Jesus and Rome

Were Jesus and the early Christian movement foes of the Roman Empire? This common claim is critically examined by biblical scholar Christopher Bryan in his thought-provoking book Render to Caesar. He takes issue with those who regard Jesus as primarily concerned with opposing Rome in the name of “home rule” for Israel. Bryan examines the OT and the inter-testamental background, the gospels, the letters of Paul, and other NT writings (as well as extra-biblical sources) in making his case. There’s scant evidence, he says, that Jesus regarded Rome as illegitimate as such, and significant evidence to suggest that he recognized its authority–within limits. (The same goes for Paul and other NT writers.)

Bryan contends that Jesus and the early Christian movement stood broadly within the biblical prophetic tradition, which regards earthly powers as permitted by God for the purpose of ensuring peace and justice. The powers are legitimate insofar as they seek to fulfill their God-ordained purpose, but are subject to vigorous critique (and divine judgment) when they don’t. Pagan empires are not bad per se, and the biblical tradition can in fact be quite positive about them (as in the case of Cyrus). Jesus and the early Christians certainly believed the claims of God transcended those of Rome, but that doesn’t mean they rejected the claims of Rome within proper limits.

I confess I’ve never been persuaded by the “Jesus as dedicated enemy of Rome” interpretation. There just seems to be too little evidence in the gospels to support the idea that this was the primary purpose of his ministry. Obviously Bryan’s book isn’t the last word on these issues, but it makes a persuasive (and highly readable) case.

And yet they are not three gods but one God

I recently re-read Keith Ward’s Christ and the Cosmos, which was published in 2015, but which I didn’t feel like I really digested upon my first reading. (Not that I fully digested it this time either!)

In this book, Ward offers a multi-part trinitarian theology, fleshing out in more detail arguments he’s made elsewhere (particularly in his Religion and Creation; see here for my discussion). In doing so, he’s trying to accomplish a number of ambitious things: first, to defend a version of theism wherein God is conceived as the personal ground of being who interacts with and changes in response to the created world; second, to critique recent popular “social” accounts of the Trinity that picture God as a “society” comprising three distinct persons or centers of consciousness; and third, to explore the relationship between the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity in light of a modern scientific understanding of the universe.

Regarding the first point, Ward argues that although God’s nature is necessary and immutable, God nevertheless has certain contingent properties. This is because, since creation itself is contingent, how God relates to that creation must be subject to change. For example, God’s knowledge of the world is contingent upon features of the world that could be otherwise. If the world was different (and most of us assume it could be, at least in some respects), then God’s knowledge of it would be different. Or, as most theists have assumed, since God didn’t have to create a world, God’s knowledge, experience, etc. would be different had God chosen not to. Thus Ward sides with modern “passibilist” or “relational” forms of theism against classical theism, although he does not go as far as, say, process theology. Ward regards God as causally and metaphysically ultimate in ways that most process theologians don’t.

On the question of the social Trinity, Ward takes on some of its more prominent proponents, both in contemporary theology (e.g., Moltmann, Zizioulas and La Cugna) and analytic philosophy (e.g., Swinburne and Hasker). The argumentative thickets are fairly dense, drawing on the Bible, theology and philosophy, but Ward’s underlying contention is that it’s very difficult to provide a strong version of social trinitarianism that doesn’t end up looking like tri-theism. He argues that it’s better to think of God as a single subject—a single mind and will—that acts in a threefold way, or with three distinct aspects. He envisions God as (1) the creative source of being who (2) self-manifests in the created order as a pattern of rationality and beauty and (3) acts within created beings to unite them to Godself. This is not the ancient heresy of modalism, Ward says, because the three aspects or activities of the divine being are essential and permanent—not successive or transitory—features of the divine being. He thinks this does a better job than the social view of balancing faith in the Trinity with a proper commitment to monotheism.

