Archive for October, 2014

Heschel“I must say that in the tradition of Judaism, I have a very high estimation of the nature of man.  And frankly, I do it in defiance of many theories current in the academic life of America, in the contemporary literature of America, and in other countries.  Yes, if I were to say what challenges me most in the Hebrew tradition, it is the high view Jewish tradition takes of the nature of man.

You say there is a uniquely Jewish view of man?

Yes.  Let me first stress one point.  The point is what is mentioned in the beginning of the book of Genesis, that God created man in His own image.  Frankly, if Moses had consulted me, I would have told him, ‘Don’t say it.’  It’s an impossible statement.  First of all, it is absurd to say that man is created in the image of God.  And second, it contradicts a major principle of the Ten Commandments. It says, ‘Thou shalt not make an image of God.’  So God made an image of God Himself, against His own law.

It is a scandalous statement.  Upon thinking about it further, I realized that I have to understand its meaning.  And this I believe is its meaning.  You see, God is invisible, totally invisible.  Any thought of Him is so inadequate, He’s almost unthinkable.  Any time, any moment I think, I know, I assume that my thought of God is adequate, then I know that I fail.  He’s so mysterious and so surpassing the power of the human mind that I always have to live in the paradox around Him, pray often.  And realize that I am capable of being, of experiencing being thought of by Him rather than thinking of Him.

Now, God is invisible.  But you can’t live without God.  So God created a reminder, an image.  What is the meaning of man? To be a reminder of God.  God is invisible.  And since He couldn’t be everywhere, He created man.  You look at man and you are reminded of God…What is the mission of man, according to the Jewish view?  To be a reminder of God.  As God is compassionate, let man be compassionate.  As God strives for meaning and justice, let man strive for meaning and justice.” (Abraham Joshua HeschelMoral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 401-02)

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AllisonIt is virtually impossible to be a truly wise reader of Scripture without understanding something of how “echoes” and “allusions” work, without grasping both the presence and the mechanics of intertextuality in human speech.  All texts have meaning in relation to other texts that have preceded them (a fact which is itself bound up with the larger phenomenon of meaning and language in general in human experience, both of which are always dependent on something more/else outside of the isolated “moment” of direct communication taking place in the here and now).  This holds true especially for the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which aim to communicate with us through–among other things–implicit allusions to other prior biblical texts that bring to mind connections and create interpretative frameworks that we would otherwise never be able to grasp, conspiring together to create a complex of meaning that would otherwise elude us.  Here is how I would state the principle: allusions [veiled references to other known texts] activate [generate a new awareness in the reader’s mind] associations [thematic or emotional links between ideas, events or persons that might otherwise not be recognized or intuitive to the reader].  And a deeper, richer meaning otherwise impossible to either comprehend or communicate is thereby evoked.

Here are two quick examples.  First, Jesus regularly refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels.  While some still argue that Jesus means nothing more and nothing less by this expression than “I” or “generic human being,” the phrase is clearly meant to lead the reader to make connections between Jesus’ identity and vocation and the broadly human mission in Psalm 8 (to rule the world on God’s behalf, which itself echoes Genesis 1) and the specifically Israel mission in Daniel 7 (to receive the kingdom of God over and against the pagan empires that oppress them).  Words from each prior Old Testament text (“authority,” “on earth,” “coming on the clouds,” “glory,” “birds of the air,” “all the nations,” etc.) are regularly brought into association with Jesus’ self-ascription as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels.  What are we meant to do in response to the recognition of these allusions?  Simple: rethink who Jesus is and the significance of what he is doing through “framing” his story through the prior story of humanity (Genesis 1/Psalm 8) and Israel (Daniel 7).  Soon the realization dawns that what God was trying to do through them (and in which tasks they failed) He is now seeking to accomplish through Jesus.

