Public Theology as Pastoral Ministry: a book review

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan aim to recover a theological vision for pastoral ministry. The Pastor As Public Theologian diagnoses our contemporary anemia as “[t]oo many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth”(1). Pastors are recast as CEOs, therapuetic gurus, managers, life coaches, community activists, storytellers, political agitators and a host of other images borrowed from secular culture (7-9). With the bifurcation of academic theology from practical disciplines, pastors increasing are leaving theology to the academics and rooting their identity in these secular cultural images.

9780801097713So Vanhoozer and Strachan propose recovery. The publican theologian is a scholar saint deeply invested in people’s lives, sound doctrine, and biblical faith. They unfurl their proposal with a brief introduction (written by Vanhoozer), an examination of biblical and historical images for pastoral ministry (Strachan), and an exploration of the purposes and practices of pastoral theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan point out the pastor’s role as an organic intellectual who builds up the body of Christ (22). Theology is too important to leave in an ivory tower. However, Strachan and Vanhoozer are both career theologians and not pastors. Between their chapters are short reflections by twelve other scholars: mostly pastors (with the exception of Cornelius Plantinga), all male, and generally Reformed. These little snippets provide an ‘on-the-ground’ view of how these ideas work out in real life. These are written by people like Josh Moody, Gerald Hiestand, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, Jim Samra, Wesley Pastor, Kevin DeYoung, David Gibson, Bill Kyes, Guy Davies, and Jason Hood.

Strachan is professor of theology and church history at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His contribution to this book explores biblical and historical images for pastoral theologians. In chapter one, he looks at the Old Testament and how Yahweh’s wisdom, truth and grace was mediated to the people through kings, prophets, and priests. While acknowledging differences between Old Covenant contexts and New Testament and contemporary realities, Strachan uses these images (of priest, prophet and king) to give us a biblical theology of the theological office in the pastorate. In chapter two he gives an overview of church history, highlighting the importance of theology  in the tradition for pastoral work. Early church theologians, Reformers,  Puritans and the leaders of the First Great Awakening (especially Jonathan Edwards), and Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga all prized the practical importance of good theology for ministry and mission; however,  Medieval Scholasticism divided theology and ministry (76-77) and contemporary populists placed no premium on theology for practical ministry (86-90).

Vanhoozer’s chapters present the fetures of their positive proposal. He argues that pastors are generalists who use theology to help form people in Christ’s image:

Christian theology is an attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory). Jesus Christ is in the thick of it: he is both the ultimate revelation of the knowledge of God and our model of how rightly to respond to this knowledge. Pastoral-theologians, too, are in the thick of it: they represent God to the people (e.g. through teaching by word and example) and the people to God (e.g. through intercessory prayer). Changing a lightbulb is child’s play compared to teaching people to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). Far from impractical, the pastoral-theologian is (or ought to be) a holy jack-of-all-existenital-trades. (104).

Vanhoozer than presents a compelling vision of the pastoral theologian’s task: expressing the gospel , with biblical, cultural and human literacy, with wisdom and love in the image of Christ. “What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing comprehending, celebrating, communicating and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125). In chapter four, Vanhoozer walks through the peculiar tasks of pastoral ministry (i.e. evangelism, counseling, visitation, preaching, teaching, liturgy, prayer, apologetics) and show how public theology enriches and enables real ministry.

This is a well reasoned account of the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, one in which I am in deep sympathy. Studying is spiritually formative for me, so I resonate with Vanhoozer and Strachan recovery of a robust theology for ministry.  My own ideas of pastoral ministry have been shaped by my reading of Eugene Peterson. As I read this book, I thought of Peterson as the public-theologian par excellence. He certainly embodies the sort of combination of thoughtfulness, active attention and pastoral concern that Strachan and Vanhoozer describe and argue for.

Nevertheless I found this book limited in a couple of respects.First, I am on board with this vision but I have served and attended churches where good theology was not valued. What this book doesn’t do is present a way to bridge the gap from the modern therapeutic/CEO models of ministry to their public theologian proposal. More work needs to be done on how this works out practically, especially in churches and contexts that ‘don’t get it.’ Second, for a book that includes contributions from fourteen people, it is exceptionally narrow. White. Protestant. Reformed. Male.  Calvinists aren’t the only Christians who value theology and the life of the mind.  Methodists, Radical Reformation churches, and Pietists deserve their due (there is one Evangelical Free Pastor, so Pietists are marginally represented). Women and minorities would bring different perspectives and concerns. I wish that Vanhoozer and Strachan widened their net beyond their own boys’ club.

