Friday, October 31, 2003

We access information media 46% of our time. Unfortunately, information is not the same thing as knowledge, let alone wisdom.
In a word, these people are losers in the great computer revolution. The winners, which include among others computer companies, multi-national corporations and the nation state, will, of course, encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners, and so in the beginning they told the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists. Then they told them that computers will make it possible to vote at home, shop at home, get all the entertainment they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary. And now, of course, the winners speak constantly of the Age of Information, always implying that the more information we have, the better we will be in solving significant problems--not only personal ones but large-scale social problems, as well. But how true is this? If there are children starving in the world--and there are--it is not because of insufficient information. We have known for a long time how to produce enough food to feed every child on the planet. How is it that we let so many of them starve? If there is violence on our streets, it is not because we have insufficient information. If women are abused, if divorce and pornography and mental illness are increasing, none of it has anything to do with insufficient information. I dare say it is because something else is missing, and I don't think I have to tell this audience what it is. Who knows? This age of information may turn out to be a curse if we are blinded by it so that we cannot see truly where our problems lie. That is why it is always necessary for us to ask of those who speak enthusiastically of computer technology, why do you do this? What interests do you represent? To whom are you hoping to give power? From whom will you be withholding power?

Happy Halloween! This festival is a great one to celebrate, as James Jordan points out. I would like to give a few brief thoughts on the subject. The Christian and the Calendar Much is made of the 'pagan origins' of the festival by many fundamentalists. However, even were Halloween does find its origin in pagan celebrations, this does not preclude Christians giving the day a Christian meaning. Many fundamentalists treat the calendar as if it belonged to the world, or at least that certain days within it do, and Christians should take care to avoid them. This is a sinful perspective, in my opinion. Jesus the Messiah is Lord of the calendar. Man as a creature of nature, cannot abstract himself from the patterns of nature (though in many ways the modern city can be seen as an attempt). To do so is to seek autonomy. The year with its seasons is one of the most profound cycles in humanity's life (as Nevin and others recognized). Man has always sought to make time the mirror of eternity. Paganism confuses the natural with the Divine and the forces of nature are seen as the focus of their year. Paganism never suceeds in surpassing the sphere of mere nature and bringing it under a higher power. 'Redemption' is at best a product of the struggle between natural forces. The Christian celebrates the year in a very different way, however. Christianity expresses its view of redemption within the year. As it does this it radically challenges the pagan view. Old celebrations are taken up and given radically new meanings—Christian meanings. We express the rhythms of redemption in the liturgical year. We see this in the pattern of the week and in the seasons. These natural patterns affect us more than most of us like to admit. The Christian, I believe, has a spiritual impulse to recognize the organic union of nature and grace by developing Christian ways of celebrating these patterns. The church year is not arbitrary but is based on the fact of creation and the resurrection. Nature itself is taken up into the sphere of Christ's redemption. We are not gnostics. Creation itself groans with us for redemption; I believe that the church calendar celebrates this fact. We groan with creation. If we seek to avoid any idea of special days and rhythms in time we will lack spiritual discipline. Spiritual discipline demands godly rhythms (though I must admit I feel a bit guilty writing this line—I should be in bed by now!). Man is a creature in time and redeeming this time is one of his primary tasks. A question we might ask ourselves: 'what does redeemed time look like?' Halloween / All Saints' Day Halloween / All Saints' Day is the time when we celebrate the victory of the saints in union with Christ. It originally developed as 'All Martyr's Day' and later broadened to include all saints. Its date varies, it is celebrated on Whitsunday by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some interesting notes on the history of Halloween can be found here. This is the day when we celebrate the truth of Hebrews 11:1—12:2. We celebrate the truth of victorious faith in the face of death. When those of the world see Autumn dying into Winter, we look beyond the grave to victory in Christ by faith. In a world where death seems to be the end, we celebrate those who have died. With them we believe in the providence of God. With them we believe in a God who is sovereign over history. With them we believe in a God who brings redemption to nature. Yes, that's right, we should learn to think of the saints in the present tense. Klaas Schilder has some insightful comments to make on this issue:—
Indeed, a church-in-heaven that sins in a similar way was even invented: the so-called triumphant church above, as opposed to the militant one here below. The triumph of the (only initially) blessed ones was then distinguished from the "struggle" in which the same persons, now blessed, had been engaged on earth. On the basis of this strictly "personal" experience, a scheme of "church"-classification was then given. But precisely because the church is still church in the making (divided over two places, "above" and "below") it can never say that in its work of gathering it already has arrived at the stage of communal triumph. Triumphing (in the present-"perfect" tense) is done only by one who is finished. Christ as Gatherer of the church is as yet not finished by far. Hence also the church in its church-affairs is not yet ready or completed by far. Christ is indeed triumphing daily in the present-"progressive" tense; but this also applies (through Him) to the so-called militant church (more than conquerors; faith conquers the world). Christ is triumphing in the present-progressive tense. (His struggle is a "prospering" struggle). But the same thing applies also to the so-called triumphant church. It struggles daily in its prayers (by far the keenest weapon, according to Revelation 6 and 11). So it, too, seeks to have the church reach completion. A "triumphant church" that would abstract (separate) its triumph from the one concrete church struggle (divided over both divisions, above and below) would be sectarian, just like the "society for mutual upbuilding," the schismatic church, and the conventicle...
We need to see ourselves in united struggle with the 'church above'. We are one people and on All Saints' Day we celebrate a victory that is one day going to be complete. This is the day on which we celebrate the truth of the communion of saints. Halloween is the night on which we celebrate the fact that the forces of evil have had their day. The new day is ours. Many of the customs that now exist for Halloween were developed in such a manner. On Halloween a drama was acted out. People dressed up as martyrs, with spears thrust through them, beheaded, sawn in two, etc. (I can imagine kids would love this!). These were the victorious heroes, while others would play the persecuting rulers and sinners, Satan and his demons. Many superstitious practices were incorporated into All Saints' Day in the church (prayers to the saints, practices based on belief in Purgatory, etc.) but I still believe that the celebration is worth reclaiming. If we celebrated Halloween in a Christian way it would serve as a bold evangelistic move. We could invite our friends and neighbours to a feast in which we celebrated the victory of Christ over the forces of evil. Advantages of Celebrating Halloween / All Saints' Day I would like to list just a few reasons why celebrating Halloween might be worthwhile. Some ideas for celebrating? I think that we need to be careful to avoid the appearance of evil. We should seek to celebrate in a very Christian way. I think that dressing up as saints is not a bad idea. Drama should play a greater role in our lives as Christians and this is one area where we can bring it in. I also believe that a celebration of the Lord's Supper should be a climactic part of the celebration of Halloween/All Saints' Day. This is the victory meal that can be celebrated in the face of the greatest evil, as we can see at its institution. These thoughts are very limited and could be filled out far better at a time when my brain has actually switched back on (it's in screensaver mode, awaiting defragmentation—I'm dog-tired!). However, I hope that they will provide some ideas that might be worth developing.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

I wonder, should Mark Horne sue for infringement of his trade mark...

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A very long post on Duncan vs. Wright 

