Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reading the Old Testament in the age of the New Testament

I have found a post in Daniel Kirk's blog which is very interesting. (Click here for the link.) It is about how Christians should read the Old Testament. He starts with saying how important it is. For example, he says,

"What’s the difference between Reformed ethics and Anabaptist? Oh yeah… We continue to be plagued by the issue of (dis)continuity."

In recent years as I speak with Christians from these two traditions I find that ultimately the underlying debate is precisely the issue of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

Here is Kirk's thesis:

"Here is my thesis, as I’ve hinted at it, perhaps stated it, in earlier posts: nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.

That mediation can mean that the OT storyline and/or law is abrogated, or that it is affirmed and renewed, or that it is affirmed in some transformed manner. But either way, we have to wrestle with the implications of the Christ event and our identity as the Christ-and-Spirit community before we know the relevance of the OT text for us."

I found this useful, but immediately I realised that one could raised several questions. Not surprisingly Nathan MacDonald (an expert in Hebrew and Old Testament from St Andrews University) comments on Kirk's post and says,

"This is a sophisticated attempt to do justice to some of the issues to do with Old and New, but there are considerable traps for the unwary. Which is to say, Daniel, I think you’ve managed to avoid them thus far, but I am not confident that all that read you will. From my perspective, there are various things that need also to be said if we are to get the picture fully right.

First, the Old Testament is presented to us in a form that is unglossed. Even if we recognise the early Christian allegiance to the Septuagint, Christians have steadily refused to gloss the Old Testament so as to make it speak more obviously of Christ or New Testament realities. This is a basic instinct that perhaps deserves some reflection, especially given the possibility that early Christians could have resorted to the type of rewritten Scriptures that are found in Qumran. Thus, it would seem to me, that there is a confidence that Old Testament Scripture can speaks in a clear voice that Christians can recognise. Both directly of Christ, but also I think of other things of which the NT does not speak.

Second, your picture tends to reverse the realities of the New Testament church, as Childs and others have pressed most strongly. Thus, the question in the early church was not how do we make sense of this weird set of texts now that we have Jesus, but rather, given that we have these Scriptures how do we make sense of Jesus? Our own context is some steps on from that, but there is no harm in being reminded of where the first Christians were at, and at very least it needs to be recognized as a counterpoint to what you’ve said. Thus, as happy as I might be to affirm for a Christian reading of Scripture the necessity of “intentionally bring[ing] our New Testament and otherwise Christian theology with us when we read the OT.” the reverse also needs to be stated too, viz. the necessity of intentionally bringing our OT with us when we read the NT”. We fail to do justice to the two testament nature of the Christian Scripture if we do not have the other side.

Third, it is not clear that what you say does complete justice to how the Old Testament has been used and appreciated in the history of the church. That is, Christian readers have been able to read the Old Testament and hear a word from God to them without always deploying the framework that you have set out. This is not to doubt that the narrative theological movement has its benefits, but we might also not wish to too quickly disconnect ourselves from how many Christians have read Scripture before our enlightened times!

Fourth, it is unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” could not mutatis mutandis be said about the NT, to the extent to which it is important for a truly Christian theology to be centred around the Christ-event. Or am I missing something in the way that “New Testament” issues such as head coverings or women and ministry have been discussed in the last thirty or more years?

Fifth, it is also unclear to me that “nothing comes to Christians from the OT except insofar as it is mediated through Christ.” solves the problems of interpreting all OT texts. Some texts and issues do indeed find further explication in the NT. But how do I deal with those that don’t? Am I then working with some form of developed Christological theology that I can wield to make sense of my OT text, or some sense of the narrative flow of the big story. It is not clear to me that these abstractions necessarily resolve the issues that you rightly mention of having divided Christians in the past: anabaptism etc. Might it not be the case that some OT texts do not need to do a hop skip and a jump via the NT?

As a final note, and discarding any facade of humility, I wonder whether you have read my own attempt to deal with some of these matters in dialogue with Irenaeus and some narrative theological readings of him? The essay was published in JTI a year or two back. I hope you might find there further matters for reflection."

Very good discussion going on!

