From Resurrection to New Creation by Michael W. Pahl

Recycling from Facebook again. I think this is the only book review that I’ve voluntarily completed. I’m such a fan of this little book and strongly recommend it for a wide readership. Originally published as a Facebook note on February 9, 2011.

 

Michael W. Pahl (Ph.D. in theology from University of Birmingham), pastor at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church in Edmonton, Alberta has written the best little introduction to Christian theology that I have seen.  I picked up his From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010) at SBL in Atlanta this past November, and have read pieces of it while I’ve been home since then.  In only 100 pages (yes, it’s nearly a booklet), I think he offers a much more vivid, relevant, and holistic explanation of the Christian faith than any 1000+ page systematic theology.

Most of my enthusiasm for this succinct book, therefore, is the way it approaches Christian theology through story, basically recounting the overarching narrative of God’s redemption and renewal of the world by focusing on seven topics which are the names of the book’s seven chapters: Resurrection, Crucifixion, Son, Gospel, Father, Spirit, Creation As is evident from the title, Pahl focuses on what has always been the center of the Christian message but what has too often been ignored, especially in the past few centuries of evangelicalism with its narrow focus on the good news being all about God saving the individual from sin.  Christianity is immensely bigger than individual salvation from sin though it definitely includes it, and it first and foremost both satisfies the deep human desire to know the larger story and to play a part in it.  Though for a number of reasons people have so often reduced Christianity to a list of doctrines to believe in order to “be a Christian,” I don’t believe that is really what people want, need, and more importantly, what God has provided for them.  Right doctrine is certainly a part of the process, but Pahl simply and elegantly demonstrates how Christianity is at its foremost about the Story.

I doubt one would find a better book to use in small groups or in classes for a basic primer on Christian theology.  Pahl begins and ends each chapter with some discussion questions, the materal is easy to read, and he offers both scriptural references and book lists for further reading at the end of each chapter.  Pahl keeps his writing simple, and (as he emphasizes toward the end of the book) what he unfolds is the core of true, biblical Christianity as it is (or at least should be) observed by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.  In this way, the book is a fine measuring rod for determining what actually constitutes the Christian church; Pahl does not discuss marginal issues that divide Christians–he only shows what unites us all.  As a result, plenty of groups that like to identify themselves as Christians, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists will find little to agree with in this book.  This is “mere Christianity” wonderfully explained.  And I also I think it’s wonderful, I’ll add, that this comes from the desk of a pastor, not a full-time academic.

Here’s some highlights:

“the New Testament authors were themselves ‘doing theology’ as they explored the new terrain laid out before them in light of Jesus’ resurrection.  Thus, the Trinity and other distinctive Christian doctrines and practices are, in a real sense, first a matter of history before they are a dogma of theology” (x).

“Attempts to ‘prove’ Jesus’ resurrection historically, to find analagous events of resuscitations and visions, to determine a historical cause for this event, are not only wrongheaded historically, they are wrongheaded theologically” (11).

“The stories of creation and exodus reverberate in the New Testament descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection, pointing back to the motifs of transcendence in the foundational Jewish descriptions of God: God’s power, holiness, and sovereignty over all creation” (60).

“How do even know God exists?  And if God does exist, how can we know God?  That is, how might we discern God’s activity in the world in order to understand who God is?  The early Christian answer to these sorts of questions was simple, yet profound: look to the crucified and resurrected Jesus … Of course, this answer is already a response of faith; that is, it will not convince someone of the existence of God who is not already predisposed to that belief, particularly in view of the reality discussed earlier that one cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus either by critical history or analytical logic.  Nevertheless, this is exactly what is called for in the Christian proclamation of the crucified and resurrected Jesus: a genuine response of faith and trust, not the false security of a claim to irrefutable knowledge ” (67, 69).

“So we should not expect to find God only ‘in the gaps’ of our knowledge of the natural world or human history.  God is as much present in the scientifically and historically explainable as he is in that which has not yet been explained.  Nor should we expect to see God only in the ‘miraculous,’ or in the triumphs of life.  God is as much present in the mundane and in life’s tragedies as he is in those experiences which are typically seen as the more likely demonstration of divine activity” (70).

