Centrality or Directionality in Pauline Theology?

(If ever there were an image begging for Raiden-style lightning bolts to be Photoshopped in, it’s this picture of my friend, mentor, and former NT professor, Rollin Ramsaran.)

Many debates between the “New” and “Old Perspective” on Paul (hereafter ‘NP’ and ‘OP,’ respectively) rise and fall on defining the center of Paul’s theology. For various OP/Lutheran readers of Paul, the center is justification by faith. For Albert Schweitzer, the center was being “in Christ,” with justification nestled as a subsidiary within that center. Schweitzer’s “crater-within-a-crater” reading of Paul’s central concerns was then redeployed, in modified form, in E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of the first shots fired by what has later come to be known as the NP. What is important here is that all three—Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders—assumed that Paul’s theology had a center and that identifying this center was the first step toward satisfactory exegesis.

Identifying the ‘center’ of Paul’s thought, however, is not the only way we can attempt to understand and describe the apostle’s theology. In the analysis of any discourse, talk of a “center” is profoundly metaphorical. Neither Paul’s letters nor theology are geometrical shapes; in treating them as one, we deploy “center” as a heuristic metaphor to describe how his thought ‘works’ (again, another metaphor!). In the study of Paul, attempting to describe his center has its benefits. It allows for taxonomy, for the identification of all the various parts and pieces of Paul’s theology and the singular driving force that lends animation to them all. But, again, “center” is not the only metaphor we can use and, by using it, we necessarily risk over-emphasizing one thing and under-emphasizing others. There are other options.

Another metaphor we might use instead of “center” is “direction.” As my seminary mentor, Rollin Ramsaran, put it to me at SBL last year: Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center; it moves in a direction. This is reflected in Ramsaran’s preferred method of teaching Paul: the Pauline Moral Reasoning Chart or, as many Emmanuel Christian Seminary students and alumni affectionately call it, the Paul Chart:

(C) Rollin Ramsaran, teaching document. Reproduced from my class notes.

Here Ramsaran, who is neither OP nor NP (but maybe he might hang out with some of the Apocalypticists? I’ll have to ask him next time we break bread), emphasizes that Paul’s theology doesn’t have a center but rather a beginning point: God’s grace, extended first to Israel through the Law and now to the gentiles through Christ. The proper human response to this grace is faith, which then leads to the gift of the Spirit (which binds Christians one to another and together to Christ), and so on. Already the center(s) described by Luther, Schweitzer, and Sanders are subsumed in the directional schematic. Importantly, though, they are not downplayed; they are simply re-contextualized as stops on the way to the telos of Pauline theology, the parousia.

The Paul Chart doesn’t play out exactly like this in every single letter but, among the undisputeds, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t Paul’s basic order of operations. As Ramsaran teaches it, we can use the chart not only to read Paul as a thinker but to read and identify “the weight” of an individual letter (“the weight” = which point[s] on the chart are emphasized most in a given letter). As part of my preparation to teach a series on Paul at a local church, I ran each of the undisputed letters through Ramsaran’s chart. While only the longer letters (Rom, 1 Cor) run through the whole chart, every aspect appears and works out in this basic order depending on the circumstances of a given letter.

Reading a whole slew of NP material, I have been wondering of late if “center” is the best metaphor we might use. While Ramsaran’s Paul Chart does not unseat the explanatory power of all aspects of the NP (nor does it even attempt to), this seems to me to be the better way to map Paul’s theology. By insisting on a center, we must necessarily relegate other aspects of Paul’s thought to a periphery. If, on the other hand, we insist on reading Paul directionally, fewer items of import (e.g., eschatology, ethics) are pushed toward a periphery and are instead contextualized within a distinctly Pauline theological teleology.

