Monday, April 30, 2012

Some Reflections on a New Reformed Confession

This morning I learned from Mike Bird at Euangelion about a new Reformed Confession drawn up under the auspices of the World Reformed Fellowship.  As Bird notes in his post (drawn from the Introduction penned by the Rev. Professor A. T. B. McGowan):
The purpose of the new confession was (1) to provide a statement of faith that would be agreed upon by Reformed churches that used different Reformed confessions from the Westminster Standards (Scottish) to the Three Forms of Unity (Continental Reformed); (2) To address issues that are encountered by the Reformed churches in the twenty-first century, not Roman Catholicism and Arminianism from the 17th century, but liberalism, postmodernism, and pluralism; and (3) To reflect the beliefs of the Reformed churches that are global rather than Eurocentric (accordingly there was a very international list of members on the panel).
As someone who stands broadly within the Reformed stream of theology flowing from the Reformation and who is Calvinistic in his soteriology, this news piqued my interest greatly.  Having now read through the long (19 pages!) confession twice, I offer the following observations and reflections.

Confessional documents are interesting, illuminating creatures.  In contrast with such  formulae as the Apostles' and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds, which serve to define the essential content of the faith of the ecumenical church, confessional formulae such as the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and this new Statement of Faith of the WRF serve to define the "standards" of a discreet group within the universal Body of Christ.  As such they not only serve as convenient boundary markers (a good thing)—i.e., what does it mean to be Lutheran, Anglican, or "Reformed"?—but they also can and, at times, do serve as "blinders" to discerning observation and inhibitors to better historical interpretations and contemporary contextualizations of the biblical text (a bad thing).  This was one concern about the creeds articulated by the (Anglican) Tom Wright in his new book, How God Became King (see my ongoing reviews here and here).  If the creeds, how much more the Protestant confessions!  This warning is especially a propos when so-called "Confessional" Evangelicals act as though their confessional affirmations bear scriptural authority while giving lip-service to a denial of that commensurability.

Moreover, confessional documents are always historically- and culturally-conditioned.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the doctrinal statement of my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, originally drawn up to serve as a definitive statement of the scholastic dispensationalism popular in the first half of the 20th century.  Though still dispensational (in a greatly modified way), the theological emphases of the school's curriculum hardly match the heavy Israel versus Church and futuristic eschatological emphases of its official doctrinal statement.  Likewise, an earlier incarnation of the doctrinal statement of the Bible College where I formerly taught had an obviously secondary, blunt statement against the continuance of the "sign gifts" of the Spirit that was designed transparently to counter the charismatic movement popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  In such cases, it is not difficult to discern who the implicit opponents of the drafters were.

This new statement is no different in two respects.  First, despite the stated desire to speak to issues relevant to the 21st century, the confession remains largely directed (at least in its soteriological sections) against the traditional Reformed targets of Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, though at times it can be.  For example, while Calvin and his heirs may certainly have had better interpretations than their Catholic opponents, they may still have failed to provide optimal interpretations because, of course, their interpretations were conditioned by the thought world of their day (the same goes for us, as well, no matter how clearly we prefer to see it exclusively in others from the past).  One example of this leads me to the next point.

Second, the confession, while supposedly aiming to target contemporary issues like liberalism, postmodernism, and pluralism, gives inordinate focus to matters they see as being under siege from "insiders."  A number of issues stand out.  I will mention two.  The first is, as one might expect, justification, which takes up three sections (V.6-8).  Clearly intended to counteract the influence of N. T. Wright, the document reads as follows:

6. Justification

Justification is the act of God which follows effectual calling by the Holy Spirit and the sinner’s consequent response of repentance and faith: ‘whom he called, these he also justified.’ In justification God declares sinners to be righteous in his sight, regarding their sins as forgiven and counting the righteousness of Christ as belonging to them. Justification is not a pretence on God’s part that sinners are righteous when in fact they are guilty. For justification to be real and consistent with the holiness of God, it must have a meritorious ground. A real righteousness must exist for God to be righteous in his declaration of justification. Sinners are justified on the basis of a righteousness supplied by another, the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ which is counted as belonging to them. This imputation of the righteousness of Christ is

fundamental to the Christian faith.

7. The righteousness of Christ is the basis of our justification

The righteousness of Christ comprises his life of perfect obedience to every commandment of the law of God and his death on the cross by which he bore the penalty of God’ holy wrath due to the sins of all his people, a work sealed by his triumphant resurrection. Believers now share the same righteous status as Christ who has satisfied all the demands of God’s law in their place and on their behalf. The ground of the sinner’ justification is solely the perfect righteousness of Christ.

8.The harmony between Paul and James in their teaching about justification

There is no conflict between the teaching of Paul and that of James regarding justification. Paul writes of justification as pardon and acceptance before God; James insists that if this justification is real, it will show itself in a life of obedience.

