Posts Tagged ‘Paul Zahl’

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 5)

October 16, 2017

An earthquake disrupted Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

[To read earlier posts in this series, click here.]

“If you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.”

I told you a couple of years ago how this quote from a medieval theologian named Meister Eckhart, alongside Paul Zahl’s incisive podcast about it, shook me up. Zahl put into words something that I had experienced myself: I lost God! It happened in the late-’80s, some time during my sophomore year of college. I told you a little about my experience in this blog post.

At that point in my life, in 1989, the Baptist church of which I was a member had recently called a new pastor. I’ll call him Steve. He had been a New Testament professor at a Southern Baptist seminary. He was an intellectual, which appealed to me. He was evangelistic, like me. In fact, I took the Baptist equivalent of the Evangelism Explosion course with him.

But Steve was also a self-identified “moderate” in the so-called “holy war” within the Southern Baptist Convention. The “moderates,” like my pastor, lost. Theological conservatives, whom Steve always disparaged as “fundamentalists,” took over the denomination’s institutions and leadership posts. Out of this conflict a relatively small new Baptist denomination, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was born. My church joined it, and until I became United Methodist several years later I was a member of CBF churches.

I loved Steve. He was a good preacher whose preaching style has surely influenced my own to this day. He was kind, funny, and down to earth. He brought a jolt of new energy to the church, and for a while the church was growing under his leadership. On balance, however, his influence in my life, as I see now, was harmful: Most importantly, he sowed seeds of doubt within me about the authority and  trustworthiness of scripture. He helped form within me an “us versus them” mentality toward many of my fellow Christians—”God, I thank you that I am not like other men… even like this theologically conservative evangelical.” (Please note: Now I am a theologically conservative evangelical.)

Not coincidentally, it was around this time that I started becoming the “angry young man” whose anger dominated and defined the next 20 years of my life. I’m not exactly blaming Steve for this—God knows that there were many deep-seated reasons for my anger, which I’ve spent years sorting out (with the help of paid professionals!). But Steve, a Christian leader whom I greatly admired, was angry, too. He had been hurt, professionally and personally, by fellow Christians. And he had a chip on his shoulder about it.

Through his influence, in part, I came to believe that anger is a justifiable emotion—rather than a deeply destructive one.

Also around this time, I fell in love with the music of The Clash. In one of their songs, they sang the following: “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power/ You know that we can use it.” Maybe they can use that anger; I can’t, as I now realize. It overpowers me. I end up hurting myself and others.

I recount my experience, I hope, without anger. Along with the apostle Paul, I say, “By his grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)—itself a statement of God’s sovereignty and providence the 19-year-old version of myself would have denied.

My point is, it was within this context that I heard a news report on a Christian radio station about Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. This was the “World Series earthquake,” which interrupted Game 3 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. During this news report, the drive-time morning host said, “I have friends in the Bay Area. I just got in touch with them, and I thank God that they’re safe!”

I thought, “Hold on a minute! You don’t get to thank God for sparing the lives of your friends if you don’t, at the same time, blame God for failing to keep hundreds of others safe.”

This seemed to me like the most obvious fact imaginable. Why didn’t anyone else point this out to him?

Those dumb evangelical Christians, I thought. Thank God I’m not like them!

It was around this time—if not this very moment—that I lost God.

When I say I “lost” him, I only mean it figuratively. God never lost me. I don’t believe that I lost my salvation during this time. And it’s not like I completely abandoned God. I remained a faithful churchgoer, if not a faithful Bible reader, pray-er, or Christian witness for many years to come.

But something changed within me. I fell out of love with God. I stopped trusting him. I couldn’t see how God was in control of the world, and our lives within it. I stopped believing God had a “plan” for my life. I was angry at God.

How desperately I needed a hard-nosed, credible, intellectual Christian pastor to knock some sense into me!

