All posts by Michael O'Neil

About Michael O'Neil

Hi, thanks for stopping by! A couple of months ago a student gave me a cap embroidered with the words "Theology Matters." And so it does. I fervently believe that theology must not be an arcane academic pursuit reserved only for a few super-nerdy types. Rather, theology exists for the sake of the church and its mission. It exists to assist ordinary believers read and enact Scripture in authentic ways, together, and in their own locale, as a local body of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the way reading and studying Scripture and theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that what you find here might help you along a similar path. A bit about me: I have been married to Monica for over thirty years now and we have served in various pastoral, teaching, missions and leadership roles for the whole of our lives together. We have three incredible adult children who with their partners, are the delight of our lives. For the last few years I have taught theology and overseen the research degrees programme at Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. I also assist Monica in a new church planting endeavour in our city. In 2013 my first book was published: Church as Moral Community: Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster). I can say that without a doubt, it is the very best book I have ever written and well worth a read!

Reading Karl Barth on Election (15)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:134-138, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism (#2).

The strength of the supralapsarian position is that the divine decree of election stands at the head of all God’s works, in contrast to the infralapsarian doctrine in which the decree of election is subsumed as it were under the doctrine of providence, following the decree of creation and fall. This view has the effect of placing salvation behind or beneath creation, distinguishing two distinct orders in the divine work. Nevertheless, the infralapsarian position has two advantages. First, the harshness of the supralapsarian position is mitigated somewhat since God elects those who are already and actually fallen; God has not brought humanity into the world in order to fall and so to be damned. Second, this helps avoid the supralapsarian difficulty of making God responsible for the fall and for evil.

The Supralapsarians so exalted the sovereignty of God above everything else that they did not sufficiently appreciate the danger of trying to solve the problem of evil and to rationalise the irrational by making it a constituent element in the divine world-order and therefore a necessity, a part of nature (138).

Nevertheless, each side is also deficient in some way. As already hinted, the supralapsarian view presents a particularly harsh view of the electing God—“the Supralapsarian God threatens to take on the appearance of a demon” (140). Their error was not their desire to “know” more than could be known, but in seeking to know in the wrong place (135). Barth also finds another problem: by making self-glorification the centre and measure of all things, supralapsarianism could and did prepare for a corresponding movement in which human concerns became the centre and measure of all things (137). The direct link between the divine sovereignty and the individual exacerbated this tendency. There is, no doubt, some degree of irony here, that the emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God should issue instead in an emphasis on the absolute centrality of the human. Barth sees this development occurring early in Reformed theology: “What vistas open up and what extremes meet at this point! Is it an accident that A. Heidanus, and even so pronounced a disciple of Coccejus as his son-in-law F. Burmann, were at one and the same time Supralapsarians—and also Cartesians?” (137).

But the weakness of infralapsarianism is even more concerning. First, although their arguments against supralapsarianism “sound well enough, … they are not the arguments of faith” (135). Their objections are “logico-empirical,” applying to God standards taken from the order of human reason (135-136).

But the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ and of the Church is not played out within the framework of a prior and already preceding history of nature and the universe. That is not the picture of the world and history as it is given us in the Bible. According to the Bible, the framework and basis of all temporal occurrence is the history of the covenant between God and man. … It is within this framework that the whole history of nature and the universe plays its specific role, and not the reverse, although logically and empirically the course of things ought to have been the reverse. At this point the Supralapsarians had the courage to draw from the biblical picture of the universe and history the logical deduction in respect of the eternal divine decree. The Infralapsarians did maintain the sequence of the biblical picture in respect of the realisation of salvation, but they shrank from the deduction. In respect of the eternal divine decree they maintained a supposedly more rational order, isolating the two dispensations and subordinating the order of predestination to that of providence. … It was inevitable, then, that the Infralapsarian construction could at least help towards the later cleavage between natural and revealed theology. It is that which (within the framework of the common presuppositions) makes it appear the less happy of the two (136).

