Brexit: Turns Out We’re Adolescents

I wish I could claim to understand something of international politics but I can’t. There are a few striking features of the UK’s vote to part ways with the EU though. The first is what a hair’s breadth of a margin the leave voters won by: 51.9% to 48.1%. The second is that Scotland’s “32 council areas” unanimously voted to remain. The third is that politics is our new idol.

A Hair’s Breadth Majority

Democracy clearly has problems – you give the decision about how a country should be run to a population that doesn’t understand much about anything needed to run a country. To be honest, that’s why the ANC is still in power in South Africa, it’s why Donald Trump is the republican nominee in the USA and, as far as I can tell, it’s the reason for Brexit. Don’t get me wrong, democracy is not all bad but it’s interesting to see that such a small majority alters the course of a nation with a decision that will, no doubt, have lasting significance beyond the UK.

What’s interesting to me about this is that my generation likes to doubt its parents. The heroes in our stories are people whose parents didn’t understand/appreciate them but who triumph with their unconventional wisdom which their parents come to see is not so bad after all. Well, it turns out that we are adolescents when it comes to politics because the 67% majority that supported the UK’s membership in the EU in 1973 – in our parents generation – was wrong.

The same thing happens in our churches and in theology. In church life, it’s one of the reasons (thankfully not the only one) church planting is popular among younger pastors: our parents churches all have deep rooted systemic problems. The only solution is to start from scratch with our new ideas and then we’ll have the perfect church. In theological circles everyone is flocking to narrative analysis of texts because whatever our parents were doing clearly didn’t get us anywhere in terms of understanding the Bible. Whether its the rejection of our parents’ taste in music or the switch to lectio divina style devotions, one thing is clear our parents didn’t have a clue.

This makes me wonder what our successors will be saying 50 years from now because it seems to me we aren’t paying very much attention to what anyone before us did right. Hopefully those who follow us will be more generous.

So What About Scotland

Recently Scotland was on the receiving end of a lot pressure to stay a part of the UK (which I think was a good thing anyway). Ironically Scotland’s say when it came to the EU was swallowed up by its big brother. So, in spite of the fact that “A majority of voters in all 32 council areas in Scotland voted Remain,” (source) Scotland will need to leave the UK to make that happen. I am reminded that this generation that is so preoccupied with minority voices is also really only interested in those little voices if it is not affected by them.

We are pretty good about listening to minority voices when we have no vested interest in their concerns. When we have competing interests, however, it’s harder to hide how self-serving we really are beneath our normal veneer of social concern.

As Christians I think we need a bit more cross and a bit less comfort in our idea about what our lives are about – and I’ll be the first to admit I’m a comfort idolater.

There’s a New God in Town

Apparently this generation is excited about political engagement. It seems as though politics is where stuff is going wrong. It also seems as though if we were more involved we could fix it and make the world a better place. A few decades ago people were thinking the same thing about science (and then we made an atomic bomb and blew up a couple of cities which remain uninhabitable). Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our salvation is not going to come from politics – Americans are learning that the hard way as Christians who have dominated the political arena for a long time are forced to realise that the Christian face in politics is a farce.

“Stay” or “Remain,” neither one will fulfil what it promises and even if it did you would find that what it promised was not what you wanted or needed. Just as well the gospel doesn’t offer us whatever the popular vote decides we need – instead we are offered things that seem like the opposite of what we need: instead of democracy we are told that Jesus is lord and we have no rights. Instead of comfort we are offered a cross. Like practised adolescents though, we know better than God and so it will take a miracle for us to lay down our demands for freedom and rights and comfort. It’s fortunate that miracles are not foreign to the One who is still calling us, “Come, follow me.”

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Galatians: The Lord’s Anointed may be Accursed

If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have observed, or even received, the stern reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ It is one of those declarations dripping with piety and a zealous concern to protect Spirit empowered leaders, apostles, and prophets. But more often than not, it is an excuse for theological ignorance and the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charismatic, and public Christian figures, regardless of what they preach or teach. It is, after all, much easier to meet criticism with a phrase that reveals your reverence for God’s mighty servants and the refusal to be dragged into an ungodly squabble.

Icon St PeterNow meet Peter. John may have been the disciple Jesus loved, but Peter is the disciple we love. He frequently overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled but also graciously accepted by Christ. In what N. T. Wright calls the ‘Peter cycle,’ we are offered a window into the Christian life, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.” But we often think that that is the pre-Pentecost Peter. For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early church. Wrong. Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace, throughout his life. He was far from perfect, despite his Jesus’ special appointment, Spirit anointing, and apostleship. Peter erred and was not above rebuke.

What does this have to do with Galatians or those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early church, when he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. And he does so for reasons similar to his refusal to circumcise Titus, in Galatians 2:3-5. Paul boldly challenged any practices that threatened or obscured the gospel of grace (1:6-9). Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early church. Paul on the other hand was a relatively unknown itinerant preacher who spent an earlier part of his public career killing Christians (1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (2:13) and out of step with the gospel (2:14), Peter’s status, title, feats, and fan club mean nothing. Paul is uninhibited in speaking against a man who might rightly be called the Lord’s anointed, second only to Jesus.

Paul’s language is unapologetically severe, claiming that Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (2:11). Peter’s inconsistent conduct was leading others, including Barnabas, astray (2:13). And the implication of his withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles subtly implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (2:14). Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category, but his misunderstanding warranted a stinging reproach. Even the apostle Peter got things wrong and repented. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle, but also a noticeable humility and willingness to be challenged, even repent. Your leader might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ but if that means he is beyond being challenged and corrected, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be.

Galatians: Did Paul Deny the Truth of the Gospel?

