Paul and God’s Multicultural Mission

This article was first published in the e-journal Missio Dei. That journal’s web-site has unfortunately been taken down temporarily while it recovers from a malware attack. In the meantime, I’m making this piece available here.

Of Grant and Judy

We live, in the greater Toronto area, at the centre of the world’s most diverse meeting of cultures. Confronted with this flood of unfamiliar faces, those of us whose families have been here a bit longer often slide into one of two reactions. On the one hand, there is Grant. He sits at Tim Hortons, in the same seat he has occupied every Saturday morning for the last three decades. On this particular morning, though, he suddenly realizes that no one around him is speaking English. With a rush of inner vertigo his perspective shifts. He Image result for middle aged man drinking coffeesees himself as the outsider in his own neighbourhood. He cannot understand what the people beside him are saying. He cannot share the joke that just passed between the slight Asian man in front of the till and the middle-aged woman behind it. It is as if he came home and found that a stranger had moved into his bedroom. As he drinks his double-double, he settles into bitter resentment that these people keep coming here and not having the respect to even speak the language!

Others of us are more like Judy. On that same morning she is listening to CBC news. It seems a Muslim woman has been ordered by a judge to remove the veil from her face in court. Canadian law, explains the commentator, has always required that the defendant be able to see his accuser’s face. The man is charged with raping her, but it is not the concern for an accused rapist’s rights that bothers Judy. After all, he has not been convicted yet. No, her thought is “How ethnocentric!” Can the judge not see that those laws were made for a different time, when Canada was a monocultural ghetto for white Europeans? Judy is serenely confident, though, that the supreme court will strike down the judge’s ruling and the woman will not have the values of Christian Europe shoved down her throat. As the news moves on to another story she is barely aware of the sweet little surge of superiority that curls the corner of her lips into a condescending smile.

In truth, most of us probably have a little of both Grant and Judy in us. Living in Malvern, a working-class area of East Scarborough, I easily slide into a smug sense of superiority that I’m not as “backward” as the people in those “pure white” towns beyond the GTA. Nine out of ten people in our corner of the city are first generation arrivals to Canada. Most have come either from the Carribbean Islands or the Indian sub-continent. Here my wife and I, both Caucasians, are the visible minority! People stare in the supermarket at my daughter’s blond hair. After six months in Malvern we were passing through a Barry McDonalds and our three year old piped up: “Daddy! Why are there are so many white people here!” Even as I hushed her I savoured a glow of satisfaction that we had embraced such a multi-cultural neighbourhood.

Yet I’m also not quite so blissfully tolerant when some of those other cultures impinge on my life. My kids are not getting the same experiences that defined my childhood because their friends—the children of new arrivals—are being raised with a different set of rules. My Saturdays were spent wandering the neighbourhood with my friends or catching crayfish in the park a half-mile from our house. Weekends were dominated by regular sleepovers at my friends’ houses. But most of the parents in our neighbourhood keep their kids on a much shorter leash. Some of them are never allowed outside to play at all, or they cannot eat at our house because their parents do not trust us to cook Halal food. If I’m honest, I grieve for my kids’ lost experiences just as much as Grant grieves for his lost Tim Hortons. And once the first flush of multi-cultural pride is past, I discover that it is hard making friends across cultures. Some of those new neighbours are not so enthusiastic about getting to know me. All the social cues are off and all too often I end up wondering what I’ve said wrong. I very easily find myself sounding like Grant: “What about my culture! Don’t I get to preserve that?”

The Apostle Paul in Malvern

What does it mean to follow Jesus in this increasingly chaotic landscape? Where does culture and cultural diversity fit in the Kingdom of God? Or is it just a neutral fact of life to be “managed” by a Christian the same way it is by anyone else?

The Apostle Paul may seem like an unlikely figure to help us here. We have to remember, though, that he grew up in a city that was not so different from ours. Paul himself was a visible minority in his native Tarsus, on the south coast of what is now Turkey. Growing up in the Judean quarter He was part of a sizable ethnic sub-culture, likely a child or grandchild of immigrants. Tarsus was a pearl of Hellenistic society, home to Greek philosophers and poets and playwrights. But Paul’s family brought with them a different language (Aramaic) and a determination to hold on to their traditional way of life. Related imageNor were Jews the only group crowding into Tarsus and other cities like it. Egyptians, Syrians, Africans, Italians and Parthians all gained a little foothold. Each group tried to keep their own identity and distinctness intact by forming clubs where they could meet, sing their own songs, speak their own language, and worship their own gods. The whole Roman Empire was the scene of large-scale migrations in search of work and a better life, much like the streams of the frightened and unemployed that today flow into Europe and North America.

Maybe it is not so surprising, then, that the problem of cultural diversity was at the centre of Paul’s mission. He understood himself as “Apostle to the Gentiles.” That term “Gentiles” simply means “non-Jews,” anyone from “the nations” outside Judea or Galilee. Paul’s mission was to announce that God’s rescue in Christ was for them too! Paul explains in Galatians 3:28 that the old ethnic boundaries are coming down: “There is no longer Jew or Greek . . . for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This may sound wonderful to us (especially since most of us are Gentiles!) but it was shocking and heretical to Paul’s fellow Jews. They were God’s chosen people, priests to the rest of the world! Was the whole point of God’s plan not that the nations would come and join them as Jews? Instead, Paul insisted that God was welcoming the nations into this Kingdom without leaving their cultural identity behind. The boundaries of God’s people would no longer be the boundaries of one cultural group. They would all become, in Christ, heirs of Israel’s first father Abraham (Gal 3:6-14).

Why did Paul come to this conclusion? In part it was probably because he read the prophets. He quotes heavily in his letters from the latter parts of Isaiah. He knew very well the prophet’s announcement that faithful Gentiles would stream up to Jerusalem at the dawn of God’s restored Kingdom:

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD and to worship him . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. (Isa 56:6-7)

In Isaiah’s renewed Jerusalem some Gentiles even serve as priests and Levites in the temple. It is not clear in these oracles whether the faithful Gentiles are to become proselytes and be absorbed into Israel. Paul, though, clearly did not think they would become Jews. Rather, these worshipers from the nations would retain their diverse identities as Babylonians and Egyptians and Ionians and Carthaginians (Isa 66:19-21). The prophet’s message was, for Paul, that God would reunite humanity, undoing the scattering that had happened at Babel. Or maybe “undoing” is the wrong word to use. God was not simply going to re-boot human society as if Genesis 11 had never happened. God’s kingdom would be richer now because the ethnic diversity of the fallen world would be retained, the many cultural strands woven into a harmonious human fabric.

The other key factor in Paul’s multicultural vision was his belief that God’s final restoration had already begun. When the Apostle met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he became convinced that God’s Kingdom had dawned and that the churches were called to be a foretaste of the full renewal to come. “For if anyone is in Christ, that’s the new creation happening!” (2 Cor 5:17, my translation). Just as Isaiah depicted so clearly, this would mean that Jesus’ followers were now to welcome Gentiles into the “temple” that was the Christian community. The believers were to be a living example of the new, diverse and yet harmonious human society that God was moving to create in Christ. As far as they were concerned, then, there should now be neither Jew nor Gentile. God did not make the distinction any longer, so neither should they!

What did this mean in practice for life in Paul’s churches? Amid the immigration and cultural variety of Ephesus or Corinth, would Paul side with Grant or with Judy? The answer, I think, is that he would side with neither. Why? Because both embody attitudes that fall short of Christ’s new way of life, attitudes that will never allow the eschatological unity of all peoples to become a reality.

Cultural Dominance and the Cross

There are at least three challenges that Paul’s theology of culture poses to both Grant and Judy, and to all of us as well. The first is that we must give up our own culture. It is not that Paul wants our culture to be lost entirely. But he calls us to accept that when we welcome the “Gentiles” our own way of living will no longer form the framework for our public life and private relationships. This is not because we do not have a right to preserve the dominance of our own culture. It is because the question of rights is the wrong question to ask. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul tried to convey to the Corinthian believers that Christ had given us a new way of living that focused not on our own privilege, not on what we could claim, but on what we could give away to make our brothers and sisters stronger. As an example of living out the cross Paul said “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . To the weak I became weak” (1 Cor 9:19-23). He gave up the safety and comfort of his own Jewish way of life, not because he had to, but because that sacrifice would help open the door for Christ’s grace and strength to come to others.

