Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Annual General Meeting

Today is the day of my Church's Annual General Meeting. I can't help worrying! It's not that I am aware of anything to worry about, it's just that Church AGMs have some unpleasant memories for me. Or rather two in particular have from my time in the UK. Like today, I had thought there was nothing to worry about and was quite relaxed. Everything was going fine until we reached 'Any Other Business' and then on both occasions someone chose the moment to launch an attack on me personally.

Now AGMs are meant to be about the airing of views, but I can't help but feel that personal issues should be discussed personally and privately first! Anyway on these two occasions they weren't and they have left me a bit wary of what might come up. I am hopeful that the AGM this year will be a positive one as there is much to be positive about!

It is also the one at which it will be officially announced that my contract is being renewed here by mutual agreement for a further four years! It would be nice if there weren't any nasty surprises. I'll let you know!

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I am now back after a few days break and getting ready for our AGM tomorrow. Today I am posting the first of my recent radio broadcasts. The next will follow over the next couple of weeks. They are written to be spoken - if you see what I mean! I am trying to take up some of the themes from Romans and present them in a contemporary way although I didn't say that on air!

I will resume the series on Paul next week.

I hope your weekend is good!


1. Creation

The Bible is quite clear that we are not alone in this universe and nor are we at the centre of it. It used to be thought that the earth was the centre of the universe: now we know better. Despite this knowledge, however, we still act as if we are the centre. We know that we are not physically the centre of the universe, but we act as if spiritually we are. And so, we disregard the importance and significance of other beings, animal and human, and treat our planet with complete disdain. We know that pollution and global warming are a reality, but do little of consequence about it. The thought that we may have to make sacrifices, real sacrifices, to make a difference is not an option most of us are willing to entertain. Why shouldn’t I have the sort of lifestyle that makes me happy?

It’s not that we are not religious – we are! But we like to choose our gods. We want gods that suit us, and certainly not gods that make demands of us and tell us what to do. I was looking through one of the Sunday supplements recently, page after page was devoted to advertisements for handbags. Not handbags in general, of course, but designer handbags; hand bags costing thousands of dollars in some cases. Now I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with handbags as such. Jolly, useful for carrying things around! But these designer bags – as opposed to the useful variety that you can actually carry stuff in – symbolize our obsession with material things. And if it is not handbags, then it is expensive cars or any number of other consumer goods. These are our gods.

Religious people often get accused of being foolish, of worshipping something, someone, that they have invented for themselves. Well don’t accuse us of foolishness when what matters most to you is the latest offering from Gucci or Mercedes. What could be more foolish than that? St Paul writes of men and women:

‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21)

St Paul’s point is that we were created by God and given every chance by him to know him and worship him. We chose, however, not have anything to do with him. We did not become atheists in the process, however, that is, people who do not believe in any god, we simply replaced the real and true God with ones of our own imagination. In the past, these took the form of statues of animals or even other humans. Now, as we have grown more sophisticated, although not more intelligent, they take other forms. Whatever, we still worship the creature, not the Creator.

For the Christian, our understanding of the creation teaches us that we are not the centre of the universe, God is, and the creation is just that: something that he created. It doesn’t mean that it is not good, not important, or not to be enjoyed. Quite the contrary. Precisely because God created it, it is good, and, therefore, it is to be enjoyed and taken care of. We are not despise or reject it, and we are not to pollute or destroy it. Nor are we unimportant: we are the creations of God, made in his image and likeness. Our place in the world is not at the centre of it, but nor is it the bottom of it.

Roman Catholics used to learn something in the UK called the Penny Catechism, so-called because it cost a penny! It was designed to teach the Christian faith by a series of questions and answers. It begins:

Question: Who made you?
Answer: God made me.

Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next.

‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next.’

Somehow, the idea of ‘knowing God, loving and serving him in this life’ and then ‘being happy with him for ever in the next’ seems infinitely better than pursuing the sort of goals that we are constantly encouraged to pursue and which many of us give our lives for. And knowing God certainly sounds more fulfilling than knowing what the latest fashions are.

Christians believe that we can know God and that finding him is not only possible, but also reasonably straightforward. Jesus said:

‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’

Given what is on offer, surely it is worth a try!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter Break

I hope your Easter was a good one. I'm taking a few days off this week. I will post again on Saturday. It will give me time to prepare the next few blogs!

Have a good week.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

11. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

I am getting ready for tomorrow at the moment. All under control so far. Just time to post this next blog and wish you all a very Happy Easter!

May you know the power of Christ's resurrection!!

11. Paul's Letter to the Romans

Righteousing (justification) involves God forgiving our sins, reconciling us to himself, freeing us from sin’s power, transferring us from the jurisdiction of the Law, and giving us the Holy Spirit as an outpouring of his love in the present as well as a guarantee both of future salvation from the wrath of God and of the gift of eternal life.