10/13/2016: I’ve since used Ramsaran’s chart to read Galatians. You can read my interpretation here.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

Romans 8 and Kelly Gissendaner

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the [judicial, state] law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law [of Georgia], weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law [of the state] might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, [nor governors, nor parole boards, nor courts, nor justices] nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:8:1-6; 35-39

Wanted: Creative books on Jesus and/or ancient Palestine

As I begin planning for my next go-’round at teaching Life of Christ (an undergraduate introduction to the story/ies of Jesus as told by the Synoptic Gospels), I am looking for some books to supplement a main survey text which get at the context and content of the Jesus traditions in creative ways. So far my list of books to survey is pretty small, but I think you’ll see the direction I’m trying to angle towards even with just these three current options:

  • Fisk, Bruce N. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground (Baker Academic, 2011).
  • Korb, Scott. Life in Year One: What the World was like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead Books, 2010).
  • Thiessen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (Fortress, 1987).

I am trying to find some creative, even narrative-based, books on Jesus, the gospels, and/or life in first century Palestine. The more informed by current scholarship, of course, the better. To my scholarly friends and teacherly colleagues: do you have any suggestions of books to add to this list? 

And, if you are familiar with any of the above three books, I would welcome your thoughts on those as well.


Good Friday

As the sorry procession moved past some little distance from him, the men carrying the shrouded body and the women walking behind, one of the women whispered to the mother—pointing to Barabbas. She stopped short and gave him such a helpless and reproachful look that he knew he could never forget it. They went on down towards the Golgotha road and then turned off to the left.

He followed far enough behind for them not to notice him. In a garden a short distance away they laid the dead man in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock. And when they had prayed by the tomb, they rolled a large stone in front of the entrance and went away.

He walked up to the tomb and stood there for a while. But he did not pray, for he was an evil-doer and his prayer would not have been accepted, especially as his crime was not expiated. Besides, he did not know the dead man. He stood there for a moment, all the same.

Then he too went in towards Jerusalem.

Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas, 10.


“Do something sweet!”

In the bottom of the 10th, with no outs, Alex Avila stepped up to the plate in today’s match between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. As he awaited the first pitch, one man in the crowd voiced the hope of all baseball fans everywhere rooting for their teams at the beginning of the season:


Avila then bunted, sacrificing himself so Austin Jackson could advance to second. The Royals then walked the next Detroit batter, putting two men on base. Gonzalez popped out, and then Kinsler cranked a single to send Jackson home for the winning run.

Thus Avila did do something sweet, and so did the Tigers, but what is so remarkable to me is how perfectly that anonymous guy in the crowd encapsulated the unbridled optimism of opening week specifically and baseball in general. No matter what the score is, where your team stands, or what point of the season we’re in, this is the hope of the devoted fan: that his team will get out there, win or lose, and do something sweet.

When you pull for the Tigers, as I do, it’s easy to hope for something sweet. They usually deliver. But, if your team (or, as in my case, your other team) is not so hot—the hope is still utterly irresistible. A Denver resident and now Colorado fan, I watched my Rockies go down two nights in a row, but I never stopped hoping that Cuddyer, Tulo, or CarGo would “do something sweet.” Even though they ultimately lost (to the Marlins!), Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki did do something sweet, and gave this fan reason to stand up from his desk and cheer:


To Avila, Tulo, the Tigers, the Rockies, and the favorite teams of all my friends:


Happy baseball season 2014.

Mark 13:9 – Witness to or against?


It’s interesting and a little bit fun that the KJV and Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man, 333) agree on how to translate the dative of Mark 13:9 (εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς). While other translations render the latter part of the verse as “you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony/witness to them” (cf. NRSV, RSV, NASB, NET, et. al.), the KJV and Myers diverge from everyone else and find a strange commonality together by rendering the final clause as “as a witness against them,” that is, against the kings and governors before whom the discipleship community stands. Given the treatment that the ruling classes receive throughout Mark (almost entirely negative and oppositional), and that the same construction (εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς) appears in 6:11 and is always translated as “as a witness against them,” is it possible that the KJV and Myers are on to something?

I am tossing this idea around as an example of story-sensitive translation and exegesis in Mark. I think the divergence from  the KJV’s translation of εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς in all of the other translations might also have something to say about the politics of Christian bible translation, but that’s a rabbit hole better left for another day.

Of the Old Time, the New Time; Demons and Cancer – Chapel Sermon, 5/3/2012

Below is the manuscript from a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s chapel this morning.


“The time is fulfilled.”

