Simply Good News – Simply N.T. Wright (Gupta)

SGN

A few weeks ago, I was in a bookstore (yes, they still exist!) and I came across a discounted copy of N.T. Wright’s latest book, Simply Good News (HarperOne, 2015). I’ve now read a good bit of it and it is a nice short synthesis of his work on the grand story of Scripture and the meaning of the gospel for Christian life. This is, perhaps, the easiest introduction to Wright’s work for laypeople from Wright himself (hence, Simply N.T. Wright). For those who have read several of Wright’s “big” books, Simply Good News is helpful insofar as one can see how all the little pieces fit together in his mind.

To get a quick sense for how wide-ranging his interests are, here are some selections from the subject index:

-Augustus

-Calvin

-Dante

-Darwin

-Derrida

-English Rugby World Cup

-Handel, George Frideric

-Mandela

You get the idea.

A nice “treat” in the book is the final chapter on prayer, where he goes back to the subject of the Lord’s Prayer which he discussed in his 1997 book The Lord and His Prayer.

 

Rutledge on the Crucifixion Part 2 (Gupta)

Rutledge

This is a series on Crucifixion, by Fleming Rutledge. (see part 1)

Here I would like to discuss Rutledge’s chapter on “The Godlessness of the Cross.” Her emphasis falls on the horror of the cross: “Most of us are conditioned to think of Jesus’ death as the scandal, when in fact it is not the death in itself, but the mode of death that creates the offense” (72). When she refers to the “godlessness” of the cross (paying especially tribute to Moltmann and Bonhoeffer on the subject), she means that the cross intrudes upon the expectations we have for the niceties of religiosity, worship, and liturgy. We expect religion to be “proper” and “formal” and “comfortable.” (As she notes later on, right now “spirituality” is “in,” but the cross would forever remain “out” if it had the stigma lingering from the first century.)

Rutledge very cleverly observes that the offense of crucifixion is not the suffering, but rather (quoting Susan Sontag) “suffering that degrades” (78). The Romans intended crucifixion to be de-humanizing: “declaring another person less than human is the well-attested first step towards eliminating that person, or that group of people” (80). As Rutledge notes, Origen referred to Jesus’ death as mors turpissima crucis – the utterly vile death of the cross.

The early part of this chapter is articulate and profound. Later, as she gets in the study of Galatians, I think things get a bit more murky. She relies heavily on Lou Martyn’s interpretation of Galatians, particularly an over-played negativity towards the Law and also a one-sided view of “Sin” as power rather than human choice (see 101). She even goes so far as to say “Sin in Paul is not something that one commit; it is a Power by which one is held helplessly in thrall” (101). I can’t see this worked out as an “either-or” in Paul’s letters.

In the next chapter, chapter 3, she will take up the topic of “The Question of Justice.” To be continued…

 

Rutledge on the Crucifixion Part 1 (Gupta)

Rutledge

Given that I named this blog Crux Sola (short for “the cross is our only theology”), you may understand my joy at the publication of Fleming Rutledge’s new book The Crufixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015). At over 600 pages, it is a tour de force on the theology of the cross with endorsements from Hauerwas, Scot McKnight, Marilyn McCord Adams, Richard Mouw, Mark Galli, Wolterstorff, Lou Martyn, Stephen Westerholm, Martin de Boer and many others.

While Rutledge has spent many years studying biblical and theological scholarship on this topic, her interest here is to offer this book to “busy pastors who are burdened with duties yet serious about preaching the gospel and seeking help for their sermons” (5). The book is divided into two parts: chapters 1-4 on the theme of the crucifixion, and chapters 5-12 on “Biblical Motifs.”

Her main concern, with particular interest in mainline churches, is that there is too little understanding of the significance and power of the cross (hence her leading chapter on “the Primacy of the Cross”). Her key point in chapter one is: the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance (44, 71). Speaking of the resurrection, she makes this important note:

The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. (44)

Already in the book, I can see the clear influences of Moltmann, Martyn, and Bonhoeffer. I really do wish pastors would commit themselves to reading this kind of material.

For my part, I see Rutledge’s work here as giving the same cruciform clarion call in our time that Stott did in the 1980’s with his The Cross of Christ. (Of course Stott’s work, though, was only about half the size, and it seemed “big” back then!) I agree with her that it is a message that needs to be repeated and refreshed for each generation of Christians, and particularly for pastors and Christian leaders.

I will voice one concern now that I imagine will come up again as I work through the book – I am not sure Rutledge is always working with the most up-to-date scholarship or, perhaps more likely, she is sometimes not careful enough in how she approaches academic debates. For example, she talks much regarding 1 Corinthians of Paul putting the cross before the Corinthians in opposition to Gnosticism. I gather that she doesn’t mean a formal sort of Gnosticism, but this is a bit unclear and could easily be misleading. This kind of imprecision doesn’t bother me yet because her point does not turn on any such things.

Next week, I will engage with Rutledge’s chapter on the “Godlessness of the Cross.”

 

Longenecker – Paul, Apostle of Liberty (Gupta)

AoLWelcome to the Friday Book Corner. Today’s book is the second edition of Paul, Apostle of Liberty by Richard N Longenecker (Eerdmans, 2015).

