to the gospel; chapter 5) and ‘as wisdom’ (for Christian living; chapter 6). This construal finds support not only in what Paul says about the law, but also in what he does not say and in what he does with the law. And it highlights the value of the law for preaching the gospel and for Christian ethics (43-44).

This gives you a general idea of the ground covered in Rosner. However, one of the strengths of this book is Rosner’s closing summaries/paraphrases in each chapter. I’ll highlight of couple of these to give you more of a feel for the kinds of conclusions Rosner makes.

First off, in chapter 2, Rosner explains that Christian are no longer under the law as “law covenant.” He closes the chapter “in Paul’s own words” (a summary and paraphrase):

Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one recieves life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances (81).

Further along these line, Rosner concludes chapter 3 with this summary:

Paul never says, as he does of Jews, that believers in Christ rely on the law, boast about the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth because of the law, do, observe and keep the law, on occasion transgress the law, or possess the law as letter or a written code, as a book, as decrees, or as commandments. Paul also never says, as he does of Jews, that Christians learn the law, walk according to the law, and expect good fruit and good works to flow from obedience to the law (109).

Rather than relying on the law or interacting with it in the ways for Jews delineated above, Christians rely on Christ. Rosner explains this in more detail in chapter 4. In his conclusion he contrasts more fully: “Believers in Christ do not rely on the law, but on Christ; do not boast in the law, but in God through Christ; do not find God’s will through the law, but in apostolic instruction, wisdom and gospel; are not instructed by the law, but by the gospel; and are not obliged to obey the law, but rather must obey apostolic instruction (134).”

With this in mind, Rosner goes on to explain that the law (speaking as Paul), “was written for us Christians and is part of the prophetic writings which disclose my gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ, which was a mystery kept secret for long ages, and is now made known to the Gentiles to bring about the obedience of faith (157-158).” Further, “the law was written for us Christian to teach us how to live. It was written for our instruction and the events it records were also written down to instruct us. In fact, all of the law is useful for moral teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (205).”

The final chapter of the book ties everything together and Rosner repeats all the concluding paraphrases in one place back to back. In that sense, you could read the final 2 pages of the book and get a clear snapshot of what Rosner is arguing (if you’re not satisifed by my presentation of the same material so far).

The result, to me, is a very helpful work explaining in an accessible way, how Paul uses the law in his writings, and so how it is applicable to Christians of the first as well as the twenty first century. Rosner is attentive to questions raised by the New Perspective. But at the same time, he is more or less charting his own way forward. This isn’t to say that his view is without precedent. Rather, he is not simply repeating Old Perspective positions. Neither is he following New Perspective trajectories uncritically. Instead, he is wrestling with the text from his unique perspective and coming to what I think are exegetically sound conclusions. If you are serious about understanding Paul or are interested in the theological question of how the law fits in the Christian life, this is a book you can’t miss.


Brian S. Rosner, Paul and The Law: Keeping The Commandments of God(New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August 2013. 249 pp. Paperback, $24.00

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

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Just a week ago, Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth released. Over at Christ and Pop Culture, it’s part of the rotating bundle given away to members. You can read my write up to get a 30,000 ft. overview and join Christ and Pop Culture to get the book for free.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use Cosper’s book as a launching point for discussion. In some ways, this is a book I wish I had written. Most of his main ideas I wrote about in my Th.M thesis. As it stood though, the thesis was a work in theory with no actual exposition of how it plays out in actual movies and TV shows. Cosper’s book on the other hand is mostly exposition with sparing, but when it appears, substantive interaction with other literature on the topic.

I realized after graduating that if I wanted to convert my book into something more accessible, it needed to be more focused on actual examples in movies and TV shows that people (for the most part) actually watch. I had plans to do this, but no discipline to devote to it, and inevitably, there was always something else I’d rather work on.

Luckily for all of us, Cosper had the time and the discipline and the result is an excellent read on the topic.

As the subtitle of this blog post indicates, Cosper’s introduction unpacks the way our world is full of stories. Specifically, we see this in the world of TV and movies. Considering the draw both of these forms of entertainment have, there is probably something more to stories than mere enjoyment. Cosper says, “In what follows, I intend to explore our addiction to these stories. In particular, I want to look at their common threads, and I want to explore why we keep telling them, over and over again. I believe we’re watching because TV and movies are both echoing and forming our desires, and I want to delve into what those desires really are (23).”

He then says, “I believe the gospel has given us a framework for the whole story of history. I want to explore the way our ordinary, everyday stories intersect with the bigger story that God is telling, and I want investigate what these stories reveal about being human, being fallen, and longing for redemption (23).” Ultimately then Cosper will be “less interested in debating the merits of watching content” than “in understanding what drives it (24).” Cosper wants to get to the heart of the stories we tell through TV and movies. He says that “the motivation for our stories is deeply connected with the gospel, and by thinking about that connection, we can more deeply appreciate both (24).”

I couldn’t agree more, and in fact, I might go a bit farther. You could make a case that the pervasiveness of stories and the draw of TV and movies provides a strong apologetic for the Christian worldview. It doesn’t necessarily “prove” it, but as we’ll see next week, given the arc of most stories, it is a piece of data that fits more comfortably within a Christian view of the world. This is a bit of transcendental reasoning (different than a transcendental argument), asking what would need to be true for our obsession with stories to make sense. Cosper is probing why this is and does so in a way that connects it to the gospel. I would take the same path and say that it also provides a strong argument the gospel being true. There is a “fittedness” that emerges between a world obsessed with stories and the Christian belief in a story-telling God who made humans in his image. People have an almost innate gospel longing and if they are not confronted with the Christian gospel, will find a substitute elsewhere.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but next week we’ll look a bit more at the first two chapters of Cosper’s book. On the one hand, stories tend to be “gospel-shaped.” On the other hand, many TV shows and movies are full of “objectionable content.” In immersing ourselves in these stories, how can we reflect wisely on the content both on the surface and what lies beneath? That’s what we’ll look at next week. In the meantime, join Christ and Pop Culture, pick up a free copy, and read this book for yourself!