John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 3

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.]

4. Paul’s Theology of Grace in Its Original Social Context

In this section of the book, Barclay spends about 118 pages tracing Paul’s theology of grace in his letter to the Galatians, and another 113 pages doing the same in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In both letters, Barclay finds the dominant motif to be the incongruity of grace. The gift, for Paul, is the Christ-event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, in both letters, the implications of this gift are profound for creating and imagining a new community in which previous barriers are eliminated. The kind of welcome we have received from God in Christ requires believers to embody the same kind of welcome to one another—a welcome irrespective of previous measures of ‘worth’. Barclay writes, ‘Since God’s incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and united them in their common faith in Christ’ (p. 566).

The key features of Barclay’s reading of Galatians, drawing from his own summary remarks, are as follows:

  1. The theology of Galatians ‘drives toward the formation of innovative communities, which not only span the boundary dividing Gentiles and Jews, but practice a communal ethos significantly at odds with the contest-culture of the Mediterranean world’ (p. 443).
  2. The incongruity of grace ‘enacted in the Christ-event and experienced in the Spirit’ reconfigures reality, and represents a ‘ “human-level” disjunction’ and yet a ‘ “divine-level” continuity (p. 443).
  3. The contextual specificity of the letter means that by ‘works of the law’ Paul means ‘Jewish practices beholden to the Torah, not “works” or “law” in a generalized sense (contra-Luther). For Paul, the Christ-event subverted every other value-system or means of defining worth, even the Torah. This also adds ‘breadth to the canvas’ of Paul’s theology since any worldly definition of honor or worth is also struck down.
  4. Communal practice is ‘integral to the expression of good news’. Living by faith is ‘necessarily expressed in new patterns of loyalty and behavior’, with the Spirit as its source, director, and norm (pp. 444-5).
  5. No denigration of Judaism is necessary, whether as a religion of works or otherwise. Paul shows that the ‘demands of the good news surpass the authority of the Torah’ (p. 445).

Barclay offers no such neat summary of the key features of his reading of Romans. But each section includes a conclusion, and I am drawing from these to outline what is notable to me:

  1. Romans is concerned with relating the Christ-event to the story of Israel.
  2. The motif of the incongruity of God’s gift is its major theme. Barclay sees Paul as parading ‘not the match but the mismatch between the act of God and the value or condition of its human beneficiaries’ (p. 490). ‘When the narrative of the Abrahamic family is told in this incongruous shape, it emerges that all people, Jew and Gentile, derive their identity, in faith, from the God who gives life to the dead and has now raised Jesus as the source of new life’ (p. 492).
  3. The eschatological vision of God’s judgment is one where the gift of Christ will be the ‘fitting outcome of a life of “good work” (p. 492). This does not make the gift conditioned, but neither does it make it unconditional. God’s gift is ‘designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law’ (p. 492). God, after all, gives His grace to sinners not because He is morally indifferent, but because He ‘intends to transform the human condition’ (p. 492). Paul’s phrase ‘obedience from faith’, used to bookend his letter, demonstrates that obedience is ‘the product of a life created through God’s incongruous gift’ (p. 492).
  4. As slaves to God who have an obligation to Him and to one another, our obligation does not gain grace or win another installment of grace (pp. 517-8).
  5. The essential incongruity of grace that continues in the life of the believer is not evidenced in the believer continuing to be a sinner (per Luther)—since ‘what began as a morally incongruous gift will be completed as a morally congruous gift’ (p. 518). Rather, the essential incongruity of grace is seen in the resurrection life of Christ (from which all holy living in the believer springs) co-existing in the believer’s own life, their mortal body. Playing off Luther’s maxim, Barclay creates his own: simul mortuus et vivens—at once dead and alive.
  6. Rather than paint Paul as monergistic or synergistic, Barclay simply asserts that for Paul the life of the believer is derived from Christ.
  7. The Christ-event is not simply the ‘latest episode in a story of grace’. Rather, it is the final, complete, decisive, and comprehensive enactment of incongruous grace. It is the moment that gives meaning to the whole narrative.

Summing up his reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans using his own taxonomy of the ‘perfections’ of ‘gift’, Barclay concludes:

‘The incongruity of grace does not imply, for Paul, its singularity (since God’s act of grace in Christ is predicated on his judgment of sin) or its non-circularity (since the gift carries expectation of obedience). Because it is incongruous, the priority of the gift is everywhere presupposed, but Paul rarely draws out predestinarian conclusions, as in the Hodayot or in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin. The superabundance of grace is also presupposed and sometimes explicit, but its efficacy is given less attention than the Augustinian tradition might suggest. While some Pauline texts suggest the efficacy of grace in the will and work of the believers (1 Cor 15:9-10; Phil 2:12-13), this perfection receives no special profile in Galatians and Romans. Everything that may be said about the believer is predicated on the resurrection life of Christ, as the source of new life in the Spirit: no one can “walk in line with the Spirit” unless they “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). But the efficacy of grace (in the sense of the present, causative agency of God within the agency of the believers) is not of central concern in either Galatians or Romans, and is not a necessary entailment of their primary perfection, the incongruity of the gift of Christ.’