This is simply a restatement, in contemporary language, of traditional Reformed theology on this subject which, as any Evangelical academician knows, Reformed folk have been exceedingly zealous to defend in recent years.  Nevertheless, one wishes they had taken more time to study the work of one of their own, Professor Bird, whose The Saving Righteousness of God provides a better way out of the impasse.  In particular, their insistence of the "imputation of Christ's righteousness" is an advance upon, and corrective to, prior Roman Catholic notions.  Nevertheless, I would maintain that it is not optimal: not only does it continue to understand "righteousness" along the lines of the medieval discussions of iustitia, it also ultimately fails to see justification as a metaphor, in which "righteousness" is not behavior—let alone a reservoir of meritorious achievement to be drawn upon by the elect—but rather a status granted, i.e., the status of having been declared "Not Guilty" by God the Judge.  Likewise, their definition of Christ's "righteousness" that serves as the "ground" of justification as both his obedience to the Law (this is itself problematic at multiple levels) and atoning death runs counter to Paul's teaching in Romans 5:18-19, where Christ's "obedience" and "act of righteousness" are transparently to be limited to his "obedience to death" (as even Reformed scholars Herman Ridderbos and Doug Moo acknowledge).  Finally, their harmonization of Paul and James is somewhat problematic.  Specifically, their assertion that "James insists that if this justification is real, it will show itself in a life of obedience" blatantly misstates what James says.  On the contrary, James concludes, "You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24).  Now, I don't for a minute believe that Paul and James are difficult to reconcile.  Nor do I think that what they say James says is theologically objectionable (though what they say is probably how Paul would have resolved the tension).  It simply is not what James said. And, if we are to be "biblicists" (in the best sense of the term), we must let James be James.  Certainly, semantic imprecision in the name of simplicity is not the route to take.

The second issue is that of so-called complementarianism between male and female as God's creatures.  It was shocking, to say the least, to find already as I.2 the following claim:

There is a basic equality of being between men and women but with differences, so that the callings of men and women are not interchangeable but complementary. Although there is no distinction of gender in God, he reveals himself to us essentially in masculine terms and his Son became incarnate as a male.

To be up front: I am not a strict "complementarian" in the euphemistic sense intended by modern adherents of the term, i.e., as a code word denoting a permanent hierarchy of authority between men and women (I believe in complementarity, of course, but not a necessary, gender-based authoritarian structure and circumscription of roles in the home).  But this statement really surprised me.  Normally "complementarians" limit the hierarchy to the spheres of the home and the church.  Not here.  To expand the range of female subordination is bad enough.  But to raise it to the level of confessional conscription is doubly bad.

Despite these criticisms (I could make many more, but then again, I'm not trying to associate with the group), this new confession does have a number of strengths.  I will mention two in particular.  The first concerns the explicit calls to compassionate concern for social justice as a necessary element in the church's mission.  Thus, for example, X.1, entitled "Our calling to be God's witnesses through word and deed:"

Our mission in the world flows from our passion for the glory of God and our assurance of the coming of his kingdom. The church as the community of Christ, is God’ instrument of evangelism, which is the preaching and sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ, through both words and deeds, that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures and that he, as the reigning Lord, now offers forgiveness of sin, eternal life and gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. In obedience to the commission of our God, we have to present two hands to all people: (1) the hand calling them to repentance, faith and eternal reconciliation with God through Christ, and (2) the hand manifesting deeds of mercy and compassion, extending the goodness of God’ kingdom on earth in the name of Christ. This is the example given to us by Christ himself and proclaims that we are conformed to the image of Christ and have received the Holy Spirit as the first fruits and guarantee of God’s new creation.
This is quite a good statement, as are the calls for Christian compassion (X.3) and transformation of human society (X.4), though I suspect Darryl Hart will not appreciate the latter article.  It is in places like this that the influence of Christians from the third world most likely has manifested itself.

Finally, the confession gives a nod to biblical theology and to the salvation-historical outworking of God's purposes.  Though, in my opinion, it underplays the discontinuity essential to New Testament theology and the role of the story of Israel in the biblical narrative, the confession reaches its greatest heights when it writes, concerning the eternal plan of God:

At the very beginning of time there was a promise of fulfilment in the end of Adam’s probation, God’s Sabbath rest, and the promise of eternal life from the tree of life. All these anticipated God’s intention to perfect what he had made very good. Paul saw the resurrection (or recreation) of the last Adam as the fulfilment of the creation of the first Adam before the Fall. The history of redemption is the outworking of God’ saving purposes, culminating in the life and death of the Saviour, the taking of salvation to the nations, and the eschatological recreation of heaven and earth. In the present time, those who are united to Christ already experience the power of the world to come by the Spirit who lives in them. Even though they will experience death, they already have a taste of the future resurrection.

 This is the type of theology that gets my blood moving.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Understanding the Gospels as an "Empty Cloak": N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 2

In his new book, How God Became King, Tom Wright makes an astounding, throw-down-the-gauntlet claim:
... I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about.  Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have often managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us.  I have therefore come to the conclusion that what we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there.  We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say, and hence about how best we should read them, together and individually.  Andnot leastabout how we then might order our life and work in accordance with them (ix).
Wright argues that Christians, for various reasons and in different ways, have neglected the main story-line the original writers intended to convey, namely, the story of how God became king in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Israel's Messiah.  Not only has this neglect distorted how we have understood the Gospels' message.  It has also had the effect of limiting our vision of God's ongoing mission in the world through his followers.

"Evangelical" Christians, in particular, are resolute in their affirmation of Jesus' miraculous birth, divine identity, and—especially—his atoning death.  Few, if any, would hesitate to provide a definitive answer to the question, Why did Jesus die?  The reason for this is clear: as heirs of the Reformation, Evangelicals have assimilated Paul's theology of the cross and justification by faith—as interpreted by Martin Luther and John Calvin—as the core of their theological worldview.