The logic of this for Paul is that we cannot go on sinning.

Paul explains all this most fully in letter to the Romans.

As I have referred a lot to Romans in this series. We need perhaps at this point to pause and discuss the structure of Paul’s argument in Romans. Before we can do this, we need to remember the context in which Paul wrote Romans.

Paul wrote Romans from Corinth before he went to Jerusalem to take the money he had collected from Gentile believers for the Church there. It was his intention having delivered the collection then to go to Rome and visit the Church there and then on from Rome to Spain. He had not visited the Roman Church before and his hope was to spend some time at Rome and, perhaps, even use it as a base for future work.

The collection was tremendously important for Paul both because of the money itself and the relief it would provide and also for the way it symbolized fellowship between believing Gentiles and Jews. Paul, however, was worried that the Gentile offering would not be accepted. He closes his argument in Romans with these words:

‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.’ (Romans 15:30-32)

He had good cause to be worried whether it would be acceptable! Whether it actually turned out to be acceptable or not, it was as a result of this subsequent trip to Jerusalem that he was arrested and spent the rest of his ministry that we know about in prison, first in Caesarea, and then in Rome itself.

The point is that at the time of writing Romans, Paul has the ‘Jew and Gentile’ issue very much on his mind. His own ministry is under fierce attack in some quarters of the Church. He had been openly challenged in Corinth itself by Jewish believers prior to his writing of Romans. His message had been criticised and there was wide-spread suspicion of him personally.

It was vital to Paul to gain the support and trust of the Roman Church and to do this Paul writes a letter that addresses the issues over which there was controversy and dispute between himself and his opponents. He seeks to explain his message and at the same time to reply to some of the objections that have been raised to it. He also wants to answer certain misrepresentations of what he preaches.

Romans is not a complete statement of everything Paul believes. It is not a summary of the Christian faith. Paul can assume a lot of common ground between himself and the Roman Christians that he does not have to discuss. Romans is rather a careful and considered statement of Paul’s message, what he calls my Gospel (Romans 16:25), that also seeks to address questions that have been raised by it. It would be wonderful to have such a detailed letter from a Jewish believer in Jerusalem who disagreed with Paul, but we don’t. We have to rely on our own ability to understand the position of Paul’s opponents from the way Paul responds to it. Romans is our best chance for understanding what Paul’s message was, a message that caused so much division within the Church. It is also our best chance for understanding what were the beliefs of Paul’s opponents as well. This is precisely because it is such a detailed and considered response. While Galatians is also important for understanding the argument between Paul and his opponents, in Galatians Paul is much more on the attack – understandably so.

It is also worth remembering that if the list of people to whom Paul sends greetings at the end of the letter was originally part of the letter to the Romans – and I personally think it was – then Paul knew and was known by some people at Rome even though he had not been there in person. Indeed, ‘Prisca and Aquila’ (Romans 16:3) had been closely associated with Paul, working with him during his stay in Corinth (Acts 18:2, 18) and then again at Ephesus (Acts 18:26; 1 Corinthians 16:19). They knew first hand how great the opposition was to him both from Jews AND Jewish believers.

There were also people such as Andronicus and Junia, who Paul describes as:

‘… my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was’. (Romans 16:3).

There are others whom Paul describes as co-workers even in such terms as having been a ‘mother’ to him. Again, all these people would have known the ‘message’ that Paul preached and the trouble that it caused as well as being fully aware of the opposition that Paul had faced and was facing.

Romans, then, was written to a real Church with the hope of winning their support, but against the background of an intense and fierce debate within the Church that centred on him personally. It is surely not without significance that Paul closes Romans with a specific warning against those who cause trouble and oppose his teaching (Romans 16:17).

We have to try to see how the Romans would have understood what Paul writes while, at the same time, remembering the circumstances surrounding the time of it having been written.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

10. Righteousing (Justification)

Today is Maundy Thursday. I have just completed writing and editing the reports for our Church AGM, which is on the Sunday after Easter. They have to go to the printer today. So I have today to get on top of the services for the next few days.

Tonight we have a meal together at the School. The weather is warm now so we will be sitting outside. Friends in other parts of the world may be jealous at that thought!

Here is the next installment in the series on Paul and Righteousness. I'll try to post the next one on Saturday.

10. Righteousing (Justification)

Paul and his opponents were agreed that present righteousing (justification) and future salvation from the wrath of God and the consequent gift of eternal life could only be found in Christ. They, no less than he, believed that Christ had died for our sins. It was on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice that salvation was to be looked forward to. But how was a person to respond to this sacrifice and make the benefits of it their own? How was a person to be righteoused (justified) so that they could experience all that being righteoused (justified) involved?