Acts 16Acts 16 starts thus: Paul came to Derbe and Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there and the brothers spoke well of him. He was the son of a Jewish woman, a believer, but his father was Greek. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, so he had him circumcised because the Jews in that region knew his father was Greek. The account is short and seems fairly insignificant, except for Timothy. But when placed alongside Galatians 2 it raises some heckles, not just Timothy’s.

As we saw in my previous post, it was Paul’s contention in Galatians to present and defend the one true gospel. At one point in the autobiographical section spanning chapters 1-2 he recalls his visit to Jerusalem where he met with some of the “influential people,” most likely the church leaders there. But what Paul met was an illustration of the larger issues Galatians is written to settle. Titus was compelled to be circumcised (2:3). The Greek, and most translations, emphasises that Titus was a Greek, just like Timothy. Only, here, Paul flatly refuses the idea of circumcision, much to Titus’ relief. He explains in 2:5 (using very similar language in 2:14), We did not submit or yield to them, so that the gospel of truth would be preserved.

GalatiansSo what about Acts 16? Can we conclude that, at Derbe and Lystra, Paul compromised the gospel of truth, the only true gospel? Or is this another instance proving the Bible to be an inconsistent collection of theological opinions and loose ends? I think it is neither, and instead reveals the zeal with which Paul preached God’s grace and his commitment to as many hearing of that grace as humanly possible. “Paul had thought long and hard about these things. He was…a remarkably flexible man himself…he could happily circumcise Timothy so that this young man could have as ready access to synagogues as the apostle himself (Acts 16:3). By contrast, Paul refused absolutely to allow Titus to be circumcised…because the demand for his circumcision was being made in a context that jeopardized the gospel” (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places).

Carson goes on, “If someone argues that a Gentile must be circumcised in order to be a true Christian, Paul forbids it absolutely, because that would annihilate the exclusive sufficiency of Christ; if no one is making that sort of demand, Paul is happy to circumcise a believer if it will advance the interests of the gospel.” Therefore at Jerusalem (and Antioch, both recounted in Galatians) Paul boldly opposed those whose practices threatened the true gospel of grace, even the Apostle Peter. On the other hand, at Derbe and Lystra (in Acts 16) he was willing, and we imagine Timothy agreed, to do whatever it took to reach more people with that same gospel of grace. Such an observation puts what I am willing to suffer for Christ and his gospel into stark perspective.

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

Should John 7:53-8:11 Be In Our Bibles?

Pieter Brueghel IIIn American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s character, says, “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated; didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favour over money; Jesus said that as well.” While this line is indicative of the wry humour that punctuates an otherwise tense film, it brought John 7:53-8:11 to mind. For that brief account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is very likely the most popular line of Jesus’ teaching, after “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). However, and quite ironically, most New Testament scholars remain unconvinced that it was originally part of John’s Gospel, making its authenticity tenuous.

I am not questioning the moral of the episode, though even that is often missed in addition to it being misattributed as most people vaguely familiar with it nearly always cite it as a proof text repelling correction, or ‘judgment.’ Anyone who has read the short story will know that Jesus is not saying, ‘Everyone sins and that’s OK,’ but rather, ‘Let no one can claim to be without sin.’ The point is not: since each of us is sinful we have no right to challenge others’ sin. Central to Jesus’ teaching is the call to repent from sin. Considering the context of John, a better reading of the text would conclude that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn (John 3:17; 12:47). More broadly, with the Gospels as our guide, we might understand Jesus to be challenging those who were confident in their own righteousness and therefore scorned Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness. But this post is not an attempt to rescue the passage from misuse. I want to challenge its use, period.

C.H. DoddIn his magisterial commentary on John’s Gospel, D. A. Carson helpfully summarises some of the issues surrounding the text’s veracity. His point is much more useful than most English translations’ opaque, ‘Some manuscripts (MSS) do not include 7:53-8:11.’ He argues that while many of the MSS that include this story place it here in John’s Gospel, there is a diversity in placement; it can be found in other witnesses after Luke 21:38, John 21:25, and at a couple of different points in John 7. Carson concludes that this varation of placement strongly implies inauthneticity. If I can offer an analogy, the diversity of locations these verses appear in is suggestive of blindly pinning a tail onto a donkey, not the assuring literary reliability of the New Testament documents.

As Carson notes, those variations on the story’s location pale in comparison to its occurrence in John 7:53-8:11. Therefore, we must consider the nature of John’s Gospel and the literary context. C. H. Dodd, in his paradigm challenging commenary, shows how 7:1-8:59 holds together as a unit, “A series of controversial dialogues.” Jesus is unmistakably polemical, as John collects nearly everything Jesus said in reply to those who rejected his messianic claims. It is also worth noting that, either side of the pericope, Jesus’ exchanges are with the Pharisees. Dodd states that the unity of this larger section is seen in the sharp, sustained tone of controversy surrounding his identity. The Pericope Adulterae simply does not match it surroundings in John. Taking the literary point further, Carson writes, “Finally, even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine: there are numerous expressions and constructions that are found nowhere in John, but which are characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke in particular.”

D.A. CarsonBringing all of the above together, the MSS weight forces us to place the story where it is most commonly found, in John 7:53-8:11. However, it fits neither the context nor the literary flavour of John’s Gospel. And this leaves those who would treat the story as authentic with the burden of evidence. I will conclude with an interesting thought offered by my wife: alongside the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel is somewhat of an outlier. It is both strange and unique. Could we deduce that whenever it was inserted, the thinking was that it would go unnoticed? Another possibility, offered by Carson, is that the story was inserted as a tract, which illustrates 7:24 and 8:15; or contrasts the Jews’ sinfulness against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46). Theories aside, I am convinced that we should not treat the episode as authoritative. Lest we start teaching that Jesus encouraged taking favours over money.