Scot McKnight: A gospel-shaped theology

Here Scot McKnight aptly says what I have been trying to say in my teaching.

"Pick up your standard textbook-ish systematic theology and you are most likely to get an exhaustive study of a one topic after another. The order of those topics matters immensely, and it just so happens that many theologians write theologies that are shaped by salvation (soteriology). Thus, the God, Man/Sin, Christ, Salvation, Spirit and Eschatology, often prefaced with Scripture, is essentially an ordering of topics through the doctrine of salvation.

Dig a bit further and you will learn in many of these books that “salvation” means the same thing as “gospel” so that a theology of salvation is a theology of the gospel. Which it isn’t, and the order of the above topics proves my point. They are salvation-shaped and not gospel-shaped, else they’d have other topics more prominent.

What we are most in need of is a thoroughgoing sketch of theology through the lens of gospel. Those topics above would come up but they would be framed within the orbit of other ideas.

Questions: How gospel-shaped is your theology? What questions would you ask to see if a theology is gospel-shaped? What are the major indicators of a gospel-shaped theology?

I see two questions that can be asked and those questions will indicate gospel-shaped: How central of a role does Israel’s Story/history play in the theology? How central is the resurrection? Everyone will have the Cross, but does the theology have resurrection as a central theme? Everyone will have christology, but does being Messiah and Lord make its way to the front?

Click here for Scot McKnight's post (from which the above citation can be found).

Monday, November 15, 2010

A life of sacrifice and witness to Christ

I read an article about the life and witness of a Christian in Asia. It's the type of authentic Christianity that should challenge all of us.

Here is an excerpt.

"After his [her husband's] arrest, Alice moved out... with their six children and her mother-in-law. As they had lived by faith and the church was now closed, she went through the most difficult six months of her life. All they could afford was porridge. They slept on planks laid over bricks as a make-shift bed. Fellow Christians were too frightened to help them. She found work on a construction site paying 80 fen a day (less than US$0.20). Her children were cruelly treated at school... the whole family suffered further humiliation. For six months she... was put under intense pressure to renounce her faith and divorce her husband. At night she sought the Lord with tears. Finally, she was found innocent of all charges. Providentially, God supplied the family’s needs through the sacrificial giving of a few devoted believers. Even in her darkest hour she never stopped giving one tenth of her income to the Lord."

Click here for the whole article.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Patrick Fung at Lausanne 2010 on the gospel, discipleship and reconciliation

The International Director of OMF, Patrick Fung, spoke at the recent Lausanne Congress 2010 in South Africa.

There are plenty of good reflections in this short talk. I will cite a few below. Some of my friends in Australia might think that Patrick Fung does not talk enough about social justice and indeed he says nothing about peace activitism. But I must say that the workers in his organisation encounter plenty of poverty, injustice and violence - much more than people in the West experience. Also, they seek to be incarnational and identify with the people they seek to share the gospel with. The contexts in which they work are often the same as that of the early church (socioeconomic hardship and religious-political oppression). Patrick's voice needs to be heard with deep respect, for he represents many authentic disciples of Jesus who pay a high price for their faith and have sacrificed immensely for serving their Lord and Saviour. Here are some quotes from Patrick Fung's talk.
  • "Making disciples in all nations must be our most urgent and ultimate goal."
  • "Generosity is always a way life of the early church. There was always sharing."
  • "Sharing of God's resources is mutual and not unidirectional... A unidirectional over-enthusiastic giving and over-receiving with greed often cripple the work of God. As a matter of fact, they are detrimental to the growth of the church. And more than once I have heard from the leaders and pastors of the church in China saying to me, 'Please do not give us money', for money will divide the church. And I challenge all of us to think beyond just money terms for God's resources are more than money."
  • "In the global family, in the body of Christ, there are many different gifts. Some will give a model of faithfulness in a context of suffering, and some will model perseverance in a context of poverty and injustice... And some will model critical theological and missiological reflections and thinking beyond the Western paradigm." (Emphasis mine)
  • "God's redemptive purpose... [According to] John Stott... nothing is more important than what the church should be and should be seen to be God's new society. And this society - this community - is to be characterised by reconciliation - that is, reconciliation to God and reconciliation to one another. And, therefore, reconciliation is the foundation of all partnership." (Emphasis mine)
  • "Reconciliation is not just to happen between ethnic groups, but between generations, between the young and the old, between genders as well."
  • "I was deeply humbled when I received news of a Japanese Christian woman... who passed away recently... and she donated all her assets for the ministry of the gospel to the Chinese people. If you understand even a little bit of the recent contemporary history... you will understand the significance of this act of love."
Click here for the video clip.