Second, consider the final (and, I would argue, summarizing and climactic) statement in the ‘body” of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).  Apart from a recognition of the echoes of Scripture in this statement, the profound and astonishing depiction of the true meaning of the church’s mission in the world will be missed.  To the reader familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the distant memory of two key passages ought to be “activated” by Paul’s language in Romans 16:20.  First, the promise of Genesis 3:15 that God would one day crush the head of the serpent (Satan) through the faithful seed of the woman.  Second, the observation (now tragically unfulfilled because of the fall) in Psalm 8 that God intended to place all things “under the feet” of image-bearing human beings when He originally created them.  The defeat of the ultimate source of evil in the world (Satan, who rules through the dark powers of sin and death) and the accomplishment of this coming of God’s kingdom through a faithful, image-bearing humanity (in keeping with God’s original intentions in the universe, ala Genesis 1): this is what is truly happening through the church’s Spirit-filled obedience to God and sacrificial service of her neighbor in the world as she imitates her crucified, risen Lord Jesus (Romans 16:19).  What might otherwise seem ordinary and uninteresting (the faithfulness of small Christian communities in stark contrast to the idolatry and immorality of their pagan neighbors around them) is now cast in a new light which gives the presence and mission of the church in the world cosmic significance in the sovereign and mysterious purposes of God.  Through us the kingdom of darkness will eventually fall and the reign of Christ forever established (cf. Luke 10:17-20).  Yet none of this can be perceived empirically by viewing the story of the church in splendid historical isolation from older stories that have preceded it and which provide it with both meaning and motivation.

Dale Allison provides a helpful illustration of how “echoes and allusions” can still work powerfully in human communication today. He points to Martin Luther King Jr.’s penchant for evocative allusions in his rhetorically powerful speeches.  In this, as in so many other aspects of his public career, King was simply imitating the strategy of the Scriptures he held so dear:


“Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech greatly enlarges its meaning through tacit references to famous predecessors. It opens with ‘Five score years ago,’ a manifest allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s first words in his Gettysburg Address (‘Four score and seven years ago’). There follow numerous examples of unacknowledged but obvious borrowing, among which are these:

  • ‘This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality’ echoes ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York,’ the opening line from Shakespeare’s Richard III (I.1.i-ii);
  • ‘No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ draws upon Amos 5:24;
  • ‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ contains a quotation from the Declaration of Independence;
  • ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’ borrows from Isa. 40:4-5;
  • ‘So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania’ takes up the language of the old Protestant hymn composed by Samuel Francis Smith ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (‘America’).

King’s transformation of traditional texts was much more than ornamentation: it was rather a studied means of persuading hearts and minds. His echo of the Gettysburg Address was a way of claiming that his cause was the completion of what Lincoln began. When King alluded to Shakespeare, he was telling whites in his audience: You cannot ignore me, I know your European tradition as well as you do. When he quoted from the Bible, an authority for both the white and African American communities, he was in effect asserting: God is on my side. And King’s embedded quotations from the Declaration of Independence and from Smith’s nationalistic hymn announced that he was a patriot—some had slandered him for not being such—whose dream for his people in particular was the fulfillment of the American dream in general. All this he was saying indirectly, through allusion.” (Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q, pp. 1-2)

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How can Paul claim in Romans 3:9-20 that all human beings outside of Christ (cf. 15:14 for Spirit-transformed Christians) are unrighteous and “not good”?  Here is a helpful clarification from Victor Lee Austin in his wonderful book Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed, in the chapter “How to Succeed as a Human Being”:

Ethics“The adjective ‘good’ functions differently than the adjective ‘red.’  If I say you are holding a red apple and that you are also wearing red socks, I mean that both your apple and your socks are the same color.  If I add that I’ve caught you in your red socks stealing that red apple red-handedly, I mean that your face is (or ought to be) flush with the shame of being caught out at doing a wrong, and thus your face too shares the color ‘red.’  (I don’t mean that your hands are red with your victim’s blood; although, who knows what you had to do to get that red apple red-handedly?)

