Friday, November 30, 2007

Fulfillment in the Gospel of Matthew

Tomorrow I'm starting a class on the fulfillment statements in Matthew's Gospel. Since I seem to have otherwise let my blog go silent, I thought maybe I'd post here on what I plan to talk about in this class. I'd appreciate any feedback.


The gospel readings in the lectionary for the coming year are from the Gospel of Matthew. One of the most prominent features of Matthew's gospel is the way it presents Jesus' life as a fulfillment of Old Testament scripture. Ten times in the gospel Matthew uses a formula of the form "this was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet...."

On the surface, these quotations appear to be taken completely out of context. In many cases, the passages he's quoting don't look anything like Messianic prophecy. And in all cases critical reading seems to indicate that the prophet was talking about something else. If someone were using scripture like this today, it would be labelled as "proof-texting" and looking down upon. Is it possible that Matthew a hack?

I don't think so.

The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus Christ was at the heart of the Old Testament. They didn't just believe that a few passages predicted specific things about Jesus' life. They believed that the scriptures as a whole were pointing toward Jesus.

In the case of the fulfillment statements in Matthew's gospel, a closer examination of the texts he is quoting, paying particular attention to what they meant in context, reveals the possibility that Matthew was using these passages to evoke a much richer image than is immediately obvious. To see the richness of what Matthew is doing, we have to completely immerse ourselves in Scripture.

Before I get into that I want to step back and consider what it means to have fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets.

What do you think of when you hear the word "fulfill"? When you hear it in connection with prophecy, chances are your first impression is that something happened that was previously predicted. But I don't think that's quite what Matthew has in mind.

What other uses of "fulfill" are you familiar with? You may hear that something has fulfilled its purpose, or someone has fulfilled a duty or an obligation. You might even hear that something has fulfilled someone's dreams. Now we're getting somewhere.

The Greek word Matthew uses to talk about "fulfillment" is πληροω. It comes from a combination of the adjective πληρης, meaning "full", and the suffix "-οω", meaning "to cause" (actually "I cause"). So to fulfill means to cause to be full. But look, we could have seen that from the English! I find that a lot when I get into "what the Greek means" but it often is something I hadn't realy noticed about the English word. Just like in English, Greek speakers probably didn't think about this, but this is what's behind the word.

So to fulfill the words of the prophet is to take those words and make them full of something. But full of what?

At this point, the it's useful to consider the development of Messianic expectations more generally. As Judah faced threats from its neighbors in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. prophets arose and promised hope. Often this hope was associated with a new king coming to the throne. When that king didn't live up to expectations, rather than the people losing hope, the promise grew. The hopes developed into a general expectation of "the one who is to come" -- God's annointed. We can already see this happening in the canonical forms of the prophetic books. By the time Jesus was born, it had blossomed into full blown Messianic hope, but nothing in the original context of the prophetic words could "fill" the words interpreted this way.

But this is what Matthew is saying. Jesus "fill" the hope that had been placed in these Old Testament promises.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sleep as a Spiritual Discipline

The pastors at my church quote John Ortberg a lot. This kind of bugs me. Is John Ortberg one of the greatest Christian thinkers of our time? Really? If the pastor is going to quote someone, I want it to be Walter Brueggeman or Wolfhart Pannenberg or someone like that. If I'm in a good mood I might even put up with Walt Wangerin. But John Ortberg?

Then recently it dawned on me just how much of a snob I am. I mean, I'd never even read one of John Ortberg's books. What right did I have to look down my nose at him? So I went on to Book Mooch and mooched one of his books so I could look down my nose at him with a clear conscience. :-)

I went with The Life You've Always Wanted because I like books about the spiritual disciplines. It had a blurb from Richard Foster saying it was an OK book, so that was a good sign. I like Richard Foster. Browsing through the book, I found some references to Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

In the preface, Ortberg acknowledges his dependence on the work of Dallas Willard, who I also like, and says his private working title for the book was "Dallas for Dummies." From what I can tell so far, that's not a bad self-assessment. So I didn't expect to find anything radically new here, but thought maybe it would be like chatting with my pastor about spiritual disciplines over cookies. Maybe I'd pick up a tip or two.

