The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.

Black Friday Book Recommendation: The Economy of Desire

Black Friday proves that the progress of (post)modernity has failed to eradicate the ills of idolatry. Lest we denizens of the “highly-developed” world think that we have left the primitive vestiges of wood, rock, and gold idolatry behind, our shopping patterns (and indeed our shopping identities as consumers) should remind us of our consumerism’s dark side — a lethal one

As I’ve put in “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof”: 

“Although physical idols may not be as universally common today as they once were, invisible idols are as prevalent as ever, especially within the context of Western materialism, where money, possessions, influence, and power are the modern-day Baal.”

If you DO happen to find yourself shopping on Black Friday, or really at any point during the upcoming shopping/holiday (an increasingly blurred line) season — allow me to recommend heartily the following book: The Economy of Desire by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. Here’s a poignant quote: 

“Capitalism distorts the creative power that is human desire by constantly creating new objects/idols for its fascination. It entices desire with an endless array of distractions. The enchantments of capitalist production are distractions precisely because they cannot satisfy our desire. And as far as capitalism is concerned, this is a good thing, for satisfied desire would spell an end to capitalism, which depends on the frenetic power of unquenched desire to drive its productive engines. 

“In contrast, Christianity proclaims the good news that we can indeed find rest from the rat race that is the conflict of the capitalist market. Our desire finds its true home, its rest, its delight in communion with God. Desire’s true fascination is the radiance of love that is the glorious life of the blessed Trinity. For this reason, humanity might rightly be called homo adorans — worshiping beings. We are not beings caught in an endless cycle of trucking and bartering (homo economicus) but beings inclined to worship and enjoy the divine love that provides all we need. In other words, because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want (Ps. 23:1). We need not strive endlessly but can be content.” (168)

If you don’t feel like braving the crowds, Bell’s book is available on Amazon.

Silence and Violence

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

 

“Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and the end of human history…

“Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence … is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one’s own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge.” (Volf, E&E, 306)

“Silence,” a sonnet for Remembrance Day written by Malcolm Guite:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seeths instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as we sing our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Then, Volf on violence:

“Religions advocate nonviolence in general, while at the same time finding ways to legitimate violence in specific situations; their representatives both preach against war and bless the weapons of their nation’s troops. And so the deep religious wisdom about nonviolence boils down to a principle that no self-respecting war-lord will deny, namely that you can be violent whenever you cannot be nonviolent, provided your goals are just (which they usually are for the simple reason that they are yours). Religious dialogue or no religious dialogue, without the principled assertion that it is never appropriate to use religion to give moral sanction to the use of violence, religious images and religious leaders will continue to be exploited by politicians and generals engaged in violence.” (Volf, E&E, 286).

Finally, Volf’s conclusion (E&E, 306):

It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation. […] It may also be that measure which involve preparation for the use of violent means will have to be taken to prevent tyrants and madmen from ascending to power in the first place or to keep the plethora of ordinary kinds of perpetrators that walk our streets from doing their violent work. It may be that in a world suffused with violence the issue is not simply “violence versus peace” but rather “what forms of violence could be tolerated to overcome a social ‘peace’ that coercively maintained itself through the condoned violence of injustice” (Suchocki 1995, 117). But if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their vision of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its wars is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign — in the name of gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils.

The Holy Trinity: What Is It? (Why) Is It Important?

Introduction: The Holy Trinity

One God. Three persons. The Holy Trinity.

The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture.

From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God.

Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew.

The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2

One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

Is the Trinity in the Bible? – Canonical Presence

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture.

And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3

However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6

YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7

The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8

Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity.

Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10

The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

How did we get the “doctrine” of the Trinity? – Historical Outworking

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum.

Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11

The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe.

While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14

In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15

Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20

However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three?

Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence).

Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23

However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases, therefore, prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine.

After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many.

In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27

Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

Conclusion

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God.

Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30

And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190.

Psalm 2: Quare Fremuerunt Gentes? (Why Do the Nations Rage?)

(Here’s my paper on Psalm 2, submitted to Dr. M. Sydney Park in partial fulfillment of my Biblical Interpretation course here at Beeson Divinity School. Although I don’t consider this the best thing I’ve ever written, I’d love for you to check this piece out and let me know what you think, because no matter the limitations of the assignment, there’s always room for improvement. Plus, I didn’t have space to talk about all the issues whirring around in my head while writing this paper, and your constructive feedback might very well help me take my next intellectual steps. Click the title below for the .pdf version.)