So in Paul’s home base at Antioch, he and the rest of the Jews learned to “Gentilize,” to live as if they were foreigners. Why? Because the alternatives were either to split the church into separate ethnic branches or to make the Gentiles adopt a Jewish cultural identity. Paul vehemently refused to do either (Gal 2:11-14). God’s eschatological purpose is, in the Apostle’s understanding, neither to create a homogeneous people nor to create a set of separate peoples. The divine mission is about the creation of one new people of God that includes within it “all nations.” So, though Paul had been “Hebrew of Hebrews” he set aside his own cultural tradition and ate side by side with Gentiles from a table laden with unclean food.

That Antioch situation highlights the fact that this voluntary cultural sacrifice is especially necessary for the group that holds the cultural upper hand in a given time and place. Within any city there is always one group whose culture is easily mistaken for the universal norm, for Christianity itself. In the Jewish quarter of Antioch it was Judaism that held this “default” position. So it was necessary, in Paul’s view, for him and his fellow Jews to adopt Greek and Syrian ways of doing things. It was a matter of deliberately creating the space in Paul’s communities where Gentiles could be Gentiles for Christ, without feeling the tacit assumption that acting like a Jew was better.

In the context of southern Ontario, it is the culture English-speaking former Brits that is the default. Just walk into the average Caucasian church service and notice that all of the music was written in North America and Europe (or maybe Australia). Notice that we refer to communities of Thai or Filipino or Nigerian or Latin American believers as “ethnic” churches, as if the British were not just one more ethnic group. And notice, if we take our place in one of those congregations, how much of their music is a translation of hymns by Charles Wesley or songs by Brian Doerkson. There is good historical reason for the dominance of English-American culture in the churches of the GTA. After all, many of those churches in Thailand or the Philippines or Columbia were founded by North American or British missionaries. Likewise, it was understandable that Judaism was the default in Paul’s context, since God had used Israel as the vehicle of his revelation in Christ. Paul, though, would invite those of us who call British-American culture our own to give up our cultural rights. He would invite us to create a deliberately non-British, non-American space in our own communities where the nations can join our common life without becoming like us. We are called to “Nigeri-ize” or “Thailand-ize” or “Filipin-ize” so that the nations can join us without thinking they must “Britain-ize” or “American-ize.” And to the extent that newer groups (like, say, the Cantonese-speaking community from Hong Kong) become firmly established in the GTA, they too will need to hear this call to cultural sacrifice in order to make space for still other “nations” (like, say, the Mandarin-speakers from the Chinese mainland).

This cultural sacrifice is neither easy nor fair. We must not romanticize it. We are talking about a choice that is more costly than merely cooking with curry and listening to “world music.” This surrender of our cultural dominance, though, is one way in which we take up our cross to follow Jesus in his mission. It is one way in which we become a sign and foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

The Gifts of the Nations

For the Apostle to the Gentiles, though, the unity of Jew and Gentile involved much more than just exchanging outward cultural trappings. Paul’s life and work side-by-side with Syrians and Greeks and Romans brought him to a deeper grasp of his own relationship with God as a Jew. He did not merely “act like a Gentile” sometimes. Certainly, he learned to use their language, ate their exotic foods, and sang their unfamiliar songs. Yet it was also through his experiences with these foreign believers that Paul’s understanding of Israel’s covenant was profoundly changed. He may have known from that first day on the Damascus road that he was called to go and invite the Gentiles. It was not until he had lived with them, though, that Paul realized the Old Testament law was no longer binding even on Jews. When he needs to remind the Galatians of this new divine economy, Paul does not point them to the Scriptures. He points them to their own unique experiences: “I only want to know one thing from you—how did you receive the Spirit? Was it by doing what the law requires or by trusting what you heard?” (Gal 3:2). It was as he saw them worship together, as he watched them seized with ecstatic experiences of the Spirit, that Paul seems to have come to a new understanding of Israel’s law. It was through these Gentiles that God taught their Apostle what it meant to be a faithful Jew!

Paul’s example invites us, by analogy, to expect that our own faith will be transformed when the nations learn to live and work together. Our tendency in evangelical circles is to view culture as the outward “clothing” for the unchanging essence of the Gospel. What we often overlook, though, is that the supposed “culture-less” kernel of Christianity may in fact be shaped by our own cultural biases and blinders. There is a danger here that our apparent openness to cultural diversity in the church can mask a hidden (and so more powerful) bias in favour of our own cultural expressions. Looking back on the missionary visits to my childhood church, I can see now that we never expected our own faith to be transformed by the “recipients” of our good works. We would enjoy seeing white North Americans dressed up in Nigerian batik. We might wrap our tongues around the strange words of a Bantu worship song. But this was a game of “dress-up.” We would take off the foreign clothes again and nothing about our own understanding of the Gospel would be changed.

There is no reason for us to expect, though, that the gifts of the nations were all spent in Paul’s day. On the contrary, he encourages us to expect that our own grasp of the Gospel itself will be changed when we make space for other nations to live and worship alongside us. He invites us to see in the diverse cultures around us much more than an entertaining variety of tastes and colours and sounds. Paul invites us, instead, to expect that the nations will open up for us new dimensions of understanding Christ’s mission. This is, again, not an easy process. Paul’s insights about the law tore many first-century churches apart with fierce controversy. The problem is that we can never know ahead of time what God will bring us through our encounter with a new culture. We will only learn over years of life together what layers of our own faith are actually cultural “clothing” that has caught and bound us as we tried to join in God’s mission. There is a real risk here. We will undoubtedly go through stages of conflict and anxiety about how exactly God wants to change our hearts and souls through our inter-cultural relationships. If Paul’s example is any indication, though, we will only discover the shape of God’s mission, of our own calling, as we engage in this risky openness to the nations’ transforming presence among us.

The Redemption of All Cultures

At the same time, Paul also teaches us to be critical of all culture. This is the creative tension that secular pluralism constantly misses. Where Judy leaps uncritically to endorse a Muslim woman’s right to wear her veil in court, we need to ask some questions. Does the veiling of women perpetuate the view that women are property to be protected, or that men are unable to control desire? Canadian multiculturalism tends to say that culture–any culture–is inherently good. Any change in other cultures is a moral evil. So Christian missionaries are often criticized for “polluting” indigenous cultures from Brazil to Mongolia. Even in the secular discussion, though, this uncritical openness becomes unworkable at some point. We run into moral quandaries in development work when our notions of “development” conflict with local culture. Is the traditional mutilation of young girls in North Africa a “cultural expression” or simple abuse? Was our criticism of atrocities in the former Burma a crusade for justice or our imposition of our own cultural norms of human rights?

Paul, by contrast, assumes that all cultures are fallen. They can all be catalysts for the deepening of our grasp of God’s mission, but they will also include elements at odds with God’s Kingdom. Hence Paul had to push the Corinthians to be more critical of both the cultures that shaped their mixed community: “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22-23). In each of these cultural circles the Corinthians should expect to find dimensions that need to be subverted by God’s reign. To be sure, I need to be vigilant about the anti-Christian materialism and hedonism that pervade the culture of my birth. In a similar way, though, the concern with “face” and reputation in Chinese culture can conflict with Paul’s insistence on humility or Jesus’ call to emulate the powerlessness of a child. So even as we welcome one another, we need to talk frankly about what dimensions of each culture God may want to subvert.

The challenge is to be so immersed in the values of the Kingdom that we can recognize what genuinely opposes it. We are not looking just for what makes us uncomfortable, what feels impious or “unspiritual.” Neither are we criticizing the other nations from some position of cultural superiority. We are together allowing our cultural diversity to expose the ways in which all of our native cultures frustrate the biblical vision of God’s restored Creation.

