Posts Tagged ‘Candler School of Theology’

The “high Christology” of doubting Thomas

April 19, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnCritical Bible scholarship—the air that seminarians of mainline Protestantism breathe—is in love with “low Christology,” the idea that if the earthly Jesus was, in any sense, God, he was unaware of it—as were his apostles until a long time after Christ’s resurrection (however that event would be construed by these scholars).

Therefore, Thomas’s confession of Christ as God in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”) couldn’t have been spoken by Thomas only a week after Easter. “John,” whoever he is, invented the story to reflect his community’s high Christology, which developed decades after Easter. After all, they say, there’s no hint of Jesus’ being God in Mark, the earliest gospel, written (so they say) around 70 A.D., because that belief hadn’t developed by then.

(I’m not agreeing with this assessment of Mark. I’m just saying that’s their position.)

Of course, since even critical scholars accept that Paul’s letters date from about A.D. 48 to A.D. 60, they have to explain away any high Christology found there. (Examples are plentiful, but I would start with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.)

When I was in seminary, few of us knew that there was any serious alternative to critical scholars. (I certainly didn’t.) We knew nothing about evangelical scholars, even those who, like N.T. Wright, keep one foot in each realm. We never read them. Professors never mentioned them. Critical scholars that we studied never cited them.

So it’s been eye-opening for me, as I’ve worked through John’s gospel in my current sermon series, to read, for example, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John, published by Eerdmans. Dr. Carson interacts with critical scholarship throughout his commentary—voicing both agreement and disagreement where necessary—from the classic skeptic Bultmann to one of my Candler professors, Gail O’Day, author of Abingdon’s New Interpreters commentary on John.

Carson tackles the alleged “plausibility problem” of Thomas’s confession on a number of fronts. For one thing, Thomas would have been familiar with Old Testament accounts of “believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself.”[1]

This is exactly right: I’m thinking of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18 (before they destroy Sodom and Gomorrah). One of those visitors, without explanation, is referred to as Yahweh beginning in v. 17. Abraham knows he’s talking directly to God.

Or what about the story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Is he wrestling an angel, or is he wrestling God? The text is ambiguous: Jacob, at least, is convinced when it’s over that he’s wrestled God, and is relieved to have survived the encounter. In fact, the very name that he’s given during this encounter, Israel, means “strives with God.”

Carson’s point is that Thomas would have already had precedent within an orthodox Jewish framework to identify Jesus as literally God—just as Abraham and Jacob did in their encounters with the divine.

Critical scholars employ another tactic to explain Thomas’s confession away: they say that his wasn’t a confession at all; it was an exclamation, like OMG! As Carson writes:

Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew. In any case, Thomas’ confession is addressed to him, i.e. to Jesus; and Jesus immediately (if implicitly) praises him for his faith, even if it is not as notable as the faith of those who believe without demanding the kind of evidence accorded Thomas.[2]

“Modern Arians.” That’s harsh, but why not call a spade a spade?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 658.

2. Ibid.

Sermon 02-21-16: “In Spirit and Truth”

March 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus exposes the woman’s sexual sin—an uncomfortable topic that she would rather avoid. So she changes the subject: Where is the correct place to worship God? Why does Jesus let her do this? In this sermon, I argue that it’s because Jesus recognizes the connection between worship and sin: In a way, sin is “worshiping wrongly.” Straightening out our “worship problem,” therefore, helps us straighten our our “sin problem.”

Sermon Text: John 4:16-30

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I’ll never forget my first day on Emory’s campus when I started seminary. One of the main things I had to do on that first day on campus was go to the Financial Aid department and check on the status of my scholarships and loans. Now, I know from my experience at a large public university like Georgia Tech that dealing with the bureaucracy of Financial Aid means waiting in long lines, putting up with employees who don’t seem happy with their jobs, and who seem to enjoy telling people “no”—all of which is enough to make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst when I went to the Financial Aid office at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

But Emory is not a large public university. I walked into the Financial Aid office of the theology school. I looked around. There was no line. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, I was ushered into the office of the director, who said, “Hello, Mr. White, how may I help you?” And I looked at my shirt to see if I was wearing a name tag or something. I wasn’t. And I’m thinking, “How does she know me?” And all I can figure is that she had names and photos of new theology students who were financial aid recipients. And she had been studying it to match faces with names. I had no other explanation… How did she know me?

