Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Theology (Page 1 of 25)

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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Book review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.

The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.

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Full of grace and truth

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

(John 1: 14-18, abridged)

When you try to envision God, what do you see?

Many Christians – perhaps even most – see God primarily as a God of justice. In a world rife with injustice, we need God to make sure justice is done. Trouble is, the kind of justice we mostly tend to want God to uphold is the same kind we humans have been using and abusing for centuries: the kind where no misdemeanour goes unpunished and everyone gets their just deserts. In this view, God is essentially the ultimate lawmaker and law enforcer. This, we might say, is the God of Moses.

But here’s the thing: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. If there was something we humans still needed to understand about God, it wasn’t his predilection for all things legal and judicial: Moses already laid that out pretty clearly. The late Robert Farrar Capon, episcopal priest and theologian, put it this way: “For if the world could have been saved by providing good examples to which we could respond with appropriately good works, it would have been saved an hour and twenty minutes after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the the commandments.” [1]

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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]

The pinnacle of theology

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about theology. The nature of God, the person and work of Jesus, the cross, the atonement, salvation, scripture, prayer, suffering… all these and more are topics I’ve pondered and wrestled with. And no doubt I’ll continue to do so.

But…

All my reflecting, wrestling and theologising has led me to also wonder what’s the point of it all. What’s at the top of this theological mountain I’m trying to climb?

As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve realised I already know the answer. And, despite the many theological rabbit trails down which one may wander, it’s really very simple.

Ready?

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