In fact, I would have benefited from a pastor like John Piper, who described putting his daughter to bed on the same evening that the 35W Bridge collapsed near his church in Minneapolis:

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Piper’s words are true! We don’t “blame” God for earthquakes and other natural disasters because blame implies that God has done something wrong. God would only have done something wrong if the people who died in the 35W Bridge disaster or the Loma Prieta earthquake were entitled to more life in this world. They are not. None of us is. Every moment of time we have is a gift from God. Every heartbeat is a gift. Every breath is a gift. Each one of us will die some day—assuming the Lord doesn’t return first. And this will happen not merely through illness, or accident, or an act of violence—but through God’s will: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

All death is ultimately God’s judgment against sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). When God decides to bring our life to its appointed end, we sinners will have no right to complain. Yet because God loves us, and he is perfectly good, we can trust that he will have done so according to his good purposes.

Until then, we can praise him that he graciously lets us continue to live—for however long he does so.

I made a similar point in my sermon on October 8, preached in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre:

Honestly, every time there’s a national tragedy like Las Vegas, some people will use that as an excuse to shake their fist at God and say, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these people die like this?” But this question gets it exactly backwards: The question is not “How could a loving God let these people die,” the question is “How could a just God let the rest of us sinners continue to live? How could a just God allow us sinners to live day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, in open rebellion against him and his loving rule?” When we hear about someone committing treason against the United States, many of us say, “They ought to still be brought before a firing squad and shot!” We heard that kind of thing about Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was suspected of being a traitor. “He should be shot!” some say. But what about us? Who do we think we are? When we hear about a tragedy like Las Vegas, why not fall on our knees and thank God that he has let us live for another day—because none of us deserves this life! How merciful God must be—that he keeps on giving us one opportunity after another to repent. Yet most of the time, most people, in most parts of the world, say no.

Why then does God let us continue to live? So that we will be saved. We are living in a season of mercy. But it won’t last forever.

The words of Piper’s daughter point to this truth: “Maybe he let [the bridge] fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

God wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.

Undoubtedly true. This is one reason—one of a hundred, one of a thousand, one of a million reasons—that God let this bridge collapse. Does that seem harsh?

It’s not nearly as harsh as an eternity in hell! And if God used this bridge’s collapse to wake people up to the reality of heaven and hell, and the opportunity that they have right now to repent of their sins and receive God’s gift of saving grace, then God was only merciful to do so.

If you think I’m wrong, or that I’ve misrepresented God’s Word, please tell me how in the comments section. Thanks!

“Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His”

August 30, 2017

This past Sunday, to begin our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, I preached the first part of a new series on the Reformation’s five core convictions, often called the “Five Solas.” Part One was on Sola Fide, justification by faith alone. While I didn’t use the word “imputation,” I described it. But here’s a nice description of it from one of my favorite Christian thinkers (and pastors), Paul Zahl, from a 1991 article in First Things.

Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.

Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.

Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.

The temptation to “go from house to house”

June 15, 2017

My friend Leslie got ordained last night. I met her on my first day of class at Emory in 2004. She often elbowed me awake in John Hayes’s 8:00 a.m. OT class.

Last night at Annual Conference, our bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, preached a message to our conference’s newly ordained, commissioned, and licensed pastors and deacons. Her text was Luke 10:1-12, where Jesus commissions 72 disciples to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick in the towns around Galilee. The bishop related Jesus’ instructions to these disciples to our role as clergy.

Prior to her sermon, I’d never thought about the meaning of verse 7: “And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.”

Do not go from house to house.

In other words, Jesus says, when the disciples come into a town, and someone offers them a place stay, they should avoid the temptation to seek more comfortable, more spacious lodging in someone else’s home, even if it’s offered to them. Stay where you are and be content, Jesus says. Don’t look for something better.

It’s easy to see how this applies to us United Methodist pastors, who are itinerant. Each year the bishop either reappoints us to our present church or sends us to a new church (or churches). In theory, we go where we’re sent; it isn’t up to us. Whether we “like” our appointment is beside the point.

The danger, the bishop said, is restlessness: we clergy will be so anxious for our next appointment that we’ll fail to appreciate, enjoy, or learn from our present one. This restlessness becomes worse, of course, when we look over our shoulders at our clergy colleagues and compare ourselves to them and their appointments. “How do I rate? Am I falling behind? Am I moving ahead?”

As a naturally ambitious person, I can relate—and maybe you can, too. My temptation to compare myself to others has brought me nothing but misery.

Besides, we should avoid “going from house to house” for a deeper reason: Ultimately we’re appointed not by any bishop or district superintendent; we’re appointed by God.