God’s Cultural Mission

What Paul helps us to see is that God’s mission in our world and our community is a cultural mission. Cultural diversity is not neutral. It plays a central part in his work to re-make our disjointed cosmos. God is gathering a people from every language, ethnicity, and nation. Just like Paul, our role in that mission will require taking up at least three challenges:

  1. to give up the security of our own culture, especially when we are in a position of cultural dominance;
  2. to allow the multi-cultural life of our churches to transform our own faith; and
  3. to reflect critically on how God wants to subvert the fallen aspects of all our cultures.

These tasks are only possible, of course, when we begin to share our lives and our worship with our new neighbours. For those of us in Euro-centric Canadian churches, the initial challenge is to ask “how can we create a community the nations want to join?” We will not become diverse communities simply because we have changed our attitudes. It will also require deliberate action, finding ways to welcome these neighbours into our homes and into our church. Paul shows us that this is not merely another ministry, a niche activity to be labelled “ethnic outreach.” This cross-cultural hospitality is central to our being a sign and foretaste of God’s Kingdom, a new people in which there is no “Jew or Gentile,” European or African, Tamil or Mandarin, Filipino or Latin American, Mennonite or Russian Orthodox or Brazilian Pentecostal . . . “for all of us are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Should We Lament the “Good Old Days”?

Halifax in the 1950'sIn the last couple of weeks I’ve heard several Christian friends lamenting how Canada is sliding away from “Christian values.” I’ve started to hear a nostalgia for the supposedly Christian past, a nostalgia that until now hasn’t been as common in Canada as it has been in the US. For each of my friends, this nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” seems to have been triggered by our government’s decision to impose a moral litmus test on any organization that wants to receive federal grants. Any group that applies for funding now has to state that they support Canada’s current (extremely open) abortion policies. In other words, groups are being denied funding simply and explicitly because of their beliefs around abortion, regardless of their actions. I’m not surprised that my Christian friends are reacting sharply. I’ve tended to vote Liberal (when I don’t vote NDP) and for the first time I feel directly rejected by that party. Trudeau (for whom I voted) seems to be saying that someone with my (complex) views on abortion isn’t welcome in his country. It’s disturbing. But I’m equally disturbed by the reaction that longs for a supposedly better, more Christian past in Canada.

This nostalgia troubles me because I don’t think the past was actually that much more Christian than our present in Canada. As in any nostalgia, the bright and warm parts of the past glow a bit brighter and warmer than they ever did in reality. And we develop a selective amnesia about the parts of that past that were cold and dark. Of course, many more people went to church in the 1940’s and 50’s. But our spiritual ancestors didn’t agree that they were all really Christian. Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders in particular were constantly warning about “nominal” or “cultural” Christianity which didn’t involve a serious commitment to follow Jesus. People who did make that kind of commitment were still sometimes humiliated or ostracized for their beliefs or their choices. Yes, when I was in elementary school we all lined our chairs up in the cavernous hallway and sang real Christmas carols. But that didn’t make us all Christian. Go back a bit further and we find my Mennonite ancestors being executed in Switzerland and Calvinist Puritans fleeing England in search of religious freedom. A high rate of church attendance never guaranteed that deep faith would be widespread or that devout Christians would be safe.

In fact, there were a lot of things about Canada in my childhood, or even my father’s childhood, that were definitely un-Christian. Now, keep in mind that (on my reading of Scripture) God isn’t just interested in growing church membership lists. God is also interested in more than just saving disembodied souls. His mission is nothing less than the restoration of the cosmos to its intended, life-giving harmony. That includes restoring human society to the holistic peace we were created to enjoy. Yes, God wants us to be reconciled with Him. But he also wants to see us relate in healthy ways and enjoy embodied life as we were meant to in Eden. When Jesus healed sick people and shared a meal with social rejects these weren’t just publicity stunts. He was giving people experiences of God’s kingdom, restoring their corner of creation just a bit. Because whether or not people come to faith that restoration to God’s intended pattern of life is good in itself. This is what our Christian ancestors understood when they built free hospitals or worked to end child labour. So if it means anything to say that a society is “Christian,” or reflects “Christian values,” that should mean that the society is growing closer to an approximation of God’s ideal community.

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond

But there was a lot about Canadian society in the past that jarred against God’s life-giving vision. Racism was rampant. It was only in 1944 that Ontario passed Canada’s first law against racial discrimination, and in 1954 the Toronto Telegram reported on African Canadians still being refused service in small town restaurants. Elsewhere open segregation was tolerated longer. In 1946 Viola Desmond was still arrested in Nova Scotia for sitting in the “Whites only” section of the New Glasgow theatre. It wasn’t until 1962 that Canadian immigration law stopped deliberately trying to keep out immigrants who were Black or Indian or Chinese. Through this whole period you would have a much harder time getting a job or an apartment if your ancestors weren’t from Western Europe. And many upstanding members of the community would have been apoplectic if a daughter brought home a boy with the wrong skin colour.

The glare of our nostalgia glosses over how ugly and degrading life in Canada could be if you weren’t at least middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, and male. After World War II many women remained in the workforce. But a woman could expect that she would be paid less than a man doing the same job, and this was only officially banned gradually over the 1950’s. One woman I know recalls working as a bank teller in the 60’s, where her manager regularly groped the women. If one of them complained, she was told to stop imagining things and her job was threatened. It was only in 1964 that a married woman was allowed by law to open a bank account without her husband’s signature or to serve on a jury. If we go back to the mid-1940’s in Canada, poor farmers and workers sweating on factory lines often couldn’t afford to see a doctor, especially if they weren’t close to a charitable hospital. Without the social assistance programs introduced in the 1960’s, breaking a leg or developing severe arthritis could mean that a man’s family sank into desperate poverty. People still starved to death in Canada. I might enjoy the nostalgia of a good Western, but I should never mistake that feeling for the often brutal and agonizing reality of 19th century life. So, too, we should never mistake our stained-glass nostalgia for the real past in Canada.

In fact, I would argue that on balance Canadian society today may reflect the kingdom of God at least as much as it did in the 1940’s or 50’s. One change I do lament is (what I see as) the cheapening of sexuality as it is reduced to a mere physical appetite. I also don’t think that killing a fetus usually fits God’s design, especially if it’s just used as a method of convenient birth control. But there were also a lot of cheap affairs and back-alley abortions before the sexual revolution of the 60’s. I do lament that more people aren’t exposed these days to the Christian message, although I’m not sure that church-going used to do more for some people than inoculate them against the real challenge of Jesus. On the other hand, there are also major ways in which Canadian society today looks more like God’s Kingdom than it did when Mackenzie King or Diefenbaker were Prime Minister. In many ways we live in a less violent and more just society, in the prophetic sense of justice as harmonious, co-operative, and generous community life. My children face a different set of pressures pulling them to act against God’s design. But do they face more pressures? Are the distortions to God’s will for human life more severe? I’m not convinced they are.

When I recognize the impulse toward nostalgia in myself, I find that it’s motivated by fear and self-protection. When it comes right down to it, what I’m often tempted to be nostalgic for is a society in which, as a Christian, I would have been respected and honoured. The government’s move, and some of Trudeau’s statements, remind us that to many Canadians the church appears backward and bigoted. We know that Christians in many parts of the world have always lived as a minority, have always faced violence and hostility simply because of their beliefs. But we are afraid of having to face that hostility in our own front yard. So we retreat into nostalgia. We pine for a past that we imagine to have been safer, even though it was in many ways a terrible time. But in calling that past “Christian” and simply labelling today’s Canada our enemy we implicitly align ourselves–whether we intend to or not–with racism, with misogyny, with poverty and suffering. By saying we want that society back, we seem to say we would be willing to trade the good and just aspects of today’s Canada for our own safety and reputation. Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus asked from his disciples? He didn’t invite them to come and be respected members of the community. He invited them to pick up a cross and drag it along behind him–not because we’re masochists, but because we’re willing to feel some pain ourselves if it will help bring healing and wholeness to other people. So do we really want to side with the “Good Old Days”? 2010_G20_Toronto_(2)Or will we choose to accept that we’re unpopular at the moment, carry that cross, and look for ways to foster God’s kingdom in the present world? Are we more concerned with “winning” or with serving?

