Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New Jesus Discovery?

The internet is abuzz with speculation over the publication, today, of James Tabor's and Simcha  Jacobovici's The Jesus DiscoveryThis book (an excerpt of which can be found here) is an explicit follow-up to their work which was presented on the Discovery Channel in March 2007, entitled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus."  (Cf. also the related book, The Jesus Dynasty). In that documentary they theorized that the Talpiot Tomb, discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, was actually the "Family Tomb" of Jesus.  Their theory, despite its sensational claims, didn't convince most scholars of its plausibility, let alone probability—after all, it depends on one speculative hypothesis building upon many others (for particularly devastating reviews, cf. those by Ben Witherington and Richard Bauckham).

This new book claims that another tomb (Talpiot Tomb B), located a mere 200 yards from the first and containing two ossuaries with inscriptional remains, supports their previous identification of Talpiot Tomb A as the tomb of Jesus and his family.  As evidence, they cite four lines of text that might refer to belief in resurrection and ornamentation that might be a fish, an early Christian symbol.

I have not seen this "evidence," and, in any case, I am not a palaeographer.  But Christopher Rollston has, and he is.  Professor Rollston has already provided a detailed, devastating critique of the Tabor-Jacobovici thesis here.  My hunch is that even agnostic, skeptical New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman will be no more impressed by this theory than he was over their previous claims.

This, of course, raises the question of motivation.  No doubt this "discovery" was made public during Lent for the same reason novel or unorthodox views about Jesus are always trotted out this time of year.  But the fact remains that Tabor, a professor at UNC-Charlotte, has unorthodox views of Jesus and Early Christianity that are neither cutting edge nor new: Paul as the founder of "Christianity" as we know it (indeed, he has a book about this topic to be released in November), an irreconcilable conflict between Paul and the Jewish Christianity of James, "Q" (the material Matthew and Luke have in common not found in Mark), and the Didache (an early 2nd-century Christian document), a "resurrection" of Jesus that "might be spiritual," and so on.  Not one of these views is novel, and all have been thoroughly refuted time and time again (for a very helpful, popular refutation, cf. the Christianity Today article by my friend Darrell Bock here).  The long and short of it is that the Christian message, as St. Paul tells us, is "foolishness" to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18), who thus are unable to detect the wisdom and power of God in the message of the cross (1 Cor 2:14).  We can only pray that God would shine in the hearts of such men "to give them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Ask Jesus into Your Heart?"

The other week my daughter Lauren went to the doctor's office for a check-up on her pregnancy.  While there she was shown a picture of little William's heart.  Upon arriving home, she excitedly told three-year old Ian that she had seen the baby's heart.  Ian's response was classic—and instructive: "Did you see Jesus in there?"

I stored this in my mental treasure chest for use at a later, opportune time.  Yesterday, while catching up on some blog and magazine reading, I came upon a post in Credo Magazine's blog by Paul Helm entitled, "Asking Jesus into my heart."  The opportune time, I concluded, was now.

Anyone who has heard Billy Graham or any number of similar evangelists is familiar with the jargon.  The evangelist speaks of the death of Jesus on the cross to save the world from the eternal consequences of their sins.  The requisite response of sinners to be "saved" is to believe that Jesus died for their sins and—so as to make the confession personal—to ask Jesus into their heart.  Appeal is often made to a peculiar text from the Book of Revelation in which Jesus, "the Amen, the faithful and True Witness, the beginning of God's creation (Rev 3:14)," specifically addresses the church located at Laodicea (in modern-day Turkey):
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.  (Rev 3:20, NIV)

Helm, an Oxford-educated philosopher and theologian who currently serves as a Teaching Fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, objects to the use of this terminology.  In his words:
Of course we may understand the language as figurative, and then it could literally mean any of a number of things. But what if we take it more literally than that? Even so, there’s something odd about the language, just as (I would say) there’s something attractive about it. Not just that it’s terse and compressed (nothing wrong with that), or deficient in theological gravitas. Rather, it’s OK but it is going down the wrong track, a track that could lead off the track altogether, into the wilderness. I seem to remember that somewhere C.S. Lewis writes that to think of God as an old man with a long grey beard is a mistake, but that it’s not a very serious mistake. I’m inclined to think that a person who talks of conversion as asking Jesus into his life is making a more serious mistake.
What is first of all evident is that the New Testament never uses the language of "opening the doors of the heart" in connection with "conversion."  The evangelistic sermons in Luke's Acts of the Apostles are very clear.  What one must do to be saved is "believe on the Lord Jesus" (Acts 16:31). Alternately, one must "repent and be baptized in the name of (the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord [Acts 2:22-36]) Jesus Messiah (Acts 2:38), which amounts to the same thing.  Baptism was (and is—"sacramentophobia" was less a characteristic of the nascent church than it is of many strands of modern evangelicalism) important because it was the specific, public concretization of (inward) faith (cf. Acts 8:36, 38; Rom 10:9-10).  At one's baptism the new believer confessed ,"Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), thereby placing him- or herself under the active Lordship of the resurrected Christ and initiating the life of cruciform discipleship demanded so often by Jesus himself (e.g., Matt 10:38).  The language of conversion in the New Testament is uniformly that of faith, repentance, confession, and commitment.

