Overthinking Christian

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"the new perspective on Paul"

Is There “Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted?” An Assessment on Ron Citlau’s new release

hopeRon Citlau is a pastor, married to a woman, and is same-sex attracted. He cares for what the Bible says. He knows real struggles. And yet he knows real victory. All this and more is what Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted (Bethany House, 2017) is about.

God has not taken Citlau’s same-sex attraction away, though (he insists) he has become attracted to only one woman, and that’s the woman he has married. The book proves to be insightful as it is not a call to the sort of oversimplified “pray the gay away” notion. At the same time, is not a call for us to topple down what many Christians feel the Bible clearly says (and doesn’t say) about homosexuality. That said, in many ways the author provides legitimate critique of his own position on this matter.

Citlau doesn’t run away from the complexity of sexuality, but rather supplies a great perspective as one who personally knows the struggles of a same-sex attracted Christian. This book can serve as a corrective to the destructive and naive notion that God will zap away your sexuality, even though the author notes that he personally knows some who have witnessed profound changes made in their sexuality which they attribute to God.

I recommend Ron Citlau’s newest work to those on either side of this raging issue since it proves to be insightful, unique, and utterly-relevant. Even if you are not convinced that the Bible stands for heterosexual commitments, I would still encourage you to pick up a copy of Hope for the Same Attracted  and give it a shot. It’s one man’s story, and Ron Citlau is not a doctrinal watch dog but rather proves to provide a refreshingly balanced perspective spoken in a gentle voice.


Ron is the lead pastor of Calvary Church (near Chicago) and blogs here.

*I received my copy from Bethany House in exchange for an honest assessment.

A Response to #ReOpenChurch By Michael J. Gorman

Michael J. Gorman, a respected New Testament scholar, recently responded to churches wanting to reopen after President Trump announced his classification of houses of worship as essential. Below is Gorman’s post followed by a short interview.


A Brief Biblical Theology for the COVID Church, an outline (a work in progress)

I offer this as a set of invitations (“Let us…”) and also invite feedback. As some might suspect, these invitations are heavily indebted to the apostle Paul. Fortunately, I believe many churches are already practicing these things. I see this as a sort of ecclesiology for the COVID Church in a way analogous to Walter Rauschenbusch’s *Theology for the Social Gospel,* which articulated something that already existed while also advancing the conversation. (The original set of invitations was posted to Facebook on 5/23/20. The list below has been slightly edited and expanded to include what is now #6 and #10.)

Governing Principles in Putting This Together

A. COVID is possibly here to stay for years, not months, coming and going in waves.

B. The church is, in Tom Wright’s words, in a time of exile—though not total and not the same everywhere (

C. This is not a time to “completely rethink” the church (as if that were actually a possibility) or to offer theologically flawed proposals (such as “maybe we don’t need to worship together after all”). Rather, the watchword (actually, watch-phrase) right now needs to be “creative fidelity.”

D. At the same time, this will be a time of creative tension, perhaps even among these biblical perspectives.


  1. *Let us love the Lord our God… and our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28–31).* The double commandment remains the same. Its expression will take on new forms.
  2. *Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25; cf. Matt 18:20).* Meeting together is not an option for Christians, but a necessity—a necessity that is also an amazing joy and privilege. We need to meet in creative ways until, once again, we can give full expression to the incarnational character of the faith. We need to keep finding creative ways for worship, study, pastoral care, and mission. We should remember that Jesus is present with us even when we are just gathered as two or three.
  3. *Let us not, by asserting our rights, real or alleged, do harm to those for whom Christ died (1 Corinthians 8).* This is not the season for Christians and churches to insist on their rights, constitutional or otherwise, to meet physically precisely as we used to do, or at any cost. Caution, prudence, and creativity are signs of neighbor-love.
  4. *Let us proclaim the gospel in word and deed, for it is God who is at work among us (Philippians 1:27–2:16).* It is a time to do so without complaining about our predicament, as good witnesses.
  5. *Let us seek the welfare of the city where we are in exile (Jeremiah 29:7).* This is a season to think creatively about the church’s outreach into whatever place we find ourselves in exile, not because the government or the culture deems us “essential” (or not), but because that is what God expects of the people of God in exile.
  6. *Let us grieve and lament (Psalms; Romans 12:15).* This is a season of sorrow and lamentation because there has been so much loss for so many. We acknowledge our own spiritual losses (of in-person worship, etc.) , but we especially wish to cry out with and for those among us who have lost jobs or loved ones, those who have sacrificed for others and been emotionally or physically devastated, and those whose present and future lives seem so uncertain.
  7. *Let us bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).* This is a time to become aware of the needs of others in our Christian communities and beyond in order to work together to address them. This includes financial, spiritual, emotional, and other kinds of needs.
  8. *Let us remember the poor (Galatians 2:10).* This is a time to pay special attention to the least, the poor—with a broad understanding of poverty—both nearby and around the world.
  9. *Let us embody the fruit of the Spirit, most especially patience (Galatians 5:22–23).* This is a time to allow the Spirit to work in and among us to bring to greater fruition all the dimensions of the Spirit’s fruit, but perhaps most importantly what has sometimes been called long-suffering.
  10. *Let us embody the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).* It is always time to practice this triad of theological virtues and share them with others, but now they will take on special shape and meaning.
  11. *Let us clothe ourselves with humility (Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 5:5).* This is a time when we need humility because we are constantly moving into unknown territory, and we will all make mistakes. We need to recognize our own inadequacies and extend ourselves and one another extra measures of grace while also humbly holding ourselves and one another accountable. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.