Psalm 2 – Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

As the first royal psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 2 exhorts rebellious world leaders to serve Yahweh in wisdom by submitting to his anointed Davidic king who has been granted a global kingdom.1 Comprehension of the psalm’s original message first requires an examination of its constituent parts, with an eye toward its poetic features and original context. Furthermore, an understanding of the enduring significance of Psalm 2 necessitates a consideration of its canonical and redemptive-historical context, including the New Testament’s typological interpretations of the passage. This essay will provide both aspects before concluding with a brief discussion of how best to interpret and apply Psalm 2 to the contemporary Christian Church.

Original Message

Psalm 2 is arranged in four stanzas of three verses each that follow a loosely chiastic movement from the rebellious rulers of nations (2:1-3), to Yahweh (2:4-6), to his anointed king (2:7-9), and back to the rulers (2:10-12).2 The psalmist opens with a twofold rhetorical question that uses synthetic parallelism to express indignant astonishment at the nations’ rage (2:1a) and the peoples’ vain plots (2:1b).3 The rest of the first stanza clarifies the scene: the “kings” and “rulers” of the earth are rebelliously conspiring “against the Lord and against his Anointed” (2:2), using the metaphor of “bonds” and “cords” in their reported direct speech (2:3) to express comparatively the implied rule of the Israelite king.4 The second stanza shifts the focus upward from the limited earthly sphere of influence of the rebellious kings to the unlimited heavenly kingdom of Yahweh (2:4), who anthropomorphically responds to their machinations with laughter and derision, “just as humans would mock something ridiculous.”5 As Ross notes, the two verbs “he will speak” and “[he will] terrify them” (2:5) are respectively a metonymy of cause and of effect to portray the full divine response, arranged in chiastic order (“speak + wrath // anger + terrify”) to emphasize God’s wrath.6 At the heart of the passage’s chiastic structure, bridging the second and third stanzas, is a dramatic shift of scene from Yahweh speaking while seated in the heavens (2:4-6) to Mount Zion and the Davidic king’s recounting of the divine decree (2:7). Both divine speeches emphasize that the authority of Israel’s king proceeds from his divine installation and sonship.7 As Mays notes, although the human ruler in view is not equal or identical to the deity, this unique appearance in the Psalter of “son” as the Davidic king’s title (cf. 2 Sam 7:14) reveals the close correspondence between God and the king.8 This powerful polemic against the rulers who would dare to rebel against such an authoritative king continues through the third stanza (2:7-9), where the son/king is granted a global kingdom (2:8), described with synonymous parallelism between (1) the “nations” and “ends of the earth” and (2) “your heritage” and “your possession.” The section concludes with a vivid image, utilizing “a rod of iron” as a metaphor for the Davidic king’s divinely-granted authority and “like a potter’s vessel” as a simile for the relative vulnerability of the rulers of nations sans divine installation and protection.9

In the final stanza (2:10-12), the psalmist appropriately begins with “now therefore,” a common phrase from Hebrew wisdom literature, before exhorting the rebellious kings and rulers of the earth to “be wise” (2:10) by serving the Lord in reverential fear (2:11) and submitting to his anointed son/king (2:12a).10 The urgency of the exhortations is “met by the warning that he may be angry” (2:12b-c).11 The ambiguity of the subject (“he”) of the descriptions of anger in these two clauses serves to illustrate the close link between Yahweh and his king throughout the entire psalm. As Ross rightly notes, the result of either interpretive option would be the same – “the king will put down their rebellion, but it will be God giving him the victory. To rebel against the one is to rebel against both, and to submit to one is to submit to both.”12 The psalmist concludes by promising blessing to those who take refuge in “him” (2:12d) – an again ambiguous referent, but contextually describing those who demonstrate reverential faith for Yahweh by submitting to his anointed king.13

Contextually, the parallels between this passage and the promises spoken to David in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 clarify the content by identifying the psalm with the coronation of a Davidic king, in addition to the Davidic covenant’s continuity with the other covenant commitments of Yahweh throughout the OT.14 Despite Gunn’s creative proposal that Psalm 2 refers to the anointing and not the coronation of the king, Ross offers a balanced perspective when he views the psalm’s original occasion as a time of crisis due to the vulnerability of the nation to foreign attack at the time of a new king’s coronation.15 Within the Psalter itself, Psalm 2 comprises an introduction along with Psalm 1 – focusing “on the victory of the LORD’s anointed king over the nations” after Psalm 1’s emphasis on the wise way of the righteous.16 Because the final editing and compilation of the Psalter took place in absence of a Davidic king, this fitting introduction “served as a reminder of God’s plan” to its earliest audiences.17

