John Barclay on grace in Paul’s letters

In a recent interview with Wesley Hill of Christianity Today (31st Dec 2015), John M. G. Barclay talks about his latest book, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and explains his understanding of the grace of God. In many ways Barclay speaks of my own understanding of grace, based on what I have learned in recent years through my engagement with the poor, cross-cultural mission, and my study of the issues around poverty and culture. It seems to me that, to a large extent, our understanding of the meaning of grace, the gospel, and the Scripture determines how live out our Christian life.

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Barclay said many amazing things in the interview, and here are some of them (emphasis added).

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, . . . or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties . . . When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries.

[S]ome Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace . . . However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace . . . While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

Source: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/january-february/whats-so-dangerous-about-grace.html Accessed on 13th Jan 2016

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Reflections on the long journey of becoming a biblical scholar

Truth be told, I am an academic by nature (although I am not very smart). I am not a practical person. In high school, I liked Pure Maths, but didn’t enjoy Applied Maths. At University I liked browsing the academic journals in the library. When I finished my BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees, my professors suggested that I should do a PhD. But I didn’t take up their offers because I thought I wasn’t smart enough.

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Then I migrated to Australia and worked in IT. When I turned thirty, I enrolled at a Bible college. I thought God wanted me to serve him, and theological training was a steppingstone to full-time ministry. I started working in my church as a pastor while I was still at college. But meanwhile I discovered (once again!) that I loved academic studies.

Pastoral ministry taught me a lot. I had many opportunities to hear the stories of people whose lives had been transformed by the gospel. I spent time with the poor, as well as the wealthy. I visited the sick at hospital. I learned to deal with inter-personal conflicts between church members. My wife and I had little money, and we learned to trust God for his provision. Life was difficult, but I would not trade those years for anything else.

But my passion for academic studies continued. I enrolled in an MPhil as soon as I finished my BA in biblical studies. The MPhil was a research master’s degree, where I had to write a major thesis. God led me to study under a respected New Testament scholar in the UK. But the MPhil was costly, because I had to fly to the UK a few times (even though I could do most of the research in Australia). Yet, once again God supplied all our needs, even though we had little income.

After that I worked in an international aid and development organisation. My job was to speak at theological colleges and churches about poverty and development. For almost seven years I studied the issues surrounding poverty and social injustice. Meanwhile, we attended an inner-city church where a significant number of members were refugees or living with mental health issues. This gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

I learned that poverty was a complex matter. And the longer I was involved in aid and development, the more I found my life impacted by the pain and suffering of those living with poverty and social injustice. Since my academic discipline was in biblical studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible had to say about poverty. I began to realise that there was a big gap between academic biblical studies and the lived reality of those living with poverty.

During that time, I started working on my doctoral degree part-time. Since my primary passion was the Bible, I decided to research on the New Testament, rather than poverty and development. And since I believed that the research topic should be relevant to real life issues, I chose to study the apostle Paul’s view of suffering. I completed my PhD at the age of fifty, and by God’s grace a revised version of my dissertation is now published. Unfortunately, nowadays there are very few tenured teaching positions for New Testament scholars. And so I don’t see myself getting a permanent job for a long time, if it happens at all. But God has given me plenty of opportunities to teach as an adjunct lecturer.

Reflecting on this long journey, I would like to say a few things about what I have learned in the process.

First, the Bible is important. I don’t say this lightly. I say this based on years of pastoral experience and involvement in aid and development. I say this after a lot of time living in want and having to trust God for his financial provisions. I have no regrets in doing many years of intense study on the Scripture. It is a privilege.

Second, I thank God for biblical scholars. I am indebted to those who have gone before me to master the biblical languages and provided students with valuable tools to study Greek and Hebrew. I am thankful to scholars whose works enrich and deepen my own understanding of Scripture. Ultimately the church is the beneficiary of their labour.

Third, and most importantly, I tend to think that academic biblical study is an integral part of a long journey of knowing God and his purpose for his creation. For me, academic study is not a pathway to a promising career. Nor is it something to satisfy my intellectual carving for abstract ideas. I did a PhD because I wanted to know God, and it is still my desire to know him through the Scripture. An academic vocation may be a by-product. And yes, I like playing with abstract concepts in my head. But my primary reason to study the Bible is that I may know God through the Scripture, and allow God to transform my life for his purposes.

Of course, God does call people to be full-time academics. But it is not a “career” to be pursued in order to become successful. Instead, it is a vocation that calls for cruciform commitment for the sake of the Christ in the service of the church and the mission of God. The apostle Paul, a very learned figure in the Bible, did not set out to become a renowned or distinguished scholar. Instead, he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings—being conformed to his death (see Phil 3:10).