[End of post: interview below]


What initially prompted your post?

Michael: My theological school (St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore) has been holding weekly virtual “town halls” (which include theological and medical/health reflections on our situation from various perspectives), since March or early April, and I did the very first presentation. So I’ve been thinking about the church and these matters for a while. I had also been thinking a lot about how my church, the church, Christians in general, and others have been thinking and talking about “re-opening” the church (going back to gathered worship). I noted lots of talk about our “right” to worship and about caution, but little about biblical and theological perspectives. The immediate prompt was President Trump’s call for church’s to “re-open” because they are, supposedly, “essential” services. This is theologically dangerous language, so rather than just being critical, I wanted to be constructive.



What initial thoughts, if any, do you have since it was ‘published?’

Michael: Overall, I’m glad I wrote it and glad I put it out in public. I have fine-tuned a couple of points and will probably fine-tune a few others. I’ve also added a point (#10 about humility).


What has been the reaction to it so far?

Michael: It has been amazingly positive, as it was shared more than 100 times within a day and more than 200 within two days. Most people have found it helpful as a framework for thinking biblically and theologically about the church in pandemic mode, and even for making decisions. Several people have been especially appreciative of the language of “creative fidelity,” the critique of an emphasis on rights over love, and the attention to the poor. Of course there has been some nuancing and some good minor critique, though not much. A couple of critical voices have sometimes missed the nuances of my points.


Rights have been appealed to over and over in this conversation. As someone deeply invested in the study of the New Testament, could you share a bit about what it has to say about Christians and their rights?

Michael: The language of “rights” in the American sense of insisting on “my” rights is largely foreign to Scripture. The Bible’s concerns are about responsibilities to others, especially the poor, widows, orphans, the stranger, and so on. Those concerns are closer to the notion of “civil rights,” but the biblical emphasis is not on rights per se but on the value of human beings because they are created and loved by God, so rights is a derivative notion, biblically speaking. Paul sees the incarnation and cross of Jesus as creating an ethic of giving up status and rights, in love, for the benefit of others. This pervades his letters. When Christians do insist on their rights (as in 1 Corinthians 8-10), Paul exhorts them to adopt the mindset of Jesus rather than that of their culture.



What advice would you give leaders and Christians who are in contexts which vehemently disagree about which course to take?

Michael: Three things: (1) try to acknowledge that it is easy to just follow the political winds of one’s preference—and then commit to refraining from making these conversations another expression of politics; (2) then commit to thinking and speaking about decisions in a biblical framework and with biblical language; (3) then follow the humility principle in #10 above.


[End of interview]

A respected and well-known New Testament scholar, Michael J. Gorman specializes in the letters, life, and spirituality of the apostle Paul, though he also has written on Revelation (I highly recommend his Reading Revelation Responsibly) and the Gospel of John. His most recent book is Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality (Baker Academic, 2019). The third edition of his text Elements of Biblical Exegesis (also Baker Academic) will be out in November.







Philippians For Today: a Conversation with Joe Hellerman

I had the great honor of asking Dr. Joe Hellerman (PhD, University of California) a few questions about the letter to Philippians and its relevance for today. An authority on New Testament (NT) studies, Dr. Hellerman is the author of Philippians (B & H, 2015), a commentary in the Exegetical Guide to the New Testament series and a resource which I highly recommend.


Some have taken Paul’s “your citizenship is in heaven” to mean that we are to avoid earthly attachments, others seeing this as a call to avoid patriotism. What exactly is Paul getting at when writing this phrase? How would the Philippian believers have understood it?

I don’t find either option—avoiding earthly attachments or patriotism—as particularly helpful here, because Roman citizenship was different in at least two distinct ways from citizenship in a modern nation-state.

First, as Rome transitioned from a republic governed by a senate to a principate ruled by a single individual, citizenship was increasingly viewed as loyalty to a person—the emperor—rather than loyalty to the state.


Secondly, and perhaps even more important, Rome was an honor culture, highly stratified into numerous status groups. And Roman citizenship was a highly prized status marker. In fact the only status distinction more defining than that between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen was the social chasm between a freeborn person and a slave. Philippi was more culturally Roman, in this regard, than anywhere Paul ministered in the Greek East, and Roman citizenship was a prized honor: more than half of the gravestone inscriptions unearthed at the settlement boast that the deceased was a Roman citizen.

Paul’s attitude toward his own Roman citizenship best illuminates the meaning of the phrase “your citizenship is in heaven.” In Acts 16, Paul and Silas submitted to treatment—a beating and imprisonment—they could have completely avoided had they informed the magistrates of their citizenship at the beginning of the story. At a time when the emperor (Claudius) made pretending to be a Roman citizen a capital crime, Paul and Silas pretended not to be citizens in order to preserve a level playing field for all in Philippi—citizen or non-citizen, slave or free, man or woman—to respond to the Gospel.

I believe the Philippians would have heard all this as a profound challenge to the status-conscious, socially stratified, culture in the colony. And I also think they would have heard a subversive challenge to the authority of Caesar.

Finally, I think the Philippians would have found an explanation for Paul and Silas’s radically counter-cultural approach to status in the picture of Jesus (Philippians 2:6-11), who, like the missionaries, did not regard his social status as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6). More on this below!


In light of many biblical passages encouraging lament following a tragedy, what are we to make of Paul’s words to a suffering community to “rejoice always?”