But if, to the contrary, I say you are holding a good apple and you are also wearing good socks, I do not mean that the apple and the socks have something in common.  A good apple is tasty and a delight to eat; good socks are neither tasty nor a delight to eat.  If I make you eat your sock it would not be because it was a good sock, nor would I be a particularly good person to make you do so.  The redness of an apple is like unto the redness of socks, cheeks, and other red things.  The goodness of an apple is not at all like the goodness of socks and other good things.

An apple is good, if I may risk putting it oddly, when it is succeeding at being an apple.  And a bad apple is one that somehow falls short at appleness.  A good sock does what socks are supposed to do, and (for instance) doesn’t have too many holes, won’t bunch up in my shoe, and so forth.  If I said to you that I had a bad apple, you wouldn’t know from that information along how to picture it; you wouldn’t know what made it bad.  It might be rotten on one side, or it might have a worm inside it, or it might have grown incorrectly and be too fibrous to eat.  If, however, I went on to say that my apple was bad because it didn’t keep my feet warm, you would rightly turn your attention from the apple to me.  You might well ask: Is Austin crazy? Has he confused the word ‘apple’ with the word ‘sock’?  Perhaps he doesn’t understand English?

What all this points to is the peculiarity of that adjective ‘good.’  ‘Good’ means that the noun which it modifies is what it is supposed to be, that it is living up to its nature (or, if you prefer, its definition).  A good apple succeeds at being an apple.  A good sock is living up to what we expect in socks.  Similarly, I say, a good human being is succeeding at being a human being.  But what in the world could that mean–to ‘succeed at being human’?  Do we have a standard against which to measure humanness?” (Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 67-68)

Several years ago I tried to defend the historic Christian conviction that all sinful human beings–outside of Christ and apart from the Spirit–fail to be “good” along a similar line of logic.  See here for my essay “On Not Being Narrow-Minded.”

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stroup“One of the strengths of narrative theology has been that it provides a foundation for theology by uniting experience and reflection in a way that other recent forms of systematic theology apparently have been unable to do.  Narrative theology is not simply a matter of storytelling.  Narrative theology does recognize, however, that Christian faith is rooted in particular historical events which are recounted in the narratives of Christian Scripture and tradition, that these historical narratives are the basis for Christian affirmations about the nature of God and the reality of grace, and that these historical narratives and the faith they spawn are redemptive when they are appropriated at the level of personal identity and existence.” (George W. StroupThe Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church, p. 17)

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stroup“A turning point in the Gospel narratives is the question Jesus addresses to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Matt. 16:15; Mark 8:29; and Luke 9:20).  The question marks a turning point in Jesus’ relation to the disciples and in the larger narrative itself because it points to a central feature of Christian faith–namely that a person’s understanding of Jesus’ identity is inseparable from his or her understanding of the nature of discipleship.  What a person believes about Jesus cannot be separated from how he or she lives in the world.  Faith in the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ has serious but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death.

At the center of Christian faith is the question of identity, a question that is two-sided.  On the one hand it is a question about Jesus of Nazareth and the God whom Christians confess to be disclosed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Christian theology is the attempt to think through and understand what faith confesses about the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  But that is only one side of the identity question in Christian faith and only one part of the task of theology.  Equally important are the consequences of what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is ‘the only begotten Son of God.’  Traditionally Christians have claimed that anyone who makes that confession is led to reconsider what kind of person one is and how one lives in the world.  In more cases than not that confession seems to require a person to ‘turn around,’ reinterpret personal identity, and live differently in the world.  What a person believes about Jesus Christ cannot be separated from how one lives in the world without tearing apart the fabric of Christian faith.  But while the two go hand in hand they also are never perfectly conjoined.  The agony of Christian existence in both its personal and corporate forms is that what one believes and confesses is rarely demonstrated consistently and without distortion in daily life.  Sin remains as much a reality for Christians as non-Christians.  Yet the two-sided question of Christian identity–who one understands Jesus of Nazareth to be and what it means to confess him as Lord–stands at the very center of Christian faith.” (George W. StroupThe Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church, pp. 14-15)


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arendt“That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the pre political and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.  But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes these storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action.” (Hannah ArendtThe Human Condition)