5. New Contexts and New Meanings of Grace

What happens when Paul’s letters are read in new contexts? What happens when the criteria of worth is no longer the Torah but a ‘Christianized’ value-system? How should one make sense of Paul’s ‘works of the law’ then?

In every social context after Paul, his radical theology of incongruous grace has been read no longer as the ‘critical theology of a new social movement’, but rather as the ‘self-critical theology of an established tradition’ (p. 570). In short, ‘missionary theology is turned inwards’ (p. 571).

Augustine ‘interpreted “boasting” as the pride of believers who attribute merit to themselves, and not to God, directing the ‘critical edge of Paul’s theology’ against ‘Christian construals of virtue-acquisition’ (p. 571).

Luther’s achievement was to ‘translate Paul’s missionary theology of grace into an urgent and perpetual inward mission, directed to the church, but especially to the heart of each believer’ (p. 571). Paul’s theology of gift is ‘re-preached to effect the perpetual conversion of believers’, making the gospel a ‘mission to self and a daily return to baptism’ (p. 571).

Calvin used Paul’s theology to expose the ‘human incapacity to fulfill the law’s demands.

Barth (and Martyn) drew on Paul to subvert the ‘ “religious” movement toward God that is no more than a “human enterprise” ’ (p. 572).

The New Perspective on Paul understood the focus of Paul’s critique to not be merely achievement or performance of works, but the very criteria by which worth is measured—a criteria which served as an ethnic and social boundary (p. 572).

Finally, Barclay gives us his own suggestions for where one might locate this book in terms of these other readings of Paul (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

‘Thus, the reading of Paul offered in this book may be interpreted either as a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition, retuning the dynamic of the incongruity of grace to its original mission environment where it accompanied the formation of new communities, or as a reconfiguration of the “new perspective”, placing its best historical and exegetical insights within the frame of Paul’s theology of grace. I have disagreed in significant ways with interpreters on both sides of this divide, and the reading offered here does not harmonize the two interpretative traditions but reshapes them both. Thus it opens a path beyond current dichotomies, placing their respective strengths within a frame that is responsible both to the Paul’s historical conditions and to the theological structures of his thought.’

And therein lies Barclay’s gift of ‘Paul and the Gift’.


For more, read Wesley Hill’s review of it HERE, Reformation21’s review HERE, and the Christianity Today interview with Barclay HERE.


John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 2

[NOTE: This is a 3 part summary of Prof. John Barclay’s book, “Paul and the Gift”. Read Part 1 HERE.]

2. Distinct Perfections of Grace

Barclay then borrows the term ‘perfection’ from Kenneth Burke’s work to refer to the ‘tendency to draw out a concept to its endpoint or extreme’, sometimes to clarify a definition, other times to gain a rhetorical or ideological advantage (p. 67).

Barclay then identifies six ‘perfections’ of the concept of grace over the course of Pauline scholarship (pp.185-186):

  1. superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  2. singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  3. priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
  4. incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  5. efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
  6. non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.

Barclay is quick to add a few qualifiers, which may be outlined in the following way:

  1. even though each ‘perfection’ configures gift in some maximal form, none of these can be claimed as the essence of grace;
  2. don’t assume that the ‘more perfections of grace, the better’;
  3. be wary of the ‘tendency to pile perfections on top of each other’;
  4. be wary of the tendency ‘to extend single perfections to a greater and greater extreme’ (p. 187).

These cautions are not against hypothetical situations, for, as Barclay demonstrates, the history of Pauline scholarship shows these tendencies to be powerfully present.

In what is one of the most illuminating chapters of the book, Barclay outlines how Marcion, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin ‘perfected’ the notion of ‘gift’ in their reading of Paul’s theology of grace. (He also surveys Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and most notably E. P Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul.) The contribution of this chapter is significant. Because a thorough and accurate representation of just one of these theologians would be impossible for one individual to do, Barclay relies not only on his own substantial scholarship but also on the best scholarship on each theologian, identifying the core themes and avoiding dubious theories.