“Indeed, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the ground and center of all truly Christian thought and action, both the source and the focus of all belief and behavior that can be called authentically Christian.  All disctinctively Christian theology and practice should grow out of the reality–and be centered on the reality–that the crucified Jesus has been resurrected from the dead” (102).

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“And the gates of hell will not prevail against it”? R.T. France on Matthew 16:18

I posted this in a Facebook note (remember those?) on September 25, 2011. I’ve already run out of things to say, so I’m recycling old stuff. I just love blogging.

 

This portion of Jesus’ speech in Matthew’s Gospel after he has been recognized as Messiah is often quoted: ” I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” What usually goes along with this is the explanation that this is a powerful image because gates don’t go out against anything, so the picture is of the church “storming the gates of hell,” or something like that. This gets passed around quite a bit but I’m not sure if anyone has actually checked this idea out to see if it actually holds any weight. I don’t have the time now to do any sort of research on this, but I did check my commentary The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) by R.T. France, a wonderful intepreter of Matthew, and this is what he has to say:

The gates of Hades [France is simply giving you the Greek word here, which is Hades. To translate it “hell” is an interpretive move.] is a metaphor for death, which here contrasts strikingly with the phrase ‘the living God’ in v. 16. In the OT the ‘gates of death’ describes the place to which dead people go (Job 38:17; Pss 9:13; 107:18), and in Isa 38:10 the phrase ‘the gates of Sheol’ is used in the same way. ‘Hades’ is the NT equivalent of Sheol … [The mistake is repeatedly made to associate ‘Sheol’ with ‘hell.’ The OT does not know of ‘hell.’] The ‘gates’ thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church. Still less does it support the romantic imagery, sometimes derived from the traditional butincorrect translation of ‘gates of hell,’ of the church as a victorious army storming the citadel of the devil. The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed. (624-25)

“The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”

I preached a sermon on January 8th of this year entitled “Faith in Romans.” I moved quickly through the letter, pausing at certain places to comment on what Paul reveals about faith in this great letter. The impetus for this sermon was this remarkable comment I read when I was reviewing Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary for my Romans class at Asbury. This is the portion of the sermon that deals with this helpful insight.

 

. . . this brings us to a key question — what does it mean for us to not respond to God in faith? What if do not answer his covenant faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own? Well, humankind has a history of just that, of a lack of faith. Romans gives us a good deal of teaching about faithless humanity, and as a direct corollary, it gives us a whole bunch about the power of sin.

Understanding what Paul has to say about sin in Romans is crucial in understanding what it means to have a proper faith. In 3:9ff Paul says that everyone is under the power of sin. And in a section spanning from 5:12 to the end of chap. 7, he reflects at length on the nature of sin. And what is striking is that he talks about sin as a force that reigns, that enslaves us, that deceives and distorts.

What becomes clear is that sin is not a matter of breaking laws. It really is more of a disease, as Paul says that even when there is no explicit law spelling out what God wants, sin reigns over people. In his discussion of the law, he makes the point that with the law, sin is reckoned or accounted for, but apart from the law sin is still there all the same because it is at its core rebellion against God. Sin according to Paul is a breaking of the covenant, it is a violation of the basis for the relationship between a God of goodness and faithfulness and a people of wickedness and rebellion.

Here is a key point that we need to face. Much of the time, both within the church and outside, sin is simplified and cheapened to an idea pretty much equivalent with immorality. And the real damage that is done as a result is that Christianity then appears as if it is the solution to this immorality. Christianity becomes equated with being moral. “That’s so Christian of you,” people often say (or complain, “That’s not very Christian of you.”)

I’m pretty sure I’ve known people who think I’m a Christian because I’m interested in being moral–which is so repulsive to me, if I can put it so bluntly. Morality is so much simpler than what my life given over to God actually calls for. I’m pretty sure I could be, and hopefully would be, a moral person apart from my relationship with God through Christ. And I actually think Paul would agree with me on that. Paul doesn’t say that every Gentile or every Jew is incapable of doing good things. That’s not the problem.