This is why the language of "asking Jesus into your heart" is so odd.  It is not that the language is figurative, though—as the example of my grandson demonstrates—such can obfuscate the issue for many, especially children, to whom the gospel message is addressed.  The difficulty is that this language belongs to an entirely different and inapposite realm of discourse.  It is the language of pietism (which, like ale and stout, can be a good thing if taken circumspectly and in moderation) and, more problematically, that of an emotionalism teetering on the brinks of both sentimentality and mysticism

Now I know that such language is designed, at least partially, to counter the notion that Christian conversion is simply an intellectual acceptance of the "facts" of the gospel.  After all, it was born in the context of Revivalism, one of whose standard whipping boys was the "dead orthodoxy" of the more confessional and/or liturgical churches.  I am no fan of Revivalism, but I am quite happy to affirm that the gospel works effectively to transform the emotions of people as well as their intellects and wills.  The Spirit does indeed "warm the hearts" of those to whom he applies the benefits of redemption, as Wesley wrote about so eloquently. 

Nevertheless, the language of "asking Jesus into your heart," at least as commonly presented, misstates the nature of the relationship between the believer and Christ.  In the New Testament, Christ is emphatically not portrayed as a pleading, though ultimately helpless, "Savior" who taps gently at the door of sinners' hearts in the hope that somehow some may let him in (such a notion fairly screams to be heard via the countless verses of "Just As I Am" sung ad nauseum at evangelistic services in my experience).  More problematically, such a picture of the knocking Christ ultimately portrays the Christian as Jesus' host!

Christ is the risen Lord to whom all authority on earth and in heaven has been granted (Matt 28:18).  As such he doesn't meekly plead with sinners to come.  He commands repentance.  The gospel is a royal announcement of God's victory in Christ.  And when people, in response to Spirit's efficacious "call" (i.a., Rom 8:29), believe (and, in the New Testament, are baptized as the definitive expression of faith), they are united to Christ in his representative acts of death and resurrection.  By virtue of their solidarity with Christ in his death, they are forgiven their sins (Rom 4:25) and have, indeed, "died" to "sin" as a power (Rom 6:2-3).  Because they have been "raised with Christ," they have been justified, (i.e., they have participated in the verdict pronounced on Christ at his resurrection/"vindication" (Rom 4:25).  Moreover, solidarity with Christ in his resurrection guarantees their future resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-22) and, in the person of the indwelling Spirit, they are thus given the power to live the new life of the kingdom in the here and now (Rom 6:4).  Christ, in other words, is the true locus of the believer's identity and existence.  Christ, in a sense, can be said to live "in" his people (Rom 8:10).  This is immediately defined, however, in terms of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:10, 12).  "Christ mysticism" may be a venerable expression in certain older strands of New Testament scholarship and other brands of Christian piety, but it ultimately proves less than helpful.

What, then, of Revelation 3:20?  Simply put, this is not talking about conversion.  This becomes abundantly clear in verse 19, where Jesus' previous indictment of the Laodicean church as "lukewarm" (3:16) and "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (3:17) is explicitly declared to be corrective in function for those already in relationship with him.  Verse 20, therefore, must be understood as an offer designed to induce the requisite repentance and renew the fellowship with Christ that the church's moral shortcomings had broken.  As many scholars have noted, the language of Revelation 3:20 is almost certainly meant to allude to Song of Solomon 5:2: "The voice of my beloved, he knocks on the door. Open to me, my beloved."  The significance of this is nicely articulated by Greg Beale (The Book of Revelation [NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999] 308):
The allusion to Cant. 5:2 points to a focus on renewal of a relationship, since there the husband knocks on the door of the bedchamber to encourage his wife to continue to express her love to him and let him enter, but she at first hesitates to do so.  By analogy, Christ, the husband, is doing the same thing with regard to his bride, the church.
All this is not to question that God can use, and indeed has used, this text and the idea derived (illegitimately) from it to bring people sovereignly into his kingdom.  Nevertheless, in view of the expression's notional imprecision and potential to cause confusion, I would suggest we could do worse than to discontinue its use in evangelism.  Would it not be better both to follow the example of the apostles in Acts and to utilize the language found in the Gospel according to John, the one book explicitly designed to bring people to faith in Christ?  To ask the question is to answer it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Thoughts on "Narrative Theology" and the Jesus' "Fulfillment" of the Old Testament

I am a Christian. Not only that, I am a Christian theologian in the so-called "evangelical" tradition. As such, I am committed to the belief in the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice. This belief entails, as one might expect, the conviction that what Christians call the "New Testament" provides the fitting, divinely-designed "fulfillment" or completion of God's revelation in the so-called "Old Testament," the Jewish Scriptures. The Old Testament, after all, tells a story without a proper climax, let alone ending, instead projecting a promised denouement into the future.