Here are a few of his key insights:

  • Marcion perfected grace in its singularity, making it difficult to associate the God of the New Testament with any sense of judgment.
  • Augustine perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and efficacy. It was Augustine’s drive to perfect the priority of grace to what some may deem an extreme end late in his life that gave rise to his doctrine of election and predestination. But while that is well-known, what is often missed is his emphasis on the efficacy of grace—its power to make believers fitting and deserving heirs of eternal life (p. 88).
  • Luther perfected grace in its superabundance, priority, incongruity, and non-circularity. In his famous use of the poles of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, Luther also tended to perfect the singularity of grace, naming Christ only as Savior and not as judge. The main feature of Luther’s theology with regard to his understanding of ‘gift’ is his belief in the permanent incongruity of grace—the believer always remains a sinner unworthy of grace (seen in his famous maxim, simul justus et peccator—‘at once righteous and a sinner’). The righteousness present in a believer is an ‘alien’ righteousness that belongs to Christ. This, in one sense, gives Luther’s theology a sharply Christological focus. Yet the lack of any emphasis on the efficacy of grace for fear of its encouraging a propensity toward ‘works’ destroyed the reciprocal structure of a gift and unwittingly gave rise to the Western ideal of a pure gift. (It was Kant who took Luther’s theological reading of grace and universalized it to refer to the ‘horizontal’ dimension of giving to one another as a matter of duty, not relational reciprocity.) In Luther’s mind, ‘good works’ to a neighbor is now ‘horizontalized’—done for the good of the other, and not as a service owed to God that God might also recognize and reward.
  • Calvin perfected grace in its priority, incongruity, and picked up key Augustinian strands in its efficacy. For Calvin, it is the gift of the Spirit from which ‘every valuable feature of the believer’s new life arises’ (p. 129). Grace achieves its goal and does not leave the believer with a life that is perpetually incongruent to the righteousness of God. In the terms often used regarding the ‘agency’ of works, Calvin is neither ‘monergistic’ nor ‘synergistic’, but rather ‘conceives of believers’ actions as both wholly God’s and wholly their own’ (p. 129). Influenced by Augustine, Calvin drew the priority of grace to an absolute, resulting in what Barclay calls Calvin’s belief in the ‘omnicausality’ of God.
  • The New Perspective on Paul perfects grace in its priority and incongruity. The great contribution of the New Perspective is its refusal to read Paul’s ‘works of the law’ as generic ‘law’ or ‘good works’, but rather as a specific Torah-shaped righteousness that gave a sense of national identity to Israel. This prevents a reading of Paul that seeks to avoid the efficacy of grace and to embrace instead the non-circularity of grace (Luther). But its missteps, to Barclay, are its assumption that the priority of grace implies its incongruity. Not everyone who believed that God chose Israel believed that Israel was unworthy of the choice. In short, ‘grace is everywhere in the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same’ (p. 565).

3. Paul among Jewish Theologians of Grace

Where earlier theologians have viewed Judaism as the ‘foil’ to Paul’s notion of grace, the New Perspective on Paul made nearly the equal and opposite error of asserting that Judaism is a religion of grace in the same way that Paul preached grace. The particular perfection of grace in its incongruity is not ubiquitous in Judaism, but neither is it unique to Paul (p. 565).

What is unique to Paul is how he related the incongruity of grace (a) to the ‘Christ-event as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely’, and (b) to ‘the Gentile mission, where the gifts of God ignore ethnic differentials of worth and Torah-based observances of value (“righteousness”)’ (pp. 565-6). Barclay argues that this theology of grace ‘reshaped Paul’s understanding of the identity of Israel’, thus making it a mistake to read his theology as being against Judaism or as seeing the new Jew + Gentile communities of believers as a replacement of Israel (p. 566). Rather, Paul’s hope is for Israel to return to the very root of their faith—a dependence upon the unconditioned mercy of God, something that can be done fully and definitively by putting their faith in Christ.

Read Part 3 HERE.


John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 1

There has been a buzz among New Testament scholars about John Barclay’s recent book, ‘Paul and the Gift’. Barclay is the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the department of Religion and Theology at Durham University, where I am in the process of completing research for a doctorate in theology and ministry. Naturally, I had to see what the fuss was about, and being on sabbatical gave me the time to engage in the kind of long, sustained reading required.


During my week of residency at Durham last Fall– ‘summer school’– Prof. Barclay gave a lecture. Since he didn’t use his name tag,  I ‘nicked’  it from the registration table.

Barclay’s work is stunning, a gift in itself to Pauline studies. Barclay approaches grace as ‘gift’, and develops a frame of six possible ‘perfections’—aspects taking to an extreme emphasis. He then applies his taxonomy of the various ‘perfections’ of the ‘gift’ concept to historically significant Pauline scholars such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Rather than providing us another ‘perspective’ on Paul, Barclay gives us a framework for analyzing all other perspectives—and a compelling and clear way for making sense of Paul in his own context as well.