This question, of course, goes far beyond the bounds of Philippians. We should note that the suffering in view in Philippians is suffering for the sake of the Gospel. But, with some qualification, I think we can apply what we learn from the letter to suffering in general.
As Christians, there is an important place for lament within the time-bound limits of our temporal existence. Even Paul anticipated the possibility of having “sorrow upon sorrow” over experiences this side of eternity. The beauty of God’s story, however, is that there is a broader, eternal perspective. And as I tell the folks in my congregation, because (and only because) God’s story has a happy ending, our story has a happy ending, as well. Paul kept his eyes on the prize (1:22; 3:11–14, 20–21). I think it’s fair to assume that Paul’s eternal outlook helped him to rejoice in adverse circumstances.

But Paul was not about to wait until that happy ending to live in God’s story. One of the keys to finding joy in life is to rejoice about the right things. Because Paul was so deeply embedded in God’s story of redemption in Christ, what caused Paul to rejoice more than anything was proclaiming the good news about Jesus. In God’s sovereignty, he discovered he could do that anywhere—even from a Roman prison. As a result, he could rejoice in the worst of circumstances (1:18).


Finally, I think we have some evidence in Philippians of the familiar truth (cf. Romans 5 and James 1) that we can find joy in our suffering because suffering brings us closer to God. Thus, in Philippians 3:8–10 Paul connects suffering with both “gaining” and “knowing” Christ this side of eternity.



The so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2 is commonly referenced as a proof-text of the preexistence of Christ. Is this all that’s going on, or is there more to the text?

It’s tough to know where to begin—or end!—my response this question, since I’ve written so much about these six verses (2:6-11). So, I’ll just offer a little teaser here.
Paul clearly and unequivocally refers to Christ’s pre-incarnate state (a better expression than “preexistence”) in Philippians 2:6, so I have no problem citing the text in support of this crucial doctrine. I don’t think this was Paul’s point, however. Nor do I think that ontological Christology, traditionally conceived was on Paul’s mind when he wrote 2:6-11, although I think one can make a secondary argument for the deity and humanity of Christ from the passage.

All this ought to be quite obvious. After all, Paul begins the passage by challenging the Philippians to be like Jesus (2:5). We can hardly share Jesus’ ontology—not his deity, at any rate. Careful study of the terms in the passage also calls into question the traditional approach. I am convinced, for example, that the NIV is wrong to translate morphe theou (literally “form of God”) as “very nature God” in 2:6. The expression refers simply to outward appearance, which was huge status issue in Roman antiquity.


What 2:6-11 is about, in my view, is how we are to use our social capital, or any privilege we might have, for that matter. Jesus, who was at the very top of the social pecking order of the universe (Paul’s point in v. 6), did not regard his position as the pre-incarnate Son of God as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6; NIV). Rather he “valued others above himself” (2:3). We are to do the same.

So, in the final analysis, Philippians 2:6-11 is about relationships among the people of God in the local church—not the deity and humanity of Christ. The “payoff” for the text has to do with ecclesiology, not Christology traditionally understood.


If you could condense Philippians into a sentence or two, what might that look like? What do you feel the main message of this letter is, in a nutshell?
Philippians is essentially a letter of gratitude occasioned by a gift sent from Philippi, in which Paul touches on a number of key issues related to the Christian life. As a result, I find it difficult to summarize the main theme of the letter in a sentence or two. The command in 2:5, read against the picture of Jesus in vv. 6–11, probably sums up Paul’s challenge to the Philippians as well as anything:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”


For the common layperson who wants to deepen his or her understanding of Philippians, where would you have them start? Any pointers?

Here is a challenge that can shed light not only on Philippians but on much of the epistolary literature in the NT:
Whenever you see a command or promise, or read the word “you,” read it as an address to a community (“you,” plural), rather than to an individual. Consistently applied, this will completely transform your understanding of Scripture and your view of the Christian life.

Let’s try it out on Philippians 4:19 — And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Notice what happens. Suddenly, every need of yours become the needs of the church, and the promise is given not to individual believers in isolation from one another but, rather, to a community that has sacrificially contributed to the ministry of the gospel (see 4:15–18).

Thank you for your time!



Having taught at Talbot for over a decade, Dr. Joe Hellerman is the author of When the Church was a Family as well as Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Dr. Hellerman currently teaches on the side, and enjoys playing keyboard in a classic rock band. He also serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in California.



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Is hell eternal? What does the Bible really say? John Stackhouse Responds in a thoughtful interview

Prolific Pauline expert and pioneer of “The New Perspective,” Dr. James Dunn answers some questions related to this debate


Can We Overemphasize Community?

It’s no surprise that our theologies are made up in part by Scripture, and in part by us reacting to extremes. It’s also no surprise that the American church has so stressed personal salvation that evangelicalism is thought of as “personal” more than as “communal.” I appreciate Preston Sprinkle being a voice who wishes to maintain both the individual and communal dimensions of discipleship in his 2016 release Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith in which he makes the important distinction that a personal relationship with God can never mean a private relationship with God (see here for my review).

I was reminded of my own over-reactionary tendency while listening to a lecture given by NT scholar Rikk Watts (given at Regent) in which he insisted that my generation has the tendency to so overemphasize community that we’re in danger of losing any sense of a personal dimension to the faith; he finds that we give “community” mere lip service but actually remain very individualistic in how we do things. His point? The NT points to the gospel as being both/and. There are communal dimensions that are rooted in the OT and assumed in the NT, but this does not negate the fact that the NT also presents us with a gospel that is highly personal because of a God who is highly personal.