Finally, Ward criticizes the tendency to collapse the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity in recent Christian theology. Theologians are too quick, he says, to identify the Trinity as revealed in the biblical narrative with God’s inner life. He notes that some have gone so far as to say that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” constitutes the “proper name” of God. He points out that such a name might well be meaningless to other creatures in the universe (supposing there are any), relying as it does on very earth-bound imagery. He recommends more metaphysical reserve; the Trinity as revealed still corresponds to an “inner” threefoldedness in God, but the Trinity as it appears to us cannot be simply projected into the inner divine life. The cosmos is much larger than our forebears realized, and we shouldn’t be too quick to think that the way God appears to us is universally valid.

Obviously no single book is going to settle all the controversies regarding the Trinity (and I’ve only touched on the arguments Ward deploys). But speaking for myself, I find Ward’s case for a more open-relational theism pretty appealing, as well as his criticism of strongly social doctrines of the Trinity. I also agree that Christian theologians shouldn’t be so eager to describe the “inner” life of God—Ward’s criticism of the views of Moltmann and Von Balthasar, with their suggestion of an almost metaphysical rupture between the Father and the Son, is a case in point. Perhaps it’s my Western bias, but I’m more inclined to begin with the divine unity and seek to understand how it can be threefold than to begin with three distinct “persons” or centers of consciousness.

That said, Ward himself, as a philosophical theologian, is maybe too quick to abstract from the biblical narrative in trying to describe the immanent Trinity. His triad of creative, expressive, and unitive being (he is indebted to John Macquarrie here) is suggestive, but it also smacks of the kind of speculation that he warns others against. The emphasis on the Trinity in recent theology was motivated in part, I think, by a desire to think about God in a distinctly Christian way, taking its lead from the gospels and not from a priori theorizing. While this might lead in some cases to a mistaken view of the Trinity (as I think it does in the case of Moltmann, et al.), the answer may lie in greater attention to the biblical narrative as a whole. After all, monotheism is a key tenet of Old Testament religion, which ought to inform, if not wholly determine, how Christians think about God.

The hope of the kingdom

Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a 20th-century theologian and church teacher who could hold her own with the theological bigwigs of the day (Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr) while writing accessible works of theology aimed at lay people. Her books have an almost C. S. Lewisian ability to convey profound theological ideas in lucid prose. (What she lacks in Lewis’s imaginative richness she arguably makes up for in a more solid grounding in academic theology.)

Harkness was a feminist, a pacifist, a proponent of the social gospel after it became unfashionable, and a defender of liberal theology (broadly speaking) in the face of challenges from fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy. She called herself a “liberal evangelical”—a phrase that reflected her commitment to open inquiry and social improvement as well as a personalist evangelical piety informed by her life-long Methodism.

In her book Understanding the Kingdom of God Harkness considers the various ways Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been understood and develops her own approach, which combines many of the best elements of the others. She doesn’t fully align herself with any “school”—apocalyptic, prophetic, “realized” eschatology, Bultmannian existentialism—but finds strengths and weaknesses in each.

For Harkness, the kingdom as preached by Jesus has three key aspects: the present, kingly rule of God over all creation; our personal entry into the kingdom by accepting its ethical demands; and its future consummation. Harkness acknowledges that there was an apocalyptic element to Jesus’ teaching and preaching, and even that he may have expected an imminent end of the world, but she denies that this made up the entirety of his message. Just as important, if not more so, is the prophetic aspect of his teaching—“good news for the poor”—and the ethics of participating in the kingdom. She finds the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in the parables, and the chapter discussing them is one of the book’s richest.

This is not to say that Harkness denies the eschatological. The kingdom is yet to be fully consummated, and this includes life beyond death for individuals, not just a this-worldly utopia. She is (wisely in my view) agnostic about the precise outlines of the eternal kingdom—will it be a “new heaven and earth”? eternal life beyond the spatio-temporal realm?—noting that the language we have in the Bible is highly symbolic and poetic. She grounds this hope in the character of God as revealed by Jesus and the biblical tradition more broadly.