The New Testament authors are united in their claim that Jesus provides the needed climax. However, if we are honest, we must admit that the conclusion it provides to the story begun in the Old Testament is not a transparently cogent one (indeed, it likewise projects the completion of the story into the future). This fact was lost on me as I was growing up in fundamentalist Christianity. I can still vividly recall "witnessing" about Jesus both at the King of Prussia Mall and Logan Circle in Philadelphia during my teenage years. When asked by my obviously educated interlocutors to provide warrant for my faith in Christ (as St. Peter exhorts Christians always to be ready to do [1 Pet 3:15]), I was quick to note the dozens of "prophecies" that the New Testament authors claimed were "fulfilled" in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

My primary source for this conviction was the book that remains my favorite Gospel, Matthew. Ten times the Evangelist directly quotes an Old Testament text, prefacing it with the comment that it was "fulfilled" in Jesus. All of these are unique to Matthew's Gospel and thus undergird his thematic focus on Jesus as the "Son of David" and "Son of Abraham" who rescues Israel from their exile (1:1-17) and "saves his people from their sins" (1:21-23).

That settles matters, does it not? Well, yes and no. I would not be a Christian if I did not believe Matthew's claim. Jesus, I believe—in his birth, life, death, and resurrection—fulfilled the Old Testament promises. But affirming this does not mean I understand this claim the same way I did all those many years ago. You see, I was the most naive of fundamentalists, who not only believed the Bible (so far, so good), but who also unwittingly read the Bible as if it were written directly to me in 20th century America and could be understood accordingly (not so good). In this worldview, "prophecy" and "fulfillment" meant one thing and one thing only: one-to-one prediction.

This is where the problem starts and, unfortunately, ends for many people. When I was a budding Bible student at a fundamentalist college in the '70s, the major threat to a proper, "faithful" theological education was considered to be the so-called "historical-critical method," then de rigueur in mainline American seminaries as well as in German and British universities. This method, which seeks to interpret biblical texts according to the canons of historical criticism, without the assumption of divine authorship and theological normativeness, had been used for more than two centuries to cast doubt on traditional Christian doctrines and interpretations of biblical texts.

One such text was Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Matthew cites this text as the first of his ten "fulfillment quotations" (Matt 1:22-23). Standard historical-critical exegesis of Isaiah 7:14 notes that the text speaks, not of a virginal conception, but rather of the birth, to a young woman, of a son (Maher-shalal-hashbaz [Isa 8:3]? Hezekiah?) who would serve as a sign to King Ahaz that the kings of Israel and Syria would suffer ruin. What, then, of Matthew?

So-called "critical" scholars were wont to see Matthew's claim as an example of mythological wishful thinking: the Evangelist, finding Isaiah 7:14 in his mental concordance, created the myth of Jesus' virgin birth as a way of claiming Jesus' fulfillment of Scripture. Fundamentalists, on the other hand—and remember, the virgin birth was one of the five so-called "fundamentals" of the faith whose affirmation demonstrated the bona fides of the would-be "fundamentalist"—reacted by asserting that Isaiah 7:14 really was, after all, a prediction of the virginal conception of Jesus, the text's cotext be damned. On this thinking, the LXX translation, on which the NT text was based, used the noun parthenos to specify that the 'almâ in question was actually a virgin.

This way of thinking never carried any conviction, however, and certainly didn't convince anybody not already committed to that form of fundamentalism. Thankfully, I attended a seminary whose New Testament department grounded me in the historical-critical method in the context of an environment where the Bible's absolute authority was fully maintained. What was always needed, in other words, was a way of holding together both the demands of historical interpretation and the New Testament's theological appropriation and (apparent) reinterpretation of the Old Testament.

One helpful way of doing this has influenced me ever since my seminary days. This is the particular stream of "biblical theology" flowing from the seminal work of the old Princeton Reformed scholar Geerhardus Vos, which has recently been massively developed by Greg Beale. This stream organizes theology in terms of the development of "salvation-history" (Heilsgeschichte) from Genesis to its culmination in Revelation. Thus, in contrast to standard dogmatic theology, which organizes itself according to a number of ahistorical loci and at its worst tends to treat the Bible as a gem mine, biblical theology of this sort acknowledges the progressive nature of revelation and organizational significance of the biblical covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David.

More recently, there has been a growing chorus of support for so-called "theological interpretation" of Scripture, associated with such scholars as Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier. Such interpretation explicitly foregrounds the theological nature of the biblical texts and thus does justice to the Bible's function as Scripture for the Christian community.

I am on board with such approaches. All too often one consults critical commentaries in search of the bread of theological insight, coming away instead with the stone of historical speculation. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the almost faddish" fascination with "theological interpretation"—isn't that what those of us committed to the Bible as God's Word have always done?—has come at a hidden cost, namely, an implied de-emphasis on historical-critical investigations. For historical-critical investigation remains the foundation of any responsible interpretation of the Bible.

Saturday, Daniel Kirk (here) expressed a similar concern, offering a narrative approach as a potential alternative. Indeed, "narrative" approaches to the Bible are nothing new. Indeed, in some quarters they may be viewed with as much suspicion, and viewed as equally faddish, as "theological interpretation." Be that as it may, the Bible, if rightly understood—notwithstanding its multitude of authors and literary genres—does indeed tell a story, with a clearly delineated plot-line, climax, and conclusion. The New Testament presents the "Christ-event" (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Israel's Messiah) as the climax to which the Old Testament pointed for its resolution.