We see this both/and tension fleshed out especially in Paul’s temple metaphor in 1 Corinthians. On the one hand, our bodies are temples (plural) of the Holy Spirit (=we are individual mobile temples housing the Presence/Spirit of God; see 1 Cor 6:19). On the other hand, the Corinthians make up one temple (singular) when they gather together according to 1 Cor 3:16. This means that each local church is a temple housing the Presence/Spirit of God wherever geographically placed.

I am grateful for the work of N. T. Wright and others who stubbornly push back against the notion of the gospel being private and without social dimensions. I personally thank God for this pushback. But what Rikk Watts seems to be getting at is the fact that my generation seems to be eating it all up and in the process throwing the baby out with the bathwater (that is, going to one extreme in reaction to another).

Can we overemphasize community to the neglect of the personal-ness of God and the gospel? Certainly. But we can also overemphasize the personal dimension of our faith. We can and we have in the American church. Yet the appropriate response is not to run far in the other direction, but rather to embrace a robust discipleship that is both greatly personal and greatly communal.

Scot McKnight, who has sometimes been accused of downplaying the idea of a personal walk with God, proves to be a voice of reason in this regard. Recently in an interview he stated that

“Yes, I believe in personal faith; and I have led dozens of students into personal faith in my years of teaching college students. … [But] how about if we call people to personal and corporate faith and see sin as both personal and systemic? (Which is biblical to the core.)”


Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? Do you tend to enjoy a private relationship with God while downplaying community? Do you love being in Christian community but find yourself having trouble spending personal time with God when others are gone?

How about sin? Do you view it as purely personal? Or purely systemic? What’s your reaction to McKnight’s thoughts on sin being both/and?

David Gowler on Understanding the Parables

I had the honor of asking David Gowler (the Pierce Chair of Religion and the director of the Pierce Program of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University) a few questions regarding the parables and how the modern reader can better understand them.



What can we in the modern world compare a parable to, if anything?

David: What is parabolic, in many ways, exists in the eyes and/or ears of the beholder. Perhaps if I place the parable into its ancient context, that will help clarify things.


The Greek term for parable (parabolê) typically is used to translate the Hebrew term mashal (plural: meshalim). Mashal is extremely difficult to define, but a central aspect of its meaning is “to represent” or “to be like,” and it refers to a wide range of literary forms that utilize figurative language. The Hebrew Bible tends to use mashal for whatever is “proverb-like,” with hidden or allusive truth, which means that responses of readers or hearers are essential to the process of creating understanding (assuming they understand the analogy being made). Yet the meshalim of the Hebrew Bible do not offer any definitive examples of parables like the ones Jesus created. The Hebrew Bible does contain some fables, such as Jotham’s mashal of the Trees (Judges 9:7–15), Jehoash’s mashal of the Thistle (2 Kings 14:9), and Ezekiel’s mashal of the Vine and the Eagles (Ezekiel 17:3–10), but no Hebrew Bible mashal serves as a direct parallel to the New Testament’s use of parable as a short narrative. Isaiah’s mashal of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–6) might qualify as an allegorizing parable, but of all the meshalim in the Hebrew Bible, the closest we come to a narrative parable is Nathan’s mashal of the Poor Man’s Only Lamb (2 Samuel 12:1–4).


Parables play a prominent role in later Jewish literature, such as in rabbinic traditions, where the rabbis used them for preaching, interpreting Scripture, and providing guidance for daily lives. I like David Stern’s definition of the rabbinic parable as “an allusive narrative told for an ulterior purpose”—usually to praise or disparage a specific situation of the speaker/author and hearer/reader. It draws a series of parallels between the story recounted in the narrative and the “actual situation” to which the parable is directed. These parallels, however, are not drawn explicitly; the audience is left to derive them for themselves, which, again, can be confusing if the analogy/parallel is not clear enough. So the parable is neither a simple tale with a transparent lesson nor an opaque story with a secret message; it is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the interpretation and application of its message. The social context, then, clarifies the parable by giving the audience the information they need to understand it, and, if the readers do not understand the social context, the parable can also be hard to understand (see the answer to question #3 below).


In Greco-Roman traditions, the parable is similar if not the same as the ancient fable, and rhetorical treatises can help explain what they are and how they work. The mention of Greek fables usually conjures up visions of stories with talking animals that illustrate a simple moral. Yet, in antiquity, the term fable denoted several kinds of brief narratives, but the one that serves as the best example is Aelius Theon’s definition of the fable as “a fictitious story picturing a truth.” The realistic portrayals in Aesop’s fables, for example, are similar to the parables of Jesus. Mary Ann Beavis points out that both are brief narratives that shed light on aspects of human experience and behavior, that usually involve ordinary human characters and situations—like quarreling siblings who are corrected by a loving father—and that, despite their realism, often contain an element of extravagance or surprise. Most fables, like the parables of Jesus, illustrate religious and ethical themes but do not have miraculous interventions (only two of Jesus’ parables have direct supernatural interventions: Luke 12:13–21; 16:19–31). Some fables also include a surprising or ironic element of reversal that is reminiscent of Jesus’ parables.

So, I hope that historical context explains the variety and flexibility of what could be considered a parable today.

Why do you think it is that Jesus seemed to rely on parables so much to get his point across?

David: I think my answers to all the other questions each contribute to answering this one—so perhaps the other answers should be read before this one—but let me illustrate further with someone who people would not expect to see in this context: Emily Dickinson (much of the following comes from my recent book, The Parables After Jesus). I choose Dickinson because she seems to be such an unlikely example but is such a good illustration of the power, the opacity, and the point of the use of teaching in/with parables.


