Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Book Review -- Craig Keener's The Mind of the Spirit: Paul's Approach to Transformed Thinking

The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking

by Craig S. Keener: Baker Academic 2016. 402 pages.

Paperback: $29.99 

Professor Craig Keener’s stated purpose in writing this book is to show how, for the Apostle Paul, Word and Spirit “are inextricably bound together,” and that the life of the mind is not innately opposed to the moving of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Spirit often works through the mind of the believer, not solely apart from rational cognitive processes (contra some in the Pentecostal/Charismatic camp, who emphasize the Spirit’s bypassing of human thought processes).

As with all of Dr. Keener’s works, this book is well-researched. The list of abbreviations alone occupies 22 pages, covering ancient Greek and Latin works, Jewish sources (Josephus, Philo, Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnaic and Talmudic texts, and other rabbinical works), Christian texts (New Testament and Apostolic fathers), and other ancient, medieval, and modern sources. The bibliography runs for 46 pages, while the indices of subjects, authors and names, Scripture citations, and other ancient sources occupies another 76 pages. It is important when reading this book to read not only the main text, but also the footnotes, which provide (in addition to source references) key explanations and insights as well. Keener has done a thorough job of examining the relationship between right thinking and right living.

The first chapter is titled “The Corrupted Mind” and centers around Rom 1:18-32. Here Keener relates Paul’s statement that what may be known about God is plain to humanity to the widely-shared conviction in the ancient world that the existence of deity was self-evident. Paul’s argument that the rejection of the true knowledge of God leads to depraved behavior corresponds to the ancient philosophers’ teaching that unreasonable thinking leads people to become subject to baser passions. (This may bring to mind for fans of Star Trek the differences between Vulcans and Romulans, the former embracing the discipline of logic to avoid being destroyed by out-of-control emotions, while the latter did not seek to control their emotions and became a warrior race bent on conquest.) Keener points out that when people refuse the truth about God they are given, they become incapable of discerning truth (p. 12). When human beings fail to honor God, the result is that they dishonor those made in God’s image, resulting in sins against their own bodies. Acting based on passions rather than rational thought results in one’s thinking being corrupted by those passions, leading to a downward spiral as time goes on.

Chapter two, “The Mind of Faith,” references Rom 6:11 as its theme text. Here, Keener talks about how Paul’s goal is that believers recognize, and, consequently, live out their new identity in Christ. In a well-written excursus on death symbolism in mystery religions, the author handily debunks the idea that Christianity borrowed the idea of a dying and resurrecting deity from mystery cults, pointing out that this aspect of the mysteries seems to be a later development that may have, in fact, borrowed from Christianity, which rapidly gained popularity in the Roman Empire. Keener focuses on Paul’s perception of faith as something objective, rather than a subjective emotion. “Pauline faith is not meant to invite focus on the subject’s ability to believe, thus initiating a never-ending cycle of self-questioning, but rather focuses on the object’s trustworthiness. Because God and Christ are faithful, people can depend on them” (p. 45). Faith, then, is a rational response to evidence about God, rather than a wishful leap in the dark.

The third chapter deals with “The Mind of the Flesh,” taking its cues from Rom 7:22–25. After an in-depth discussion of the debate over what kind of individual Paul is describing here (an unbeliever; a believer struggling with temptation and sin; himself in an autobiographical sense; Adam as a representative of all humanity; or the collective nation of Israel under the law), Keener concludes that Paul’s main point here is that knowing the law, and even desiring to obey the law, is not sufficient to make one righteous. Contrary to Stoic philosophy, right knowledge alone can’t curtail passions. “Religious convictions do not automatically change patterns in the brain; one may be disgusted by and reject habitual responses on the level of one’s conscious will, but the ‘temptation’ remains” (p. 107). Something more than correct information is needed to effect true change in one’s life.

Chapter four echoes the book’s title, “The Mind of the Spirit,” and cites Rom 8:5–7 as its key text. In contrast to the corrupted mind of chapter one, which rejected and turned away from God, the mind controlled by the Spirit has a general bent toward God and the things that please Him. It has right knowledge, as well as the empowerment (from the Spirit) to act on that knowledge. Even though a Spirit-minded person may occasionally slip and commit an unrighteous act, his or her overall orientation is toward “a life perspective and disposition informed and led by God’s presence” (p. 117). Those who have the Spirit, even while requiring more training and growth in righteous living, have the Spirit to depend on, while those without the Spirit can only depend on their own flesh, which has already proven incapable. Even the stoic philosopher Seneca recognized that indwelling by the divine is needed to make a person good. But rather than this divinity being innate to human beings, Paul sees it as something that comes only bu God’s initiative.

“A Renewed Mind,” the fifth chapter of the book, focuses on Rom 12:1–3. Believers’ bodies are to be presented to God for His use. This means that the body, contrary to later Gnostic teaching, is not in itself evil. As Christians, our bodies do not exist for the purpose of fulfilling our own desires, but for serving the greater body of Christ. Keener points out that offering our bodies in living sacrifice is a rational (λογικός) response to God’s mercy. The renewed mind “evaluates matters of this age in light of the coming age, valuing God’s opinions rather than the world’s and valuing what counts eternally” (p. 155). Having been renewed by the Spirit, the believer’s cognitive faculties are now capable of making right judgments and putting them into action, something the corrupted mind could never do.

