Thursday, March 18, 2010

Religion, economics, politics and salvation in the New Testament world

The following quotes are from Bruce Malina and John Pilch. Although I don't agree with them totally when it comes to interpreting Paul's letters, they help us to understand the New Testament world from a social science perspective.

There is no language implying abstract concepts of market, monetary system, or fiscal theory. Economics is "embedded," meaning that economic goals, production, roles, employment, organization, and systems of distribution are governed by political and kinship considerations, not "economic" ones. (p 393)

Ancient Mediterranean religion likewise had no separate, institutional exis­tence in the modern sense. It was rather an overarching system of meaning that unified political and kinship systems (including their economic aspects) into an ideological whole. It served to legitimate and articulate (or de-legitimate and criti­cize) the patterns of both politics and family. Its language was drawn from both kinship relations (father, son, brother, sister, virgin, child, honor, praise, forgiveness, etc.) and politics (king, kingdom, princes of this world, powers, covenant, law, etc.) rather than a discrete realm called religion. Religion was "embedded," meaning that religious goals, behavior, roles, employment, organization, and systems of worship were governed by political and kinship considerations, not "religious" ones. (p 393)

The temple was never a religious institution somehow separate from political institutions, nor was worship ever separate from what one did in the home. Religion was the meaning one gave to the way the two fundamental systems, politics and kinship, were put into practice.(p 393)

[A]ncient Rome elites did not have an idea of juridical relations among various peoples. Instead Roman statesmen dealt with other peoples in terms of good faith based on the analogy of patron-client relations. Rome was patron, not holder of an empire; it wanted persons to behave like clients. To behave otherwise was to be a rebel, an outlaw. (p 393)

Salvation means rescue from some difficult situation. The rescuer in question is called a "savior." As a rule, in antiquity the title was bestowed on persons and deities whose actions benefited a great number of people.(p 395)

Quotes taken from Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Fortress: Minneapolis), 2006.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Bible being rhetorical, and our lives being 'rhetorical' God-speak

In an article in The Regent World (Winter 2010, Vol 22, Number 1), Professor Rikk Watts says the following

Ancient rhetoricians were designers, seeking to persuade people of a different vision for the polis. Since it did not exist, they could not prove it — how do you "prove" a dream? But if you've seen the movie Invictus you will understand what is involved. You need to know your audience, their history and their culture. You need to know what they value and you need to use metaphors, since metaphors are the essential bridge between the known and the unknown... [Then] it dawned on me that the Bible itself is fundamentally rhetorical.

Marketplace theology is about precisely this: incarnational "rhetorical" God-speak. His word to us is brimming with metaphors, history, ethics and vision. It is God's rhetoric, persuading us to join him in his new creational work for a new and glorious future. It is a divine summons to design in the light of his life-giving truth.

The more I study Paul, the more I realise the rhetorical character of his letters. They are letters - speeches! - that seek to persuade. The Bible is not about a set of otherworldly (so-called) 'spiritual principles'. It is not a set of systematic theological propositions. The biblical authors did not write the Scriptures to prove the existence of God per se. Instead, the Bible is God's revelation to humankind about who he is and his saving acts. And we are called to embody the gospel in our daily life. That is, we are to be incarnational "rhetorical" God-speak', as Watts says. In doing so we bear witness to Christ.

It's happy for 'deep people'

Here is a quote from the Doctor Who episide Blink. I think it's 'deep'!

Kathy Nightingale: What did you come here [a dilapidated house] for anyway?
Sally Sparrow: I love old things. They make me feel sad.
Kathy Nightingale: What's good about sad?
Sally Sparrow: It's happy for deep people.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

It's not about a bigger mission organisation

I attended an event recenlty where the National Director of a well-known mission organisation spoke. He started with a statement that as an organisation their goal is not about "getting bigger". It's not about the organisation itself either. It is about the gospel.

I think this is the kind of attittude we should have, and it wouldn't hurt for us pastors, leaders and churches to keep reminding ourselves and our congregations.

The fact is that this mission organisation has grown immensely over the past few years. It is sending out many new missionaries, with most of them serving full-time and long-term! They are there for the long haul - learn the language, live with the people, and share the gospel. (It is true that some of the workers do come home after some years and cannot serve long term. But they do so only because circumstances do not allow them to.)

In many places they focus on serving the poor, because the economic and social needs are huge. When they serve the poor, they do so with no strings attached. They treat the poor as God's image-bearers. But at the same time their deepest desire is introduce people to the Triune God, so that they may have eternal life through faith in Christ. And people do come to know Jesus through their dedication and sacrifice.

I am very encouraged.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A book about classical theism, open theism, etc

(Sorry that this post may be too 'theological' for some. It's because of the nature of the book.)

From Michael Bird's blog I found someone's interview with Kevin Vanhoozer about his book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The book sounds interesting. Here are some quotes from Vanhoozer in the interview.

