Book Give Away

I’m back from vacation and it’s time to start giving books away again. This week is Atonement, Law, and Justice by Adonis Vidu. Hot off the press this looks like a promising contribution to the atonement debate that has been going on for the past decade. Here’s the catalog description.

Tackling an issue of perennial interest in the Christian academy, Adonis Vidu provides a critical reading of the history of major atonement theories by exploring selected patterns, recurrent concepts, and attempts to discern broader themes. Vidu also offers an in-depth analysis of the legal and political contexts within which these atonement theories arose. The book engages the latest work in atonement theory and serves as a helpful resource for contemporary discussions.

Vidu suggests that the history of atonement thinking can be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law. This is the only book that explores the impact of theories of law and justice on major historical atonement theories. Understanding this relationship yields a better understanding of atonement thinkers by situating them in their intellectual contexts. The book also explores the relevance of the doctrine of divine simplicity for atonement theory.

Students and scholars interested in understanding historic views of the atonement and their relation to theories of law and justice will value this work. It will also work well as a textbook for graduate courses in theology, ethics, and law.

And the endorsements couldn’t be better. Take a look

“Adonis Vidu has written a learned, thoughtful, and intriguing study of the history of atonement as it relates to concepts of law and justice. Of particular interest in the current context of wider discussions of the doctrine of God is Vidu’s articulate exposition and defense of atonement in relation to divine simplicity. This is a fascinating and significant book that repays careful reading.”

Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania

“Adonis Vidu does much more than provide a meticulous and perceptive overview of the history of atonement theology. He argues that we understand this history properly only by tracing the medieval interlacing of justice and law and their disentanglement in the modern period. And by linking the doctrine of divine simplicity to God’s agency in the crucifixion, Vidu presents a nuanced plea for the inclusion of the role of punishment in a fully-orbed understanding of the death of Christ.”

Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver; author of Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross

“The story of how the Christian doctrine of the atonement developed is both fascinating and important. Too often, however, it is told without proper attention to the importance of various intellectual contexts. In this work, Vidu calls clichés into question and works to show how different models of the atonement are related to varied notions of justice and law in the Western intellectual tradition. It is a work that will open further inquiry, and it will repay careful study.”

Thomas H. McCall, associate professor of biblical and systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Adonis Vidu (PhD, University of Nottingham) is associate professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and is the author of several books, including Theology after Neo-Pragmatism. He previously taught at Emmanuel University and at the University of Bucharest in his home country of Romania.

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, August 1st, 6:00 am EST. I’ll draw the winning name that Friday. International entries are welcome. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.



Does Rabbinic Literature Shed Light on New Testament Times?

I’ve noticed that it has become quite popular in Christian literature to use Rabbinic sources to shed light on New Testament times. A few examples are Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith by Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus:How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life by Lois Tverberg, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of Christianity by Marvin Wilson. Rob Bell did much of this in some of his writings for which he was critiqued by some NT scholars. Coming next February Zondervan will introduce Teachings of the Torah: Weaving Jewish History and the Christian Faith edited by Kent Dobson.

While I appreciate what these works are attempting to do I’ve always been a little suspect of the sources they used. Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine explains the difficulties involved with this kind of study.

“Any appeal to the rabbis for determining the meaning of a Gospel passage is a fraught issue: rabbinic sources are later than the New Testament, generally prescriptive (what should be done) rather than descriptive (what is actually being done), often in contradiction with each other since they preserve minority as well as the majority opinions, and not necessarily, or in some cases even likely, indicative of anything practiced in the late Second Temple period in the Galilee. Nor are most New Testament scholars trained to use rabbinic literature. Typically, we rely on the works of our predecessors, themselves untrained, and, typically again, we cite the same texts repeatedly without necessarily or even often tracking their original contexts.” (Short Stories by Jesus, HarperOne, 2014, p.160)

She repeats, “. . . rabbinic literature is often a series of disagreements among rabbis rather than a definitive code; the rabbis debate everything, from the circumstances under which a divorce can be granted to the determination of what constitutes work on the Sabbath.” (178) “Whether rabbinic law was applicable to late Second Temple contexts cannot in most cases be known.” (229)