The book is outlined as follows:

Part I: The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace

Chapter 1: The Anthropology and History of the Gift [65 pages]

Chapter 2: The Perfections of Gift/Grace [13 pages]

Chapter 3: Interpreting Paul on Grace: Shifting Patterns of Perfection [115 pages]

Chapter 4: Summary and Conclusions to Part 1 [10 pages]

Part II: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism

Chapter 5: The Wisdom of Solomon [17 pages]

Chapter 6:Philo of Alexandria [26 pages]

Chapter 7: The Qumran Hodayot [26 pages]

Chapter 8: Pseudo-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum [13 pages]

Chapter 9: Ezra [28 pages]

Chapter 10: The Diverse Dynamics of Grace in Second Temple Judaism [21 pages]

Part III: Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth

Chapter 11: Configuring Galatians [19 pages]

Chapter 12: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Norms (Galatians 1-2) [36 pages]

Chapter 13: The Christi-Gift, the Law, and the Promise (Galatians 3:1-5:12, with 6:11-18) [34 pages]

Chapter 14: The New Community as the Expression of the Gift (Galatians 5:13-6:10) [25 pages]

Part IV: Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift

Chapter 15: The Creative Gift and Its Fitting Result (Romans 1:1-5:11) [43 pages]

Chapter 16: New Life in Dying Bodies: Grace and the Construction of a Christian Habitus (Romans 5:12-8:39; 12:1-15:13) [16 pages]

Chapter 17: Israel, Christ, and the Creative Mercy of God (Romans 9-11) [41 pages]

Chapter 18: Conclusions [16 pages]

Even those casually interested in Paul’s teaching on ‘grace’ will find Barclay’s ‘gift’ framework immensely insightful and illuminating. But at nearly 600 pages, it can be a challenging read. Not every section will benefit the preacher. One of the helpful features of the book is how clearly focused Barclay is in articulating his thesis and in outlining the flow of his argument. The conclusion sections at the end of each chapter and major sections are also tremendously helpful for readers who—like me—may want to read more deeply in some sections than others but don’t want to miss key developments of the argument.

I read the book the way I suspect most students would—selectively and strategically. I read all of chapters 1 and 2, most of Chapter 3, all of Chapter 4, the summary and conclusions to chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, and all of Chapter 18. I skipped the section on Second Temple Judaism, relying on Barclay’s own summaries of the sections, and treated his lengthy readings of Galatians and Romans like a compact commentary—catching the central thread and distinctive features, and making notes to return to sections in depth in the future.

This reading strategy notwithstanding, the commitment to work through Barclay’s frame can require more time than a pastor may have in the course of a given week. My hope is that by leveraging my time while on sabbatical, I can create a succinct summary of the essential features of Barclay’s book without having done violence to his careful and methodical work. The final chapter in the book is Barclay’s own summary of the book’s ‘distinctive contributions’ under five headings. I will use his same headings, adding my own commentary and including significant excerpts from relevant sections of the book.

1. Grace as Gift

Barclay’s premise is that Paul (and his contemporaries) spoke of ‘grace’ not as a new or esoteric theological concept, but rather in the ‘normal vocabulary of gift, favor, and benefaction’ (p. 562). Thus Barclay employs an anthropological frame to note the key features of ‘gift’, such as reciprocity, power, and obligation, stopping short of arriving at single definition. He then surveys ‘gift-giving’ in the Greco-Roman world and in ancient Judaism.

In his conclusion to Part 1, Barclays offers two lists summarizing his observations (pp. 183-4). Here are some notable points, the last from his list of observations from gift-giving between the gods in the Greco-Roman world (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

  1. ‘gifts are generally given in order to create or reproduce social bonds; they foster mutuality’, and thus were not typically given ‘unilaterally’, ‘anonymously’, or as a ‘-one-way’ donation;
  2. ‘the rules of reciprocity raise the expectation of return, even in unequal social relations and even if the return is generally different from the gift in quantity and kind’;
  3. ‘the recipient of the gift is under a strong though non-legal obligation to reciprocate’;
  4. the gift is often associated with the person of the giver, and is therefore, to some degree, “inalienable”;
  5. ‘…gifts are usually construed as voluntary and expressive of goodwill, even if they arise from pre-existing bonds of obligation’;
  6. ‘because gifts created ties and expected returns, donors generally ensured that gifts were distributed discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients’ (that ‘worth’ can be defined in various ways on the basis of various systems becomes a key point later on as Barclay unpacks the ‘works of the law’ as a Torah-based system for defining worth).