At first glance, Dickinson’s poetry may appear to interact with Jesus’s parables only minimally. In reality, though, Dickinson’s fortieth and final booklet, Fascicle 40, demonstrates just how important both Jesus’s parables and the parabolic mode of expression are to her work: it was essential to her poetics, structure, and meaning. What is more illustrative is the way in which Dickinson’s poetry interacts with parables in even deeper ways than allusions in specific poems, including how her poems can operate in a riddle-like manner similar to the description of parables in Mark’s Gospel: enigmas that those “outside” cannot perceive or understand (Mark 4:11–12). The role of poet merges with that of prophet in Dickinson’s poetry, and her poetry incorporates numerous biblical literary forms, their rhythm and artistry, including parallelism and paradox, with Jesus and his parables as important models, among others:


Like Christ’s parables, in which his indirection often baffled, even frustrated, his

audiences, Dickinson’s prophetic lines often have the form of riddle or enigma

because she relies on paradox and indirection as basic techniques. Thus, although

some scholars might read her poetry as “private” or “eccentric,” the lines are no

more private than the sayings of Christ and the other biblical prophets. Christ,

the earlier Scriptural prophets . . . and Dickinson all focused on an audience of

initiates; the prophetic tradition of writers presumes this kind of audience to

be familiar with an indirection that rests most often on a contrast of spiritual

reality with a more mundane experience of perception. Dickinson’s poetry

presumes this kind of audience of initiates, an audience itself paradoxical in

its simultaneous potential openness and resistance to prophetic revelations of

spiritual truth. (Doriani 1996, 118)

Dickinson’s “riddle poems” see their task as not solving a riddle but discovering it, discerning it, and presenting it to the reader “in all its irreducible mystery” (Leiter 2007, 51). As one of her most famous poems says:


Tell all the truth but tell it slant—

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind— (Dickinson 1999, 494)


This poem describes the nature of poetry: instead of telling the truth in away that conceals from outsiders, Dickinson, in kindness, tells all the truth in a circuitous fashion, because the truth’s brightness must dawn gradually or it blinds its viewer with its brilliance. Dickinson’s poetry, like the parables of Jesus, can be indirect, polyvalent, and circuitous. Such indirectness is not just a rhetorical strategy; it is born of necessity—our own protection—and it is inherent in the nature of poetry, metaphor, and parable. Perhaps it is even at their heart, as Dickinson’s poetry demonstrates (cf. Doriani 1996, 107–18; Peterson 2008, 1–5).


Jesus’s parables “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”; they both reveal and conceal, and that is, as I explain in the next answer, why they can have so much power and impact upon their hearers/readers: We become more engaged as we become more involved in “untying the knot for ourselves.”


Many modern readers seem to read around the parables; why is it that so many are left confused after reading them?

David: Two key aspects of a parable are to provide instruction with maximum impact and to challenge people to respond. John Calvin, for example, discusses the increased rhetorical effect parables can have on their hearers/readers. Parables have more energy and force than do simple, direct expressions, produce greater impact on the minds of their hearers/readers, and also can make truths more clear. Calvin warns, however, that although the use of parables could allow God’s truth to shine forth more brilliantly, their obscurity can lead to that light being hidden by the darkness of human beings and becoming more confusing and unclear.


The reason is that parables are some of the most dialogic (polyvalent) narratives in existence. You probably know C. H. Dodd’s famous definition of a parable that includes the quote that a parable leaves “the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (1961, 16). That aspect of parables can give them tremendous power to affect their hearers and readers in numerous ways. The parables, as Richard Pevear writes about the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “… leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word” (Dostoevsky 1993, viii).


I particularly like the way Soren Kierkegaard put it: Parables thus function as indirect communication because they engage their readers and challenge them to “untie a knot” and choose between possibilities of self-understanding (Kierkegaard 1978, xii–xiii): “If anyone is to profit by this sort of communication, he must himself undo the knot for himself” (Kierkegaard 2004, 117–18; see also the quote from William Blake in #4 below).


We have to “untie the knot” ourselves, but people can be confused if the parable is too “riddle-like,” if, for example, the two aspects/things being compared in the analogy are too far removed from each other for people to figure it out easily (it is too far a “distance” for people to “leap”). Another example is if people are not significantly aware of the social, cultural, and other contexts that are assumed in the parable and that can be necessary to understand the parable more fully.


In your own Christian walk, have you always been fond of the parables?

David: I think I address most of that question in my Preface to my most recent book on the parables (The Parables After Jesus), so I will quote it for most of my answer:


My father loved parables—stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and

morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds. He used the ones he found

in the Bible, the ones he plucked from history, or from folk tales, and, of course,

he used those he saw in his life and the lives of the people he knew. He wove

stories into his Sunday sermons, his Bible classes, and his computer-delivered

history lectures. Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.

—Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents: A Novel

(New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), 19.


I also love parables; they are stories, like Butler notes, that create vivid pictures in one’s mind, stories that enable us to experience profound truths in often deceptively simple ways, stories that challenge us to respond and act—not only to do better, but also to be better. I especially love the parables of Jesus and have spent much of my career studying, teaching, and writing about them.