To their credit Spangler and Tverberg, in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, note this problem. Unfortunately their comment is relegated to an endnote which many readers simply ignore. They state, “In the 1970s and 1980s, many scholars felt that early Jewish sources like the Mishna were not useful for describing Jesus’ setting because they were written down later, although they appear to quote sayings and describe traditions from the first century. . . .In the past decade, however, confidence has grown that these sources are reliable when used with care. . . . In Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, we have made every effort to use early sources rather than latter rabbinic material to describe the setting of Jesus. We do occasionally quote Jewish wisdom from the Babylonian Talmud and later works, without assuming that they describe the reality of Jesus’ time.” (236n.16) They refer the reader to David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 28-40 and the review article by Instone-Brewer, “The Use of the Rabbinic Sources in Gospel Studies,” Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 281-98.”

I appreciate their caution but I still rest uneasy when I see someone quoting from rabbinic literature.

Nine Reasons to be Methodist

In Why We Belong six evangelicals explain why they belong to their respective Protestant denominations. Gerald Bray: Anglican; Timothy George: Baptist; Douglas Sweeney: Lutheran; Timothy Tennent: Methodist; Byron Klaus: Pentecostal; and Bryan Chapell: Presbyterian. The essays are narrative and don’t follow any particular pattern. Timothy Tennent, however, lays out quite nicely nine reasons why he is Methodist which makes for a nice blog post. Here are his reasons with a short excerpt from each point.

  1. First, I am Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner.” “For Methodists, prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will.” (134-35)
  2. Second, I am Methodist because I believe in the ‘means of grace.’” “Wesley saw that in the years since the invigorating message of the Reformation, the churches were doctrinally and theologically sound, but the lived experience of Christians was still at a very low ebb. He responded by developing a more robust understanding of how God’s grace works throughout the life of a believer.” “Wesley went on to identify three primary means of grace that God has given to us: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper.” “What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he saw these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient) and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading, and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to faith.” (137-38)
  3. Third, Methodists affirm (along with most evangelical movements) the importance of conversion.”
  4. Fourth, I am a Methodist because of Wesley’s strong emphasis on the importance of holiness in the life of the believer and the necessity of Christian sanctification.” “The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood of all Methodist doctrines. . . . For Wesley sanctification is not primarily a forensic term. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification, in contrast, is inherently relational since it involves the whole of our daily interactions.” “We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we come into full relationship with the triune God. Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith.” “Methodists believe that even if you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid; it’s about fruit we produce!” (139-41)
  5. “The fifth reason I am a Methodist is the strong emphasis on discipleship in our tradition.” “What is distinctive about the Methodist emphasis is how it seeks to go beyond simply giving correct answers to doctrinal questions. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life (the catechesis comes from the root word meaning ‘to echo’).” (142)
  6. “The sixth reason I am a Methodist is that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement.” “Not only was the world his parish, but for Wesley the world also is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him.” (143-44)
  7. The seventh reason I am a Methodist is the wonderful way Wesley combined doctrinal clarity with a generous, warmhearted spirit toward other Christians.” “On the one hand, he was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his own on various points. On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops, and Calvinistic thinkers.” (144)
  8. The eighth reason I am a Methodist is Wesley’s early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as ‘global Christianity.’ Few have given proper recognition to the fact that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions.” “The world is my parish.” (146)
  9. The ninth reason I am a Methodist is Methodism’s great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it was not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.” (147)

“. . . as I review the top nine reasons why I am a Methodist, I am painfully aware that many Methodist churches do not exhibit these great truths today. However, if we all are but stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voices join the great chorus of other faithful Christians throughout the world and back through time.”

Why we Belong

Did the Father of the Prodigal Son Act Shamefully When He Ran?