I’m deeply disappointed by our government’s moral test for federal funding. But I don’t think that is a sign of a new apocalyptic conflict between the church and society in Canada. People who shared my beliefs were never actually as welcome among Canadian elites as we like to imagine. On the other hand, there are actually a lot of Canadians who share my concern about the current policy. I suspect it wouldn’t stand up to a court challenge precisely because we have a Charter of Rights that protects religious freedom. And there are an increasing number of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists in Canada who on this kind of issue may prove to be allies. But even if Christians are singled out for rough treatment, I’m still not longing for the “Good Old Days.” I lament the ways our culture has drifted away from God’s design, even as I celebrate the ways today’s Canada has come to resemble that just pattern a little bit more. I’m sad when a neighbour writes me off as a bigoted Christian. But I’m still hopeful that together with my neighbours I’ll be able to bring more glimpses of God’s kingdom in our society. And, yes, in that work I’m hopeful that some of them will hear the invitation of Jesus to come and follow.

A Snapshot of John’s Gospel

Here’s another of my talks from St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill Anglican Church back in February. In this one I was starting off a series on John’s Gospel by giving a quick overview of the book and its message.

Should the Disputed Pauline Letters Be in the Canon?

Icon of St. Timothy

Icon of St. Timothy

Every term, not long before final papers are due, my students in the NT survey course are thrown a curve ball. We come to the letter to the Ephesians and the so-called Pastoral Letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). Most of my students discover for the first time how many scholars doubt these letters were written by Paul. They wonder how they can trust these documents as canonical Scripture if they were penned by some anonymous author using Paul’s name. And I think these students are rightly suspicious of how quickly many scholars brush aside their worry. Even if that kind of pseudonymous writing was socially accepted in the ancient world, even if the writers were not being deceptive, it still matters who was doing the writing. I agree with my students that authorship matters for canonicity. It’s not the only factor, but the books were originally canonized because they represented the faith and practice of what I call the “apostolic circle”: the apostles themselves and the co-workers, teachers, and churches that were nurtured and corrected by those apostles during their travels. So the authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters can’t be so neatly separated from the question of their reliability and authority.

To say that it matters who wrote the books, though, isn’t to say that the author had to be Paul himself. We have other books in the New Testament that are anonymous and whose author is unknown (e.g., Matthew, Hebrews). So canonicity doesn’t necessarily depend on Pauline authorship, or even on knowing who the specific author was. Rather, the canonicity of the NT books was originally linked with the author’s being part of the apostolic circle. What was authoritative and inspired was the understanding of Jesus developed together by the apostles and their co-workers. So Matthew can be regarded as canonical, even though it’s anonymous. Why? Because (a) we know it originated in the apostolic circle of communities, and (b) we know that the first and second-century churches regarded it as a good representative of that apostolic circle’s understanding.

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna

So if we were to decide that Ephesians and/or the Pastorals weren’t written by Paul, the question would be “Is there still reason to think that these letters are good representatives of apostolic faith?” I think there is. First, they were accepted and circulated along with Paul’s letters from the early 2nd century, if not earlier. Ephesians in particular was likely circulated with Paul’s letters already in the late 1st century. So they almost certainly originated in the churches of the apostolic circle in the 1st century. I don’t find the arguments for a 2nd century dating of the Pastorals at all convincing. These letters seem to be quoted by Polycarp (died 155 AD) and perhaps even Ignatius of Antioch (died 107 AD). The 2nd century dating is usually based either on questionable connections with later Gnosticism or on the 19th century Protestant view that institutional structures were a corruption of an earlier more “authentic” Christianity. Not only were they written in the 1st century, but all of these letters were also regarded by the early 2nd century as representative of apostolic faith and practice. This general picture of their origins would be enough on its own, I think, to grant these books canonical status and recognize in them God’s voice to later generations.

Moreover, there’s good reason to think that even if they weren’t written directly by Paul, all of these letters had a close connection to him. Some have suggested that Ephesians and/or the Pastorals were actually conceived by Paul and delegated to an assistant who did the actual writing in his name. This could account for all of the differences in style, word use, theological emphasis, etc. between these letters and the ones we all agree are by Paul. Such delegation isn’t usually how we think of “authorship” in a biblical book, but it has always been a common practice. When my wife worked as a legal assistant a lawyer would often ask her to “Write to the client and tell him X, Y, and Z.” She would then draft the letter in her own words, based on her understanding of what her boss thought about X, Y, and Z. Then the lawyer might (or might not) read the final letter before it was sent. I think we can imagine a number of reasons why Paul might work this way. Maybe he was imprisoned, or seriously ill, or just too busy with crisis management to dictate a letter himself. If either Ephesians or the Pastorals were written this way, that would simply strengthen those letters’ claim to represent the teaching and practice of Paul’s churches during his lifetime. It might not all be phrased the way Paul himself would, but it would be topics that Paul wanted addressed in generally this way. And it would be teaching given by someone Paul trusted, part of his arc of the apostolic circle.

Some might suggest that the Pastorals, in particular, can’t have been written in this way. They would argue that it’s too difficult to harmonize the events presumed by the Pastorals with the timeline of Paul’s other letters. I personally think that this assumes too much about our knowledge of first-century history. But many go this route. In that case, we might suggest that these letters were written immediately after Paul’s death, as a sort of posthumous testament to Paul and an application of his teaching to the current issues his churches were facing. That still provides good reason to view the Pastoral letters as representative of the teaching Paul helped to form in his churches and among his co-workers. That is enough, I would argue, to fit the early church’s criteria for inclusion in the canon.

Of course, some try to argue that the Pastorals, in particular, weren’t closely connected with Paul’s thought or communities at all. I think that would present a problem for their canonicity. But I think that these scholars have a hard time explaining the external evidence: that the 2nd century church universally regarded these as Paul’s letters, and that there was never any debate (even within communities Paul had founded) about them.

No, whether these letters were written by Paul himself, by a secretary or co-worker on his behalf, or in honour of Paul after his death, these letters most likely represent the faith and practice Paul nurtured in his churches. They give us a glimpse of the thought and life of the apostolic circle. They were also recognized and used widely and very early as a yardstick for evaluating whether other ideas were faithful to the apostles’ legacy. So they deserve their place in the New Testament canon.

Coping with the Shock of Biblical Studies

For many Christian students, the first exposure to academic biblical studies comes as a shock. Our faith was formed and nurtured with a simple view of the Bible. It seemed clear and we could trust it. We want to dig deeper, so we enroll in a course at seminary or university. But instead of just digging deeper, it feels like the Bible we knew is being taken away from us. God feels farther away, not closer. We may feel spiritual vertigo, as if we can’t tell any more which way is up. We don’t know what to trust. It may even feel Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplashlike we’re losing our faith. We might be taught, for example, that the disciple Matthew probably didn’t write the Gospel that carries his name. It was written by an unknown Jewish-Christian scribe. He used Mark as a framework and wove in stories and sayings that he found in oral tradition, as well as in smaller written sources like Q. Now when we turn to the Sermon on the Mount it doesn’t feel like we’re reading Jesus’ teaching. It feels like we’re reading the ideas of some faceless scribe. How do I even know who Jesus is if I have to second-guess everything this fake “Matthew” wrote?

Finding an Intellectual Solution

It’s often important to grapple with that shock on an intellectual level. Often new ideas like this don’t mean that the Bible is untrustworthy. It’s just that the *reason* for its trustworthiness is different than we thought. Before, we thought Matthew was trustworthy because we assumed it was a first-hand eyewitness report. But in fact it’s trustworthy because the scribe

  1. had access to second-hand eyewitness memory,
  2. was concerned to preserve it accurately,
  3. gives an account that fits with the eyewitness tradition we find in other Gospels,
  4. was recognized widely in the churches as reliable at a time when people still knew who had written it, and
  5. was canonized early on as a faithful reflection of the Apostolic circle’s understanding of Jesus.

