About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Can Theology Begin With Christ?

"Theology needs to begin and end its task with Jesus Christ" - Paul Molnar

This was part of my quote of the day a while back (my focus then was on the rest of the quote). I have been wondering in what sense theology should, or even can, begin its task with Jesus Christ. What might this mean?

In one non-trivial sense the admonition is an attempt to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Anyone capable of understanding the proposal has already begun the theological journey and so it is too late to tell them where they should begin. And, again in an important sense, once one has begun one cannot go back and begin again from scratch. We just don't work that way.

Another thing that should give us pause for thought is this: the earliest Christ-believers did not begin their theological reflections with Christ. On the contrary, they were deeply immersed in various forms of Jewish theology when they encountered Jesus. And from reading the NT it is abundantly clear that they did not abandon these Jewish theologies and begin again with Christ. Whilst the Christ 'exploded' in the midst of their Jewish theologies and rearranged them they did not 'begin' the task of theology, in any strightforward sense, with Christ. Indeed Jesus would have been utterly incomprehensible to them if they had as they would have lacked the categories with which to grasp his identity and mission.

Please do not mishear me. Jesus was the centre of the theologies of the early Church and of the Church ever since. Any previous theologies they held were reconfigured around him. He was also the goal of their theological reflections. Theology must be Christocentric!

But can it begin with Christ?

Perhaps, but only in a very limited sense of 'begin'.

An example: It might well be that mature Christian theological reflection on divine judgement should 'begin' with reflection on the cross and end with reflection on the cross - that the process of pondering the topic of judgement constantly returns to the cross over and over again as the central revelation of divine judgement that all other experiences of judgement must be illuminated by.

But in what sense does the reflection on judgement 'begin' with the cross? Presumably not literally. I imagine that every Christian theologian who has pondered divine judgement has some idea of what it might mean independent of and prior to reflecting on it in the light of the cross. It is hard to imagine someone acquiring the level of theological sophistication necessary to rethink judgement Christocentrically not having prior, more basic, notions of justice.

Perhaps they 'begin' there in the sense of presenting their findings by beginning there (although I cannot imagine that this is a requirement). Perhaps, more strongly, they 'begin' by literally starting their renewed focus on the doctrine with the cross. But even then we must be clear that this is merely beginning a renewed focus and not beginning from zero.

So maybe 'begin' is not the best word to use. Perhaps we should say that all Christian theological reflection must be Christ-shaped and Christ-centred; and that all Christian dogmatics must be reconfigured around the Messiah.

I'm just thinking aloud and am very open to correction

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The Triune God of Israel (a research project without researchers?)

God reveals himself in Christ to be triune. But, of course, whilst the revelation of God as triune is given with the coming of Jesus we must be clear that God does not become the Trinity with the coming of Jesus. God has always been the Trinity. And the God that is the Trinity is the God of Israel - Yhwh.

Now in Israel's scriptures the revelation of the Trinity is not clear. From a post-Jesus perspective we must say that Yhwh, in the OT, looks like a figure on a blurred photograph where it can be easy to see certain aspects of the shape but hard to make out the details.

But my question is this: now that we see some of the details more clearly in Christ, can we revisit Israel's scriptures and perceive something more of the Trinity there in ways that the original authors and audiences will not have done? Can we offer Trinitrian interpretations of the OT?

Granted Christians have done so since the beginning but some of the somewhat random attempts prompt a further question - can such 'seeing-the-Trinity-in-the-OT' be done in a theologically plausible, methodologically controlled way? What criteria will we have to discern, for instance, whether Yhwh in a particular text is the Father, Jesus, the Spirit, or the Godhead?

Clearly any attempt to discern criteria will have to pay very careful attention to NT use of the OT and historical Christian attempts to see the Trinity in the OT. Whether such attention will yield consistent interpretative principles I do not know. What interests me is the fact that, as far as I am aware, few contemporary Christian scholars have even attempted to address the question.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Dalek Caption Contest

A disturbing transmission has been intercepted from a deep space exploration mission at the outer rim of the Galaxy. Just prior to losing contact with the team one final image was sent. The sound signal was lost and NASA are looking for anyone who help out. Please add any suggestions you have about what this image represents or what was on the missing sound signal.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

A Tripple-Mac! Burger part 3 (1 Cor 8 and 10)

Oh not! Not the burger again!

Just a quick one this time. A thought. What are the implications of Paul's line on eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8 and 10) to the ban on eating meat with blood in it? Both were forbidden to Gentiles in the Acts 15 Apostolic Decree so perhaps we can extrapolate from Paul's thoughts about idol meat to his thoughts on blood meat.

Of course, it depends in part on what you think Paul's position on idol meat is. I tentatively hold the following view.
  • Paul did not allow Christians to eat idol meat that was obviously idol meat (i.e., from the temples or the altar of demons).
  • But Paul said that if the meat was of uncertain origin (i.e., from the market or served at a meal at someone's house) then Christian may eat without asking questions. Obviously, if the host says, 'Did you know that this is idol meat?' then the Christian should abstain.

The food, said Paul, was not inherently problematic to eat - the idols are nothing. But its symbolic association with false gods was problematic and Christians should not knowingly partake in it.

So, on this interpretation, Paul did uphold the decree but his application of it in this specific context was somewhat 'liberal'. How might that apply to the blood ban? Here is a tentative suggestion:

Eating meat that you know has blood in it would remain forbidden (black pudding would be a Christian 'NO NO'!). Not because there is anything inhenrently bad in eating blood but because abstaining symbolically represents a recognition that all life belongs to God and not to us.

But eating meat that for all you can tell has no blood in it - especially if one is a guest at a meal - would be fine (even if, in fact, there actually is blood in it).

This would be a somewhat 'liberal' application of the decree.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Musalaha and Reconciliation in the Holy Land

We were very honoured last weekend to have Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, round for a meal at our home. Salim is the Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College and the founder and Director of Musalaha, an organization dedicated to work for reconciliation ('musalaha' is the Arabic word for 'reconciliation) between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians.

Salim's family had lived in Lod for many generations but lost everything during the 1948 War. Salim himself has, providentially, been shaped into a man well placed for reconciliation work in the Holy Land: Fluent in Hebrew (having been educated at a Jewish school and Tel Aviv University) and Arabic; having lived and worked on both sides of the divide; being a Palestinian Christian who knows what it feels like to be powerless, and yet who has also been involved in planting Messianic Jewish congregations.