Paul’s opponents believed that it was by the ‘works of the Law’, which we have argued means keeping the commandments of the Old Testament Law, including circumcision while not being limited to it. Paul was absolutely convinced that it could only happen on the basis of faith. If it was on the basis of faith and not on the basis of Law that, consequently, meant that as far as the believer was concerned Law was no longer an issue. It was not that the Law was bad just that it fulfilled its role and had its day. It was time to move on!

But and this is I think a very important point, if righteousness is doing what God wants and what God wants is faith in Christ, then those who have faith in Christ are truly righteous. They are not declared righteous when everyone knows that really they are not. They are not made righteous in the sense that they can now do works that earn them the title righteous. They really are righteous because their faith is counted or reckoned as righteousness. This is real righteousness. It’s all God wants from us because Jesus has done everything that God required. ‘By the obedience of one shall many be righteoused (justified)’. Jews need it, Gentiles need it, we all need it, and without it we are not righteous – none of us. We don’t need works of any sort to righteous (justify) us, we just need faith in Jesus.

Now that we have been righteoused (justified), we can face the future judgement with confidence. Or as Paul puts it much more succinctly:

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been righteoused (justified) by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8-10)

This verse brings together all the points that we have been arguing. It makes a clear distinction between righteousing (justification) now, here in the present, when we have been reconciled to God by Christ’s death, and future salvation when hope to be saved from the wrath of God and given the gift of eternal life.

For Paul salvation is in essence a future concept. At times, he talks about how we are ‘being saved’ (present tense) meaning the process that will result in future salvation is taking place, and sometimes, although more rarely, he can say we ‘were saved’ (past tense) because he is confident of the future result. Notice that on one of the rare occasions that he does say we ‘were saved’ (past tense), he qualifies it:

‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Romans 8:24-25)

Yes, much has already happened to the believer, but not everything. What is more we still have to face the final judgement. Again, to quote Paul himself:

‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Paul doesn’t seem to think that just because we have been righteoused (justified) that this is the end of the matter. There is more that needs to happen in the meantime.

So now that we are righteous, what happens between us having become righteous and the judgement?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

9. Righteousness and Salvation

It's first thing on Tuesday morning and I am going over my Radio talks to record later this morning. Here is the next post in the latest series here.

9. Righteousness and Salvation

Paul argued that not only are all humans unrighteous, but also left to themselves there is nothing they can do to become righteous. All are sinners, controlled by sin, and slaves of sin. This means that all we have to look forward to is the wrath of God, which even now is being revealed against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). People need saving from it. How are we to find salvation?

This is where perhaps this blog gets in to stormy waters! In Paul, judgement really does sound as if it is ‘by works’. This was a point made by Sanders and which has been taken up increasingly in recent years by scholars from various theological camps. I have already quoted Romans 2 where Paul says it is those who do good that will receive eternal life. In the Bible and in Judaism, it is the righteous who do good, in the sense of doing what God requires of them. How are we unrighteous sinners to do good and so be able to find salvation on the last day?

It is important, I think, at this point to make a distinction between righteousness (justification) and salvation. This is a point made somewhat controversially by N T Wright. While many have criticised him for making this distinction, it certainly sounds to me as if it is there in Paul. Paul argues that we can only find forgiveness for past sins, be freed from the power of sin in the present, and so become one of the righteous here and now by faith in Christ, not by works of the Law, but solely by faith. There is a big argument over whether righteousing (justification) in Paul is about being declared or being made righteous. Writers discuss whether justification is forensic or ethical. Many describe it as a legal decision made by God on the day of judgement. It is a declaration that a person is not guilty. I find all this extremely unhelpful.

First of all Paul talks about us being righteous now, in the present. It has a very immediate focus. Scholars claim that Paul can talk about righteousing (justification) being in the present because God’s future, final judgement is read back into the present. This is surely an unnecessary way to look at it. Sanders, on whose work the New Perspective is based, argued that righteousness and being righteous in Judaism at the time of Paul is very much a ‘here and now’ concept. As he puts it: ‘the righteous are alive and well’. In other words, it’s a present state of being based on what happens in the present, not something that rightly belongs in the future, but which is read back into the present.

Righteousness is about doing what God wants. Those who do what God wants are righteous.

Paul’s opponents argued that what God wants is for us to keep the Law. Paul argues that this is a bit difficult, as we are powerless to keep the Law. And, in any case, that was not what the Law was for anyway. The Law’s job, says Paul, was to show us how sinful we were and how powerless we were to do anything about it.