So Matthew has a strong claim to reliability, both on historical and on theological grounds. We just have to adjust to the idea that it’s reliable for a slightly different reason than we thought before.

One thing that makes this intellectual work challenging is that we don’t always get help from textbook writers or our professors. Some of these people aren’t Christians, so they’re just not interested in helping us to reconcile our faith with what they’re teaching. Other writers and teachers may be Christians, but they’re trying to speak to a broad mixed audience. In both cases we’re not likely to get help with figuring out a new way to trust Matthew. In fact, we might be reading or learning from someone who has an axe to grind and deliberately plays up how “shocking” the new information is, how it “undermines” traditional Christianity. The tone of voice these people use often makes the new information seem far more damaging than it has to be. Despite their knowing looks, there are still good reasons to trust Matthew and the rest of the Bible. But we may have to spend some extra time and energy finding someone (another author or another teacher) who can help us to find that new basis for trust. If your professor is a Christian, and she hasn’t yet helped you to find your way through, don’t be shy. She has obviously found a way to continue in faith. So take advantage of her experience and ask for help to find that way yourself.

Learning How to Trust Scripture Again

Now, when we do find renewed reasons to trust the Bible, we’re likely not going to trust it in quite the same way that we did before. If Matthew isn’t all first-hand eyewitness memory, then we will have to allow for the possibility that some things have changed a bit in the re-telling. We can actually see that happening when we compare the same stories and sayings in Matthew and Mark. So when we read “Blessed are the poor in spirit” we won’t be able to trust that Jesus said exactly these words. We will have to wonder whether he originally said just “Blessed are the poor,” like in Luke’s version. So the point isn’t necessarily that we will find a way to defend our old understanding of the Bible. The point is that we will come through to a new understanding in which we can still trust these ancient books as God’s reliable Word to us.

That new understanding, and the ongoing questions that go with it, won’t necessarily make us feel better right away. It will often make us anxious for a while. That is natural, although it’s not comfortable. If I come to a foot bridge, thinking it’s solid, I’m going to be terrified at first if it bounces a bit when I step out on it. (I’m not a big fan of heights!) Even after I realize that it’s a cable suspension bridge, it will take a few minutes for my emotions to catch up to my new understanding. But if I keep walking, by the time I’m half-way across that bridge my pulse will probably be back down close to normal. This is what we’re going through with Matthew. We asked some questions and got answers we didn’t expect. The bridge bounced a bit. And it’s natural to be afraid that the bridge is going to give way completely, that we’ll find we can’t really trust Matthew at all. But if we keep reading and studying we’re going to find that the bridge really does support us. Every step still bounces a bit. We’ll still always have questions about how much in Matthew’s account is “redaction,” etc. But we’ll learn by experience that those questionsPhoto by Verena Yunita Yapi on Unsplash don’t change the big picture: Jesus said something that *meant* this, Jesus healed people and drove out demons, Jesus gathered twelve disciples, taught them how to live, died on a Roman cross, and rose from his tomb. The questions we now have to live with don’t have to mean we’re less confident about these big-picture aspects of Matthew’s witness. Before long we’ll find that the bounce in the bridge doesn’t bother us anymore. Our emotions have caught up to our new understanding, and we feel once more that Matthew can support the weight of our trust.

Now, some of us may have started out with such an absolute certainty about Matthew that we’re not used to living with any questions at all. That is going to make this season of adjustment painful, but it also probably makes the process that much more important. Why? In part because it’s just realistic. The world we live in doesn’t really offer that kind of mathematical certainty. Most of the important decisions in our lives, most of our commitments, involve an element of risk. There’s always a chance we could be wrong, but we decide to make the commitment anyway. In fact, that’s what faith always involves: a decision to trust Jesus even though the available evidence doesn’t absolutely guarantee we’re making the right decision. So learning to live with less certainty about scripture can for some of us be a healthy part of deepening our faith. We learn to trust its depiction of Christ, to live as if it is true, even though intellectually speaking we can’t be absolutely certain about it.

Meeting God in the Struggle

The one the we must not do in this season of adjustment is to stop praying. It’s vital to keep talking with God, even if all you can manage some days is to vent to Him about the confusion you’re feeling. Ask God how to deal with the new information that has you feeling off-balance. Why? Because that’s how we walk out onto the bridge. What most builds our renewed trust in Scripture is the experience over time that our relationship with Jesus can continue intact. When we experience the Jesus of the Gospels in prayer and in daily life, this strengthens our confidence that the bridge is holding. It strengthens our confidence that, whatever historical uncertainties there might be at an intellectualPhoto by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash level, we know that the Jesus Matthew portrays is real. And as part of your prayer, continue to meditate on Scripture. Practice setting aside the historical questions as much as you can, and asking the Holy Spirit “What do you want to say to me through this text today?” What you’ll find is that even when you’re not sure how much of a passage is “Matthean redaction” you can learn again to hear God’s voice speaking to you through the text. Prayer and meditation may be pretty difficult for a while. But we have to just do it anyway, put one foot in front of the other, in the faith that God will bring us through.

In the meantime, the experience of reading the Bible can be frustrating and even frightening. The book that was so familiar, such a source of comfort, suddenly seems alien and treacherous. Reading it can make us feel farther away from God, not closer. But that sense of God’s distance, if it’s not permanent, can be a healthy thing. It’s like the “dark night of the soul” described by so many Christian spiritual writers. Why would it be positive? It’s easy for us to feel close to God, comfortable with God, because we think we understand Him. God becomes predictable, a manageable part of our lives, a reliable resource to draw on when we’re struggling. But sometimes there’s an element of idolatry here. We come to think that God has been tamed by our doctrine and our worship. So it can be important for us to be reminded again that God is far beyond our ability to grasp. There are aspects of God that will always infinitely strange to us because they are so far beyond us. And sometimes it’s not enough to acknowledge God’s otherness intellectually. We have to experience it. Insofar as Scripture is God’s Word, it too is beyond our ability to control or domesticate. This season of struggle, when we feel alienated from the Bible, can actually be a rich season of growth. Because in this season we are confronted by the uncontrollable reality of God. In the process our trust comes to rest more in the God who is, and less in the idolatrous God of our own understanding.

Nurturing Hope

Finally, it is important to nurture hope. What you’re going through isn’t unique. It won’t last forever. God will answer your prayers and provide what you need. If you don’t let go of Jesus, you will find in the end what so many others have found: that on the other side of the soul’s dark night is a dawning trust and confidence in God that is deeper and richer than before. I can’t tell you how long that will take. I also can’t promise that you’ll never come back this way again. My own experience has taken me through several seasons of spiritual vertigo. But the God who has held on to me through them all will hold on to you.

The Old Testament Law in New Testament Theology

The Problem of the Law

One of the greatest tensions in the New Testament surrounds the Old Testament law, also called torah. On the one hand we read Matthew’s Gospel and hear Jesus make the solemn declaration: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). orig_05_Rembrandt_Mozes_a_kotablakkal_cimu_festmenyeIn Matthew, Jesus is not critical of the Pharisees for carefully observing the details of torah, even tithing their herbs and spices. He tells them, rather, that this concern for the details should go along with a passion for “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus tells them “It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). Jesus certainly does call people back to the basic values behind torah, but he still expects them to keep all of its specific commands. The “spirit of the law” is not pitted here against the “letter of the law.” Jesus’ point is that disciples should keep the letter of the law, motivated and guided by the law’s spirit. Jesus may call for behaviour that is more rigorous than written torah requires, as when he sets aside the divorce allowance in Deut 24:1–4 and calls for marriage to be a life-long commitment (Matt 5:31-32). But this is a matter of doing more than the law requires, not breaking its commandments.