Harkness laments that mainline churches have neglected the teaching of the kingdom, while the more conservative churches have turned it into apocalyptic escapism. The book was published in 1974, but I’m not sure how much has changed since then. Harkness argues that a better understanding of the kingdom can provide hope and motivate social action without leading to escapism or political utopianism. In a time when hope seems pretty fragile, Harkness’s words provide some: “What one can say in the midst of a complex and changing world is that it is still God’s world, and God is still working for good within it.”

New year, new #content

One of my new year’s quasi-resolutions was to be a bit more intentional about recording and reflecting on the books I read. Looking back on 2016 I was dispirited by the number of books I could barely remember reading, much less had really digested.

To remedy this, I’m going to try to jot down at least a few thoughts about each book I read this year. (We’ll see how long this lasts!) Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

Enns argues that we seriously misunderstand the Bible when we expect it to “behave”–that is, to answer the kinds of questions (theological, historical, etc.) we’d like it to in a straightforward, “objective” way. That’s not the kind of book the Bible is! First and foremost it’s a collection of stories that were written not to give sober, disinterested accounts of the past, but to provide meaning and direction for the people who wrote or edited them in their own time and place, and in their own social and cultural idiom.

Allowing the Bible to speak on its own terms largely sidesteps a lot of the problems raised by more literalistic, flat-footed readings. And, as Enns shows, the New Testament authors were highly creative in their own use of scripture to make sense of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible is a place where we encounter God, but it works best when we don’t try to force it to meet our expectations of what a sacred book “should” be.

Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson

Matthews argues that Thomas Jefferson represents a road not taken in American history, an alternative to the “liberal-capitalist” ethos of Madison and Hamilton. In Matthews’ account, Jefferson is not a liberal individualist in the Lockean tradition, but a “humanist,” “communitarian anarchist,” and “radical democrat” who dissented from the emerging ethos of the market society, atomistic individualism, and the leviathan state. This isn’t just an effort at historical reconstruction; Matthews thinks this Jeffersonian philosophy still has much to say to 20th (and 21st) century America. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Matthews is engaged in a self-consciously revisionist interpretation, taking issue with both “liberal” and “civic republican” portraits of Jefferson. On Matthews’ account, Jefferson is a veritable proto-socialist and apostle of “permanent revolution” in laws and property relations.

I’m not really qualified to assess the accuracy of Matthews’ reconstruction of Jefferson’s political philosophy (though aspects of it are corroborated by Joseph Ellis’s Jefferson biography American Sphinx); but it’s a stimulating alternative to what is often assumed to be Jefferson’s quasi-libertarianism or nostalgic agrarianism. One does suspect, however, that in contrasting Jefferson with Madison and Hamilton, Matthews isn’t being quite fair to the other two gentlemen, and his view of Jefferson tends toward the overly sunny (slavery gets fairly short shrift in the discussion, for example).

I also would’ve liked to see Matthews’ Jeffersonian philosophy brought into conversation with that of John Adams, the other “pole” of the American revolution (to use Benjamin Rush’s expression). In fairness, Matthews’ book came out in the 80s, before the mini-Adams renaissance of recent years, but Adams provides a contrasting example of someone who rejected Jefferson’s optimism (naiveté?) about human nature without embracing the philosophy of “acquisitive individualism” ascribed to the other founders.(David McCullough’s biography of Adams was one of the best books I read in 2016.)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

This is my third, and favorite, Ishiguro novel so far. The blurb from Newsweek on the back cover of my copy–“quietly devastating”–about sums it up. It’s the story of a man who so perfectly inhabits a role that he never manages to live.