The most notable conclusion from Chapter 1 of the book is that the modern (Western) notion of altruism—the ideal of the “pure gift” with allegedly no strings attachedis strikingly absent from the ancient world. (This may be one reason why Derrida called the notion of a pure gift a necessary collective fiction which a society embraces!)

Furthermore, Barclay lays the groundwork for demonstrating that a gift can be unconditioned—‘free of prior conditions regarding the recipient’—without also being unconditional—‘free of expectations that the recipient will offer some “return”’ (p. 562).

Read Part 2 HERE.


Sabbatical Summary and Reflections

When we set our plans for my pastoral sabbatical, Holly and I wrote out three key themes, each becoming a banner under which we could design travel, activities, and rhythms. These themes were rest, recreation, and renewal. We mapped out the six-week sabbatical in three successive phases. Of course, since we have four children under the age of 12, these lines blurred a little, and we needed to include more recreation into each day in order to keep them occupied and us sane. But to keep the theme of rest—true soul rest—going throughout the sabbatical, I deleted all the social media apps from my phone and iPad, deleted my work email from my phone and iPad…and used a completely different not-so-smart phone for much of sabbatical The freedom and lightness of being that I experienced was remarkable.

Here are some of the highlights of our time…

Phase 1: Rest
We cashed in some airline miles, left our kids with my parents, and headed for the beach! It was the perfect way to kick off sabbatical, and to commemorate our 15th wedding anniversary year. Holly and I spent nearly every minute together, eating, talking, reading, and even running on the beach. We both brought a big novel—she read All the Light We Cannot See, and I read, or at least began reading, The Count of Monte Cristo.

But the book that became the highlight of our few days was a marriage book called, How We Love. The authors draw from attachment theory (how we experienced comfort and bonding with our parents) to explore how each spouse brings a pattern of relating and of building attachment and intimacy (or not building it) into the marriage. It sparked some amazing, soul-baring conversations for us. Though we have known each other for nearly 20 years, and have had deep conversations consistently during that time, this helped us go even further in understanding what lies behind our own patterns of relating to each other, particularly in those all-too-familiar patterns that married couples can sometimes get ‘stuck’ in. We highly recommend the book—special thanks to our dear friends who know the authors well and who recommended the book to us.

Phase 2: RecreationIMG_0035While we may have liked the ‘rest’ phase to go on, we had to get back to our kids, and we were excited to make some memories together as a family. After a few days at home, we loaded up the car and headed on a two-week road trip. We drove up to Rapid City, South Dakota, to spend a few days seeing Mt. Rushmore and few other notable attractions in the area. That was a blast—and quite a spectacle to behold. From there, we drove through the Badlands to South Dakota (including a stop to the Wall Drug store) to the northwest corner of Iowa, where Holly is from, and spent just under a week at the farm. The kids loved playing outside all day long, holding kittens, and practicing their driving skills on the riding lawn mower. Holly and I went for a walk everyday, and found time in the afternoons to journal.

On the road trip, we listened to an audiobook recommended by a good friend of ours, called Essentialism. It is mostly a business/leadership book, but has some significant applications for every area of life. (You can find reviews/summaries here and here and a reflection from Michael Hyatt on it here.) The book was catalytic for Holly and I to clarify what is truly essential to each of us in terms of both life purpose and daily focus. We spent time talking and journaling about what to whittle away from our activities, what matrix to use for saying yes and no when deciding on a variety of things, and what things/relationships we need to spend more time investing in. I think the Holy Spirit used this to bring clarity of focus for church, and for our work and home life in the season ahead. It was a way of helping us act on a few things spoken over us in a few prophetic words before we left on sabbatical.

After the farm, we drove down to Kansas to meet Holly’s sister and their family for a couple days. Lots of fun and play. Then, the long, monotonous drive home on I-70!

Phase 3: Renewal
After unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking at our home, we headed up to the mountains, courtesy of some generous friends who allowed us use their vacation home. Our time was shaped by a daily rhythm that usually included morning devotions, a family activity (a hike or bike ride), and afternoon quiet hours to read. We also met a few friends for a camping trip, which was renewing in a special way—though not at all restful!

Midway through week 4, I picked up a theology book for the first time all sabbatical. I read the classic work on sacramental theology from Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. The book as a whole is tremendous, but the first two chapters alone are stunning. Next, I moved on to John Barclay’s excellent new book, Paul and the Gift (a 3-part summary is coming on my blog next week).

