Review: ‘Benefit of the Doubt’

Benefit of the Doubt

I didn’t realize it until I was two-thirds of the way done, but Greg Boyd’s latest book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty is organized in roughly the same way as my own spiritual journey.

Published by Baker Books in 2013, Benefit lays out Boyd’s view of what’s wrong with certainty-seeking faith and how it differs from honest, covenantal faith as found in the Old Testament saints as well as Jesus himself. Part 1 examines the drawbacks of certainty-seeking faith, including the fact that it focuses more on ideas about God than God Himself. Part 2 explores what a healthy faith in Christ looks like and how honesty, doubt, and wrestling with God are essential to a person’s trust in Him. Part 3 is devoted to exploring the foundation of Christianity itself and how to better interpret the Bible as someone who is more focused on the Person than the ideas surrounding Him.

As Boyd points out various idols in people’s lives, he uses Ch. 3 to eventually reveal that certainty itself can be an idol—in this context, something we use to satisfy the hunger that comes from not having the life of God (60). Boyd argues that people’s ideas about the Bible can become an idol (the understatement of the century) before he pinpoints the problem with certainty-seeking faith:

“The things that make certainty-seeking Christians feel loved, worthwhile, and secure before God—that is, the thing that assures them they are “saved”—is that they feel confident they believe the right things with a sufficient level of certainty. Doesn’t this mean that it is their certainty in what they believe about God, rather than God himself, that is their source of life?” (69)

The consequences of this vary, and Body does a good job of pointing them out, but one of the side effects of this type of faith is never letting one’s self question already-held beliefs (which is why you have so many young Christians who won’t ever listen to what their science teachers say about evolution, for instance). In another chapter, Boyd writes that part of the problem comes from the West understanding relationships in contractual terms as opposed to covenantal ones (114), the latter of which involves trust between the two people making the covenant.

“… faith is about trusting in the beautiful character of Christ as our heavenly husband, about being transformed from the inside out by the power of his unending love, and about learning how to live in the power of the Spirit as a trustworthy spouse who increasingly reflects his love and his will ‘on earth as it is in heaven’” (121).

Using biblical figures like Jacob, Habakkuk, Job, and, of course, Jesus himself, Boyd argues that we need an “Israelite”-type faith that is willing to wrestle with God and take Him to the mat when the questions get tough, a faith that makes room for doubt and is “grounded in authenticity that is therefore unwilling to sweep questions, doubts, and complaints under a pious rug to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance” (90). Boyd also notes that Jesus’ most profound example of his faith is found when he cries out because he feels God has abandoned him (107).

I mentioned this is parallel to my journey. Under my previous understanding of faith, I had what Boyd calls a “house of cards” approach to Christianity (157-158). In addition to actually believing in Jesus, I had thought there were several things necessary for a person to really be saved: the inerrancy of Scripture, a literal six-day creation, and so on. From my perspective, this is how a lot of evangelicals are raised—and it’s no surprise that a good many of them renounce their faith as they get older. As I grew up, I was able to keep my faith in Jesus even while changing my views on many of these ideas. Even still, much of what Boyd says in Part 2 resonated with me. I had arrived at a lot of his conclusions, even if we’ve taken different roads to get there.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in this stage now, but Part 3 of the book was the most exciting third of the text for me. It’s exploration of how to faithfully interpret Scripture in light of the person of Jesus especially hooked me, because this is the question I ask myself on a regular, even daily, basis. Boyd also convincingly argues that our faith in Jesus should precede our faith in the Bible, not the other way around.

“The earliest disciples certainly believed the Old Testament was inspired, but they never based their faith in Christ on this. They used it extensively, but only as a means for pointing people to Jesus, whom they already believed in for other reasons” (163).

Chapter 9 may be my favorite of the entire book, because it is here that Boyd deals with the question of the Old Testament’s violent portrayals of God (a subject that has been the cause of no little amount of spiritual unease for people). Boyd argues that since Jesus is the full revelation of God, he supersedes all other portraits of the Divine. Because of this, we should read Scripture as if we’re reading a novel in which the twist ending forces you to rethink the story up until that point (183). Boyd writes that a “cross-centered” approach to Scripture allowed people like Origen to affirm the truth of those passages without saying that God actually committed those violent deeds (190).

“The challenge we face is … to show how these violent portraits actually point to Jesus. And since I maintain that the cross is the quintessential expression of everything Jesus was about … our challenge is nothing less than to show how portraits such as the one in which God commands the merciless slaughter of women and infants bear witness to the God who gave his life for enemies while praying for their forgiveness on Calvary. If ever we need to embrace an honest ‘Israelite’ faith that has the audacity to wrestle with God, it’s here!” (ibid.)