However, as VanGemeren rightly emphasizes, “the juxtaposition of Psalm 3 [a Davidic lament psalm] with Psalms 1 and 2 creates a sense of dissonance” which refocuses “the hope of the godly from David to the Lord, who has made the promises to David.”18 That is, the tension between the idealized portraits (of the individual and Davidic king) in the first two Psalms, the “canonical understanding of the failure of David and of the Davidic dynasty,” and the “real world of failure and exile” experienced throughout the rest of the Psalter and Hebrew Bible encourages a christological and eschatological reading – one which looks for the fulfillment of the expectations of Israel and David in a coming anointed king who is both Son of David and Son of God.19

Enduring Significance

It is reasonable to assume that Psalm 2’s uniqueness as the only psalm to use “son” as a title for the Davidic king and the only OT combination of “anointed/messiah,” “king,” and “son” in one passage contributed to its frequent use in the NT.20 The redemptive-historical context of the second psalm suggests its meaningful relevance (1) during the Hebrew monarchy when a Davidic king was on the throne, (2) during the post-exilic absence of a king, and (3) as the psalm’s circle of context extended into the New Testament and the nascent Church – taking on a typological significance in its portrayal of the anointed Davidic king as the type of which Jesus the Messiah was the antitype.21 Based on the NT evidence, as VanGemeren notes, “from the perspective of typology, Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalm,” because “he is born of David’s lineage (Mt 1:1; Lk 2:4, 11), has a right to David’s throne (Lk 1:32), is the Son of God in a unique way (Mt 3:17; Lk 9:35; Heb 1:5), and will ultimately subdue all enemies under his feet (1Co 15:25-27; Heb 2:5-8).”22 Although a full discussion of messianic typological interpretation exceeds the purview of this paper, a discussion of the quotations of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-26 and twice in Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5) will suffice to demonstrate the NT sensitivity to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah – an awareness which contemporary interpretative methods should embody.23

Following the reprimand and release of Peter and John from the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-23), the believers to whom they are reunited quote Psalm 2:1-2 (Acts 4:25-26) as they confess to God (4:24) a poignant interpretation of the resistance the anointed king of Psalm 2 faced from the “Gentiles,” “peoples,” “kings,” and “rulers” (4:25-26) in terms of the lethal opposition Jesus received from “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel” (4:27). Of note is the intimate awareness of not only the content but also the eschatological bent of Psalm 2 that such a typological interpretation of the text required. In a profound interpretive dialectic, familiarity with the passage’s unmet expectations, the patterns of God’s redemptive work, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus enabled these believers to bring Psalm 2 to bear on the very resistance their messianic interpretations were creating for themselves.24 Because Psalm 2 teaches that “the declaration of the Son of God is God’s answer to the opposition of the world’s powers,” the early Christians used the passage to bolster their proclamation of the gospel in the face of external threats, not by directly identifying themselves with Psalm 2’s Davidic king, but by taking refuge in him, so to speak, by proclaiming their experience of the passage’s unique fulfillment in the person of Jesus and trusting in Yahweh’s promised blessing (Ps 2:12).25

The uniqueness of Jesus’ fulfillment of the second psalm is further accentuated in the quotation of Psalm 2:7 at Hebrews 1:5a and 5:5. The former quotation follows immediately after the introduction to the epistle (1:1-4), and is paired with a quotation of 2 Samuel 7:14 (Heb 1:5b) in order to emphasize the Son’s superiority to the angels, a theme which is then carried forward through a litany of OT quotations which collectively emphasize the same point.26 The latter occurrence of Psalm 2:7 (Heb 5:5) is the first use of an OT passage in the lengthy central discussion of the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 5:1-10:18, explaining his appointment as high priest in terms of his divine sonship – with an emphasis on the humility of one who “did not exalt himself,” (5:5a) but rather was installed by God. In answer to those who would overlook the Son’s unique status, both uses of Psalm 2:7 together emphasize that “the same one who exalted the Son above the angels (Heb. 1:5) has also glorified him to become high priest (5:1-9).”27 Significantly, the typological use of Psalm 2 in terms of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment as antitype coheres with the central point of the passage in its original context: the indissoluble link between Yahweh and his anointed son/king.