And of course, the Samaritan woman at the well must have wondered the same thing after she tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” And she’s never met Jesus before in her life! How does he know me? she must have thought. Read the rest of this entry »

The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is about Christ

September 29, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an excellent commentary on Jonah written by Phillip Cary. He said something in the second paragraph of the introduction that changed my life:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

“Like the whole Bible,” this Old Testament book is about Christ.

If, unlike me, you never attended a mainline Protestant seminary, you might miss how shocking these words are. But trust me, one would never hear this sentiment expressed at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. On the contrary, we mostly didn’t study something called the Old Testament; we studied the Hebrew Bible. To call it the Old Testament, after all, would imply a continuity with the New Testament that critical scholarship within the realm of mainline Protestantism denies at every turn.

While the Hebrew Bible happens to be included in our Christian Bibles, it doesn’t really belong to us Christians. At best, we’re overhearing someone else’s conversation. Therefore, the strange first-person plural pronouns (“let us create”) for God in Genesis 1 cannot be a Trinitarian reference. The “prophet like Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:15 cannot be Jesus. The “virgin who shall conceive and give birth to a son” of Isaiah 7:14 cannot be pointing to Christmas, irrespective of what it meant in its original context. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot say anything about Christ’s atoning death. (Worse, from a liberal mainline perspective, this chapter says the most about penal substitution, so it certainly can’t be referring to Jesus!)

Why would an ostensibly Christian seminary, much less one aligned with the United Methodist Church, fail to emphasize the continuity between Old and New Testaments in its core Old Testament classes? After all, this wasn’t an undergraduate Bible class at a secular public university, whose students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. We’re under no obligation to respect religious pluralism. Yet I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we were discouraged from thinking that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.

Did the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Old Testament not foresee the coming of Christ? In which case, as this Christianity Today article implies, the Old Testament era was a mistake (Plan A) that God put right with the coming of Jesus (Plan B). What kind of doctrine of scripture would this imply? Where would this leave doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty?

It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

So I can sympathize with the average layperson who dreads hearing a sermon on the Old Testament for fear that it won’t be about Jesus. I’m guessing that in most mainline churches, that’s the case. (After all, their pastors went to places like Candler!)

But I hope that my parishioners know better. Every sermon I preach is about Jesus, in one way or another. I preach the gospel through every sermon. I preach Christ crucified in every sermon. And why not? I can’t improve on that message. And that message never gets old.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

My journey home to evangelicalism

August 28, 2014

This week, I had lunch with a clergy friend, who, like me, is an evangelical United Methodist. Unlike me, he didn’t go to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary like my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology. He heard me say once that while I graduated happily liberal on most theological questions back in 2007, I changed: within a few years, I became a conservative (by UMC standards) evangelical Christian. I had what I’ve called an “evangelical reawakening,” having returned, in many ways, to the evangelicalism of my youth—only far better informed. It was nothing less than a conversion experience.

My friend wanted to hear about my journey. What accounted for the change?

Many things, I’m sure, but below are the three most important. Two of them were seeds planted at Candler itself, in spite of its theological liberalism, which later bore fruit.

Dr. Steffen Lösel

Dr. Steffen Lösel

First, I took a systematic theology class (CT503) that was taught by a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel. Dr. Lösel had us study the work of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He told our class on Day 1 that one critical task of pastors and theologians is to be able to defend the faith. He said that in modernity, we can’t easily separate the work of theology from apologetics.

On that note, he justified belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on historical and scientific grounds. Frankly, this shocked me. I half-expected him to describe the resurrection as some kind of spiritual event that took place in the hearts of the disciples—a “mystery” that we shouldn’t try to solve. But no: while the resurrection was more than merely physical, it was at least physical. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered the risen Lord.

He also taught the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. While we shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity shares much in common with other religions—there is, after all, one Spirit performing the revelatory work—the revelation of God in Christ is definitive. Indeed, as Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Moreover, we’re not respecting other religions if we disregard their competing truth claims and say, “All these paths to God are equal. We really believe the same things.”