In fact, wherever you are, whoever you are, you are there because God wants you to be there. You have an appointment. 

But what if you say, “I don’t like where God has appointed me”? Or, as the Talking Heads sang:

You may ask yourself, “Where is that large automobile?”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife”

Okay… As pastor and theologian Paul Zahl says: Blame God. He can take it.

But as you do so, remember this: We are “slaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Our life doesn’t belong to us. Our personal happiness isn’t the point of life. We are owned by the One who paid for us by the precious blood of his beloved Son. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, we live for one reason only: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Wherever God has appointed us, he has done so for his glory. The question all of us must ask is this: “Is living for God’s glory enough for me?”

Why this Methodist preacher loves John Piper

May 24, 2017

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, I talked about Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 40:6, 8, which compares the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon with the kind of “exile” that Christians experience in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Why, I wondered aloud, do we set our hearts on things that are passing away instead of the “living and abiding word of God”?

As an illustration, I quoted a famous sermon that John Piper delivered to college students at a Passion Conference in 2000. He was describing a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks earlier, he said, these two women died. They were on a bus on a steep mountain road. The bus’s brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Piper said:

I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.

No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Nearly every time I hear Piper speak, I’m reminded why he’s among his generation’s most gifted preachers. My 17-year-old daughter, who also heard this, was blown away.

I think I know why Piper is one of the best—and if you disagree that he’s one of the best, watch the video and judge for yourself!

But I think I know why—or one important reason. It’s because he preaches as if Christianity were really true—all of it.

Or is that saying too little of Piper’s gifts? After all, shouldn’t all of us preachers preach as if Christianity were really true?

You’d think so, yet so few of us do. I haven’t always, myself.

A couple of years ago, in one of the Paul Zahl’s wonderful podcasts, the theologically conservative Zahl, a retired Episcopal theologian and minister (don’t call him a “priest,” please; he’s Protestant!), was complaining about an Episcopal worship service he had recently attended. Zahl says:

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience—or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

Where’s the “like” button? Where’s the heart sign to click on? I love this so much!

Of course, Zahl is talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but he could be talking about any number of other Christian doctrines, which, if they are true, cannot leave us unaffected—to say the least. Piper is effective as a preacher in part because he lets himself be affected. How could he not?

He doesn’t preach using humorous anecdotes; he doesn’t tell jokes. He preaches as if his message is too urgent for that. Yet his sermons are never dry or cerebral; they strike the right balance between head and heart—which is to say, they lead with his heart.

I hope I’ve learned from him, or am learning, how to “lead with my heart.”

“The only thing you can do anything about is your past”

March 13, 2017

I just started reading Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. The following excerpt may help explain why, in my own teaching and preaching ministry over the past few years, I’ve emphasized themes of sin, Law, judgment, repentance, the Cross, and substitutionary atonement more than sanctification—or the strategies for self-improvement that disguise themselves as such.

In my own life, I need healing for my ever-present past more than help for my future (which is mostly out of my hands). Don’t you? Fortunately, more than anything else, that’s what Christ came to heal. “The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.”

In light of the law, all that men and women can do, declares Christ, is to repent (Matthew 3:2, concerning John the Baptist; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Repentance is not the same thing as restitution or a changed hart. Repentance is felt sorrow, sorrow in your very marrow, for what you have been and done. Repentance not only covers shame at what you have done but also includes shame at who you are, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Repentance is not a disposition in relation to the future. It is disposition in relation to your personal past.

Not long ago I read a newspaper article about an executive at Boeing. The reporter asked him to name the secret of his success, and he said, “There is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do anything about is the future.” Christ saw life differently. For Christ, the only thing you can do anything about is your past. God alone can deal with your future. If you have repented of your past, if you have taken an inventory of the full extent of hurt, victimhood, malice, and self-service that describe your achieved life, if you have said the one single needful word, “sorry,” then that is all. There is nothing more. The future, which Paul would later call the “fruit of the Spirit,” flows totally from the “sorry.” The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.[†]

Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.

Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Do people still believe that the “wages of sin” deserves death?