As sinners under the power of sin, we are estranged from God, without God or hope in this world. All that awaits us is God’s judgement and wrath. Our only hope is the blood of Jesus. God has shown us his love in the past so that he won’t have to show us his wrath in the future. By sending Christ to die for us, God demonstrates his love for the ungodly, that is, for those who are separated from him because of their sin.

Righteousing (justification) involves God forgiving our sins, reconciling us to himself, freeing us from sin’s power, transferring us from the jurisdiction of the Law, and giving us the Holy Spirit as an outpouring of his love in the present and as a guarantee both of future salvation from the wrath of God and also of the gift of eternal life. It also results in whoever this has happened to becoming part of the people of God made up of everyone without distinction. All really are one in Christ: one in their past sin and one in their desire for future salvation.

The critical question then is: how can we be righteoused (justified) so that all this can happen to us?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

8. The Righteous and the Unrighteous

I have just looked at the diary for the next few days and thought I had better get on and post now while I have the chance. I will aim to post again on Tuesday!

We have had to cancel Sunday School tomorrow, which goes against the grain, but we have no choice given the Government's decision this week. Hoepfully, we will still manage a good celebration!

I hope you have a good Sunday.

8. The Righteous and the Unrighteous

As I have argued in previous posts in this series, Paul’s opponents had a very strong case. It wouldn’t need a letter of the depth and detail of Romans to refute it if they didn’t. We will only understand Paul when we see how good their argument was. In fact, Paul’s opponents had a powerful reason for keeping the Law themselves and for wanting Gentile believers to keep it. It was God’s Law! God was the One who had given it and in the OT warned of the dangers of not keeping it. If it was God who had given it, and it had been right in the past to keep it, what had changed? Paul’s argument creates a problem that Paul himself acknowledges.

Paul argues that the Law has had its day, that Christians have died to the Law, and are now freed from it. They are no longer under any obligation to the Law. The Law, however, had been the basis for how God’s people had lived for centuries. It had regulated the behaviour of the people of God and shown them how to live. The New Perspective is right to draw our attention to the fact that, for Judaism at the time of Paul, the Law wasn’t the burden that some Christians in the past have imagined it to be, it was a gift from God, a thing of joy, a cause for profound gratitude and praise.

Read Psalm 119, for example. It doesn’t sound like the Psalmist had any problem with it. Whatever the faults of the Pharisees may or may not have been, they seem not to have had a problem with the Law. This presumably was why, when some of them became believers, they thought they should go on keeping the Law and should encourage everyone else to do so. Wasn’t Paul suggesting that the Psalmist and those like him who saw the Law as good and from God were wrong? And, logically, didn’t it mean if the Christian was no longer under Law, they could do precisely what they liked? As Paul himself asks:

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!’ (Romans 6:15)

To understand how Paul deals with this it is necessary to try and understand how Paul understands salvation. This is a difficult topic because every word and every position is argued over with passion. But let’s have a go! At the risk of over-simplification, I think the key to understanding Paul is to realize that for Paul salvation is what happens at the end on the Day of Judgment and that salvation is salvation from the wrath of God. I think this comes out very clearly in Romans 2. Take these verses, for example:

‘But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.’ (Romans 2:5-8)

Paul believed that there will in the future be a day of reckoning when God will reward the good and punish the bad. This shouldn’t cause any surprise. Christians may not believe it any more, but just about every Jew and Christian in Paul’s time did and it is absolutely fundamental to the whole of the New Testament. Nothing can be understood without grasping the centrality of this concept.

The gift of eternal life will be given to those who ‘do good’, but for those who do not there will be ‘wrath and fury’. Those who ‘do good’ are those who are 'righteous' in God’s sight and those who don’t are the ‘unrighteous’. What we desperately need to know, therefore, is how to become one of the righteous.

‘The righteous shall live …’ that is receive eternal life, Paul and his opponents both believed that, but on what basis were they to be righteous? On the basis of Law, as Paul’s opponents argued. Or by faith, as Paul argued?

This is where the English language lets us down terribly and proves most misleading. The words that Paul uses to talk about righteousness in English are words such as: righteous, righteousness, the righteous. We can tell that they are all related because they have the same root in common, right, as indeed they have in Greek. The problem is while in Greek the verb has the same root as well, so you can see straight away that the verb is related to the noun and the adjective, in English it does not. The verb that we use in English to translate the Greek is justify and hence also the word justification. The verb, justify, describes how a person becomes righteous. We miss a fantastic amount because when we read in English we lose the connection between the verb and the rest of the group of words.

There have been attempts to overcome this by using words such as ‘rightwise’ instead of justify. The trouble is they are not words we normally use in English. Nevertheless, I have recently gone through Romans and instead of justify etc have changed it to a form of the made up verb, ‘to righteous’. So when Paul says we are ‘justified by faith’, I have changed it to we are ‘righteoused by faith’. If this seems as if I am just being pedantic, try doing it: it really makes a difference. The word processor makes it relatively easy!