The relationship between Jewish and Arab communities in the Holy Land has long been tense and believers in Christ find themselves on both sides of the divide. Followers of Jesus are certainly not immune to the stereotypes, fears and hatred that each side has of the other. Salim's passion is to see the body of Christ in Israel and the Occupied Territories modeling a love and unity in the Lord that transcends the social divides. He is a truly inspiring man who does not merely dream but acts.

To find out more about the fantastic the Musalaha are doing visit their website at http://www.musalaha.org/ or join the group on Facebook.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Understanding Jonathan Edwards on Hell

In the early 18th C universalism and annihilationism were not uncommon amongst intellectual Christians. Edwards (1703-58) was well aware of this and consciously defended the traditional view of hell as eternal, conscious torment (ECT) against its detractors.

Edwards is most famous (infamous?) for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It is a powerful sermon but easy to caricature. Here is my attempt to sketch out the serious theology that underpins it (based on Christopher Morgan's book, Jonathan Edwards on Hell). It may not be theology that you agree with but it should not be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Edwards’ Theology of Hell

Edwards was a systematic Christian thinker so his defence of ECT was strongly interconnected to his general theology of God and of sin.

(a) Edwards on God.
i) God’s glory. God’s glory, his fullness, is all of his moral and inherent attributes (e.g., knowledge, holiness, happiness). God’s actions are all ultimately done in order to communicate his glory. All of creation exists because of God’s glory and for God’s glory. It is the ultimate goal of creation.

ii) God’s sovereignty. God’s “absolute, independent right of disposing all creatures according to his own pleasure.” God is able to rule the universe, has a right to do so, and does so.

iii) God’s holiness. God loves good and hates evil. He cannot support evil.

iv) God’s justice. Justice was understood retributively.

v) God’s mercy. God is free to extend mercy if he wishes but he is under no obligation to do so (or it would not be mercy). Mercy is free and sovereign.

vi) God’s wrath. The expression of God’s holiness towards sin – his settled hatred and fierce opposition to sin and sinners.

(b) Edwards on Sin.
i) Sin is primarily directed against God. Therefore we need to evaluate its seriousness in the light of who it is that has been offended against.

ii) Sin is universal and innate. Original sin.

iii) Sinners are totally depraved - “totally corrupt in every part, in all their faculties, in all the principles of their nature, their understandings, their wills, in all their dispositions and affections.”

(c) Edwards on Hell.
i) Sin against an infinite God incurs infinite demerit. Hell is ECT because if sin was committed against an infinite God then the fitting retributive punishment is infinite.

ii) Sin is refusal of our infinite obligation to obey God so it incurs an infinite demerit. Thus sin deserves ECT.

iii) Sinners in hell will continue to hate God and thus always incur more punishment. Thus retributive justice requires that hell be ECT.

iv) ECT is consistent with God’s glory. It demonstrates his glorious holiness and justice. It is a cause of celebration and worship amongst the redeemed. It also indirectly demonstrates the glory of his mercy to the redeemed. They will look upon the damned and worship God for the wonder of his grace to themselves. So both heaven and hell serve the purpose of creation – to manifest God’s glorious attributes.

v) ECT is consistent with God’s sovereignty. He may do with his creatures as he wishes.

vi) ECT is consistent with God’s holiness. His hatred of sin.

vii) ECT is consistent with God’s justice. Sin is punished as it deserves to be although, Edwards says, strictly speaking justice will never be fully satisfied in hell. That is why it has to keep going on and on and on. The infinite punishment required will never be completed (except in Christ, the infinite God-man who can absorb it fully).

viii) ECT is consistent with God’s mercy. Mercy does not have to be extended to anyone so the fact that God does not extend it to all is no violation of mercy.

ix) ECT is consistent with wrath.

Edwards’ theology of hell is integrally connected into his theological system.
· How convincing do you find his system?
· Could his system work with alternative views of Hell?

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Quote of the Day - George Herbert on Christian Worship

Here is a section from a wonderful poem called "Easter" by the great 17th C poet George Herbert.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The CROSS taught all wood to resound his Name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched SINEWS taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high Day.
Consort both HEART and LUTE, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all Music is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy BLESSED SPIRIT bear a part
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

Here is a expository comment on the extract from pastor-theologian Gerrit Dawson.

"First Herbert addresses his wooden lute, the stringed instrument upon which he will play his [love song]. Through the metaphor of music he communicates how the entire created order has been transformed by the resurrection. All wood now becomes an emblem for the cross. The cross bore Jesus whose death [purified] us through death to new life. ... Wood can now always be a reminder of the cross ... Moreover, Christ's 'stretched SINEWS,' his outstretched limbs on the cross, are compared to the strings on the lute. Music is possible when the strings are stretched taut. ... This metaphor is shocking in its grusome image. The elongated limbs of Christ, which led to the agony of his death, have become the strings for joyful praise. ... Next, Herbert desires to bring together both heart and instrument with the Holy Spirit, who can transform our poor prayers (Romans 8:26) as well as our poor music. The mystery of music is the combination of the instrument, the player, and the score written. ... The Holy Spirit joins the transformed heart and the instrument to praise through us. Thus we participate in the very life of the Trinity. For we make our praise to the Father (the source of the song) through the Son (the instrument) in the Holy Spirit (the player who plays through us)."
Gerrit Dawson, Love Bade Me Welcome: Daily Readings with George Herbert. Lenoir: Glen Lorien Books, 1997, pp. 78-79.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Quote of the day - Paul Molnar on the immanent and the economic Trinity

"Theology needs to begin and end its task with Jesus Christ as the revelation of God in history ... While we are in no position to say anything about God in himself (the immanent Trinity) except on the basis of what is revealed by the economic Trinity, it is imperative, as Thomas F. Torrance never tires of reminding us, that we recognize that all our theological knowledge is grounded in the fact that God is towards us what he is eternally in himself."
Paul Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity.
London: T & T Clark, 2002, pp. 25, 4

Amen! Preach it brother! This is to me an inspiration, a challenge, a mission, and a corrective.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Back from Holiday and quote of the day

Well I have had a lovely week with my family on the coast in Cornwall (without internet access). Wonderful! Between the gale force winds, lashing rain and dark skies we had bursts of glorious sun. But we are British and no amount of carp weather (i.e., weather that fish enjoy) will stop us gritting out teeth and enjoying ourselves.

