Monday, 27 February 2012

Marcion revived? Markus Vinzent and Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity ... Review in Theology (Vol 115 No.2)

In late 2010 I attended the Patristics Seminar in Cambridge when Markus Vincent, Professor of the History of Theology from Kings College, delivered a paper entitled Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament. Since then his book with the same title was published. I just did a review of it for Theology journal, edited by Dr Stephen J. Plant here in Cambridge. Copyright applies for twelve months, so get the journal, or go to your nearest university if you would like to read my review. It is in Volume 115, No 2 on pages 123-124.
Feedback is more than welcome!

In my short report after Vincent's paper I summarised his main thesis like this: In short, if I understood Vinzent correctly, he wants to argue that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was of no significance after Paul died, until the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian challenged Marcion's interpretation of the resurrection. Marcion is key to understanding the early church. The so-called orthodox faith in the resurrection of Jesus was a later heretical reaction against Marcion - particularly the empty tomb narratives in Matthew, Mark and John. Apparently, the incarnation and death of Jesus was significant in the early phases of the Church, but not the resurrection of Jesus.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Should Hitler, Stalin and rapists be justified in the end? Moltmann versus Chan

Should the likes of Hitler and Stalin who murdered millions of innocent people be justified in the end? What about rapists who stubbornly persist in doing evil? Should they get a second chance after death? Should they be forgiven and accepted into the future New Creation and Kingdom of God? It seems that Professor Jurgen Moltmann thinks so. He writes:

"The victims of sin and violence will receive justice. They will be raised up, put right, healed and brought into life. The perpetrators of sin and violence will receive a justice which transforms and rectifies. They will be already transformed inasmuch as they will be redeemed only together with their victims. They will be saved by the  crucified Christ, who will encounter them together with their victims. They will 'die' to their misdeeds in order to be 'born again' together with their victims to a new, common life" (Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness Arise!, 2010), p137.

I was really saddened when I read chapter 13 in Professor Moltmann's book. His section on bodily resurrection is to say the least exceptional exegesis of the New Testament. I was gobsmacked however when I analysed his exegesis of the New Testament texts dealing with final judgement.

I find the well-known American pastor Francis Chan's book Erasing Hell (with scholars like Preston Sprinkel and Simon Gathercole's input) an easy to read, mature and well-balanced critique of the kind of universalism which Moltmann proposes. This particular section is illuminating:

"According to those who believe that there are second chances after death, Jesus answers, ‘Come on in!’ He has to, right? To think that Jesus would answer any other way is cruel. It would be unloving and unjust! Could Jesus actually say, ‘Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late’? Yes, actually, He could. Though we may wish for the door to fling open, Jesus says He will do the opposite:

When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from .... Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out (Luke 13:25-28).

This passage gives no hint whatever that the door will remain permanently open. If Jesus believed in second chances for those who reject Him in this life, then this parable is dangerously misleading. For those who follow Jesus, there is everlasting life in the presence of God, but for those who don't follow Him, there will be punishment ... It is sobering to think about this parable. Jesus did not say these words so we would one day merely discuss them in a book ... Please take some time to at least read it again. Read it with care. Read it with conviction, knowing that there will be people on the other side, in a terrible place of punishment. A Place called hell" (Erasing Hell, p37-38).

Even for those who disagrees with Chan, get his book. He is not your average American "Evangelical"! He has grace, passion, conviction and lots of creativity. Look at this YouTube introduction to the book and see what I mean:

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Did Christ rise? Or do we need Him to rise in order to have Hope? Jürgen Moltmann in Cambridge – 14 February 2012

Tonight I had the privilege of meeting the ex- Nazi soldier - turned world famous Christian theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, professor emeritus of Tübingen at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. His life story is to say the least incredibly significant and relevant for all Christians.
Here are a few moments in his journey which I found fascinating tonight:

• His best friend died next to him under the shelling of Hamburg by the English.
• He asked himself two questions: Why am I not dead? Why am I alive?
• Having been caught by the British, an English soldier gave him baked beans to eat – till this day he loves baked beans (at this point the crowd laughed).
• He lost interest in life until an unforgettable moment in 1945 when he stood in front of a full blossoming cherry tree. As he looked at the tree the spirit of life touched him.
• The humanity of far off Scotland (where he was held in a concentration camp) had a profound impact on him – and made him see the disgrace of his own people.
• A British chaplain gave him a Bible. Initially he wasn’t interested in it until he found Psalm 39! Later the passion narrative of Mark’s Gospel had a profound impact on him. He read the passion narrative over and over and eventually found “his little story in His great story”. When Jesus said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Moltmann finally found someone who understands. This realisation did not happen in a moment, it was a gradual process.
• In 1947 he was invited to speak at a British conference reflecting on what had happened during the war and also his POW experiences. He meat a Dutch student group who introduced him to what they called the “bridge” which Jesus Christ's death and resurrection provides for us. Without that bridge, they said, they would never have been able to speak to a German again, given what they did to the Jews in the Netherlands.