There is another problem to do with translation. Important for Paul is the idea that we are righteoused (justified) by faith. Again, in English, when we come to the verb, we translate the Greek by a different sounding word, the word believe. But in Greek the words have the same root and again you can see the connection. I have changed all occurrences of the verb ‘to believe’, to the verb, ‘to have faith’. This again makes a huge difference. I’ll try to show why as we go on!

So to sum up: Anyone who God finds unrighteous on the Day of Judgement will face wrath and fury. We need to be saved from this. The ones who will be saved are those who do good, the righteous. Paul argues, as we shall see, that left to ourselves we are all unrighteous. How are we to become one of the righteous? How are we to be righteoused (justified)?

Friday, March 14, 2008


All the Primary schools in Hong Kong have been closed because of a flu epidemic except, as a report shows today, there isn't a flu epidemic or anything like it. It was case of over-reaction. Not that I am necessarily complaining. I think kids have to spend too much time at school as it is and I realize how much time school work takes up for me when I don't have to do it! With Holy Week coming up and schools originally going on right up until Easter, I will have a lot more time.

Some of this extra time will be spent writing five radio talks that I have record next week. I will post them on here. They will be broadcast in April so I am going to give them an Easter theme.

Tonight is the first night I will have had in for a week. I intend to have as relaxed an evening as I can, I hope you all have a good one as well!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

7. 'Works of the Law'

I have the final of my Lent talks tonight. I have been talking about Christian living. This has overlapped with what I am writing in this series of blogs. I have found myself reading and re-reading Paul's letters to the Romans. It really is an amazing piece of writing and always seems to reward another reading. Commentators today seem not to know what to make of it with many different interpretations of every passage and often very contradictory interpretations. I am often left wondering how a single piece of writing can be interpreted in so many different ways.

I wonder what the Romans themselves made of it when it was first read out in Church. Did they scratch their heads and wonder what on earth Paul was going on about? Or did it make reasonable sense to them? I would dearly love to know.

Here then is another blog in the series on Paul and the problems raised by the Gentiles!

7. ‘Works of the Law’

I want to turn now more specifically to the issue of the Old Testament Law in Paul. What is his problem with the Law and what role if any does he see it as having for the believer? I hope you will forgive me beginning by repeating some of what I have already said in this series, albeit in a different form. I especially want to look at something that goes to the heart of the debate between the Old and New Perspectives on Paul and that is the meaning of the phrase ‘works of the Law’ in Paul.

When I first became a Christian, we all accepted that you couldn’t be saved by keeping the Law, which we equated in good Protestant fashion with doing good works. This made us different to the Roman Catholics who we believed were all trying to earn their salvation by doing works of various kinds. We knew that we were saved by faith not works. Nowadays, of course, I realize that this is desperately unfair to Roman Catholics. Anyway, the issue for us was what the role of the Law was now we were Christians.

It was common in those days to make a distinction between the moral, social, and ceremonial aspects of the Law. Jesus had got rid of the social and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, but we still had to keep the moral laws. It wasn’t always easy to know which laws were which, but generally it seemed to make sense. Jesus surely wanted us to obey the 10 commandments, but equally he didn’t want us to stone women caught in adultery or worry about eating pork.

When I started theological study it seemed to be more complicated than that. After all, as Christians we didn’t even keep the 10 commandments: we had conveniently adjusted the one about Sabbath observance to suit ourselves, for example. What authority could the Law still have if we could be so cavalier in our approach to it? Where did the Holy Spirit fit in? And what was the relationship between keeping commandments and being led by the Spirit? I intend in the next few posts to turn my attention to these issues. But first, at the risk of repetition, I want to look at what Paul means by this phrase ‘works of the Law’.

It really is amazing the way that so many people can read what Paul says about the Law and yet understand it so differently. This has always been the case. The sixteenth century Reformers themselves, who agreed that the purpose of Law was not so people could earn salvation by keeping it, nevertheless disagreed on what was its purpose! The New Perspective has only added to the controversy and difficulty in understanding what was Paul’s view of the Law.

Paul says that righteousness (justification) is not by the ‘works of the Law’. Previously, previous to the New Perspective that is, this was generally understood to mean that humans could not become righteous by doing what the Law commanded. The New Perspective, however, has sought to offer a new way of understanding the phrase ‘works of the Law’ or, at least, a new emphasis. ‘Works of the Law’, it is argued, refers primarily to distinctively Jewish practices such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In other words to that which separated and distinguished Jews from Gentiles. This fits with seeing Paul’s main concern as being unity and equality between Jew and Gentile believers.