My posts were all set on a timer so they just appeared one day after another even if nobody commented. Sorry if I overwhelmed you with text. I will comment on some of the comments over the next few days.

Here is the quote of the day: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living"

Here is the new information I learned on holiday. The novel of The Bourne Supremacy has almost no relationship whatsoever to the movie. (I have not finished it yet so please don't tell me what happens).

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 9 (the place of the Torah in the Church)

The Law in the Life of the Church
At long last I am finally in a position to make some provisional comments on Nathan Fellingham's excellent questions about the place of the Torah in the community of the Jesus' followers. Now this is going to be controversial because any view of the place of the Law in the ekklesia is controversial - even between Protestants of Lutheran and those of Calvinist inclination (and I always inclined towards Calvin).

Please note that my comments here are no more than simple indications of the directions in which I incline and not worked through arguments.

First, we must note that the Jesus-community was composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Traditionally Christians have not really considered the implications of this for the question at hand. I suggest that we need to be open to the possibility that the commands of the Mosaic Law applied to Jewish and to Gentile Jesus-believers differently.

Catholic theologian Bruce Marshall argues that if we believe that Israel's election is indeed permanent (and I suspect that most contemporary theologians do believe this) then the identification of the Jewish people as a distinct people must also be permanent and this requires a maintainance of the distinction bertween Jews and Gentiles. This distinction is most obviously maintained by Jews following Jewish law.

If Christians expect Jews who come to believe in Jesus to abandon Jewish halachah (and effectively become like Gentiles) - and historically this was the hope - then this hope is equivalent to the hope that Jews would cease to exist as a distinctive group. If all the Jews had actually converted to Christianity in the 4th C, say, then there would be no Jews left today. I think that such a situation would be theologically problematic in the extreme. I guess that God knew what he was doing when, in Paul's words, he temporarily hardened the the majority of Israel so that they would not believe the gospel.

The Torah was originally given to Israel and it was not expected that Gentiles were required to obey all of its precepts. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 ruled that Gentile Jesus-believers had the status of full community members without the need to be circumcised (i.e., to convert to Judaism and thus to place themselves under obligation to obey all the Mosaic commendments). The assumption behind the ruling was that the Jewish believers were under such an obligation.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that if the Jewish Jesus-followers knew that they did not have to obey the Torah then there would have been no question of Gentile Jesus-followers being required to. The very fact that there was a debate on the issue shows clearly that the Jewish Jesus-followers did obey Torah and saw it as an obligation.

It is also interesting to note how the situation changed between the first century Jewish-dominated church and the later Gentile-dominated church. In the 1st C the question was, 'Can a Gentile be a Christ-follower without converting to Judaism?' (The answer was 'yes'). Later the question became, 'Can a Jew be a Christ-follower without abandoning their Judaish way of life and becoming, effectively, Gentile?' (The answer, eventually, was 'no'). The latter question would have been utterly incomprehensible and verging on insane to the early believers.

Second, we must note that our evidence clearly indicates that Jewish Jesus-believers in the earliest Church did observe distinctive Jewish practices. The observed Sabbath (Acts 1:12), kept Jewish festivals (Acts 2:1; 20:16), prayed at the Jewish times of prayer (Acts 3:1), attended the Temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1), followed food laws (Acts 10:14), and met in its courts (Acts 5:12; 5:42). Some Priests and Pharisees joined them (Acts 6:7; 15:5) - something that would never have happened if their 'good news' was, "Follow Jesus and abandon the Law of Moses!"
  • Jesus himself was Torah-obedient (even if his interpretation of how Torah was to be applied was not identical with some of the other Jewish interpreters of his day). See an earlier post.

  • According to the book of Acts the early Jewish believers were Torah-obedient (see above). Perhaps most importantly for us this includes Paul - Acts is at pains to emphasize that, contrary to rumour, Paul was Torah-observant (Acts 21:20-26).

  • Early Church texts such as James, Matthew and Luke-Acts reflect a high view of Torah and its place in the Jesus-community.

  • The only major controversy surrounds Paul's letters and Hebrews. Paul very clearly believed that Gentiles should not be expected to obey all the commands of the Torah (but in this he was in agreement with the main body of early 'Christian' thought as exemplified by James in Acts 15) but what about Jewish believers? There is some evidence that he saw Jewish believers as obligated to obey the Torah. Mark Kinzer puts the argument together as follows (Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, 73):

1. Paul taught that all those who were circumcized at the time of their calling should remain circumcized (i.e., should affirm and accept their circumcision and its consequences). 1 Cor 7:18

2. Paul taught that all who are circumcised are obligated to observe the whole Torah (i.e., to live according to distinctively Jewish practice) Gal 5:3

We can possibly deduce from this that Paul thought that all those who are born as Jews are obligated to live as Jews. That would put him in the same camp as the Paul of Acts and of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus.

However, sometimes it looks like he considered Torah-obedience merely optional for Jewish believers (Rom 14; Gal 2:11-14; 1 Cor 9:19-23). This is a very tricky issue but, following several NT scholars, I am inclined to think that traditional interpretations of these texts are mistaken (perhaps we could discuss that).

Third, our metanarrative suggests that it should not surprise us if early Jewish followers of Christ were Torah-observant. The 'new' covenant foretold by Jeremiah was all about the internalization of the Torah by the Spirit (see earlier post). The suggestion that the new covenant would lead to the abolition of the Torah would have struck them as out of synch with the Scriptures. (Of course, the way in which the Torah is internalized need not be identical for Jewish and Gentile believers.)

Fourth, the Torah can still have relevance for Gentile Jesus-believers even if they are not expected to obey all of the commandments literally. Here Richard Bauckham's comparison between the way that James applied the Torah to Jewish Jesus-believers and the way that Paul applied the Torah to Gentile Jesus-believers is suggestive. He argues that obedience to the Law as (i) motivated by a transformed heart, (ii) as summed up in the love commands, and (iii) as intensified by attention to motive - i.e., the Torah as mediated via Jesus' teaching - shaped the way that the Torah was applied by Paul to Gentiles and by James to Jews (Bauckham, James, 142-51). This would give a way in to the discussion.

We may add that many of the traditional Christian ways of reappropriating the Torah may actually find a place in precisely this context. Some commands, for instance, may be allegorized and spiritualized when applied to Gentiles.