Any other narrative that “[calls] into question the loving and nonviolent character of God” is “unfaithful to Christ” (192). When we read Scripture through the “lens of the cross”, the “something else” going on in these passages is “the same thing that was going on when on the cross God stooped to become our sin and our curse and to therefore appear not only far less beautiful than he actually is, but to appear guilty, though in reality he is beautiful in sinless” (193).

Boyd uses the rest of the book to tackle interpretations of particular passages that seem to support a certainty-seeking faith, as well as explaining what we can trust God for.

Overall, this is a good book that I’d recommend to someone who’s begun wrestling with the tougher questions of their faith. That said, it’s a good read for anyone at any stage of faith if, for no other reason, than it will get you to re-evaluate in whom or what you’re placing your faith.

Publisher: Baker Books

Release Date: September 2013

Pages: 273

Note: I received a copy of this book as part of Baker’s blog review program. I am not paid or obligated to give it a favorable review.

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Review: ‘The Lost World of Scripture’

Lost-world-of-Scripture

The Bible is a strange book with which we are sometimes way too comfortable. It’s easy to forget that this collection of texts comes from a world vastly different than our own. Thankfully, two authors have published a book to remind us of what the Bible actually is and how it came to be.

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority was co-authored by Walton and D. Brent Sandy and published by IVP Academic in November 2013. The title might not keep you up at night with excitement—who among us has ever lost sleep by thinking about the copying and transmission of ancient texts?—but the propositions it raises are wholly important to anyone who considers the Bible to carry divine authority. Walton and Sandy both affirm the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, but they also are concerned with how the Bible’s inerrancy and authority are affected by the cultures in which the Bible was written and preserved.

To get a sense of what that means, consider this: how does the concept of biblical inerrancy—that is, the collection of texts of the Bible contain truth and no error—have meaning in a society in which people primarily learned through oral, not written, communication?

Each chapter serves as a proposition that lays the groundwork for what’s the come, and the first section of the book lays the dance floor upon which the following sections move. Walton and Sandy note the role of ancient documents and how they would have been used, as well as how tradition can survive before being written down.

A crucial part of the discussion comes in the form of the authors’ claims on the source of authority for the books of the Bible: “When we talk about the authority of Scripture, we can now see that we cannot construe authority around the idea that each book of the Bible was first constructed as a literary document—a book, by an author” (63). Instead, the authors point to two “focal points”: the authority figure guided by the Holy Spirit who is the source of the tradition that was written down, and the period right before the document is accepted as part of a canon, finishing a long process of composition.

Practically speaking, this means that Moses didn’t have to write the first books of the Bible and that Scripture wasn’t lying when it calls those works the “books of Moses”. It means that Isaiah didn’t pen all 66 chapters of the book bearing his name—but that doesn’t mean the authority claimed in that book no longer exists.

“When the New Testament speakers refer to the work of Isaiah, they are referring to the literary documents in their time that have been subsumed under the authority of the prophet. This has nothing to do with authorship, and therefore we ought not be including discussions of Isaiah as the ‘author’ of his ‘book’ when we talk about inerrancy. The claim being made concerns Isaiah’s unquestioned role as the authority figure behind that literature” (65).

The first section of the book helpfully sums up some of the arguments made earlier and gives examples of how books of the Bible attest to their own composition (and how that process may be different than what we assumed it to be).

Part 2, “The New Testament World of Composition and Communication”, begins by arguing that even with the existence of texts, the Greek and Roman worlds remained hearing dominant (84). Following this is a discussion on how Greek historians, philosophers, and Jewish rabbis understood the importance and role of written communication. The rabbis were particularly interesting on this matter. While they sought to guard the Law of Moses, they also preferred to teach by example, rather than by instruction (105). They also believed in an oral tradition that was binding on God’s people, which, when combined with the written Law, made up a “two-part Torah” (106). They also didn’t feel the need to write down their teachings, which is something we also see in Jesus’ ministry.

While Jesus likely had the literacy rate of scribes of his day (this is the view taken by the authors, at least), the culture in which he lived was not text-dominant. Walton and Sandy do a good job in pointing this out, such as when they note that the only people to whom Jesus ever says, “You have read …” are Pharisees and scribes; when addressing common audiences, though, Jesus employs, “You have heard it said …”, implying their primary method of learning was through oral, not written, communication (114).

The discussion moves on to what the Greek word “logos” meant when it’s used in the New Testament. Primarily, it’s referencing oral communication; its primary meaning, contrary to popular teaching in churches today, is not the Bible. Here’s why this is important: when Scripture records Jesus or the apostles or someone preaching the “word” of God, they’re talking about someone engaging in spoken communication, not through the written word. When Jesus commissioned his followers to pass on his teachings, he primarily had oral communication in mind (139). Oral traditions about Jesus, in turn, became the basis for what was written down.