Then we turn to Paul’s letters, and especially to Romans and Galatians. There we find Paul emphasizing that believers in Christ are no longer “under the law” (1 Cor 9:18-23). Torah no longer has jurisdiction over someone who is “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 7:1-6). The redemption made by Jesus was made “apart from the law” (Rom 3:21). Keeping torah is no longer a necessary part of living in the community of God’s people. So Paul emphasizes that the non-Jewish Christians in Galatia should not be circumcized, and should definitely not try to observe all the law’s other commandments (Gal 5:2-4). When Paul comes to give ethical teaching he almost never quotes the Old Testament law. Instead he talks about believers using their minds to “discern” the will of God rationally (Rom 12:1-2), and he talks about keeping in step with the Spirit of God (Gal 5:16-26). When he wants, say, to convince the Corinthians not to eat meals in pagan temples, he does not mention the commands of torah. Rather, he offers a reasoned argument based on Israel’s past experience and the theological reality of being in relationship with God (1 Cor 10:1-22). It is important to Paul that the core of God’s moral will for humanity has not changed. So he emphasizes that by living a lifestyle of love, believers will “fulfill” the whole law (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; cf. Gal 5:23). But for Paul “fulfilling” the whole law clearly does not mean observing all of its commands. The biblical food restrictions, Sabbath-keeping and festivals, these parts of torah Paul treats as “indifferent” (Rom 14:2-3, 5-6, 14, 20). There’s no harm in keeping them, but God no longer requires it for believers. In theory, the members of Paul’s churches could still use torah as an ethical guide, perhaps using the principle of love to recognize the commands that reflect God’s permanent will for human life. But Paul does not actually teach his communities to use torah this way. He seems to be worried that such an ethical use of torah would too easily bring a slide back into the belief that torah, as a legal code, is binding on believers. So with very rare exceptions (1 Cor 9:8-12) Paul models an ethical discernment that avoids using torah’s commands.

So as Christians who read both Matthew and Paul, how are we to make sense of their disagreement? For Jesus in Matthew’s portrait, even the smallest command remains in full force. God’s people remain bound to keep all of torah until “heaven and earth pass away.” For Paul, believers are no longer obligated to keep torah, and many of its prominent commands have become “indifferent.” It is even possible to discern God’s will without using torah at all. Can we build any unified understanding of law and ethics on the basis of such diametrically opposed views?

Broad (But Not Complete) Agreement in Practice

The first step, I think, is to recognize that while their theologies differ greatly, Matthew and Paul would have agreed to a large extent about the actual lifestyle people should live. Believers in Christ should not steal, should not give false testimony in court, should help their poor neighbours, should remain faithful to their husbands and wives. Moreover, Paul accepts that, in many commands like these, torah does still reflect the permanent will of God. So, although Paul himself does not model using torah for Christian ethics, his theology leaves room for it. There is no reason why a Pauline believer and a Matthean disciple could not sit down together with Exodus or Leviticus and learn how God wants human beings to live.

There are even some of those commands that the Pauline and Matthean readers would agree could no longer be observed in a straightforward way. The legislation that guided conflict resolution in ancient Israel did not necessarily make sense in the Roman world of the first-century. Both of our readers would likely agree that stoning every adulterer to death was neither practical nor desirable. Under Roman law people did not have the freedom to kill other community members like this, and Jesus’ concern for “sinners” would suggest that the adulterer should be given the change to repent and change his life. Matthew was also written after the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed in AD 70. This meant that the laws around sacrifice and the festival rituals simply could not be observed. Without the temple rituals, most of the ritual purity system also became obsolete, since those instructions were only necessary as preparation to enter the temple. So both of our imaginary readers of torah would agree that quite a few of the commands would not be observed in practice. For our Matthean reader this would not be a matter of the commands “passing away,” but simply a matter of changing circumstances. For our Pauline reader, most of these commands could be safely ignored because they do not teach us anything about how to love.

Our Pauline and Matthean readers may have disagreed, though, over a few very prominent commands. Paul had treated the food laws, circumcision, and Sabbath-keeping as unnecessary. In Matthew, though, Jesus gives no hint that these commands are to be repealed. Mark comments that Jesus’ teaching on hand-washing implied that all foods were clean, but Matthew edits that comment out. Food, circumcision, and Sabbath—these were precisely the observances that had marked Jews most visibly as different from their neighbours. Indeed, that seems to be why Paul argued the commands were no longer binding. God, he believed, was building one new people in which there were no divisions between Jew and Gentile. Matthew, it seems, would have been uncomfortable with that idea.

Closer Agreement for Non-Jews?

Still, the disagreement here may not be as sharp as it seems. When Jesus talks in Matthew about the whole law remaining in force, his audience consists entirely of Jews. Matthew alludes in places to a time when Gentiles will become disciples, too. He does not explain, though, how those Gentiles will relate to torah. Some Jews believed that God only expected Gentiles to keep a small set of laws, those in force at the time of Noah. Matthew likely expected non-Jews to keep more commands than that. After all, Gentiles would have been among the readers of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ woes on the Pharisees. Speeches like this would certainly have encouraged non-Jews in Matthew’s audience to keep as much of the law as possible. It may well be, though, that Matthew would have stopped short of requiring Gentiles to keep the most distinctly Jewish commands: circumcision, food restrictions, and Sabbath. This would have made Gentiles in Matthew’s community a lot like the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who visited the synagogue and kept much of torah but stopped short of full conversion to Judaism.

If this is correct, then our Pauline and Matthean readers of torah would have agreed in practice about how non-Jewish believers should use the law of Moses. Both would have put a primary emphasis on the commands that taught Israel how to love, how human beings should seek the welfare of neighbour and community. Both would have set aside the laws around compensation for damages, except perhaps as illustrations of justice. Both would have set aside the laws for sacrifices, festivals, and ritual purity. And if both our readers were Gentiles, then both would likely agree that they need not observe circumcision, the food laws, or Sabbath. The Pauline reader might not believe that torah was the only way to learn what a life of love looked like, but he or she would still affirm that such a life of love is the same lifestyle that was encouraged by torah. So torah could be used as a helpful guide in learning how to live that lifestyle, provided one remained clear about which parts of torah no longer applied.

Navigating the Theological Tension

So, at least for Gentile believers, Paul and Matthew would probably have agreed in practice about how torah should be used. Paul would just have added that reason and the Spirit could also offer similar guidance. The real conflict comes at the level of theory. For Matthew, Jesus seems to renew the covenant with Moses. That covenant is changed, especially by the final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But the human responsibility in the covenant relationship still requires that God’s people keeps torah. Paul, by contrast, sees the new covenant in Christ happening outside and separate from the old covenant of which torah was a part. So, while torah has value as an ethical guide, keeping it is no longer a covenant obligation.

How do we reconcile these different models of the new covenant? I would suggest that we not try to harmonize them in a systematic way. Rather, we should pay attention to what each theology affirms. Matthew affirms that the covenant in Christ is a continuation of God’s relationship with Israel, and that the essential ethical requirements of that relationship have not changed—even for Gentiles. Paul affirms that there is some discontinuity, a partial break with the past. God’s new people does not relate to God in quite the same way that Israel did, and that means torah as a complete code no longer governs the life of this new people. If we seek to build a bibically-grounded theology, we cannot simply adopt either Matthew’s theology or Paul’s as the whole truth. We must, instead, seek to describe our relationship with God in Christ so that both Matthew’s continuity and Paul’s discontinuity are preserved. In expressing this systematic theology we are going beyond the Bible, but we are trying find an expression that preserves the truth in both the Pauline and the Matthean pictures. We might say, for example, that in Christ torah as a complete code no longer defines our covenant responsibility toward God, but that the lifestyle of love at the centre of torah does continue as our proper covenant response. In one sense we are no longer under the law, and in another sense the law has not passed away at all (even for Gentiles).