Some parables are relatively simple and straightforward. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus after he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25–37): the command makes the parable easier to understand, perhaps, but more difficult to put into practice. Other parables are more challenging even to comprehend. How can Jesus apparently praise, for example, a steward who acts dishonestly (Luke 16:1–8)? Still other parables offer even more complexity; they permit and even sometimes encourage a range of responses and interpretations. As I read Jesus’s parables and the divergent ways in which various people have responded to them, I am reminded of the August 23, 1799, letter of William Blake to Rev. Dr. Trusler after Trusler had complained about one of Blake’s works of art that Blake had sent to him (see the introduction for details). Blake compares his own Visions of Eternity to, for example, the parables and fables of Aesop and argues: “The wisest of the Ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato.” The parables are “not too Explicit”: in the famous words of C. H. Dodd, a parable leaves “the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (1961, 16). That aspect of parables can give them tremendous power to affect their hearers and readers in numerous ways. Parables, then, like other great works of art, challenge our hearts, minds, and imaginations. As Richard Pevear writes about the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “They leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word” (Dostoevsky 1993, viii).


But, again, the parables of Jesus go further than just “rouz[ing] the faculties to act”: they also challenge us to act in other ways, to change our priorities, not just our perspectives; to change our behaviors, not just our attitudes.


I love the parables of Jesus because what is most important to me is to ascertain his teachings, and I think when we study the parables we are as close as we can possibly be to sitting at Jesus’s feet.


How has your approach to them changed, if at all, over the years? Who or what has helped shape your understanding and approach to the parables?

 David: There are currently three main ways New Testament scholars have interpreted the parables:


Parables as they were told by the historical Jesus (not as they appear in the Gospels). These interpretations are more speculative because they involve hypothetical reconstructions of the form, content, and context in which the historical Jesus might have said them. This includes social, historical, economic and other contexts. (John Meier’s recent book on the parables and the historical Jesus radically limits the “necessity” of this approach!).


Parables as they appear in the Gospels. This approach (e.g., literary approaches) interprets parables in their current form in the New Testament Gospels. This also can include literary, social, historical, economic, ideological, and other contexts.


Most of my research since the mid-1980s has been in these two areas, and I have written extensively about parables in those two contexts.


Parables as they have been interpreted by others through the centuries to help us understand the parables more completely. My last two books and various articles over the past few years, however, have been about Reception History (Reception History is the critical examination of all aspects of the reception, influence, and impact of the Bible from the ancient world until today). The Parables After Jesus, then, explores parables’ “afterlives”: the use, influence, and impact of the parables in society, culture, economics, politics, visual art, literature, hymns and other music, plays, etc.


I have found reception history to be especially important to the study of parables because of their (parables’) distinctive riddle-like nature (polyvalency, dialogic, etc.). The resulting ambiguity makes it even more critical for interpreters to gain insight, wisdom, and greater clarity through dialogues with other interpreters. I do not mean to suggest that all interpretations are of equal value or importance—even dialogic narratives like parables provide buoys in the channel of interpretation that encourage interpreters to navigate within certain boundaries of readings—but engagement with other interpretations can make one’s own interpretations more cogent and more comprehensive.


Here is a quote (one of my favorite ones) to illustrate that point: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” – Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.


Here is the final and perhaps most important point that guides my current work, and this quote illustrates the point I will explain below:


The question to ask of [parables] from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or what they do but what they want—what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond.

– William J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? (I have replaced “pictures” with “parables” in this quote).


Parables challenge their listeners, and that aspect needs to be emphasized:


  • People often focus on what parables mean: What point do they make? That is an important task.
  • They also often focus on how they work: Parables’ rhetorical aspects include such things as containing a surprise or being open-ended, not giving all the answers. That also is an important task
  • It is also critically important to focus on what parables want: Parables are meant to challenge us to do things, not just to think things. Jesus spoke them with one ear already listening for our responses. For me, this task is the most important one of all: How do we respond to Jesus’s parabolic challenges and demands.


As I wrote in my first book on the parables (in 2000):


. . . parables in their polyvalency, to an extent foresee and anticipate our responses; Jesus created them with one ear already attuned to our answers. Parables, therefore, are profoundly dialogic and do not pretend to be the last word, because, in parable, the last word is continually granted to others . . . .

  • David B. Gowler, What Are They Saying About the Parables?


It is no coincidence that after Jesus relates the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, be says, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus and his parables want us to respond in word and deed. That’s what parables want.


What is your advice to the average layperson on how to approach Jesus’ parables? Besides this, what resources would you recommend?

David: I have written too much already, and there are so many resources available that it depends upon the person’s specific needs and concerns. For a compendium of a massive amount of interpretation, Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is the best current resource. For a review of scholarship for students and laypeople, my What Are They Saying about the Parables? is a bit dated (2000) but still very helpful.


If your readers would like other recommendations, they can contact me directly at I would be glad to give recommendations for books and other resources depending upon what they are seeking to know.

Thank you for your time!

Dr. David B. Gowler, the Dr. Lovick Pierce and Bishop George F. Pierce Chair of Religion, runs an academic blog and has authored five books, The parables after Jesus being the most recent. Gowler has also authored James through the CenturiesWhat Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus, and Host, GuestEnemyand Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts. The co-editor and contributing author of five other volumes, he is also the author of numerous academic articles, book chapters, and book reviews. Besides being co-editor of the series Emory Studies in Early Christianity, he has edited 18 other books.


“What is Sanctification Anyway?” Craig Keener Responds

I had the great honor of asking renown scholar and prolific author Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University, and F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary) a few questions regarding the nature of sanctification.


What does the Bible mean when it uses the term “sanctify” or “sanctification?” Does the English translation do the original Greek word justice, or should we find a different word?

Craig: I might prefer the translation “consecrate,” since there is less theological-historical baggage attached. The term means “set apart” for ritual purposes; in biblical usage this especially means set apart from what is profane for exclusively holy use (in the Greek translation of the OT, see e.g., Gen 2:3; Exod 19:14, 22; 28:41; 29:1). By Christ’s sacrificial death for us, God has consecrated us, or set us apart, as “saints” (literally, “the consecrated ones”) for his exclusive use. We belong to him. Now, what are the implications of this? If we are “saints” in Christ—i.e., those consecrated to Christ—we ought to live wholly for his purposes, not for our own or others.