Michael Walzer, On Toleration

A short but rich discussion of the meaning of toleration and of the political conditions under which a diversity of race, ethnicity, religion and culture can flourish. Walzer discusses several historical “regime types” that have facilitated tolerance to various degrees, including the multi-national empire, the nation-state with an officially dominant culture, and the immigrant society. The U.S. is an example of the last, and its combination of multiculturalism and liberal individualism presents distinctive challenges in balancing the rights of individuals with respect for cultural, ethnic, and religious difference. Walzer offers insightful discussions of how this should play out over such areas as economic and social class, education, and religion, among others. In general, while he favors multiculturalism and affirmation of difference, he thinks individual rights understood in a broadly liberal sense should generally trump the rights of groups, which will inevitably lead to a certain “thinning” out of distinctive cultural/religious/ethnic ties.

At times, Walzer comes across as a bit dismissive of objections to liberal tolerance. For example, he assumes that it is straightforwardly good that conservative forms of religion will be forced, in liberal-pluralist societies, to become more accommodating over time. I happen to largely agree, but Walzer says very little that would convince a proponent of such a conservative view. (In fairness, maybe this isn’t ultimately possible.)

Moreover, Walzer argues that tolerance and multiculturalism go hand-in-hand with a commitment to greater economic equality, cutting across an often acrimonious debate in modern left/liberal political arguments. But one might well wonder whether the broadly egalitarian politics he favors can flourish among individuals with increasingly tenuous social ties. In other words, to what extent does the solidarity required to sustain social democracy rest on shared cultural and other pre-political ties? (He is aware of this latter challenge, but understandably doesn’t try to fully resolve it here.) Walzer also comes across at points as a bit too sanguine about the eventual triumph of liberal tolerance, something that recent events certainly seem to have called into question.

These quibbles notwithstanding, this book is certainly as timely as when it was published (about 20 years ago), if not more so.

Final election thoughts

It’s election day, and I’m under a self-imposed media blackout. I just can’t spend the whole day on edge, nervously refreshing 538 or the New York Times website. I know I’m not alone in experiencing an unusual amount of election-related anxiety this year.

The ways in which this has been a crazy year are too well-known and numerous to list. But for me, what it all comes down to is the struggle between a vision of America as a pluralistic liberal democracy versus America as a predominately white, quasi-authoritarian state.

Donald Trump’s rhetorical assaults on ethnic and religious minorities, his casual misogyny, his disregard for pillars of a free society like the separation of powers and an independent press, his courting of overt racists, and his followers’ flirtation with political violence make him, unquestionably, the most dangerous presidential candidate in my lifetime. This isn’t about liberalism vs. conservatism, as we normally think of our political conflicts; it’s about national identity and the nature of the American regime.

Hillary Clinton, for all her well-canvassed flaws, is the de facto head of a coalition animated by a pluralistic view of America based on civic equality and a more tolerant, liberal view of national identity. Whether she’ll be in a position to advance her more ambitious social-democratic proposals is, to my mind, secondary to the urgent task of repudiating Trump’s white-nationalist, bargain-basement authoritarian movement. The fact that this movement has been aligned with a toxic, tribalist version of Christianity only adds to the urgency.

Even assuming the Democrats do well today (as the polls suggest), the fact that a large part of the electorate rejects social pluralism and civic equality is likely to roil our politics for years to come. And I can’t shake the feeling that it’s going to get a lot uglier before it gets better.

Making sense of the Bible with Adam Hamilton

I really enjoyed Rev. Adam Hamilton’s recent book Making Sense of the Bible. It’s an overview of the nature of the Bible—how and when it was written, how the books were compiled and ultimately canonized—and  a persuasive effort to reconcile its very human character with its “God-breathed” status.

We mainline Christians usually emphasize that we reject “inerrancy” and other shibboleths of the more conservative churches, but we’re not always as clear about what positive role the Bible plays in our faith. Hamilton–the senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and a prominent voice in United Methodism–distills a lot of mainstream scholarship to present the Bible as a record of people in specific contexts struggling to make sense of their experience of God and the world. He argues that “inerrancy” doesn’t do justice the nature of the Bible as we have it and as it was written.

That doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t “inspired.” But Hamilton suggests that the inspiration at work isn’t different in kind from the way the Spirit works with people in all ages. The Spirit doesn’t override human freedom to ensure infallibility. Rather, because they were open to the Spirit, the Word of God was able to speak through the biblical authors, but not in a way that bypassed their finite human capabilities. The Bible is not “dictated” by God; it’s a record of humans struggling to articulate the revelation they have received.

For Christians, the Word of God is preeminently Jesus, the incarnate Word. The Bible is authoritative for us not because it was composed in some supernatural fashion that protects it from error (how would we know this in any event?). It’s authoritative because it contains the earliest, most authentic witness to Jesus. Accordingly, Hamilton argues that Jesus—his teachings, his life, and his death and resurrection—provide a prism or sieve for looking at the rest of the Bible.

This approach allows Hamilton to address some of the “challenging passages” of the Bible, such as those that seem to portray God as endorsing horrific violence, approve of slavery and the subordination or women, or teach things add odds with a scientific understanding of the universe. The Biblical authors (like us) were finite, sinful human beings, and they didn’t necessarily always get it right. Interpreting the Bible in the light of God’s definitive (for Christians) revelation in Jesus may lead us to set aside certain passages as no longer binding or reflecting the true character of God. (This is something Christians have always done, whether they admit it or not, most obviously in the book of Acts.)

As I said, most of what Hamilton writes is based on mainstream biblical scholarship, and his conclusions would be broadly accepted in mainline churches. It’s essentially the view that I’ve more-or-less held my entire adult Christian life (such as it is). But I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate this understanding of the Bible so clearly, persuasively and accessibly.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this, on getting by without an infallible Bible, a couple of years ago, and I think it holds up pretty well. As it happens, it was inspired by an interview I read with Rev. Hamilton!

Freedom, gender and transcendence

Of all the contributors to The Work of Love (see previous posts here and here), Anglican theologian Sarah Coakely is the most critical of the revisionist, “kenotic” picture of God. (Interestingly, she’s also the only woman contributor.) In particular, Coakely insists that “classical” theists have intelligent responses to many of the concerns motivating the other contributors. She cites, for example, Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe’s contributions in his book God Matters (a book I haven’t read, but intend to).

Her essay is subtle and nuanced, but I want to focus on her discussion of “libertarian” freedom as the lynchpin of many of the other contributors’ arguments. As she writes, “To most of the writers in this volume it is taken as an axiomatic good that humans should enjoy a type of freedom that places limitations on God’s power and foreknowledge” (pp. 204-5). She notes that this freedom is defined in an “incompatibilist” sense—that for humans to be genuinely free God has to “restrain his influence.”

Coakely suggests, however, that this picture of freedom is “gendered” in the sense that it portrays freedom as “an act of total independence from restriction, conditioning, or the admission of dependence,” a view that some feminist thinkers have characterized as “an intrinsically ‘male’ fantasy.”

An alternative, “compatibilist” view of freedom would evoke a “picture . . . in which I am most truly ‘free’ when I am aligned with God’s providential and determining will for me.” On a more classical view of providence, Coakely maintains, God can be understood—perhaps more maternally–as empowering rather than overpowering. Citing Julian of Norwich, she highlights “a notion of divine desire that finds its completion in human responsiveness rather than setting itself in competition with it” (p. 206). On a nuanced classical view, divine causality need not be thought of as competing with creaturely causality, but as making it possible.

Whether one agrees with Coakely on the “masculinist” nature of incompatibilist, or libertarian, freedom, I think she’s right to point to the pivotal role it plays in some of these “kenotic” accounts of God’s relation to the world. And I think she raises an important concern about some of the proposals developed by Ward, Polkinghorne, Fiddes and others. The concern is that when human and divine power are seen as locked in a kind of zero-sum game—such that for me to be free God has to “step back” or self-restrain—we risk putting God and creatures on the same “ontological plane” so to speak.