But the Gospels, apart from the obvious fact that the "passion" narratives take up a disproportionate amount space in the various tellings of the story, have little to say propositionally in this regard.  Indeed, certain texts—one thinks, for example, of Mark 10:45, with its clear allusion to Isaiah 53:5, and the multiple calls in John to "belief" in Jesus—can be made to fit this paradigm.  Even so, however, the bulk of the Gospels—the "bits" in between Jesus' miraculous birth and atoning death, as Wright says—simply do not deal substantially with those issues.  Thus, like California tumbling into the sea,
[T]he four gospels, had, as it were, fallen off the front of the canon of the New Testament as far as many Christians were concerned.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed (9).
As a result, most Christians have experienced the Gospels as an "empty cloak." "The outer wrapping is there—Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection.  But who is in the cloak? ... Does it matter?" (4-5).  Why, in other words, did Jesus live?  It is this question that Evangelicals have had a much more difficult time answering adequately.

Complicating matters has been the influence of the church's great ancient creeds (10-20).  Take, for instance, the so-called "Apostles' Creed":
I believe ... in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Note—and this is of the utmost importance—that the creed passes directly from Jesus' virginal conception to his suffering and death under Pontius Pilate.  An empty cloak indeed!  Not a word about what constituted the bulk of the gospel traditions, in particular, the notion that the kingdom of God had become a present reality in the ministry of Jesus.  And when we come to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the problem is exacerbated:
I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Note that not only does the creed pass over the bulk of Jesus' life and ministry, it also emphasizes what the canonical Gospels do not, namely, ontology.  As Wright notes, what the creeds affirm goes beyond even the divine identity Christology articulated in John's Gospel (19).  The problem may be summarized thus: "[The creeds] manage not to mention the main thing the gospels are trying to tell us, and they talk about something else instead" (16).

James Smith has forcefully criticised Wright on this point:
There's another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this "forgotten story." Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, "the historian," has uncovered. The creedal tradition, on Wright's account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel's covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels. And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn't reject "Nicene Christianity," he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it. For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new "secret key" to unlock the Bible.
As one who has been a tireless defender of the creeds in the life of the church, I can sympathize somewhat with Smith's frustration.  Nevertheless, he is being unfair to Wright on at least two counts.  First, Wright doesn't propose a "secret" key to understanding the Gospels.  As a historian, he is simply doing what all Evangelicals claim is their first interpretative task: understanding the text historically.  Who indeed seriously doubts that the ontological Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon—true and important though I affirm it to be—has had a deleterious influence on how many Christians read the Gospels?  My own experience of trying to convince students that the Gospels' portrayals of Jesus' physical and intellectual limitations are to be taken at face value has proven to me that Wright's concerns at this point are spot-on.

Second, Wright certainly doesn't "see little of any value" in the creeds.  He explicitly sees them as full of "solemn truth and supple wisdom" (16).  The problem lies in how they are used.  After all, the creeds developed as responses to heresies such as docetism, Arianism, and Nestorianism.  As such, they serve as "boundary markers" serving a definitional function for authentic Christian belief.  The problem lies when they are turned into an implicit or even explicit teaching syllabus to define what it is that Christians need to know about God, Christ, the Spirit, etc. (18-19).  It is when this transformation takes place that the creeds often do serve as blinders to what the texts of the Gospels are actually saying.  Better that the creeds be understood in conjunction with that other liturgical stalwart, the Lord's Prayer, which petitions, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  By doing so, the balance can be redressed significantly.

Wright's major diagnosis, I believe, is absolutely correct.  I know, as a lifelong theological student, that the Gospels have, in my circles at least, been subordinated to the supposed "propositional" theology of the Apostle Paul.  Paul, it is commonly thought, presents the definitive "gospel" of Christ's atoning death and resurrection, with the result that the bulk of the (apparently ironically-named) "Gospels" are often relegated to the subordinate concerns of history, ethics, and illustration of truth delineated elsewhere.  Even my seminary education unwittingly contributed to this perception by using Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans as the foundation for the school's required Greek exegesis courses (they have since thankfully changed).  In today's post-modern climate, things are changing because of the now-fashionable prioritization of "stories."  But the residual effects of the Gospels' prior marginalization remain in many circles.

As an Anglican who confesses the creeds daily, Wright may be right to see them having the somewhat mixed influence on Christian understanding of the Gospels.  Nevertheless, we must realize that there is New Testament precedent for the type of summaries found in the creeds in the confessional or liturgical fragments found in such texts as 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11, and 1 Timothy 3:16. The solution is not to abandon or marginalize the creeds—indeed, Wright himself would not do so—but to do a better job teaching the biblical significance of such creedally-affirmed titles as "Christ," "Son of God," and "Lord."  Worse is the situation many American Evangelicals find themselves in, namely, the situation of being creedally-uninformed.  Such Christians—and these include the majority of the students I have taught—believe with all their hearts that Jesus is "God," but they have no clue as to how this works its way out in their reading of the Gospels.  Indeed, many if not most of my students have had to be corrected of such errors as tritheism, docetism, Nestorianism, and even Apollinarianism.  It is safe to say that with such understandings of Jesus, the Gospels are going to be difficult indeed to understand correctly.

Wright goes on to list six different ways that Christians in the West have tried—unsuccessfully—to understand the "middle bits" of the Gospels.  It is to these that we will turn in our next post.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

N. T. Wright, How God Became King: A Review (Part 1 - Introduction)

N. T. Wright at the annual Conference of the Evangelical Theological Society,
Atlanta, November 2010 (photo courtesy of the author)

N. T. (Tom) Wright has done it again.  This master at stepping on toes, this consummate paradigm buster, has just written a book on the four Gospels in which he argues that Western Christians—be they Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, Reformed, Lutheran, or Anabaptist (he doesn't mention the bêtes noires of American evangelicalism, the dispensationalists)—have largely failed to understand the very books that constitute the core of the Christian canon.