We don’t act holy to get holy (“holy” being the usual translation of the adjective cognate of the term translated “sanctify”). We are holy to God because he has set us apart in Christ. Thus Paul calls the Corinthians “called saints, sanctified in Christ” (1 Cor 1:2; cf. 3:17; 6:1-2; 14:33; 2 Cor 1:1). The Corinthians!!! That is because of what Christ has done (1 Cor 6:11; cf. Heb 2:11; 9:13-14; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12). Christ is our sanctification, or consecration to God (1 Cor 1:30), for we are set apart in him. (The expression “saints” or “consecrated/holy ones” and other descriptions of holiness are frequent in the NT: see e.g., Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 20:32; 26:10, 18; Eph 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19, 21; 3:18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Phil 1:1; 4:21; Col 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 2 Thess 1:10; 1 Tim 5:10; Phlm 5, 7; Heb 3:1; 6:10; 13:24; Jude 3; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:8; 20:9.)

But the terminology is used more than one way in Scripture, and of course Paul often exhorts us to live in light of our new identity in Christ (many scholars speak of the tension between the indicative and the imperative: be what you are). We are to recognize our identity in Christ (Rom 6:11), and accordingly use our bodies for righteous, divinely-consecrated purposes (Rom 6:19, 22). We must be consecrated in practice, set apart from false values (2 Tim 2:21); this includes maintaining sexual purity (1 Thess 4:3-4, 7). We must present ourselves holy (consecrated) to God (Rom 12:1), consecrate Christ in our hearts as holy (1 Pet 3:15), and the holy must yet consecrate ourselves to God (Rev 22:11). Believers must continue to embrace this consecration for God (Heb 12:14), which may include welcoming tests that keep our attention on him (12:10). As 1 Peter puts it succinctly, because God is holy, we should be holy in all our behavior, because Scripture says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16). Clearly this evokes the status of God’s redeemed people in the Old Testament, as “a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9; see Exod 19:6). God set Israel apart for himself by redeeming them at great cost; God has set the church apart for himself the same way, with an even greater price (1 Pet 1:18-19).

When Jesus prayed for the Father to consecrate his followers in the truth of his message (John 17:17, 19), that means that we no longer belong to the world (John 17:14, 16). Nevertheless, we are sent into the world (17:18), so the world through our unity in Christ may believe that Jesus was sent (17:21). Being consecrated does not mean we are not in the world, but that we are kept from the evil one’s values in this world (17:15). Do we engage the culture? Absolutely, when such avenues are available. But we are here to promote God’s perfect values, not to absorb the world’s values.

In short, God has set us apart for himself in Christ. That means we should recognize this consecration and live accordingly.

I think that this understanding of devotion to Christ motivated many of the Christians a few generations ago who opposed playing cards, going to movies, fashionable dressing, and the like. Unfortunately one generation’s devotion too easily becomes the next generation’s tradition and the next generation’s legalism. We need to remember what we are consecrated for: the honor of our Lord.

I do watch films like Selma, Hacksaw Ridge, or A Case for Christ. I normally don’t watch television, but not because I think that everything there indoctrinates me in unhealthy values (though much of it probably would). I don’t normally watch television because time, like money, is a limited commodity, and I need that time for the work of the kingdom. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if just 40 million North American Christians gave up three hours of entertainment each day and devoted it to meeting the needs of their neighbors, caring for poor, prayer, sharing their faith, and so forth. That would be 43 billion, 800 million more hours per year invested in God’s kingdom. Imagine the impact that would have!

Why do you think it is that so many Christians have no idea what this word means? On a similar track, why are there so many disagreements among denominations on “sanctification?”

Craig: The English word “sanctification” is not one with which people are normally familiar unless it is used a particular way in their church tradition. (It doesn’t even appear in my older Word program’s dictionary, though the verb “sanctify” does.)

I suspect that a lot of Christians yearning for lives of full devotion to God in practice encountered that in different ways in their own lives and tried to communicate that to others as best as they knew. That was a good thing, but sometimes it hardened into particular expressions that did not really encompass or even correspond to the use of this and related terms in their Bible translations.

Some divisions are semantic; we use the same terms in different ways. The idea behind what some Christians call “progressive sanctification” is not wrong; it might be better termed, however, “growing in grace” (2 Pet 3:18). We may have a new identity in Christ, but our very adaptive brains (through what scientists call neuroplasticity) have been shaped by our past choices; they need to be reshaped through the renewing of our minds with Christ’s values (Rom 12:2; thus my book The Mind of the Spirit).

The idea behind a special, single encounter with the Holy Spirit through which we dedicate our lives to serve God wholly is also not wrong; but it is not a model that fits every person’s encounter. Some people recognize by faith their new identity in Christ, commit themselves to undivided devotion to the Lord, and stay on that course all their lives, by the Spirit’s power in their lives. (This doesn’t mean that they never sin, but that they have embraced the understanding that Christ is Lord and they continue consistently on that path.) Some people might need a few more encounters. If we want to talk about the ideal, in principle this should follow immediately from conversion. In practice, though, the Spirit often keeps working on us to get our attention. And even those walking normally on the right path need to walk by the Spirit’s power regularly and grow in grace as the Spirit brings more matters to their attention.