Having read J. Ligon Duncan’s article The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul I thought that it might be helpful to juxtapose a few quotes from Duncan and Wright. I hope to demonstrate by this that, at least Wright’s version of New Perspective theology, is badly misunderstood or misrepresented by Duncan. I think that I am warranted in focusing on Wright, because this is exactly what Duncan claims to do. This is not intended to be anything resembling a full critique of Duncan’s article. There are too many faults in the article to draw attention to them all here. The uncharitable reading of Wright and the ungracious tone that comes to the surface on occasions does Duncan’s arguments no favours.
Is Justification a side-issue for Wright?
Duncan writes:—
In a nutshell, the NPP suggests that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit; that Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about works-righteousness (a works righteousness view of salvation over against the Christian view of salvation by grace); that Paul’s real concern was for the status of the Gentiles in the church; that justification is not so much about our relationship with God as it is about our relationship to our brothers and sisters in the church (and in particular, it’s about the status of the Gentiles in the church and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the church); thus, that justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community, and what are its boundary markers, than it is about how a person stands before God.
Many people reading this passage would get the impression that proponents of the NPP see the doctrine of justification as a side issue, that Paul only used in order to deal with problems in the church. Wright holds nothing of the kind:—
Nor is it true—as anxious opponents of the “new perspective” are wont to say—that I am here simply reverting to the old either/or made famous by Wrede and Schweitzer, that Paul only talks about justification and the law in order to address a particular problem in the church. When we understand the place of Israel within his vision of God’s purposes for the world, the relation of Jew and Gentile can never be an incidental side-issue. [NIB Romans Commentary (Abingdon Press, 2002) pp.481-482 on Romans 3:28]
I think that Duncan is the one who ends up emptying the doctrine of justification:—
One last observation before we move on. I think that one of the answers to the NPP is robust, biblical (and by that I mean to emphasize a high view of Scripture, a higher view than held by the advocates of the NPP) teaching about community and about the social implications of the Gospel, rather than to try and find a social dimension in justification. Because if you find it there, your are going to end up losing everything and gaining not much. [emphasis added]
Am I reading this right? Is Duncan effectively denying that justification has a social dimension? He speaks of ‘the social implications of the Gospel’ as if social implications were not inherent in the gospel. Peter Leithart is right, ‘Transformation of life is not an implication of the gospel but inherent in the gospel, because the good news is about transformation of life.’
Does Wright deny the content of the Reformed doctrine of justification?
Duncan writes:—
On the other hand, you can find him speaking of the doctrine that Luther called the article of a standing or falling church, and which Calvin identified as one of the two keys of the Reformation, as “a second order issue.” To boot, he throws in that “imputation” is a pious fiction, and that justification isn’t about soteriology, it’s about the eccesiology. Indeed, he comes close to claiming to be the only person who has ever understood Paul.
It would help if Duncan had made clear that Wright does not deny the content of the Reformed doctrine of justification, but rather challenges the terminology in which it is generally framed, as these quotes make clear (I hope):—

Paul speaks in Romans, Galatians and Philippians of being ‘justified’ by faith; here, in verse 8, he speaks of being ‘saved’ by grace. ‘Justification’ and ‘salvation’ are not the same thing. ‘Justification’ has to do with people belonging to God’s family. It answers the question as to how they are marked out as members of it. ‘Salvation’ has to do with people being rescued from the fate they would otherwise have incurred. It answers the question as to how that rescue has taken place, and who is ultimately responsible for it. When Paul speaks of justification, the thing which marks people out is their faith. When he speaks, as here, of salvation, the responsibility is God’s, i.e. it comes about through ‘grace’.

He speaks of ‘salvation’ here, not ‘justification’, since the topic of the chapter at this point is not how God’s people in Christ are marked out, but how they are rescued from sin and death. At the same time, he glances at the other question: you have been saved, he says, by grace and through faith. Faith is not something that humans ‘do’ to make themselves acceptable to God. Nothing we can do, unaided, can achieve that. If there were such a thing, it would become a matter of our own initiative, and the people who had this ability would be able to hold their heads up in pride over those who didn’t. On the contrary. Because it’s all a matter of God’s gift, there is no room for any human being to boast. [Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (SPCK, 2002) pp.22-23 on Ephesians 2:8]

…Paul’s point in the present passage is quite simply that what now marks out the covenant people of God, in the light of the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus, is not the works of Torah that demarcate ethnic Israel, but “the law of faith,” the faith that, however paradoxically, is in fact the true fulfilling of Torah. There is no problem in adding the word “alone” to the word “faith”—a tradition that goes way back beyond Luther, at least to Aquinas—as long as we recognize what it means: not that a person is “converted” by faith alone without moral effort (that is true, but it is not the truth that Paul is stressing here), nor that God’s grace is always prior to human response (that is equally true, and equally not Paul’s emphasis here), but that the badge of membership in God’s people, the badge that enables all alike to stand on the same, flat ground at the foot of the cross, is faith. [NIB Romans Commentary p.482 on Romans 3:28]
Duncan goes on to write:—
I would understand an quasi-Athanasian response from Wright to his orthodox critics — “of course you are upset, I’ve just said you've been dead wrong for five hundred or fifteen hundred years, on a doctrine that you think is the difference between heaven and hell, and you are wrong, but I don’t care, because I’m right, and it’s important for the church that we get Paul right.” That response, I can understand. But the reaction of “you chaps are making a storm in a teacup” is just downright thick.
If Duncan has really read as much of Wright as he claims to, he would be aware that Wright’s criticism is directed primarily against the Reformation’s reading of Paul. Wright is not suggesting that we utterly reconstruct our understanding of soteriology, but that we place it firmly upon the foundations that the Pauline corpus presents us with. I have not found my soteriology undermined by reading Wright, only built upon. The man is a brilliant thinker, but I do not think that he has overturned anything the Reformed tradition has held concerning the essential elements involved in the salvation of the sinner. He has helped many of us to get the broader cosmic picture back into focus. However, this has merely served to expose glories of Reformed soteriology that we were only vaguely aware of. The truth of my salvation looks bigger and more Christ-centred today than it did before I had encountered N.T. Wright.
Wright, Discontinuity and Continuity
Duncan writes:—
Indeed, two camps fall prey to it [the NPP]. First, there are evangelicals whose social consciences are captive to dominant secular moral concerns like racism, poverty, universal health care, social welfare, income redistribution and the like. They are attracted to how the NPP brings to bear the doctrine of justification as a resource to them in addressing those concerns. Little do they realize that by transposing justification from the soteriological to the ecclesiological, they actually lose all of its true social consequences. Second, there are evangelicals who are social conservatives but who are bent on Christianity expressing itself societally. Among these are theonomists, reconstructionists, “ex-theonomists and reconstructionists” and other miscreants. It is amazing how quick they are to discard reformational soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom. There is, by the way, a logical and theological connection between their desire to promote an eccentric continuitarian approach to hermeneutics (basically, they have a “flat” view of Old Covenant and New in the progress of redemption) and their attraction to certain aspects of the NPP (with its more rationalistic approach to New Testament exegesis that expects to find, via a “history of religions approach to the NT,” that there are few ideas in the NT without inter-testamental prescursors).
Wright is no reconstructionist and is certainly not an advocate of ‘an eccentric continuitarian approach to hermeneutics’ as this quote should illustrate:—
Having said all that, we must also insist, against some current attempts to reinstate or rehabilitate Torah either within the church or (for instance within contemporary Israeli society) in wider social and political contexts, that the Torah is by itself weak. Not only can it not give the life to which it points; it accents, and indeed accentuates, the Adamic condition, the sinful and death-bound position, of those who embrace it. There is always a danger within the church that some Christians, anxious about Marcionism of whatever variety, and eager to insist that the whole Bible is the Word of God, will fail to heed the words of Jesus and Paul and will attempt to live by Torah in matters (for instance) such as the death penalty. There are some Christians today, despite the letter to the Hebrews and indeed the entire temple-based Christology and pnuematology of the New Testament, who seem to believe that the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem could still be God’s will; equally, there are some who, no doubt with considerable inconsistency (I do not hear them calling for a reappropriation of patriarchal marriage customs, for example), want to see the Jewish law as in some way(s) normative for Christians today. This is to make the mistake of treating revelation in a flat, dehistoricized fashion. As Paul’s own writings make abundantly clear, what we find in Scripture is above all a narrative: the great story of God and the world, and of God’s people as the people of God for that world. Torah stands as the headline over that story from the time of Moses to the time of the Messiah (Galatians 3 is the classic exposition of this); but the story, which started before the giving of Torah, moves on beyond the time when Torah was the determining factor, and Torah itself celebrates this fact. To say that its primary role was acted out in an earlier act in the drama than that in which Paul believed himself to be living is not to diminish its God-given role, but rather to celebrate it. To say that it goes on applying equally in the era of Christ and the Spirit is to ignore not only what Jesus and Paul said at several points but, if anything more important, the story Jesus enacted in his life, death and resurrection, the story Paul took as his starting point. [NIB Romans Commentary pp.586-587 reflections on Romans 8:1-11]
One of the great appeals that Wright has for me personally is that his hermeneutic is not ‘an eccentric continuitarian approach’. In their response to dispensationalism, many Reformed thinkers have flattened out the Old and New Covenants. The language of ‘one covenant with two administrations’ lends itself to this, I believe. Coming from a Baptist upbringing, I was far more attuned to thinking in terms of discontinuity between key elements of the Old and New Testament. I swung the opposite direction for a while, in an overreaction, but I have found that Wright’s work holds the two elements together beautifully. For a while I was influenced by the approach of Robert Reymond’s systematic theology to the question of continuity. He effectively sets up an either/or of continuity or discontinuity. He argues that ‘Old Testament saints were saved through conscious faith in the future, anticipated sacrificial work of the promised Messiah in their behalf.’ This sort of approach ends up undermining the significance of development in redemptive history. Whilst the Messiah was certainly anticipated in the Old Testament, I believe that it is hard to argue that Old Testament saints generally believed that He was going to die on their behalf (in the sense that much of evangelicalism understands this) or rise again from the dead. The picture was just not that clear. Furthermore, this ends up downplaying the redemptive historical import of that which Christ accomplished on the cross. They were men and women of faith, but their faith did not possess the same objective doctrinal content as that of a NT believer. Reymond reads the NT back into the OT. Others, theonomists for example, can fall into the trap of reading the OT too much into the NT. I think that Wright successfully avoids both of these errors. Indeed, if we read Paul, as most evangelicals do, as describing two abstract ways of salvation, one by the merit of moral works and the other by faith in Jesus Christ we will end up missing the radical newness of the New Covenant. Wright relates continuity and discontinuity as follows:—