So, at long last, I can suggest a reply to Nathan's question about a secular Jew converting to the Christ - should they be expected to follow Torah? I think that the answer is that if being united to Christ puts one in the place of either renewed Israel and the pilgrim nations then part of what it is for a Jew to embrace Jesus is to become part of the advanced guard of eschatological Israel. And this will involve practicing Torah.

Now it is possible for a secular Jew to become a Christian and in practice to enact the role of a member of the pilgrim nations. They are still united to Christ, by the Spirit, and still participate in the blessings of Israel's covenant-renewal. They will be saved on the last day just as much as a Gentile Christian will. However, it seems to me that such a way of walking with Christ is not to live up to the fulness of who that person is or is called to be.

(And in case you think that I am really a Gentile with circumcision-envy please let me assure you that I am very content as a Gentile and believe that the Gentiles have contributed many profound riches to the body of Christ. I love the Gentile spiritualities that have developed in the Cchristian traditions. These posts are simply intended as a corrective to what I see as historic Gentile Christian arrogance towards Israel flying in the face of Paul's warnings in Rom 11:13-24.)

But all my good Protestant friends are now asking about the place of works, faith, grace and so on in salvation. Here is my view: salvation is by grace alone, through trust in Christ and not by obedience to the Torah. However, as Jesus, James and Paul taught us, works of faith do play an important role in salvation - without them we are not saved. Faith without works is not saving faith.

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 8 (the future and the hope of Israel)

The early church did believe that the age to come had started to break into the present but they did not think that it had come in its fullness. They did think that the fulfilment of Israel’s future hope had been inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection and in the life of the Christ-community but they did not think that those hopes were completed yet. They were fulfilled but not yet filled full.

In effect, the church was seen as a foretaste of what is to come – an anticipation of the new age. Israel’s hopes had been fulfilled in a preliminary way but were still awaiting final fulfilment.
  • The end-time restoration of Israel is anticipated in the community life of Jewish believers in Jesus but the full reality lies in the future.

  • The pilgrimage of the nations is anticipated in the lives of Gentile believers in Jesus but the full reality lies in the future.

  • The Jesus-community has tasted the powers of the age to come in the Spirit but the fullness will far outstrip current reality.

This is how Paul made sense of the perplexing fact that most Jews in his day rejected their own Messiah and thus rejected the restoration that they longed for (Rom 9-11).

For Paul most of Israel continued to live under the covenant curses and only a remnant were saved (the Jesus-believers). But this remnant was not saved instead of the majority of Israel. Rather, the remnant were like the first fruit of the full harvest and served as a promise that one day the rest of Israel would also embrace the Messiah and so ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Rom 9-11). (I am aware that there is a minority view in NT studies that maintains that 'all Israel' in Rom 11:26 means 'the whole church composed of Jews and Gentiles'. You won't be surprised to discover that I do not concur).

(I expect that this post may generate a whole load of discussion on the much-debated Rom 9-11 - cool - so I will not say any more about it here.)

The full reality of the restoration of all Israel is still future but it is a future embodied in and guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection, and anticipated in the Messianic remnant. (Here is where I depart from N.T. Wright, et al who maintain that there is no expectation in the NT for a future restoration of Israel because the prophetic expectations have already been fulfilled in the resurrection and the Church. I think that this view is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies.)

In the same way - though less clearly from Scripture - Gentile Christians are an anticipation of the full pilgrimage of all the nations yet to come (Rev 21:24-26). The complete fulfilment of Ezekiel’s promised new temple awaits the perfection of the restored community, indwelt by God, pictured at the end of the Bible.

Israel’s future hopes and dreams thus find their fulfilment inaugurated in Christ, anticipated in the Church and fulfilled in the future. This is why the New Testament can connect Israel’s hopes to Jesus, to the Church and to the future.

(Just a final note to stir the pot and lose most of my friends - a future restoration of 'all Israel' seems to me to be clearly implied not simply by the trajectory of the metanarrative, as sketched in these posts, but also by some explicit texts, three of which seem to connect it with the parousia. Lk 13:35/Matt 23:37-39; Lk 21:24; Acts 1:6-7; 3:19-21; Rom 11:11-12, 15-16, 26-32).

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 7 (The Church and the Hope of Israel)

The place of the Church in God’s purposes must be understood against the background of the now/not yet tension in the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes.

Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his apostles – the foundation of his new community. They represented the twelve tribes of Israel and symbolised the twelve rulers over end-time, restored Israel. Many in Israel accepted Jesus as their Messiah and joined the community of his followers.
This community of Jewish believers in Jesus saw themselves as the renewed Israel of God foretold by the prophets. And, as God had promised through the prophets, they were ruled over by a Davidic Messiah – Jesus – and had received from him the eschatological Spirit. They were indeed living in the time of the new covenant (see posts 4-5 on Israel's hopes)!
In accord with the hope of the prophets, now that the restoration of Israel (recall that Ezekiel 37 speaks of the restoration of Israel as a 'resurrection') had happened in Christ and in his Jewish community of followers, the word of the Lord could go out from Jerusalem to Samaria (Acts 8 - uniting the Samaritans, descendants of the northern kingdom Israel, with the Jews, descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah) and then to the end of the earth (Acts 8, 10-11, 13ff) to bring in the nations to worship Israel's God.
The book of Acts tells the story of the expansion of the Christ-community from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and then through the empire (Acts 1:8 gives a nice anticipatory summary of the progress of the word of the Lord through Acts). It reads as the step-by-step realization of Israel's eschatological hopes.

The conversion of Gentiles was a fulfilment of the prophetic hope of the nations joining with Israel to worship Yhwh. The fact that it was happening now was a sign of the presence of the end-time kingdom of God.