After coming home from the mountains, I left the next day on a silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Sedalia, Colorado. It is an amazing place, set in a beautiful area. Silence was difficult—I made it 8 hours before caving and calling Holly from my car!—but I persevered, spent the night and came away the next day at noon with 12 pages of journaling prayers and reflections! I heard the Lord speak on some crucial things in my life. Though I was asking for a few specific answers, the Lord only gave Himself as the answer, calling me more to Himself than to any particular task. Like Peter after the resurrection, I sense that the Lord wants me to follow Him not a particular task or assignment. I read some written prophetic words that had been given to us, prayed over them, and over our family.

During the final week of sabbatical, I felt ready to create. Not toil, but create. To bring to order the work the Spirit had been brooding over in my heart and soul over the summer. Words have the power to bring order and meaning; this is the essence of the logos. So, for me, it was time to write. I began by writing a summary of Barclay’s book. Then, I began working on a project which I hope to share more about soon. Unexpectedly, I also wrote new worship song, capturing—I hope—bits of what I had read and what the Lord had highlighted to me. I’ll share that at some point too.

Reflections and resolutions
Much of the work the Lord did in me personally, in our marriage, and in our children is too sacred to share publicly. One of our children had a key moment in their journey of faith, inviting Jesus into their heart to make them new and to reign. It was a beautiful and powerful moment. There are choices we are making and rhythms that we are building into our lives for the Fall that we hope will reinforce the ‘target’ the Lord has set before us.

If I were to pick a word or two to sum up the work of the Spirit in me, it would be focus and intimacy. Focus, because of the need to clarify, to unite my heart, to simplify my pursuits; intimacy as in, with Jesus as my first love, with my wife as her covering and husband, and with my children as their shepherd and father.

But in order to nurture these things, other things must be removed or thinned out. As I mentioned, I was completely off all social media. Other than a few glances in at the beginning of week 1 (detox is real!), and in week 6, I did not check Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram at all. And I learned some things. I learned how little time I give myself to think and create without the noise of other voices. I learned how quick I am to offer opinions and commentary. I realize that I had been turned into a press secretary and not a priest, feeling the need to comment on social issues rather than to be present and to listen. I want to return to these social spaces differently. But I am nervous to even re-enter. I know how easily obsessed I can become. I may leave the apps off my phone. I may limit the times of day to check. I want my mornings and evenings to be different. No big public declarations or manifestos; I’m just going to quietly make some changes and trust the Lord to help them take root.

I want my life to bear fruit. That means nourishing the roots—intimacy. It means taking time to prune, not investing time and energy in things that will not be fruitful—the grid of ‘essentialism’, and a necessary nervousness about social media engagement. I want personal attentiveness and deep engagement in reading and writing to mark this next season.

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A Pastoral Sabbatical: Why and What It Means

I’m taking a pastoral sabbatical, beginning June 13th til July 29th. It comes every seven years for full-time employees at New Life Church. This will be my second, as I’ve been on staff for almost 16 years.

But, what is a sabbatical, particularly from a pastoral perspective? Here’s the blog I wrote for our congregation…

New Life Downtown // blog

I have been given the gift of a pastoral sabbatical this summer. This is a gift that comes round every seven years for full-time employees at New Life Church. Since I have been on staff for 16 years, this will actually be my second sabbatical, for which I am extremely grateful. The last one came as I was making the transition from worship/pastotal ministry to preaching/teaching/pastoral ministry.  My sabbatical will last a little over six weeks.

What is a sabbatical? It’s a good question, not least because ‘sabbath’ is a lost practice in our day. We all get vacations, and ‘time off’, but a sabbath is something altogether different. Sabbath is a time to stop, to rest, to delight, to play, and to be renewed by the Creator and Sustainer of all things.

A sabbatical is meant to be an extended sabbath. Some have asked if I am…

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Why Christians Shouldn’t Speak of the ‘Supernatural’

Christians believe in a Triune God who created the cosmos, and who stands in some way outside of it, or beyond it. To call God ‘holy’ is to acknowledge that God is completely ‘other’ than anything else. He is not simply separated from created things by degree but in kind. The Creator is not on the same spectrum as the creation; He is on His own spectrum. This is all summed up in the Hebrew and Christian confession that God is ‘holy‘.

But to confess this ‘otherness‘ of God is not to speak of God as ‘supernatural‘. {TWEET THIS} Webster’s defines the supernatural in two ways: ‘of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil’; or, ‘as departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature, or attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit).’ So, yes, in one sense God is supernatural; His existence is ‘beyond the visible order of the observable universe’. But the language of ‘natural‘ and ‘supernatural‘ leans on a framework which divides the ‘natural‘ world from the ‘supernatural‘ world, a view which emerged during the Enlightenment, particularly when Sir Isaac Newton, outlined his mathematical principles of natural philosophy out of the conviction that there is a deep created order to the world, and to name these laws was to glorify God.