Paul, on this understanding, is not arguing against human moral effort as such. He is not making the point that Luther made against humans trying to achieve salvation by their own good works. It’s not moral good works that are in Paul’s mind so much as specifically Jewish works (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance, and the like). Paul argues against Law, not because he is against good works, but because these Jewish religious practices separate Jew and Gentile. Paul contrasts faith, not with good works, but with these Jewish works. Paul’s argument for faith is an argument against circumcision and the like because circumcision and the like divide Jew and Gentile and God’s purpose is that Jew and Gentile should be one.

Some New Perspective scholars agree that Paul would have argued against moral good works as a way of obtaining salvation if that had been the issue, in other words they accept that Paul would have agreed with Luther, they just don’t think that’s what he is talking about in his letters. Others don’t seem so sure. Some scholars seem to suggest that for Paul ‘having faith’ might well include good works so that without good works humans cannot be justified. To be justified by faith on the Old Perspective understanding meant believing in Christ that and nothing else. Indeed, it specifically excluded anything else. On the New Perspective approach, there is now a possibility that justification by faith may mean no more than justification without Jewish works. This means that excluding good works from the idea of justification by faith in Paul may be going too far and a misinterpretation of him. This may or may not be true – it’s certainly a different way of looking at what Paul says.

As I have argued in previous posts, the New Perspective has drawn our attention to something important here. Paul says what he does about the Law in the context of a dispute with Jewish believers over what is and what is not required of Gentile believers. Circumcision and food laws were an important issue. But, as I think is increasingly being recognized ‘works of the Law’ in Paul cannot be limited to circumcision and the like. When Paul discusses the Law he broadens the discussion to include all the commands of the Law: circumcision certainly, but also what we know as the ten commandments.

Paul sees the problem of the Law as human sin and our inability to keep it. This simply does not make sense if he is only thinking of things like circumcision and food laws. Nor does it make sense if the main issue is simply one of unity and equality between Jew and Gentile. As I have said, this is an issue for Paul, but his main concern surely is how Jew and Gentile together can be righteous before God and so be saved. ‘Works of the Law’, then, refers to the whole of the Law as given by God to Moses and these works, Paul argues, can never save them.

Of course, it is important to see the historical context of Paul’s discussion of the Law and the importance of the demand of some Jewish believers for Gentiles to be circumcised. The problem with the Law for Paul, though, is far bigger than the fact it belongs to the Jew, the problem with the Law is that it cannot give salvation. His opponents argued that while faith in Christ was essential, salvation would also depend on obedience to the Law! This Paul will not allow.

This means that Luther was on the right lines even if he did miss some of the historical dimension and context of what Paul writes!

Sunday, March 09, 2008


It's Sunday afternoon and I am catching up on all the bits and pieces that get left over during the week. Tonight I am going to a performance of Bach's, St Matthew's Passion. Easter always seems to get squeezed out and, while Bach may not be to everyone's taste, at least music like this makes us think of what really matters and not only at this time of the year!

Maybe I am getting old, but I can't help feeling that Bach will still be being played, listened to, and enjoyed long after we have forgotten most present day composers.

Are there any present day composers BTW?

I hope your Sunday is good!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

6. The Apostle Paul and Modern Scholarship

I am trying hard to post regularly. If you are going to the trouble to read my posts, the least I can do is to write them on a regular basis! I am sorry when I fail: the spirit is willing but the flesh ...

Which is the subject of tomorrow's sermon. It is one of those instances when I really do think it matters how you translate the Greek. I have become more and more suspicious of preachers who base their sermons on one (disputed) interpretation of the text! If experts in the language (which I certainly am not) argue over the meaning of the text then we as preachers should not base our sermon on one particular reading.

Just to reassure you, I won't be doing that tomorrow. However, I do think that the some translations miss the point! I will explain later in this series!!

Have a good Sunday!

6. The Apostle Paul and Modern Scholarship

In interpreting Paul, scholarship is getting increasingly specialized as, indeed, it is in other areas of Biblical studies. Interpretation of Paul is made in the light of very detailed studies of second temple Judaism. There’s nothing wrong with that as such. Paul was a Jew and spent at least part of his childhood in Jerusalem. Understanding the Judaism of his day can add to our understanding of Paul. It makes sense then to try to understand how, for example, a phrase such as ‘the righteousness of God’ would have been understood by Paul’s Jewish contemporaries.

What I am a bit concerned about is the way it is assumed that the meaning of what Paul writes is not in any way obvious, but can only be arrived at after detailed and laborious research. Interestingly, those carrying out this detailed research cannot agree amongst themselves how Paul should be interpreted even then. For example, a scholar whose work is credited with starting the New Perspective on Paul, E P Sanders, provided an account of Judaism at the time of Paul that overturned much previous scholarship. Nothing wrong with that except that many other scholars have disagreed with him and one, C VanLandingham, has recently claimed that Jews at the time of Paul believed the precise opposite of what Sanders said they believed.