The response to How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels has been predictable.  Some, like Scot McKnight and Tim Gombis, have been very positive in their assessment.  Others, like Calvin College's James Smith, have mixed their praise with circumspect criticisms.  Still others, not surprisingly, exemplified by the head-scratching review by Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin at the Gospel Coalition, have responded with harsh dismissals of Professor Wright's thesis. [Regarding the GC review, McKnight correctly observes: "it was a review that was so far out of touch with the book ... that at one spot in reading the review I wondered if I had confused that review’s book with the manuscript (of Tom’s book) I had read. Well, no, as it turns out, I had read that very book ..."].

A little word of personal biography.  I first came into contact with Wright's work while pursuing doctoral studies in New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.  My mentor, the late Harold Hoehner, pointed me to an article Wright published in 1986 on Philippians 2:5-11 in the Journal of Theological Studies (reprinted and expanded in The Climax of the Covenant, 56-98), extolling it as the best article he had read in years.  Upon reading the article, I quickly concurred, being amazed at how Wright could cut through the morass of 17 (!) competing interpretations to locate the essential exegetical considerations and come to an indisputable conclusion.  While researching for my dissertation on Paul's theology of justification in Galatians, I quickly and gratefully discovered his early Tyndale Lecture, "The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith" (Tyndale Bulletin 29 [1978] 61-88), and his books, The Climax of the Covenant (1991) and the massive, programmatic The New Testament and the People of God (1992).  Indeed, Professor Wright's work was instrumental in the formation of my major thesis, which I continue to espouse to this day, namely, that the so-called "New Perspective on Paul," far from being a danger to orthodox Christianity, is in fact correct in many of its emphases and not incompatible with nuanced forms of the traditional "Lutheran" and "Reformed" views of Paul.  Indeed, in all his work on both Jesus and Paul, I have found Wright to be both refreshingly original and compatible with generously orthodox readings of Scripture.  Moreover, as my brother Dan once said, Wright has functioned somewhat as a prophetic voice to an Evangelicalism smug in its assumed readings of the Bible.

Alas, not all feel this way.  As Wright's fame has spread over the past decade from the academy to the pulpit and the pew—I can't bring myself to say "stage" and "theater seat"—he has become increasingly controversial.  To some, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham is too "high church" ever to be embraced wholeheartedly.  To others, his view of Jesus, though ultimately Chalcedonian, is too fraught with human limitations to allow the Savior to ambulate, as it were, six inches off the ground.

Wright's most vocal critics, however, have been so-called "Confessional" Evangelicals associated with such groups as the newly reimagined Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  This is hardly surprising, given his penchant for utilizing historical exegesis to refine and/or replace, rather than reaffirm, traditional interpretations and confessional shibboleths.  A former colleague of mine, a member of a PCA church and frequent collaborator with the Gospel Coalition, told me a couple of years ago that "he couldn't understand why so many thought so highly" of Wright.  As a New Testament scholar, I charitably attributed that apparent lapse of judgment to his status as a church historian.  Ensuing events, including the somewhat unsophisticated response of "Confessional Evangelicals" to Wright's presentation on justification at the 2010 ETS Conference in Atlanta, and my subsequent banishment from teaching responsibilities at my former college for defense of said presentation, have taught me the issue lies deeper, in the very blinding capacity of presuppositions and preunderstandings—especially preunderstandings with hoary creedal or confessional precedent.  [BTW, this is exemplified as clear as a desert sky by the GC review, the authors of which are, respectively, a graduate and professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary at Louisville, and whose antipathy to Wright stem from both theological and political commitments.]  I understand the force of such preunderstandings, given the fact that I had to work through them in my doctoral studies.  But I remain thankful to the Lord that I attended a seminary that still values the languages and teaches historical-critical exegesis.

How God Became King is vintage Wright: penetrating, original, pugnacious, fearless, yet easy to read, written in an engaging, conversational manner.  I believe it is among the most important of his nontechnical—I hesitate to say "popular"—works, whetting the appetite for a fuller, more scholarly presentation of the subject at a later date.  In a number of posts to follow, I will summarize and critique his major argument and individual proposals.  I invite you to follow along.  Better yet:  buy and read the book along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reflections on St. Mark's Day

Detail from facade of Witherspoon Building, Juniper and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia (1897),
portraying Mark traditionally as the winged lion of Revelation 4:5-7
(photo taken by author, 14 March 2012)

Today is St. Mark's Day, commemorating the life and ministry of John Mark, companion of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and—according to the most ancient tradition—the author of the "Gospel" that bears his name.  Mark's significance was detailed by the ancient church father Papias of Hierapolis, companion of Polycarp and hearer of John the Elder (John, son of Zebedee?):
And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.14-15)
What Papias learned from the mouth of John the Elder is confirmed independently by Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE):
And when it is said that He changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in the memoirs of Him that this so happened, as well as that He changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder; this was an announcement of the fact that it was He by whom Jacob was called Israel…. (Dialogue with Trypho, 106.3)
Mark, according to the oldest tradition, wrote his book not simply to produce a rip-roaring story cleverly disguising fictitious projections of community experiences.  Rather, he aimed to leave out nothing of importance of what Peter had recalled Jesus to have done and said.  And if, as I find incontrovertible, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related literarily, and Mark's was almost certainly the earliest to have been written, then Mark's Gospel, somewhat ignored until the last couple of centuries in favor of its longer neighbors, is the literary fountainhead of the Gospel tradition that forms the core of the Christian canon.  Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, Mark was the first to have designated the entire story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as "gospel" in the sense that they constitute God's definitive saving event in fulfillment of the Old Testament covenantal promises.