In the classical tradition—stemming from the “three As” (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas)—God is not a being among beings, but the source of all that exists. As such, God’s relation to creation is “radically other” than the relationships among created beings. Thus it can be argued that God’s omnipresent activity does not compete with the powers of creative beings, but rather sustains them in their very freedom. (Such a “noncompetitive” view of divine power has been articulated in modern times by Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams and William Placher, among others.)

I’m not sure where I ultimately come down on this. As I said in my previous post, the impassible God of classical theism can sometimes seem remote from the passionate, involved God of the Bible. But the Bible also affirms that God transcends any image we can make or comparison with created things. The classical tradition rightly upholds this sense of divine transcendence. However, it’s also true that the classical picture of God has sometimes been rendered in an omni-causal deterministic way that really does threaten to suffocate human agency and any sense of reciprocity with the divine. Maybe reading McCabe will help me sort this out. 🙂

Kenosis and pleroma

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been reading the volume The Work of Love—a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne that explore the idea of divine “kenosis” or self-limitation.

Keith Ward, in his essay “Cosmos and Kenosis,” provides what I think is a helpful nuance to the concept of kenosis. He notes that the Lutheran theologians who pioneered a “kenotic” Christology understood it in terms of the divine Word divesting itself of its divine properties in the Incarnation. Appeal in this case was often made to Paul’s “hymn” in Philippians 2. However, Ward says, it’s just as natural, if not moreso, to interpret kenosis here in a moral rather than a metaphysical sense. Moreover, we can see kenosis as characterizing not just the incarnation or the life of Christ, but how God creates and interacts with the entire world.

In particular, Ward argues that kenosis is not just a self-limitation on God’s part, but a means of actualizing certain potentialities in the divine being that would otherwise remain un-realized. How so? First, by creating finite creatures, God is able to attain “affective knowledge” of their joys and sufferings. This goes beyond simple propositional knowledge that a creature is, for instance, suffering; it encompasses an empathetic experience on God’s part. This is a limitation for God—God gives up the perfect, undisturbed bliss God enjoyed in eternity. But it also adds something genuinely new to God’s knowledge and experience. Similarly, by creating a world with its own relative autonomy and creativity, God permits new forms of value to come into existence, which God delights in, even though this limits God’s power and knowledge.

Thus, on Ward’s account, kenosis—God’s self-limitation in giving up perfect bliss, as well as total omniscience and omnipotence—is not sheer self-abnegation. Rather it is for the sake of genuinely new values and experiences that would have been unavailable to God otherwise (scandalous as that may sound). In Ward’s terms, kenosis (self-emptying) leads to “pleroma,” or greater fulfillment:

God limits the divine properties in order that a cosmos of free finite agents should exist. But God thereby realizes new aspects of the divine nature as God enters into real relationship with creatures. God not only suffers new things. God also enjoys and delights in new things. And in the end all those good things are to be conserved in God, and perhaps shared with creatures, for ever. There is an addition to the divine being as well as a limitation of it, and the two are essentially bound together. So if we can speak of a kenosis in God, a renunciation of his absolute and unmixed perfection, we must also speak of a pleroma, or fulfillment, in God, by which new forms of perfection are added by creatures to the divine being. (p. 160)

This is obviously at odds with the classical view of God, in which God cannot be changed or affected by what creatures do, and nothing can be added to or taken away from the divine bliss. It could be argued, however, that what Ward calls this “more relational and participative view of God” is supported by certain passages in the Bible which portray God in more relational and passionate terms.

In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if God’s love should necessarily be portrayed strictly in terms of disinterested agape without a trace of eros. Does God not long to be united with God’s creatures? Does the existence of creation really add nothing to God’s happiness? As Ward says, it would be presumptions to claim certainty about what is essential to the divine nature, but on the face of it this movement of divine kenosis and pleroma seems to resonate with large parts of the biblical portrait of God.