Chapter six moves from Romans to 1 Corinthians 2:15–16, addressing “The Mind of Christ.” Keener here makes the point that while Paul rejects human wisdom in his efforts to reach the unconverted, he is not opposed to true understanding. In contrast to some Greek philosophers who taught that human beings possess a “spark of divinity” that allows them to share in the divine mind, Paul teaches that connection to the mind of God comes only through the gift of the indwelling Spirit. Having the mind of Christ entails recognizing that one’s own Spirit-given gift is not the greatest one, but simply one of many that only finds importance when viewed within the larger context of Christ’s body, the church.

Keener next moves to Philippians, discussing “A Christlike Mind” from 2:1–5, 3:19–21, and 4:6–8. This chapter addresses how divine peace guards the minds of those who are in Christ. Rather than worry and fret about situations, believers can take those needs to God, presenting them with thanksgiving. Trusting God to handle the issue moves the focus from the problems to the God who resolves them. Having a Christlike mind involves seeking unity within the body and the well-being of other believers, as well as focusing one’s attention on eternal matters as opposed to temporal concerns.

Chapter eight, “The Heavenly Mind,” is based on Col 3:1–2. Keener says that Paul’s exhortation to the Colossian believers to set their minds on things above is not only a directive to think about the enthroned and exalted Christ, but on how the reality of Christ’s lordship impacts daily life. Having a mind focused on things above should result in transformed, moral living, and not only another-worldly religious experience.

Too often, the afterword or postscript to a book is simply a brief summary of the author’s thoughts and is therefore skipped over by the reader. The postscript to The Mind of the Spirit, however, should not be overlooked, as it addresses the pastoral implications of the academic groundwork that has been laid in the preceding 256 pages. In these nine pages, the reader sees Dr. Keener shift from his role as a professor who specializes in cultural backgrounds of the New Testament to the role of pastor. And like a good pastor, he brings some straight fire here. The Christian, with a renewed mind, does not make decisions from the vantage point of this current age, but rather lives teleologically, “evaluating present decisions light of eternity” (p. 262). In one of the practical examples in this brief afterword, Keener discusses how, just as taking certain drugs create chemical addictions in the brain, so also certain actions rewire our brains to continue in those behaviors in order to receive the same “reward” of emotional or sensual satisfaction. By the same token, when we consistently make righteous choices, our brain synapses become accustomed to those positive behaviors, making it easier to make the right choice the next time. Even though believers are new creations, old memories and patterns may raise their heads from time to time, requiring continued vigilance. The battle against sinful thought patterns that lead to sinful actions will only end once-and-for-all when we are in Christ’s presence in glory.

In closing, this book is an excellent exegetical study in the Apostle Paul's treatment of how our thinking relates to Christian living. Dr. Craig Keener pulls in the thoughts of Jewish and Greek writers and philosophers whose ideas were "in the air" when Paul was writing, and which would have framed the understanding of Paul’s first-century readers. I highly recommend this book, not only for its academic quality, but also its practical application to life as a believer.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Why do we see everything as restricted to two options?

I recently heard a Christian brother commenting on the current political situation. He said:

You know, when we elect a president we don’t elect a pastor. So, we’re going to have an unregenerate person. ... You know, you can have a good character president, and a failed policy, or you can have a president who has a character that raises questions and still have policies that promote well-being in the citizenry.

I don’t think it was this brother’s intention to do so, but he presented a false dichotomy. It’s not that we can only have good character plus bad policies on the one hand, or bad character plus good policies on the other. There are also two feet involved: bad character plus bad policies (which I firmly believe is what we would have had under Hillary Clinton), and good character plus good policies, which I believe is what most of us actually want. The fact that we were faced in the 2016 election with the two "hands" doesn’t mean that we should just settle for that and not strive for the right "foot."

I was a math nerd in high school, so pardon the follow Cartesian graph:

The statement quoted above presents only quadrants 2 and 4.

We should strive to avoid quadrant 3 at all costs. Negative policies combined with negative character is a recipe for guaranteed disaster.

With a person in quadrant 4, we'll see some forward movement on certain issues on which the person agrees with us. But, as we have seen in our current political environment, if we voice any critique of the negative character (or certain policy decisions we don't agree with), the negative character of the person causes him or her to lash out and treat us as enemies. Many people, faced with this outlook, refuse to present any criticism for fear of being demeaned or losing access.

Many people will disagree with me, but I think in most cases someone in quadrant 2 is a better choice than someone in quadrant 4, as long as part of their positive character is a teachable spirit and willingness to listen to input from others. A teachable person can be swayed on policy matters: even if they don't come around completely to our point of view and implement a policy 100% to our liking, they can be convinced to move toward our position. Often, persuasion isn't so much about moving someone from one extreme to the other, as it is moving them two steps out of their current box. I think this is appreciated by the massive "swayable middle" in our country who frequently vote more against the extremes of people on the opposite side than they do for the people who are more to the extreme on their own side (when looking at things from the classical left/right spectrum).

Of course, in an ideal world we would always have candidates in quadrant 1 as options. But when when we don't, that doesn't mean we shouldn't push the quadrant 2 and 4 people toward quadrant 1.

We can appreciate President Trump’s policies that favor religious freedom, the sanctity of life, judges who support original intent with regard to the Constitution, etc., while still calling him to a higher standard of personal behavior, to reconsider his reduction of refugee visas (which have adversely affected Christians fleeing persecution in the Middle East), and to raise the level of discourse by being the “bigger person” even when the other side chooses to be petty and childish. We must not allow ourselves to be roped into an "all-or-nothing" mindset out of fear of losing the president's ear or becoming the target of a Twitter tirade.