Book Plunge: In Search Of Ancient Roots

What do I think of Kenneth Stewart’s book published by IVP Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Historically, many times different denominations have not gotten along. Today, there is much more communication and with the internet here, many people are coming across other belief systems they would have no access to before. Many an orthodox Protestant can be wondering about their belief system. Where did it come from?

Stewart’s book is written to help those searching Protestants. While not for any one particular denomination, he does work to show that many of the beliefs and such that we have today go back to our ancestors. Not only that, there was great theological development even on core doctrines. One quick example is the Trinity. It’s not that Jesus rose from the dead and immediately the apostles got together and wrote the Nicene Creed. The outworking of that event took at least three centuries to get to Nicea and today we can look back and see the development of the doctrine.

One great theme of this book is that the Fathers matter. I remember asking someone well over a decade ago in talking about apologetics if they could name an early church father. The only name that came to mind was John Wesley. That’s why we have to do a better job educating. So many people know so little about these great people that many times gave their lives for the Christian faith. We not only don’t know our doctrines, but we don’t know the history behind those doctrines.

Stewart definitely wants us to return to the Fathers. He tells us that early Protestants were known for doing this. Today we think of other traditions scouring the Fathers, but he says in the past the Protestants were the ones doing this the most. There’s no reason Protestants today can’t be doing in-depth research on the Fathers.

He also speaks about examples of debates that we have today. The two he chooses are the frequency of the Lord’s Supper and if we should participate in infant baptism. Both of these chapters bring up points that will be of interest to anyone in these debates.

There’s also a chapter on the history of Newman with the look at the claim that to study church history is to cease to be Protestant. Stewart contends that there are two different Newmans. One is the one presented in many popular writings. The other is one the Catholic Church itself was unsure about.

Towards the end, he starts looking at the harder issues. Many of these chapters I thought would actually work better at the beginning of the book. These include the claim that the Roman Church does have the highest authority due to the seat of Peter being occupied. Stewart argues that the data for this is not as strong as would be like and the claim is not helped by the fact that many times there were rival popes and each pope was busy excommunicating the other.

There’s also a chapter on the history of justification by faith. I find the fact that so many have written on this to show that the early Fathers taught this as fascinating, but there was one blind spot here. I did not see any quotations from the Fathers. I would have liked to have seen some of those at least. One could not get an encyclopedic look of course, but something would be nice.

Finally, it ends with why people abandon Protestantism and go the other way. Again, the message is that we need to really study our history and our doctrine. We have had a sort of anti-intellectualism come over the church and too many have the idea that everything just fell down from heaven and the history is irrelevant. We need to know not only where we are and where we are going, but how we got here.

Those interested in church history will benefit from reading this. It would be good for those on all sides of any such debate. I hope we can return to some serious look at our history. In an age of greater skepticism, we need it more and more not just because of the constant changing of churches, but because of outside attacks on all churches.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

What is the Gospel?

When we talk about the Gospel, what do we mean? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Yesterday after my post, I went back to David Wood’s page where there was a debate on ecumenism and whether Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ or not. Now I am not Catholic of course, but I do ministry at times with Catholics and with Orthodox as well, but Catholics are usually the favorite target. We have no problem accepting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Normally, I don’t enter this debate at all, but this time, I figured I’d do it since it involved the defense of a friend.

So when the charge comes up and the Gospel is mentioned, I notice that it looks like we all think we know what the Gospel is, so I ask first if Jesus and Paul preached the same Gospel. I know where I’m going and I think this is problematic for some of these and I get told yes. I ask what that Gospel is and I get told the message of justification through faith. Wonderful. So I ask, where exactly do you see Jesus teaching this? After all, in Mark 1:15, Jesus shows up on the scene telling people to repent and believe the Gospel. Is He telling them to repent and believe that they are justified through faith?

Of course, if you know the Gospels, this isn’t a central theme of Jesus’s. Of course, Jesus does point to internal realities more than external ones, but the main teaching of His life is the Kingdom of God. In fact, I’m told that the words of Jesus aren’t just limited to red so you go and look at Paul and you see that this is what Jesus taught. I find this problematic. If we want to understand the Gospel, shouldn’t we start with Jesus? I don’t disparage Paul after all. Paul is immensely valuable and sacred Scripture as well, but isn’t Jesus the original teacher we should look to first?

