Monday, August 30, 2010

Cranfield on Romans 1:16

It is impossible for me to write a competent summary of Charles Cranfield’s thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Romans for a couple of reasons. First, Cranfield is such a reputable scholar of New Testament Greek (now retired from the University of Durham, England) that I should simply quote him. Second, I am too busy at work to formulate my own thoughts; and even if I had the time I would do him no justice. I discovered Cranfield while listening to an interview with Simon Gathercole and Peter J. Williams – both scholars at Cambridge – on Paul and other biblical issues. Gathercole cited Cranfield’s Shorter Commentary on Romans as essential reading for undergrads lacking knowledge of the original language. So, I read it. And beginning here I will share selected excerpts from this acclaimed work:

On Romans 1:16

In Paul’s letters ‘save’ and ‘salvation’ refer primarily to God’s future, to what begins with Christ’s coming in glory, His Second Coming, as it is often called… What may be called the negative content of salvation is indicated in 5.9: it is salvation from the final manifestation of the wrath of God… But there is also a positive content. It is the restoration of the glory which sinful men lack (compare 3.23).

What Paul is saying here, then, is that the gospel is God’s effective power active in the world of men to bring about deliverance from His wrath in the final judgment and reinstatement of that glory of God which has been lost through sin – that is a future salvation which reflects its splendour back into the present of those who are to share in it. The gospel, the message of good news, is this by virtue of its content, its subject, namely Jesus Christ. It is He Himself who is its effectiveness.

For all who respond with faith the gospel is effective to salvation. It is important here to note that the faith which is spoken of is not something existing independently of the gospel. It is not a qualification which some men already possess in themselves before the gospel meets them. It only comes into being as response to the gospel… And it is not – as man’s response to the gospel – a contribution from his side which, by fulfilling a condition laid down by God, enables the gospel to be saving. In that case, faith would be, in the last resort, a meritorious work; but it is of the very essence of faith, as Paul understands it, that it is opposed to all human deserving, all human establishing of claims on God. Faith is the openness to the gospel which God Himself creates. He not only directs the message to the hearer, but also Himself lays open the hearer’s heart to the message.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Yesterday was a feast day on the Episcopal church calendar to the memory of William Porcher DuBose (1836-1918), “a serious candidate for the title of ‘greatest theologian that the Episcopal Church in the USA has produced.’” That isn’t saying much. Anglican Christianity is short on notable, solidly orthodox theologians. The best ones I’m aware of are low-church evangelicals: W.H. Griffith Thomas, John R.W. Stott, and J.I. Packer – all of them British. N.T. Wright is a formidable biblical scholar, but a suspect theologian (and bad commentator on economic issues) in my opinion.

As for William Porcher (por SHAY) DuBose, I was hoping this Citadel cadet, Confederate army chaplain, and Sewanee teacher would turn out to be a pillar of orthodox faith. I spent some time looking over his autobiographical Turning Points in My Life for clues on his doctrine, and came upon this:

God's ways are riot easy, He did not spare His own Son, and He does not spare any that are His sons; but some of us live long enough to know that His ways are better than our ways, and that He never fails to help those whom He brings up in His steadfast fear and love. I cannot see where God ever promises to change natural things or natural sequences for us. I do see where He promises that in them all and through them all we shall be more than conquerors. To St. Paul's prayer to take away, the answer was, My grace shall be sufficient for you. Our Lord did not wait for that answer: He preferred for Himself God's will and way as eternally and essentially best. “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” I may not see how God in a uniform course of nature can provide what is best for each soul in each case any more than I can understand that I myself am free in such a sequence of nature. But what actually is, is – whether it be possible or no. There are more things than we think that we accept simply upon that ground.
I like that expression, “riot easy.” The statement is quite sagacious so far as it goes. DuBose knew something of what he was writing, having passed through the War of 1861-65, Reconstruction, and the loss of all personal fortune. When he was out-voted for the bishopric of South Carolina he saw it as a divinely-appointed “escape.” He was more suited to the classroom, and was thereafter on the mountain at Sewanee, TN.