Truth be told, I have a reprinted 1976 edition of this book on my bookshelf (original, 1964), never read (it was bequeathed to me). Don’t get me wrong. I have long admired Dr. Longenecker’s work. I enjoyed his Introducing Romans (2011). I regularly return to Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. He was the master of edited volumes, such as Community Formation in the Early Church and the Church Today (2002), and Contours of Christology in the New Testament (2005) –perhaps my favorite is The Road from Damascus (1997) – I have used that as a textbook in the past. And of course there are his commentaries – I cut my teeth on the study of Acts with his Expositor’s commentary.

The second edition of Paul, Apostle of Liberty, has given me a chance to sit down and read this study of the “origin and nature of Paul’s Christianity” (as the original subtitle read). Before I comment on the subject matter (apparently largely unchanged from the original), I want to note what has been added to this second edition.

Foreword – Douglas Campbell has written a lengthy and rewarding foreword that encourages the reader to return to this classic to reflect on Pauline scholarship of the last half-century or so. In his own words, Campbell claims “ what we find in Paul, Apostle of Liberty is an evangelical analysis of Paul, responsive to all the Jewish questions that Sanders later responded to, but developed in a far more constructive way and many years in advance of Sanders’ key work” (xvi). This provides a strong precedent for evangelicals taking some of the NPP seriously. Truth be told, Longenecker is quite critical of the NPP as a movement, but Campbell is right to note that Longenecker was already anticipating some of Sanders’ insights by underscoring a distinction between legalism and nomism in “predestruction Hebraic Judaism” (see 77).

2015 Addendum: The original piece that Longenecker adds to this book is an appended chapter: “Understanding Paul and His Letters during the Past Twenty Centuries, with Particular Attention to His Letter to the Christians in Rome.” 20 CENTURIES – wow! That’s quite an undertaking, and of course the essay is long, over 100 pages. Obviously Longenecker could not be exhaustive, but extremely insightful and he comments on the NPP as well as the trend to study narrative dynamics in Paul. The addendum feels a bit wedged into the book, but I am happy to have a second edition, rather than no second edition. Also, the addendum would make good reading all on its own as an essay assigned for students to read about history of interpretation.

The Book Itself: I think the title is a bit misleading – it could lead some to think Paul was libertine, which he was not (Longenecker tips his hat at this concern p. 142). Longenecker emphasizes continuity with the OT (promise/fulfillment) rather than legalism/freedom. I think the core of the book is expressed quite explicitly in chapter 6: “At the heart of the Apostle’s teaching is his convinction that the Law in its contractual aspect—and that means especially Jewish nomism—has come to its full completion and terminus in Christ” (116). This does not mean the Law is disregarded; Longenecker sees Paul as recognizing its impact “as the standard and judgment of God” (134). Longenecker also underscores the “imperative” of liberty, not simply the indicative.

Four things impressed me about this book:

-Longenecker flexes his historian muscles – he tries to get to the bottom of Paul the historical figure. He knows his early Jewish literature extremely well despite writing at a time before Bibleworks/Accordance and digitized materials!

-Longenecker does not shy away from trying to synthesize the material before him. He is not afraid to take all that data and make a broad theory about Paul.

-Longenecker emphasizes the centrality of the Christ-relation, being “in Christ” for Paul (and Campbell notes this in the foreword as well). I think this is right.

-Longenecker’s conclusion is 4 pages. I love conclusions. I love short conclusions even more. Some folks (esp today) write conclusions as if they were mini-books. No, I like it short and to the point. Well done, Longenecker!

I encourage a broad reading of this classic – it has aged well and even has some new additions in the second edition.

 

Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark Reviewed in JETS (Skinner)

Skinner.HaugeThe book I co-edited last fall with my friend, Matt Hauge, Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark, was reviewed by D. Keith Campbell in the most recent fascicle of Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Frankly, I was astonished to see such a positive assessment of the book. The review was one of the most glowing a book of mine has ever received. Campbell closes his review with these words:

[T]he contributors—all pacesetters in Markan narrative criticism—offer penetrating contributions to the field, contributions that NT narrative critics, who especially study characterization, will discuss for years to come. In essence, they accomplish what all researchers strive to accomplish; they advance their field, provide new methods for research, and open clear avenues for others to travel. What more could a monograph offer?

This is where I would normally encourage you to buy a copy but it costs $117!!! Let’s be honest for a second….who has that type of money? However, I am told that the paperback will be available for under $40 in just a few months. THEN you can go buy a copy. Our thanks to Dr. Campbell for both his positive assessment of the book and for his critical engagement with each chapter.

Helmut Koester: 1926-2016 (Skinner)

KoesterProf. Helmut Koester passed away at the beginning of this new year. I know this was mentioned on social media in numerous places over the weekend but I had not yet had an opportunity to mention it here. I never got a chance to meet Prof. Koester in person but I read a great deal of his work while writing my dissertation and always had profound respect for his scholarship. In fact, the very first footnote in my dissertation references his important articles, ““Dialog und Spruchüberlieferung in den gnostischen Texten von Nag Hammadi,” EvT 39 (1979): 532-56,” and “ΓΝΩΜΑΙ ΔΙΑΦΟΡΟΙ: The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity,” HTR 58 (1965): 297-318.” It is safe to describe Koester as a giant in our field. Prof. Koester served on the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in some capacity since 1958 and was the longtime editor of the Harvard Theological Review (1975-1999). You can read more about his passing here.