Kirk criticises the older biblical theology for its emphasis on the Bible as the "history of revelation" rather than the "history of God's action," and he may be on to something. The acorn-to-oak analogy is only partially a propos, after all. Kirk prefers to allow for what he refers to as "transformations" of legitimate historical-critical readings of the Old Testament:
To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier.

And again:
Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

He justifies this by appealing to the very text I addressed last week, Romans 1:2:
The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.


In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

This, I take it, is basically correct. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, who learned the "solution" to his and Israel's plight before he fully grasped what that plight had been, the New Testament authors saw the resolution of the biblical story in Jesus' resurrection before noticing the oblique pointers to that resolution contained in the prior narratives and promises of Scripture. Where I take issue—and side with Vanhoozer, for instance—is his implied notion that post-critical, "dramatic rereadings" of the text can be divorced from the historical meaning of the Old Testament texts available to the original audiences. With regard to Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23, for example, I affirm with Kirk,
We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

The question is, how can we simultaneously make both affirmations? My solution is nothing new. Typology, rightly understood, incorporates both historical interpretation and an ex post facto recognition of the text's seminal theological significance vis-à-vis "fulfillment" in Christ.

Matthew understood the Isaianic prophecy to be a typological anticipation of Jesus. The immediate fulfillment of the sign given to Ahaz is, in God's providential design, a pointer to a historical and theological pattern that finds its climactic fulfillment in Christ. The historical birth of "Immanuel" (Maher-shalal-hashbaz?) was a sign of God's direct intervention both to judge the wicked (Isa 7:15ff.) and deliver his people. Most importantly, in Isaiah's own prophecy this deliverance would climax eschatologically in a golden age presided over by a "son" who would be born to rule as king in fulfillment of God's promise to David (Isa 9:2-7; 11:1-16).

For Matthew, Jesus' miraculous birth signalled that God was about to bring this expected "golden age" into existence precisely through his saving of his people from their sins (Matt 1:22). As the late, lamented Raymond E. Brown—himself no fundamentalist— put it:
... [T]he sign offered by Isaiah was not centered on the manner in which the child would be conceived, but in the providential timing whereby a child who would be a sign of God's presence with his people was to be born precisely when that people's fortunes had reached their nadir. (149)

This approach, it seems to me, both necessitates proper historical interpretation and allows for controlled rereadings of those texts on the basis of Christian hindsight precipitated by God's surprising enactment of the Biblical story's climax in Christ. Only such rereadings can possibly claim the legitimacy the truth claims of the gospel demand.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What Is the Gospel? Part 5: Romans 1:1-7

Over the past few weeks, I have been exploring (here, here, here, and here) the subject of the Christian gospel in the wake of Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel.[i]  Many Christians, especially those who self-identify as “Evangelicals,” would be surprised to learn that there is discussion, let alone dispute, about this apparently foundational issue.  Indeed, as I have said, I was raised to think of the gospel in terms of the salvation of the individual. It was, so I thought, the combined teaching of the doctrines of penal substitution (“Christ” died on the cross in my place, bearing the judgment I deserved for my sins) and justification by faith (those who believe in Christ are “declared righteous” and assured of “heaven” by virtue of what Christ did, even though I remain a sinner as long as I live).  Our investigations of 1 Corinthians 15, however, pointed in another direction.  Paul quotes the earliest confession about the gospel in verses 3-5.  From that confession we concluded that the gospel is the proclamation of the historical events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, interpreted in accord with the Old Testament scriptures as the climactic saving acts of God for Israel and the world.  In verses 20-28 the apostle interprets Jesus’ bodily resurrection against the horizon of God’s ultimate plan for the denouement of salvation-history. Christ’s present reign as resurrected Lord has as its goal the unchallenged, eternal rule of God. In other words, the gospel is ultimately about the kingdom of God.

Today we turn to Paul’s most famous letter, The Epistle to the Romans.  The fame of this letter is certainly deserved.  It is not only the longest and most systematic of the apostle’s extant writings, it has also been the most significant historically, as anyone familiar with Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth knows well.  Indeed, it is this letter, via Martin Luther’s “rediscovery” of the gospel and reinterpretation of the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” that undergirds the common Protestant association of the gospel with the doctrine of justification.

Fortunately, we don’t have to search long before we encounter mention of the gospel.  The first seven verses of the letter (Rom 1:1-7) constitute its “prescript.”  In typical Greco-Roman letters, the prescript consisted of three elements: sender, recipient, and greeting.[ii]  Paul, as one might expect, generally follows the conventions of his time.  Nevertheless, he typically expands one or more of these elements for rhetorical reasons.  Such expansions serve the hermeneutical purpose of providing a window through which to discern the major concerns that will be addressed in the body of the letter.[iii]  From the perspective of ancient rhetoric, it is not insignificant to note that the opening of a letter corresponded in function to the exordium of a speech, both commending the author to the audience and summarizing the major points to be discussed.[iv]

Here in Romans 1:1-7, Paul expands the superscriptio, his description of himself as the sender of the letter.  He does this by reflecting on his divinely commissioned task, as apostle to the Gentiles, to proclaim the gospel among all Gentiles, including those to whom he is writing in Rome.  The focus of these reflections centers on two related issues: his message (vv.2-4) and his mission (vv. 5-6).  After the completion of the body of the letter, the apostle will finally get around to telling the Roman Christians the pragmatic purpose of his letter, namely, that he is hoping to enlist their support for a planned mission to Spain (15:22-29).  To this end he must first win their trust and sympathy.  He attempts to accomplish this via his recitation of the content of the gospel, thus demonstrating their shared faith convictions.[v] 