January 11, 2017
zahl

Paul Zahl

As I wrote yesterday, God rescued me from the precipice of hell not too many years ago—long after I was a professing Christian. I have wondered myself if I had died during that time of temporary “lostness,” would I still have been saved? I think I would have been—maybe—but God’s judgment would have been severe. I can only speculate.

Here’s what I do know, based on my experience and the teaching of scripture: I deserve hell. And so do you. That sounds so ugly to say, doesn’t it? Yet it is without a doubt the unanimous teaching of classic Christianity.

I wonder, however, when I preach this message—as I did even last Sunday—if it still communicates to other, more virtuous, people than I am. In my defense, our cultural imperative to accept everyone just as they are, without moral judgment, kicks against the goads of this core Christian conviction.

In his short systematic theology, Paul Zahl, who—as my family knows—has become a hero to me, responds to the objection that penal substitution, with its requirement for Christ’s atoning death in place of our own, is more than our problem with sin requires. In other words, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This means that the judgment of God is capital. That is not too extreme a statement of the case. If you were to take the sum of any one person’s life—her or his thoughts, conscious and unconscious; the dreams, both day dreams and night dreams; the sum of his or her concrete actions, both covert and open to public scrutiny; the motives and intentions; the “body language”—if you were to take the whole sum of a person’s life and show it to that person within a moment in time, the person would have a heart attack or a stroke, right on the spot. There are no exceptions to this postulate, certainly not in the Bible. Our inner fears of exposure confirm it absolutely.[†]

† Paul F.M. Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 65.

“Blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings”

August 22, 2016

Pity us Methodist pastors!

We are simply not well-equipped to handle questions of God’s sovereignty. We rarely if ever use the word, in part because we know that Calvinists use the word a lot—and we’re certain we’re not Calvinists. We might be Arminian, but we can’t say for sure: we studied Arminianism in seminary even less than we studied Greek or Hebrew, which is saying something.

Here’s yet another blog post by yet another UMC pastor complaining about the expression “Everything happens for a reason.” Read it alongside his response to a commenter. I wrote the following:

Jason, I understand why your previous commenter was confused. You begin by talking about our need to be in control, when (of course) we’re not in control. That’s true enough. Then you conclude by saying we need to “live in trust,” presumably to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

If we’re going to live in trust, what are we trusting in if not the fact that God is in some sense “in control”?

The moment we concede that God can and will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions, then we run into a problem: What about those many times when God doesn’t? Unless God’s answering our prayers is arbitrary, then we must conclude that “God has a reason” for not answering them.

At this point, it’s just a matter of tracing the logic toward its conclusion: everything does happen for a reason in God’s providential plan. I’ve done it many times on this blog—here, for example.

But if I’m right, here’s some good news: If you don’t like a situation in which you find yourself, you have someone (or Someone) to blame other than yourself—however much such blame will be warranted. You can blame God. You can even be angry with God. In fact, God is probably the only target toward whom it’s safe to express anger without falling into sin.

Paul Zahl makes this point in the January 28 entry of the Mockingbird Devotional:

I recommend we express our anger at God. He can take it. He is in the “business” of absorbing it. “No one does it better.” Jeremiah expressed his anger at God. Paul expressed it in a plaint concerning his “thorn in the flesh.” Jesus almost did it—but not quite. Rather, Christ expressed his dereliction to the Father. The psalmist seems often on the verge of expressing anger at God. Oh, and Studdert-Kennedy did it, that old “Woodbine Willie,” in his immortal spiritual poems from World War One.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, even though I don’t expect anyone to pick up on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Sermon 03-06-16: “Believing the Word”

March 11, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic
As hard as it is to believe, when we find ourselves in a place of utter helplessness—when we’ve reach the end of our ropes and realize that there’s nothing else we can do to help ourselves—this is often, surprisingly, an amazing place to be! Because this is the place where God’s grace meets us! This sermon explores this idea and more. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: John 4:43-54

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

Growing up, my friend Andy had a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall. It identified a street near where we lived; I don’t know how he got it or where he got it. But the sign hung on his wall, right next to the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster. It was awesome—and the street sign was pretty cool too!