The prophets had promised that in the new age Gentiles would worship Yhwh with Israel whilst remaining Gentiles (i.e., without the need to convert to Judaism). I suspect that this is why the issue of the circumcision of Gentile Christ-believers was so critical for Paul. To make Gentiles get circumcised (an act which symbolized conversion to Judaism and submission the the whole Torah) in order to be full members of the community (as opposed to mere God-fearing 'guests') amounted to a denial that Jesus has initiated the new age. Paul would have none of that! (see esp. Mark Nanos, The Irony of Galatians).
The early church understood itself then as a united body composed of restored Israel (Jewish believers in Jesus) and converted nations (Gentile believers in Jesus). The Gentile believers were seen as being permitted to participate on equal terms in the covenant blessings of redeemed Israel. Of course, in Christ Jews remained Jews and Gentiles remained Gentiles but they were united together in one, diverse, eschatological community. The new unity in Christ was a unity that did not dissolve diversity. It did break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2) but not by turning Jesus-believers into some kind of third race that is neither Jewish nor Gentile.
It is clear by now that I am disinclined to see the Church as a 'Israel-redefined'. As far as I am aware no NT text ever applies the term 'Israel' to the Church (I know that Gal 6:16 is often read that way but I don't think it should be). A quick survey of the use of the term 'Israel' in the NT would show that it was applied to ... Israel.
Rather I am inclined to see Jewish members of the Church as an anticipation of eschatological Israel - they are a remnant serving as a foretaste of renewed Israel. But the Church includes many Gentiles (now an overwhelming majority of Gentiles) and we are not eschatological Israel in any direct sense. However, they may be an indirect sense in which we are. In my view we are the eschatological nations joined with Israel, through union with the Messiah, by the Spirit (see, e.g., Rom 15:8-13, Acts 15:13-21). We are grafted into the covenant life and blessings of Israel as wild branches, contrary to nature (Rom 11:11-24). We participate in Israel's sonship and kingdom life. Yes, we do participate in the kingdom of God, the eschatological Spirit, the new covenant, the circumcision of the heart, spiritual descent from Abraham, etc. So in an indirect and slightly ambiguous way we Gentiles are part of renewed Israel. (Hmmmm. I really need to think a lot more carefully about all of this - it is rather fuzzy in my head. Who can help?).

We can summarize the ways in which the early Jesus-followers connected their present reality to the hopes of Israel as follows:

  • Israel 'resurrected' = Jesus (Israel’s representative) resurrected

  • The Spirit poured out on Israel = Spirit poured out on the Jewish Christ-community at Pentecost (and later on the nations/Gentiles)

  • Israel saved and ruled by the Messiah = Jewish believers in Jesus saved and ruled by Messiah Jesus

  • New covenant = New covenant made through blood of Messiah

  • Judah and Israel reunited under Davidic king = Jews and Samaritans united under David king Jesus

  • Word of the Lord goes from Jerusalem for the salvation of the nations = Word of the Lord (gospel) goes from Jerusalem for the salvation of the nations

  • Israel and nations worship God as one = Jews and Gentiles united as one community in the Christ

  • New, purified temple where Yhwh would dwell with his people = The Spirit-filled community as the end-time, purified temple where Yhwh dwells with his people.

I am well aware that there are a mass of issues and specific texts that would need considerable discussion to establish the above but it is a quick sketch of where I am tentatively coming from. (I bet that Nathan is wishing he had never asked - and we have not even got to answering his questions yet!)

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 6 (Death, Resurrection and the Hope of Israel)

OK, I confess - Here I owe everything to N.T. Wright (you can read his work for the arguments - this is simply a brief overview). I must confess that the link NTW makes between the death-resurrection of Jesus and the exile-restoration of Israel is an insight of major significance (my forthcoming commentary on Lamentations makes a big deal of it, reading Lamentations as Israel's Holy Saturday literature).

In his role as Messiah Jesus represented the whole nation of Israel in his own person. He was 'one man Israel'. In his crucifixion at the hands of pagan Rome and his resurrection at the hands of Yhwh, Jesus plays out the story of Israel’s exile and restoration. His death is a prophetic enactment of the exile of Israel and his resurrection is an embodiment of their return and restoration. Jesus embraced in his own innocent life the covenant curse incurred by his people and through his resurrection opened the way into the new age.

Many Jews had expected the Messiah to come, to defeat the pagan enemies of his people, and to inaugurate the new age of the kingdom of God. The dead would be raised, the Spirit would be poured out and the nations would come. They had not expected the Messiah to be killed by their enemies. They had not expected him to be raised from the dead ahead of the general resurrection at the last day.

The resurrection of Jesus then introduced an unexpected twist into the way in which God had planned to fulfil his covenant promises. If the Messiah was raised from the dead then the new age had already been inaugurated. In the Messiah Israel had already been restored . The time of the new covenant had arrived!

And yet clearly there was still more to come. The new age was inaugurated with the Christ’s resurrection but was not yet here in its fullness. So the restoration of Israel/kingdom of God was both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 5 (Jesus' Mission and the Hopes of Israel)

In what follows I am going to side-step debates on the historical Jesus and will take the gospels as they stand (feel free to raise historical issues in comments). I am not doing anything other than offering a few, brief, exploratory reflections.

Jesus and the Restoration of Israel
I suspect that it is only against this background sketched out in posts 1-5 that we can make sense of the story of Jesus. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, descended from David, and as such he was the one who would restore Israel and enable her to reach out to the nations. The whole mission of Jesus was tied up with these hopes. The Jesus of the gospels seems to be a man on a mission bound up with the eschatological restoration of Israel.

Jesus led an eschatological, Israel-restoration movement. His mission was in the first instance to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 15:24). (He told his disciples not to go amongst the Gentiles Matt 10:5. Only later did his mission expand to take in all nations [as per the OT expectations]).

His appointment of 12 disciples (something attested in numerous early sources) certainly suggests the restorationist nature of his agenda. The expectation was that God would restore the twelve tribes ruled by twelve princes. Jesus appointed twelve apostles to "sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19:28; Lk 22:30). The message was clear.

Israel expected a new, post-exilic, kingdom of God age to dawn in which Israel would be restored. Jesus' announcement of the immanent arrival of the kingdom would have been heard in such a context. That is not to say that Jesus did not stretch the kingdom expectations and make them his own (e.g., he certainly seemed to reject zealot models for bringing in the kingdom). The point is that the concept of the kingdom was not an empty category but was bound up with Israel's salvation (and the consequent redemption of all creation).

Israel as a whole - and its leaders in particular - did not embrace Jesus' kingdom message and Jesus warned them over and over again of coming judgement on the nation and its Holy City. (I think that Jesus saw his followes as an advanced guard of the restoration but that full restoration was deferred until after coming judgement. See later post)

I have no doubt that there is a LOT that should be said in qualification of, and in addition to, the above. But I do think it is the case that Jesus' mission was intimately bound up with the redemption of Jerusalem (something that comes out powerfully in Luke 1-2 which frame Jesus' whole life and ministry in terms of this Israel-restorationist agenda).