I found it sad that no one could point this out to me. Here I am supposed to be told that justification by faith is the Gospel that Jesus taught and yet nowhere do I see this being His teaching. Nowhere do I see this being a point of debate between Him and the Pharisees. Of course I know about “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and I know about the tax collector and the Pharisee, but you don’t see an out and out soteriology in Jesus. In fact, we all know he has some statements such as “Sell all you have and give to the poor.” We also know he has “Believe on the one whom God sent”, but the whole Pauline emphasis is not really there.

So finally after having these guys who were all about the Gospel being unable to answer enough, they finally turned to ask me. Interestingly, I was also asked such questions as if do I believe Jesus is God. After all, if you fellowship with Catholics, well your whole doctrine entirely needs to be called into question. (And I don’t even like “Is Jesus God?” That could be easily mistaken for modalism. I prefer to say Jesus possesses fully the nature of God and man as the second person of the Trinity, but I understand the theological shorthand.)

So what is the Gospel?

God created Adam and Eve to live in union with Him. He would be their God and they would be His people. Unfortunately, they decided to go it their own way and partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In response, God kicked them out of the garden and they were separated from Him.

Then Jesus came and……wait….that sure seemed to skip a lot didn’t it? I mean, do we really need all that stuff from Genesis 4 to Malachi 4? Is that really relevant to the story of Jesus?

Maybe, just maybe, maybe it is.

Tell you what. Let’s go through and see.

After Adam and Eve fall, mankind gets wickeder and wickeder. Their own children have a case of one brother killing the other. Eventually, God decides he will flood the world save for one man and his three sons and their wives and start anew.

After this, mankind decides to build a tower. Can’t have that happening again. God decides to confuse their languages and send them out as different peoples then. He chooses one person from one group of people and makes a covenant with him. That man was Abraham. God promises that all the peoples on Earth will be blessed through him.

Through miraculous means, this old man has a son and he is promised that through his son the promise will be fulfilled. God then tells Abraham to sacrifice this son named Isaac. Abraham is willing and God stops him. Abraham showed that he believed God would fulfill the promise even if he had to kill Isaac. God showed Abraham meanwhile how different He is from all the pagan gods. They would have demanded child sacrifice. YHWH puts a stop to it.

Isaac does grow up and have descendants and the story of Abraham is passed on until eventually, the people arrive in Egypt due to a famine. 400 years later, the people are in slavery and cry out to return to the land of Abraham. God hears them and sends them Moses. Moses delivers them through the Red Sea and takes them to Mount Sinai where they form a covenant relationship with YHWH through His Law. The Law will be how the people show the world that they are a unique people of God.

The people enter the land, but soon become unfaithful. God sends judges to them to return them to YHWH, but that is not enough. Eventually, a king is installed. The first one is a failure, but the second one is David, who is seen as the best king Israel ever had. God makes a covenant with David that one of his descendants will sit on his throne forever. This is in response to David wanting to build a house for God. God says David will not do that, but that his son will.

David’s next descendant, Solomon, does indeed build a temple. This is where God dwells with His people again. The temple becomes a symbol of the presence of God with the people, but the people grow arrogant and complacent about it. They think that God will never abandon it, as if He needs His temple. God sends them prophets when they neglect His Law, but they do not listen. Eventually, the people are sent into exile and the temple is destroyed.

About seventy years after that, the people are allowed to return to the land and build a new temple. The people are back and they have a temple, but something is wrong. Foreigners are in charge of the land. At the time of Jesus, it is Rome. How could it be that God is with His people and yet He lets pagan people rule the land? When is the Kingdom of David going to return? The people might be in the land geographically, but they do not have the charge of the land. It is still incomplete. Has God abandoned His people? Will He return?

Then Jesus came.

When Jesus shows up, He speaks about the Kingdom of God and even says it is right there. He asks people to believe the Gospel. What is the Gospel? God has returned to His people. God is present in Jesus. Even more startling, Jesus does signs to show that He is the Messiah of Israel and the one who will sit on the throne of David and through whom God will reign.

The rulers don’t like Jesus coming in on their turf and they fear a revolution. In a series of political events, they crucify Jesus. This will silence the claims of Him being a Messiah. If He is the Messiah, He will not be crucified. God will rescue Him. Unfortunately for His followers watching, Jesus dies. He is not rescued. He is buried in a tomb. Done. Kaput. Game Over. Let’s move on with our lives now.

But the game is not done. The story is not ended. The tomb is found empty and Jesus is alive again. What does this mean? If true (And it is), it means that God has vindicated Jesus. Jesus is indeed the Messiah. He is the one through whom God will reign.