The interpretation of Psalm 2 in the contemporary Christian context should demonstrate the same sensitivity the NT does to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah. This does not denigrate the passage’s relevance to Christians today, but rather guards against identifying oneself with the king of Psalm 2 and usurping the uniqueness of God’s Son in the desire for authority, blessing, and protection. Although Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard claim that “royal psalms [such as Psalm 2] relate best to the modern counterparts of Israel’s kings: the leaders of the Christian community,” this approach, seems to risk a gross misinterpretation of the passage if Christian leaders fail to show due concern for the uniqueness of Jesus as the passage’s fulfillment.28

Instead, interpretations of Psalm 2 best emphasize the “crucial inherent differences between monarchs and church leaders” when they cohere with the passage’s original exhortation to demonstrate wisdom by submitting to God’s authoritative and anointed king.29 This is a warning to those who rebel against God by neglecting the authority of his anointed king – either by spurning him or, perhaps even more dangerously, by trying to take his place.30 Christian leaders need to heed this warning just as much as anyone else. And yet Psalm 2 is simultaneously an encouraging comfort to those who follow Jesus the Messiah as the King of Kings, especially in times of fierce opposition when the future of God’s mission seems most vulnerable. The promised global kingdom (Ps 2:8-9) will one day be fully given to the Son of David who is the Son of God – and although the rulers of this world will continue to rise up against Yahweh and his king, those who take refuge in the Son (and therefore in Yahweh himself) will still receive the promised blessing (Ps 2:12) as faithful citizens of the Son’s kingdom.

=== NOTES ===

1 All consulted commentators classify Psalm 2 as a royal psalm, the first example of their remarkable agreement throughout the passage. See P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983) 64; D.J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 179; J.L. Mays, Psalms, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 45; A.P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1:1-41 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011) 199; and W.A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC 5, Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 89. The main, notable exception is a certain facet of Gunn’s analysis. See fn. 15 below; cf. G.A. Gunn, “Psalm 2 and the Reign of the Messiah,” BSac 169 (2012) 431-2.

2 Craigie, Mays, Ross, and VanGemeren all agree on the verse divisions of the stanzas. Craigie and VanGemeren note the chiastic structure of the Psalm as a whole. See Craigie, Psalms, 64; Mays, Psalms, 45; Ross, Psalms, 200-1; VanGemeren, Psalms, 89.

3 “Psalmist” will refer to the unknown author of Ps 2 throughout this paper. As Gunn notes, “though the psalm is anonymous, it is accorded Davidic authorship in Acts 4:25. […] Whether the psalm is of Davidic authorship has little bearing on the interpretation of the psalm.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version [ESV].

5 Ross, Psalms, 205.

6 Ross, Psalms, 206.

7 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 66-7.

8 Mays, Psalms, 47-8. Ross agrees, noting that “you are my son” is “a pure metaphor. The statement makes a comparison between what a son is to a father and what the king is to God to describe the special relationship between them.” Ross, Psalms, 207.

9 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 209-10.

10 VanGemeren, Psalms, 97. For the Wisdom use of “now therefore,” see Prov 5:7; 7:24; 8:32. For kissing as a sign of “homage and submission,” see 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kgs 19:18; cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68. Finally, for a discussion of the phrase “kiss the Son” as the crux interpretum of the passage at hand, see the discussions in Craigie, Psalms, 64, fn. 12.a; and VanGemeren, Psalms, 97-8, fn. 12. I agree with Ross when he notes that “in addressing leaders of other countries where Aramaic was spoken, using the Aramaic word [for “son”] made sense.” Ross, Psalms, 198-9, fn. 6.

11 Ross, Psalms, 212; emphasis added.

12 Ross, Psalms, 213.

13 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68; Ross, Psalms, 213;

14 Craigie, Psalms, 64. The Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7 stands in elaborating continuity with the Abrahamic (Gen 12-17) and Mosaic (Exod 19-24) covenants, and is itself intensified and elaborated upon in the “new covenant” of Jer 31. This context of covenantal continuity is extremely important to the interpretation of Ps 2 because, without it, Yahweh’s exclusive, close relationship with the king (Ps 2:4-12) is inexplicable.

15 Ross, Psalms, 200. VanGemeren rightly notes that “any attempt to link the psalm with an actual coronation of a Judean king…finds little support in the text.” VanGemeren, Psalms, 89. Gunn’s proposal, while heeding VanGemeren’s caution and offering a creative explanation of the already-not-yet dimensions of Jesus Christ’s current kingly reign, seems more driven by the concerns of a presupposed eschatological system than by a straightforward exegesis of the passage at hand. Although the gap between David’s anointing as king (1 Sam 16) and his coronation as such (2 Sam 2, 5) is instructive for considerations of the Hebrew monarchy, it does not mean that such a gap was normative for the kingly sons of David for whom the psalm at hand was probably composed. Furthermore, there are other, better ways to explain the unique kingdom reign of Christ during the current age than this kind of artificial reverse interpretation of Psalm 2. See Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 431-2.