What matters for our present purposes is that, rare though Paul’s explicit references to the “covenant” may be, that word can appropriately reflect something absolutely foundational to his thinking: the faithfulness of God to all that had been revealed and promised in the past. This is not undercut by the fact that, because of sin and death, it was necessary for God to do something that seemed totally new in the present. Underneath the radical discontinuity caused by the gospel’s breaking in upon Israel and the world, caused indeed by the earth-shattering death of the Messiah, there remains the faithfulness of the creator and covenant God to the promises made to Abraham…

Pauline “covenant theology,” then, is not opposed to “apocalyptic” theology, to a sense of the radical inbreaking of God’s judgment and salvation in Christ. The covenant provides the fuller context for that…. [NIB Romans Commentary pp.560-561 on Romans 7:5-6]

Regarding the newness of Christianity, Wright is clearly no follower of Sanders:—
E. P. Sanders’ teacher was W. D. Davis, who died recently. He saw all of this quite clearly. He once said to me, “If Christianity and Judaism are really just the same sort of thing, then what’s the fuss to be a Christian?” He clearly saw that there was something utterly distinctive about Christianity, while honoring its Jewish roots. There are many of us who see the force of Sanders’ basic point about not leveling against first-century Judaism criticisms appropriate to sixteenth-century Catholicism, but who would agree with his teacher that this doesn’t reduce the uniqueness of Christianity. I think my published writings make my own position very clear on that.
Duncan treats Wright as if he believed that covenantal nomism was the NT pattern of salvation (a very common mistake).
Wright and Sin
Duncan writes:—
Sixth, the new perspective offers a diminished view of sin and the issue of sin in the New Testament. I think that that kind of mood in the NPP needs to be looked at very closely. Now, N.T. Wright himself (and you have heard it in one of the quotes that I gave earlier) will go out of his way to say we shouldn't set covenant membership over against forgiveness of sins. But the minute you say that justification is not about your relationship with God, it is about relationships in the covenant community, you have already diminished sin. Unavoidably and necessarily, you have diminished the issue of sin, and justification as the means of relief of the condemnation of sins. I think that is an issue we need to consider.
Wright writes:—
Writing after a century in which many Western Christians have regarded it a something of a social or even liturgical faux pas to speak of sin, let alone Sin, it is important to stress that our soft-pedaling of the New Testament’s analysis of the depths of the human problem has done no service to either the church or the world…. It is time once again to hold out the analysis of human behavior offered in the New Testament. There is such a thing as Sin, which is more than the sum total of human wrongdoing. It is powerful, and this power infects even those with the best intentions. If it could make even the holy Torah its base of operations, how much more the muddled intentions of well-meaning do-gooders. [NIB Romans Commentary p.588 reflections on Romans 8:1-11]
Wright and Legalism
Duncan writes:—
Basically, Sanders and Wright and other proponents of the NPP say that “unless you can show me the crassest, most blatant examples of merit theology, then the Rabbinic Judaism of the day is alleviated of the charge of merit theology.” But semi-Pelagianism, and we know this pastorally, is subtle and as elusive as an eel. The person who is trying to combine grace and works in salvation is the hardest to get to and the one most easily self-deceived.
Duncan has already quoted a passage from Paul Zahl to the effect that Judaism does not go far enough in its analysis of the human problem. He implies by this that Wright and other NPP advocates fail to recognize any aspect in which this is true. However, Wright and others are quite willing to grant that the OT system of religion was insufficient:—
What the Torah, the covenant document, could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh—human flesh, Jewish flesh—with which it had to work, God has done, thus declaring himself to be in the right in terms of his covenant. He has sent his Son to die, and given his Spirit to bring life, so that the righteous covenant decrees of the law … might be fulfilled in the creation, and eventual salvation, of a new covenant community… [The Climax of the Covenant (T&T Clark, 1991) p.216]
Wright maintains that Paul would oppose all who would hold the Torah to be the solution to Israel’s problem. The solution to Israel’s problem was not the Torah and covenantal nomism, but the eschatological righteousness of God. Duncan has failed to take account of these central aspects in Wright’s understanding by levelling this criticism. The whole semi-Pelagian business serves to cloud the issue. Wright questions whether Sanders’ distinction between ‘getting in’ and/or ‘staying in’ is helpful in our understanding of covenantal nomism [see What St. Paul Really Said (Lion, 1997) p.32]. Duncan seems to miss the thrust of Wright’s position. Membership in the covenant is demonstrated by keeping the law, not earned [see The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992) p.334]. Wright argues that the traditions and case laws of the Pharisees and others were a means by which they sought to preserve the symbol of the Torah by turning it into praxis [see The New Testament and the People of God p.229-230]. Wright also argues that Jesus challenged the ‘Pharisees’ right to make their own interpretations of Torah the litmus test of such loyalty [to the symbols of Israel’s identity]’ [see Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996) p.396.]. Wright acknowledges that a form of ‘legalism’ could develop in such a manner:—
My teacher George Caird said when I read the mishnah that is what I mean by legalism. You know people are often not satisfied with one definition. They will say, "Is it a this or is it a that?" And when you have given them that, they then say, "But what happens on the Sabbath?" This results in more and more and more endless definitions that have to be learned and applied. That produces a rulebook mentality. Even if you say the whole thing comes under the rubric of grace, by the time you get nineteen stages down the development of the casuistry you just have to wonder how much of this really is grace.
I am trying to think of a good analogy to describe the way in which the Torah functions for Wright. I suppose that it could be compared to the situation that exists within a family. The family talks together, eats together and lives together. The family has distinctive ways of doing certain things. All of these things serve to demonstrate that which the family is. I don’t eat with my family in order to ‘get in’ or even to ‘stay in’ — I eat with them because I am ‘in’. The fact that I do these things marks me out as one who is ‘in’, but does not establish me as such. Just as legalism can creep into a family when members of the family act as if things have to be done ‘just so’ in order to identify yourself as a true member and members who do not act in such a manner are alienated, the same thing happened (to a degree) with the Pharisees. However, this is not quite the sort of legalism that Duncan is thinking about. The key problem that many evangelicals have is that they cannot give any clear account of how God intended Torah to function. If Paul was merely attacking a perversion of the Torah on the part of his opponents, his gospel is suddenly disconnected from history and we are left wondering what role exactly the Torah is to play after Christ. The redemptive historical significance of the gospel is downplayed and the Gospel’s relation to the Torah (in its proper use) becomes very hard to ascertain. If Paul was attacking the use of the Torah period, we are left wondering why God gave it in the first place. Wright’s explanation provides a compelling solution that avoids both of these problems.
Wright on the meaning of Justification
Duncan quotes Chuck Hill, who writes:—

Challenge: find a lexicon which defines the Greek word dikaiosune (“righteousness”) as “membership within a group” or dikaioo (“justify”) as “to make or declare the member of a group.” [It’s not even down under definition number 14d!]

Another way is to look at previous and contemporary works, etc., to try to establish current usage. The claim to have discovered and restored this broad Jewish context is central to Wright’s attempt to redefine justification. He essentially argues that in the Judaism which nurtured Paul and which Paul addressed throughout his ministry, justification is all about covenant membership in God’s Israel. Here I think he is radically wrong. He has certainly not established this in his book. The covenant relationship may be the context in which Jews discussed justification, but it was the context for their discussion of everything!