Jesus and the Torah
A word about Jesus and the Torah is in order (given that all these posts are really a long-winded response to a question from Nathahn about the Law). We need to recall that Jesus and his early followers were all Jews and all lived in Jewish contexts in which circumcision, food laws, holy-days and Sabbaths were not questioned. There were issues about how such commands were to be interpreted and applied but there was no question about whether they should be or not.

Jesus was Torah-obedient. He was circumcised, celebrated Jewish festivals, observed the Sabbath, attended the Synagogue, wore fringes on his garments, approved of tithing, endorsed sacrifice and gifts at the Temple, said grace before meals, and almost certainly maintained Jewish dietry laws, etc.. He may not have interpreted and applied the Torah in exactly the same way as all his contemporaries (as is witnessed by various controversies) but this should not be seen as an attempt to subvert the Torah (there were many disagreements at this time between different Jewish groups on how to interpret and apply the Law).

Jesus did not advocate abandoning the Torah. On the contrary he held the Torah in very high esteem (e.g., Matt 5:17-20; Mk 7:8), told the rich young man that if he kept the Mosaic commands he would have eterenal life (Matt 19:16-22), and condemned those that he felt subverted it (e.g., Mk 7:1-13 par). Jesus followed the Torah and taught his Jewish followers to do so as well.

In the Second Temple period different groups of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc) took different views on the interpretation of Torah and Jesus' approach to the Law of Moses needs to be situated within such a copntext. Just like these other groups Jesus was concerned with the interpretation of the Torah. Compared to some of them he may sometimes seems rather liberal but this should not lead us to think that he was indifferent to Torah-obedience. The difference lay in his hermeneutics.

Jesus' Torah-hermeneutic prioritized certain parts of the Torah - not all the commands were equally important: some parts dealt with "the weightier matters of the Law" (Matt 23:23). (It should go without saying that Jesus thought that Jews should obey the less weighty matters of the Law also.) He thought that the written Torah took precidence over the oral Toral of the Pharisees (Mk 7:1-13). He took the love commands in Deut 6:5 (love God) and Lev 19:18 (love your neighbour) as the key through which the whole Law could be summed up and interpreted (Matt 22:36-40). He focused on the moral requirements of the Law (but again, we must point out that he did not neglect issues of purity and ceremonial law, Mk 1:44 par; Lk 11:44; Mt 7:6; 23:27). He placed an unusual emphasis on the place of motivation in obedience to the commandments (most famously in the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount - "You have heard that it was said ... but I say unto you ..."). And so on.

But the point is that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who followed the Law of Moses (even if his hermeneutic made some Jewish leaders feel that he was abandoning Torah-obedience) and taught other Jews to do likewise.

Tomorrow - the cross and resurrection.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 4 (the Hope of Israel)

Israel’s Future Hope
Israel’s prophets told stories of Israel’s post-exilic future – stories of a new age of the kingdom of God in which God’s purposes for Israel were at last fulfilled. It is my belief that NT theology only makes sense against this background.

It is not easy to put all the different, overlapping prophetic visions together into a single, fully coherent picture. However the following themes, whilst not all found in all of the visions, are recurring (sorry for the patchy refs - I am racing against the clock to write this).
  • Israel’s Gentile enemies would be destroyed (e.g. Isa 34:1-4; Zech 12:1-9; 14:1-5, 12; etc.)

  • The northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah would be brought back from their respective exiles to their Promised Land (e.g., Jer 33:7).

  • In later traditions there was the expectation of a resurrection of the dead to vindicate the righteous martyrs of Israel – they too would share in the blessings of the new age (e.g., Dan 12:2; 2 Macc 7).

  • The land would flourish under divine blessing (e.g., Ezek 36) and, in several traditions, under the restored rule of a king from the line of David (the Messiah) (e.g., Jer 33:14-18; Ezek 37:24-27; Zech 9:9-10, etc).

  • Israel and Judah, divided after the time of Solomon, would be reunited under a new Davidic king (e.g., Ezek 37:15-28).

  • The Jerusalem temple would be rebuilt and YHWH would dwell there again (e.g., Ezek 40-48).

  • God would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah that included
    - pouring out his Spirit on Israel (e.g., Joel 2:28-29; Ezek 36:27)
    - enabling Israel to obey the Law of Yhwh (e.g., Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:27)

  • The word of the Lord would go out from Jerusalem to the nations (e.g., Isa 2:1-4).

  • The survivors of the nations would come to Jerusalem – no longer as enemies but as pilgrims coming to learn the ways of Israel’s God and to worship him (e.g., Isa 2:1-4; 11:10-12; 18:7; 19; 45:20-25; 60:1-16; 61:5-6; 66:12, 18, 23; Ps 86:9-10; Zech 14:16).

  • Tentative suggestion that needs more thought: The restoration of Israel in its land would represent and bring about the redemption of the whole creation – a redeemed cosmos. The roots of new creation eschatology are found in the book of Isaiah 65:17ff in the context of the restoration of Israel and Jerusalem. This idea may be grounded in the links between Adam/humanity in Eden and Israel in the Promised Land (something N.T. Wright makes much of). So Israel in the Land can represent humanity in the earth (a point well made by Christopher J.H. Wright). Consequently the restoration of Israel is linked somehow to the restoration of humanity and the whole created order. Just a thought. I'd need to ponder that a lot more.

Whilst attempts to piece together a unified chronology for the occurrence of these hoped-for events is a precarious business (you won't catch me mapping out a timetable of the Last Days!), the very broad structure is clear – first God restores Israel and then, through Israel, he reaches out to save the nations in accord with Israel’s mission of blessing the nations.

With those ideas in place we can look at the NT.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 3 (Jeremiah's 'New' Covenant)

The ‘New’ Covenant
Israel’s persistent failure to obey the Law indicated that a deeper solution was needed to their failure – a heart solution. Writing at the start of the Babylonian exile the prophet Jeremiah wrote of this solution:

Jeremiah 31:31-36 "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." 35 Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD of hosts is his name: 36 "If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever."