16 Ross, Psalms, 200.

17 Ross, Psalms, 200.

18 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90.

19 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90,8; cf. Pss 19:13; 25:7, 18; 31:10; 32:3-5; 38:3-4, 18; 39:1, 8; 40:12; 41:4; 51:1-2.

20 Mays notes both aspects of Psalm 2’s uniqueness. The OT/NT assumption is my own. Mays, Psalms, 40,7. According to the UBS Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) 887,95, Psalm 2 is quoted in the NT at Acts 4:25-26 (Ps 2:1-2); 13:33; Heb 1:5, and 5:5 (Ps 2:7). Furthermore, there are allusions and verbal parallels to Psalm 2 at Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22; 9:35; Jn 1:49 (Ps 2:7); Heb 1:2 (Ps 2:8); Rev 11:18 (Ps 2:1); and 19:19 (Ps 2:2). Gunn notes that “based on New Testament quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels, Psalm 2 is one of the most frequently referred to of all the psalms.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

21 Ross, Psalms, 213, fn. 31, citing J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 46.

22 VanGemeren, Psalms, 91.

23 As noted above (fn. 20), NT quotations of and allusions to Psalm 2 abound. The three examples have been chosen based on this essay’s prompt and the author’s prior familiarity with the thought-flow of Hebrews.

24 As Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard note, “the use of typology rests on the belief that God’s ways of acting are consistent throughout history. Thus NT writers may, in places, explain phenomena in the new Messianic era in terms of their OT precursors.” W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 183. A familiarity with the consistent patterns of God’s redemptive work throughout history would have undoubtedly involved an intimate knowledge of the covenantal continuity throughout the OT, reference in fn. 14 above.

25 Mays, Psalms, 50.

26 Cf. “angellwn”as a “hook-word” between Heb 1:1-4 and 1:5-14. The other OT passages cited are, in order: Deut 32:43; Pss 104:4; 45:6,7; 102:25-27; and 110:1.

27 Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 438.

28 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358. Christian leaders who desire instruction in the biblical ways of leadership do well to look to Jesus the Messiah as an example of humble servant leadership (cf. Jn 13:12-20), but should not feel the need to identify themselves with the Messiah himself in order to secure the respect and obedience of those under their instruction. No messianic interpretation of Christian leadership is necessary in order to follow Paul when he exhorts his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

29 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358-9.

30 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 214.

Miroslav Volf on Divine Violence

A couple relevant excerpts (given recent posts) from “Violence and Peace,” the final chapter of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (my emphasis added in bold; paragraph breaks added where noted): 

“God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.

“If we accept the stubborn irredeemability of some people, do we not end up with an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of Christian faith? Here the “crucified Messiah” with arms outstretched embracing the “vilest sinner,” there the Rider on the white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth to strike down the hopelessly wicked? The patient love of God over against the fury of God’s wrath? Why this polarity? [Paragraph break added]

“Not because the God of the cross is different from the God of the second coming. After all, the cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception. The polarity is there because some human beings refuse to be “set aright.” Those who take divine suffering (the cross) as a display of divine weakness that condones violence — instead of divine grace that restores the violator — draw upon themselves divine anger (the sword) that makes an end to their violence. [Paragraph break added]

“The violence of the Rider on the white horse, I suggest, is the symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. For the sake of the peace of God’s good creation, we can and must affirm this divine anger and this divine violence, while at the same time holding on to the hope that in the end, even the flag bearer will desert the army that desires to make war against the Lamb.” (pp. 298-299)

[…]

“The thesis about the correspondence between divine and human action rightly underlines that the fundamental theological question in relation to violence is the question about God: “What is God like?” — the God who “loves enemies and is the original peace maker” (Yoder 1985, 104) or the God of vengeance, out to punish the insubordinate? The thesis has, however, one small but fatal flaw: humans are not God. There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans. Without such a duty guarding the divinity of God the duty to imitate God would be empty because our concept of God would be nothing more than the mirror image of ourselves.” (301)

Down With the Pacifists!

The past week has been a great one for slipshod attacks on pacifism. First, from First Things (Stephen H. Webb) on October 15 —- “John Howard Yoder and the Violent Power of Pacifism” (emphasis added below):

“Nevertheless, pacifists, at least the ones I know, can be very enthusiastic about the rightness of their cause. Since there is no rational justification for pacifism, defenders typically turn their rhetoric against their critics by casting them as stooges of the status quo. Since pacifists are against all forms of violence, anyone who disagrees with them must be in favor of violence. What this ploy misses is obvious. In a fallen world, not only is violence pervasive but it is also a toxin that, when legitimately used, can cure as well as kill.