But I’m sure the people from the county who put the sign up originally didn’t want my friend to have it—in part because the county paid for it, and they had to replace it with a new one. And besides, the purpose of a sign isn’t to be displayed on the wall as a piece of art, as part of the decor of a teenage boy’s bedroom; the purpose of a sign is to point to something, to identify something, to give information about something. If you hang the sign on your wall because you like the way it looks, you’ve missed the point of the sign.

And that’s what these Galileans in today’s scripture have done. They’ve missed the point of Jesus’ “signs,” which is John’s name for the miracles that Jesus performs. So of course, as verse 45 says, the Galileans “welcome” Jesus; they roll out the red carpet for him; throw a parade for him when he returns home to Galilee. Why wouldn’t they welcome him like this? The local boy has made them proud; he’s done well. After all, did you see what he did a couple of weeks ago at the Passover festival in Jerusalem? Unbelievable… All those miracles he performed! And the way he drove away those merchants and money changers in the Temple! But especially the miracles! Everyone’s talking about the miracles! And he’s one of us! He’s a hometown boy!

Read the rest of this entry »

The scholarly nonsense surrounding John 8 and Romans 7

October 27, 2015

Years ago, when I was in theology school at Emory, a professor wrote a critique in the margins of one of my essays that began with these sympathetic words: “For those of us who live in our heads…” And I thought, “Oh, right! I guess I do tend to live in my head!” What can a I say? It’s a blessing and curse.

It was a curse recently, for example, when I ruminated over this margin note on John 7:53-8:11 in the otherwise conservative ESV Study Bible:

There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.

Should not be considered part of Scripture? It’s one of the greatest passages in the gospels! Oh my goodness!

My own theory is that, regardless how it got there, the Holy Spirit put it in our Bibles because God wanted it to be there: whether it belongs in this particular context in John or somewhere else, it belongs in the Bible! I have preached this passage and will continue to do so.

So I was ruminating over this margin note when, providentially, I listened to Paul Zahl’s latest podcast, in which he discusses this very passage, and the controversy surrounding it. He apparently has even less patience for Bible scholars who say it doesn’t belong. Transcribing the fast-talking Zahl, with his endearing Newhart-like stammer, is a challenge, but here goes:

I remember in Tübingen reporting that all sorts of New Testament so-called “scholars” would be saying that the long ending of John 8, with the woman taken in adultery, was unquestionably an insertion from a later text, and it couldn’t possibly be… you know, it was an insertion. And I kept always thinking, you know, “This is the core of the entire religion—is what he says: ‘Go and sin no more,’ but ‘neither do I condemn thee.’” I mean, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is the core of the Christian insight about the universality of human fallenness, human suffering, brokenness, waywardness, and the forgiveness of Christ—mammothly the core. And isn’t this the classic case of the Satanic mechanic hypnotizing a collective scholarly consciousness to somehow believe this doesn’t even belong there?

But he’s not finished! Next he attacks the idea—prominently featured in N.T. Wright, among others—that Paul, in Romans 7, is speaking hypothetically about a non-Christian—rather than from his own present experience as a believer—when he says, for example, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”:

I mean the one thing… it’s like when people used to say that Romans 8—Romans 7, I should say—was not really a Christian. It was a so-called pre-Christian, or it was some kind of… Paul trying to get into the head of some putative pre- or non-Christian to relate to this. Whereas obviously anybody—you know, “I don’t do the things I want to do, and I do the things I don’t want to do. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s everybody. It’s the unity of all people. It’s a Christian. It’s a non-Christian. It’s a pre-Christian. It’s a post-Christian. It’s a pagan. It’s a non-pagan. It’s a dualist. It’s a secularist. It’s a nun. It’s a Jew. It’s a Christian. It’s a Protestant. It’s a Presbyterian—my golly. It’s Charles Simeon and it’s Pope John Pall II. It is utterly true to life—Romans 7.

And then when I also related to Herr Moltmann that they had also decided that Romans 7 was not what it was obviously about. And he just shook his head and said, “Isn’t it amazing [says something in German] can actually believe this?” It’s so obvious this is true from experience. Anybody reading it—of any shape, size, form—understands that Romans 7 is about him- or herself…

What cerebral place of total non-existence are we bringing to these things? It’s a devilish thing!

I love when Zahl gets carried away! I love his passion.