Romans 1:1-4 read as follows:

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. (NIV)

This text is exceedingly clear, and corresponds in many respects to what Paul recorded earlier in 1 Corinthians 15.  The first salient point, one which has a direct parallel in the Corinthian correspondence, is the assertion that the gospel is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament prophetic scriptures (1:2).[vi]  Paul doesn’t explicitly list any texts at this point, so it is possible he is speaking generally, as in the earlier formulation.  Yet, as will be seen, verses 3-4 quite clearly allude to 2 Samuel 7:12, 14 and Psalm 2:7.  Moreover, Romans—more than any other Pauline epistle—is laced through and through with both explicit Old Testament citations and even more frequent “echoes” of scriptural texts that both carry the letter’s argument forward and provide the lens through which to understand its message.[vii]  The gospel, as Paul understood it, thus stands in historical continuity with God’s revelation to Israel.  Indeed, his claim is, as we will see, an outrageous one: the gospel message, far from being the negation of God’s inscripturated promises to Israel, is instead their fulfillment.  What Paul is saying is that God’s covenant promises to Israel, rightly understood, point to the events narrated in the gospel message he quotes in verses 3-4.

The second salient point is likewise consistent with what we found in 1 Corinthians 15.  For Paul (and the tradition he cites), the gospel message concerns the Messianic career and resurrection of Jesus, God’s “Son” (1:3-4).  He articulates the gospel in two parallel participial clauses: 

1.         to genomnou                                    to risqntoς
                        “who was born”[viii]                            “who was appointed”

2.         k sprmatoς Daud                           uo qeon dunmei
                        “from the seed of David”                      "Son of God in power

            3.         kat srka                                          kat pnema giwsnhς
                        “according to the flesh”                         “according to the Spirit of holiness”

This formula, though memorable, is hardly transparent in meaning.  The difficulties revolve primarily around three expressions[ix]

·         The meaning of ὁrisqntoς (“declared” or “appointed”)

·         The meaning of “Son of God”

·         The meaning of the flesh/spirit contrast

In the history of interpretation, two primary explanations have emerged.  The traditional view is that the contrast is an ontological or metaphysical one between two component “parts” or coexisting sides in the constitution of Christ’s person.[x]  According to this interpretation, Christ was born from the seed of David as far as his human nature was concerned. By his resurrection, however, his true identity was unveiled.  In particular, Christ’s resurrection served the noetic function of declaring him to be what he eternally was, namely, the divine Son of God.

Despite its respectable pedigree, however, and obvious agreement with historic, conciliar orthodoxy,[xi] there are three insurmountable problems with this interpretation.  First, the verb ὁrzein simply does not mean “to declare what was true all along.”  In the New Testament it always means “to appoint, designate, establish, or fix” (Acts 2:23; 10:42; 11:29; 17:26, 31; Heb 4:7).[xii]  In other words, the verb clearly indicates, as Jimmy Dunn writes, “that Paul saw in the resurrection of Jesus a ‘becoming’ of Jesus in status and role, not simply a ratification of a status and role already enjoyed on earth or from the beginning of time.”[xiii]

The second insuperable difficulty faced by the traditional interpretation is that Jesus’ resurrection is never used in the New Testament to predicate his deity.  He is raised specifically as a human being, and the event is significant theologically for that very reason.  Indeed, as we saw in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s resurrection as Messiah and second Adam was the inaugural event of the new creation and, as such, was the determinate harbinger of the resurrection of all human beings belonging to him.  

The traditional view likewise suffers in regard to its understanding of the flesh/spirit contrast.  Paul nowhere uses the flesh/spirit contrast to differentiate human and divine natures.  As is evident from his use of the antithesis in Romans 8:4-9, 13[xiv] , the “Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, the contrast is an “eschatological” one: the “flesh” (merely human existence/nature) and the Spirit are the two determining “powers,” as it were, of two successive “ages” in salvation-history.[xv]  The resurrection, in other words, is significant to the gospel precisely because of its salvation-historical, indeed eschatological, significance.

The second view holds that the contrast is a salvation-historical one between two successive stages in the Messianic career of God’s “Son.”[xvi]  According to this interpretation, both parts of the contrast are governed by Paul’s introductory comment that the “gospel of God” (1:1)[xvii] concerns his “Son[xviii]  Accordingly, this text should be understood in concert with other texts in Paul that speak of God “sending” his Son into the world (Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4-5) and “giving” him over to death (Rom 8:32).[xix]  The most natural reading of these texts presupposes the so-called “preexistence” of Christ[xx] and a corresponding emphasis on the intimacy of his relationship with the God who sent him.  This career of God’s Son—which itself constitutes the “good news”— proceeds in two stages.