But even though people are capable of good things, does not mean that they are in a situation in which they don’t need saving. They are still sinful.

A good way to understand this is given by Luke Timothy Johnson: “Immorality may be a result and sign of sin, but it is not itself sin. As Paul uses the concept, sin has to do with the human relationship with God. In this sense, the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” The opposite of sin is not morality; the opposite of sin is faith.

According to Paul we have two options regarding our relationship to God, sin and faith. And he makes this point explicit in 14:23: “Whatever is not ek pisteos (of, by faith) is sin.” At any given moment, with any action you take, you are either acting out the reality of your relationship with God or you are not. James D.G. Dunn summarizes the impact of this verse: “whatever is not an expression of dependence on and trust in God is marked by that fatal flaw of human presumption and/or self-indulgence.”

And what this means is that this is not about morals. Morals may be involved, but sin and faith are much more challenging and meaningful than they are often given credit for. In a system where sin is the same thing as immorality, someone is ok if they’re moral enough and not ok if they’re immoral enough. How often is that either preached or perceived as the Christian message? And it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Both sin and faith claim much more of you than just immorality and morality. And both are infinitely more important because sin is rebellion against God, a hostility and resistance to him and a desire to rule one’s own life. Here’s another key point: The harm of sin is not just that we do things we shouldn’t, but that we miss out on the real good which our lives would otherwise be serving if we were actually “faithing” God, i.e., believing, trusting, and being faithful to him.

The popular of view of sins won’t do, as if they’re all about God standing back with his arms folded, watching you and tallying up the number of wrong things you do. We should also face the absurdity of the question of “how far is too far,” i.e. “just how far can I go before I’m sinning?” That is not the point. Sin is tragic not in the first place because you have done something wrong; sin is tragic because it is a rupturing of the human relationship with God.

Part of the reason I think why too often people think of the issue in terms of immorality and morality, because there’s something you can do about those, and you retain some sort of power.

In light of sin, what can you do about your lack of faith?

Nothing! You instead have to be put in the humanly uncomfortable situation of surrender, daily surrender, and of not being your own but being bought at a price. On sin, you must be made right, because it’s not primarily about what you have done. Chief problem: not that things you do are wrong; rather, it’s that you are wrong.

Thank God, then, we have justification by faith in 3:21-4:25 . . .

What’s all this then?

I entered college thinking that I was supposed to be a youth pastor. I found a small Christian college in town that offered a bachelor’s in biblical studies. I was going to be a youth pastor. I needed a degree that sounded like that.

So after a semester at the University of Memphis, I started at Crichton College (now Victory University). Long story short, I loved every minute of it. I still count those as the best years. Long story short, it took me a semester to realize that there was such a thing as academic study of the Bible. Long story short, it took me another half of a semester to realize I had fallen in love with it. Bible Interpretation with Dr. Troy A. Miller and about 5 other people around a table three mornings a week probably had something to do with that.

Then I started buying books.

There was nothing wrong with the Max Lucado books that I had been reading to that point, but there was this whole world of insights about the biblical text that I had been ignorant of before. I bought books then that were a bit too advanced for me to read at the time just because it made me feel good that I had them. One of these was Ben Witherington’s The Christology of Jesus. I think I got it because I had seen it listed in his interview in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and it sounded like it had some depth to it.

I still haven’t read it.

But anyway some of the books I bought I actually did read and I was getting sucked in. It didn’t take me long to discover that I actually had something of an intellect. An inquiring mind had been lurking beneath the shadows all those years but without much to sink its fangs into. Now keep in mind this is 2006. I had just become a Christian and started reading the Bible in 2004. So I still didn’t know much about anything to do with the Bible but I was starting to realize that I enjoyed thinking. And this sort of thinking especially, in light of God having made himself known to me suddenly and dramatically only recently.

Literary theory and criticism, history, sociology, psychology, ancient languages, theology, philosophy–and more–I was finding out that all these disciplines factored into understanding and applying the Bible. And for a budding nerd like me committed to Jesus I knew this was where the project for my life was going to find its place.