This long citation reveals a crucial element of Barth’s hermeneutics and theological method. Although scripture begins with the story of creation and fall and then moves onto the story of redemption commencing with the account of Abraham and the covenant established with him, Barth insists that in fact, the proper understanding of the divine work is the reverse: the covenant of God with humanity precedes the creation as that covenant established in the person of Jesus Christ in the eternal divine self-determination in the decision of election. By prioritising creation and fall above redemption the Infralapsarians did manage, as already noted, to remove from God the responsibility of sin and evil. Nevertheless a danger lurked here as well:

According to the Supralapsarian opinion man was nothing more than the elect or reprobate in whose whole existence there was only the one prospect of the fulfilment of a course already mapped out either one way or the other. But the Infralapsarians knew of another secret of God side by side with the decree of predestination. Theoretically at least, then, they knew of another secret of man apart from the fact that he is either elect or reprobate. For them man was also (and indeed primarily) the creature of God, and as such responsible to God. This view involved a softening in the understanding of God which is both dangerous and doubtful (137).

Thus in his exposition of this theological dispute, Barth finds something to commend on both sides, as well as something to critique. The Supralapsarians rightly emphasise the divine sovereignty and grace but open the possibility of making God responsible for sin and evil, and indeed the whole order of creation being a monstrous economy intending the fall and damnation of multitudes. The Infralapsarians rightly retreat from this position by interposing the decrees of creation and fall in advance of the decree of election though this has the disadvantage of separating the orders of creation and redemption. Interestingly, Barth finds that both sides opened a theoretical possibility which later became actual, of an anthropocentric turn in theology in which humanity became the centre and concern of theology.

On Reading Old Books

I came across this citation from C. S. Lewis; it captures a wonderful piece of wisdom.

Every generation of believers faces the risk of becoming a prisoner to its own myopic vision of the Christian faith, assuming that how it understands and practices faith is always the best. C. S. Lewis cited this problem as a reason for reading old books. “None of us,” he wrote, “can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books,” for modern books (as well as the ideas and practices they convey) only tell us what we already know and thus reinforce our blind spots and prejudices. “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Of course people from the past did not get everything right. “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” Their successes will teach us; their failures will warn us. “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” (in, Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 18).

Matthew and Paul on “Righteousness”

This morning I preached an overview message on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. In my preparation for the sermon I came across the following comparison in F. Dale Bruner’s wonderful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

I suggest that in this use here [i.e. Matt 5:6] of the word “righteousness,” the key word also in Paul’s anti-Judaistic letters (Romans and Galatians), Matthew and Paul shake hands. It is true that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “righteousness” is primarily a moral term; this meaning is present in Paul, too, but it is secondary. Paul’s “righteousness” is supremely the righteousness of God given to believers in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s “righteousness” is predominantly a moral righteousness in disciples (and the plural “disciples” here and the plural nouns and verbs in all the Beatitudes are important and social). …

Any righteousness claimed before God that did not show itself in human righteousness or social justice toward people brought down prophetic wrath (see especially Amos). Matthew’s Jesus will unforgettably hammer away at this prophetic requirement of personal and social righteousness in text after text. In Matthew’s Gospel only the truly godly and humane get into the kingdom. But in Paul’s gospel, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

It is just here, however, in his different understanding of righteousness that I think Matthew’s Jesus most closely approaches Paul. For as we have seen in all the Poor Beatitudes, particularly in Matthew’s moral construal (“poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”), it is the consciously unright or unrighted who are righted, it is the out who are brought in, and now it is those who want a righteousness they do not have who are promised they will have it. To say this is not to Paulinize Matthew; it is to see Paul and Matthew meeting at center: God is the giver of the kingdom and of the kingdom’s righteousness as well. This kingdom is still largely future, but, as we have seen, the future kingdom that Jesus preaches is already breaking in. All four Need Beatitudes say this; all four Beatitudes—and now I audaciously Paulinize—preach justification by faith; all four give God to those who are unable to get God by themselves.