I leave you with the Collect for St. Mark's Day from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
O ALMIGHTY God, who hast instructed thy holy Church with the heavenly doctrine of thy Evangelist Saint Mark; Give us grace that. being not like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine, we may be established in the truth of thy holy Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

The 2012 Phillies after 16 Games: An Assessment

The preliminary verdict is already in after 16 games: the 2012 Phillies are in serious trouble.  By "trouble" I mean a predicament they are unlikely to  worm their way out of.  I am tempted to say, in good Philadelphia fashion, "They stink"—indeed, I have on numerous occasions while watching the team flounder on its current west coast swing—but the academic in me continues to caution me that only 1/10 of the season has been played.  Sixteen games is clearly too small a sample size from which to make definitive deductions.  GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. says it is too soon to "panic."  And, as play-by-play man Tom McCarthy was only too happy to point out in his irritatingly sanguine way, the 2008 and 2009 Phils, both of whom went to the World Series, started off at 7-8 in their first 15 games.

I am not fooled.  I have watched too much baseball over the past 49 years to be swayed by disingenuous spin.  The 2008-9 teams had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins in their prime.  They had Pat Burrell (in '08) and Raul Ibanez (in '09) patrolling left field and slamming 30+ homers.  They also had 4-tool player Jayson Werth in right field.  With such prodigious offensive weapons, it was only a matter of time before the team's engine started to purr.  In '08, they hit 214 homers and scored 799 runs.  In '09 the numbers were even better: 224/820.  Nevertheless, in '09 it still took the acquisition of Cliff Lee at the trading deadline to put the team over the top.

How great a difference three years makes!  After 16 games this season, the team's pitching, as expected, has been superb.  They are second in the league with a miniscule 2.46 ERA.  Their three horses, Roy Halladay (3-1/1.50), Cliff Lee (0-1/1.96), and Cole Hamels (2-1/2.95), have performed as expected.  But Lee's line in particular tells all one needs to know about why this team is seriously—and perhaps fatally—flawed.  Three starts, 23 innings, 5 runs allowed—and zero wins.  This includes a 10-inning gem in which he allowed zero runs and ended up with a no decision, because the Phillies hitters were, unsurprisingly, even less successful against the Giants' Matt Cain.  And, to add insult to injury, Lee ended up on the Disabled List with an oblique strain suffered while pitching in the 10th inning that night.

The offensive numbers thus far have been brutal.  They are hitting .239 as a team, and have scored an anemic 43 runs (2.7 pg), 29th out of 30 major league teams.  They have scored 2 runs or less in 10 of their 16 games and, as Matt Gelb has reported, they have swung at more balls out of the strike zone (34%) than any team in baseball.  They have hit only 19 doubles (29th out of 30 teams) and 7 homers (tied for 28th).  They are on pace to score 435 runs with 192 doubles and 71 homers—numbers worse than even the infamous 1972 team of Willie Montanez and Greg Luzinski (503/200/98) that won a mere 59 games despite having 27-game winner Steve Carlton on their staff.

Now, I am not saying that this team will rival the '72 team's staggering ineptitude.  But that is due, above all, to the pitching staff that has not thus far shown signs of stress due to the team's lack of support.  Last month I suggested that the 1965 Dodgers could potentially prove to be the model for the 2012 Phillies.  Increasingly, however, it looks like a better parallel might be the 1966 White Sox.  That team, led by Tommie Agee, hit .231, scored 574 runs, hit 87 home runs, and stole 153 bases (the Phils, with 15, are on pace to steal 152).  Despite these abysmal numbers, the Sox finished in fourth place with a respectable 83-79 record, due almost exclusively to a pitching staff that led the AL with a 2.68 team ERA.  The statistics of poor Joel Horlen (10-13/2.43) and Gary Peters (12-10/1.98) could prove eerily prophetic of what Phils' hurlers like Lee and Hamels might expect if the offense doesn't turn things around quickly.

The question, of course, is whether or not the offense will, as it were, step up to the plate.  Hopeless optimists look to the anticipated return of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for hope. If they are able to play at an approximation of their former abilities—and that's a big if, similar to what was conveyed by a fourth class condition in Koine Greek—they will certainly help some.  Both players have declined precipitously over the past couple of seasons, however, and their serious injuries make it highly unlikely they will ever approach their former effectiveness.  Jimmy Rollins, likewise, is a far cry from his former MVP self.  Shane Victorino is good, but wildly inconsistent due to lack of plate discipline.  Placido Polanco has completely lost the ability to drive the ball.  Hunter Pence is clearly the team's best player, but the cleanup spot is clearly a bad fit for him, and the strain is starting to show.

I, an inveterate pessimist, am not hopeful.  My fears about the Nationals and Braves appear to be somewhat well-founded, and even the supposedly lowly Mets are playing well.  It is easy to sit back and complain about the hand that GM Amaro has dealt us.  Hindsight has certainly put question marks on some of his moves, and his depletion of the farm system has left the team vulnerable in the future.  Nevertheless, he could never have anticipated the precipitous declines of Howard and Utley due to injury.  Likewise, it is all too easy to lay the blame at the feet of manager Charlie Manuel.  Indeed, some of his "moves" in the season's first two weeks have been puzzling, to put it nicely.  But he is not the major problem. As I said, it's easy to complain about the present state of the team. It is not so easy to provide suggestions for improvement.  I will try anyway, for unless such improvement takes place, and takes place quickly, the team will, I suppose, have a hard time re-signing Cole Hamels to the long term deal they claim is their highest priority.