It can be—and has been–argued that God’s love can only be truly self-giving if creation is utterly gratuitous and God gains nothing by the existence of creatures. However, this isn’t how we usually think about love between humans. If I claim to love you but remain totally unaffected by you and get nothing out of our relationship, you might reasonably infer that my love was less than genuine. Of course, God’s love should not be thought of as exactly like human love. But if our language is to point–however metaphorically or analogously–to God, we may well wonder if God can be said to truly love creation without being affected by it in some way.

Was St. Paul a Christian?

Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian (thanks to Matt Frost for the recommendation) makes a nice companion volume to Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew. Like Levine, Eisenbaum is a practicing Jew who studies Christian origins and thus brings an important and distinctive perspective to bear on the subject. In some ways, Eisenbaum has the harder task: While nearly everyone at least pays lip service to Jesus’s Jewishness, Paul is widely regarded, even by Jews, as “the first Christian”–someone who broke decisively from his ancestral faith to effectively lay the foundation for Christianity as we know it.

Eisenbaum sets out to show, however, that throughout his life Paul remained firmly planted in the soil of Judaism. She does this through a two-pronged approach: first, by providing background on Second-Temple and Hellenistic Judaism to show that Paul’s ideas are not as far outside the Jewish mainstream as they’ve been made out to be; second, by looking closely at key passages in Paul’s letters,* with the controlling assumption that their intended audience is almost exclusively Gentiles. Paul was first and foremost, Eisenbaum argues, an apostle to the Gentiles–someone who believed the long-foretold time had come when the God of Israel would gather all the nations of the earth into the Abrahamic family.

The argument of Eisenbaum’s book owes a lot to the so-called new perspective on Paul, associated with E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright and others. But she goes beyond the new perspective toward what she calls a radical “new paradigm.” In Eisenbaum’s account, there is not a “problem of the law” that needs to be solved by Jesus, at least not for Jews. Even new perspective authors, while toning down the anti-Judaism of traditional Christian interpretations of Paul, still see Jewish “works-righteousness” as something Paul is fighting. On this account, excessive Jewish pride in belonging to the covenant and having the Torah led to xenophobia toward Gentile Christians; Paul’s emphasis on justification by grace is thus his means of breaking down the barriers between these two groups. For the new perspective version of Paul, Both Jews and Gentiles stand on the same ground, namely the grace of Christ.

Eisenbaum argues, however, that Paul’s concern about “works of the law” is directed exclusively at Gentiles. The problem isn’t Jewish smugness; it’s how Gentiles can be brought into God’s family now that the end times are at hand. For Jews, Eisenbaum argues, Paul regarded covenant-belonging and keeping Torah as sufficient to remain in good standing with God. Jews belong to the covenant by grace, and there are provisions in the Torah for making atonement for their sins. But Gentiles, who have been outside the covenant, need something else.

Because Gentiles have not had the advantage of Torah, they have heaped up a massive debt of guilt due to their sins, idolatry chief among them. The death of Jesus is thus the means by which God cancels this debt and makes it possible for Gentiles to turn from idolatry and become progeny of Abraham. What this looks like for Gentiles is not Torah observance, per se, but imitation of Christ’s own faithfulness. Thus, Eisenbaum maintains, for Paul, Jesus is a solution to a specifically Gentile problem. The seemingly negative things Paul says about the law are aimed at Gentiles who (mistakenly) think they have to become Torah-observant. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s gospel has no implications for Jews, though: They are called to recognize that the end of time is at hand and God is acting through Paul’s preaching to reconcile all the nations to the one true God.

I learned a lot from Eisenbaum’s book and find much of it persuasive. It’s certainly a bold step beyond the “new perspective.” However, I couldn’t help but wish she’d addressed some nagging loose ends. For example, she says very little about Paul’s own religious practice. Did he remain a Torah-observant Jew? What about the position of Jewish Jesus-followers more generally?

More broadly, I’m not sure Eisenbaum fully accounted for just how important Jesus was to Paul. What I have in mind here is what’s sometimes referred to as Paul’s “Christ-mysticism,” or his sense of being “in Christ.” There’s also his notion that Christ is the new Adam–the source and paradigm of a renewed humanity. These elements of Paul’s thought suggest, to me at least, that Jesus is not only (mainly?) the mechanism by which God brings in the Gentiles.