This leads to a new question: how well were these traditions preserved in oral form? And what of the variations that we find in the New Testament? The authors first argue that some variance was allowed in the retelling of stories, so long as the central message was kept in tact (145-146). The authors draw from several places in which the gospels disagree with each other and conclude:

“Based on variants in written texts, we can infer that oral texts did not manifest a form of sacrosanct wording that prescribed and regulated every detail and every word, as if transmitters of the tradition adhered to the standards of modern historical accuracy. … Further, it is not necessary to explain away the differences by some means of harmonization in order to fit modern standards of accuracy” (150-151).

(A personal note from the reviewer: observations like this make me wonder if modern evangelical apologists simply don’t understand the Bible they’re trying to defend, since much of their activities to “contend for the faith” involve trying to prove that the Bible doesn’t actually contradict itself.)

Part 3, titled “The Biblical World of Literary Genres”, examines important distinctions between how we understand the role of texts compared to ancient writers. Ancient writers might have written “event-based texts”, but that does not mean that they were trying to record history in the same way that modern historians would (211). The law of Moses and the books of the prophets are further explored, as are the genres of the Gospels, which may have been modeled after Greco-Roman biographies, in which it was acceptable that there could be variations of the same story (243). The authors go on to propose how the Gospels and Paul’s letters could have been preserved orally before being written down.

Part 4, titled “Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture”, focuses on the implications of what Walton and Sandy have spent most of the book discussing. Especially of interest is how the composition of Scripture and the predominance of oral texts would have on the apostle Paul’s claims that Scripture is inspired or “breathed out” by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Likewise, Peter insisted that prophecy comes from the Holy Spirit, not from the imagination of men (1 Peter 1:21).

With regard to Peter, the authors point out that the chief apostle was speaking of oral prophecies that had come before and were being denied by false teachers (261-262). When Paul wrote of Scripture being inspired, he was focused on the function of Scripture, not necessarily proposing a doctrine of the Bible (271). Furthermore, the apostle claimed that his oral teachings also had divine origin, which casts into doubt the idea that he assumed his letters had greater authority because they were written:

“There is no evidence in this passage that Paul was seeking to place the written text of Scripture on a higher level of authority than the oral texts. Viewed from the perspective of oral culture, why would he? The oral and written texts in which Timothy had been trained were viewed as equally authoritative and were essential instruction for the community of believers. Paul’s point was not to provide the ultimate definition of a doctrine of written Scripture” (273).

Readers shouldn’t assume the authors want to damage the doctrine of inerrancy; remember, they simply want to understand the word better in light of the culture in which the Bible was written, preserved orally, and eventually written down. That said, they recognize the weaknesses with the term and how certain passages of Scripture can be considered inerrant. How can a proverb, for instance, be inerrant when proverbs are known generalizations (277)? The authors go on to argue on how to be better readers of Scripture, the role of the Holy Spirit as we study our sacred texts, and the conclusions to draw from the concepts discussed.

What I Liked

There’s no part of this book that isn’t important, which is a testament to the authors’ ability to stay on point. Each proposition lays the foundation for the following arguments, and you can’t fully grasp what’s said later by skipping the earlier chapters. One of the shortcomings of Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One was that some of the propositions were too short and didn’t allow for enough discussion or evidence. The Lost World of Scripture doesn’t share that weakness.

The discussion on variances within the tradition (and later, the text) was especially interesting to me. For many people (and I used to feel this way, too), the Bible can’t be trusted if it contradicts itself. Since it was inspired by God, and God cannot make mistakes, then the Bible can’t possess a single mistake. If it does, then it couldn’t have been inspired by a perfect God. By showing us the process by which tradition would have been communicated and handed down, Walton and Sandy shed insight into the text that God actually inspired. We don’t need to view variances as a threat or spend considerable time trying to prove that, to name one example, the Easter accounts don’t provide different versions of what happened on that fateful Sunday morning. Jesus, the apostles, and their culture would have shrugged at your concern and wondered why you were hyperventilating about something that wasn’t a big deal and was even expected among storytellers.

What I Wished For

The authors don’t hesitate to discuss the possibility that the books of the Bible had more than one author (especially since they weren’t “authors” and “books” in the way that modern readers understand them). I was hoping they would explore the idea that Paul didn’t write all the letters that have his name attached to them, such as Colossians and the two correspondences to Timothy. If this were true and Paul didn’t write them, then what impact would that have, if any, on our understanding of the Bible as divinely inspired?

I have another issue with the book. In the fourth section, the authors make a claim that appears contrary to what they’ve been arguing: “If the Bible does not offer the Word of God, no other doctrines are secure” (276). This seems odd in light of the idea that an oral culture could preserve, faithfully, the teachings of God without a written text. If the Word of God depends upon the Bible to be offered to humanity, then how did the early church function without a complete Bible? On the first reading, this statement struck me as an exaggerated effort on the part of the authors to reaffirm their evangelical credentials, which I’m sure some people will question after reading this book.

Should You Read It?