DuBose’s theology hinges on subjective practicality. A faith that does not transform the believer is no faith at all. Experiential faith is lived out within the community of the Church. DuBose adhered to Luther’s notion that all of life is an out-working of what is depicted in baptism. What God objectively offers the believer in baptism is to be put into practical effect over the course of life. DuBose did not believe it possible for an individual to embrace every jot and tittle of the historic creeds at one moment. A person might recite the creeds within the Church community, but would need to grow in the experience of spiritual reality over the span of his life in order to grasp the deeper realities latent within them. And what if the person never embraces these statements? DuBose doesn’t say. What he does reveal, however, is that his own conversion experience had little if anything to do with repentance or awareness of God’s wrath. Such awareness, he believed, comes later, when one realizes that one’s best life is not being lived. In other words, sin is a failure to live a good life. So much for DuBose’s soteriology.

The crux of any theological scheme is its Christology, and the more DuBose rambled on the even less impressed I was with his system. He was proto-typical of that annoying knack among modern Episcopalian clergy for speaking unclearly about who Christ is and what exactly He accomplished. He insinuates that Jesus was a good but imperfect man who grew in grace and power through dependence on God, overcoming imperfection, depicting what God is like and setting a right example for us all (N.T. Wright himself has hinted towards what smells of a semi-Ebionite view of Jesus). Nowhere is DuBose specific about the tangible resurrection of the Lord. The risen Christ is “experienced” within the faith community – true, but is this the result of the Spirit sent from the glorified Man on high, or merely a happy reflection on a life well spent?

In the end, DuBose’s subjectivity is so mystical and immanent that there is no place (or need) for mention of God’s wrath, the literal bodily resurrection, or life in the age to come. I recall how one Brethren writer used to insist, “A moral stream cannot rise above its source.” If DuBose is the “greatest theologian the Episcopal Church…has produced,” it’s not surprising that his church has wandered on a mostly downward path since the Gilded Age.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eyes of the Beholder, Ears of the Listener

Well, my intention has been to discuss C.E.B. Cranfield’s Romans: A Shorter Commentary, a book that has given me a fresh and, dare I say, “revolutionary” perspective on Paul’s epistle. Maybe one day I’ll get around to it. But if too much time elapses between hectic writing projects at work I might have to re-read the thing before I can get my thoughts back together.

Meanwhile, on the heels of my last post about the two Knoxville bands – we finally went to see Standing Small in Greenville, SC on August 8th. The four-hour round trip was well worth it, not only on account of the band but because we discovered Greenville to have one of the most charming center city sections we’ve ever explored. The Falls Park on Reedy River, situated right in the middle of downtown, is an oasis of waterfalls, grassy knolls, gardens, footpaths and a pedestrian suspension bridge.

As for Standing Small, the early Sunday evening gig was the last of a three-day stand that began with a CD release party in Knoxville. The band opened for another indie Christian group, This is Luke, in the gymnasium of St. Matthew Methodist Church. As gyms go the acoustics were unsurprisingly lousy. Corey Goins’ cymbals ricocheted off the concrete block walls. Nevertheless, Standing Small’s set was tight and studio-perfect, including six songs from the new album. To my delight they performed “Covered,” an intricate, four and half minute universe of a song.

We discovered that the band has no permanent bassist. Cousin Ben overcomes that challenge by having the bass tracks pre-recorded and loaded onto his Mac laptop, which sits astride his keyboard. He dials up the right accompaniment which is heard by the rest of the band through earbuds. Lead singer Ryan Fletcher experienced a technical glitch during one of the numbers when his wiring came loose. He managed to sing the entire song without missing a beat while reaching behind his back to re-route the wire.

This past week I noticed on the IndieVision web site (distributor of the free album download) that a couple of listeners found fault with the vocals. They aren’t flawless; but then, neither are Jim James’ or Wayne Coyne’s or Jeff Tweedy’s. If any of these fellows went on American Idol incognito they would be booed off. Mass media seems to have attenuated how acceptable vocals ought to sound for the general public. Fortunately, there remains a non-general public that listens for something else, including a capacious musical experience. With these new compositions and arrangements Standing Small stretches the limits of their abilities. At worse there might be a few beautiful shortfalls along the way. I’ll take that over playing it safe.