First, the team must cut ties to Jim Thome and Laynce Nix.  With the presence of Ty Wigginton, they are simply redundant pieces who bring nothing to the table.  Why Amaro gave Nix a two-year contract is a mystery whose depths will never be plumbed.  He will not be missed by anybody.  Thome's is a sad case. He is a likeable guy who has a first ballot Hall of Fame resume.  But watching him the past two weeks is almost as painful as watching Willie Mays back in 1973.  He simply can't play any longer.  Hopefully he can be persuaded to retire before he both embarrasses himself and hurts the team.

Second, they need to call up Scott Podsednik from AAA Lehigh Valley.  Podsednik, by all objective standards, earned a spot on the team with a fine spring training, but was sent down anyway.  I am aware he missed most of last season with injuries, but he hit .300 in '09-'10 in over 1000 ABs.  He could potentially help to alleviate what has been the team's greatest weakness over the past few years, viz., situational hitting (case in point: yesterday the team had 14 baserunners, yet scored a measly one unearned run). 

Third, they must decide quickly what to do with Domonic Brown, once considered one of baseball's most highly touted prospects, but who now is an enigma languishing in AAA.  How someone who was recruited to play Division 1 football as a wide receiver could have such a hard time learning to play left field is unfathomable. The signing of Hunter Pence to play right field surely damaged Brown mentally, but he must either be given the chance to play every day or be traded while he still has any value left.  Considering that the two most recent denizens of left field at CBP were Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez, I ask a simple question: could Brown be any worse?  And could his bat be any worse than that wielded thus far by John Mayberry?

Finally, they must do everything they can to re-sign Hamels.  Both Halladay and Lee, great as they have been, are older pitchers and likely face decline sooner rather than later.  Hamels is both fairly young and a home-grown product, whom to lose would be a folly similar to the loss of Curt Schilling more than a decade ago.  This, I suspect, will hinge on whether the Phils can somehow put a lineup on the field capable of scoring more runs than they have so far this season.  We can either sit back and hope that the current players snap out of their funk, or we can go out and find better offensive weapons.  To do the latter will mean, of course, that we will have to make one or more trades, which in turn means that we will have to decide who, if any, of our players are "untouchable."  Any suggestions?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Indignant News Flash to Newsweek: Philadelphia Is NOT in Decline

Philadelphia: New (Comcast Center) and Old (City Hall)
(Image ©James R. McGahey, 2012)

If you want to get a true Philadelphian's dander up, publish a (deliberately?) misleading article, chock full of time-worn stereotypes, trumpeting the city's "decline."  Thus one can only surmise how high my blood pressure rose this morning when I read native Californian (should I be surprised?) Daniel Stone's piece, "Is Philadelphia in Decline? New Report Shows a City with Marked Challenges," posted on 6 April in Newsweek's Daily Beast.  I immediately looked online for responses, and found two devastating rebuttals by Patrick Kerkstra in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Wes in his blog, Philly Bricks.  Even more surprising were the detailed, statistically-laced refutations in the Comments section following the article, including one by Larry Eichel of the Pew Charitable Trusts whose report was the supposed foundation for Stone's article.

To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, however, the rumors of Philadelphia's demise are greatly exaggerated.  The facts are these.  The Census Bureau, which had to eat crow in 2010 for precipitantly crowning Pheonix as America's 5th-largest city, has now estimated that the city has added another 10,000+ residents in the past two years.  Unemployment remains high, at 10.5%, but who ever suggests that Los Angeles, with a rate of 13.3%, is on its last legs?  Indeed, the Philadelphia metropolitan area of 6 million people (more than 6.5 million if, as commuter patterns suggest, Berks County is added) had, as of February, a rate of 8.8%, just a shade over the national average of 8.7%, and less than the metro areas of Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Jacksonville, San Jose, New York City, San Diego, Tampa, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Residential building permits were up more than 50% in 2011, as anyone who has been to G-Ho, Northern Liberties, or even long-moribund North Central Philly can attest.  Yes, the murder rate is high and has increased marginally over the last two years, but the 2011 numbers remain 20% lower than in 2006, and a staggering 35% lower than in the high water year of 1990.

But, as St. Paul would say, I am only speaking kat' anthrōpon, in terms characteristic of the larger culture in which we live, a culture for whom size, money, and the corresponding power mean more than anything.  Philadelphia, though in many respects a tottering old man among cities, is not in danger of dying any time in the near future.  Nevertheless—and this is the main point—Kerkstra is spot-on when he suggests that "the sum of the city's appeal can't be totaled up by subtracting the homicide rate from an index of property values."  Philadelphia's appeal, to me, lies, as it must, elsewhere.

Growing up in Philly I never realized it, but my almost two decades living in Dallas, extensive travel, and critical viewing of television have impressed upon me a simple observation: Philadelphia is the least "American" of all of America's great cities.  And that's a good thing.  But it's also the thing that lies at the heart of the misunderstanding and hostility directed against it by Americans who hail from elsewhere.  Simply put, if you cling to the dystopian, suburban vision of the American dream, you will not like the City of Brotherly Love.