But it would be fair to Matthew to stress that the righteousness longed for in his Gospel is not only heaven-sent (Paul’s great contribution) but also and distinctively earth-centered (Matthew’s great contribution). Paul colors righteousness sky blue, dignifying its source; Matthew colors it earth brown, honouring its goal. Paul the doctor of divine grace and Matthew the doctor of human mercy meet at center: in their deep appreciation for the gift of God. But one teaches in an unparalleled way that gifts’ source (who is God), the other that gift’s aim (which is people); both are needed, both canonical, both Christian (Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary Volume 1: The Christbook, 170-171).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (14)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:127-134, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism.

Having detailed his theology of Jesus Christ as electing God and elected human, Barth inserts a lengthy excursus surveying the supralapsarian-infralapsarian controversy in Reformed theology from the early seventeenth century. He begins by noting that this was a controversy within the one church that did not disturb or rend the church, but nor was it ultimately settled. He identifies the central question of the controversy: “Is the one elected or rejected homo creabilis et labilis [i.e. humanity to be created and fallible], or is he homo creatus et lapsus [i.e. humanity created and fallen]?” Barth develops his argument in three sections. The first section provides an overview of the two sides of the dispute, plus a mediating position proposed late in the century (127-133). The second section (133-139) analyses what the two sides have in common, as well as the particular strength of each side, together with a suggestion of each side’s weakness. In the third section Barth proposes his own assessment of the controversy (139-145). The whole is an exemplary piece of historical theology and argument.

In Barth’s exposition the supralapsarian position is characterised as “a system of consistent theistic monism” (129). It is an audacious and consistent attempt to exalt the divine sovereignty as the rationale and originating cause of all things, and in particular, the eternal destiny of every person, whether to life or to damnation. God’s primal and basic purpose is the divine self-revelation, viz. the glory of his mercy and justice, with creation, the fall, and salvation ordained as means toward this end.

Infralapsarianism is a derivative position, formulated in response and opposition to supralapsarianism. It proposes a more modest understanding of the divine purpose. Whereas the supralapsarian “knows” God’s basic and primal will, and why it is that the creation and fall had to take place, and that God has created each individual in order that they might fulfil either this destiny or that as a revelation of either the divine mercy or the divine justice (128),

The infralapsarian does not think that he has any exact knowledge either of the content of God’s primal and basic plan or of the reasons for the divine decree in respect of creation and fall. On the contrary, he holds that the reasons for this decree are ultimately unknown and unknowable (129).

The decree of election is the first and chief of those decrees which relate to the destiny of sinful man, but it is not the first and chief of all the divine decrees. Between creation and the fall on the one hand and salvation on the other there is no necessaria connexio et subordinatio (130).

The infralapsarians insist that God’s decree of election concerns actual humanity, created and fallen, rather than a hypothetical humanity with no real existence. Creation and the fall are not the means of election by which God achieves the ultimate aim of self-glorification, but the presupposition of election. Thus the divine decrees which establish creation and allow the fall precede the decree of election.

In the second section, Barth finds four presuppositions common to the two parties (133-134). Both groups emphasise the priority of divine grace which selects human individuals as the object of election. Both understand the divine decree as a determinative “system” according to which the entirety of history is played out. Third, God’s election is balanced:

When God set up this fixed system which anticipated the life-history and destiny of every individual as such, then in the same way, in the same sense, with the same emphasis, and in an exact equilibrium in every respect, God uttered both a Yes and a No, accepting some and rejecting others. … The two attitudes together, the one balancing the other, constitute the divine will to self-glorification, and God is glorified equally in the eternal blessedness of the elect and the eternal damnation of the reprobate (134).

Finally, both sides understand the divine good pleasure which issues this decree in terms of the decretum absolutum; God’s grace is understood in terms of an absolute freedom whose basis and meaning are completely hidden.

Behind both these views (at a different point, but with the same effect in practice), there stands the picture of the absolute God in Himself who is neither conditioned nor self-conditioning, and not the picture of the Son of God who is self-conditioned and therefore conditioned in His union with the Son of David; not the picture of God in Jesus Christ (134).

Tell the Story!

Carroll, The Birth of Meaning (Christmas)In a recent article in the Weekend Australian entitled “The Birth of Meaning”John Carroll, professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University, wrote a quite penetrating complaint concerning the infantilising of Christmas in western culture. It was an article in the Christmas edition of the paper and so concerned the place of the nativity in recent western culture. (If the link is blocked by a paywall, use the link above the image to access a PDF copy.)