There’s no considerable reason why you shouldn’t.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from IVP Academic for review. I am not compensated for my work or encouraged to write about the book in a positive light. My opinions are my own. 

Review: ‘Prototype’

Prototype

Prototype is an invitation to, in a sense, go backward.

For author Jonathan Martin, pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, that involved becoming like his younger self, riding a bike and making up stories and enjoying the wonder and mystery of childhood. It’s an experience “when we all have felt the most alive, the most awake to God and to the world, unconstrained by fear, doubt, or loneliness” (12). And when you finally come to realize God’s love for you, Martin writes, it feels less like you’ve found something new and instead have become awake to something that was there the entire time:

“Coming awake to God’s infinite love can seem so foreign and yet feel as if it’s where we’ve always belonged, because God, in His hovering delight, knows every boy on a bike and every girl on a trampoline. That sense of being known and delighted in stalks human beings the world over, even when we do everything in our power to act as if we do not know love” (15).

In this regard, we actually have something in common with Jesus: we both share identities as God’s beloved sons. This same Jesus is “God’s prototype for a whole new way of being human” (18). The rest of the book unpacks what this looks like. Sometimes, it means that recognizing a period of your life in which you’re living in obscurity is actually a blessing, because, like Jesus in the wilderness, the alone places is where God sends all His sons and daughters. It means finding our calling in the wilderness and realizing that you’re unqualified to bring God’s future into the present is precisely a sign that you’ve been chosen to do it. It means engaging in sacraments and holy actions like foot washing because they not only connect us to Christ, who performed them in the past, but also transport us to the future. We take the Eucharist and through the Bread and Wine taste the life that we will someday know in full.

“When I feel the touch of human hands on my hairy toes and calloused soles, it is terrible in all the ways it must be for Christ Himself to touch my most unlovely places with His tenderness. Every time, the tears burn my eyes. And as my self-consciousness and self-confidence begin to crumble, it’s not just my feet that are being washed; it’s the love of God like a warm balm on a bruised and battered soul” (160-161)

I wasn’t always clear on how each subject in the chapter tied into the idea of Jesus as the prototype human, but don’t mistake that to mean that there’s nothing in these chapters that won’t grab and move you. The story of Dianne in the “Community” chapter is beautiful and nearly brought me to tears. There are individual snippets of wisdom scattered throughout the pages here, and even if you’re not always certain why a point is being brought up, you can rest easy in knowing that it’s still a point worth taking.

All around, this is a profound and beautiful book with a message that is simple and powerful at the same time. I knew after the first chapter that this book was going to shake me, and I think if you give it a chance, you’ll realize the same.

Prototype released May 1 and is published by Tyndale House Publishers. I was provided with a complementary copy of this book.

For a Q and A with the author, visit here.

For a free excerpt from Chapter One, visit here.

 

Review: ‘Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not’

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

I don’t know at one point it happened, but somewhere in the recent history of Christian publishing, more and more people started talking about empires. Some of the more popular authors of our time have taken long-standing titles attributed to Jesus Christ—like “Lord” and “Savior”—and, without denying the spiritual implications of those words, sought to explore how they challenged the rules of the first century as well as our time.

Suddenly, for a lot of us, our gospels became not just about the story of Jesus but also how that story’s main character stood in firm opposition to Caesar. If you’ve read anything recently by people like Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell or Brian McLaren, you’ve seen this argument articulated. You can barely read anything by the admirable N.T. Wright without seeing this argument presented.

So … does it have a point? In IVP Academic’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, editors Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica say yes, but the point isn’t as big as some people make it out to be. They’ve enlisted several authors to examine the various books of the New Testament and the claims of modern theologians to determine to what extent the Scriptures engage in empire criticism, here defined as “an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings” (16).

The question the book tries to answer is this: are modern readers seeing Rome and Caesar all over the pages of the New Testament because the criticism is actually there, or is this something that they import into the text? The authors and contributors mostly answer that Rome is a concern of the New Testament writers, but those concerns have been overemphasized by modern writers to the point that they see Caesar where Caesar is not.

Let us make this point crystal clear: We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi. The New Testament writers are cognizant of Roman occupation, aware of Roman customs and laws, but they fundamentally understand Jesus’ inaugurating of the kingdom of God in direct opposition to and in contrast with the kingdom of Satan (see Mt 12:26; Lk 11:18)” (212).

The book starts with David Nystrom examining the role of the Roman emperor in everyday life and how power and prestige was accorded to that office. Contrary to the writings of some popular Christians, Caesars were not demanding that people worship them as gods. Augustus wasn’t deified until after his death, and Caligula was deemed a madman for his claims to deity. Romans could also worship the acts of an emperor and consider that person to be a genius without attributing divinity to them. A chapter written by Judith A. Diehl highlighting the anti-imperial writings of the New Testament follows and serves to launch the discussion for the rest of the book.