[…]

“So we now know that [John Howard] Yoder was a violent man who believed so wholeheartedly in his own non-violent theology that he thought he could re-order human sexual relations. This single case does not invalidate pacifism, but it does reveal just how delusional the pacifist goal can be. The pursuit of peace at all costs is just as dangerous as any other dream that cuts against the realities of human nature.”

Exactly one week later, Mark Driscoll came out with this gem, “Is God a Pacifist?”:

“JESUS IS NOT A PANSY OR A PACIFIST 

“One of the defining attributes of God’s coming kingdom is shalom—perfect peace untainted by sin, violence, or bloodshed of any sort. Such a kingdom is only possible if an all-powerful, benevolent Authority vanquishes his enemies. In other words, the Prince of Peace is not a pacifist.

“God is the author of life and sovereign over death.

“Those who want to portray Jesus as a pansy or a pacifist are prone to be very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote. But the God of the bloody Old Testament is Jesus Christ. When he became a man, he walked the earth as a working-class carpenter. The European, long-haired, dress-wearing, hippie Jesus is a bad myth from a bad artist who mistook Jesus for a community college humanities professor. But if we want to learn all about Jesus we have to read all that the Bible says about him. Here’s how Jesus will appear one day:” [Proceeds to quote his favorite Bible passage, Revelation 14:14-20.]

What about you? What’s your take on pacifism? And, if you’re going to critique it, please do a better job than Driscoll & Co.!

Scripture: What The Bible Is And Why It Matters

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE

As the illocutionary act which testifies to the Son of God1 as the ultimate redemptive and revelatory locution of the the triune God, Scripture is used by the Spirit of God to accomplish the perlocutionary end of redemption of, in, and through the people of God.2

[Ahem, in order to understand my first paragraph, you must first be familiar with the basics of Speech Act Theory. If you’ve never heard of it before, click that link, and then come back here. It will be worth it, I promise!]

The written Word of God is, therefore, the authority for followers of the living Word of God precisely because of its providential role in the divine speech-act, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.3

Practically, this providential role has worked itself out in various ways throughout the history of the Church, perhaps most notably through the development of canon in the patristic era.

Theologically, the authority of Scripture is inescapably trinitarian in nature and ecclesiological in implication.

(For an explanation of the Trinity, see my essay “Trinity: What is it? (Why) Is it important?“)

WHAT SCRIPTURE IS FOR CHRISTIANS

For Christians, Scripture is the indispensable lens through which, with the Spirit’s illumination, we view Christ, who is himself the fullest lens through which we view the Godhead.

That is, the Bible is a vital link in the revelatory chain which includes Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and humanity. However, the Bible’s role in and for the Church is inescapably intertwined with (1) how the Bible came to be and (2) how it is properly to be accessed and interpreted.

How the Bible Came to Be

Although the story of how the table of contents at the beginning of each Christian Bible came into existence is an old one, questions of canon in this sense did not arise immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.4

The earliest Christians, persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah of Israel, eagerly adopted the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh, as their own Scripture. Apart from the Bible’s narrative of YHWH’s redemptive mission with his covenant people, the Christ-event (life, death, and resurrection) made little sense.

In the other direction, however, the early Church believed that, as the fulfillment of the Tanakh, Christ himself was its true message. Put differently, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Son of God were considered reciprocally-interpretive, and this relationship was the first sense in which canon was considered as “the rule of truth”: the Christ-event and the Scriptures illuminate each other.5

The link between this earliest consideration of canon and the table-of-contents approach begins with the role proclamation and confession of the Son of God as the Bible’s true meaning – of the Gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures – have in creating the Church proper (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-9).6

Because Christians are primarily interested in bringing people to faith in the faithful God through Christ, the proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Word of God constitutes the Church as the divinely-ordained way in which faith is brought about (cf. Rom. 10:17). To use a spatial metaphor, this ecclesial “point” of proclamation becomes a “line” throughout history by tradition as “the act of passing down” and “the content of what is passed down.”7

The Church is thus formed by proclamation/confession of Jesus the Messiah according to the Scriptures, and preserved by tradition.