Hill’s ‘challenge’ is ridiculous to anyone who has read Wright in any depth.
Wright and his use of Contextual Concerns
Duncan quotes Hill again:—
The fourth and final exegetical error I want to point out is the way the NPP allows a provisional theory regarding the interpretation of the Judaism prior to and contemporary with early Christianity utterly to dominate its exegesis. The text takes a backseat to context, however tenuous the assertions of context are.
Wright’s conclusions, however, were first derived from the text:—

The way that I came into this is a bit interesting. I grew up as a somewhat typical middle-Anglican with a strong dash of evangelicalism, or put the other way around, I grew up in a Lutheran evangelicalism which left me with a strong antithesis between law and grace. I found this all profoundly unsatisfying until I met Calvin and Calvinism. I began to think, "Whew...the law is a good thing. It is holy and just and good. It is right and it has been fulfilled, not abrogated, in Christ." All of that is right. So, if you are faced with a choice between Luther and Calvin, you simply have to choose Calvin. I think a lot of evangelical debates in North America, at the moment, are still right around that axis although they don't come right out and actually say so. What I then found, and believe me I tried very hard to do this, was that I couldn't make the Calvinist reading of Galatians actually work. I was reading C.E.B. Cranfield on Romans and trying to see how it would work with Galatians, and it simply doesn't work. Interestingly, Cranfield hasn't done a commentary on Galatians. It's very difficult. But I found then, and this was the mid-seventies before E.P. Sanders was published, before there was such a thing as a "new perspective," that I came out with this reading of Romans 10:3 which is really the fulcrum for me around which everything else moved: "Being ignorant of the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own."

In other words, what we have here is a covenant status which is for Jews and Jews only. I have a vivid memory of going home that night, sitting up in bed, reading Galatians through in Greek and thinking, "It works. It really works. This whole thing is going to fly." And then all sorts of things just followed on from that. I mean Sanders was a great boost but he didn't start this for me and he hasn't given direction to what I did or was doing. It was more like Sanders was saying, "Actually first-century Judaism never was like what Luther said it was."

As I have argued elsewhere, it is the Lutheran interpretation that leans too much on the supposed context.
I could write much, much more. This post, however, is far too long as it is. Duncan’s critique is very poor. He seems to have a desire to polarize the Reformed and New Perspective readings of Paul. I believe that they need not ultimately be in conflict. Duncan wants to maintain that God deals with us in ‘strict justice’. This leads him to believe that the NPP baptizes ‘semi-Pelagianism as orthodox’. People often have a lot of problems reconciling systems of ‘strict justice’ with the idea of a covenantal salvation. Duncan could have been far more gracious and charitable in his critique. A more tempered and nuanced critique would have been of far more benefit to the church. The NPP certainly has a number of areas in which it must improve. I would like to see a more nuanced view of Second Temple Judaism and greater attention given to historical theology. I believe that Duncan is right to criticize the NPP’s weaknesses in this area. However, I also believe that the basic thesis is correct and will only be strengthened as we turn our attention to these areas of present weakness.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Reality and Evangelical TheologySomeone visited today and offered me a few books that he was clearing out from his library. One was on Jewish apocalyptic, another on posttribulational rapture (I don’t see myself reading this in a hurry!) and the final one was Reality and Evangelical Theology by Thomas Torrance. This book looks particularly interesting and should provide me with much food for thought (with things both to agree and disagree with). Kurt Anders Richardson writes in the foreword:—

Theology is not philosophical argument for the knowability of God, because God has already given us real knowledge of himself in Jesus Christ. Even more, this knowledge of God reorients all of our knowing and thinking about all that is not God. For evangelicals this is a realist knowledge of God—a knowledge independent of preconceived notions or speculations. This is not a naïve realism nor even a critical realism that establishes the fact of the knowledge of God before it is learned. It is not a priori knowing but a posteriori knowing; Torrance presses for our basic comprehension of this throughout all his books. A posteriori knowing of God, that which is already given to us by revelation in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures, is a theological or evangelical realism.

The realism of Christian theology becomes apparent, claims Torrance, as the result of deep, intelligible contact with the reality of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit within the communion of believers. This is evangelical or theological realism because while it is human knowledge, it is continually shaped and corrected in us by the Word of God in Scripture. It is also critical realism but in a very special sense. It is critical in terms of criteria outside of ourselves, namely, in terms of Scripture and the living God of Jesus Christ, which are constantly spurring us on to know God and to serve him in Spirit and in truth. Theological realism, further, is critical because God and Scripture are not methodological principles but entities that act on us as knowers and lovers of God. Scripture, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, becomes an active agent in our reading. God, on whom we meditate as a result of our being vitally informed by Scripture, acts on our knowledge as well. The same Holy Spirit guides our understanding and ultimately our theological formulations in order that our theological account of what we know will be ever more appropriate to his being and acting.

Torrance criticizes the dualistic epistemology of fundamentalism and its static view of revelation. He argues that we need to move beyond the subject/object division and advocate a way of knowing ‘in which the personal and the objective are fused together in the activity of establishing contact with reality and its intrinsic rationality.’ He stresses the ‘church-conditioned’ and ‘church-orientated’ nature of true theology. I like this statement:—
It is, I believe, still within the matrix of the Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures, and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church, that the empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are found fused together, in a kind of stereoscopic coordination of perceptual and auditive images, and thus provide us with the cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.
The theological work of the church is carried out within the context established by the Eucharistic life of the church. Torrance describes the type of theology that arises from this as fluid dogmatics. This theology is progressively modified as the realities are disclosed to us by God and our formulations are open structures. We should always distinguish between the truth itself and our dogmatic formulations of it. Indeed, Torrance argues, the inadequacy of our dogmatic formulations is an essential part of their truth as they point away from themselves to the objective reality that they are grounded upon.
In Britain two-thirds of the population will enter higher education by the year 2050.

Monday, October 27, 2003

I have just updated my other blog. Expect more in the next few days.
I have updated my bloglist. I have abandoned the effort to catalogue my reading list as I wish to keep alterations to my template to a minimum. Instead I will recommend some titles that I have enjoyed (this will be properly updated soon, Lord-willing).

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Putting Limited Atonement in Perspective 