At this point in our time and culture, modern science has pretty much co-opted the language of causality. Consequently, even theologians who should know better sometimes speak of God’s causality as if it were on the same level as other creaturely causes. This is not how Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, or others in the tradition would have understood it. Nevertheless, open theists and panentheists have used this confusion to their advantage to attack classical theism. How, they wonder, can God be in a genuine loving relationship with creatures if he causes all things, including the motions of people’s hearts? Further, if God causes all things, must he not be responsible for evil as well as good? (emphasis added)

I use the term “communicate” in a very broad sense, not merely in the sense “to transmit information,” but “to make common” or “share.” The most important thing that God communicates is himself: his light (truth), life (energy), and love (relationship). Whereas the end of causation is coercion, the end of communication is communion. The category of communicative action opens up new possibilities for theism and adheres more closely to the categories of Scripture itself.

The question of God’s suffering – that is, his ability to be affected by human creatures – is a red thread that runs throughout the book. If Nicholas Wolterstorff is right in comparing classical theism to a seamless garment where one loose thread spells the unraveling of the whole, then divine impassibility makes for an excellent case study.

Remytholgizing Theology is a minority opposition report on the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering. While I want to take the biblical depictions of God’s dialogical interaction with human beings seriously, I don’t want to pull God down to the creaturely level. The challenge, then, is to specify to what the biblical descriptions of God’s emotions actually refer. There is not much on the meaning of divine emotions in the history of theology. Classical theists tend to take this language as anthropomorphic; open theists tend to take it literally. I had to resist the temptation simply to choose one side rather than the other. (emphasis added)

Click here for the interview.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Looking beyond the labels

My friend Nils Von Kalm has written a new article. I highly recommend it. Here is a quote in his article.

"In our noble attempts to be Christ-like, we have tried to civilise the poor. Gardiner believes that the Spirit would say to the church today, ‘stop civilising and start discipling’. Or, as a pastor at a church I was at many years ago said, we are just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food."

Click here for the article.

Reflection: An inclusive multicultural church experience

Church this morning was great.

(1) My primary-school-age child celebrated his birthday this week. When we walked in church, someone said to him, "Happy birthday!" Then we saw in the church bulletin a special note for the birthday boy this week! As my child always says, "Our church is a good church because the children are important and the adults talk to them!"

(2) We welcomed a lady and a family to be members today. They are amazing people. The lady understands mental health issues and will be running a seminar for us. The husband of the family is an indigenous Australian. (He played the didgeridoo for us this morning!) The wife is a Samoan, and a talented lady. Their kids sang a song for the congregation. There was such a community feel!

(3) A man will be baptised this Easter. He is from another faith, and he came to Australia recently. What a testimony of God's goodness and love!

(4) When I looked around there were people from many countries in Africa, Europe and Asia. This is precisely the type of community we will find when Christ returns! Also, there are people living with disability, people struggling with mental health issues, migrants, overseas students, and asylum seekers. We welcome people of all walks of life. This is such a wonderful place!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My new publications: What part does social justice play in the mission of the church?

In September last year there was a Theological Forum in Melbourne on the following topic. (Don't be put off by the word 'theological'. The forum was very user-friendly and the presentations very easy to understand.)

What part does social justice play in the mission of the church?

Three speakers spoke

  • Deborah Storie, Deputy Chair of TEAR Australia Board
  • Mike Raiter, Principal of Bible College of Victoria
  • Steve Bradbury, Director of Micah 6:8 Centre, Tabor College and former National Director of TEAR Australia

Their articles are now published in

Zadok Papers (2,000-word articles)
Centre for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Ridley College (1,000-word articles)

I have written a response to the three speakers in each of these publications.

If you are interested, please contact CACE by emailing for a free email copy.

Or you can contact Zadok Institute at PO Box 175, Box Hill, VIC 3128; (03) 9890 0633, and ask for Zadok Papers Autumn 2010.

Reflection: Value judgment, justice and love

Unfortunately I have seen serious conflicts in the body of Christ. It always saddens me. Here is a recent reflection I have.

Let us not make value judgment on people without sufficient evidence. And even if we have the evidence, let us love them, forgive them, and accept them, because they are people made in God's image, and God loves them. And may God help us to look to his final just judgment and his unfailing love, if we happen to find ourselves being treated unjustly. We cannot love without knowing God's love for us.

Can Scriptures be 'deleted'?

Some friends of mine have suggested that certain parts of the Old Testament are wrong (and hence should be 'deleted'), because they are not in line with Jesus' teaching. I guess likewise they can extend this argument to Paul's letters, and 'delete' the passages that they think are not in line with Jesus' teaching.

My friends are especially referring to the Scriptures that talk about God' vengeance and judgment. They think that Jesus teaches God's love, not God's vengeance.