From the time that I became a Christian in college until about a month ago, these four words comprised the most powerful, hopeful, and meaningful message to me. They are, of course, the words uttered by Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, just before he announces that the Reign of God has drawn near. The time is fulfilled. One age, the one marked by darkness, evil, sin, and brokenness, has passed and another – the one marked by justice, wholeness, and the beginning of God’s reign on earth – has begun. These are cosmic words that bespeak an entire re-ordering of all that is: if the new time has come, and the old time passed away, then everything will change in light of God’s goodness and God’s justice.

I will readily admit that the meaning I have up til now affixed to these words has been at least partially naive. During my latter years at Great Lakes Christian College, I lived with friends in the urban heart of Lansing, and spent a summer as an intern at North City Church of Christ in inner-city St. Louis, MO. In both instances, I lived and ministered among people in bad places: I would often hear gunshots and sirens at night; once, in Lansing, a teenaged boy was murdered in a park five blocks from my house. These things bothered me, in fact they broke my heart, but I believed fervently and committed myself whole-heartedly to the notion that the time was fulfilled – and that made it bearable. That is, of course, the pious answer. Because, while all that is true, it is also true that I was able to leave those places: my internship in St. Louis ended, I went home; my lease in Lansing was over, so I moved here. Nevermind that after I left St. Louis, a boy died in a drive-by shooting on the steps of the church. Nevermind that the problems plaguing inner-city Lansing remain to this day. I was able to leave, and what’s more, I was able to forget how broken the world is; how dark this age is. It is pretty easy to believe that the old age has passed and the new age has come when you can leave a dark place behind. The time always feels fulfilled when you are forgetful and live peacefully. In hindsight, I wonder if the families of those murdered boys believe that the time was fulfilled. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t find it to be a terribly unrealistic claim.

On Good Friday of this year, I remembered and I have not yet forgotten how unrealistic that claim can be when you hear it in the throes of a tragedy. On that Friday, my wife of just one year was diagnosed with cancer. On Easter weekend, the three days that the Christian calendar literally revolves around, I felt like I had been duped. The time is not fulfilled, for disease still exists. The time is not fulfilled, for we have only been married a year. The time is not fulfilled, because whatever iniquity and unfaithfulness exists in me – my wife is righteous, and she is faithful. The time is not fulfilled because on that Friday that was anything but “Good”, I felt for the first time in my life forsaken by God.

I would be lying to you if I said that, between that day and today, I felt much comforted by God. None of my prayers were kind, they were all antagonistic; a vicious anger and a throwing of stones in God’s direction, to hurt God’s feelings, anything to get God’s attention, that God might see the calamity besetting us and be moved to make good on God’s word that “the time is fulfilled.” As I sat in that place, even though I was so angry, so alienated from God, I found myself drawn back to an old story in my favorite book.

Mark 7:24-30

Now from there he arose and went off to the territory of Tyre. And entering a house, he wanted no one to know about him, but he was unable to escape notice. You see, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, came, and fell at his feet. Now the woman was Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged Jesus to drive out the demon from her daughter.
And he said to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it isn’t good to take the bread for the children and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered and said to him, “Yes, lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed…and the demon was gone.

In this story, there are three characters: a woman, her child with a demon, and Jesus. In this story I see myself, my wife, her cancer…and the God at whom I have been throwing stones. In this story, Jesus does not omnisciently know about the plight of this woman and her daughter. He shows up in town, avoids all the crowds, and retreats to a house, hoping to go unnoticed. But Jesus did not count on the efficacy of his message in and around the area of Tyre. You see, when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, saying that “the time is fulfilled” – the message spread, Mark 3:8 says people came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Whatever it was that Jesus was doing in Galilee, it was good news to people all over the place – and so the message spread like a germ, like a cancer, and somehow this mother of a demon-possessed girl found out.

I’ve never met Jesus, but I did hear about him once, something about the time being fulfilled and the Reign of God being near. And when I found out, I wanted in on that good news and have spent the time ever since, in fits and starts, trying to experience it for myself. And so I’ve always felt at least a basic connection with that Syrophoenician woman – I can relate to her as an outsider who wants in, one who hears Good News and comes to Jesus and asks him to fulfill the time in her own life.