When we get past semantics, though, the Bible is clear that Christians should live lives consecrated to God. It’s clear that only God’s Spirit empowers us to do that, so God gets the credit for it in our lives. And it’s also clear that this can happen only because God has already consecrated us for himself in Christ, an act that defines the identity in Christ of all those who trust him for salvation.

Some view sanctification as something difficult to attain while others make it out to be something that is only God’s doing. Are Christians passive (acted upon by God) or active in this process?

Craig: The Bible terms traditionally translated this way refer especially to what God has done for us in Christ and to summon us to live accordingly. We don’t set ourselves apart to God by our own efforts apart from God’s action; God saves us through our faith in Christ. But now that we trust in Christ, we should be consistent enough with the trust that he has saved and consecrated us that we should live that way. This is God’s act and invitation, and we embrace the invitation the same way we embrace the act: by faith in Christ. We live it because we believe God’s finished work in Christ.

Far from being difficult to obtain, it’s God’s gift. To live it out, we embrace that gift in faith and choose to consistently be what we are in Christ. Is that “difficult”? Only in the sense that we find faith difficult. But since trusting Christ for our salvation is the beginning of our Christian life, we may as well keep on trusting more and live like he really has saved us from sin! There’s no need to wonder whether I have enough strength in myself to resist all temptation; I don’t. But when I remember that Christ died and rose again to save me from sin, there’s no temptation or habit or demon more powerful than that. At the same time, until we form new patterns of thinking and behavior, it is difficult because our faith has to face off against all the feelings, thought patterns and neurochemistry that we previously developed.

Some treat sanctification as if it is a particular experience that makes sin impossible; that’s not really biblical. We are sanctified in Christ, and living as such is not a state to be attained but a life to be lived. At the same time, for many, living that life consistently begins with a conscious decision and dedication (and for others, for a series of such choices). Such a dedication certainly does not make one incapable of sinning or lapsing, but again, the choices we make and build on do shape our new thinking and transformation. Some refer to their Spirit-empowered dedication not as making them incapable of sinning, but rather as making them incapable of sinning and enjoying it. It’s hard to enjoy sinning once you know better.

We need to be careful not to fight over nomenclature (1 Tim 6:4; 2 Tim 2:14). Dedicating our lives wholly to God is consistent with what God has done for us in Christ. A few Christians make the mistake of supposing that everyone should attain a wholly and permanently dedicated state in a moment. I think more Christians make the mistake of ignoring the matter of consecration altogether. Too many Christians live as if Christ came to guarantee us heaven while we basically live like the world around us in other respects, excepting some “big” sins. Even though I don’t agree at all with the exegesis of those who insist on a second Christian experience of sanctification, I think we have something important to learn from their valuing of holiness.

If we strip away the legalism, I think we have something to learn even from some older Christian traditions about separation. I used to dislike the term “holiness” because in my mind it was associated with people saying, “Don’t wear earrings,” “Don’t dance,” or, “Don’t wear a beard.” (I don’t wear earrings, and I am not coordinated enough to try to dance in front of anyone, even liturgically. But I do have a beard.) But one day when I was praying I felt in my heart a consuming passion for holiness, like a burning fire. I felt that God was showing me that, in practice, holiness means loving God so much that nothing else matters compared to him. That passion for God consumed me.

I want to love the Lord with all my heart and soul and strength. I want to pursue God. I can pursue God’s ways passionately because God has already set me apart for himself and made me new in Christ. He has welcomed me in his presence and promised that he is always near. And that is true for each of us who have called upon Christ as Lord.

What’s the difference between justification and sanctification? Does one come before the other, or do they both spontaneously occur?

Craig: Again, if we’re referring to the terms translated that way in most of our Bible translations, they happen together. “Justification” translates the same Greek term also translated as “righteousness”; in Christ, God puts us right with him, acquitting us of all guilt. Moreover, when God says, “Let there be light,” there is light; when God says, “put right in Christ,” he makes a new creation. You can’t have justification without regeneration. And when God puts us right with him, he consecrates us to himself. The terms do not mean the same things, but they are all different aspects of what God does for us in Christ when we become believers in him. In terms of living accordingly, living by Christ’s righteousness is also living as one made new and consecrated in him. God gets all the credit for his fruit in our lives. Such righteousness and sanctification can never belong to those who want to take the credit for it themselves. God forbid!

For those who want to delve further in the study of sanctification and the topic of the Holy Spirit in general, where should they start? Do you have any recommended resources? 

Craig: For those who want to study different Christian traditions’ approach to what is commonly called “sanctification,” helpful places to start are Zondervan’s Five Views on Sanctification, and Broadman & Holman’s (B&H) Perspectives of Spirit Baptism: Five Views. Those wanting to study the usage in Paul will find very helpful Ayodeji Adewuya, Holiness in the Letters of Paul (Cascade). I also treat the topic of transformation, though not the particular language of “sanctification,” in two books for Baker: Gift & Giver, and (more recently and academically) The Mind of the Spirit. There are surely many other helpful works, but because my research has been more on particular passages than on the general topic, others would be able to provide more resources on this topic than I am.

Thank you for your time! 


Craig S. Keener is author of twenty-two books, which have received six major national or international awards. He has also authored more than seventy academic articles; several booklets; and more than one hundred fifty popular-level articles. One of his books, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, now in a second edition, has sold more than half a million copies. Dr. Craig Keener is the New Testament editor for the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and is editor of the Bulletin for Biblical Research and is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who was a refugee in her home country of Congo for eighteen months; her experience and their romance appears in Impossible Love: The True Story of of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016). See here for his blog site.


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