Although I certainly hold to the doctrine of limited atonement, I fear that it has led to a number of dangerous misunderstandings.
Misplacing the Focus
Firstly, it narrows our perspective on the atonement far too much. We can fail to take into account the multifaceted nature of God’s purposes, viewing everything through the terribly restricting lens of individual salvation. God’s purposes, however, stretch far, far wider than the salvation of individuals. We must pay more attention to the eschatological significance of the cross of Christ and not get bogged down in such questions. The death of Christ was the means by which God determined to restore Israel, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to include the Gentiles, the death of Christ was the means by which God defeated Satan, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to destroy sin, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to judge the old creation, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to remove the obstacle of the Torah, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to remove His wrath from His covenant people, the death of Christ was the means by which God designed to delay the day of final judgment, the death of Christ was the means by which Christ would become the King over all men everywhere, the death of Christ was the means by which God sought to solve the Adam problem and take men out of the realm which he had created by his actions. These are but a few aspects of the death of Christ. A fixation with the question of limited atonement can lead to a terrible lack of appreciation for the complexity of this subject. The cross of Christ fulfils its purpose perfectly in each one of these plans and was effective in what it was designed to do. However, its purpose extends far further than that of mere personal salvation. Secondly, limited atonement by focusing almost exclusively upon individuals misplaces the biblical focus, which is upon the church in Christ. Thirdly, we can downplay certain of the biblical teaching concerning the people for whom Christ died (e.g. John 1:29; 6:51; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:2; John 11:49-51). Whilst limited atonement (in its place) is true, so are these statements.
The Cross and the Sinful Nature
Fourthly, there is a danger that when we view the cross in isolation we end up with very mixed up conceptions of the atonement. This can be illustrated by the tendency inherent in much of the ‘commercial’ language used by some concerning the atonement. People want to maintain the intrinsic efficacy of the atonement and speak of the ‘infinite intrinsic merit’ of Christ’s death. They say that it was enough to save ‘a thousand worlds’. Such language throws us off-track and leads us to believe that Christ’s death was ultimately merely an act of supererogation. I think that the biblical teaching is far more powerful than this. In what sense did Christ die for sin? Many view ‘sin’ as a collection of discrete individual sins, each with there own amount of demerit, for which Christ must ‘pay’. However, the language of Scripture should challenge us to think more carefully in this area. Sin is something which is broader than its individual expressions. It has to do with a sinful nature and not just sinful actions. I fear that certain 'commercial' views of the atonement fail to do justice to the fact that the atonement must deal not only with the punishment for commited sins, but also with the sinful nature itself. Christ died to ‘take away’ the sin of the world (John 1:29), to ‘do away with’ the body of sin (Romans 6:6) and to ‘condemn sin in the flesh’ (Romans 8:3). Such language suggests more than merely doing away with the punishment for sin. The wages of sin is death, not merely a certain amount of punishment. Christ bore our sins by identifying with a sinful people and dying for them. Those who participate in His death by being united to Him by faith are partakers in His resurrection life, a life where sin no longer holds any power. Christ ‘died to sin’ (Romans 6:10) and we who are in Him die with Him. ‘Sin’ is the realm characterized by sin. Christ bore this realm down to destruction in His body. When this realm has been destroyed in Christ’s body, we who are in Him are considered dead to it and alive to the new realm constituted in Christ. All members of His body are now part of a new realm of holiness (union with Christ cannot be conceived of in any terms other than those of holiness —1 John 3:4-9). We are definitively sanctified as we are regenerated and united to Him by faith. We are progressively sanctified as we grew into one with Him by faith. Many have a limited conception of the nature of sin, allowing for the atonement's removal of the punishment of individual sins but not for the destruction of the realm of sin itself. The reason why my sins can be forgiven is because I have died with Christ to the realm of sin (of course, I still sin but I am no longer ‘constitutionally’ a ‘sinner’ if I am in Christ). Christ's atonement must deal with both the guilt and pollution of sin.
Substitution or Participation?
Fifthly, there is a failure to bring the concept of substitution into relationship with the concept of participation. We should not think of these concepts as either/or but as both/and. We are saved because we are in Christ; Christ died for us because we are in Him. We are saved because of an organic union with Christ and not because of a mere legal union. We partake of Christ’s benefits because we first partake of His Person. Christ’s death was effective for all in Him. We are in Him by the twofold bond of faith and the Holy Spirit. Who did Christ die for? For all who were or would be members of His body. As we are united to Christ by faith, the blessings of the atonement are laid open for all who will apprehend Christ by faith. No one is excluded (except by their own unbelief, over which God is, of course, sovereign). We simply call all to grasp Christ by faith and to abide in Him by faith. Outside of Christ there is no hope of salvation. As we have already seen, the cross has to deal with the problem of the sinful nature and not just the punishment for sinful actions. As sinful human nature cannot be perfected by itself, a living personal union with Jesus Christ must form the basis of our salvation. The cross is effective for us because our sinful nature died with Christ and we participate in His new life.
The Cross and the Application of Redemption
Sixthly, the application of redemption is smothered by many who argue for the limited atonement (something I certainly believe in, when defined carefully). The cross should not be viewed in isolation from Christ’s resurrection, His ascension, His intercession, Pentecost and the continual applicatory work of the Spirit. If the cross was by itself it would accomplish nothing. Seventhly, a further problem results when we make predestination the controlling principle for every aspect of redemption. This position is just not biblically justified. I think that thinkers such as Calvin have shown far more balance in this respect. Many readers of the Institutes are surprised that he does not deal with the subject of election earlier than he does.
A Cosmic Redemption
Finally, Christ, in a very important sense, did die for the whole world. At the end of history we will not see a mere fragment of the world redeemed. We will be seeing a 'new heavens and a new earth'. We will be seeing a redeemed humanity. The fact that this redeemed humanity is not composed of every historical individual does not undermine the fact that it truly is a redeemed humanity (just as the fact that not every individual in Israel was elect did not undermine the fact that Israel was an elect nation). God is putting the world to rights. As the old humanity in Adam died, so the new humanity in Christ is made alive. This is the death and resurrection of the human race. Redemption is not merely God seeing what He can salvage from a fallen world. Redemption is cosmic in its proportions and is truly putting everything to rights. For this reason Christ's redemption has determined the future of humanity as a whole, not merely of elect individuals. Let us start to put the limited atonement back into a proper perspective.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

This is certainly interesting, but I fail to see how it will 'rewrite the history books, changing our understanding not only of the Holy Land but of the life of Jesus himself'. This is a lot for a two thousand year old Roman bathhouse to do! Significant as such discoveries are, I am always cautious when too much weight is placed upon them. When we are told to read the Scriptures delivered to us in a new way, due to new discoveries in archaeology, I sense that we are being trained to operate with a hermeneutic of suspicion when treating the inspired text. Whilst they might serve to throw light upon the text, they should not be made normative for our reading of the text.
Not surprising really...
When the Labour government came to power, I looked up in Who’s Who the interests of members of the new Cabinet. (Of Tory philistinism I shall not speak.) Not a single one avowed anything that might loosely be described as a higher cultural interest; about three quarters of the new Cabinet claimed to be interested in football.
Leaders who bow to all forms of pop culture as they were all worthy of acknowledgment really disappoint me. I expect politicians to display more elevated cultural aspirations than these. Not all cultures are equally deserving of respect. I would rather have politicians who are blissfully unaware of the latest girl or boy band than late middle age MPs who pretend to like them. I prefer politicians (as a necessary evil!) to be grown up and refined in their tastes. The obsession that my nation has with football (real football, i.e. soccer ;>) !) never ceases to irritate me. I like playing the game (I will be enjoying a game for an hour or so this afternoon) and I enjoy watching the game, but the degree to which some people's lives revolve around the game bewilders me. They seem unable to detach themselves from it. Fifty-something politicians should have long outgrown this stage. Seemingly some haven't. I guess that this is all part of the scourge of the media coupled with democracy. The lowest common cultural denominator will prevail. Thanks to these forces we now have politicians who know the name of the latest signings for Chelsea and the names of the members of the nation's current favourite girlband and yet have little knowledge of fine art, good literature, refined music and, far more troubling, their nation's history.
There are some Stanley Hauerwas talks available here. I have not listened to them properly yet. The little I did listen to gave me much both to strongly agree and disagree with!
Dunces, Gourmands & PetticoatsThe history of the use of different words has always fascinated me. I have enjoyed reading this book lately. It lists 1300 words whose meaning have changed over the years. A carol was originally a ring dance. The word seminary started out as a word for a seed bed. In the thirteenth century a boy was usually referred to as a 'knave girl'! Minion used to mean 'darling'. In Old English with meant 'against'. The word husband is, in a sense, literally derived from 'housebound' and was primarily used to refer to a man's domestic position and obligation, rather than to his marital status. And every feminist arguing for inclusive language should read the entry for man... It is interesting to see the words that have developed around the church. The word lewd was originally used to mean 'lay' or 'not clerical'. The word minister used to be far more associated with servanthood and subordination (!) than it is now. The book traces the development of the word atone from 'reconcile' to 'appease' to 'expiate'. The word symbol was first used in English to refer to the Apostles' Creed. Coming from Greek (symbolon - 'token' or 'mark of identity'), through Latin (symballein - 'to throw together' or 'compare'), the concept was that 'of verifying one half of an identity token by comparing it with the other half.'

Thursday, October 23, 2003

I have been waiting for this for quite a while.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Life is a fragile thing. In a real sense mine can be said to have arisen from a feat of eisegesis. My grandparents on my mother's side were both missionaries in Nigeria in the 1950s. They both went over single. My grandma was a sworn spinster. She had her life verse, and it was Isaiah 54:5a:—
For your Maker is your husband...
Consequently, she determined never to marry. My grandfather, on the other hand, after arriving in Nigeria, read a book on raising a Christian family. He was struck by this book and was convinced that he should raise a godly family. The only problem was finding a wife. This was far from easy out on the mission-field, his options were narrow. He had three criteria for the one he was to marry, only two of which I know. The first was that she would be happy without an engagement ring. The second was that she should be the same age. My grandparents met at a meal over which the conversation came to the subject of marriage. My grandma said that she would never consider having an engagement ring were she to marry. My grandfather took a mental note, and later asked her about the possibility of marriage. My grandma dismissed the notion. Her verse was Isaiah 54:5a and she saw no reason to change it. That evening she returned home and opened her Bible. The first verse her eyes came upon was John 15:12:—
This is My commandment, that you love one another...
They married shortly afterwards. Two of their children went on to be missionaries. Both of my godly grandparents have since died. However, whenever I think about such stories it gives me pause to wonder at the marvellous providences of God upon which our existence hangs!

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Downloadable audio sermons (mp3) on the Psalms have just been posted on the Christ Church website (mp3 option on the left-hand bar).

Monday, October 20, 2003

A good place to keep up with developments in Anglicanism.
N.T. Wright discusses the current situation in the Anglican communion.