The first stage lasted from his birth until his death, about which Paul will have much to say later in the letter.  God’s Son, says Paul, was “born from David’s seed according to the flesh.”  This statement is a clear allusion to 2 Samuel 7:12-13, where Nathan the prophet announces the covenantal promise to David and his house:

 12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (NIV)
The point is as clear as can be.  The gospel announces that Jesus is the “seed” who, by birth, had the requisite bloodlines to fulfill the covenant promise God made to David.  Far from negating Jewish Messianic hopes, the gospel affirms their realization in Jesus of Nazareth who, the text says, was born for this very purpose.[xxi]

The second stage of Christ’s “career” is described in verse 4: He was “appointed Son of God in power from the time of (ἐk) the resurrection of the dead.”  This statement clearly reflects two Old Testament texts, 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7:

           I will be his father, and he will be my son.

            I will proclaim the LORD’s decree:
            He said to me, “You are my son;
            today I have become your father.

Psalm 2 is a royal coronation psalm. Verse 7 poetically celebrates the coronation of the king precisely as the enactment of God’s covenantal promise for each successive dynastic generation.  In this light, it is clear that the title “Son of God” in verse 4 must be understood as a Messianic/royal designation rather than as a title redolent of divine ontology.[xxii]  If so, the prepositional phrase “in power” should be understood as qualifying the title “Son of God,” thus helping differentiate the Son’s status prior to the resurrection from that which to which he was elevated at that time. Thus, whereas in his earthly career he was the “Son of God in weakness,” since the resurrection he has reigned as “Son of God in power.” In other words, he now exercises the full range of royal prerogatives as the enthroned Lord in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to David. 

Paul concludes his gospel summary by identifying, if anyone needed to be so informed, who this reigning “Son of God” is. He is “Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The apostle thus ties the gospel message to the very one who had been crucified as a Messianic pretender by the Roman authorities, and designates him with the title that most characterizes the early Christian understanding of the risen Jesus.[xxiii]  As the resurrected and exalted Lord, Christ the “Son” thus exercises God’s unique eschatological sovereignty over all things.

It cannot be emphasized enough that this two-stage summary of Christ’s Messianic career is the authoritative summary of the gospel that Paul cites to commend himself to his readers.  Thus N.T. Wright, in his comments on this passage, says that the gospel, far from being a message about how people get saved, is rather “an announcement about Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord.”[xxiv]  In this he is exactly right.  Yet this has not shielded him from criticism from would-be defenders of the Reformation tradition. 

J. Ligon Duncan, for example, in a lecture given at Jackson, Mississippi, takes Wright to task for “mak[ing] the Gospel wholly about the person of Christ and not about his work (‘the Gospel is “Jesus is Lord and Messiah” not “Jesus died for your sins”’).”[xxv]  He then suggests Wright needs to articulate “how that is an identifiably evangelical view of the Gospel,” and argues, in explicit criticism of Wright, that “the minute you accept that the Gospel is not about justification … at the very least you have a huge hole in the historic Protestant consensus on and articulation of the Gospel in relation to human sin and divine justice.”[xxvi]  Duncan, I dare say, is not alone in Reformed circles, as I know from personal experience.

At one level, such criticisms are inexcusable in their misrepresentation of Wright’s views, suggesting they either have not read his works thoroughly or, which is more than likely the case, their own entrenched theological worldview has blinded them from appreciating the nuances of his position.[xxvii]  It is indeed the case that, were Wright actually to define the gospel in terms of Christ’s person as over against his work (this contrast itself is the product of the typical categorization of western systematic theology), he would certainly be open to criticism.  But does Wright actually deny that Christ’s death for our sins is part of the gospel?[xxviii]  No.  Does he emphasize the person of Christ to the exclusion or even diminishing of his work?  No.[xxix]  Does he, as Duncan charges, “[offer] a diminished view of sin?”[xxx]  No.[xxxi]  Does Wright deny the doctrine of justification by faith?  No.[xxxii] 

Now, Duncan et al. are perfectly within their rights to disagree with how Wright articulates the issues.  Indeed, I don’t agree in every detail myself.  At times he is manifests a less than ideal clarity.  At other times, I would like to add more precision to his articulation.  Nevertheless, what such criticisms manifest is a fundamental difference in how the gospel is framed.  Duncan, for whom justification is part and parcel of the gospel, frames the gospel (and the argument of Romans) in terms of the salvation of the individual.  To use McKnight’s term, Duncan is an unabashed and unrepentant “soterian.”  But the fact remains that Paul here uses a definition of the gospel that is not framed “soteriologically.”  This formula says nothing about Christ’s atoning death, let alone anything about “justification by faith.”  As one raised in the soterian tradition, I can attest to confusion when I used to read this passage.  In what sense can the gospel (as I understood it) be connected with Jesus’ resurrection and status as Lord?

Wright doesn’t have the same problem, and his shorthand definition of the gospel as “Jesus is Lord” fits this passage like a glove.  In this regard, he aligns his understanding with that of McKnight, for whom, as we saw, understands the gospel as the story of Jesus in that it completes and climaxes the biblical story of Israel.  For Wright, the gospel as articulated in Romans 1 must be understood as the proclamation of the salvation-historical fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of the kingdom of God and new creation.  On this understanding, Christ’s resurrection and current reign as Lord are good news, not simply because of what they say about Christ’s person, but rather because they are specifically the means by which God’s new creation has been inaugurated.  And this is precisely the perspective of Paul here in Romans 1. 