Sometimes you hear something so often you don’t think twice about if it is true or not. I can’t recall a sermon or reading a book on the parable of the prodigal son that did not mention that it was a dishonorable act for the father to run to greet his son. Here are just a few references I found:

ESV Study Bible: “The father cast aside all behavioral conventions of the time, as running was considered to be undignified for an older person, especially a wealthy landowner such as this man.” (Note on Luke 15:20)

The NLT Study Bible: “Running was considered undignified for the family patriarch, but the father was full of unbridled joy at his son’s return.” (Note on Luke 15:20)

The Orthodox Study Bible: “”Though it was considered unseemly in Jewish culture for an old man to run, the father did not passively stand by waiting for his son return. He ran to him.” (Note on Luke 15:20. Emphasis in the note.)

Craig Blomberg in Interpreting the Parables: “no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son (v. 20).” (p. 176)

Klyne Snodgrass in Stories With Intent: “Respected older men avoided running because it was viewed as shameful to show one’s legs and to appear so undignified.” (p. 126)

But Snodgrass later writes: “Nothing in the parable suggests that the father acted shamefully or that the village needs to be reconciled.” (p. 133 Emphasis mine.)

Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus says this is wrong. She notes that Proverbs, a “‘Semitic patriarch rule book,’ presumes its readers run, both literally and metaphorically” (Prov. 4:12). Other Old Testament passages speak of running with no implied shame (Is. 18:10; 40:31) “Running is fine—a potential disciple runs to Jesus (Mark 10.17); Zacchaeus runs to see him (Luke 19.4); Peter runs to Jesus’s tomb (Luke 24.12)—the point is, as Paul states, not to ‘run aimlessly’ (1 Cor. 9.24-26).” (55-56)

Levine is not alone. David Garland offers this in his commentary on Luke:

“Some claim that running is beneath the dignity of an Oriental elder because it suggests that he is not in control of his time or resources, and he would have humiliated himself pulling up his long robes and bearing his legs as he dashes out to greet his son. According to Sir 19:30, the nobleman is known by his gait, that is, by the slow, dignified pace that betokens his stature in the community. But in Gen 33:4, Esau did the same thing when his brother Jacob appeared. He ‘ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.’ Can we expect anything less from a father who loves his son, longs for his return, and sees him coming down the road? He will naturally run to greet him. The celebrations for recovered sheep and coins in the previous parables prepare us for the father’s excitement over the return of his son.”

Luke in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament by David Garland, pp. 626-29.

Snodgrass makes the following observation about these kind of cultural observations with particular attention to the work of Kenneth Bailey.

“Awareness of such cultural expectations is illuminating, but fascination with the culture can cause one to read into the parable aspects that are not there. K. Bailey’s contribution from his experience as a missionary to Middle Eastern peasants is often insightful, but he uncritically assumes a continuity between first-century Jewish Palestine and modern Middle Eastern peasants impacted by centuries of Islamic rule. . . . Further, Bailey and others who focus on sociological approaches become more intrigued with the culture than with the parable, more with what is not there than what is. Once again the principle is demonstrated: the more an interpretation focuses on what is not explicit in the parable the more likely it is to be wrong.” (p. 132)

Why Would A Jew Thank God that He Was Not Made a Woman?

Rabbi Judah says, “A man must recite three benedictions every day:

“Blessed be You, Lord, who did not make me a gentile. Blessed be You, Lord, who did not make me uneducated. Blessed be You, Lord, who did not make me a woman.”

I’ve seen this used in Christian literature to show that Jews were against women. This is a terrible misunderstanding. Amy-Jill Levine explains the context and meaning of this prayer.

“Rabbi Judah was responsible for the codification of the Mishnah around 200 CE. This text is from about half a century later. To claim the prayer was recited by all Jews in the first century is a stretch. Second, the prayer praises God that the supplicant is in a position to know and so to follow all the commandments. Gentiles were not under Torah and so were not expected to follow it. The uneducated do not know all the rabbinic commentary and so are unable, in Rabbi Judah’s eyes, fully to understand the practices and the rationales. Women were exempt, in the rabbinic system, from many time-bound commandments, since the rabbis realized that their time was not their own; domestic duties, child care, and so on would have precluded their saying certain prayers at certain times.” (Short Stories by Jesus, pp. 185-86)

Have We Misread the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?