Some quotable quotes and reflections

We must be content with being nobodies for Christ; to be forgotten. Many missionaries will have passed through the twentieth century only remembered by relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Their lives were never considered great, but they did their part faithfully, and most importantly, God does not forget them. (Patrick Fung, OMF General Director)

Sometimes it is when all our dreams are shattered that we realise God's dream' for us - that is, to know him and love him, and to know his love for us and for humankind. (myself)

A former refugee at our church finally reunited with his wife recently. His conversion was an amazing one and his baptism a few years ago moved me greatly. It's a great joy to see his wife in our church today. (myself in October)

I think "sorry" (when it is said sincerely) is a powerful word that can change our lives. (myself)

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others. (Gregory Jones)

God subverts human triumphalism in that he wins by losing. He unleashes resurrection life on his world through the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ. Because of God's surprising ways, God's people will play subversive roles in the gospel drama as we resist the corruption of the present evil age. (Timothy G Gombis)

When we read the Bible as stories - God's stories - we stop treating it as a set of rules or treating God as a genie for our benefits. As we enter the stories of the Bible, we feel the pain and suffering of the characters, feel the wonders of God's deliverance, identify with God's people as they struggle and falter, and experience the amazing grace of God in all our failures and shortcomings. (myself)

Faith is a complex human experience, and [the apostle] Paul preserves this complexity while giving it a unique twist. While affirming its character as trust and conviction, Paul connects faith to the experience of Jesus as God's faithful Son. Faith is more than trust; it is also fidelity, or loyalty. (Michael Gorman)

When I read the Gospels, I see a bunch of people whose lives were in a mess. They followed Jesus because he proclaimed a topsy-turvy kingdom. And he did not become King through his power. He became King because he suffered and died, and was vindicated by God at his resurrection. All this was of course the embodiment of his topsy-turvy kingdom. (myself)

If we understand sin in terms of breaking a set of moral codes, we end up with a self-centred religion. If we understand sin in terms of our failure to love our neighbour and to love God wholeheartedly, then we come close to the heart of the gospel. (myself)

From Homer to Hollywood, people are fascinated with heroes. They are people of power and wisdom. But the apostle Paul, borrowing from Jeremiah, says that he would only boast of his weakness, and 'the Christ crucified' is the true wisdom of God. (myself)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Serving God and the poor sacrificially

I heard something from a group of Christians about their heart for God and the poor. The following is my paraphrase of what they said.

First, what they do.

  • Provide vocational training, health, education and community based services
  • Personal support for addicts in drug rehabilitation
  • Social services for marginalized groups such as the homeless and those living with mental illnesses
  • Support children living with disability
Second, their motivation and ethos.

"Serving the poor is the desire of our heart. We seek to follow Christ's example of humility, sacrifice and a self-effacing lifestyle. Serving the poor means for us serving in places where we do not expect to be honoured, acknowledged or rewarded. We believe that in Christ's example, we can sometimes feel being humiliated and trampled on. Our heart's desire is to serve among the poor everywhere."

This attitude is the kind of Christianity I got to know when I came to faith in Christ many years ago, and is the type of Christianity I find in the Bible. I understand that this group of Christians are more than keen and willing to share the gospel whenever they are given the opportunity. They go to remote villages to serve the poor, and make every opportunity to share the gospel with them. Their desire is to live with them and identify with their pain and suffering. I really appreciate this kind of commitment and authenticity in their lives.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rikk Watts on Creation and restoration of the image of God

I am reading Rikk Watts' "The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God" in What Does it Mean to Be Saved?, edited by John Stackhouse. Rikk Watts understands the creation as Yahweh's temple-place, and here is thesis.