(I suppose many would disagree with me here. I should say that these are my reflections on my own journey. Different people have different experiences and convictions.)

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Fourth, it is worth taking time to work outside the academy. When I was a pastor, I realised that I could become out of touch with the world if I spent all of my time dealing with people inside the church. Likewise, biblical scholars can lose touch with the reality faced by the people outside their teaching institutions. After all, the Bible is about real people living in the real world, and one cannot truly understand the biblical text without spending time outside the academy.

I know that it is not practically possible for many—if not most—scholars to engage in work outside the academy. And I want to emphasise here that full-time biblical academics have my highest respect. But I wonder whether there are creative ways to engage with the world in some tangible and concrete ways?

I grew up working in a factory in East Asia, and I worked in IT in corporations in both Australia and overseas. These life experiences are incredibly valuable when I teach the Bible. I did my MPhil and PhD part-time while I was working part-time (in IT or the aid and development sector). And now I have a small office-cleaning job, which serves as a reminder of what it is like to earn a living through low-paid menial tasks. Again, Paul, being a leather-worker (or “tent-maker”), was a good model of being a bi-vocational pastor, missioner, and theologian.

Fifth, let us realise that genuine Christian faith involves Christ-centred transformation in every sphere of our lives. The goal of biblical interpretation is not primarily about apologetics or defending the truth, but living out the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in everyday life. Some years ago, a respected scholar was invited by an aid and development organisation to speak at a special event about poverty. He eloquently demonstrated that in church history Christians were generous in giving financially to the poor. He refuted the claim that the church failed to care for the needy. He called on the audience to continue the long church tradition of involving in charity work.

I agree with this scholar’s argument, and I admire his humility in his presentation. But I was disappointed by his simplistic view of poverty. Even a standard textbook on aid and development will show that financial generosity alone (though important in itself) is a limited and insufficient solution to poverty. He might have won the argument in showing that the church was active in serving the poor in the past. But his rather simplistic view of poverty reduction would not win the heart of those who actively walked with the poor in the twenty-first century.

I understand that it is impossible to know everything and be involved in everything. But it wouldn’t do to ignore the culture and the struggles of people outside the four walls of the seminary or the building of a well-resourced middle-class church. If we don’t have friends from a low socioeconomic background, how can we truly understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the Isaianic text of proclaiming good news to the poor in Luke 4:18? If we are ignorant of the issues around refugees, and if we don’t personally know any refugee, how can we understand the many biblical texts concerning them? If we don’t have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, how can we recognise the cultural and racial dynamics in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters? If we don’t get to know people living with a disability and those suffering from domestic violence, how can we teach the Good News in the Scripture effectively?

In the four Gospels we find that Jesus was very often on the road, and he gathered a community of believers from all walks of life, not least the poor and marginalised. The narratives in the Gospels serve to draw us closer to God’s heart, and challenge us to see our own inadequacies. Spending time with those who suffer helps us to see the amazing work of God in their lives and understand the biblical texts accordingly. We will do well to follow Jesus’ footsteps.

So, is it possible for a biblical scholar to do all of the above? Given the heavy workload and demand within the academy, it is very hard. But I know scholars who do the above in various ways. They do personally spend time with the poor and marginalised, and pour out their heart to those in need in prayers. They engage with real people in the real world. Some do that a lot, and others do less. But no matter how much or little they do, they are an inspiration.

 

New book Suffering in Romans (Foreword by Todd Still and written by Siu Fung Wu) is now available

The new book, Suffering in Romans, is now available for order. (Click here to go to the publisher’s website.)

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Book description.

Most of the Jesus-followers in Rome would have been familiar with socioeconomic hardship. Suffering was a daily reality either for themselves or for someone they knew. Many lived below or just above subsistence level. Some were slaves, homeless, or chronically sick. Followers of Christ might have experienced persecution because of their refusal to take part in the local religious festivals. Suffering is, of course, a significant theme in Rom 5:1–11 and 8:17, 18–39. Paul mentions various types of afflictions many times in these texts. How might Paul’s audience have understood them? In Suffering in Romans Siu Fung Wu argues that Paul speaks of the vocation of the Jesus-fllowers to participate in Christ’s suffering, with the purpose that they may be glorified with him. Indeed, their identification with Christ’s suffering is an integral part of God’s project of transforming humanity and renewing creation. It is in their faithful suffering that Christ-followers participate in God’s triumph over evil. This is counter-intuitive, because most people think that victory is won by power and strength. Yet the children of God partake in his cosmic victory by their suffering, aided by the Spirit and the hope of glory.

An excerpt from Professor Todd Still can be found here.