Useful Links 

Articles and Conference Notes Christ Church Conferences Center of Theological Inquiry Latimer Fellowship Westminster Abbey (including some by N.T. Wright—click the options on the side bar) N.T. Wright Sermon on Reading Mark's Gospel (Text and Audio) Saturday Forum (particularly dealing with the issue of Scripture) (Audio Only) Study on Truth Claims (with Wright as a Guest) (Audio) Lecture on Evil (Audio and Video!) Interview with Wright on Worship (Document) Teleconference on Jesus at 2000 (Document) Two clips from Romans talks available to download (Audio) Ben Witherington Audio Lectures Richard Hays Ecclesiology and Ethics in 1 Corinthians (Document) Ethics in the Light of the Resurrection (Audio and Video!) Salvation by Trust? Reading the Bible Faithfully (Document) Catholicism More Catholic talks than you ever need listen to! (includes the Gordon Stein / Greg Bahnsen debate—well worth a listen)

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Unfortunately, Peter Leithart does not have a comment option on his blog. There are a few points that he has raised over the last few days that would provide great fuel for further thought. The point that he makes about the difference between audio-based and visual-based cultures is one I have often thought about. Leithart writes:—
As Jim Jordan has often pointed out, visual and iconic civilizations tend to be static (and spatialized), since the visual does not call or compel or confront. Perhaps also iconic cultures tends to be tragic and create myths of degeneracy. Audio-based cultures are dynamic and progressive. Something here, maybe.
Amusing Ourselves to DeathThis ties in with a number of ideas that different thinkers have brought forward. I am reminded of Neil Postman's thoughts on the subject. The media that we use portray the world in different ways. Consequently, no medium is neutral. A word-based culture presents the world as an idea to be understood. An image-based culture presents the world as an image to be recognized. You can't argue with an image. Nevin also recognized this. DiPuccio writes:—

"For it is the word of God divinely joined to the elements which makes the sacrament, according to the ancient Christian fathers." In their view, the procession of the word was a "continuous going forth of life from the Lord." When it was joined to the sacraments, it became their "living soul." In this respect, Nevin considered the word to have preeminence over the sacraments.

... He viewed language as the icon, the actual medium, through which we apprehend the Divine numen or life. ... "Language ... is thought itself corporealized and made external, and it must be penetrated of course with the same organic life in all its parts."


But even more powerful than the word written is the word preached. It is a fuller incarnation of the life of Christ in the world. Words come from living beings and so embody the life from which they emanate. ... The spoken word, according to Nevin, is more efficacious than the written, because the ear is a more inward sense than the eye. Sound reveals the inner constitution of things...

"The preaching of the Word," in Nevin's view, "implies the actual presence of the life which it represents. ... It embosoms the mind of the soul from which it proceeds." There is a need, then, to embody the word in living preachers in order to be effective. Christianity, after all, was first "exhibited in living men" before it was inscripturated. However, this can take place only within the context of the church which is the living organ of the word.

Of course, there are many points that can arise from this. I am reminded of Abraham Heschel's description of a prophet:— The Prophets

Authentic utterance derives from a moment of identification of a person and a word; its significance depends upon the urgency and magnitude of its theme. The prophet's theme is, first of all, the very life of a whole people, and his identification lasts more than a moment. He is one not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow. This is the secret of the prophet's style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says and in what is going to happen to what he says. It is an involvement that echoes on. What is more, both theme and identification are seen in three dimensions. Not only the prophet and the people, but God Himself is involved in what the words convey.

Prophetic utterance is rarely cryptic, suspended between God and man; it is urging, alarming, forcing onward, as if the words gushed forth from the heart of God, seeking entrance to the heart and mind of man, carrying a summons as well as an involvement. Grandeur, not dignity, is important. The language is luminous and explosive, firm and contingent, harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions.

The prophet seldom tells a story, but casts events. He rarely sings, but castigates. He does more than translate reality into a poetic key: he is a preacher whose purpose is not self-expression or "the purgation of emotions," but communication. His images must not shine, they must burn.

I am sure that we have all had the experience of hearing 'prophetic' preaching—preaching that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end and sends a shiver down your spine. In the prophet the message and the messenger coalesce. It is impossible to merely have a response of 'recognition' to the prophet's message. The prophet's message actively engages and confronts the hearer. I am concerned that, in our wish to reach more people in the world, we do not abandon the most powerful medium of communication the world knows—the Word preached by those who embody its life. Television and the image may have their place, but the power of the Word preached puts them all to shame. This fact should also challenge anyone who thinks that the Word can be abstracted from the church. There are many who seek to cater for the passivity of our culture by bringing their message solely in terms of images. An image, however, can never confront the viewer in the same way as the Word preached does the hearer. A society built around the image is almost invariably idolatrous and static; a society built around the Word is enlivened by the God who communicates Himself in the Word and is dynamic and progressive. Leithart goes on to make some valuable comments on the subject of Christ's active and passive obedience. In Arminius' theology the emphasis upon 'obedience unto death' was lost. The death is the climactic aspect of Christ's obedience, but it is not the only aspect. I have found some of Emil Brunner's thoughts on this subject to be of value (although there are some areas in which I would strongly differ). Brunner attacks the under-emphasis upon the Incarnation as reconciliation and draws attention to the older patristic literature. He claims that the Incarnation and the Cross ‘form an indissoluble unity.’ ‘The movement in which all consists is one and the same; all is directed towards spanning the gulf of separation.’ Consequently, the Person of Jesus Christ is the essence of the gospel and lies at the heart of the meaning of the atonement. For Brunner the whole of Christ’s life must be conceived from the point of view of obedience in suffering. This is what makes the death vicarious. It is not ‘an objective impersonal substitutionary transaction.’ The personal nature of the atonement must be stressed. ‘In this process the Mediator is acting vicariously both for man and for God.’ Brunner challenges people who question: ‘Did Jesus really come only in order to die?’ He argues that the death of Christ (his passive obedience) should never be separated from the moral testing in His life (His active obedience). The Passion of Christ begins with His self-emptying. Our focus should not rest on one element (the suffering of the Man Jesus) to the exclusion of the whole picture (the self-emptying of the Son of God). Christ’s obedience to the point of death must be understood in terms of His whole Person and work as the God-Man, not merely as His historical ‘active obedience’. Tying Leithart's two points together, it is interesting to see how iconography has generally given us a skewed perception of the work of Christ. The focus of iconography is upon the passive Babe in Mary's arms, or upon the 'powerless' Christ hanging on the cross. However, in the Word preached we hear the living voice of the risen Lord Himself (Romans 10:14; Ephesians 2:17). Idols are the tools by which man seeks to control the gods. Mariology can often develop from the idea of a mother's influence over her child. Iconography reinforces this—the Pieta and pictures of the Madonna and her child. Iconography can soon fall into idolatry (though they are not the same thing in my opinion). In turn idolatrous iconography can lead to a particular form of culture. This culture is passive and is past-orientated. In contrast, the Word is that by which Christ controls His church. Christ indwells us by His Word and He governs us by His Word. His Word drives us forward and animates every aspect of our lives. "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly..."

Friday, October 17, 2003

I have just moved to using sensus plenior for my comments. Enjoy!