Ironically, these principles were used to effectively relegate God ‘upstairs’ and humans ‘downstairs’. Deism, the formal name for this view, accepted that the order in creation owed its origins to a creator, but that like any good invention, it did not require its inventor to keep running. Deism eventually led to post-Enlightenment rationalism, which rejected miracles both in Scripture and in contemporary life. After all, why would a God make rules only to suspend them whenever He liked? Why set the world up like a great clock only to move the hands at a whim? And if interventions were needed to correct the mechanism, how good was its design to begin with? (Voltaire, Spinoza and Hume are examples of a few philosophers whose skepticism led to a ‘de-miraclizing’ of the New Testament.) In one sense, it was Newton’s faith-driven science that led to the rejection of faith in the West.

What we are left with now are the remnants of warring worldviews– one which claims the belief in a supernatural, and one which argues against it on the basis of scientific discovery. It seems we are at an impasse. But I suggest it’s time to re-examine the very framework which divides reality in ‘natural’ and a ‘supernatural’ one.

Listen to how the Hebrew poets and prophets talked about the relationship between God and His world:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2)

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:5)

And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)

God is holy AND His glory fills the earth! The Enlightenment taught us to see the world (and the phenomena in it) as either natural or supernatural. The Hebrews saw God as above and beyond His creation, and yet somehow also within it.

As it turns out, not only is this view of the world better theologically, it actually coheres with science, but a more a more up-to-date science. My supervisor, David Wilkinson, is a brilliant and Godly man who earned a double PhD in Astrophysics and Systematic Theology. A recent article captures his thoughts on miracles and science from his book on prayer:

Quantum theory tells us that the small-scale structure of the world is, in the words of Christian physicist John Polkinghorne, “radically random”: “By that he means it is unpredictable and nothing like a mechanical clock,” says Wilkinson. “It is a world that is unpicturable, uncertain, and in which the cause of events cannot be fully specified.”

So, suggests Wilkinson, there’s plenty of room for God to act, because the system isn’t closed at all. He can “push” electrons here and there and alter the course of events in the world without breaking any of the laws of nature. The problem is that too many theologians simply don’t know enough about physics and are stuck with out-of-date science. Quantum theory doesn’t answer all our questions, Wilkinson says cautiously, but it “may be one dimension of how God works in the world”.

Miracles are not God over-riding the laws of the universe, but rather God working within His world. {TWEET THIS}

Such a framework also challenges us to take a closer look at how the Holy Spirit works. If we view the Spirit’s work as over-riding the ‘natural’, then we will bristle at ‘natural’ explanations of ‘spiritual encounters’. This is where the subject comes closer to home for me and my research on how hope is experienced in congregational worship.

For example, the discovery that oxytocin—the chemical associated with the feeling of well-being—is released in the brain in group singing can be used as a ‘natural’ explanation for why we feel better after a time of ‘congregational worship’. An atheist may say there’s nothing ‘supernatural’ going on; it’s just chemicals in the brain. Christians who would argue it’s the ‘presence of God’ and therefore can’t have anything to do with chemicals in the brain are left to either deny the science or ignore it. And, worse, folks who can’t ignore the science are left to believe that faith is inherently contradictory to science.

But a brief bit of theological reflection on how the Spirit works can help. The hermeneutical key to understanding the Spirit’s operation in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost. On this day, the Spirit enabled speech in various cultural languages so that people heard Christ being proclaimed in their own tongue. The Holy Spirit does not over-ride cultural norms; He inhabits them. {TWEET THIS}

In the above example of worship and oxytocin, why would the discovery that the brain gets a buzz from group singing automatically disprove the belief that the Spirit is at work in congregational worship? The two things would be mutually exclusive in Newton’s universe, but not in Polkinghorne’s. If there were a God who created us, desires relationship with us, and instructed us to gather to sing to Him, why wouldn’t He also have made our brains to respond to this with a chemical that reinforces this behavior and aids in our obedience? In other words, why can’t the Spirit work within the way we are made?