I relate to this character even more now, however, because I, too, have a loved one with a demon. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and frankly, I’m not sure what else to call it. The cancer in my wife is a foreign entity whose sole purpose is to kill and destroy, devouring life from the inside out. That is an unholy aberration of Creation, the negation of good; it is a demon that literally cripples (for Naomi can hardly walk) and it never goes away. It follows her, it follows us; It even shares our bed. I think I can feel that woman’s anguish, and I can certainly feel her fear, at the thought of the demon destroying her most beloved girl.

I see God in this story as well. I see him in the Jesus who is oblivious to the plight of this family of two, who tries so hard to be far-removed, who if he’d had his way would have stayed holed up in some house while the daughter’s body was ravaged by the unclean spirit, while the mother was powerless to save her. On that Good Friday, when the time was anything but fulfilled, this was God to me: alone, in a house, trying his best to go unnoticed.

In the story, though, the Syrophoenician woman refuses to let Jesus stand idly by; she refuses to let him have his quiet night and barges in on him, calling him to make right what has gone so terribly wrong. This act we could call defiance, or we could call begging — but I prefer to call it faithful, to call it courageous – for she shows up believing the gospel that she’d heard and expecting it to be fulfilled. She comes expecting it to be true – despite the bleak reality of the old time and its unclean spirit. In her faithfulness, this woman gives me strength.

She gives me strength because she stands at the crossroads of the darkness of old time and the message of the new and has courage to call upon God – even if God is trying his best to close the doors and get some sleep. She makes a choice to stand before Jesus and call upon God to make good on God’s promises. She kneels before Jesus and, even though his words are as barbs and sting her more than a little, she asks him for just the crumbs of the new age. She kneels, yes, but in her kneeling she shows the dignity, the worthiness, of her daughter and the courageous faith of her own heart. In her kneeling and in her courageous trust she calls upon God to be reawakened, to draw near and fulfill the time, draw the reign of God near to her daughter, her most beloved girl. And when she does this, God is awakened and matches her own faithfulness. Jesus casts out the demon. And the woman goes home to find her daughter well.

In the weeks following Naomi’s diagnosis, we have run all over Johnson City and Kingsport for what feels like every test under the sun. What we have found, as many of you know, is that the cancer has not spread. It is limited to two tumors around her left knee and that it is treatable and, likely, curable. This news has been met by almost all of our friends and family with cheering and all manner of thanks and praise to God. But yet there’s a part of me who is offended by that. Or, at the very least, not ready for it yet. Because my wife still has a demon, still has cancer and its only cure is still six months of debilitating illness. That’s not good news, and it doesn’t even feel like the time is fulfilled, but with cancer and demons, I suppose, you take what you can get. My prayers have changed, however; I am throwing fewer stones, and hurling less empty threats. I am hopeful at the Dr’s prognosis and believe that my beautiful wife will be healed.

What I am not sure of, however, is whether or not this is evidence that the time is fulfilled. For all the world seems to me to be a Chaoskampf, a struggle against the forces of chaos like demons, disease, war and the broken heart of humankind. The struggle only continues – and no matter how many times you read Mark 1:15, sometimes – most of the time if you watch the news –  it doesn’t feel like the time is fulfilled at all. It feels like the old time, through and through.

But let us be tutored in faithfulness by the Syrophoenician woman. Despite the bleak reality of her daughter’s demon, the constellation of oppressive powers in First Century Judea, or a resistant Jesus…She chose to have courageous trust in the good news that she had heard. She chose the message of the Reign of God and the goodness of God’s New Age despite all the odds. And when she kneeled before Jesus and made her case, the time was fulfilled and her daughter was healed.

To some, this has probably seemed like strange exegesis, probably even worse theology…it is pathos, and it might not even be constructive…but it’s what I have, and in an odd, backwards way, it is my own attempt at faithfulness. And so I challenge you all to follow the Syrophoenician Woman’s example in choosing to believe that the old age has passed and the new age begun – in choosing to believe that God’s Reign truly has drawn near despite the suffering of the world and the brokenness of Creation. Follow after her as she follows after the Good News. And on my best day, when all of this has passed and my wife has been healed, perhaps I will see you there.

Go in peace and in courageous trust. Amen.