All this would not matter much, after all it is a scholarly game to agree and disagree with each other that’s how you get PhDs, except that the interpretation of Paul is made to depend on such scholarly reconstructions. I am not for one moment arguing that research into Paul’s background should stop or that historical context does not matter, I would question, however, whether it is being taken too far and whether too much is being demanded of us for understanding what Paul writes in his letters.

This is not a theological point I am making. I am not arguing that the Holy Spirit will make the meaning clear to us or that Paul’s letters are inspired so we don’t have to worry about historical research. I am arguing on purely historical grounds that perhaps the type of background research that is being demanded of us in interpreting Paul is not, in fact, necessary. I am asking the question whether we are missing the wood for the trees. By examining in minute detail the composition of the paint, are we failing to see the picture?

What grounds do I have for asking this question? Simply this: who were Paul’s letters written to in the first place? Take the two letters most relevant to the issues that I have been discussing in this series. Galatians was written to Gentiles in Asia whom Paul had spent only a limited amount of time with. Romans was written to predominantly Gentile converts in Rome whom he had never met. In both cases, Paul seems to think that they would understand what he writes. He doesn’t seem to think that they need to study for a doctorate in Judaism first. If we today can only understand Paul after very detailed academic study of second temple Judaism, how on earth were these Gentiles supposed to understand him?

Again, please do not misunderstand me, I am not arguing that we should ignore the historical context of what Paul writes or that academic research is unimportant, I am simply saying that taking seriously the historical context of Paul’s letters may require a different method of interpreting what Paul writes than the one being pursued by many scholars. By all means study Paul’s context, but do not make understanding Paul dependent on knowledge that Paul himself did not expect his original readers to have.

The meaning of what Paul writes about faith, the Law, righteousness, etc in Galatians and Romans must be what it would have meant for the Galatians and Romans. How would they have heard it? What would it have meant for them? Of course, we must ask questions about Paul himself and what made him write this way, but we should pay more attention to the letter itself and less attention to interpretations based on obscure research that would have meant nothing to those who originally heard the letters being read. The Galatiansand Romans presumably got Paul’s point without having studied E P Sanders - maybe we can as well!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

5. The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West

Well, I did get my glass of wine last night, but not quite the break I had expected or hoped for! I am then a little behind in my preparation for my Lent Talk tonight which is on the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I wanted to get the next in my latest series posted so here it is. I apologize if it could do with polishing a bit more!

5. The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West

In the previous posts in this series, I have been looking at the Old and New Perspectives on Paul. With the New Perspective, I see the Gentile question as the context in which we must interpret what Paul writes about justification by faith and the Law. This context has not always been taken as seriously in the past as it ought to have been with commentators wanting to rush beyond it to make more general theological points. With the Old Perspective, however, I remain convinced that at the heart of the dispute between Paul and his opponents is the issue of how Gentiles can be saved. It was in his attempt to answer this question that Paul explains his understanding of justification by faith, the Law, and the place of the Gentiles in the people of God.

Paul answers the question of how Gentiles can be saved by making a more fundamental point and that is that all alike need saving, Jew and Gentile. Both Jew and Gentile and are sinners under the wrath of God. Keeping the Law won’t work because neither Jew nor Gentile can keep the Law. All the Law does is reinforce this fact of human sin. The only ground for salvation is faith in Christ. It is because Jew and Gentile are both in need of saving that God’s plan is to save both by doing something new. This does not mean Gentiles joining the old people of God and becoming Jews, but both Jew and Gentile becoming part of a new people of God by faith. In this new people of God, ethnic differences simply do not count. All are now One in Christ and ought to demonstrate that oneness by how they live.

It’s this last part that the New Perspective has picked up on, that is, the Oneness in Christ. I would venture to suggest that the reason it has struck a chord with so many is to do with more contemporary concerns rather than understanding the first century context of Paul’s writing. New Perspective people argue that the Old Perspective owes more to issues around at the time of the Reformation than those of the first century. Is the New Perspective not also guilty of allowing issues of our own day to affect its understanding of Paul? Let me try to explain.

Modern Christians are very concerned about relationships between people in society and the Church. Issues to do with equality for different groups who are perceived as having been discriminated against in the past have been high on the agenda. The call for equality for women, homosexuals, and people of different races has played big. The New Perspective stress on Paul’s teaching about fellowship and equality in the Church clearly picks up this concern. It fits. Paul argues that Gentiles shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens and, therefore, we argue nor should other groups in our own day.