I had great professors to help me along the way. Aside from Troy Miller already mentioned, my Greek professor Harry Harriss did so much to show me what we learn biblical languages for in the first place and also managed to teach me unintentionally the power and importance of prayer. Just like Robin Gallaher Branch, an Old Testament scholar newly hired I think my junior year. She, really like no one else I know to this day, can unfold the meaning, power, and relevance of a text having  no problem allowing her emotions be expressed and does not stop worshipping God through the entire process. We’ve had many discussions and prayer meetings over the last several years and she has been a huge provider of encouragement.

I knew I was supposed to keep on with this. So I entered Asbury Theological Seminary after graduation and finally had three classes with Ben Witherington, whose writings I had profited greatly from. I read 10 of his books as part of my three classes with him.

I still haven’t read The Christology of Jesus.

I just graduated with an M.A. in biblical studies this past December. I didn’t know so much reading, so much writing, and so much learning could be crammed into 2.5 years. But there you go. My love for this field has grown so much more as a result.

Now that I’m out of school for the first time since I walked into that old kindergarten classroom with the screaming kid, I’m able to develop my interests on my own, and this blog is going to help me do that.

My chief interests:

1) I’ve got a notebook going that will hopefully someday be an actual book on bibliology, or theology of Scripture. At this point, I see this being the major project of my life. If done right, this book will not be completed for, I don’t know, 20 years or so. For some reason it is just in me to write. There are far too many unasked and unanswered questions, asked and unanswered questions, and asked and wrongly answered questions about the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, infallibility, and proper place of Scripture within the church’s thought and practice. I’m going to do my best.

2) The Gospels. This is the part of the Bible that has drawn my greatest attention in the past couple of years. I did both of my independent studies in my M.A. on the Gospels; one on reading them narrative critically–that is, as stories; and the other on their genre–what type of writing they are and what this means for the history they are concerned to relate.

So I’m interested in some of the historical Jesus questions, but again, my goals in understanding the Gospels have primarily to do with how the church appropriates four different accounts of Jesus within her thought and practice. What are the Gospels exactly? What are they for? What did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really think that they were doing when they wrote these accounts? How do they properly inform and undergird and propel the church’s theology and mission? Unfortunately, in my view, N.T. Wright is just recently doing the best job at answering these questions and saying what I would like to have said, but fortunately, he’s doing it far better than I ever could and people should definitely listen to him over me. Get his book coming out this March: How God Became King.

3) Judaism. The academy has done much better in the past several decades at 1) understanding Judaism and 2) allowing this to properly inform our reading of the New Testament. The results have been nothing short of what one should expect when you actually understand the context of something. Understand the context of a text, a saying, an event, and you’ve done most of the work for understanding that text, saying, event, or whatever.

And now the church needs to catch up. This is a harsh indictment, but I have never heard a preacher (that wasn’t a scholar) comment in detail on Judaism, whether it’s about the law, the Pharisees, etc., and fairly represent Judaism. So, so many of the warped interpretations of the New Testament, and even the Old Testament, have come about because Christians don’t understand Judaism. The payoff of understanding Jesus and Paul and the others for who they are is immense.

And understanding Judaism doesn’t only help Christians relate to our ancient Scriptures, but it would help quite a bit in loving our Jewish neighbors. Another field I’m becoming increasingly interested in therefore is anti-Semitism. Believe it or not, most of the world’s anti-Semitism was tragically spawned by the way people have read the New Testament.

4) Aramaic. I specialize in the New Testament, but I love the Semitic languages of the Old Testament. I think New Testament specialists would be well-served by being more familiar with Hebrew and Aramaic, and I see myself going after Aramaic especially. I have studied the small portions we have of biblical Aramaic that we have primarily in Daniel and Ezra, but I want to dig in to Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, the dialect of Jesus. A very small amount of New Testament scholars knows this language well, and they have made/are making conclusions about the underlying Aramaic of the Greek words of Jesus in the Gospels that not many people are equipped to critique.