Dr. Lösel also affirmed the reality of hell and the Second Coming.


Dr. Lewis Ayres

Another professor at Candler planted an important seed in my mind: Lewis Ayres, a Patristics scholar. Dr. Ayres, an English Catholic, was a well-known theological conservative on the faculty (there weren’t many!), which I didn’t know when I signed up for his class on the theology of Augustine. During one lecture he described Augustine’s view of Satan and the demonic realm. At the time, I didn’t believe in a literal Satan, so I objected: “I don’t need the devil to tempt me to sin—I sin just fine on my own! I don’t understand what role Satan or demons play in human sin!”

He looked at me and said, “Just because you don’t understand what role Satan plays doesn’t mean Satan isn’t real!”

I remember being shocked: this very smart scholar, who more than holds his own, intellectually, alongside the faculty at this mainline Protestant seminary, believes in a literal Satan! I’m sure he wasn’t the only faculty member who did so, but he was the only one who admitted that he did—who didn’t speak as if the demonic merely symbolized evil in our world.

The third and possibly most important influence on my evangelical reawakening was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. While acknowledging the debt to resurrection-affirming Wolfhart Pannenberg (Dr. Lösel’s protégé), Wright argues that Pannenberg concedes far too much ground to modernity. Wright’s massive book, around 1,000 pages, explored historical evidence for the resurrection much more deeply. Wright argues that the evidence we possess for the resurrection is precisely the evidence we should expect if the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. Moreover, Wright wrote this and his many other academic books within the realm of critical, as opposed to evangelical, scholarship.

Reading Wright blew me away. And unlike Lösel and Ayres, Wright is a self-identified evangelical. Intellectual evangelicals? To my shame, thanks in part to Candler, I didn’t know they existed!

My point is, once I began to believe—really believe—that the resurrection happened, that the Bible is telling the truth not only about the resurrection but about the exclusivity of Christ, the Second Coming, Final Judgment, heaven and hell, and Satan, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door in order to embrace a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, I was ready to become an evangelical.

And so I did… and here I am. I can say, along with Wesley, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.” Or at least I’m trying to!

An unlikely ally for UMC traditionalists

June 26, 2014

In the rarefied world of mainline theological scholarship, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic, is something of a superstar—at least the most popular and widely quoted professor at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In the comments section of a post earlier this week, a friend offered an excerpt from a Commonweal article that Dr. Johnson wrote in 2007.

I wrote a lengthy response, which you can read here. Johnson is arguing that we have biblical warrant for disregarding scripture’s clear teaching against homosexual practice in light of what the Holy Spirit is showing us through the lives of thousands of (practicing) gay and lesbian Christians. He uses the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as evidence. As I wrote in my comment,

It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

He cites other examples from the New Testament of the early church revising its understanding of Old Testament law in light of what Jesus or the Holy Spirit was revealing in people’s lives. His point is this: because the early church did it, we can do it, too.

As I said in my comment:

Regardless—and this is my most important point about Johnson’s argument—all of this fresh reinterpretation or revisionism in light of what God is now revealing in people’s lives is revealed to us—where?

In scripture!

So we have a choice: we can, along with Johnson, view this work of reinterpretation as an ongoing project, which risks relativizing the Bible to the authority of personal experience. Or we can say that whatever help we needed in reading the Old Testament in light of the revelation of God in Christ the Word, the Holy Spirit has provided for us in God’s written Word.

Even my fellow United Methodists who seek to change our church’s traditional doctrine on human sexuality should be wary of enlisting Johnson as an ally. We are Protestants, after all (not to mention evangelicals at our roots). No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, should persuade us. Even according to our so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” personal experience doesn’t get a veto over the Bible. Scripture is our primary authority.

Still, people on my side of this debate ought to enlist Johnson as an ally—a hostile witness. Why? Because in this article he says what people on my side been saying all along: all hermeneutical gymnastics to the contrary, the Bible is clear about what it teaches on homosexual practice.

I admire his integrity. He writes:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.