The whole article is worth reading. Carroll targets the churches with a particular criticism:

The churches have been derelict in their primary duty: they have failed to retell their constitutive and defining story in meaningful contemporary terms … They have inherited the richest cultural treasure in the Western tradition, yet they turn their backs on it and wonder why their pews are empty. They compensate by taking up social justice and political causes. However, once they have become indistinguishable from social workers and political activists, why should anyone take their religious pretensions seriously?

His advice: tell the story! With all its metaphysical claims, and its whole-of-life Jesus narrative.

Sounds like welcome advice.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 10:1-10

It is clear, from chapter nine, that God has chosen Saul to be king, in response to the people’s request or demand in chapter eight. He has identified Saul to Samuel, saying, “You shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me” (9:16). The biblical text uses the word nāgîd (“leader”) rather than melek which is the usual word for “king.” Nāgîd has military connotations and could have been applied to any of the earlier judges (see Evans, 66), although Murphy suggests that the distinction between the two terms conveys the difference between one who has been appointed to a role but who has not yet entered into active service in that role; she likens nāgîd to the contemporary idea of “president-elect” (Murphy, 80). It is evident, however, that the military leadership noted by Evans is intended: Saul will bring Israel deliverance from the Philistines.

At the end of the chapter Samuel takes Saul aside in private in order to tell him what God has said, and it is with this that the tenth chapter begins. A question regarding the text itself arises in verse one. The NRSV translates the verse,

Samuel took a phial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, ‘The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage (cf. also ESV; CEB; GNT)

while the NASB has more simply,

Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? (Cf. NIV; HCSB)

The difference is easily explained: the longer version reflects the reading in the Septuagint while the shorter reading derives from the Hebrew text. The Septuagint appears to reiterate 9:16. In both cases the word for ruler is, once more, nāgîd which fits the private nature of Samuel’s anointing; Saul’s public investiture will come later.

Samuel’s anointing has a sacramental character. He anoints Saul with oil, pouring it over his head—similar to the practice of anointing the high priest (see Exodus 29:7; cf. Psalm 133:1)—before advising Saul of several signs which will immediately follow. The oil itself has no spiritual or supernatural powers but is symbolic of the Spirit’s coming upon Saul which Samuel announces in verse six and which occurs in accordance with Samuel’s prophecy, in verse ten. Samuel anointed with oil but it is the Spirit’s presence and empowering which is crucial.

The coming of the Spirit is accompanied by a manifestation of prophecy—inspired speech, something not uncommon in the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 11:24-26; 24:2-3; 2 Chronicles 20:14-17). The analogy with the passage in Numbers 11 is particularly instructive: the coming of the Spirit is accompanied with prophecy but the Spirit’s coming is not, as it were, to make the recipients of his presence prophets; rather, the gift of the Spirit is given to equip the recipients for their administrative and leadership responsibilities, as is the case here. Nevertheless the prophesying does serve the purpose of identifying and encouraging those who have received the gift of the Spirit. Their experience confirms the divine call: Saul has been brought within the sphere of the divine call, assignment and work. His life has been incorporated into the divine activity and purposes.

The Spirit of the Lord will “rush upon” Saul (ESV) and so “possess” him (NRSV), with the result of the Spirit’s coming being that Saul will not only prophesy, but more importantly, “will be turned into another man” (v. 6). Later, in verse nine, it is said that God gave Saul “another heart.” These phrases indicate the transformational intent of the Spirit’s coming and presence. The Spirit comes to us as we are but intends change and transformation.

It is note-worthy that this is God’s work: God gave Saul another heart; Saul will be turned into another man. Nevertheless God’s initiative calls for human responsiveness and obedience—something we will learn later that Saul lacks, and with tragic consequences. Evans’ pastoral insight is, therefore, worth repeating:

Profound spiritual experiences can have profound effects on our lives, but do not change everything about us. We may be transformed, but we remain ourselves; conversion does not normally result in a changed body or temperament. … Sometimes we put heavy burdens on ourselves or on others by expecting the effects of spiritual transformation to be greater than they are (Evans, 71).