One more example connected to my research…

Congregational worship is, in a very real sense, a communal ritual. There are defined ways of acting and responding, whether the ‘script‘ is formal or informal. This serves not only to help everyone know how to participate, but also to reinforce the particular identity of that congregation. When sociologists/social anthropologists use the lens of ritual to study congregational worship, they discover things such as the realization that the qualities of an ‘emotionally expressive‘ service (like those in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches) have features that are just as defined as those in ‘non-emotionally expressive‘ services (like those in many liturgical churches). Pentecostals and Charismatics have been, in my limited experience, uneasy with the suggestion that there is a script or pattern or ritual in their worship. If it’s the ‘anointing‘, it must be spontaneous or unique. But I suggest this is because we think the two things are antithetical: either the Spirit is working through the ‘anointing’, or we are responding to cultural norms and communal scripts. But just as miracles are instances of God working within His world, why can’t these experiences in worship be examples of the Spirit inhabiting our cultural and communal selves?

As long as we insist on seeing the world as split between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, we will see the Holy Spirit as opposed to the ‘laws of science’ or ‘patterns of human behavior’.

I think instead of speaking of the ‘supernatural’, it’s time we recover the ancient confession that the holy God is filling His world with His glory. We are the people who believe in the incarnation– a God who became flesh. We affirm a story of the Holy Spirit filling people by inhabiting their ‘language’ and culture not by over-riding it.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty. May the whole earth be filled with His glory.


What Does the Ascension of Jesus Mean?

Today is Ascension Day, or, if you’d like The Feast of the Ascension.

Of all the moments in the life of Christ that we commemorate during the Church Calendar, the Feast of the Ascension may be the most puzzling. Where did Jesus go? What exactly are we marking by saying that He ascended?

The meaning of the ascension and its bearing on our lives may be clouded in part because of art that depicts Jesus returning to heaven like a cosmic superhero. But perhaps the reason we struggle to find meaning in the event is a bit closer to the heart. The ascension triggers what the disciples themselves felt when Jesus started talking his departure—a sense of abandonment.

Awhile back, when I was preaching on the ascension during a series on the Nicene Creed, a congregant emailed me to share how up until that week, she had struggled with the ascension because it always felt like Jesus was leaving us. Despite the very blatant statement from Jesus that He would not leave us like orphans, the event of His ascension seems like a painful reminder that He is not present, or at least not in the same way, and that is somehow a loss. The ascension of Jesus can feel like His escape and our being abandoned.

How can we celebrate that?

Let’s take a closer look at the stories of Jesus ascension. Unlike the resurrection accounts, the stories seem less concerned with marking the event in history, and more concerned with convey its meaning. The imagery is significant. First, consider the image of Jesus ascending on the clouds (Acts 1:9). The Gospels record Jesus talking about the ‘Son of Man’ being ‘seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Mark 14:62; Mathew 26:64; cf. Matthew 24:30 and Mark 13:26). These statements have often been read as references to the return of Christ, and they do contain overtones of a future appearing. But the phrase is a clear echo of Daniel 7, where the Son of Man comes up the cloud up to God and take the seat of authority over the affairs of the world. The cloud imagery is meant to make us think of Jesus going to a seat of power. Being ‘seated at the right hand’ is not an absence but a more powerful presence.

Paul makes this point explicit, claiming that by ascending Jesus now fills all things: 

“(In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” Ephesians 4:9-10 (ESV)

This is the first meaning we are to make of the ascension: The ascension of Jesus is about His enthronement.

N. T. Wright explains these implications for the first Christians:

Kyrios Iesous, Jesus is Lord, was the earliest confession of Christian Faith, the thing you had to say before you got baptized. Confessing that Jesus was Lord—meaning, among other things, that Caesar wasn’t—was basic, bottomline Christianity right from the start. Ascension Day Christianity, if you like. It wasn’t something you had to wait for until the end of time. Being a Christian was always about living by faith in Jesus’ sovereign lordship in a world which didn’t much look like he was in charge.”

As we compare the surrounding details of the story, something else rises to view. There is an uncanny parallel between the story of Jesus being ‘taken’ and the Old Testament story of Elijah being taken.

2 Kings 2:9-10 (ESV)
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.’ And Elisha said, ‘Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.’ 10 And he said, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.’ ”

Acts 1:8-9 (ESV)
“ ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” 

In the Elijah story, there is an anointed prophet (Elijah) and an apprentice (Elisha). The sign that the empowerment which the prophet had would be passed on in greater measure to the apprentice was that the apprentice would see the prophet being taken up into heaven. In the Jesus story, the anointed Prophet promises an empowerment—which would be better than His physical presence—and then is seen being taken up out of their sight. Luke (the writer of Acts) very clearly seems to be referencing the Elijah story in the way he describes Jesus’ ascension. And he’s doing it to make a statement: The ascension of Jesus is about our empowerment.

When we put those two things together we begin to grasp what the Ascension of all about: The ascension of Jesus is about His enthronement over all and our empowered by the Spirit.

That is something to have a feast about.