But these demurrals aside, I liked this book, agreed with it and find aspects instructive for ministry and mission. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

Good News Lent: Wilderness Temptation, Part I

I am committed to hearing Good News this Lent. In a previous post I explored some of the ‘good news’ for Jesus and us in the wilderness Jesus was where the Holy Spirit wanted Him to be, it clarified and solidified His identity and mission, it was a place of preparation and purgation, and the place where Jesus back stories the gospel.

judean_wilderness1All this is true, but the best news about the wilderness is this: it doesn’t go on forever. Wildernesses are meant to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, . Israel’s forty-year wilderness wandering ended when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land; Jesus forty days preceded three years of active ministry, later a cross and a grave gave way to resurrection and glory. A dry, desolate place may be large, it may stretch on for miles in all directions, you may have been here for years, and you may have no sense when this season will end. But dry, desolate places do not encompass all reality. This is a part of the journey, it is no destination.

Mark and Luke’s gospels tells us that Jesus was ‘in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan’ (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2). Matthew places Satan’s temptation at the end of the wilderness time, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him. . .” (Matthew 4:2-3).  It is true that Jesus was in a vulnerable state after his forty-day-fast, but I think the significance of Matthew’s timeline because Jesus’ responses reveal the trajectory, tone and rules of engagement for His earthly ministry. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (a wilderness textbook) three times On his lips, these words drip with good news and expose the devil’s dead-ends. ( Matthew 4:1-11). Let’s look at the first temptation:

“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The accuser says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The immediate context tells of Jesus’ hunger after forty days fasting.  Certainly this is part of it, but Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus identifies this first temptation as a temptation toward relevance. How many hungry people could be fed if the stones would become bread? Nowen writes:

Aren’t we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones to bread he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, “Human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (18).

Rome was the oppressor. They had a wide expanse of land and resources at their disposal and ruled over diverse people groups, including Jesus’own people, the Jews. Throughout the empire they quashed rebellion through ‘bread and circuses’—people were feed just enough and distracted enough, so they didn’t organize for real change. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to embody Israel’s hopes and to restore the world  to a right relationship with him. Bread from stones is a mere pittance, a cheap parlor trick, even if it fills an immediate need. God had a plan and an end he was moving toward—a new heaven and a new earth: humanity restored and Creation made perfect. If he set that aside for bread, he would have been choosing the quick fix over God the Father’s comprehensive vision for human flourishing. We choose the Word of God over bread because the wilderness doesn’t go on forever, and we have a hope to sustain us. Courage and commitment comes as we keep the end game in mind.


 

I am not trying to be trite. I know what the wilderness is like, both in life and in ministry. I know the constrictive stress of financial obligations—mounting bills which make you feel like you can’t do anything, the stress of not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, and the fear that when it comes it won’t be enough. I know what it is to lose something you care about and to hunger for something which lies just beyond your grasp. These are the moments I long for the stones to become bread so that I can move easily = to the next big thing. Somebody buy me a lottery ticket. Stones to bread, rags to riches, anything to help me traverse this wasteland back to where I’m supposed to be. 


 

Jesus does what Esau could not (the guy who sold his birthright for a  stomachful of stew).  When Satan gives Jesus away to satisfy his physical hungry, Jesus clung tenaciously to God’s plan—every word that fell from God’s mouth. He would not be seduced by technique, quick-fixes and short term gains. God’s Word doesn’t return void but accomplishes God’s desires and purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus would not put his hope in material provision, or relevance, or magic. He trusted that what God said, God would do and He held with all his being to the promises of God.

Where is your hope? Who are you trusting in for your salvation? If we are to learn from Jesus how to not settle for bread of our own making, we need a hope and a vision big enough to sustain us through our vulnerability and weakness. Or we may sell out for a meal. Jesus knew the story and where it was headed. If we are to live by God’s Word we need to know the story. If you haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, you should. God’s Word orients us when we are in dangerous terrain.