We are reminded here of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:12-13 where he encourages the congregation to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling…for God is at work within [them].” Spiritual experience is not an end in itself, nor a goal to be pursued as the aim of life with God. Spiritual experiences cannot be scheduled or demanded, but if they occur, may be received with awe and gratitude. However, they are meant as catalysts of a deeper obedience, and as doorways to new possibilities of service. Again, they intend to bring us into the sphere of the God’s activity. Rather than cul-de-sacs, they are the entry ramps to the highway of holiness and the service of God and his purposes. A whole life of salvation and service beckons and we dare not camp at the point of encounter. After the transfiguration Peter wanted to set up booths and remain at the point of revelation, but Jesus refused, and led him back down the mountain into the sea of human suffering and need (see Mark 9:2-29).

And so, too, with Saul. The Holy Spirit will “rush” upon him and he will be caught up in an ecstatic communal experience of the Spirit’s presence, his heart will be changed and he will be turned into another man. Nevertheless the end toward which all this leads is action: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (v. 7). Mystic experiences draw us into the divine presence that we might be sent forth to participate in the divine work.

Theology as Discipleship 4

In the sixth chapter Johnson argues that the “mind of Christ” and the pattern of Christ’s humble obedience go together. On this basis, then, a Spirit-filled life of humble, self-sacrificial love is a defining mark of a theologian who shares the mind of Christ. The theologian pursues knowledge rightly when they do so for the sake of others, out of a desire to serve them by pointing them to God and sharing his love with them (148). Johnson’s emphasis is on the pursuit of theological knowledge, for our finitude and fallenness mean that we cannot, in and of ourselves, gain the knowledge of God. Rather, this knowledge comes to us only as a gift of grace. Thus the theologian “must proceed under the assumption that we are not free to determine how our discipline operates. Our knowledge of God does not result from an act of our will, as if we can know God simply because we want to do so” (151).

In a certain sense the act of seeking is itself the goal of our work, because this act produces the exact kind of intellectual and moral formation God desires us to have. Put differently: the practice of theology should be ordered around the goal of seeking God rather than finding him precisely because the act of seeking is what forms us to adopt the humble way of life that corresponds to the mind of Christ (152).

Theology, then, is as much a matter of prayer—of communication with God—as it is about gaining new insights and information. That is, “we are theologians who live on our knees before God, with an open Bible in front of us and the voice of the church in our ears” (155). Johnson unpacks this picture of faithful theological work in his final chapter in which he sets forth nine practices of those who practice theology as disciples:

  • They measure their thinking and speaking about God by the person and work of Christ as revealed in Scripture.
  • Their thinking stays within the limits of faith in Jesus Christ; that is, they resist reductionist attempts to remove all mystery, erase all doubt, or answer every doctrinal question in an all-encompassing system.
  • They endeavour to live obediently in the pattern of the incarnate Christ’s obedience to God.
  • They engage in their theological work for the benefit of others.
  • They use their theological work to serve the church and its mission.
  • They pursue both truth and unity.
  • They practice their discipline with confidence while avoiding defensiveness.
  • They utilise the insights of the non-theological disciplines to enrich their own thought.
  • Finally, they pursue their work with joy, for their work is an act of worship that anticipates the worship they will offer to God into eternity.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 9

Read 1 Samuel 9

Chapter nine is a curious chapter, its portrayal of Saul, who is introduced here, open to various interpretations. Some scholars argue that the chapter, and indeed the Saul narrative as a whole, is a composite of different sources and traditions, some pro-Saul, and some anti. Others read the narrative positively, identifying those characteristics in the story which suggest that Saul has the right attributes to be king. Evans, for example, provides a psychological account in which she suggests that Saul may have harboured secret ambitions to be a leader, that he may, in fact, have had his own sense of calling to leadership which is now confirmed by Samuel (66-67). She further finds evidence for his suitability in the very ordinariness of his circumstances —obeying his father and searching for donkeys, and listening to the advice of his servant. Certainly Saul looks like king-material; he is tall and handsome and from a wealthy and influential family, despite his modesty in verse 21. Others, however, remain unconvinced and so find a very unflattering portrayal of Saul in the chapter. He is never defined as a man of God or as walking in his ways. He appears indecisive and lacks initiative, relying on his servant’s advice and even his money. When he meets Samuel he does not recognise him as the seer that he is seeking.