In the second century C.E., Irenaeus of Lyons relied upon the connection between Scripture and apostolic tradition to refute Gnostic heresies which threatened to destabilize the Christian community by, among other things, insisting that Scripture could not be read at face value.8

This connection was so strong that he referred to the “traditioned” teachings of the apostles as in scripturis, responding to those who accused these apostolic “Writings” of novel fiction by delineating the unity of Christian doctrine which had been passed down from the apostles (eyewitnesses of the Christ-event) to the Church through a clear line of bishops.9

It was of crucial importance to Irenaeus that Christian doctrine was (1) unified and (2) in direct continuity with the apostles’ teaching (and therefore with the proclamation of Christ and the Christologically-fulfilled expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures).10

Thus the Gnostic controversies of the second century led to canonization in its second sense: the Church’s recognition/acknowledgment of writings which already had authority due to their coherence with the complex dialectic between Scripture, the Christ-event, the apostles, proclamation, and tradition.11

Canon’s final sense, as a list of included and excluded books which comprise the Bible, came into being in the fourth century. The Church’s recognition of already authoritative writings culminated in C.E. 367 with the Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle of Athanasius – the first canon list to include “all, and nothing but, all [sic] the books of our New Testament.”12

Scripture’s Proper Interpretation and Role

In interacting with the Word of God, it is imperative that the people of God resist the impulse to jump behind the text – either to a Gnostic-inspired and disembodied spiritual narrative, or to historical criticism’s rationalistic insistence on verifiable facts.

Properly handled, the Bible results in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to produce faith in the faithful God.

Arguably, the best interpretive method accounts for both Christ as the fullest truth of Scripture and the varied ways in which the Bible has been used by God through his Spirit to accomplish his redemptive mission in manifold ways.

That is, in terms of my thesis above, the best biblical hermeneutic accounts for both the central locution (Christ) and the varied perlocutionary effects accomplished in/through the Church by the Spirit throughout history.

It does not leave Christ behind in its insistence on esoteric behind-the-text matters, nor does it refuse the Spirit its right to bring the written Word to bear on the interpreter’s present context in fresh ways. In this way, interpretation of the Bible leads to faith through the faithful proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Scriptures.

SCRIPTURE’S OWN AUTHORITY

As mentioned above, Scripture’s authority comes from its providential role in the speech-act of God, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.

That is, although the illocutionary acts of the Bible are an indispensable link in the revelatory chain, they do not comprise the entire chain. Any discussion of Scripture’s authority must, therefore, take place with its discursive context in mind, by including a discussion of the Christological locution and Spirit-empowered, ecclesiological perlocutionary effects of the divine speech-act.

Christologically, the illocutionary acts of the written Word of God bear witness to Christ the living Word as their central meaning: the ultimate locution of God.

Jesus himself never shied away from claiming that he was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17; Lk. 24:25-27, 44). Indeed, he chastised the Jewish leaders for thoroughly studying the Scriptures, yet failing to see that the Tanakh bore witness to him (John 5:39-40)!

Likewise, in Acts, Peter (3:11-26), Stephen (7:1-53), and Paul (13:16-41) all portray Christ as the fulfillment of YHWH’s previous interactions with Israel in the Tanakh. The written Word of God is authoritative in that it bears witness to the Living Word as the zenith of God’s redemptive revelation – the “image of the invisible God” in whom “the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19, ESV).

When the Bible speaks of its own authority, it never does so apart from the life of the faithful, the Church.

The two favorite passages for the inspiration (and often, the inerrancy) of Scripture both refuse to reduce the Bible to a set of propositions to be debated within a correspondence theory of truth. The Scriptures were “breathed out by God,” not to be profitable for scientific analysis, but for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). Furthermore, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet. 1:21, ESV) for the sake of the people of God, that they might know Christ (2 Pet. 1:12-21). Arguably, then, the ties between inspiration and sanctification are stronger than those between inspiration and certain common notions of inerrancy.

At this intersection between the inspired illocutionary acts of Scripture and their perlocutionary effects lies the Spirit of God, who empowers the “inscripturate” Word to become “incardiate,” or “taken to heart” by God’s people.13

Pneumatologically, then, the Bible is able both to be and become the Word of God, as its written words are used in various ways by the Spirit throughout the ages to effect God’s mission of redemption in and through his people.14

The christological, ecclesiological, and pneumatological elements of the divine speech-act thus enable the written Word continually to be an indispensable part of divine discourse, instead of a merely static word.15

CONCLUSION

Throughout the ages, God has used his Word – living and written – to do everything from creating the world, to redeeming it; from calling a people, to establishing orthodoxy and orthopraxy in his Church; from inspiring reformation, to drawing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to himself.

In order best to appropriate the written Word of God and submit to its continuing authority in their lives, the people of God should focus on proclaiming its central message as the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to accomplish fresh perlocutionary effects in and through them as God’s redemptive mission moves toward its consummation – when the written Word of God will be in their hearts and the living Word of God in front of their faces, forever (Jer. 31:33-34; Rev. 21-22).