Years ago my wife and I were invited to a dinner party along with several other "Presbyterian" couples.  In the course of the evening's conversation, I made the offhand comment that I preferred cities that had "gone to seed" a little bit.  The immediate response of the hostess, a genteel product of the Old South, was a priceless look of absolute horror at the thought.  But I am a Philadelphian with an ingrained distaste for the uniform, modernistic sterility of America's "sunbelt" cities.  Philadelphia's dirty?  Of course it is. Name me a great world city (London, Rome) that isn't.  Philadelphia has serious economic challenges?  Of course it does.  It is old, has an aging infrastructure, no cheap land on which to expand, and the heavy industry on which it forged its national prominence more than a century ago has all but vanished due to the dearth of cheap, immigrant labor and the depredations of globalism.  Yet Philadelphia's "robustness" in the face of its contemporary challenges continues to surprise and confound observers such as Razib Khan.

One more thing: the Philadelphia character.  Philadelphians are a notoriously curmudgeonly lot, whose crankiness famously borders on hostility when it comes to their four professional sports franchises.  This no doubt plays into outsiders' perceptions.  But there is another feature of the Philadelphia character that derives from the city's Quaker heritage, namely, a modesty that often manifests itself in self-effacement.  I never noticed this until I moved to Dallas back in 1979.  Growing up in Philly I never thought my hometown was anything special.  Indeed, places like Florida, Texas, and California all seemed so much more glamorous and new.  When, in the early '70s, the city mounted a campaign to boost tourism in the city, I thought to myself, "Why would anyone want to go on holiday to Philadelphia?"  And I dare say I was not alone in my thoughts.  Philadelphians, fed a nightly dose of murders and fires on Action News, were well aware of their city's shortcomings, and neither ignored nor repressed such problems by utilizing sophisticated defense mechanisms.

How different things are elsewhere!  New Yorkers and Angelenos are notorious for their civic egocentrism.  Floridians boast incessantly about their weather, somehow forgetting the well-nigh unlivable, oppressive heat and humidity of their summers.  And nothing compares to Texas, many of whose residents have a breathtaking superiority complex vis-a-vis every other American locale.  Not to take anything away from these places—all of them have many things in which to take pride—but, I dare say, all of them are rife with serious problems as well.  When I lived in Old East Dallas, my family and I had to get used to the sounds of gunfire and the nightly buzz of police helicopters hovering overhead.  Yet, when people think of Dallas, no one thinks of East, South, and West Dallas, preferring to fixate on the über wealth of the city's nouveau riche.  Why, then, I soon asked, do people immediately think of the blight and violence of North Philly and Kensington rather than the Main Line, Chestnut Hill, or Rittenhouse when they think of Philadelphia? 

The answer, I increasingly believe, is found in the power of the mythological American metanarrative—and specifically how the strengths of Philadelphia don't fit the "story" once its opening foundation has been laid.  For, you see, Philadelphia's strengths are no longer to be found in the area of commerce—the exigencies of its geographical and historical situations have seen to that, and is unlikely ever to be reversed—but in culture: specifically education (The University of Pennsylvania and countless others), the arts (The Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Museum of Art, University of Pennsylvania Museum), and a peerless architectural heritage.  It is old. Both it and its citizens don't do glitz well (thank heaven for that!).  When it tries to be "cutting edge" it simply plays against its strengths and manages to look like a cheap imitator of New York.  Indeed, revitalization is as necessary now as ever, but to do so by either ignoring or defacing what is already there would be a betrayal of that heritage.  For Philadelphia's strength can be summarized in a nutshell: you can't find what it has anywhere else.  And that is what, if anything, will ultimately stem any future fatal decline.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Suffering, the Cross of Christ, and the Goodness of God

Growing up with a theology professor for a father, I was fortunate to have shared the experience of Timothy who, from childhood, had "been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make [one] wise for salvation through faith in Messiah Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15 [ESV, alt. JRM]).  This meant, as anyone acquainted with Protestantism in lineal descent from the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin knows, that I was soaked—and rightly so!—in Saint Paul's "theology of the cross."  As far back as I can remember, I have placed my faith in the crucified and risen Christ alone for "salvation," understood in the sense of spending eternity in the presence of God.

As my knowledge of the faith, not to mention my theological sophistication, has grown over the years, I continue steadfastly to cling to the cross, as did the old Anglican curate, Augustus Toplady, who penned these immortal words in the third stanza of his 1763 hymn "Rock of Ages":
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Over the years, I have often told my students that the one good thing about being McGahey—and, believe me, being myself has often gotten me into trouble, whether deserved or not—is that self-righteousness is not a sin or delusion to which I am constitutionally prone.  To such a man as myself, the Pauline message of the cross is good news indeed.

As the years have passed and the tribulations of life have inexorably reared their ugly heads, however, I have found increasing comfort in another aspect of the theology of the cross, namely, what the cross teaches us about God.  I touched briefly on this in my Good Friday meditation on John Donne's poem, "Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward."  The same thought is broached more fully in an article posted last week by Mark Galli on the website of Christianity Today, which I heartily recommend.

The so-called "problem of evil"—how can a supposedly good and sovereign God allow the suffering and misery endured by so many of his creatures?—has been part of the stock arsenal of agnostic and atheistic critics of all theistic systems for hundreds of years, particularly since the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  In more recent years, the thought of God's assignation of countless multitudes of his human creatures, especially children and people never exposed to the message of Christ, to an eternity of torment in hell has provoked negative reactions from Christians as well (along with the inevitable, vigorous counter-reactions).  This was made evident with breathtaking clarity in last year's kerfuffle over Rob Bell's Love Wins.  Similarly, even more learned theologians like Roger Olson have argued strenuously against Calvinism (which he somewhat tendentiously defines in supralapsarian terms) for its supposed teaching that God actively predestines people to hell.