That said, Eisenbaum’s argument (which I obviously can’t do full justice to in a blog post) definitely seems to move the ball forward. She has provided a credible anti-supersessionist reading of Paul, which, she notes, has implications for contemporary discussions of religious pluralism. Whether or not she has done justice to the centrality of Christ in Paul’s religious thought, I’m less sure of. But I highly recommend the book.

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*Eisenbaum generally limits her discussion to the seven letters whose Pauline authorship is undisputed by scholars: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Does God need us?

I’ve been reading a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne called The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis. It includes some pretty heavy hitters: Polkinghorne himself, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley among others. The general theme is the “self-emptying” or self-limitation of God in relation to the created world. The collection arose out of discussions of the work of Moltmann and Anglican clergyman and theologian W.H. Vanstone (who, sadly, passed away between the conference and the publication of the essays).*

One of the essays I’ve found most stimulating is by British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, who argues that there are far-reaching implications to the idea that God creates “out of love.” If we take the analogy of divine and human love with full seriousness, Fiddes says, we should reject the traditional view that God doesn’t need the world.

Fiddes considers three characteristics of love that lead to this conclusion. Love as we know it is receptive: it doesn’t “refus[e] to receive anything” from the beloved. Indeed, such a “love” might be deemed unfeeling, or even pathological. Analogously, we can suppose that God delights in the gifts and praise offered by God’s creatures. Similarly, love suffers, both in solidarity with the suffering of the beloved and when it is rejected. Thus, Fiddes sides with many contemporary theologians in rejecting a strict impassibility in God. Finally, love is creative, seeking to realize new possibilities for goodness. God’s creativity is not actualized “all at once,” but over the course of history as new possibilities are actualized, the outcome of which even God does not know. Understood this way, genuine love implies a relational give-and-take between God and creation, in contrast to the deity of classical theism who is unaffected by the world.

To say that God is not self-sufficient doesn’t mean that God is not self-existent, however. God is ontologically independent of creation, but God freely chooses to be in relation to creation, which means that God can change, at least in some respects. Following Karl Barth, Fiddes suggests that God’s will is prior to God’s nature. That is to say “we might regard creation as being part of God’s self-definition, an integral factor in God’s own self-determination, since God chooses to be completed through a created universe . . . God needs the world because God freely chooses to be in need.” To use biblical language, we might say that God makes a covenant with creation, which makes the success of God’s purposes partly dependent on creaturely response.

In the final part of his essay, Fiddes considers how the God who enters into a genuine relationship of love with creation can be said to act in the world. He suggests that the manner of God’s action “cannot be coercive or manipulative but only persuasive, seeking to create response.” Creatures are “caught up” in the patterns that characterize the movements of the divine life and can come to cooperate with God in realizing states of greater goodness. This is similar to the view of process theology, though Fiddes prefers to see the conceptual categories of process thought as one set of metaphors among others for pointing to the call and response between God and creation.

But if God’s action is persuasive and attractive rather than unilaterally determinative, this implies a certain risk. God takes the risk that the divine purposes may be hindered by creatures’ failure to respond to the divine lure. This doesn’t mean that God’s purposes can totally fail, though: In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s love works in and through suffering to reconcile all things.

Like many of the other contributors to this collection, Fiddes rejects aspects of the classical view of God, particularly the metaphysical attributes of timelessness and impassibility. But he also manages to avoid some of the pitfalls of, e.g., process theology by affirming God’s freedom and metaphysical ultimacy. He does this in part by making the analogy of love, rather than a particular metaphysical scheme, the central motif of his doctrine of God. I don’t know if I’m fully persuaded, but I was intrigued enough to order a copy of his book on the Trinity.

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*Vanstone’s best known work is Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, also published under the title The Risk of Love.