The book sometimes varies on just how anti-imperial the New Testament is. Joel Willitts argues that the gospel of Matthew condemned all empires antithetical to the kingdom of God, not just Rome (and notes that it’s hard to take “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a statement against empire). The chapter on anti-imperialism in the New Testament, on the other hand, tends to grant that there were a good number of combative references to Rome. Writing of Paul’s theology in Romans, Michael F. Bird says that while the apostle’s declaration of Jesus as Lord struck at the heart of the empire, Romans is primarily a pastoral letter in which imperial concepts are used to promote a particular theology. That theology has sociopolitical implications, of course, but it is theology, not a political agenda, that is the chief concern of Romans.

Dean Pinter notes that Luke seems more concerned with the abuse of power in general than with the particular vices of Rome. Luke’s gospel uses “king” to describe Jesus more than any other gospel writer, even though it never sets a direct confrontation between Jesus and Caesar. Tax collectors and Roman soldiers are seen in favorable light, while the imperial cult doesn’t even earn a hint or allusion. Luke records the (at that point, future) destruction of Jerusalem as a divine act, not a crime committed by Rome. When Pilate ordered Jesus crucified, he had the sign “King of the Jews” put on his cross—and not, notably, “King of the Empire”, suggesting that Pilate did not consider this rabble-rouser to be a legitimate challenge to the emperor.

It’s true that Jesus contrasted the way the world’s rulers exert their authority with the way that he served others, but this distinction between earthly and heavenly power didn’t single out Caesar.

“… for Luke, the emperors can be vassals of the one true God. They can inadvertently bring about the Bethlehem birth of Jesus and, through their procurators, the fulfillment of the will of God in the death of Jesus. Either Luke is naïve about the imperial cult and the pretensions of the emperor, or he can imagine that relationships with Rome can be developed by working around them” (110).

Drew J. Strait examines Luke’s writings in Acts and also draws the line at anti-imperial rhetoric. There are parallels between the ascension of Jesus to heaven and the apotheosis of a Roman emperor, but it’s also important to note two things: first, Jesus did not require a majority vote in the Roman senate to be deemed a god (as the emperor did), and second, Jesus’ ascension was rooted in Jewish religious beliefs (and supported by biblical passages such as Psalm 110 and Daniel 7).

It’s true that attributing titles to Jesus such as “Savior” and “Lord” would have contrasted him to Caesar, but in Luke’s gospel, important figures such as Paul run into more trouble with Jewish synagogues and Greek businessmen than he does with the imperial cult. And when Luke records a mob as complaining that Christians preached Jesus as a rival king to Caesar (in Acts 17:6­–7), Strait rightly notes that the charge comes from a Jewish mob and that Paul is assisted by Roman soldiers. In Acts, Luke sees the nations as under the control of Satan, even as he continues to believe that God can use imperial agents to help the church. The end of Acts, after all, tells us that Paul preached the gospel in Rome without restraint.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t tension between Christian thought in Acts and the Roman government:

“Luke understands the enemies of God more holistically than is often acknowledged. Caesar and his agents are one piece in a much larger puzzle of human rebellion against God. Even so, God transcends the ‘powers that be’ and carries out his divine plan of redemption for the world” (14).

Evaluating John’s anti-imperialism, Christopher W. Skinner argues Rome is present in the fourth gospel but is not the chief concern of the writer himself. John’s concerns are largely Jewish. His Christology in John 1 is situated within a Jewish mindset, and he later sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story and feasts. When Jesus is contrasted with a notable figure, he is distinguished from Moses, not Caesar. Writes Skinner:

“… it seems inadvisable to downplay the significance of Jewish elements in John, while placing pronounced emphasis on the Roman context. As stated earlier, readers should assume that Rome is lurking in the background of the narrative. To give Rome too much attention, though, is to major on a minor issue. … Apart from Jesus’ trial and interaction with Pilate, Rome is present mostly in signs and shadows, not on a neon billboard” (122).

Reviewing whether Paul was anti-imperial in Philippians, Lynn H. Cohick points out that the imperial cult didn’t just honor the emperor but also his family. Augustus’ wife, for instance, was also deified. The line from “Jesus is Lord” to “Caesar is not” is, at least in this letter, not as straight as people might think. Allan R. Bevere likewise sees anti-imperial interpretations of Colossians and Philemon to be looking for things in the text that aren’t there.

The chapter on Revelation was especially interesting, because if there’s any one book in the New Testament that’s taken to be anti-Rome, it’s that one. But Dwight D. Sheets points out some things that I hadn’t considered before. Responding to the widely held belief that the writer John was exiled to Patmos for preaching the gospel, he notes that there’s no evidence that Patmos was a penal colony. He also writes that despite the conflict language found in Revelation—language that is typical of books of that genre, anyway—it’s unclear whether Christians at this time were actually undergoing hardship.