The gospel, as Paul describes it, is not a scheme of individual salvation, even though individuals are “saved” by faith in the Jesus announced therein.  It is rather the message of God’s Son, who has brought the Old Testament promises to fulfillment by means of his Messianic life, death, and resurrection.

Still, one might ask why Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation and reign as Lord are singled out here in Romans 1 as summarizing the gospel message.  The answer, I would suggest, is found in Psalm 2, the very text alluded to in Romans 1:4.  Immediately following the installment of the Davidide on the throne in verse 7, the newly crowned king says:

            Ask me,
            and I will make the nations your inheritance,
            the ends of the earth your possession.

The Davidic king of Israel, as YHWH’s vicegerent, was (in his ultimate incarnation as the eschatological Messiah) by rights the king of the entire world.  As another royal psalm states, “May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed (Ps 72:17).”  The Davidic king, in the person of the Messiah, would thus be the means by which God’s promise to Abraham of universal blessing (Gen 12:3) would be fulfilled. 

Consequently, the resurrection and present reign of Christ are “good news” because they mark the fulfillment of these promises and thus provide the warrant for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  This is where Paul’s own commission as apostle to the Gentiles becomes significant (Rom 1:5-6).  The resurrection and Lordship of Christ, in other words, are good news less for what they say about Christ’s person than for what they entail for the fulfillment of both the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants.

That this is indeed Paul’s point is confirmed in what has been termed the letter’s peroratio,[xxxiii] Romans 15:7-13. Here the apostle provides a catena of four Old Testament texts speaking of the eschatological salvation of the Gentiles:
 7Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.” [Ps 18:49; 2 Sam 22:50]

10Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.” [Deut 32:43]

11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; [Ps 117:1]
let all the peoples extol him.”

12 And again, Isaiah says,
“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
in him the Gentiles will hope.” [Isa 11:10]

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
The gospel of God’s crucified and risen Son, Paul argues, creates a people consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.[xxxiv]  And this is, as Paul argues, precisely how God had planned and promised things to be.