Notes on Election V 

To clarify what I am, and what I am not, saying I would like to take one post in which to briefly express where I am coming from on this issue. I have found, in personal correspondence, that although some people have understood my point, others think that I am denying important truths of the Reformed faith. For this reason I think that it would be helpful for me to once again articulate where I am coming to this issue from. In my second post I asked for my reader's patience as my thought is in the process of reformation on this issue. As I have thought through the subject I would change certain of the wording of earlier posts. However, I would not change anything of substance. It should be remembered that not all of my points are criticisms of the general Reformed doctrine of election (GRDE). Many of the points that I am making are maintained by those who hold to the GRDE. For example, I know of no theologian teaching the GRDE who believes in fatalism. However, I know of some who come dangerously close to a hard determinist position (e.g. Gordon Clark). What I am primarily seeking to do in my critique of the language of the comprehensive eternal decree is to challenge particular ways of looking at it. I would reject the terminology. However, my reasons for doing so are complicated. Under certain circumstances the terminology of a 'comprehensive eternal decree' could be of use. The concept is not wrong per se. However, the amount of misunderstanding that it can give rise to causes me to question its use. Another reason why I have rejected the terminology is that I believe that the Bible provides us with a way of looking at the truth of a comprehensive eternal decree whilst avoiding some of the pitfalls that can result when we temporalize eternity. I believe that the Bible presents us with the categories of God's final purpose (which does not stipulate every historical detail) and God's comprehensive and exhaustive sovereignty in history (which conforms every historical detail to the more general purpose). Some might argue that there is no substantial difference between this and a comprehensive eternal decree. There are important differences, however. I trust that these will become more clear when I apply this understanding to the subject of election. The heart of the problem with speaking about a comprehensive eternal decree is that we can get mixed up when we try to relate this decree to history. Although history is the outworking of the decree, it is unhelpful to think of history as temporally subsequent to the decree. I am arguing that if we use a teleological model to help us to understand the decree we can avoid many potential dangers and can make history all the more meaningful. At the moment my posts are not explicitly addressing the GRDE. I am laying a foundation for my critique of the GRDE in future posts. Just because I criticize a particular position (or a particular misunderstanding of a position), it does not follow that I believe that many (or any) proponents of the GRDE hold it. The analogy of an author writing a book has been suggested by some (e.g. John Frame and Norman Shepherd) as a way in which to understand dual causality (God's causing an event and us causing an event). I think that this analogy is helpful (although all analogies are limited). I suggest that we pay close attention to the manner in which a writer writes a book as a more viable pattern for understanding God's decree. The writer is completely sovereign over the book. As no stage can the book dictate the next page to the writer. However, the writer does not necessarily plan the book in order in which the events will occur (or even in the reverse order). He may have a very clear idea of how the story will finish before he determines the exact personality development of the characters. He may have determined the personality of the main protagonist before he has determined exactly how the story is to end. Teleological determination does not follow a linear historical pattern. A purpose with the teleological order 1,2,3,4,5,6 may be historically enacted as 4,3,5,2,6,1. I am suggesting that God's purpose follows this sort of pattern. Of course, many purposes can meet in one event. Also the first purpose may be made more specific by the fifth purpose in the teleological order. This can happen as an author writes a novel. However, one of the main things that I am trying to maintain is that the beginning of the historical sequence does not presuppose that all of the future elements of the historical sequence are determined, i.e. if '4' starts the historical sequence '5' and '6' are in some sense yet to be determined. I am arguing that if we view history this way we will understand God's working in history in a more dynamic way. God truly 'responds' to us — in much the same way as an author can 'respond' to his characters. The characters, under the control of the writer, can exert a determinative effect upon the conclusion of the story. This is certainly not autonomous freedom, but it does constitute a level of freedom that many seemingly undermine. If we believe that the future is already completely written we feel powerless in the face of it. However, if we realize that, in the hands of the Great Author, we can have an effect on it (because of the difference between teleological and historical order) we will avoid fatalism in our approach. Some might argue that I am neglecting the fact that we are in the outworking of the decree and not in the decree itself. However, even granting this I do not see a significant difference. Let us presume that an author has planned every sentence of his book before ever putting pen to paper. In this plan he still 'responds' to the characters. The characters are not blank slates throughout the development of the story. There are many who treat reprobation as if God determined, 'I want to reprobate some people, let us create some reprobate-able people'. The people are treated as blank slates to be written on. However, it is possible (if we follow a teleological order) to say that reprobation is a response to the sinfulness of man, rather than a decree to create men to be reprobated. Much of this can be seen in the infra-/supra- debates. Moving on, I would like to reaffirm certain truths before I end:—
  1. No event occurs without God having willed it.
  2. Man has no autonomous freedom.
  3. God's grace is sovereign. God does not save us because of anything He has foreseen in us.
  4. Although the future is to a degree 'open', when we understand the teleological order of events, this does not mean that it is a realm of chance. God determines how the future is to be 'closed', not chance or autonomous man.
  5. Openness of God theology is heretical.
  6. God's foreknowledge is a knowledge that determines what will come to pass. It does not just 'foresee' it.
In conclusion I would ask my reader to show Christian charity as they read through this material. Please take me at my word: I do not mean to overturn anything the Reformed church has held to be precious. If you want to maintain God's sovereignty, I am with you all the way. If you want to maintain the monergistic character of salvation, I'm with you there too. I merely want to restate the doctrine of election in such a way as to avoid certain of the misunderstandings that the GRDE leads to or contains. Sometimes you can try to make what you are not maintaining 110% clear and there will still be people who claim that you teach it. Take N.T. Wright and works'-salvation as a classic case. Wright can deny this position until he's blue in the face but still the majority of many Reformed denominations will accuse him of holding the position. Why is this the case? I have two answers. The more charitable one of the two (and probably the nearest to the truth) is that people have become so accustomed to thinking in set categories that they are unable to deal with a position that defies these categories. They presume that it must fit in one of (say) two categories and fail to recognize that it is a third way and really fits in neither of the two. I trust that people will be willing to give me the benefit of any doubt and try to understand exactly what I am claiming without jumping to conclusions.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

I am a huge Escher fan. Take a look at the official Escher website (particularly at the videos in the downloads section). At this site you can find an explanation of the logic behind Print Gallery (probably my favourite Escher work). Also for those Lego fans among us, take a look at the Escher models on this page. My thanks go to Matt for the link to the final site.