That’s not to say that John didn’t see conflict coming. In Revelation 13:15, the writer appears to sense a coming confrontation between the imperial cult and the Christians who would refuse to participate in it. That said, John’s concerns also center around the apostasy of believers and the destruction of the Jewish temple, which was supposed to be destroyed by a particularly evil ruler. Both events were supposed to precede the return of Christ, but 20 years after the Temple was destroyed, Jesus hadn’t returned. The details of that destruction only partially matched Jesus’ prophecies in the gospels, so John redeveloped his understanding of the “eschatological antagonist” by looking to Rome.

“John was concerned with the emperor cult; he was concerned that believers had accommodated themselves to its way of life; he was concerned with the fact that participation with the emperor cult was more and more becoming a matter of compulsion. But Revelation is not primarily about whether empires are evil or even whether it is wrong for them to impose their authority on other peoples. These developments were primarily important for John because they pointed to the soon coming of Jesus” (209).

I feel comfortable summing up the book as this: the New Testament varies in its criticism of Rome. Sometimes, the challenges are subtle; in other places, they are more explicit. One thing they are not is uniform. In that world, it simply wasn’t possible to insist that Jesus is the king of the world without also wondering how that claim related to Caesar and Rome. But that theological claim does not mean that anti-imperialism was at the forefront of the minds of the people who claimed Jesus as Lord. (To give another example: if I claim that George R.R. Martin is the best writer in the world, that subtly says that Stephen King is not, even if I wasn’t thinking of King when I made the claim.)

If you’re looking for a good foil to the claims in some popular Christian writings that I mentioned above, then Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is worth your time.

Review: ‘Jesus is the Christ’

Jesus is the ChristAs a Christian, I can admit when someone has a good objection to adhering to the faith I love. But then there are times when people make claims so ridiculous that it’s amazing anyone takes them seriously.

Michael Bird’s newest book, Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels, is a short but strong work that seeks to defend what is perfectly obvious to anyone except for those who don’t want to see it: Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah, and the four evangelists who wrote our gospels bear witness to this in their works. Going through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bird examines how these writers believed that Jesus their teacher was also the rightful king of the world and the person through whom God would re-establish His rule.

The church, Bird argues, had no reason to think of Jesus as Messiah and every reason not to. Judaism hadn’t made room for the concept of a dying savior. Even Jesus’ resurrection, on its own, did not guarantee that he was God’s anointed one. Bird’s contention—which he shares with people like N.T. Wright and is, in my opinion, right to hold—is that the church inherited Jesus’ messiahship from Jesus himself. This thought became so engrained in the early church that the claim that Jesus is the Christ quickly transformed into an actual name: “Jesus Christ”. That the apostle Paul didn’t spend any time in his letters defending Jesus’ claims to be this savior indicates that this simply wasn’t a matter that was still being debated in the church (and when you consider the doctrines that were debated in those early centuries, that’s saying something).

“True, Jesus did not go around flying a banner saying, ‘Look, I’m the Messiah.’ But if you proclaim the kingdom of God, declare that the day of national restoration is dawning, compare yourself to David and Solomon, perform what various people considered to be signs of messianic deliverance, enter Jerusalem on a donkey with people shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, and end up on trial on a messianic charge and mocked in death as a Jewish king, well, you don’t need a PhD in rabbinic literature to see what was going on here” (9-10).

The book’s main chapter each cover a different gospel, and some of the points overlap. Mark’s goal is to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and that Israel’s savior won his war by succumbing to the very thing that many people assumed would prove he wasn’t a savior at all: the cross. Matthew presents Jesus as a new David who saves both Jews and Gentiles. Luke shows how the work of Jesus—and his church—fulfill what Israel’s prophets had been talking about all those years ago. And John goes beyond his synoptic siblings by arguing for a Messiah who came from heaven.

“… John is amplifying his messianic testimony by placing the person of the Messiah within the orbit of the divine identity. One way that John does this is by identifying Jesus as pre-existent. … The pre-existence of the Messiah was not a consistent aspect of messianic hopes, but a deployable one for some. A pre-existent Messiah was not, then a Christian innovation. John’s two cents about the pre-existent Messiah debate was given in his affirmation that Jesus the Word is the king of Israel” (101).

Some of the more memorable parts of the book (to me, anyway) did not directly connect to the debate over messiahship. For instance, Bird argues that we should read Mark 13­–15 as a unified whole that connects the destruction of the Temple to the death of Jesus (47). There are even similarities between the two events that I hadn’t seen before now. Both are accompanied by darkness. The disciples will be handed over to their enemies, just as Jesus was handed over to his. One temple would be torn down and another would be rebuilt. Regarding Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd in John 10, Bird points out that this was royal imagery used not only to describe God in the Old Testament but also Amenhotep III of Egypt (126).