(For an attempted summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I believe?“)


NOTES 

1 Unless otherwise noted, I use the terms “Son of God,” “Jesus,” “Christ/Messiah,” and permutations thereof interchangeably. The same applies to “Scripture” and “Bible.”

2 I here adopt J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, as put forth in How to Do Things with Words (2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). Briggs offers the following helpful summary: “Austin sought to distinguish between the act performed in saying something and the act performed by saying something, labeling these ‘illocutionary’ and ‘perlocutionary’ acts respectively.” See Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 763. I am also heavily indebted to Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Word of God” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 850-4.

3 Theologically modifying Austin’s framework, the “divine speech-act” consists of God the Father (locutor), God the Son (locution), Scripture (illocutionary act), and God the Spirit (who fulfills the perlocutionary effects).

4 Piotr J. Malysz From Christ to the Written Gospel: An Entry Point into the Canon of (NT) Scripture (History and Doctrine Fall 2013 Handout, unpublished), 1-3.

5 Malysz, 2.

6 Malysz, 2.

7 Cf. the discussion of παράδοσις in Malysz, 2.

8 Book III. 2:2, from “Selections from Irenaeus of Lyons, The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called (Adversus Haereses)” in Early Christian Fathers (ed. Cyril C. Richardson; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 358-97. Hereafter, Adversus Haereses will be cited in the following form: “Irenaeus, I.1:1” or “Irenaeus, I. ch. 1”

9 Irenaeus, III. 1:1; chs. 2-3. In scripturis is noted by Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 370 n.47.

10 Irenaeus, III. 3:3.

11 Malysz, 3.

12 Malysz, 3.

13 Vanhoozer, 854.

14 Cf. the discussions of Karl Barth’s and Vanhoozer’s own views (850-1, 4).

15 Vanhoozer, 853.

King Jesus' Kingdom Gospel

I highly encourage the following: 

1. Read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.

2. Check out Tim Gombis’ insightful series of posts on The Gospel of the Kingdom, pt. 1, 2, and 3.

Gombis hits the nail on the head here:

Over the last several months, I’ve had several conversations about how the Gospels’ language about “the gospel” should shape how Christians conceive of the gospel.  Whereas the New Testament mainly envisions a broader announcement of a larger reality, many evangelicals associate “the gospel” with a brief presentation, or information about the mechanics of an individual transaction that can secure divine forgiveness and the establishment of a personal relationship with God.

The Gospel is more than a checklist, more than a five-minute “yes-or-no” conversation in which you can make a new Christian… its a narrative of cosmic significance. If God really is reconciling all things to himself in and through Jesus Christ, then everything we do and say, ESPECIALLY when we’re speaking of the Gospel, must change. 

Alabama Update

Rachel and I are in the middle of our second month of calling Birmingham, Alabama “home.”

While we could both do with a little less humidity (!), we’re enjoying ourselves and our surroundings down here in Alabama.

What’s Happening in Birmingham, AL:

I don’t start my M.Div. coursework at Beeson Divinity School until late August, but I’ve already started working at Beeson’s Media Center (follow our nascent Twitter account here). It’s an incredibly convenient on-campus job. I’m already thankful for the hospitality of my boss and coworkers. It’s helpful as I learn the ropes of AV, IT, and sundry other tasks.

Before diving into my required reading for the Fall, I’ve been working my way through a few books so far this summer. On the fiction side of things, I heartily recommend Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Even more so, however, I strongly recommend Myron Bradley Penner‘s The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context to anyone and everyone interested in philosophy, religion, and theology. I plan on devoting a series of posts to a discussion of Penner’s work. For now, suffice it to say the following: This book has already been a godsend in my contemplation of how best to advance God’s Kingdom. (Academically, pastorally, and globally, as I’d say.) Especially in the midst of postmodernity.

Again, I’ll have more to say about Penner’s book in later posts, but to whet your appetite, allow me to point you toward Peter Enns’ interview with Penner: “Is Christian Apologetics Secular and Unbiblical?” Also, Sarah Jones’ post, “Tony Jones and the Need for a Postcolonial Christianity” came to mind several times while reading The End of Apologetics. Definitely worth a read!

Finally, my current project is reading Terje Oestigaard’s Water, Christianity and the Rise of Capitalism to review for Liverpool Hope University’s Theological Book Review. It’s definitely further away from my comfort zone than the Pentateuch textbook I’ve reviewed previously, but hey, I’m trying to branch out. Stay tuned for my feedback.

~Josh