This is why resurrection is so central to Paul. The resurrection is how God has shown who Jesus is. It’s more than “Jesus is alive and therefore He’s the Messiah.” It’s just as much about what Jesus did before the cross as what happened after. After all, as N.T. Wright says, if one of the thieves next to Jesus had been raised the Jews would say “YHWH is doing some strange things.” They would not say “The Messiah has come!”

This is why Paul does preach the same Gospel. The good news is God has come to be with His people. Jesus says it beforehand promising He will be that one. Paul says it after showing that by His resurrection, Jesus is the promised Messiah. God has returned to be with His people through Jesus. It was not just the land that was to be redeemed. It was indeed all the nations of the world.

Okay. So what about justification through faith? What does that have to do with it?

As I said earlier, in the past, you obeyed the Law not to be justified, but to show that you were. We often have this idea that Paul wrestled with the Law. Not at all. Go read his autobiography in Philippians 3. He was faultless before it. Yes. But what about Romans 7?

I don’t see that as autobiographical. I see that as Paul playing out a part. This is not a new view. Even Origen held this view. How would Paul describe himself as alive apart from the Law for instance? He never knew a life apart from it. I also think it’s problematic if you interpret this text as the Christian struggle. If you identify yourself with Romans 7, you will likely miss out your real identity in Romans 8.

Here’s the real deal then. Paul never wrestled with the Law and then said “Oh! Following Christ! I’m free from this burden!” No. Instead he said that he was blameless before the Law, but he counted that all as rubbish. The Greek word here is Skubalon and I have even been told that that can be translated as if it were something I would not say on this blog. That is how strong Paul’s language is.

The new marker then for showing you’re one of God’s is not keeping the Law. It is if you trust in Christ. Of course, this trust will result in good works. No one should oppose good works, but those good works are not done to obtain salvation but because you have already been given it. This is where justification comes in. It is not the faith that saves you so much as the object that you put your faith in. If you say “Justification by faith” I have to ask “Faith in what?” Then we get to the meat of the Gospel.

Now some might think this went long. It should. Israel was not something God tried for awhile and then said “Forget this. I’m going with the church.” Israel is part of the Gospel just as much. It is essential to know that Jesus is the Messiah. It’s so essential that Paul references it so much that some people, ignorantly of course, have thought that Christ was a last name as if Jesus was born to Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Today, we treat it as an afterthought. Oh yeah. Jesus is the Messiah. Paul didn’t treat it that way. Paul saw it as central.

And for that to be central, Jesus has to be the Messiah of Israel. For that to matter, we have to know Israel’s story. We dare not leave it out. Israel’s story is ours. We are just as much the people of God.

This is the good news. This is the Gospel. It reaches its full fulfillment in Revelation, but we are ambassadors of this good news for now. Jesus is not just the savior. He is not just the forgiver of your sins. He is the Messiah. He is your King. He is THE King.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Paul Was Not A Christian. The Original Message Of A Misunderstood Apostle

What do I think of Pamela Eisenbaum’s book published by HarperCollins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I often read mythicist material so when I see a book titled “Paul was not a Christian” I immediately start to suspect that this is the kind of material I’m going to be looking at. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. She is actually a rarity in that she is a Jewish New Testament scholar and she does have a Ph.D. in the field. If someone comes here thinking they will find something along the lines of a mythicist argument or conspiracy theory nonsense, they will not find it. Instead, one will find interaction with other leading scholars in the field and a scholarly argument from Eisenbaum’s side.

And yet, if the title is an indication of the message she wants us to get, I ultimately think she fails. Before I say why that is, let’s look at what she does say.

Eisenbaum is rightly concerned about a negative view of Judaism that too many Christians have. In this, she is correct. We often have this idea that Jews were suffering under the weight of the Law and wondering how they could be holy before a God who was just demanding so much of them and would have loved any chance of grace. This in spite of the fact that the OT regularly speaks about forgiveness and grace. This despite the fact that in Philippians 3 Paul describes himself as blameless with regard to the Law. Sure, there were disputes in Judaism over who was and wasn’t a Jew and what got one to be considered a Jew, but it was not really the legalistic system that some Christians make it out to be. More power to Eisenbaum in critiquing this view.