But living by God’s Word instead of bread, also means prayer. Nouwen puts it like this,  “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love” (28). The mystic doesn’t chase bread because she knows herself to be cherished and cared for by the God of love. We will be sustained through the wilderness when we know whose we are.

Jesus would say on a different occasion that his food was to do the will of He who sent him (John 4:34). But it wasn’t as though He quit eating. The gospels are glutted with stories of Jesus lounging around a table, breaking bread with Pharisees, eating and drinking with tax collectors, sinners, lepers, and dirty-handed disciples. He would instruct his disciples to pray for daily bread. His best known miracle was, if not making bread from stones, multiplying it to feed thousands. His own life was broken as bread and given for the world. But this as ever bread for Himself. It was for the world and He remained rooted in God’s love, trusting Him wholeheartedly.

Wilderness God, You stood with lean frame and your belly distended, staring down Satan. Thank you for not quitting, but staying committed to Your  redemptive plan. Thank you for trusting the Father more than food. Help me to live with the same trust, and security that you had in the Judean Wilderness. Give me confidence that the desert doesn’t extend forever, and that at the end of it, You have good things. Help me to feed on Your Word, that I may live always in the love of God.  Amen

 

Who Ordered the Trinity? a book review

Theologians often distinguish between the Economic Trinity: the God revealed to us in the economy of salvation, and the Immanent Trinity: the Godhead’s relations between the Divine persons. The Economic Trinity is described as Father, Son and Spirit—reflecting the order of God’s self-revelation in enacting our redemption: Creator, Redeemer and Advocate. But this oversimplifies the picture of God and doesn’t do full justice to the New Testament witness of the Trinity.

4378 trinity cover CC.inddRodrick K Durst, professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary observes that the triadic ordering of Father-Son-Spirit, makes up just 24% of the seventy-five New Testament references to the Triune God (70). Any list of three items can be combined six different ways; Durst observes all six combinations of Divine Persons in the pages of Scripture. In Reordering the Trinity: Six Movements of God in the New Testament he examines the various Trinitarian references and the significance for each ordering.

Durst has a three purposes in this book. First, he wants to challenge the notion that the Trinity is not explicit in the pages of the New Testament. While the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear there, Durst presents enough examples  of triadic patterning in the New Testament to demonstrate the obvious presence of the Trinity. Secondly, he explores the meaning and purposes behind each order in their Biblical context. Third, Durst makes  the case that:

whenever and wherever Christian life and ministry have been God-glorifying, or personally satisfying or ethically prophetic or socially effective, it is precisely because a Trinitarian processional value has been consciously or unconsciously applied. Far from extinction, the Trinity flourishes everywhere and in every way as the agent of causation in which we live, minister and have our being. (60-61).

The book divides into three parts. Part one sets the table. Chapter one examines significant contributions to Trinitarian thought in contemporary theology, including the thinkers that Durst draws on in making his own case for his New Testaement Trinitarian Matrix. Chapter two lays out Durst’s raw data of New Testament triadic references. Durst catalogs each reference that includes all three members of the Trinity and evaluates each example based on intentionality. Chapter three looks at Trinitarian antecedents within the Old Testament, arguing that the Septuagint obscured the plurality of Divine persons in the One God more evident in the Hebrew text. Chapter four examines the Trinity and doctrinal development in Church History.

Part two is an in depth exploration of each of the triadic orders for the Trinity:

  • Chapter 5, Father-Son-Spirit—The missional triad emphasizing that God is sending (117).
  • Chapter 6, Son-Spirit-Father—The saving triad, describing our experience of being saved, forgiven and adopted in God’s household(194-195).
  • Chapter 7, Son-Father Spirit—The indwelling triad.
  • Chapter 8, Spirit-Father-Son—the sanctifying triad, showcasing a liturgical pattern of “Spirit-inspired reverence for the Father [which] leads to dedicated walk and service with Christ” (236).
  • Chapter, 9, Father-Spirit-Son-the Spiritual-Formation triad, God forming believers for witness for Christ (257).
  • Chapter 10, Spirit-Son-Father the ecclesial triad examining God at work in the church (276).

Part three contains a single chapter focused on how a functional Trinitarianism affects everyday worship, life and ministry.