In the second half of the lecture, Professor Moltmann focused on the more theological aspects of how he moved from Physics to Theology. The lecture was recorded and will be available in a few month’s time, so I won’t describe the details further here. I found professor Moltmann’s answer to one particular question from the audience afterwards particularly insightful. The question was: “Did Christ rise from the dead, or do we need him to rise from the dead in order to have hope?”

Professor Moltmann: “There are dimensions of resurrection which are contrary to your wishful thinking. You will never wish to be confronted with the victims of your people, and they will be raised first – the victims of injustice and violence. And this is against wishful thinking. If you would follow wishful thinking, go to the consumer paradise, but not to the church”.

The above question clearly took aim at Professor Moltmann’s long standing and firm belief in the bodily resurrection and the hope which it brings to humanity and creation. I managed to buy Professor Moltmann’s new book: Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, and started reading it the moment I got home. Amazing stuff (though I would not agree with him on everything). This particular section about the resurrection is really worth quoting:

“Many people think that, somehow or other, life will go on after death, but they find it difficult to believe in a resurrection of bodies, fragile, weak, sick and mortal as they are ... How can anyone believe in the resurrection of the body, and what consequences could this belief have for our dealings with the body?
The patristic church inserted the phrase about the ‘resurrection of the body’ into the Apostles’ Creed although even then this idea ran counter to the general spiritualizing trend of Hellenistic and Roman culture. In our Western civilisation, where everything is objectified, it appears even incomprehensible and offencive. Why did the ‘the resurrection of the body’ make its way into the context of Christian hope and find a place in the creed?
An initial reason, I believe, lies in the general thrust of all biblical statements about God’s purpose: ‘All the works of God end in bodiliness’, declared Friedrich Ötinger, and I would add: on this earth. God created human beings out of earth, we are earthly beings, God’s Word became ‘flesh’. How should God’s history with those he has created not end in a resurrection of the body and an eternal bodily life? ... what comes into being after death in the place of mortal life is not a different life. It is this mortal, this lived, and this loved life which will be raised, healed, reconciled, completed, and thus find its divine destiny; for ‘God created man for eternal life’ (Wis. 2.23)” (my emphasis, 59, 62).

I must admit that I found professor Moltmann's view of the bodily resurrection and the future hope connected to it really encouraging. We had a few minutes to talk afterwards, and he gladly signed my copy of his new book. I was quite surprised to learn that he has a South African friend whom I also knows: Adrio König, emeritus professor of Systematic Theology of UNISA. He told me how in 1978 he gave lectures at the then Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa and stayed over at Prof König’s house.

What an enriching evening we had! Thank you Lord for world-class scholars who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and believers and the future transformation of creation!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Surviving critical biblical scholarship: Advice from Dr Simon Gathercole from Cambridge University

           For those (South Africans) unfamiliar with Dr Simon Gathercole, he has been teaching New Testament at the Department of Divinity, University of Cambridge for the past five years. Before that he was Senior Lecturer at Aberdeen, and before that he did his PhD under Prof. James Dunn in Durham. He is currently finishing his fourth major academic book; he is the general editor of the influential Journal for the Study of the New Testament and has written dozens of scholarly articles. Apart from all this, he is an elder in his local church where he preaches on occasions; has been part of several documentaries (including The National Geographic Society; Bible and Church in England etc); is married and the father of two children.

Before Christmas I had lunch with Simon who is currently on sabbatical. We go to the same church here in Cambridge and our children like to play together sometimes. Maybe one day I’ll write something about the Durham experiences we shared over lunch (I have a M.A. in biblical studies from Durham). What I would like to share today however is the advice Simon offered to Christian theology students who wants to pursue further academic study. The fact that Simon was an atheist as a teenager and became a committed Christian in high school makes his advice all the more significant (I think).


Simon, what advice can you offer to Christian theology students (who want to pursue a PhD) to help them as they go through the initial stages of critical biblical scholarship? A few pointers?


Be involved in a church where you have good teaching. You need to be receiving your primary input into your theology, that which shapes your thinking - from a church. It is quite difficult to survive a PhD if your primary input in your Christian life is your academic work, partly because the danger in doing a PhD is that you develop your own theology in complete isolation from others. That can be fatal really. Obviously we’re going to come up with nuances... but if you come up with something which fundamentally shapes your theology which nobody has ever thought before, that’s pretty dangerous. We can partly do that because when we’re doing a PhD we usually research something small, and because we do it all the time it might become bigger in our minds than it really is. That’s a danger.