I also agree with Eisenbaum that too often we make the central message of Paul to be justification by faith. Is this a message of Paul? Yes. Is it the main message? No. His message would have also been that of Jesus and justification by faith was an outworking of that message. Paul’s message would have centered around Jesus being crucified and resurrected. The emphasis on justification by faith assumes the point above being contested, that Paul lived in a world where Jews were struggling under the Law and that they just wanted a way to be righteous before God. Most of them already saw themselves as righteous before God. The Law was not followed so they would be righteous, but to show that they were righteous.

Eisenbaum is certainly also right that we should take Paul’s identity as a Jew seriously, especially since he himself said he was one. Paul should be seen as a Jew who was well-learned in the Hellenistic culture of the time. One of the great realities that has had to be learned in the quest for the historical Jesus is that Jesus was a Jew. The same needs to be said about Paul as well. Paul was a Jew. It’s important also to note that while Eisenbaum wants to make sure Paul is not seen as anti-Jewish, and he is not, Eisenbaum herself is not anti-Paul. Nothing in the book is meant to put Paul in a negative light. In fact, Paul is highly respected throughout Eisenbaum’s work and she seriously wrestles with what he says.

Eisenbaum does say that the social context Paul wrote in was not monolithic or homogeneous due to multiple writings going around and the canon was a fourth-century development, but this could be a kind of all-or-nothing thinking. Were there disputes and factions and such? Yes. Were there however unifying beliefs that we find? Yes. We could be sure Paul would not include anyone in the body who did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus in a bodily sense. After all, in 1 Cor. 15 if Jesus has not been raised then our faith is in vain, which has the assumption that the faith of all of us is that Jesus has been bodily raised.

Eisenbaum is also right that Paul does not use the language of conversion. Does he speak of a call of Jesus and the appearance of Jesus to Him? Yes. Eisenbaum is certainly right that this does not mean that Paul ever ceased to be a Jew and too often we have used the language of conversion. In fact, Richards, Reeves, and Capes in their book Rediscovering Paul also agree and say we should speak more of the call of Paul than we should speak of the conversion.

I also agree with Eisenbaum that Romans 7 is not an autobiographical account of Paul’s personal struggles. I see it more at this point as a description of Adam who was the last named character. Paul would not have described himself as alive apart from the Law for instance and when we read his account in Philippians 3, we see no such idea of a struggle with Paul. This is something in fact that Westerners have read into the text.

Throughout the book then, the reader will find relevant material on the new perspective on Paul, what makes a Jew a Jew, and the early Christian view of Jesus. Now there were some points I did disagree with. I disagree with her view on Christology and I think the work of scholars like Bauckham, Tilling, Hurtado, and others have definitely shown that the earliest Christology is the highest Christology. I also disagree with her that the crucifixion would not necessarily have been seen as falling under the Deuteronomic condemnation of those who were hung on a tree. I think Evans has made an excellent case in his latest book, though to be fair this definitely came out after Eisenbaum’s writing.

So in all of this, why is it then that I disagree with Eisenbaum’s claim that Paul was not a Christian? There’s a very simple reason.

Nowhere did I see Eisenbaum state what a Christian is.

It could be tempting to say that of course we all know what a Christian is, but that still needs to be addressed. For instance, if being a Christian means citing the Nicene Creed and affirming a formulaic view of Trinitarian theology, then would we say that it could be there were no Christians and no Christianity until later in church history? This sounds like an absurd position to take. If we say that a Christian for Paul would be someone who saw Jesus as the resurrected Messiah and Lord of all, then we could definitely say that Paul was a Christian. The problem is that Eisenbaum argues throughout that Paul never ceased to be a Jew so he would not have been a Christian, but this makes it be that if one is a Jew, one cannot be a Christian, and vice-versa. Ironically, Eisenbaum who is arguing that Christianity does not mean opposition to Judaism has herself created an opposition to Christianity in her work. That one cannot be a Jew and a Christian both would certainly be news to many Messianic Jews today.

This is the main problem then I find. Eisenbaum has written that Christians have imposed a split and she herself has that exact same split the other way. This should not detract from the excellent material in her work and we should take the views of Judaism from such a scholar seriously and we should learn to read Paul as a Jew, but we should still also read Paul as a Christian and in fact, because he was a Christian, he was exceptionally Jewish. After all, if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and He is, what could be more in line with being a Jew than believing in the Messiah of the Jews?

So by all means go out and read this work for the scholarly insights within, but the main point is still not established. Much of what Paul said has been misunderstood due to what our culture has imposed onto the text, but the dichotomy is not really there and we as Christians should embrace the Jewishness of our Christian brother Paul.

In Christ,
Nick Peters