So this is somewhere I see myself heading in the future, but I don’t know much about it at the moment.

5) The Septuagint. The LXX is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced for ancient Jews who had lost the ability to read the Semitic languages as a result of living outside of Palestine. It shines light on our understanding of ancient Judaism and its theology, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, translation practices, manuscript traditions, etc. It is the LXX that is quoted in most cases when the NT cites a portion of the OT. Beyond that, it is absolutely foundational for Christianity. The breadth and depth of Christianity in its earliest period was due to Greek speakers already having a copy of the Scriptures that they could read.

But there’s still a whole lot we don’t know about the LXX. And I certainly don’t know much at all, but I know I want to get my feet wet in this area and do more with it.

6) The church fathers. I had considered saying at Asbury to do an M.A. in theological studies. The major goal was to study the church fathers, whose writings I have now come to believe are far more important than they’re given credit. The church is neglecting a gold mine by not hearing what these great theologians and churchmen have to say, so hopefully I can help them gain a hearing in today’s world.

I want to start off with Augustine. So be ready to hear more about him.

Ok, that was a long one. I’ll do better next time.

 

This is the beginning of this blog.

Starting a blog is odd.

 

You’ll (hopefully) never have fewer readers than when you just started, so faced with the hope that your readership will grow, you might be tempted to save your good stuff for later. This makes me face the fact that starting a blog is mainly for me. It’s a place for me to think in such a way that makes me articulate what I’m thinking, which is going to be all the more crucial if I’m going to do anything that involves communication with other people who would like to understand what I’m trying to say. Which is where I feel like my life is heading.

So I’m writing for myself, yes, but this is made possible because of people like you, my implied reader. You are a construct in my mind, a pretend listener, and you’re absolutely necessary in order for me to write anything comprehensible and that is worth reading. So I’m writing for you as well. This being the case, I know you (like me) don’t have time and don’t like the sight of unwieldy dissertations for blog posts, so for you, I’m doing my best to keep them short.

So, thank you implied reader for your steadfast assistance, always being around when I need you.

Also, to any actual reader (a real-life person!) that may read this, thank you; and I’m sorry.

Thank you because real-life people use real-life time to read blogs and for risking the possibility of wasting that real-life time.

I’m sorry because I’m assuming for this blog that all questions about anything that I already want to talk about have already been asked of me.

 

Yep, starting a blog is odd.

?Who-am-I-am-Who?

In most cases, knowing who a writer is helps me care about what they’ve written. Even just having a name helps me relate to them through what they’ve put on the page.

So, Nathan Brasfield is the writer of this blog.

It’s a decent name. Still, if I can know something about their occupation, education, location, or whatever–that certainly proves to be valuable information. It provides me with a fuller picture of the larger circumstances surrounding the written word.

So, I just graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY with an M.A. in biblical studies in December 2011. In 2009 I finished my B.A. in biblical studies at Crichton College (now Victory University) in Memphis. I am now back in the Memphis area, where I was born and raised, and I am part-time staff at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. I love Memphis. I love this church. I’m working on the details of how I can put more of myself in both.

Ahh. So a lot of what I write on this blog is going to have to do with biblical studies, Christianity, etc.

Yes, that’s right. A lot. But certainly not all. Hopefully this blog will reflect the many facets of my own life. I’m interested in many things.

It’s good to know basic information like that about a writer. Questionnaires could be helpful as far as that goes.

Age? 25 in a couple of months. That doesn’t seem right. 

Pets? My cat Sunny who is 15 or 16 or so. Forgot what it’s like not to have him around.

Marital status? Single.

Eyes? Green. Also my favorite color. A lot of my clothing is green, but I didn’t set out to have a green wardrobe. Just drawn to the color.

Favorite book? Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

So you’re probably a Christian? Yes. I have been a committed follower of Jesus Christ since 2004. The world only makes sense to me as the setting of the larger story of a creation which is meant to be flooded with the presence of its Creator. Our significance is found in our proper place within that story and within that world. And it’s a pretty important place. Made evident by the fact that God has revealed himself most vividly in a person. (Jesus.)