God promised them that after he restored them from exile he would put his Law and his Spirit within them. This seems to be the equivalent of the promise in Deuteronomy when Moses promised that after the exile
Deuteronomy 30:6
the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
It also seems equivalent to Ezekiel's promise of post-exilic restoration for Israel

Ezekiel 36:24-28 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Christians are used to talking about the New Covenant but if we are really to appreciate what it is about we need to get to grips with its background in the hopes of Israel. The following points stand out.
  • This ‘new’ covenant was to be made with the Israelites - the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not the Gentiles (re-read the passages if you don't believe me). Indeed the 'new' covenant oracle is immediately followed by a divine promise that Israel will continue as a 'nation' before God forever (Jer 31:35-36 above). Any Christian appropriation of the new covenant motif needs to bear this in mind (we will consider in a later post how it is that Gentiles like me get to share in the blessings of Israel's NC).

  • it was not thought of as a replacement for Law of Moses so much as an internalization of it. Its purpose was to makes obedience to Torah an actuality. So there is both continuity and discontinuity between the 'old' covenant (the Sinai covenant) and the 'new' covenant.
  • We Christians, in our zeal to emphazise the stunning contrasts between the old and new covenants, are sometimes in danger failing to recognize the continuity between them. The NT contrast is perhaps best thought of not as one between the Law of Moses per se and the 'new' covenant (though it might sometimes look that way). Rather it is between the Old Covenant (i.e., Law of Moses + sinful human nature [=death]) on the one hand and the New Covenant (Law of Christ - in my view, the Torah as mediated via Christ - internalized by the Spirit [=life]). When seen like that the contrasts that Paul makes between the two covenants make sense without in any way undermining Torah. Paul's problem was never with the Torah as such but with 'the flesh' that was unwilling and unable to obey the Torah and, as a consequence, brought curse and death. Torah + flesh = 'the law of sin and death' but Torah + Spirit = 'the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus' (Rom 8:2). In 2 Cor 3 it is the Spirit that makes the difference in the new covenant and not the loss of the Torah.
  • (As an aside, I wonder if it is best to think of the NC in terms of the now/not yet tension of the NT's inaugurated eschatology. The NC is part of the present experience of the Church but it is not here in its fulness. If it was here in its fulness Christians would not sin. Well, I don't know about you but ...)

  • it would not become a reality until the exile ended.

The ‘new’ covenant would allow Israel to at last carry out its mission to the nations.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 2 (Moses, the Torah and the Mission of Israel)

The Sinai Covenant
Generations later the descendants that God had promised to Abraham – the Israelites – were living as slaves in Egypt. In fulfilment of his covenant promises to Abraham God raised up a man named Moses who would lead them out of slavery and into their Promised Land in Canaan.

Moses led the children of Israel to Mount Sinai where Yhwh – the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – met them and gave them the covenant Law (Ex 19ff). Israel was to be Yhwh’s people, his treasured possession, and Yhwh was to be their god.
In grace and covenant faithfulness he had rescued them from Egypt, so they were to reciprocate by joyfully obeying his Law (Ex 20 noting the shift from v. 2 to v. 3). If Israel kept the covenant Law then they would be blessed in the Promised Land but if they failed to observe that Law then they would be cursed in the land and eventually cast out from it (Lev 26; Deut 28).
Important point 1: The Law of Moses was not intended as a means of earning salvation but as a grateful response to a salvation from Egypt already received. As Mike Bird (I wish I had that surname!) puts it "the Law was given to a redeemed people and not to redeem the people."
Important point 2: The blessings and the curses of the covenant were experienced within their covenant relationship with Yhwh. Israel’s sin would indeed bring dreadful punishments but could never annul that covenant relationship (see, for instance, Deut 30:1-10). So it was that over and over again God restored Israel after he had punished them. Even when the prophetic rhetoric made it sound like the end had come for the nation, the subsequent word of renewal was always God's final word.
It seems to me to be critical to appreciate the way in which the curses functioned within the covenant because in much traditional Christian theology Israel's sin in rejecting her Messiah led to God abandoning Israel and turning to the Church instead (based on a misinterpretation of Matt 21:43).

To labour the point a little: Israel’s rejection of Yhwh brings punishment but this occurs within the relationship and does not signify its termination. Israel was God’s chosen people, his treasured possession, his holy nation, his royal priesthood. No matter what Israel did her place in God’s heart was unshakable and her calling was irrevocable (Rom 11:28-29).

Israel’s Mission
Israel had always been intended by Yhwh to be the means by which he would bless the nations (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ex 19:6; Jer 4:1-2; Isa 2:1-5). Israel was not elect simply for its own sake but for the sake of the world. God’s people were to live in obedience to God’s good laws and thereby demonstrate to the nations God’s good wisdom (Deut 4:6-8; 28:9-10). They were to be Yhwh’s witnesses to the Gentiles with the ultimate intention of drawing them to forsake their idols and worship the one true God with Israel (here I am thinking primarily of Isaiah 40-55). However, God’s people miserably failed in this mission and were often ‘enslaved’ by the very idolatry that imprisoned the nations (Isa 42:16-25; 46:8-13; 48).

How could Israel be saved from its sin so that it could fulfil its mission to the world?

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 1 (the Promise to the Patriarchs)

And so it begins ...

Looming large in any discussion of Israel's place in the purposes of God is the foundational promise to, and covenant with, the patriarchs. As far as I know, pretty much all Christian theologians agree on the relevant basics here. So I will state, without much supporting argument, what seems to me to be blindingly obvious.

Here are three relevant texts - first a promise, then a promise-covenant, then a mutual-agreement-covenant (there are some tricky issues on how the latter two relate to each other - one seems to be an unconditional promise and the other a conditional contract - with scholars taking a range of positions but I won't get into that. Actually I may have to in a later post - we'll see how it goes):

Genesis 12:1-4 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Genesis 15:5-21 5 And [God] brought [Abram] outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 7 And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites."

Genesis 17:1-10 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." 9 And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

Abraham and the Covenant of Promise
Genesis 1-11 serves as background to the Abrahamic covenant. Humanity set itself on a course away from the Creator - away from 'blessing' towards 'curse' (e.g., Eve and Adam, Cain, the flood generation, the towel builders). So God purposes to restore creation from curse to blessing (in Gen 1-11 the blessing/curse contrast has loomed large).

The covenant with Abram must be seen in this context - Israel's election is not merely for the benefit of Israel but also has the blessing of the nations in view (12:3). To that end God chose a man named Abram and his wife Sarai to be the means by which he would deal with the global problem of human sin.

God promised Abraham:
  • Descendants through the line of his and Sarah’s future son, Isaac (17:15-21). Those descendants would eventually became a nation (Israel).