This is not the way many of us expect the Bible to teach. We tend to expect Scripture to give us clear, precise concepts that fit together as a consistent system. For whatever reason, though, that seems not to be the way God chose to communicate. Maybe that’s not so surprising, though, given that Jesus, the Son of God, taught primarily in parables. So maybe we should not be so surprised that God presents us with Matthew and Paul side by side, like two proverbs that appear to conflict, and tells us that we can find the truth when we try to be faithful to both. In fact, a Proverb is often powerful because it only focuses on one dimension of the truth. So it is a forceful guide when that dimension of the truth is what we need. Maybe God knew that at times we would need to focus, with Matthew, on the fact that God’s purposes have not changed. At times we need to feel ourselves to be the extension of ancient Israel, relate to Moses as our own guide, and find comfort in the solidity of God’s unchanging commands. And at other times we need to read Romans or Galatians and focus on the fact that things have changed. We are no longer wandering in the wilderness with Moses. The Spirit of God inside us has changed our experience fundamentally. Our re-made people of God now embraces every people of the world, a constant reminder that God loves every single individual no matter where they are from. By leaving this theoretical tension in Scripture, God makes the task of theology more complex. But maybe, like with proverbs, this tension allows God to speak into our lives more powerfully. And maybe, as with a parable, we are formed by God in the process of wrestling through this tension, not just by the system we discover at the end.

So What Now?

There are a lot of questions I have not answered here. What about the role of torah for Jewish believers in Christ? Paul and Matthew seem to disagree more sharply there. There are other voices, too, that need to be heard when we build our systematic theology of torah. Luke sees God setting aside specific “boundary marking” observances (like the food laws) for Jews, without setting aside all of torah. And Luke records the decision of the “Jerusalem council” that only a small number of torah’s distinctive commands need be kept by Gentiles. The author of Hebrews sees Israel’s temple worship fulfilled (and replaced?) by Christ. A complete systematic theology of torah would have to do justice to the truth in these positions as well.

In our day-to-day life as followers of Christ, though, we Gentile believers can fairly easily follow torah in a way that would satisfy all of these various voices. This is the use of torah developed by the early church. We can distinguish between the “moral” parts of the law (which we still try to follow) and the the “civil” and “ceremonial” parts of the law (which no longer apply to us). We can recognize what is the “moral” law by asking “Does this have to do with loving my neighbour?” We can recognize the “ceremonial” law by asking “Is this observance redundant now that Christ has died and been raised?” We can recognize the “civil” law by asking “Is this a practical instruction for judges or rulers in ancient Israel?” The “civil” and “ceremonial” commands are not to be ignored entirely. They still teach us about God’s values (like justice) and dimensions of God’s character (like holiness). But it is only the “moral” commands that we will observe in a literal, straightforward way. It will not always be clear in which category a given command should fall. The “moral” law certainly should not be reduced to the ten commandments, one of which (Sabbath observance) Paul did not consider an expression of love. Other commands can only be observed by analogy, even if we consider them “moral” commands, because the social context of the original command is now gone. Even for contemporary farmers, leaving the corners of a field un-harvested would not benefit the poor today in the way it once did (Lev 19:9–10). We also have to remember that none of the New Testament authors divide torah up like this. The terminology all comes from the later church’s thinking. But it defines a practical use of torah that (at least for Gentiles) satisfies both Paul’s theory of torah and Matthew’s.


Making Sense of Time and the Greek Tenses

The Greek tenses can really be confusing at first. The key, really, is to understand that they don’t mean what English tenses mean. Both the present and the aorist aren’t really indicating the time of the action. They’re indicating the way the speaker is viewing the action, the speaker’s focus in looking at the time, clock, antique, deadline, hours, minutes, schedule, timeraction. This is what we mean by verbal “aspect.” So a present verb focuses on the action as an ongoing process, as repeated, as timeless, or as just beginning. An aorist verb can be used to talk about the same action, but the aorist simply focuses on the action as a whole. That means the aorist tense actually has less distinct meaning. So it’s often the default tense to be used if you don’t need to draw attention to any particular feature of the action. The present tense is the one that adds extra information to a clause, indicating a more specific focus on certain features of the action. In terms of translation, that means that you’ll often use simple English tenses for the aorist, and more complex English expressions for the present:

Aorist Present
word common translation word common translation
εἰπεν “she speaks” λεγει “she is speaking” or “she begins to speak”
δoυναι “to give” διδοναι “to give repeatedly” or “to continue giving”
ἠλθον “they went” ἐρχονται “they were going” or “they often went”

What you’ll notice here is that although we call them “tenses,” the present and aorist don’t actually indicate time. In many cases, the time of the action (present, past) has to be inferred from context. An aorist verb can be used for action in the present, and a present-tense Greek verb can be used for action in the past.

What does generally indicate time is the augment at the beginning of the verb. The augment only shows up on indicative aorist verbs, not on other moods (imperative, infinitive, participles). That’s why indicative aorist verbs like ἠλθον or ἐβλεψα are generally translated with past time, while aorist infinitives like ἐλθειν or βλεψαι are generally translated in present time (or as happening at the time of the main verb). Aorist imperatives like ἐλθετε or βλεψατε similarly are usually translated in present time. Because infinitives and imperatives don’t have the augment, and it’s that augment that really is a past-time indicator. Since the augment indicates past time for those indicative aorist verbs, present indicative verbs are usually translated as present time. In fact there’s another tense (the imperfect) that just adds the augment to the present stem and only appears in the indicative mood, giving us a way for indicative verbs to use “present” aspect, to emphasize that actions as ongoing, repeated, etc., but still signal that the actions happened in past time.

So the upshot of this is that tense (present/aorist) indicates aspect, not time. Only the augment indicates time, and it only shows up in the indicative mood. Even then the augment isn’t an absolutely consistent time marker. You can, for example, have present indicative verbs (without the augment) that express actions in the past. We call this the “historical” use of the present indicative. But your default translation of indicative verbs should follow the presence or absence of the augment when it comes to time.

If you want to dig more deeply into the Greek tenses and verbal aspect, check out my YouTube videos:

  • getting started with verbs:
  • the aorist tense:
  • the imperfect tense:
  • the future tense:
  • the perfect tense:

Making Sense of the Middle Voice in Greek

The key point with the middle voice in Greek is that we don’t have anything equivalent in English. English lumps together actions that are active in Greek with actions that are middle in Greek and generally expresses those actions with the English active voice. This is why we find the middle so hard to wrap our heads around. It’s not a concept we use in our language. So generally, if a verb is middle in Greek it should be translated using the English active voice and you don’t have to worry about the meaning of the middle voice beyond that. (If you’re interested in understanding the meaning of the Greek middle voice, check out my video on the middle here:

The trick, really, is that the present tense uses the same forms for middle and passive verbs. How do I know whether the verb ἐρχομαι is middle or passive? It could be either, based just on its form. The key here is that usually the middle voice and passive voice aren’t used with the same verb. Most of the middle verbs you’ll see are middle-only (deponent). The Greeks think of the action of the verb as inherently “middle,” so that it doesn’t make sense to use the active voice with them. This is why the dictionary form is ἐρχομαι, with a middle ending. To remind us that middle-only verbs like this never appear in the active voice.

But if the active voice doesn’t make sense for an action, neither (to the Greeks) does the passive voice. So most middle-only verbs will also never appear in the passive voice. That means in practice ἐρχομαι isn’t really ambiguous. It’s a middle-only verb, so it can’t be passive. The -ομαι ending in this case has to be middle. And, since the middle voice is translated with an English active voice, you should always translate ἐρχομαι with the English active: “I am going.” On the other hand, βλεπω is not a middle-only verb. (You can tell because its dictionary form is active, ending in -ω.) And verbs that can use the active voice usually don’t also use the middle. So if I see βλεπομαι, and I know the verb isn’t middle-only, I’ll assume it’s passive: “I am being seen.”

This is complicated a bit by a few verbs that can appear in either the active or the middle. For practical purposes, you can treat the middle forms of these verbs as a separate meaning of the verb. So ἀρχω means “I rule.” But the middle form ἀρχομαι means “I begin.” Notice that the middle form is still translated with the English active voice. But this isn’t actually a deponent verb because the active voice is also used with this verb. It’s just used to make the verb express a different meaning. With these “middle-sometimes” verbs, you can also have the passive voice used. So ἀρχομαι is ambiguous in the present tense. Is this the middle form meaning “I begin,” or is it the passive form (based on the active-voice meaning of the verb) “I am being ruled”? It could be either. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these “middle-sometimes” verbs in NT Greek.