I’m reading Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. My copy is an advanced reader copy so my page references may not match the final print edition. Levine examines some of the parables of Jesus and looks at them the way a first-century Jew might have heard it. One of her major themes is to correct the contemporary manner in which the parables are interpreted in such a way as to contrast “what Jesus taught and what ‘the Jews’ generally understood.” Many of these interpretations “make Judaism look hardhearted and exclusivist. . . Such teachings not only get Jesus wrong, and they not only get Judaism wrong; they inculcate and reinforce bigotry.” (20-21) She interacts with some of the best in Christian scholarship on the parables showing numerous fallacies, unsubstantiated assertions and unwarranted interpretations. Among those she takes issue with are Kenneth Bailey, Klyne Snodgrass, Craig Blomberg, Arland Hultgren, and Luke Timothy Johnson

Many of her interpretations turn the typical Christian interpretation on its head. Take for example the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The common interpretation which sees the Pharisee as a hypocrite and the tax collector as the good guy, she says, is completely off. “The saint is not a sinner, the sinner is not a saint, and our conventionally unconventional reading about a reversal of status in the long fun gets us nowhere.” (170) This type of interpretation shows “Jesus emerg[ing] less as a first-century Jew than as a Young Man Luther, the Pharisee and the Temple represent (bad) Judaism, and the sinful tax collector is the redeemed (gentile) Christian.” (170-71) The traditional interpretation starts from the very start with comments made by Luke. Here Christians may object to the way in which Levine is critical of Luke’s added commentary. To a first-century Jew the Pharisee was only doing what God wanted him to do. “The problem with his prayer is not in his personal religiosity; it is in negatively judging someone else. The Pharisee has the information to speak to his own status, but he cannot and therefore should not judge the hearts of others.” (173) A first-century reader would have been fairly positive towards the Pharisee and the tax collector “would have been presumed to be corrupt.” (174) But here he is in the temple where forgiveness may be found. The crux of her interpretation lies with her translation of verse 18. “To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Most versions translate this “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Levine notes that the Greek preposition, para, can mean “rather than” but that it can also mean “because of.” “Thus the last line could be understood as suggesting that the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.” (Emphasis mine. 192)

The standard translation actually poses another problem since it may lead someone to think “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” “Once we negatively judge one character and promote the other, the parable traps.” (192) What’s the punch of the parable? “They [first-century Jews] knew that the tax collector could be justified. The problem was, they would not have like the idea. Nor would they have liked how this justification took place. Were we in their system, neither would we—and that is the punch of the parable.” (192)

Levine explains that Jewish tradition believed in what was called the “merits of ancestors.” That is to say, “even if we sin, and we will, the good deeds of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other ‘fathers’ could be transferred to us.” (193) This Pharisee indicated that he had more than he needed. “First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the Temple system.” (193)

Levine offers a personal example of a student project where four students are involved. Three of the four are hard-workers, smart, and have various gifts to offer to the project. The fourth contributes nothing but still benefits from the work of the others and receives a high score as well. Levine says, “I found this system unfair. I was justified (I got the ‘A’), but along side me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker. My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us; he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we could have learned more as well. And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended on us, even thought we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g., test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.” (195)

It’s something to think about.

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; Affiliated Professor, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge, UK.

Short Stores by Jesus will be released in September. It will be a hardcover with 320 pages and sell for $25.99.

Short Stories by Jesus

Coming October 2014 – “The Didache Bible”

This October Ignatius Press will release The Didache Bible. This Bible will be in the Revised Standard Version: Second Catholic edition. The notes will feature “extensive commentaries on all books of the Holy Bible based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Other features include:

  • Twenty-seven full-color biblical maps, including the journeys of Jesus Christ.
  • Common questions about the Faith answered in 106 apologetical explanations.
  • Comprehensive, forty-four-page glossary and a topical index.
  • Available in leather or hardcover
  • Useful for students and adults studying Scripture.
  • Ideal for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the Catholic Faith.
  • Accessible by all people in its level of scriptural scholarship.
  • Large 6″ x 9″ size
  • Both editions are sewn

The hardcover will sell for $35.00 and the leather edition will sell for $56.00. I think it is a nice feature that the hardcover will be sewn. Not many hardcover Bibles are.

Didache Bible