Chapters three through eleven each close with a brief ‘sermon starter’ on the chapter’s Trinitarian theme.  Durst also includes five appendixes. Appendix A provides exhaustive tables on all the New Testament’s triadic occurrences. Appendix B is a glossary of Trinitarian terms. The other three appendixes are more practical:  a suggested exercise for praying to each part of the Trinity through the lens of the triad of your choice, a six week program of mediating on all six triads, and suggestions for explaining the trinity to children and adolescents.

Durst makes a compelling case for the diversity of Trinitarian images in the New Testament. By examining the various orders describing the Godhead, he enlarges our picture of the economic Trinity:

Theological conversations describe in previous chapters spoke of the economic Trinity exclusively as the missional procession of Father-Son-Spirit. However we must not ignore the significant textual evidence studied in this book that either we should be speaking of the “diversity of the economic Trinity” or the “Diverse Triune Economies”(288).

Durst does a good job of spelling out the significance of each triad and its implication for our ecclesiastical and devotional life. He is systematic in his handling of the textual evidence and  I appreciate his comprehensive approach. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Paul Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, previously published a major work on the Immanent Trinity, the inner-relations of the Triune God in eternity–Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (T & T Clark, 2005). In Faith, Freedom and the Spirit (IVP Academic 2015), he returns to the topic of Trinity, this time exploring the economic Trinity–God’s revelation to us in time, especially as it relates to theeconomy of salvation.  He wrote this book “as a discussion of just how a properly conceived pneumatology would assist such theologians speaking of the economic Trinity to think more accurately about divine and human interaction in the sphere of faith and knowledge within history” His aim is to “explore God’s relations with us and our relations with God within the economy by focusing on the activity of the Spirit who enables faith and freedom” (7). He affirms human freedom and the Triune God’s actions within history; however he refuses to reduce Trinitarian theology and Christology to a historicized versions of it, and reflects thoughtful on the role of Spirit in mediating the gospel of grace to us.

9780830839056
Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology by Paul D. Molnar.

Throughout this book, Molnar is in dialogue with Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and several contemporary theologians. Molnar has published monographs on both Barth and Torrance. In general, Molnar defends Barth against the neo-Barthian revisionists and uses Torrance to critique Barth in the places where Barth is inconsistent. Barth remains the genius of twentieth century theology, but where Molnar disagrees with him, he tends to follow Torrance. This is especially true when it comes to Torrance’s careful distinction between Christ’s vicarious activity for us and his ‘inner being as the Word’ (341-44).  Barth certainly affirms both, but his writings are inconsistent and allow for confusion regarding Christ’s mission and processions, and the error of subordinationism (339-340).

Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is made up of eight chapters.  The first two chapters explore the role of the Holy Spirit in imparting faith and bringing true knowledge of God through the incarnate Word. Chapters three through six critiques the missteps by contemporary theologians in understanding the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, as well as contemporary misreadings of Barth. Chapter seven explores the obedience of the Son in the economic Trinity (and why this doesn’t necessitate subordinationism, especially according to Torrance’s reading). Chapter eight unfolds the theology of grace and how it enables true human freedom (freedom to live by the Grace of God through surrender to Christ)–God’s work in human history. A brief conclusion reviews the terrain and declares the necessity of the Spirit’s work for living the Christian life.

Continue reading The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Reading Barth with Charity: a book review

Certainly George Hunsinger is a charitable reader of Barth. You’d suspect so. He is well known as a Barth scholar and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003.  He knows Barth’s theology well and the subsequent literature on Barth.  However Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermeneutical Proposal takes aim at several less charitable readings. Namely, Hunsinger takes on the Neo-Barthian revisionists for misrepresenting Barth’s theology and then calling Barth ‘inconsistent.’ At issue is whether or not Barth believes, as classic theists do, that the Trinity is the antecedent to the election of Jesus Christ or subsequent to it. The revisionists say that the category of Christ’s election is of preeminent importance in Barth  and therefore gives shape to the economic Trinity. So Hunsinger takes on the major revisionists: Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Daffyd Jones.

In his introduction, Hunsinger summarizes what he means by reading with charity. What he is arguing for is a reading which seeks to understand Barth’s point of view, starts with the assumption of truth and internal coherence, seeks to resolve and seeks to resolve apparent contradictions (xii). Hunsinger identifies the following critera to assess the revisionist position:

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties and contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attemt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisionists entitled to their key claim that Barth’s view on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole, are “inconsistent”? (xiii-xiv).