[i] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
[ii] E.g., P. Lond. 42 (168 BCE): “Isias to her brother Hephaeston, greeting.”
[iii] Cf. L. Ann Jervis, The Purpose of Romans: A Comparative Letter Structure Investigation (JSNTSup 55; Sheffield: JSOT, 1991) 42.
[iv] Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans: Argumentative Constraint and Strategy and Paul’s Dialogue with Judaism (JSNTSup 45; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990; Samuel Byrskog, “Epistolography, Rhetoric and Letter Prescript: Romans 1.1-7 as a Test Case,” JSNT 65 (1997) 27-46).
[v] This is one of multiple reasons why I think it likely that verses 3-4 are a (redacted?) quotation of a pre-Pauline formulation of the gospel message.
[vi] On this subject, see especially Christopher G. Whitsett, “Son of God, Seed of David: Paul’s Messianic Exegesis in Romans 2 (sic!):3-4,” JBL 119 (2000) 661-81.  This claim anticipates Paul’s later comments in 3:21, 31.
[vii] Dietrich-Alex Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge des Evangeliums (BHT 69; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1986) 21-24, lists 89 citations in the Pauline corpus, 51 of which are to be found in Romans. The numbers would be higher were he not to count the catena in Rom 3:10-18 as one citation.  On scriptural “echoes” in Romans, cf. the penetrating analysis of Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1989) 34-83.
[viii] The normal way to express this would have been with the participle gennwmnou.  The verb gnomai had, however, assimilated to the verb gennw (cf. BDAG, 197), so this might not be significant.  However, Doug Moo suggests—and he may be right—that the choice of verbs was deliberate, and that Paul thereby hinted that Jesus’ birth entailed a “becoming” or change of existence vis-à-vis that in his eternal preexistence (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996] 46).
[ix] Martin Luther said concerning these verses, “As far as I know, this passage has not been adequately interpreted by anyone” (Luther: Lectures on Romans [ed. Wilhelm Pauck; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961] 12).  The situation, I believe, has improved considerably. Despite some residual differences of opinion, a reasonable consensus has emerged.
[x] Cf., e.g., Chrysostom, The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily I (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 1) 11:340; Luther, Lectures, 12-13; John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries; trans. Ross MacKenzie; ed. D. W. Torrance amd T. F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960) 15-17; Charles Hodge, Romans (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986 [1864]) 17-21; William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (5th ed.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902) 7; B. B. Warfield, “The Christ That Paul Preached,” in Biblical Doctrines (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988 [1929] 233-52.  Many modern translations appear hesitant to jettison this translation (e.g., NASB; NRSV; ESV).
[xi] One might suggest, with little hesitation, that the apparent “orthodoxy” of the view led to its popularity, the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulae providing the lens through which the text was read.
[xii] G. Schneider, EDNT, 2:531-32.
[xiii] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988) 13.
[xiv] Cf. also Galatians 5:16-26.
[xv] The standard discussion remains that of Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (trans. John Richard DeWitt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 64-68.
[xvi] Cf., e.g., Ridderbos, 65-67; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (NICNT: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959-65) 1:5-12; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (ICC: Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975-79) 1:57-64; Martin Hengel, The Son of God (trans. John Bowden; London: SCM/Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) 59-61; Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (trans. G. W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 11; Richard B. Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Philipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 1987) 98-114; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 13; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 233-37; Moo, 44-51; Brendan Byrne, Romans (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1996) 43-45; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 39-43; Larry W. Hurtado, “Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” in Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (ed. Sven Soderlund and N. T. Wright; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999) 217-33; J. R. Daniel Kirk, “Appointed Son(s): An Exegetical Note on Romans 1:4 and 8:29,” BBR 14 (2004) 241-42.
[xvii] Greek eagglion qeo.  Qeo here should be understood as a genitive of source.  Cf. Cranfield, 1:55.
[xviii] Greek per to uo atoῦ.
[xix] On these (most likely) inherited formulations, cf. Eduard Schweizer, “Zum traditionsgeschichtlichen Hintergrund der ‘Sendungsformel’ Gal 4, 4. Rom 8, 3f. Joh 3, 16f. 1 Joh 4,9,” ZNW 57 (1966) 199-210. 
[xx] This is acknowledged by almost all scholars, with the notable exception of James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980) 33-46.
[xxi] The confession states that Christ was born of David’s seed “according to the flesh.” Though the term is often used in the New Testament in a negative sense of sinful human existence outside of, and prior to Christ (so-called “ethical flesh;” cf. James R. McGahey, “’No One Is Justified by Works of the Law [Gal 2:16a]: The Nature and Rationale of Paul’s Polemic against ‘Works of the Law’ in the Epistle to the Galatians,” Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1996] 199-200, n.34), that is certainly not applicable here.  It certainly is meant to designate Christ’s natural biological descent from David (cf. Rom 9:3).  But the contrast is clearly an “aeonic” one, i.e., between two successive ages in the outworking of God’s purposes.  Thus Christ’s birth as “Messiah designate” is portrayed as a perspective that will be superseded in the next clause.
[xxii] For the same idea, cf. Acts 13:32-33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5.  That the title “Son of God” was a current Messianic designation is clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., 4QFlor 1.10-13, 18-19; 4Q246 2.1; 1QSam 2.11-12).  Cf. also Paul-Émile Langevin, “Quel est le ‘fils de dieu’ de Romains 1”3-4?” Science et esprit 29 (1977) 145-77, who points to 1 Enoch 105:2 and 4 Ezra 7:28-29; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9.
[xxiii] Whereas Paul refers to Jesus as the Son of God 17 times, he speaks of him as “Lord” more than 260 times.  Indeed, in Romans 10:9 he cites what is undoubtedly the earliest Christian confession (“Jesus is Lord”), a confession likely derived from Jesus’ own use of Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:36 et par.), another royal psalm. 
[xxiv] N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) 383-770.  Elsewhere he says, “‘[T]he gospel’ is a message primarily about Jesus, and about what the one true God has done and is doing through him” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [London: SPCK, 2009] 156).
[xxv] J. Ligon Duncan, “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” @
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Reformed church historians are quick to denounce contemporary New Testament scholars like Dunn and Wright for their portrayals of writers in the Reformation traditions.  Cf. especially Carl Trueman’s 2000 lecture delivered at Tyndale House, “A Man More Sinned against Than Sinning?” (  Unfortunately, such church historians don’t extend the same courtesy they demand to the writers they criticize. See Dunn’s trenchant response to Trueman @
[xxviii] Wright, Justification, 156, where he cites 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
[xxix] Cf. his defense of the doctrine of penal substitution in relation to Jesus’ fulfillment of the role of the Isaianic servant of YHWH, @  Likewise, note his definitive argument that Paul’s expression, per martaς, in Romans 8:3 should be translated “sin offering” (The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1992] ch. 11).  Note, finally, Wright’s discussion of Romans 3:25-26 in his “Romans,” 472-77, where he interprets lastrion in verse 25 in terms, not only of expiation, but of the propitiation of God’s wrath against sinners.
[xxx] Duncan, “Attractions.”
[xxxi] Cf., e.g., Justification, 175.  Duncan claims that Wright, despite his protestations to the contrary, de facto diminishes sin when he defines justification in terms of ecclesiology (membership in the covenant community) rather than soteriology (one’s relationship with God).  This, frankly, is unfair.  I would argue that Wright’s earlier formulations, when he made that distinction, are imprecise (I would say justification has both soteriological and ecclesiological dimensions).  Nevertheless, Wright is explicit and clear that one’s relationship with God is established via faith-union with Christ, which is logically prior to justification, the latter of which is God’s declaration that one is part of the sin-forgiven people of God. 
[xxxii] Cf. his Justification.  Of course, Wright draws the ire of Reformed writers because of two matters: (1) his denial of the scholastic notion of double imputation—in particular, of the notion that the basis of justification is the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the account of the believer; and (2) his distinction between present and future justification, with the latter “on the basis of,” or “in accordance with” works, based on Romans 2:16.  Nevertheless, Wright strenuously affirms justification by faith as a forensic, anticipatory declaration of a “right status” that will be confirmed at the last judgment.
[xxxiii] Hays, Echoes, 70.
[xxxiv] Hays, Echoes, 70-73, demonstrates how the larger contexts of each of the texts cited picture Gentiles and the restored Israel worshipping and glorifying God together.