Johnny's Reviews > The Triumph of God

The Triumph of God by Johan Christiaan Beker
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Oct 07, 11

bookshelves: theology
Read in October, 2011

J. Christiaan Beker is one of those writers who can distill a lifetime of insight in a few sentences, much less a few pages. Although I’m not a solid New Testament theologian (I love reading theology, but don’t seem to be “wired” to build consistent overall logical infrastructures—being better with micro-interpretation than macro-interpretation.), I truly resonate with the insight, delivered swiftly in the preface (a portion of books I completely ignored until a published grad school professor strongly asserted that the preface is the most important portion of the book to read—thanks Dr. Fisher!) that Paul’s theology is dependent upon an interaction between coherence and contingency (pp. x, 15). By coherence, Beker means that Paul is flexible in his use of symbols to inject the consistent gospel into different situations, the contingency factor (p. xi). He compares the coherency of Paul’s gospel to the Olympic logo where different circles are bound together (p. 63). Such contingency makes Paul’s use of the epistolary (letter) form ideal for delineating the coherent gospel in disparate situations (p. 5). While the gospel is consistent and eternal in its truth, it is also active in the present with distinctive implications for that present. “The power (dynamis) of the gospel is for Paul the confirmation of its truth (alethia; cf. Gal. 2:5, 14). But the reverse also holds true: Since the gospel is true, it demonstrates itself as an active power (Rom. 1:16, I Cor. 1:18-25). Therefore, the effective power and the truth of the gospel belong together in a dialectic tension:…” (p. 17). As Beker states in another place, the “material content” is inseparable from the “linguistic medium.” (p. 79)

Maybe this theological perspective impacts me because I have always felt like verses in the Bible offer polyvalent meanings. The message in Scripture is multi-dimensional (as something we would know as “eternal” should well be) and not limited to application in one era. Many times, I adhere to recognizing a dissonance or paradox in a given verse or usage of a word which actually enhances the potential meaning rather than limits it. So, I find myself very comfortable with this idea of dialectic tension in Paul’s theology. Beker’s primary point seems to be that Paul’s gospel is firm about the total efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection in opening up the potential for a new future for the world (including its population, of course, in the true sense of kosmos) (see p. 20, also p. 85) as well as allowing for God’s infusion of new power in relationship to the redeemed. The latter is very much demonstrated by Paul’s sense of righteousness as relationship. To this effect, Beker quotes Ernst Kasemann as noting “…the righteousness of God in Paul means not only God’s gift in Christ to the church, but also the sovereign claim of the creator over his world.” (p. 21)

Perhaps, it is easier to understand this dialectic if we consider a later insight in the book. Beker says that Paul is less concerned with “orthodoxy” than with “orthopraxis.” In other words, Paul is much more concerned with right living than with right thinking (p. 41). He is much more concerned with theology for life than merely understanding from a cognitive perspective. So, rather than focusing upon Christ’s resurrection as a fait accompli, we see Paul using the ideas like the resurrection as “first fruits” or Israel’s conversion in Romans 11 as “life from the dead” as a way of expressing “…the presence of the new age in the midst of the old.” (pp. 68, 82, 85) In other words, that which is accomplished is accomplished to pave the way for new possibility.

Is Beker merely stating the obvious? I don’t believe so. He goes on to explain how vital it was to move believers like those in Corinth to recognize the resurrection as not merely an event in past history, but an event that opens up future fulfillment. By doing so, Paul indicates the necessity for “change” but also for the importance of the preservation of the self (body, mind, and spirit) even in the final transformation (p. 73). Hence the coherent apocalyptic becomes the contingent demand for the Corinthians to lay aside their claim to be “spiritually fulfilled selves” who interpret all of the apocalyptic language as meaning that they are already “perfect” and take up Paul’s insistence on embracing the temporality and physicality of their lives in history. Anything else is distorted (p. 127).

I believe Beker is right in contending that “We are constantly tempted to harmonize the variety of Paul’s statements about the law, whereas we fail to observe the various contextual settings of his arguments. Many texts (for instance, Rom. 2:12, 3:21, 31; 8:4; 13:10 and Gal. 5:14) point to Christ as the ‘goal’ or fulfillment of the law, whereas other texts (for instance, Gal. 2:19; 3:12, 13, 22, 23024; Rom. 6:15; 7:4; 10:4-10) emphasize that Christ is ‘the end of the law.’” By looking at this tension between the coherency of the gospel and the contingency of the contextual settings of his arguments, Beker has performed a great service for students of Pauline literature and theology.
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