Tuesday, May 28, 2013

N.T. Wright's Justification

My review of Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision
by N. T. Wright:

For too long we have read Scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first first-century eyes and 21st-century questions. So says, N. T. Wright in his introduction (p. 37).

Wright is convinced that we have been asking the Scriptures— particularly the Pauline corpus — some wrong questions and are thus stuck with some wrong answers. In many ways, Wright’s book is about getting the questions right which, among other things, means getting clear just what questions are being asked and answered in particular biblical passages. “Scripture”, he writes, “does not exist to give authoritative answers to questions other than those it addresses” (p. 40).

In particular, this book engages what he understands to be mistaken questions and answers from certain elements of the Reformed tradition. It is, in fact, an apologetical (and at times polemical) response to challenges to what he has written before coming from representatives of the Reformed tradition, most especially John Piper.

Wright argues that Piper and much of the tradition he represents have simply not paid careful enough attention to what Paul actually wrote, let alone the questions that lay behind what he wrote. Some key elements of Paul’s thinking that he thinks get short shrift are “Abraham and the promises God made to him, incorporation into Christ, resurrection and new creation, the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, eschatology in the sense of God’s purpose-driven plan through history, and, not least, the Holy Spirit and the formation of Christian character” (p. 31). They have missed these elements because they have supposed Paul to be answering the questions they have inherited from the Reformation, for instance: How does one find relief from the burden of guilt under the law and enter into God’s grace? Wright points out that there was no apparent sense in first-century Judaism that the Law was a burden, but rather it was understood to be a gift from God. Wright is convinced that Paul was addressing other questions, for instance: How do the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fit into God’s continuing faithfulness to the promises he made to Abraham to bless all people and all creation through his seed?

Neglecting or marginalizing these ideas leads to a conception of justification that is too narrowly focused on the fate of the individual and which ones will go to heaven when they die. Is the whole of Christian truth all about me and my salvation? Wright sees this as the equivalent of supposing the sun goes round the earth (p.23). Or is it, as Wright argues, about the continuous narrative of God’s redemption of the whole of creation beginning with the promises to Abraham, through the election of Israel and the covenant, “reaching its climax in Jesus the Messiah and subsequently developing in fresh ways which God the creator, the Lord of history, had always intended” (p. 34)? If the latter, it is no longer all about personal salvation. There is still “saving grace accomplishing redemption in the once-for-all death of the Messiah,” and there is the formation of the Church as “the proleptic unity of all mankind in Christ as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world” (p. 44). For Wright, one cannot talk about justification without talking about transformation and mission.

Wright lays out his case for this understanding in the first half of the book, marked especially by this provocative question Wright asks, “Suppose we came to Ephesians first with Colossians close behind [and read] Romans and Galatians in light of them instead of the other way round?” (p. 43). In the second half of the book he offers a summary exegetical exploration of the Pauline letters. This latter half by itself is a wonderful resource.

As a response to critics, the book at times feels like listening in on one half of an argument. This might especially be the case for those unfamiliar with the Reformed side of the argument. But, that does not really get in the way of a fascinating and provocative exploration of some foundational questions about what Christians believe God is up to in the redeeming all of creation, including human beings.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Karl Barth & Dorothy Sayers

Last month I attended a  fascinating lecture by David McNutt at the Marion E. Wade Center on “"A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity." You can listen to the lecture here.

Sometime in the late 1930’s, one of Karl Barth’s English theology students gave him a collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers. It turns out Barth was already familiar with Sayers having learned English partly through reading her detective novels. But, he liked the essays enough to write her an appreciative letter which led to a brief exchange of letters between the two in 1939 just as WW II was breaking out.
Given Barth’s strict Reformed theology and Sayers’ Anglo-Catholicism, it seems an unlikely correspondence. As one might imagine, while Barth was mostly appreciative of Sayers’ articulation of the Christian vision, he was not wholly uncritical. For example, he suggests she has a (very Anglican) tendency toward semi-Pelagianism. Still, he appreciated her work enough to translate into German and publish in 1959 – two years after her death – two of her essays on Christianity. In the introduction to those essays, he wrote:

She vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment about its central content and in a way that was open to the world but undaunted and quick-witted without any hint of apology – but above all: joyfully and in a way bringing joy, she produced stimulating work, and regardless of what one might think of its individual statements, we may be thankful.

One can only pray that God will raise up Christians in our day, lay and ordained, about whom something similar can be said.

In one of her letters to Barth in 1939, Sayers wrote of her own work:
All I try to do is tell people that the creeds are not arbitrary formulae; that they were intended to mean something, and do still mean something.”

Again, one might pray for reclamation of such confidence among preachers and teachers of the Church.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

John Calvin on the Motherly Love of God

'Like a woman in labor'. By this metaphor [God] expresses astonishing warmth of love and tenderness of affection; for he compares himself to a mother who singularly loves her child, though she brought him forth with extreme pain. It may be thought that these things are not applicable to God; but in no other way than by such figures of speech can his ardent love towards us be expressed. He must therefore borrow comparisons from known objects, in order to enable us to understand those which are unknown to us; for God loves very differently from men, that is, more fully and perfectly, and, although he surpasses all human affections, yet nothing that is disorderly belongs to him."
John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah 42:14