Some New Perspective writing makes it sound as if Paul is a modern liberal whose main concern is to campaign for an end to discrimination and for there to be equality within the Church. One writer, Krister Stendahl, who was a forerunner of the New Perspective, wrote a book entitled, The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West. In it he argued that it was Luther’s 16th century obsession with sin that had led to a serious misinterpretation of Paul. Perhaps it is time for someone to write, The Apostle Paul and the Liberal Conscience of the West to show how 20th century liberal obsessions have led to a similar misinterpretation!

The perspective I have been arguing for while relevant to modern liberal concerns would put the emphasis elsewhere in addressing different groups of people. Paul would in the first place be more concerned with how any group - men, women, homosexuals, different races, minority groups - could be saved from the wrath of God. He would argue that they could only find salvation by faith in Christ. This would, of necessity, involve them joining the people of God who were being saved now and who would be finally saved later.

Clearly all those who by faith in Christ join this community of faith are in the same boat and so there are no grounds for discrimination. However, while the modern agenda wants to emphasize this last stage, it is not so keen on the earlier ones. But you can only get to the last stage by going through the previous ones. There is no fellowship without salvation. To have the hope of salvation means recognizing that all alike (men and women whether homosexuals, heterosexuals, black, white or whatever) are sinners under the wrath of God who are unable to save themselves.

Seen in this light the first thing to say to a member of a minority group (or any other group for that matter) is not that they can find equality in the Church, but that they are a sinner who needs saving. My suspicion is that Paul was worried about the issue of table fellowship in Galatia not so much because Peter wouldn’t have dinner with him and the Gentiles, but because of what this implied about how Peter thought people could be saved. I am sure he would also have had something to say about Peter not eating with them and what that said about his attitude to fellow Christians, it’s just that that’s not his main concern. The issue is not Peter treating Gentiles as second-class citizens, but the implication that they are not citizens at all.

To repeat a point from an earlier blog: if it’s just about equality of status amongst believers that Paul is concerned about, then that could have been achieved, as his opponents suggested, by the Gentiles agreeing to circumcision and to keeping the Law. This was something, I must stress again, that they were willing to do. For Paul equality of status does matter, but only after having established how anyone can achieve the status of being in Christ in the first place. Given that we are all, each one of us, only ‘in Christ’ by faith, we should treat others who are in Christ equally. It’s primarily a theological, not a political or social agenda.

It makes little sense to talk about equality between different groups of people until we have established the basis for that equality in the first place and that is finding salvation through membership of the community of faith by faith.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


My diary is packed with events and meetings at the moment so today is a nice change with a relatively clear day ahead of me. This means I can get on top of the endless emails and reports that have to be written ahead of our Church's AGM later in the month. Last night, I had a School Council and Church Council meeting. Both thankfully went well. So I am going to enjoy a day of quiet today and hopefully open a bottle of wine tonight before it all begins again tomorrow.

Wine, when I came here 8 years ago, was quite expensive and became even more so when the then Financial Secretary seriously increased the duty on it. Last year, a different Financial Secretary reduced it and now this year another one has abolished it altogether.

Watching Sky News from the UK on cable TV earlier, I was interested to see that there are calls for the British Financial Secretary to increase the duty on alcohol in the UK to combat under-age drinking. As if that would make the slightest difference in a culture where the young see getting blind drunk as a normal part of a night out. Anyway, it's nice to live somewhere where you can afford to drink wine and where you can walk the streets at night without fear of being the victim of anti-social behaviour. Long may it continue!

For many years, I used to wake up to John Humphrys. Humphrys is a presenter on Today, a current affairs programme on BBC Radio 4 in the UK. I still try to grab a listen to TODAY online, but it's very infrequent. TODAY is one of the best current affairs programmes around. In 2006, John Humphrys also did a series of programmes on Radio 4 interviewing represenatives of the major religions about God. I am reading the book that he has written based on the series.

Humphrys is not himself a believer, but nor is he an atheist. He describes himself as doubter. The book is interetsing, stimulating, balanced, and fair. Definitely the sort of book that those of us who believe in God should read. It shows where many people in the West are at when it comes to faith in God. It's not that they are against belief in God, they just have genuine difficulty in believeing in him. Indeed, many, like Humphrys himself, wish they could believe. If we are going to avoid simply talking to ourselves in Church, we need to find a way to engage with people like Humphrys at an intellectual and spiritual level. Well done, him for taking the initiative.

At one point in the book he quotes Niles Bohr, the Nobel prize-winning physicist. I thought it a brilliant quote so let me share it with you here. Bohr had a horseshoe nailed to the wall over his desk. Bohr was asked, 'Surely you don't believe that horsehoe will bring you luck?' Bohr replied:

'I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not!'

Have a good week everyone!