Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Scripture (Page 1 of 11)

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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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.

Introduction

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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The glory we seek

This morning’s Old Testament lectionary reading included the following verse:

“I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay on them.” (Ezekiel 39:21)

The context: twenty-five years into an exile that would eventually last seventy years, Israel is still trying to make sense of the disaster that has come upon it. The Prophet explains that it is God’s punishment for disobedience, and thus a display of His glory.

What struck me is how glory – even God’s glory – is directly equated with the ability to inflict punishment. The greater the punishment that can be inflicted, the greater the glory.

How little things have changed. Shock and awe, fire and fury… As nations, we obsess over our ability to deliver punishment, and the more devastating, the better. And, of course, we are the righteous agents of God as we do so!

Here is a clue as to how Jesus understood glory:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:23–25)

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

[Image: Stephen Oung]

Strength in weakness, weakness in strength

Among the Apostle Paul’s most famous sayings is “When I am weak, then I am strong”, found in 2 Corinthians 12:10. The context is a discussion of power being made perfect in weakness, and of Christ’s power dwelling in the Apostle.

This saying has widely been interpreted to mean that when we lay aside our own human “strength” – which could figuratively be taken to mean our skill, ability, confidence… more generally, our ability to take things into our own hands and get things done – we open ourselves up for the power of God to work through us. Conversely, when we rely on our own strength, skills and abilities, we fail to make room for God’s power to work through us. While this seems a reasonable enough interpretation on the face of it, I’d like to suggest that it has some serious weaknesses.

The main problem I see with this understanding is that it tends to assume that the divine power that is made room for by human weakness is a kind of controllable substance or flow, perhaps a bit like an electrical current. If the switch is in the “on” position, the power will flow; with the switch in the “off” position, there will be no divine power. To turn the switch on, all we have to do is make sure we are not operating out of our human strength and abilities, and God will provide the power. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say “Let go and let God”, I’d have a lot of pennies). This is a totally transactional view in which if we do X, God is duty-bound to do Y. Because God cannot be controlled in this way, and because, in any event, God simply does not engage with us at a transactional level, this view is bunk.

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Sheep and goats redux

Goat‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

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What is God like?

5546445579_fce4e05671_oI am generally in agreement with those who say that the most important theological question we can ask ourselves is, “What is God like?”

I think this is a question we humans have been asking ourselves for many thousands of years. And I also think how we answer this question is very much determinative of our general worldview and how we conduct our lives. In other words, it is not simply an abstract, philosophical question: it has a direct bearing on the here and now.

You may have heard the expression, “You are like the God you worship”. I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. In other words, if you believe in an aggressive, warlike God, you are quite likely to exhibit aggressive, warlike behaviour; conversely, if you believe in a compassionate, peace-loving God, you are quite likely to direct your efforts towards achieving peaceful and non-violent coexistence with your neighbours in this world.

The Old Testament is, in many ways, an argument or debate between those with different answers to the question, “What is God like?” Through the Torah and the historical books, the wisdom writings and the prophets, we find competing images of God: some depict him as a punctilious law-keeper determined to mete out punishment at the slightest offence; some paint him as a warrior God who protects his servants but is merciless to his enemies; yet others portray him as a God of endless compassion and mercy whose patience never runs out.

The question is, which of these depictions of God is right? What is God really like?

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Cognitive dissonance

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The image above was shared by a friend on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was too good not to comment on, at least briefly.

Which of you if, while listening to the news, hears of an episode of large-scale ethnic cleansing, will not rush to condemn it as utterly barbaric and ungodly? (And let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of examples in the last decade or two, from the former Yugoslavia to West Africa, not forgetting ISIS’s atrocious actions in Iraq and Syria.)

And yet, when Christians read of Israel’s slaughter of indigenous Canaanite populations in the Old Testament, any remotely similar response often seems to be lacking.

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