Endorsement by Tim Gombis can be found by clicking here. Endorsements by Keith DyerGeorge M. Wieland, and Sean Winter can be found here.

Tim Gombis’ endorsement for the new book Suffering in Romans

In a previous post I mentioned the new book Suffering in Romans, which will be released soon. Here is Tim Gombis’ endorsement for it. (For more information about the book, click here.)

Wu’s analysis of Romans 5–8 represents an original contribution to the study of Paul’s great letter . . . Against the backdrop of his social reconstruction, Wu elucidates Paul’s argument regarding the creation of a new humanity in Christ and its vocation to suffer in anticipation of sharing in Christ’s glory. Deftly drawing together several lines of inquiry —Scriptural echoes, the Greco-Roman religio-political matrix—Wu engages a wide rang of scholarship to provide a sound exegetical study.

Timothy G. Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary

Draft Book Cover—Front

New book on Suffering in Romans (Foreword by Professor Todd Still)

A new book Suffering in Romans will be released soon.

This is from the Foreword.

Dr Wu treated with clarity and care the theme of suffering in Romans 5–8 with special reference to 5:1–11 and 8:14–39 and persuasively demonstrated the centrality of the subject in that pivotal portion of Paul’s magisterial letter to Roman believers . . . Herein you will find a serious, scholarly study that offers salient insight into a long-neglected topic in an oft-interpreted text. Indeed, it is the most comprehensive and persuasive treatment to date.

Todd D. Still, DeLancey Dean and Hinson Professor, Baylor University, Truett Seminary

More endorsements of the book can be found by clicking here.

Draft Book Cover—Front

The crucified Christ in 1 Corinthians (Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s insights and my reflections)  

I am reading 1 Corinthians at the moment. Yesterday I thought I might take a look at Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still’s Thinking Through Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), expecting that they would provide me with a good overview of the letter. I was not disappointed, for I came across some succinct and insightful comments about 1 Corinthians.

Longnecker and Still think that the centre of the letter’s vision is “nothing but Christ crucified,” which I wholeheartedly concur.

A good passage to cite here would be 1 Cor 2:1–5.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV; emphasis added)

I do wonder how often preaching today is characterised by eloquent speech, human wisdom and power, rather than weakness, fear and trembling?

I do believe that well-prepared sermons and thoughtful biblical reflections are very important. But that’s very different from eloquent motivational talks that say little about the crucified Christ and primarily appeal to the emotion.

This is what Longnecker and Still say regarding the crucified Christ.

As Paul unpacks the phrase “Jesus Christ crucified,” he shows that it involves a radical redefinition of life and a sweeping reconfiguration of lifestyle. If “Jesus Christ crucified” is something of a slogan for Paul, it is a slogan that informs the repatterning of whole sectors of life—individual and collective, ethical and ecclesial . . . (Page 116; emphasis added)

These words from [1 Cor] 2:1–5 exemplify what Paul does throughout much of this letter. That is, he highlights a strand of the gospel that subverts the Corinthians’ cultural norms and expectations and applies it to their situation in ways that reorient them along the path of the gospel’s outworking. (Pages 116–7; emphasis added)

The cross is not only for our benefit. The grace of God through Christ also calls for a radical reorientation of every sphere of life.

Longnecker and Still continue to say,

At the heart of all this is what Paul calls “the message of the cross.” As he readily recognizes, that message is “foolishness” when analysed in reference to the quest for honor that enraptured the Corinthian ethos. Paul calls the Corinthians to look beyond that perception of foolishness in order that they might be empowered with “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; also 2:4–5), enabling them to be reoriented to the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Page 117; emphasis added)

The challenge for us, then, is to abandon using our human wisdom to achieve the mission and purposes that God has given the church. Instead of asking how “successful” we are, and measure “success” in terms of the value system of the world, we should ask whether our message is “foolish” from the perspective of the world.

This does not mean that we don’t use wisdom or that we should abandon learning. Neither should we present the gospel in ways that are not thoughtful. But we should always be careful that we don’t deviate from the message of the crucified Christ and a (corporate and individual) life that embodies the cross, which will always appear to be foolish in the eyes of the world.

Longnecker and Still make the following comments regarding Paul’s own life.

The apostolic pattern of Paul’s ministry itself demonstrates that God’s wisdom runs against the grain of cultural constructed systems of honor. So Paul characterizes his ministry as, among other things, foolish, weak, and dishonorable by cultural standards (4:9–13), concluding that he has “become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.” (Page 120)

Here is something that every Christian leader needs to take heed of. Our celebrity culture today is fertile ground to foster leadership patterns that seek honour and glory in front of the world. Personality cult in the Christian circle is all too common. Paul would have nothing to do with it.

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