[T]he cosmos is seen as Yahweh's temple-place, and the climax of creation is the installation of humanity as his "cult-idol" or image-bearer within it. It then maintains that the exodus from Egypt, Israel's return from exile, and God's new exodus/new creational work in Christ Jesus are best understood in terms of the restoration of the defaced image-bearer and consequently the restoration of the cosmos as Yahweh's temple-place in which the newly Spirit-indwelt image-bearer is installed. (page 18)

Watts uses Job 38:4-6, 8, 10, 22 to illustrate that Yahweh is the master builder of creation, and lists plenty of other Old Testament passages to support it. He notes that the Hebrew for "temple" is the same word for "palace". The notion that the creation is Yahweh's temple-palace is not unlike that in a number of ancient Near Eastern traditions. (pages 18-19)

An important passage for this notion is Isaiah 66:1, "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me?"

Rikk Watts borrows from Katherine Beckerleg and says,

Furthermore, if Beckerleg is correct, the Genesis story is something of a polemic against contemporary idolatrous perspectives; instead of a "zoomorphic paganism" we have a "monotheistic anthropology." We do not make a temple-palace for Yahweh; he has made one for us, and it is not only the earth in its entirety but Eden in particular. Hence the parallels between Eden and the tabernacle. (p 20)

More quotes from Watts,

It is important to note that the image of the god was never intended to depict the deity's appearance but instead to describe elements of the function and attributes of the deity. Images were "probably pictograms rather than portraits." [citing H Frankfort] Nevertheless, as is now widely recognized, the idea of image clearly involves its physicality" Our embodied form is also integral to our "functioning" as Yahweh's image in this physical world. Furthermore, far from being an inanimate object, the image was indwelt by the very life of the deity, such that the image became the primary focus of his presence on the earth (cf. Jer. 10:14; Hab. 2:19). (p 21)

Our very embodied existence testifies to Yahweh's kingship, and our function and attributes should resemble his. Just as Yahweh sits enthroned in his cosmic temple, so too humanity images him, reigning between his knees as it were in the smaller temple-place of the earth and functioning as his vice-regents. As such we imitate to a lesser but faithful degree his ordering and filling of the cosmos in our ordering (or gardening) of the earth and our acts of filling it with other bearers of his image. (pp 21-22)

The nexus of humans as bearers of Yahweh's image and yet subordinate to him comes to the fore at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At issue is whether humans will accept their subordinate status, recognizing only Yahweh as the final source of wisdom, or seek to usurp his prerogatives by trusting in their own ability to understand - that is, to fashion creation and even themselves in their own image and according to their own wisdom. (p 22)

Creation too is bound up in this and suffers as a consequence of human rebellion (Gen. 3:17-18). The temple-palace and the bearer of the image fall together into ruin, and humanity finds itself driven farther away from the Garden until Cain, the crown prince, now finds himself in a desert land of wandering. Ultimately, in the flood the earth returns to its pre-creation state: formless and empty under the vast waters of the deep. (pp 22-23)

Watts goes to to demonstrate how Israel - Yahweh's true son - is to be a holy nation-kingdom of priests to the nations (Exod 19:6). Then he says,

Tragically, Israel, Yahweh's new humanity, rebels as did Adam and Eve. Yahweh's son forsakes him for idols. The problem is that since human beings bear the image of Yahweh, to worship an idol is to deny both Israel's identity in particular and humanity's in general. To seek to capture the essence of Yahweh in a lifeless image is not only impossible but also invites manipulation of him rather than a trusting and obedient relationship with him. And if people see to manipulate an objectified deity, which is the essence of idolatry, it is no great revelation that they soon treat his image-bearers in like manner. idolatry and injustice are correlatives, and the prophets fulminate against both. (p 27)

Creation's faith, as temple-palace for the image-bearer, is intimately linked to the authenticity of the image-bearer. Therefore, Paul can say that just as our rebellion caused creation to be subjected to the futility of not achieving its intended goal, so "creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of god;... in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:19-21 NRSV). (page 35)