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Thompson“[Paul] shows extraordinary pessimism concerning the human potential to do the good apart from Christ, but equally extraordinary optimism concerning the possibilities of his communities to fulfill the will of God [through the empowerment of the Spirit]. His categorical claim that ‘no one is righteous’ (Romans 3:10) is without parallel in both the [pagan] philosophical tradition and Jewish literature. However, he assures his communities that if they walk by the Spirit they will not be overcome by the desire of the flesh (Gal. 5:16), and he assumes that his readers will keep the commandments.” (James W. Thompson, Moral Formation According to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics, p. 6)

What jumped out at me about this way of putting the matter is how our natural “instincts” as Christians today is so often the very opposite of this.  We tend to have trouble grasping how those who are outside of Christ could really stand in such desperate need of God’s redemptive grace in the gospel, as they already seem to be (quite self-evidently) pretty “nice” people, while we tend to have quite low expectations for our own struggle with sin and the pursuit of newly transformed lives that are qualitatively different from the “way-of-being-in-the-world” that is experienced by those who do not follow Jesus. Are we willing to have our intuitions reformed under the guidance of Scripture, our moral imaginations newly reawakened and refreshed?

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gombis“For Paul, then, churches are outposts of the Kingdom of God, communities where God’s presence resides by the Spirit of Jesus.  Because this is so, churches are the ‘body of Christ’ on earth, embodying the self-giving love of God in the world, the same love for which Jesus set the pattern in his cruciform life.  And the Spirit is shaping these communities accordingly, empowering them to embody the self-expending life of Jesus on earth.  This narrative pattern of self-expenditure–death, resurrection, and exaltation–becomes for Paul the normative pattern that God is effecting within communities of the Kingdom of God.  According to Paul, participation in self-emptying and self-giving cements one’s place in glory–guaranteeing participation in the resurrection until life at the day of Christ.  What is more, participation in the suffering of Jesus also draws upon and unleashes the resurrection power of God now.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 69)

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Paul’s Master Story

gombis“[The depiction of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 is] ‘Paul’s master story,’ the controlling narrative pattern that reveals the essential character of Jesus, through which Paul envisions his own ministry, the shape of Christian relationships, and the character of Christian community life…In the remainder of Philippians Paul makes exhortations based on this narrative pattern of self-emptying, renunciation of status, death, resurrection, and exaltation.  Paul seeks to share in the sufferings of Christ in order to share in Christ’s exaltation.  The Philippians, too, are to serve one another, adopting cruciform postures toward one another, so that they might share in the glory to be revealed at the day of Christ.  Paul’s letters are filled with references to the self-expenditure of Jesus, as Paul works from this narrative trajectory to shape the community life of his churches…For Paul, this narrative trajectory, embodied by a community, is the manner in which the people of God enact the Kingdom of God.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 64-65)

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gombis“Paul does not, in any of his letters, lay out a comprehensive ethical vision…Paul writes to actual churches facing specific challenges or going through unique struggles, and he tailors his counsel to fit just those situations as he understands them.  While he is not an ethical theorist, then, Paul does indeed have what we might call an ethical vision.  He helps his churches to re-conceive and re-imagine their situations in light of Kingdom of God realities, and his counsel to them involves ethical reasoning to a high degree.  Because of this, we can trace the basic contours of Paul’s ethical vision and determine just how his thought ‘works’ with regard to Christian conduct.  When we do, we find that Paul’s ethical vision is shaped by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Spirit.

The pattern set by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is fundamental to Paul’s thought and determines everything regarding the reality of the Kingdom of God.  The life of the people of God is ‘cruciform’–which indicates existence in the shape of the cross…The Spirit’s work among the people of God is focused on producing in Kingdom communities this cruciform pattern of life…The way of life that Paul envisions for his churches follows the pattern of the self-giving Jesus…When Paul helps his communities solve their relational troubles or to imagine how to approach a challenge to their community life, his fundamental lens is the cruciform life of Jesus.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 62-63)

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