Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Book review: Pauline Dogmatics by Douglas A. Campbell

Today I have the pleasure of sharing some thoughts about the latest (big) book from Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell, titled Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. Campbell is a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School (North Carolina, USA) and is well known for having already published a number of popular and scholarly works on Paul, including a highly accessible account of Paul’s life and theological development, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, and a groundbreaking (and massive) scholarly treatment, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.

Given that Pauline Dogmatics weighs in at over 700 pages, it would be impossible in the scope of a single short review to do anything more than briefly skim over its surface and offer a few high-level observations – so that’s what I’ll attempt to do.

What is Pauline Dogmatics all about? Put simply, it is Campbell’s attempt to construct a full-orbed theology of Paul built on Paul’s writings as they come to us in the New Testament. Campbell himself describes it as his “basic account of Paul’s deepest and most important theological convictions, their ideal coordination, and the further steps we need to take to bring those convictions into a constructive conversation with our modern locations” (p. 1). It’s not uncommon for preachers and others with an interest in biblical application to rummage about in Paul’s writings in an attempt to work out what his position was on this or that theological issue (justification, the role of men and women in society and the church, eschatology, etc.). The problem with that kind of approach is that it’s all too easy to end up with a grab-bag of disconnected bits and pieces of theology that are more likely to be shaped by the reader’s own biases than by whatever underlying framework Paul’s writings were grounded in. The mission Campbell sets himself here – and it’s an ambitious one – is to recover and reconstruct that underlying framework so that each and every piece of Paul’s theology can be seen in proper perspective as a component of a coherent overarching theology and worldview.

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Book review: That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart

In the years-long process of reconfiguring my theology from rigid, evangelical dogmatism to something much richer, deeper, truer and more life-giving, one of the last changes I publicly acknowledged was the abandonment of the idea of a hell of eternal torment. (The piece I wrote when I finally, publicly let go of that abhorrent notion is here.) If I left it late to publicly nail my colours to the mast on the question of hell, it was partly because I hadn’t spent much time and effort digging into the topic, and partly because the existence of a hellish alternative to paradise is such a foundational component of evangelical dogma that I was wary of the backlash such a public disavowal might provoke. (In the event, it didn’t provoke much of a backlash at all – probably because anyone who might have called for my burning at the stake either simply didn’t notice or had already written me off as a heretic long before.)

I say all of that to say this: had David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall Be Saved been available for me to read a decade or so ago, I would probably have dispensed with the abhorrent notion of a hell of eternal torment much sooner than I did – and, having read the book, I would have been able to do so with a fair amount of confidence.

For those not familiar with David Bentley Hart, he is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a prolific writer, philosopher and cultural commentator. The “Eastern Orthodox” part of those credentials is important, because it means Hart’s theology and philosophy is rooted in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers, relatively untainted by later layers of (mis)interpretation and obfuscation.

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Book review: A More Christlike Way by Brad Jersak

I’ve been dabbling in amateur theology for a few years now. One of the main reasons I find theology a worthwhile pursuit – beyond the pure intellectual joy of contemplating and wrestling with some of life’s biggest questions – is that our theology inescapably affects how we inhabit and move through the world. Our actions mostly flow out of our attitudes, which in turn are strongly influenced by what we believe about ultimate reality – which, after all, is what theology is all about.

My own theological journey has been one of significant change over the past decade or so. My perspective on key issues like the character of God, the nature of Jesus, the atonement, forgiveness, sin, salvation, and so on is very different now from what it was not so long ago. And I’m not alone: largely through the magic of the internet, I’m fortunate to have gained a great many friends who’ve been on or are still on similar journeys. Perhaps now more than ever before, people all over the world are challenging stale orthodoxies and discovering healthier, more life-giving ways to think about God and faith.

However, remodelling your long-held beliefs is not for the faint of heart: when seeming certainties you’ve been taking for granted for decades are suddenly thrown open to question, it can be a challenging and sometimes bewildering process. Adding to the difficulty, those in the midst of theological reorientation can often find themselves feeling quite isolated as the people with whom they’ve shared their faith experience thus far prove unable (and/or unwilling) to provide answers to their questions or even to sympathise with their plight.

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Church reborn – A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter (Pentecost)

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s text is Acts 2:1-21. You can read it here.


I have the honour of preaching on the Day of Pentecost. It’s a particular honour because today is also a significant day in the life of St Giles’ Church, Exhall. Why? Because it’s the final Sunday before our new vicar formally takes up her role. Almost a year of self-examination, anticipation and preparation is drawing to a close, and hopefully we’re all looking forward to moving into a new season filled with hope and possibility.

So as we stand on the threshold between these two seasons in the life of our church, reflecting on the journey that’s brought us to this point and wondering what lies ahead, I’d like us to take a few moments to see what we can learn from what happened to Jesus’ followers as they gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

Gathered together

The first thing I notice in our reading from Acts is that, as Luke, the writer, tells us, “they were all together in one place”. This might seem an insignificant detail, easy to skip over without giving it a second thought. They were all in a room together – so what?

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What kind of messiah? A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.


In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.

Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.

This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.

Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?

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Broken and poured out – A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 12:1-8. You can read the text here.


Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(“The Anointing at Bethany”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Retelling the story

Picture the scene. It’s Saturday evening and the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is already swelling beyond its usual size as pilgrims arrive for Passover, just a few days away. We find Jesus and his closest associates in Bethany, a village about a mile and a half away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus has already been to Bethany, not long ago. You might say he made quite a splash, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. In fact, the commotion around the raising of Lazarus prompted the Sanhedrin – the Jewish council – to make plans to arrest Jesus and have him killed. In raising Lazarus, Jesus graduated from being a manageable nuisance to representing a serious threat to the religious authorities. Ironically, in restoring Lazarus to life, he effectively signed his own death warrant.

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Shifting perspective – a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28-36. You can read the text here.


As many of you know, my wife and I recently became grandparents for the first time. I know I’ve talked about this a lot lately, but it’s what you do when you become grandparents! It’s been fun reminiscing about what it was like to become parents ourselves, and watching our son and daughter-in-law make many of the same discoveries we did. One of the most striking things about having kids is how dramatically your perspective on life shifts when you become a parent. Typically, it’s not something you just take in your stride: when you have a baby, your whole world – by which I mean not only the practical arrangement of your life, but the whole way you see the world – changes. Becoming a parent is a change of circumstance that causes a dramatic shift in perspective.

Becoming a parent is an example of what’s sometimes called a paradigm shift. In this context, a paradigm means a set of assumptions that determine how we see the world. We all have a paradigm – we might also call it a worldview – and it’s usually something we’re not consciously aware of until we have an experience that challenges our previously unquestioned assumptions.

One characteristic of a paradigm shift is that it’s not simply a case of acquiring new information or knowledge. You can read about having a baby; you can even attend ante-natal classes to learn about what to expect when the baby arrives; but until you actually have a baby, you’ll never experience the huge change in perspective and worldview that results from becoming a parent.

To reiterate, then, a paradigm shift is not simply about acquiring new information: it’s a change of perspective, a shift to a whole new level of awareness or consciousness.

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