Despite this ambiguity, however, one thing is clear: God has chosen Saul. The whole story unfolds in an atmosphere of chance and coincidence—read: providence. Donkeys go missing; Saul arrives at Zuph just as Samuel does; this unknown man is “discovered,” pointed out by God to Samuel. The text is explicit:

Verse 16       
Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.

Then, when Saul arrives, the Lord speaks again to Samuel, saying to him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you” (v. 17). Evans is correct: “What is very clear in this instance is that the choice of Saul was entirely God’s. … There is no room here for misunderstanding. Saul was God’s appointed man” (65). This is no doubt the reason for Evans’ attempt to show that Saul was, in fact, an ideal choice to be king, or at least, a suitable choice.

This lack of ambiguity with respect to the divine choice, when viewed alongside the evident ambiguity of Saul’s character leads to further questions. Did God choose Saul knowing that Saul would prove to be a disastrous king, and so deeming this a somewhat disastrous choice? Did God choose Saul in this way to underline his displeasure in Israel seeking a king in the first place? Did God know whom he was choosing?

Those who recognise the work of divine providence in the story must find some way of answering these questions without compromising the divine foreknowledge and goodness. Open Theists, of course, are under no such constraint, being able to argue that God does not, in fact, know the future and watches it unfold as we do, in response to the freely chosen decisions and actions of the human actors involved. Ultimately, however, a view of providence in which God controls every action and outcome is as unsatisfactory as the idea that limits the wisdom and sovereignty of God as the Open Theist does. In the story of Saul, then, the mystery of divine providence and of the divine-human relation and interaction, comes into prominent focus.

God’s will in his choice of Saul is clear: you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines (v. 16). In language that echoes the Exodus and the call of Moses, God has “heard the cry” of his people, the voice of their suffering and oppression, and has raised up a leader for their deliverance. Ultimately, however, for those who know how this story proceeds, this saving will was frustrated.

Once more, Murphy’s reading of the text provides the benefits of wisdom and insight. Murphy rejects source-critical approaches, preferring a narrative reading to make sense of the text’s difficulties. She acknowledges the portrayal of Saul as indecisive and passive, but suggests that “the story is saying in the most emphatic way that Saul did not put himself forward, but was chosen by Yahweh” (74). The ambiguity of his character reflects the fact that he is “an unpainted canvas,” an unformed character: “what will he make of his beauty and strength when he becomes king?” (75). Neither overtly wicked nor overtly pious, the question arises concerning what kind of man and what kind of king Saul will become.

By presenting him as neither overtly wicked nor some pious Nazirite type, the author creates in Saul a figure who can make of the role of first king in Israel whatever he freely wills. … The question is what use he makes of his freedom. Our human freedom is intertwined in its choices with God’s free gifts of opportunities to act (75, 76).

God freely elects Saul with his people’s well-being at heart. Saul’s ignorance and lack of initiative in the selection signals Yahweh’s omnipotence at work. On the other hand, the blank and open portrayal of Saul’s character indicates that he himself is a free man, as yet indifferent with respect to the determination of his will. He has yet to make his choice between good and evil. … From here on, Saul has entered the arena where he will have to make free choices, and these choices will count (77).

I suspect that Karl Barth would provide a slightly different reading of the text. God calls Saul in sovereign freedom, not dependent upon Saul’s suitability or otherwise for this calling. But this call also takes the form of a command: Saul is commissioned as God’s leader, as the one through whom God will save his people. God does not leave Saul alone at a crossroads free to go this way or that. Rather, God has commanded that he should go in a particular way, taking a specific path and road; he is to go this way and not that. Saul’s choices, decisions and actions are still crucial and still “count,” as Murphy has noted. However, his failure is not merely a tragedy of poor choices or human inability, but of disobedience; that is, he has turned from the way in which he was directed, and pursued his own path, with terrible consequences. The rest of the story will be an opportunity to test this thesis. In the meantime, however, we note that divine providence is always at work, that the divine call involves a command and a direction, and that the divine-human relation is an encounter of the free God and the free human in which our choices, decisions and actions really do matter with respect to the historical unfolding of the divine will.