Bird also argues that when Jesus told a potential follower that foxes and birds of the air have beds while the Son of Man does not, he was indicting the current rulers in Palestine. Foxes, here, represented Herod (whom Jesus called a fox in another place) and the birds of the air represented the Gentiles:

“The Son of Man, then, is the messianic representative of the Jewish nation. The point of the contrast is to say that everyone, even Gentiles like the Romans, even half-Jews like the Herodians, are making themselves at home in Israel, while the people of God are oppressed by the greed of these pagan beasts. If you wish to join in the Messiah’s mission, then you have to join the ranks of the disinherited and dispossessed” (86).

Should you read this book? If you’re looking for a short but solid defense that early Christianity believed and argued for the messiahship of Jesus, then Bird’s work is good for you. And if you’re someone who thinks that Jesus didn’t argue for his own messiahship or that this aspect of his character was diminished as the church grew older, then this book is definitely for you.

Review: ‘Defending Constantine’

Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine is the book I needed to read in college.

Peter Leithart’s biographical apology for one of Christian history’s most despised figures would have come in handy during all those dialogues with friends in which we asserted, with an inverse relationship between our confidence and actual knowledge, that a lot of the problems facing the church today (that is, American evangelicalism) started when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In my mind, you could draw a straight line from Constantine’s accomplishments right to the wolves-in-sheep-clothing of the American Religious Right. Both represented the same reprehensible ideal: taking the Gospel and using it for political gain.

“’Constantinianism refers to a theology and ecclesial practice that took form when the church assumed a dominant position in Roman society. Constantinianism is the wedding of piety to power, the notion that the empire or state, the ruler of civil government rather than the church, is the primary bearer of meaning in history. When the church succumbs to Constantinianism, Christians think they need to link themselves to the ‘real powers’ in the palace or the White House in order to get things done, in order to take some control of history” (176).

Here’s what I’ve come to learn since those days: the more a person blames Constantine for all the troubles that have befallen the Bride, the more likely it is that such a person doesn’t actually know what Constantine did. What Leithart writes about John Howard Yoder’s work on Constantine applies, I think, to a popular audience of Christians today: they’re more concerned with Constantine as a shift in church affairs than Constantine the man and convert.

And this is where Leithart’s book comes in handy. Starting with the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the author traces Constantine’s rise to emperor and the evolution of his policies toward both the minority Christians of the empire and the overwhelming pagan population. He shows how Constantine at one point tried to create freedom for other religions in the hope of their adherents converting to the one, true God—and how at other points issued edicts against heretical groups and ordered their property seized (although these edicts weren’t always enforced).

In this regard, Leithart doesn’t defend Constantine’s actions toward these groups so much as he tries to set the record straight. He writes of how Constantine held the Jews in contempt, threatened those proselytizers who tried to win over Christians, and augmented the ban on circumcision. The author also notes that in some ways, life for Jewish people didn’t change with the rise of Constantine. Some of their privileges were allowed to stand.

“… apart from his ‘violently prejudicial language,’ and it is both violent and prejudicial, his legislation changed the lives of Jews very little. Jews were permitted to serve on municipal senates, and Constantine extended the same tax exemption to synagogue heads and other Jewish leaders that he offered to Christian priests (CTh 16.8.2, 4), thus enabling ‘a system of Jewish self-government that strengthened Jewish life and identity.’” (132)

Again, it’s important to remember something about this book: this is not an apologetic for everything Constantine did. Leithart, in my opinion, has not tried to soften the blow of what the first Christian Roman emperor did while in office and the effects of those actions, whether for good or ill. Defending Constantine succeeds in its purpose, and that is simply to correct some of the misperceptions and false claims about Constantine today.

Constantine also desired unity among the church and worried about how the disunity in Christian circles would negatively affect their missionary efforts among the pagans. Unity was his goal when he attended the Council of Nicea, and here, I was surprised to learn that Constantine did not go to the council until he was invited, and even then, he was an unbaptized Christian. (I remembered only later that the emperor was baptized soon before he died.)

Even when he was there, Constantine did not impose his will upon the bishops in attendance. He plead for peace, apparently to the point that people started complaining that Constantine’s overtures were shutting down debate (169). And while the emperor exercised influence at the council—Leithart writes that Constantine’s interpretation of homoousios helped persuade bishops to vote for the creed—he did not impose his will upon the church. The church continued to hold councils over Christological debates, and it did so without Constantine. (One would also wonder of the point of the councils, if this question had already been answered, forcefully, by the emperor.)

Even if this had been Constantine’s goal, the people in attendance wouldn’t have made it easy for him:

“Doubtless … he entered the Arian dispute disabused of any naïve expectation that the bishops were going to be easy to work with. They would not be. Arius was a strong personality, and persistent; Eusebius of Caesarea was a widely respected scholar and writer, a force to be reckoned with; Athanasius, who attended the council as a diaconal assistant to Alexander, would prove to be the strongest of all, willing to rebuke an emperor to his face” (168).