A good example is Jesus' citation of Isaiah 61:1, 2a; 58:6 in Luke 4:18-19. A friend of mine would say that Jesus stops at the middle of Isaiah 61:2, and does not cite "and the day of vengeance of our God". My friend would say that it is because Jesus does not believe in God's vengeance and God's judgment. My friend would even say that he would read the Old Testament according to 'this' teaching of Jesus, and treat similar Old Testament passages accordingly. (I think my friend might be thinking of the info from, for example, David J Bosch, Transforming Mission [Orbit: Maryknoll], 110.)

But we must note that later in Luke 21:5-38 Jesus pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which is the type of judgment commonly found in the Prophets. Also, the Old Testament citation in Luke 4:18-19 is a mixture of Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 58. Furthermore, if we use my friend's argument, one must note that the rest of Isaiah 61:2 says "to comfort all who mourn", which is straight after "and the day of vengeance of our God". My friend must ask why Jesus also leaves out "to comfort all who mourn", because blessing to those who mourn is clearly Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (or Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6). The fact is, we cannot be certain what exactly did Jesus read on that day. Instead, all that we have is Luke's record, which may well be quite selective material. (Not that Luke had changed Jesus' words, but that he was recording materials that would be relevant to a particular context.)

I wonder whether my friends' approach to Scripture has something to do with our human nature, in that we think 'we' has the right to decide which Bible passages are in line with Jesus' teaching or not. My friends are godly people and they are amazingly generous people. But isn't it true that our fallen human nature is that we want to live a life that is independent of God? Perhaps even the best humans can choose to 'delete' the Bible passages that they don't like (even with good intentions).

But Jesus himself says that he has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17; 26:54, 56; John 17:12; 13:18; 15:25), and that Israel's Scripture (our Old Testament) itself bears witness to him (John 5:39). Both Jesus and the ancient Jews (and people in many parts of the non-Western world today) held their deepest respect for their sacred texts, especially for the texts that they believed to be revelation of God. I guess somehow in our Western world we no longer treat the Scripture in that way (even among those whose doctrine upholds the authority of Scripture). Somehow 'our interpretation' of Scripture has more authority than the Scripture itself. In doing so we undermine the authority of the God who gave us the Scripture.

Here is a Scripture that says heaps about Christ, his humility and the role of the Scripture in the earliest church. I hope we all follow the ways of Christ, his humility, and learn to use the Scripture from the earliest Christ-followers.

For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:3-4)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Orthodoxy, Inerrancy, Protestantism, etc

Today I saw some interesting comments from a blog on the web. (See here for the link - accessed on 5th March 2010.) I think they are very interesting. Here they are.

"Let me say this clearly, if bluntly: theologians know what Orthodoxy is. They know "what" defines it: the Creeds. They know Creeds don't define everything; they know Creeds are parameters and boundaries but not definitions of everything. When you say classical orthodoxy or Orthodoxy, theologians know what you mean."
"Protestantism is more or less defined by the solas. Protestant theologians know this."

"Anabaptists largely define themselves by their connection to the Bible and by their own creeds/confessions or statements of faith. Anabaptist theologians know how they define things."

"PSA is not about classical orthodoxy (all we've got there is forgiveness of sins). It is, however, central to the Reformers. Both Luther and Calvin saw the atonement happening that way. No one argues, though, that it is the 'sole' metaphor. Some overemphasize it and squelch the others."

"Inerrancy is an odd one; the term and its meaning in many circles are connected to post Enlightenment apologetics. That the Bible is true, though, and fully true: Yes, historic Judaism and the Fathers (read vol. 1 on the opening "We believe" part of the 5 volume set on the Creed from IVP); clearly the Reformers were big on the truthfulness of Scripture and Calvin probably believed in what is now called inerrancy. (I had a colleague who wrote his dissertation on this.)"

An article on the Anabaptists

I found an article on about Anabaptism Scot McKnight's blog (accessed on 5th March 2010). Click here for the article.

I find this particular quote of Roland H. Bainton particularly interesting:

“The ideal of restitution or restoration was common in the age of Reformation, and all parties desired to restore something. The difference was only as to what, and how far back to go. Luther wished to restore the church of the early Middle Ages; for him the great corruption was the rise of the temporal power of the papacy in the eighth century. The Anabaptists went back further than any of the other groups, and turned exclusively to the New Testament. Even within the New Testament they tended to neglect Paul and to push back to Jesus. That is why (their) ideal of Restoration tends to coincide with the ideal of the imitation of Christ."

I really like the idea of imitation of Christ. But personally speaking I have problems with the tendency to neglect Paul and push back to the Gospels. Of course, Christ has to be the centre, and indeed the Triuine God has to be the centre of our belief and of our life. (And the centre of Paul's theology is Christ, I believe - and Paul reads the Scripture in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.) But as far as the Scripture goes, I believe that all Scripture is the God's revelation. I'll talk more about this in another post. (Click here for that post.)

Having said that, I am very inspired by the Anabaptists, mostly by their lives, ecclesiology and their social justice focus.