One major  point that Hunsinger demonstrates is that the textual Barth (what Barth actually wrote) contradicts the revisionist claims about the Trinity and election. Hunsinger documents repeated statements from Barth as early as 1932 and as late as 1968, when Barth died, evidence that in Barth ‘election presupposes the Trinity, rather than constitute it (52).  The claims that the revisionists make of Barth’s inconsistency, seem to be (at least in how Hunsinger presents it) ways of dismissing the claims of this actual, textual Barth.

Hunsinger  identifies several points of agreement with the revisionists. He reads them charitably, though he vehemently disagrees with their reading of Barth and identifies points of sloppy reasoning. He praises them where he thinks they read well and sensitively (especially Jones, who advocates a soft revisionist position). Hunsinger also demonstrates Barth’s metaphysical eclecticism. Barth held, at least in some form, an Anselmian ‘Perfect-Being’ theology. However he also draws on the actualistic Hegelian model. He affirms a classical Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation, but not in  way that made the incarnation ‘static and immobile.’ There was an ongoing process of incarnation (162-63)

This is a book of analytical theology and the ordinary reader may wonder why it matters at which point in eternity God elected Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. I think Hunsinger frames well what is at stake. If the election of the Son dictated the make up of the Trinity than the constitution of the Godhead is subsequent to the plan for human redemption. If the Trinity is presumed first than the Godhead acts in freedom to redeem humanity. This seems to be a more consistently Barthian claim and have a better rational basis. The Son exists in eternity as the logos asarkos before he is the incarnate one (logos ensarkos).

I give this book five stars because I think that it is a important scholarly book for clarifying Barth’s theology. No doubt the revisionists named by Hunsinger will make a response which will further the debate and clarify it further. If you are not aware of at least the broad contours of the debate you will find this book difficult despite its brevity (about a 180 pages). So I recommend this only for the serious student of Barth.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Paul’s Last Days: a book review

Scholars debate the center of Paul’s theology. Protestant Reformers saw ‘Justification by faith’ as their hermeneutical key. The Tubingen theory (from F.C. Baur et al.) posited a dialectic between Paul’s message of  ‘justification by faith’ with Peter’s ‘justification by faith plus the works of the Torah.’ A Third hypothesis reads a shift in Paul–from Judaism to Hellenistic religion. A fourth possibility is that Paul’s theology is ‘Jewish eschatology but in a revised form’ (14-16). This is the position that C. Marvin Pate argues for in Apostle of the Last Days: the Life, Letters and Theology of Paul-. 

There have been varying eschatological constructs for understanding the New Testament (Jesus and Paul). “Consistent Eschatology” argues for a wholly futurist understanding of ‘last days.’ At the other extreme, a “Realized Eschatology” argues that the Kingdom of God has already come in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. A mediating position, is “Inaugurated Eschatology.” This view acknowledges both that Jesus’ mission and life announced the Kingdom, but it has not come in its fullness. It is now, but not yet. Pate argues that this best describes the Apostle Paul’s apocolypticism (19).

However the genesis of Pate’s approach is his observation of a clash of eschatologies between Paul and his opponents.  Apostle of the Last Days examines the Pauline epistles and the issues that Paul addressed, While Paul had an ‘inaugurated eschatology’ with Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center, his opponents clung to diverse, eschatological hopes. The Imperial cult, Hellenistic religion and Jewish Merkabah Mysticism (sometimes in a Christian variety) had different  versions of a  realized eschatology. Non-Christian, non-merkbah Judaism had a consistent eschatology, which awaited God’s future (political) deliverance. The Christian Judaizers had an inaugurated eschatology, but by giving weight to the Mosaic tradition they downplayed Jesus’ significance.

In part one of this book, Pate walks through each of the epistles and shows how Paul answered each of these opponents and the way he expressed his own eschatological hope. Part two examines Paul’s theology in systematic categories with an eye towards how Paul’s eschatology shapes his thinking about God.

This is a good book. Pate’s eschatological read of Paul (and his opponents) illuminates his epistles. Paul’s Christological hope was grounded in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and Paul awaited a future reality where Christ returns to put the world to rights. So there is a lot that is fruitful here. Pate walks through the entire Pauline corpus. I found I didn’t always agree with his handling of individual passages and was occasionally bothered by a supercessionist tone which described ‘the Old Testament’ as ‘works righteousness’ and faith and Jesus as the gift of grace. There is a greater continuity between testaments than Pate allows. God’s choice of Israel was not rooted in merit, but in Divine pleasure. Yet  I appreciated his analysis.