Note, too, that since middle-only verbs don’t make sense (to Greeks) in the active voice, they will usually use the middle voice in all verbal moods. So the infinitive of ἐρχομαι is also going to be middle: ἐρχεσθαι. And its imperative will also be middle: ἐρχου. Even its participles will be middle: ἐρχομενος.

All of this gets a little simpler in the aorist tense because you now have different forms for the middle voice and passive voice. That means that the aorist of ἀρχομαι (ἠρξαμην) isn’t ambiguous anymore. It has to be middle, meaning “I began.” Because the aorist passive form would be entirely different, using a different tense marker and set of endings. But everything else stays the same no matter what tense you’re using. Middle-only (deponent) verbs like ἐρχομαι are always middle, never active or passive. (Okay, we’ll see that in a few cases the aorist passive form is used instead of the aorist middle for a deponent verb, but you can ignore that for the moment.) They are going to be aorist middle whether they’re indicative, infinitive, imperative, or a participle. And middle-sometimes verbs like ἀρχω are still going to have different meanings based on whether you use the active or middle voice. That also won’t change, no matter what mood you’re using. So the aorist middle infinitive ἠρξασθαι will mean “to begin,” but the aorist active infinitive ἀρξαι will mean “to rule.” passive form is used instead of the aorist middle for a deponent verb, but you can ignore that for the moment.) They are going to be aorist middle whether they’re indicative, infinitive, imperative, or a participle. And middle-sometimes verbs like ἀρχω are still going to have different meanings based on whether you use the active or middle voice. That also won’t change, no matter what mood you’re using. So the aorist middle infinitive ἠρξασθαι will mean “to begin,” but the aorist active infinitive ἀρξαι will mean “to rule.”

Hopefully this may make the middle voice a bit easier for you to work with in Greek. Again, this discussion is just a starting point. For more check out my related videos:

Experiencing the Trinity

Traditional Christianity has always taught that God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But this can often seem like an abstract idea that does not have much to do with my life. Here are my reflections on how the Trinity can be experienced, originally shared at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill Anglican Church in June 2017.

How Early Was Mark’s Gospel Written?

Many of my blog posts begin life as answers to my students’ questions. This one is no different. A student asked a good question about how we know Mark wasn’t written much earlier than AD 65 or so. Here is my (lightly edited) reply.

The starting point for dating Mark is that our earliest church tradition says Mark wrote in Rome after Peter’s death. That’s in the “anti-Marcionite prologue” to Mark (which is likely 2nd century) and in Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1 (written around 180). Peter probably died in Nero’s persecution of 64-65. So a date earlier than 65 is unlikely. Some later Patristic tradition says that Mark wrote before Peter’s death (Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius) but the emphasis there falls on markPeter having seen and approved of Mark’s Gospel. Most historians think it likely that this is a symptom of later church fathers wanting to strengthen the apostolic authority of the book by having Peter actually authorize it. I think that’s a more likely scenario than the alternative: that some earlier leaders accidentally distanced Peter from the Gospel by wrongly suggesting it was written after Peter’s death.

When they talk about the date of Mark, scholars will often mention Mark 13:14 where Jesus seems to predict Jerusalem’s fall and the “abomination of desolation” standing in the temple. This verse really is not helpful in deciding whether Mark could have been written earlier than 65. It is more helpful in thinking about how much later it can be pushed. When Mark mentions the “abomination” in the temple, he offers an aside, “let the reader understand.” This is the equivalent of a wink and a nudge, prompting the reader to put together for themselves the significance of Jesus’ prediction. Some think this indicates that Mark is writing after the fall of Jerusalem has happened. That would require a date for Mark in or after 70, when Titus took the city. I think, though, it is equally possible that Mark’s aside is written earlier in the war (which started in 67) and he is encouraging the audience to infer that Jesus’ words will be fulfilled by the Roman campaign in Judea. In fact, recent research has suggested that Jesus’ (highly allusive) prediction doesn’t include the kind of tell-tale details we would expect if Mark were writing after the fact. On balance, this suggests a date for Mark some time around 67-69, during the Jewish war. In any case, the upper end of Mark’s date can’t be pushed later than the early 70’s if Mark was used by Matthew and Luke. Both of them wrote well before the end of the first century.

In other words, if we take the earliest church tradition seriously, we can be fairly confident that Mark was written between 65 and 72 or so. If 13:14 isn’t referring to Jerusalem’s fall after the fact, that narrows the gap to about 65-69, with 67-69 perhaps being more likely.

Given the standard models of Gospel relationships, this would mean that Matthew and Luke have to be written after 75 (and possibly as late as 85). Some people object that Matthew and/or Luke couldn’t have been written so late. If Matthew and Luke used Mark, and they are writing after Jerusalem’s fall, why don’t they make a bigger deal of Jesus having predicted the temple’s fall? We don’t know. But we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from what a writer does not say. Both Matthew and Luke let much of their theology be inferred indirectly through allusions and symbolism. So they may just have thought the fulfillment of Jesus’ words was so obvious they didn’t need to emphasize it further. In any case, I think it’s easier to imagine why Matthew and Luke would be low-key on this point than it is to explain away the 2nd century testimony about Mark’s composition.

If Luke wrote Acts after 75, more than a decade after Paul was executed, why does Acts end before Paul’s death? We have to remember that Acts is not a biography of Paul. In fact, Paul doesn’t appear until well into the story. The “main character” of Acts is really Christ himself, present through the Spirit. In Acts 1:8 we are given an outline of the book’s plot: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The narrative then shows how the message of Christ is carried by people empowered by the Spirit, moving outward from Jerusalem to Samaria and other outlying areas, and finally all the way to Rome. Once the message reaches Rome it has arrived symbolically at “the ends of the earth.” So the story is over. The Spirit has done what Jesus promised.

How does Paul know some of Jesus’ teaching if he was writing before the Gospels were written? He has access to the same tradition of eyewitness memory that the evangelists did. We know that Paul spent 15 days in Jerusalem with Peter early on (Gal 1:18), and that later on Peter was staying in Antioch at the same time as Paul (Gal 2:11-14). There is certainly evidence that Paul knew some of Jesus’ teaching in places like 1 Cor 7:10-11 (Jesus’ saying on divorce) and 1 Cor 11:23-26 (the institution of the Lord’s Supper). Since we know, though, that local teachers were repeating Jesus’ sayings on a regular basis in the churches, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul knows some of these sayings or that the version Paul knows resembles the version that showed up later in the Gospels. Notice that the closest verbatim connection (the institution of the Lord’s Supper) is in a saying that would have been part of the church’s Eucharistic liturgy every week. That is the kind of tradition that we would expect to be very stable. Actually, though, when Paul uses Jesus’ teaching it’s usually through indirect allusions that don’t really tell us what form of tradition Paul had available to him. Indirectly, then, what Paul provides is some evidence for a reliable oral tradition of teaching behind the Synoptic Gospels.

People have sometimes objected that in 2 Cor 8:18 Paul refers to a brother whose has received praise “in the gospel” (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ). But in the many places where Paul uses the term “gospel” it never refers to a book. It refers to oral preaching, or to the contents of that message. For Paul the “gospel” is not even teaching about the life of the earthly Jesus. It is the message about Jesus’ significance for human beings now and in the future. In fact, there’s no evidence of “gospel” being used to refer to a book before Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century. Exactly what the phrase means here is a bit tricky because the grammar of the sentence is awkward. But Paul seems to mean that this brother’s “praise” is for activity “in the sphere of the gospel.” This is likely activity in preaching and spreading the gospel message. (Note that “in the Lord” is used similarly in 2 Cor 2:12.)

I should add, by the way, that while 65 (or 67) can sometimes seem like a late date for Mark’s composition, from the standpoint of historical sources it’s extremely early. Mark was written well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly career. Yes, we do have to think about how that memory was preserved for 35 years or so between Easter and Mark’s writing. But if (as is probable) Mark was formulating and recording Peter’s oral teaching, just after Peter’s death, that makes Mark an extremely good historical source on Jesus.