After Nicea, bishops continued to insist on their independence from Constantine and his successors, even if they were glad for imperial support. Hilary of Portiers, for instance, criticized Constantine’s son, Constantius, after he stopped persecuting the church and instead tried to flatter it. For Constantius’ attempts to make nice with the church, Hilary went so far as to call him an antichrist (186).

The book lists several of Constantine’s achievements and policies, which served to baptize the Roman Empire. Constantine tried to fight corruption in the judicial system by allowing litigants to appeal their cases to the bishops, who worked for free and thus wouldn’t be tempted to give “just” verdicts to the highest bidders (216). He shut down the gladiatorial games. He prohibited crucifixion but not all forms of torture (201–202). He extended the benefits that married couples enjoyed, such as retaining property rights, to celibates (205). Constantine increased the penalty for unjustified divorce, although men could continue to divorce their wives for infidelity while wives could not divorce their husbands for sleeping with prostitutes (206). He ordered tax assessments to prevent the lower class from being taken advantage of by those in power (209). Constantine didn’t outright prohibit the practice of exposing an unwanted child to be killed, but he try to undermine the practice in other ways. For instance, he gave people who found the exposed children the right to decide if the child would be free or a slave. This, the emperor reasoned, might help curb child-killing:

“For some Romans exposing their children and, by all odds, killing them would be preferable to selling them to slavery. … If parents know that their children could end up as permanent slaves, they might think twice about setting them out” (220–221).

In the remaining chapters of the book, Leithard confronts the works of people like John Howard Yoder, who have insisted that before Constantine, the church maintained a pacifist stance (though the term itself may be anachronistic). Leithart shows that there was not one Christian opinion on whether believers could serve in the military; instead, the church picked up on an already existing tradition after Constantine. In another instance, Leithard disproves that the “Constantinian shift” stifled the church’s evangelistic mission.

Along the way, Leithart countered some of the misconceptions I’d had about Constantine. I’d always imagined that so-called “Christian” emperor acted out of political gain, not from genuine spiritual passion. But Leithart points out that Constantine didn’t gain much from alienating the vast majority of pagans under his rule, so the idea that he could gain political capital from embracing a minority religion—a fast growing one, to be sure, but a minority one nonetheless—just doesn’t make much sense.

If anything, Defending Constantine adds complexity to a discussion that is often engaged with too much simplicity, and that is the role of the Christian church in the affairs of the state. What, exactly, is our stance to be? The cooperative good citizen? The strong prophetic voice? Is it always wrong for the church to have political power, and is that power something that can even be avoided? You might think the answer to the first half of that question is no, but keep in mind that every time Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was talking about a political position as well as a spiritual one. Perhaps our spiritual and political stances cannot be so easily separated, and if they can’t, then we need more responsible ways of talking about them both.

The book raises another complex question: what is the government’s role when the church doesn’t act as the church should, to the detriment of others? The apostle Paul wrote that the government is the servant of God, who gave it a sword to enforce justice. Does it have the right to encourage or tell church leaders what to do, or should the government mind its own business? I used to think that any intervention into the church by Constantine was automatically bad, but statements like this have at least given me pause:

“… if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. A queen’s bodyguard ought to keep his hands off the queen, but what does he do when she turns harpy and starts scratching the face of her lady-in-waiting?” (188)

Not only does this book raise good questions, but it knocks down caricatures that had embedded themselves as historical facts in the minds of Christians. Constantine’s rise to power and his conversion to Christianity did not so change the church that its bishops became obsessed with political power and nothing else, a sorry state of affairs that didn’t cease to be until the Protestant Reformation or the Anabaptists or, well, you can insert your own heroic tradition here. Like most things in history, the relationship between the new Christian emperor and the church was complicated, messy, and at times, contradictory. (Leithart notes that Constantine could be swayed too easily by contrasting figures, Arius and Athanasius among them.) That doesn’t mean that some of his policies weren’t reprehensible—there’s simply no excusing his belligerence toward the Jews or the murder of his wife and son—but it does mean that the window we’re looking through it’s clear. It’s stained glass.

I enjoyed this book. My only reservation about is that I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was in the earlier chapters. I found my footing when Leithart discussed things with which I was more familiar, but if you’re completely new to church history, then you might want to keep Wikipedia or a trusted history source nearby for when you reach a topic that you hadn’t heard of until you got to that passage.

That said, this is a strong book and worth the time of anyone who’s willing to learn.

Book Details

  • Full title: Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
  • Publisher: IVP Academic
  • Released 2010
  • Paperback
  • 327 pages (not counting the preface, acknowledgments, index, or bibliography)

 

 

 

Because ‘The Walking Dead’ Only Airs on Sundays

Here’s my next fictional adventure:

World War Z

I found this for a dollar at a used-book sale. Hoping it’s worth it!

(I’m still not sure about the movie version, though.)