Eschatology is a word which many of us are wary of. Certainly there has been an unhealthy fascination with what Christ return will look like (and who ‘the beast’ is). Nevertheless I appreciate Pate’s description of Paul’s eschatological hope. This book contributes to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Paul’s gospel. Anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of the Pauline Epistles will benefit from Pate’s walk-through. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thoughts on Part I, Paul & the Faithfulness of God: Flipping the Bird at the Ancient World

Having waited years for the release of N.T. Wright’s major ‘Paul book,’ I’ve been pleased that, for me, it is living up to the hype. I have only finished part one (which is midway through book one of this volume). I have had plenty of ‘geek out’ moments along the way. I love the structure of the book.

Wright has organized his book into a chiasm which I think is  absolutely brilliant for exploring Paul: Part I introduces Paul’s world, Part II describes his mindset, Part III, his theology, Part IV places Paul in his World. Additionally, each of these sections is divided by the inclusion of poems by Michael O’Siadhail which illuminate the themes.At the close of Part I, is  O’Siadhail’s poem Collection:

Earlier three birds on a tree

But now only one

Imagine swoops of homing rooks

As evening tumbles in

Cawing and wheeling to gather

In skeleton brances

With nodes of old nest blackening

Into the roosting night.

 

Treetop colony

A rookery congregates.

Dusky assemblage.

 

Whatever instinct makes us hoard,

A desire to amass

Toys, dolls, marbles, bird’s-nests and eggs

We fondle and brood on

Or how we’d swoop like rooks to nab

Spiky windfalls stamping Open their milky husks to touch,

Smooth marvels of chestnut.

The collector’s dream

To feel, to caress, to keep.

A bird in the hand. (348)

 

I have no idea how O’Siadhail’s poetry functions later in the book, but this poem gives Wright an organizing image for presenting us the ancient world. After opening this book with an exploration of the book of Philemon (Wright’s own entry into Paul’s world when he was five. I am pretty sure when I was five, I was more enamored with The Little Engine That Could), Wright examines Paul’s Jewish context, his Greek philosophical context, his Roman religious context and his imperial context.  While Paul’s Jewish context does not have a named bird–it is the Spirit that broods here–the other three contexts each of an avian signifier: The Athenian Owl, the Cock for Asclepius, and the Eagle of Empire.

Part I is laying the ground for what Wright will do in the rest of the book. Wright’s exploration of Philemon illuminates how Paul was bound by his context and yet subverts many of the prevailing cultural values (i.e. he doesn’t overturn slavery but he does give dignity to Onesimus). Wrights exploration of Paul’s Jewish context, brings into sharper focus his discussion of the Pharisees in The New Testament & the People of God. The three birds of philosophy, religion and empire will each play apart in Paul’s articulation of the gospel. Wright is a good historian and most of his claims here are not particularly controversial. He is careful to say that the Pharisees were more than theological legalists (they were sincere believers in covenant trying to navigate occupied territory). The Greek-philosophical context illuminates points of contact with Paul, especially the similarity between some of his ethical claims, and that of the Stoics. Wright describes the religious landscape as both ‘pluralist’ and highly traditional. The public rites were expected and ‘new religions’ which challenged the status-quo would bring you into conflict with the wider culture. The Roman imperial context both allowed the free spread of the Gospel and represented a challenge: Jesus was Lord, which means Caesar is not. Also Paul’s background as a Pharisee already means he was formed by his opposition to the Empire.

This sets the stage for what Wright will say in the rest of the book (I’ve only sketched a few of themes that Wright explores here). Wright argues that for Paul, earlier there were three birds on a tree/ but now there is only one. While this is a book which describes Paul’s theological genius, it was Jesus that flips over these ancient birds. Wright says in the conclusion to this section:

The birds had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon would come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light.  Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occured 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 passion for genuine and restorative justice (346).

I look forward to how parts II-IV describe how Paul brought the news of this Jesus to the ancient world. Earlier three birds on a tree, but now there is only one (the three-in-one).  This book is so much fun!