Should we expect to hear more from you about this story in your blog? If you don’t, tell me to stop writing.

Least favorite word? “Policy.” Or maybe even worse, those awful words that have sprouted up in the English language only recently, often as a result of combining two words which were perfectly good by themselves. Example: “brainchild.” Just do me a favor and think about how stupid that word is for a moment.

Favorite word? As much I have several words I outright detest, I don’t think there’s any individual words I’m crazy about. But small collections of words are sometimes really good, like phrases and sentences. The favorite quotations section of my Facebook profile is rather full.

What’s an example from that section? “God made man because he loves stories.” –Elie Wiesel

What kind of car do you drive? I drive a 1999 Saturn that my parents got me when I started college. It has never left me stranded, even during multiple trips from Wilmore to Memphis and back.

What color is it? Well whatever color it is, it certainly isn’t purple. I can prove this through a simple syllogism: Nathan would never drive a purple car. Nathan drives a car. Nathan’s car is not purple.

Are you into sports? No, not really. Though I love the occasional live baseball game.

So you’re into other things? Yes.

Like what? Things that matter, mostly. Aside from the interests already noted, I’m into art in just about every format in which it appears. I don’t produce much art, but I am within my own mind a lot of the time at art museums, when listening to music, watching a movie. All of this stuff shows me humanity, and by doing so it shows me God. I guess that’s what I am ultimately into.

Do you enjoy NPR? Yes.

You’re listening to it right now, aren’t you? Yes; it’s soothing.

Favorite food? Oh wow. I wish I knew you were going to ask that. Umm.. that’s hard because I really care a lot about the things I eat and I just can’t get enough flavor. Any given dinner at home has lots of different spices, sauces, to liven it up. But anyway I love Mediterranean, Japanese, and Fish n Chips the most. And of course, anything Memphian. We have good food here.

Any guilty pleasures? Things you like that if people knew you liked they’d be alarmed? Well I like most things, and that includes the weird ones. But Yankee Candles is my standard response to a question like this. Good smells are some of the best things about being alive, and the flickering light is a nice alternative to all the manufactured luminescence we see everywhere. I am not ashamed.

That reminds me. How do you feel about fluorescent lighting? I freaking hate it. My preferred lighting comes through the window, or emanates from lamps with the traditional incandescent bulbs that the government wishes to rid us of.

Coffee or tea? I drink both, though probably more tea than coffee nowadays. Also, it’s not “hot tea,” either. Americans consistently get this wrong. It’s just “tea.” “Iced tea” is what is the innovation.

Books? As far as the eye can see. They’re everywhere at home. And they’re what I worry about when we’re under a tornado warning. That’s sad, and I do try to fight it. But I do spend the vast majority of my free time reading. 

What do you read? Well obviously the vast majority are about biblical studies, theology, and related fields. But I get into other nonfiction occasionally, though I’d like to do more of that. I also have many fiction books in my shelves waiting to be read. They’re hard to get to, though, for sure.

What’s your favorite thing to do not related to things you’ve already mentioned? Travel. I’ve been to Europe three times and loved all of it. Though I really want to see more of my own country.

Where do you want to go? As far as this country goes, I think I would love Seattle. So much so that I would probably want to stay there. But I believe Memphis is the place for me, so my goal is to be here. Other than that, I would love to visit Chicago or New York. And Yellowstone Park. New Orleans. And Savannah, GA. As far as the world goes, I wouldn’t believe my eyes if I visited the land of Israel and surrounding areas. Bibleland I call it.

What is it about Memphis that has you wanting to be there? Well I grew up in the area, so it is the place I call home and going away to Kentucky for graduate school made me realize it’s where my heart is. It’s the place I want to make better. Although it has its issues for sure, e.g., a struggling government, high crime rates, high poverty, it is home to some of the most vibrant churches and ministries in the country which are working to shine light in the darkness. Its culture and feel is like nowhere else, it has incredible food, rich tradition with the arts, and has all kinds of people in it. Lots of images of God all over the place.

See, you can enjoy the blog now.