Luther Lectures Published

The papers from our recent conference, Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther have been published at the Pacific Journal for Baptist Research. There are four papers:

  1. Brian Harris, Luther as Leader
  2. Peter Elliott, The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  3. My own paper on Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  4. Matthew Bishop, Caring for the Depressed: Learning from Luther

I also wrote a couple of reviews on Reformation books, as well as contributing an editorial for this volume. This seminar and then editing the papers was one of the highlights of the year. I hope you enjoy the papers.

Theology as Discipleship 3

In chapters four and five Johnson turns his attention to scripture, providing a functional account of biblical authority. Because God elects his witnesses and identifies with their words—as Christ does with his own witnesses in the New Testament—and because God continues to use scripture as a medium of revelation, it is authoritative. Through these words the ancient witness and the contemporary hearers are linked in the one story and activity of the gracious God.

God’s movement of grace in the past, and the biblical authors’ obedient response to it, reverberates here and now as God uses the authors’ past actions to produce our faith and obedience in the present. In this way, Scripture itself ties God’s various saving acts together to form a single story, a unified history of God’s grace and our response to it (93).

Despite this beginning, Johnson’s description of biblical authority quickly passes over to an ontological and christological account. Scripture is inspired by God—breathed out by God as God’s own very speech, and as such is God’s Word in human words. Even more specifically, Jesus Christ is this inspiring God, who thus stands at the centre of scripture and is therefore, the criterion of all biblical interpretation. Theology, therefore, is learning to think in accord with “the mind of Christ,” illuminated by the Spirit and guided by the scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is not to help us fit God into our lives but to see how our lives fit into what God is doing in history through Christ and the Spirit. Rather than trying to insert Scripture into our reality by figuring out how we might apply it to our lives, our task is to reinterpret our lives and the whole of reality in the light of Scripture (106).

An implication of this view is that interpretation of scripture is not a free-floating, ad hoc, or reader-centred enterprise. Christians and theologians alike are to learn to speak of God appropriately by being inducted into communities and practices of interpretation, and participating with the community of faith in the present activity of God. Thus Johnson identifies three key interpretive principles. First is what he calls the Augustinian principle: all true biblical interpretation will lead to deeper love of God and neighbour. That is, interpretation is measured by outcome rather than by content alone. Biblical interpretation is itself oriented toward discipleship. Second is the ecclesial principle: we read and listen with others, including the tradition of the church. Believers continue to give their attention to (a) the message of Christ, (b) that of the apostles, and (c) the present work of the Spirit. In fact, Johnson suggests that interpreters start with the present work of the living Lord and Spirit as an exercise in hearing, following and participating now in the life and work of God. This, he suggests, is theology as discipleship. But both poles of this interpretive scheme are necessary. Unless we give our attention to the message we are in danger of drifting. Yet the present work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of new and surprising interpretations that we might never otherwise have noticed. This leads finally, to the third christological principle which insists on interpreting all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation.

Scripture, then, is central to the work and practice of theology. It is the chief creaturely means through which God speaks (110).

Our calling is to help the church think and speak about God correctly so the church can partner with Christ in God’s saving plan for history, and we interpret the biblical text in light of this calling. Our primary goal is not to extract isolated doctrinal truths from the text and then use them as the building blocks of a theological system. Our goal is to help the church interpret Scripture faithfully so that the church can follow Christ as the Spirit leads. This means we interpret each passage in light of how Christ and the Spirit are prompting us to live in relation to God and neighbor right now … We engage in this task knowing the text will be interpreted properly only in light of the living Christ. …Our proper response is to read it with humility, openness and the expectation that God might surprise us (129, original emphasis).