  • A permanent land for those descendants in Canaan.

  • Blessing for those descendants
  • A relationship with those descendants (hence, the famous 'covenant formula', "I will be their God and they will be my people").

  • Blessing for the nations through those descendants

Abraham's male descendants were to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant (17:10-14). And Abraham and his descendants were expected to obey God, as God's comment in Gen 18:19 makes clear:

Genesis 18:17-19 The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."

This covenant is an ‘everlasting covenant’ (17:7) and governs all of God’s subsequent redemptive dealings with Israel and the nations (including the Church). Over and over again in Israel's story God spares the sinful nation from annihilation when he remembers his covenant with Abraham. And later St Paul will say that as far as election is concerned Israel, even though she rejects her Messiah, is still loved by God on behalf of the patriarchs (Rom 11:28). This covenant is permanent and unbreakable. Nothing that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah can do will cause Yhwh to renage on it.

In my view all subsequent covenants (including the New Covenant) should be seen as sub-sets of this covenant with Abraham.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, Introduction

What is the gospel? The way that I have always heard people tell the story goes something like this:
  1. God created the world and loves it (Gen 1-2).
  2. People sinned and deserve to be punished (Gen 3).
  3. God sent Jesus to die for us (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn) (p.s., he was raised from the dead as well - hooray!)
  4. Repent, trust in Jesus and you will be saved from sin.

Setting aside the numerous crass theological moves in this summary, notice the jump from Genesis 3 to Matthew's gospel, passing over the vast bulk of the Bible. It is as if we can understand what God's purposes in history are, and what Jesus was all about, without recourse to the story of Israel.

One wonders why God even bothered with 'the Israel part of the story' because, in the minds of many Christians, it is so obviously redundant. At best it provides us with some pretty typological illustrations of what God will later do in Jesus. You have probably heard those sermons on OT texts in which the preacher carefully matches up the OT shadow with the NT reality leaving me wondering why they did not simply cut out the middle man and preach a NT sermon, because the OT seemed to teach nothing that we did not already know before we looked at it.

Something must be wrong with this picture! Why did God bother with Israel? Were they simply an illustration of the church? If so then now that the church has come presumably God has set them aside (that is certainly the traditional Christian belief) - after all, who needs the shadow after the reality has arrived?

But the persistent existence of the Jewish people proves a stumbling block to traditional Christian theology. If they have been jettisoned from the covenant people as Christians have historically claimed then why are they still around? Without a land of their own (for most of the past 2000 years), and in the face of the twin pressures of persecution and assimilation, it really is astonishing that the Jewish people are still with us. Why has God preserved them?

Traditional theologians speculated that God preserved them simply as a warning of what happens to those who disobey God - life under divine curse. However, apart from being utterly objectionable, this belief also struggles to make sense of the beginnings of a change of fortunes in Jewish history since the mid-twentieth century.

So my question is this - what happens if we tell the story of Jesus and of the church as part of a bigger story that takes Israel's past, present and future part in the narrative seriously? And can we do it without becoming Dispensationalists? (I know that this will really annoy some people but I naturally incline towards viewing Dispensationalism as a breeding ground for freaky and over-zealous biblical interpretation! Just a personal opinion :-))

This mini-series of reflections was prompted by Nathan Fellingham's question on the place of Torah in the ekklesia (it will become clear that my views on this are very un-Dispensationalist). So rather than going directly to that issues I want to approach it in a kind of meandering way across the biblical metanarrative. I apologize if some of the observations are bland and obvious but I thought that it was worth stating the obvious at times.

I have no doubt that I will be wrong in my interpretations of some texts but my hope is that the broad contours of the big picture I sketch have some merit as a way of making sense of the place of Israel in God's story.

In fact, I will argue that unless we re-orientate our thinking on that issue we will wound not merely the Jewish people (and this history of Christian mistreatment of the Jews is sickening) but the Church itself. It will be my contention that unless the Church appreciates how it is related to Israel we will not understand adequately who we are, who Jesus is, what our mission is, and what our gospel is.

I cannot pretend that I adequately appreciate these things but I am going to make an effort to do so. Please feel free to help me as I think through these issues by offering your own comments.


Friday, 1 August 2008

Israel and the Church - pre-ramble (hunting for a trout and catching a shark)

My two burger posts make me feel like a person fishing for trout and catching a shark - I seem to have dragged up from the depths an ancient theological beastie far bigger than I was expecting (though I knew the shark was down there). What exactly is the relationship between Israel and the Church in the past and the present,? between Old Covenant and New Covenant? between Law and gospel?

Oh no! The rule is that in these discussions whatever you say you die! The only question is who will kill me. (What fun! I'll see if I can arrange things so that everyone wants to kill me.)

The problem is that so many controversial texts and issues intersect on these matters that one has to master so much material to speak with any confidence on them. I have not and I cannot (so read any confidence as bluster on my part to deter difficult questioning). So in the series of posts that will follow please appreciate that I am throwing out ideas for discussion. They are thoughts in progress and nothing much stronger than that right now.

Another issue concerns method. Do I start with the specific texts? Should I, for instance, do a post on Romans 14, another on Galatians 2, another on 1 Cor 9, another on Rom 9-11 and so on? I am not going to do that or we'd be at this game forever (not least because I have simply not studied any of them properly).

I have decided to do a N.T. Wright (my hero! swoon). I am going to (briefly) retell the biblical story from start to finish in such a way as to propose a way of answering the questions that have been raised. But I am going to tell it somewhat differently from N.T. Wright. That framework obviously will depend on the exegesis of particular texts but I wish to throw out the big idea to start with. Within that framework it is much easier to start addressing particular texts.

These posts may take a while as I am effectively trying to do a whole biblical theology off the top of my head (and I am not being falsely modest when I say that in truth my brain is not that clever). It is a given that I am going to make some mistakes along the way so please be patient (i.e., pause, smile, pause again, then kill me).

One final thing. The framework only really makes sense when all the parts are in place so there might not be a whole load to say in response to the first few posts (who knows?).

The wise thing to do would be to first work out what I think and then blog it but I thought I'd do some theology on the run and see what comes out. Who knows whether it will be chololate fudge cake or poo? That's the excitement of the journey (I am such a theological adrenelin junkie!)

(Dear Lord, please keep me true to your word along the way! Help me not to be misled not to mislead.)