So you were involved in church work right through your PhD? And you preached from time to time?


Yes... If you can’t explain and justify what you’re doing to a normal person, then maybe the fault is not with the normal person. It may be comprehensible and understandable in some abstract scholarly realm. So that could be a useful check.


Some academics may say that you’re subjective because you “hide behind the church”, and therefore you do not really explore things. You are now at Cambridge University, you would disagree with that?


Yes. I think it partly depends on what kind of a church you go to as well. If you go to a kind of church which is negative about intellectual reflection, then that is probably not a great place to be if you’re doing a PhD either. One should be in a church which has a good balance between intellectual rigour and faithfulness to Scripture. It’s not a matter of hiding behind the church, it’s a matter of not doing what you’re doing as a pure individual. One of the verses I think about is “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3.14).

For those interested, I place pictures of Simon's three books below. I think you will be able to find excerpts of it on Google Books. See also the Wikipedia link at the very bottom as well as a short Youtube I did in Afrikaans about our lunch.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Will the Dutch and South Africans take seriously NT Wright's critique of Schillebeeckx's view of history and theology?

            I friend informed me recently that some scholars at an influential reformed theology department in South Africa still relies heavily on Edward Schillebeeckx's view of history, faith and theology.  One wonders whether such scholars have ever considered looking at NT Wright's interesting critique of Schillebeeckx in this regard? I have blogged about it some time ago but given the fact that the particular blogpost was read more than 400 times, I thought it appropriate to expand it here a bit further.

One of the basic critiques levelled against Schillebeeckx by Wright is the idea that history, faith and theology are different worlds which must be kept entirely separate. I recently read sections of Schillebeeckx's The Understanding of Faith. Interpretation and Criticism in his Collected Works (2011, T & T Clark) and found possible evidence of this in a phrase like this: "Historically, the figure of the man Jesus is ambiguous. Every revelatory manifestation of God in and through the human element, even in Jesus' humanity, is infinitely inadequate to God himself, who is revealed in it" (vol. V, 44).

Wright gives a useful historical background to Schillebeeckx's exegetical method (as he interprets it) and some critique:

"On 23 October 1953, Ernst Kasemann gave a now-famous lecture to a group of former Bultmann students on 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus', thereby beginning a significantly new phase, which quickly styled itself 'The New Quest for the Historical Jesus'. Kasemann, aware ... of the the dangers of idealism and docetism, insisted that if Jesus was not earthed in history then he might be pulled in any direction, might be made the hero of any theological or political programme ... without knowing who is was who died on the cross, he said, there would be no solid ground for upholding the gospel of the cross in all its sharpness ... However, this very definite theological agenda, for all its worth ... meant that the New Quest, ironically enough, did not represent a turning to history in the fullest sense ... The main productions of the New Quest are, in fact, of little lasting value.

One of the largest works from this period ... is that of the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. His prodigious book on Jesus builds on the traditio-historical criticism whereby the synoptic gospels have been combed for evidence of this or that 'early Christian community', and between whose faith-statements glimpses of Jesus may emerge. Such an argument is necessarily both tortuous and tenuous, since different sets of traditio-historical critics will come out with different sets of answers. Schillebeeckx takes a position which is the mirror-image of Bultmann's: the resurrection accounts are stories of Jesus' lifetime, brought forwards. His eventual leap from a purely historical Jesus to the incarnate Son of God is based on little or nothing in the main part of the book itself. He seems to lend considerable tacit support to the notion that history and theology are two worlds which must be kept entirely separate. His book bravely attempts to combine the multiple hypotheses required to postulate both a divided 'Q community', as a key matrix of early traditions, and some sort of normative theological interpretation. But his work seems to me to have shown the barrenness of the New Quest in just as devastating, though not as readable, a way as Schweitzer's did in relation to the Old."

What, for Wright, did two hundred years of Questing between Reimarus and Schillebeeckx achieve?

"It put the historical Question firmly and irrevocably on the theological map, but without providing a definitive answer to it. Theologians cannot honestly ignore the questions of who Jesus was, whether he said and did roughly what we find in the gospels, the reasons for his death, and the reasons for the rise of Christianity ... But have the historians enabled either side, or indeed those in the middle, to get very far?"
Wright is not convinced and states:

".. at no point, I suggest, has the full impact of the historical evidence been allowed to influence very much the dogmatic conclusions reached; when it has, it is only perhaps as a concession ... I remain convinced that there is a good deal more to be said about the perceptions, worldviews and mindsets of first-century Jews that will have considerable importance, as yet unimagined, for systematic theology" (NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress Press: Minneapolis: 23-26).