Here's the first great tip I've come across: sleep is a spiritual discipline.

This is something I actually should have noticed before. Last year I took a retreat at Mount Angel Abbey (which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world). I had no plan for the retreat -- no program. I took my Bible and a couple of books. I planned to just read and attend prayer services. But as I sat down in my guest room to read, I found myself nodding off. So I decided to just go with that. I ended up spending about half my time sleeping during that retreat. It turned out to be one of the best retreats I've experienced!

But I didn't learn the lesson. I needed to read it in a book a year later. Maybe now I'll remember.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Paul on the Cross, take 2

I've just finished David Brondos' Paul on the Cross. I have to say I'm really enamored with it right now. I think I conveyed a generally positive attitude about it in my previous post, but right now I feel like I sold it short.

The tagline on the back cover says "Drawing the theological consequences of current scholarship on Paul". I'm pretty sure that sells it short too.

Admittedly, I have only limited knowledge of the New Perspective on Paul, but I'm pretty sure Brondos' work goes beyond of the typical edges of even the New Perspective, though he's definitely in that tradition.

My impression is that the New Perspective scholars have, for the most part, tried to keep one foot in the traditional church and keep the New Perspective in touch with and to some extent compatible with traditional doctrine, even as it points out the fallacies that led to the formulation of the traditional doctrine. Brondos, near as I can tell, harbors no such sacred cows.

And that's what I think is such a remarkable achievement in this book. Although he is certainly building on the substantial groundwork of the New Perspective, he has managed to produce a fresh reading of Paul's writings, disentangling himself from all of the traditional meanings that have been attached to the key terms and phrases in Paul and reimagining Paul's meanings in terms of the story he thinks Paul is telling. It's a breath-taking accomplishment.

Brondos says that the early Christian story of redemption, envisioned as a fulfillment of the general Jewish story of redemption of the time, was this: Israel was awaiting a Messiah who would vindicate them and their God and bring about a new age of peace and general well-being. Israel's God, being all powerful, could make this happen at will. There were no obstacles preventing God from accomplishing this redemption (no required sacrfice, no justice to be meted out). It was strictly at the will of God. However, God was seen as waiting for something. Typically, the idea was that God was waiting for the people of Israel to be living out the Torah. Enter Jesus. Jesus is God's promised Messiah, and he has come not because the Torah is being fulfilled but in order to gather to himself a community whom he will teach to keep the Torah, according to the spirit rather than according to the letter. Jesus' way of acting and committing himself entirely to fulfilling the will of God brings him into inevitable conflict with the authorities, but Jesus chooses obedience over safety. God raises Jesus from the dead as a sign and seal of approval on Jesus' mission. Finally, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the community to enable them to live out Jesus' teachings.

That may not be exactly the traditional interpretation of Jesus' life, but I don't think anything there is particularly novel there. A lot of scholars see it that way, I think. But it doesn't seem to fit the traditional interpretation of Paul where Paul's thought is broken (even in the New Perspective) into the two categories of sacrificial/cultic language, where Jesus died for our sins, and participatory language, where we find salvation by being "in Christ," neither of which map to the story above. What's remarkable about Brondos' book is the way he uses the early Christian story of redemption outlined above and works it into both the sacrificial language and the participatory language in Paul.

Jesus died for us in that he was willing to give his life in obedience to the work that he had to do as teacher of the Torah and gatherer of the community whom he would make righteous. We are "in Christ" when we also commit to obedience, following the teaching that Christ has given us and living as he lived. You're probably not buying this without hearing a serious explanation of an awful lot of individual texts. Read the book! He may not be exactly right, but I think he's definitely on to something.

I'm actually very anxious to re-read this book very soon, which I hardly ever do. I would be going back into it again right away to try to absorb the ideas more fully except I've committed to teaching a class on the fulfillment texts in Matthew during Advent and I need to get me attention focused on that. Expect me to return to this in January.