Colossians and Gnosticism, Talents as Forgiveness, Rebels and Exiles, Resurrecting Justice

My church write-up, followed by two book write-ups:

A. The Bible study is continuing its way through Colossians. On Sunday, the pastor talked about Gnosticism, since Paul in Colossians is probably fighting a proto-Gnostic Christian heresy.

The Gnostics believed that God is utterly spirit and is separate from the material realm. As far as the Gnostics were concerned, spirit is good and material is bad. There are levels between God and the material world, and a key aspect of spiritual advancement is going through those levels to reach the non-material God. Gnosis means knowledge, and Gnostics maintained that people could receive a secret knowledge from God about some mystery. For the Gnostics, the material does not matter. Some Gnostics fought the flesh because they viewed it as evil, whereas others indulged the flesh because they felt it was irrelevant. According to the pastor, there were official Gnostic institutions, but Gnosticism also infiltrated other religions. Christianity especially fell prey to it because Christians, like Gnostics, held that God is spirit.

The pastor argued that Paul in Colossians was employing Gnostic terminology so as to subvert the heresy. Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:9 that, in Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily would have been anathema to Gnostics, who radically separated the spiritual Godhead from the material body. Paul, like the Gnostics, believed in a divine mystery, but, unlike the Gnostics, he held that God was proclaiming this mystery publicly rather than secretly and to select individuals (Colossians 1:26-27). Paul, too, believed in knowledge (gnosis) and understanding, but the knowledge and understanding that the Gospel provides bears fruit in this world, including love for the saints, rather than seeking to transcend the material world (Colossians 1:9-10).

At the same time, I observe that there is an otherworldliness, and perhaps even an individualism, in Colossians. The hope of the Colossians is laid up in heaven, and they are to seek the things above, not the things on earth (Colossians 1:5; 3:1-2). Their lives are hidden in Christ as they go through this world, and Christ inside of them is their hope of glory (Colossians 1:27; 3:3). Perhaps Paul (or whoever wrote Colossians) sought to clarify where Christianity overlapped with and diverged from the Gnostic heresy.

As a shy introvert, I tend to gravitate towards a spirituality that is interior and otherworldly, especially in seasons when I do not fit in. But I still believe in helping people. As pissed off as I am at Democrats these days, I winced when I read that Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem sneered at a Christian charity by tweeting that “there is no free lunch.”

B. The pastor in his sermon spoke briefly about Jesus’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). He said that he does not believe it is so much about vocation as it is spreading Jesus’s forgiveness in the world. The Parable of the Talents has long troubled me, especially since the fruitless servant appears to be condemned to hell for his fruitlessness. I have no problem with the idea that we should do something with what God has given us rather than ignoring or neglecting it. But, for some reason, I think that salvation should be based solely on God’s free grace, no strings attached. Why do I think that? Why should salvation work that way, in my mind? Perhaps my feeling results from a combination of two factors. First, it is wishful thinking on my part: I hope that salvation is solely by grace because I know how abysmally short I fall from God’s standards. Second, the grace message is prominent within Christianity, so there is outward affirmation of the idea that salvation should be solely by grace, no efforts on our part.

C. Matthew S. Harmon. Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Matthew S. Harmon has a doctorate from Wheaton College and teaches New Testament at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. This book is part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series, which, according to the back cover, takes “cues from Genesis 1-3” and traces “the presence of these themes throughout the entire sweep of redemptive history.”

As the title indicates, this book is about exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from God’s presence at the Fall. Israel was exiled from her land and God’s presence. And the New Testament uses the language of exile and return. In Christ, people who were alienated from God are returned to him, and Christians in this world are strangers and exiles.

The book is a pleasant read, although, with a few exceptions, I cannot say that I learned much from it that was earthshakingly new to me. Harmon in a footnote refers to N.T. Wright’s view that Jews in Second Temple times believed they were still in exile, even though they lived in their land, while referring to possible indications to the contrary in Second Temple literature. Harmon also speculated that God may have intended for Adam in the Garden to suppress the serpent, which I have read elsewhere, but it was nice to encounter that idea again.

The book would have been better had it more effectively integrated Old Testament prophetic expectations with the New Testament. Harmon tries to do this, on some level. The Old Testament prophets depict Israel’s restoration as inaugurating a new creation, and a new creation is part of Jesus’s restoration of sinners to God. Harmon observes that Israel’s return from exile failed to inaugurate this new creation, so there must be a fuller fulfillment of this hope that transcends the Jewish people’s return to their land. Harmon briefly says at one point that the New Testament treats Israel’s restoration from exile as a metaphor for the sinner’s return to God.

Perhaps I was hoping for a fuller and more sustained treatment of this issue, especially since the Old and New Testaments appear to present two different pictures. The Old Testament prophets emphasize Israel’s return to her land as the nexus for the new creation, whereas the New Testament largely appears to depart from that concept in favor of a spiritual understanding. At least overall, as there are exceptions to that: a case can be made that Jesus in the Gospels sought to restore the nation of Israel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

D. Douglas Harink. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Douglas Harink teaches theology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.

Paul in Romans speaks frequently about “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosune). What is this righteousness? For many Protestants, it is God imputing Christ’s righteousness to sinners such that God sees them as righteous rather than as the sinners that they actually are. The “Romans Road” approach to evangelism exemplifies this understanding: you are a sinner, Christ paid the penalty for your sins, you accept that, and God now accounts you as righteous. For Catholics, “righteousness” refers to God transforming people such that they become practically righteous; this righteousness is infused rather than imputed.

Harink goes a different route, even though he preserves aspects of the Protestant and Catholic understandings. Harink interprets “righteousness” in Romans as justice. God seeks to deliver people from bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and to create a loving community in which people accept each other regardless of social class, a radical concept in the ancient world. This occurs through God’s efforts, not human attempts to exert power and control. God’s sheer mercy to sinners contrasts with human attempts to control others, and Abraham trusted that God would bring about justice rather than trying to bring it about himself. In the tradition of John Howard Yoder, Harink appears to be a pacifist.

God’s free mercy and grace are still a part of Harink’s interpretation of Romans, in accordance with Protestants, but “righteousness” still has a practical dimension, as Catholics maintain.

The book has compelling discussions. First, there was the discussion of whether Paul in Romans 1-3 regards all humans as depraved. Harink argues in the negative. Paul in Romans 2 acknowledges that humans do good and bad. But people are trapped in bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and many are victimized by such a system. God, in God’s goodness, seeks to deliver people from that system. This discussion especially resonated with me, since I have long read Romans 3 and thought to myself, “All humans are not THAT bad, are they?”

Second, Harink talks about the importance of the nation of Israel in God’s plan. God, through Israel, revealed Godself to the nations, which were trapped in idolatry. Israel is indispensable in this part of God’s plan, which is why Paul struggles with most of Israel’s unbelief in Romans 9-11.

The question would then be whether Harink makes a convincing case. On this, I am ambivalent. The “Romans Road” evangelistic interpretation appears neat and clean, even though I struggle with how well it accords with the reality of how humans are. Harink, in my opinion, fails to demonstrate that Abraham’s righteousness was of a systemic sort, and there lingers the question of whether humans are to have any role at all in bringing this about or if God acts unilaterally. Human participation would seem to be necessary, on some level, since people do not naturally come together and create a loving, forgiving community: they have to work at it, and even then, they fall short.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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