I would, as a Calvinist, suggest that any "Christian" who does not acutely feel or acknowledge the theological tension here, who fails to grieve deeply and puzzlingly over the prospective destiny of those who die without Christ, and who inevitably reneges on his or her evangelistic responsibilities, simply fails to demonstrate the compassionate mind of Christ given us by the Spirit.  Those of us who do, however, have but one place to look, viz., to the cross.  For, as Galli argues, it is there that we gaze upon the face of God as he has revealed himself to us in his goodness.  For, as I would say, it is on the cross that we see the self-substitution of God for fallen humanity, God himself suffering not only indignity, but the penal consequences of human sin as well.

A generation ago the late John Stott made a startling confession:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.  The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'.  In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? ... [I turn] to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! (The Cross of Christ, 335-36)
At the time I was somewhat mystified by the statement.  I am no longer.  At the time I was studying for my Ph.D. in New Testament, and had been trained well in classic systematic theology, one of whose doctrines is the supposed "impassibility" of God.  I understand, of course, what this doctrine is intended to safeguard, namely, the perfection and "immutability" of God.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the denial of feeling, emotions—yes, even suffering—to God necessitates both that we anthropomorphize (and anthropopathize) away too much of the Old Testament portrayal of God and that we succumb to an attenuated, Hellenized picture of God as "the infinite iceberg of metaphysics" (Vincent Tymms, cited by Stott, 331).

I don't have the answers to all the questions I, let alone others, have asked about the sovereignty of God and how this (clear) teaching of the Bible intersects with such matters as God's goodness and the eternal state of those who die without Christ.  What I do have is the portrait of the Son of God hanging on the cross in my behalf, placarded before my mind's eye by the proclamation of his apostles, not least Saint Paul.  And that is enough for me to know that my God is indeed good, and that I will have an eternity in which to contemplate his exhaustive wisdom that appears so opaque to me now.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Thomas Buck Hosiery Mill Fire and the Transience of the Old Creation

Thomas Buck Hosiery Mill Fire, 9 April 2012

This morning, in my daily perusal of, I came upon the horrible news that two firefighters had been killed, and three more injured, fighting a 5-alarm blaze in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.  When I came upon the second paragraph of the story, it hit me square in the nose: the factory building destroyed by this fire was precisely the one my brother and I had gone to see on Saturday in our ongoing attempt to document the city's architectural heritage photographically.

Indeed, it had been my intention for some time to travel to Kensington and North Philadelphia on this mission.  I decided to visit the 19th-century Buck Mill because of an article in the Hidden City Philadelphia blog on 30 March, which portrayed the simultaneous grandeur and decrepitude of the factory, which had been vacant since the 1970s.

Now it is gone, like many other former factories in the neighborhood whose only remains are the trash-strewn empty lots that comprise their footprint, awaiting redevelopment.  And this provokes an overwhelming melancholy in the core of this Main Line suburbanite.  As they say, they just don't—indeed, our "advanced" culture can't—build them like this any more.  Many old mills in Kensington and Fishtown have been salvaged and restored, but many more—all of them brawny monuments to the time when Philadelphia was truly the "Workshop of the World"—remain on the endangered list, and there is only so much money to go around.

As always, events like this lead me to reflect theologically on transience. "All flesh," the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.... The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa 40:6, 8).  This, of course, was written of human beings, the only hope for whom is rooted in the event celebrated on Easter morning.  But all of us will die, and everything we do and make is subject to the decay that characterizes the creation of which we are a part.  Nothing of what we have made will ultimately survive, no matter how hard we work to assure its longevity.  That, of course, includes masterpieces of architecture like Chartres Cathedral, the U.S. Capitol—yes, even Philadelphia's City Hall—as well as such seemingly pedestrian structures as the Buck Mill.

What will remain is that which is associated with the New Creation inaugurated in the resurrection of the Son of God on Easter Day, 5 April 33 CE.  This is the macrocosmic New Creation of which we who know Christ have been made microcosms (2 Cor 5:17).  How much more, then, should we heed the admonition of our Lord, who said:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21, NIV)
I leave you with a number of the photographs I took of the Buck Mill 36 hours before it met its fiery fate.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

John Donne, "Death Be Not Proud"

Posting the other day on John Donne’s “Good-Friday 1613, Riding Westward” got me thinking about my favorite of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, "Dead Be Not Proud”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Resurrection, for Donne, wasn’t just an element of the creed to be confessed mindlessly at daily and Sunday services.  It was the great hope of his life.  Shortly before his death Donne commissioned a portrait of himself clothed in burial cloths with eyes closed, and hung it on the wall in anticipation of his future glorious resurrection

And what a wonderful hope and expectation this is!  According to the Apostle Paul, those of us who are "in Christ" through faith and who were, in God's reckoning, crucified and raised with Christ (Romans 6:5-6; Colossians 3:1) have been given the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9) as a down payment of our ultimate inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:22). Consequently, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will, when Jesus returns, give immortal life TO OUR MORTAL BODIES (Romans 8:11).  THIS is the Christian hope guaranteed by the events that occurred in Jerusalem on 5 April 33 CE—not some ethereal, boring, disembodied existence strumming harps in the clouds, but an EMBODIED existence in which we redeemed human beings can at last live—on a renewed earth!—as human beings were originally created to live.  May those of us who share this hope anticipate this destiny by living our lives as actually "dead" to sin and "alive to God," refusing to allow sin to "reign" in the mortal bodies we now have ( Romans 6:11-12).  Soli Deo Gloria.