Notes on Election IV 

This is a continuation of my thoughts on the idea of the comprehensive eternal decree. Within this post I suggest an alternative model by which we can think of God's sovereignty. II. A meaningless soup of decrees I was reading Gordon Clark’s book, The Incarnation, last week and a particular statement in it really shocked me:—
Suppose we ask, “Could God have created a larger, or a smaller, number of mosquitoes than this world annoyingly contains?” The answer is, “No, he could not.” God is eternal and immutable. His eternal plan for the universe specifies a fixed total number of the pesky things.
Gordon Clark identifies the necessity of the number of pesky things in the universe with the necessity of God’s own nature. In my understanding this undermines the fact that God is free in his decree. Furthermore, if Clark were right, God’s will would be imposed upon history, rather than worked out in history. I do not see how this position differs significantly from fatalism or hard determinism. A further problem with this view is that no clear distinction between the importance of different decrees is given. The danger with many people’s conception of the comprehensive eternal decree is that it is static. God’s decree is effectively that all things should take place exactly as they take place. Every event becomes an end in itself, rather than being subordinated to one overarching purpose. History becomes a meaningless soup of predetermined events. I will later try to demonstrate how my understanding of election allows us to avoid these problems. III. The decree and sin As we have seen, one of the greatest dangers in the language of the comprehensive eternal decree is that the teleological structure of God’s decree tends to be ignored. The means that God uses to achieve His ends can become ends in themselves. God’s decree that one particular person would be saved and God’s decree that I would make x number of spelling mistakes in this post are not adequately distinguished from each other, as language of a comprehensive eternal decree lacks an explicit teleological framework. The danger is that we might view all of God’s decrees on the same level and fail to recognize that they form a unified whole, with certain decrees ‘within’ others and certain more important decrees taking precedence over less important ones. Some might argue that speaking of a ‘comprehensive eternal decree’ explicitly states the unity of the decree. I am willing to grant this. Reformed theologians have generally stressed this. However, the way that the doctrine has been used has often undermined this, as I will attempt to show. The language is still problematic and confusing for many other reasons. If understood correctly, the language is not without value. However, the almost universal misunderstandings to which it has given rise cause me to question whether we should retain it. An eternal comprehensive decree can cause problems in its relationship to the sin of individuals. God is not the author of sin. If we are to make sense of God’s decree that certain individuals should commit particular sins we must argue that the individuals are the authors of the particular sins. However, if we view this decree in isolation from prior decrees we end up with God writing on a blank slate. God is the author of the sin in a sense that He would not be had the decree that the person would sin presupposed a creating decree and other decrees that make the sinner more than an empty possibility. We must also maintain that the righteous God does not will the sin in the same sense as He wills works of righteousness. But this necessitates that the sin can be in no sense an end in itself for God. Again this forces us to distinguish sharply between the way that God decrees different things. Whilst almost every Reformed person would agree with all of this, I still see that there are problems with the way that people are inclined to formulate the doctrine. IV. The order of the decrees Certain decrees logically follow after other decrees. The decrees are ‘teleologically’ ordered, not ‘temporally’ ordered or ‘sequentially’ ordered. God’s decree is eternal and so we cannot speak of a ‘temporal’ order to it. By saying that the decrees are not ‘sequentially’ ordered, I mean that God does not order the decrees in terms of the sequential ordering of events of their outworking (either from the final event to the first event of the sequence or the other way around). By saying that the decrees are ‘teleologically’ ordered I mean that God’s decree is ordered in terms of ends and means. Below this final end, there are further subservient ends and so on, ad infinitum. The final end provides the overarching context in which the subordinate ends are arranged. These subordinate ends do not have to bear any relationship to the order in which they are enacted in history, but they do help us to understand history. As God’s decree is a ‘plan’ or ‘purpose’ we must use such a system if we are to understand it rightly. Plans can work in many different ways. Suppose that you are a potter. You might decide that you want to create a certain piece of pottery. In your mind’s eye you know exactly what you want this piece of pottery to look like, down to the finest detail. With this purpose in mind you set down to choosing the material and the tools which you will use to create this piece of pottery. The choice of the tools and material is subordinate to your final purpose, which is very specific. You can choose any material and tools that you want, so long as they can be worked to form the desired pottery. However, it can work another way. Again suppose that you are a potter. This time you have another purpose. You look around your workshop and you see some very poor quality material. You pick up some broken tools. You determine to demonstrate your skill by crafting this low grade material into the most beautiful of vessels, using only broken tools. Whilst, in the first example, the final vessel took priority over the material and tools within the teleological structure of the plan, in the second example this order is reversed. Both of these plans will be worked out in a sequence of events as the materials and tools are gathered together, and then as the material is worked into the final vessel by means of the tools. To the person who does not know the mind of the potter these two sequences may not appear significantly different. However, to the person who knows the mind of the potter there are very important differences. In the first case, the potter is primarily thinking backwards from the final highly specific plan to the materials and tools that he will need. In the second case, the potter is primarily thinking forwards from the highly specific tools and materials chosen to a beautiful vessel. In the second case the materials chosen have teleological priority over the exact final form of the vessel. Although the creation of a beautiful vessel may be your ultimate purpose, the exact form that this vessel will take is a thing which is of less importance to the potter than the choice of the materials. In a teleological order different purposes are subordinated to other purposes. Again, we need to remember that this subordination is not in any way to be confused with the temporal sequence in which the plan will be enacted. Whilst the primary or ultimate purpose is only fully realized in the last element within the temporal sequence in which the plan is enacted, the primary purpose should not in principle be identified with the last element of the temporal sequence. The last element may be only one among many possible ways of fulfilling the primary purpose. Of course, the ultimate purpose may be identical with the last element. In the first example of the potter, this sort of scenario existed—the primary purpose was very specific and the first elements of the temporal sequence were unspecified. However, in the second example, the primary purpose (to form a beautiful vessel) was vague and the first elements of the temporal sequence was very specific. I think that an understanding of this sort of teleological structure can help us to understand God’s decree. Let us look at the example of the potter again. This time let us presume that the potter is omnipotent and all-determining. We will try to reassess the first example in the light of this hypothetical potter. The potter has a very specific plan for the final piece of pottery. However, as he is omnipotent and all-determining, he could just will this piece of pottery into existence. He is not in any way constrained by the limitations of means because he can will means perfectly suited for the task into existence. Indeed, he does not even need any means. The only thing that he is limited by is the specific form of the final piece of pottery he has purposed. Let us now look at the second potter example with our hypothetical potter. The potter has a specific purpose. However, this specific purpose relates primarily to the material and tools that he has decided to use (rather than the final form of the piece of pottery). The potter determines to use these means and to limit himself by their limitations. The final form of the pottery will be determined largely by the skill of the potter in his use of his poor materials. V. What does this all mean? There are different forms of determinism that people hold to. One form is natural determinism that holds that anyone who knew every fact in the universe at this moment could predict all that would follow—And the first Morning of Creation wrote / What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read. For others the future may determine the present. We are powerless in the face of destiny and have no way of avoiding it. I believe that the Bible teaches a form of determinism that differs significantly from both of these forms. The Bible teaches that everything is determined by God’s will. However, as I have tried to demonstrate, the way that a will determines things differs markedly from either of the two previously mentioned forms of determinism. In a will, things are determined by a teleological sequence, not by a causal sequence or by a sequence working from the future back into the present. In a teleological sequence and in its outworking, certain things are determined and certain other things are indeterminate depending on your vantage point from within the sequence. Returning to the first potter example, we can see that the final element in the sequence was determined before the first elements were determined. From the perspective of the final element, the first elements were not wholly determined. In the second potter example we see that the first elements in the sequence were determined before the last element was fully determined. From the perspective of the first elements, the final element was only partly determined. Let us take this back into our discussion of the comprehensive eternal decree. What I am arguing is as follows:—
  1. If we are to speak of God’s comprehensive eternal decree we must speak of it as teleological in structure.
  2. We have no warrant to presume that the first element of the teleological order of God’s decree is identical with the final element of the temporal sequence of the decree’s outworking.
  3. There is biblical warrant to say that the final event in the temporal outworking is merely a member of a set of events that satisfy the first element of the teleological order of God’s decree.
  4. In many cases the earlier elements in the temporal sequence have a higher priority in God’s decree than some of the later elements (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
History is the outworking of God’s eternal decree. We do not live in a Deist universe, God does not merely create the world and let it run autonomously. No, we have a God who is intimately involved with the universe. As we do not live in a closed system, or mechanical universe, we have to deny that the earlier determines the later. We are not natural determinists. The bonds of determination are teleological ones, not causal ones. The future does not determine the present, nor does the present determine the future. Both are personally determined by the free will of God. A purpose is teleologically structured and is not bound to follow the order of its temporal outworking. In a teleological sequence, determination can work from cause to effect, from effect to cause, or both ways simultaneously. From the perspective of a particular point within the teleological sequence, certain events are determined and certain other events are undetermined. What does this mean in practice? We are living in God’s universe. God’s universe is teleologically ordered (and consequently is meaningful). History is the outworking of God’s decree. From our vantage point within history certain events are contingent and certain are determined. There are some future events that really are contingent from our perspective and not just apparently so. From our perspective, within the outworking of God’s decree, the future is partly open and partly determined. Of course, as we are not God we do not know how open the future is. This openness of the future does not mean that it is unknown to God, or that it is undetermined by Him. Every event in history occurs by the will of God. However, the will of God with respect to certain events is partly undetermined from the perspective of prior events in the teleological order. The heart of the problem, in my opinion, can be seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s expression of this doctrine:—
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…
The problem with this statement is that it expresses God’s comprehensive eternal decree as an action of the past. This is our big problem. How do we express our relationship to eternity? I do not deny a comprehensive eternal decree. However, I do not temporally qualify this eternal decree. If you said that a comprehensive eternal decree exists in the present, I would disagree. It may take a while to understand exactly what I am trying to get at here, because I am rather poor at expressing myself. History is the outworking of God’s eternal decree. However, God’s decree is not itself an historical event. We cannot relate to God’s comprehensive eternal decree as it is in itself because we are temporal creatures. We cannot properly speak of God’s comprehensive decree as past, present or future. Nonetheless, we can relate to God’s decree as it is being worked out in history. I have already argued that there is a teleological structure to God’s comprehensive eternal decree. This teleological structure means that there are ‘decrees within decrees’ and these decrees are not bound to follow a temporal sequence, even a reverse temporal sequence (think about the way that an author plans a novel). By speaking of the decree of God as a past event from our perspective we have fallen into the trap of temporalizing an eternal decree. As a result we have made the future wholly determinative upon the present. This is the problem that many people, myself included, have with the general manner of speaking about a comprehensive eternal decree. As a teleological sequence can work both forwards and backwards in a temporal sequence we should learn to look at the future as partly open and yet to be determined by God’s free sovereignty exercised in history. Although everything is known and determined by God in eternity, as we learn to see history as the outworking of God’s eternal decree, we will be able to say that God makes decisions within history. One of the most dissatisfying results of viewing everything as the result of a decree that has already occurred from our perspective is that God’s sovereignty in history is downplayed, as is His sovereign grace. God never truly responds to His creation; He only appears to respond. This problem is seen in Calvinistic discussions of such subjects as prayer. It is often argued that God has ordained prayer as a means to the end of blessing His people. The difficulty with this is that the teleological necessity is presumed by many to flow wholly backwards in time. This leads to the mentality: ‘If God wants to bless us, He will make us pray’ rather than ‘Let us pray so that God may bless us’. God is certainly sovereign in both cases. However, the manner in which this sovereignty is exercised is very different. I believe that we should move beyond talking about a comprehensive eternal decree as it is so easily misunderstood. In its place I suggest that we reemphasize God’s providential dealings in history working towards His ultimate purpose in Christ. This purpose itself is not comprehensive, in the sense that it does not specifically stipulate every aspect of its fulfilment. However, God’s sovereignty in history is comprehensive in working all things towards this end. We must then work because God uses us as instruments to achieve His purpose. If we focus upon the historical providence of God in this sense we will be able to follow the outworking of salvation history more easily. Before the coming of Christ, the devil was the ruler of this world in a sense that he is not now. I am concerned that Calvinists have tended to downplay this by the way in which they have understood the eternal decree of God. God is sovereign today to a degree that He was not 2000 years ago. I propose that my model of the decree provides a way for us to begin to take this seriously. God-willing I will continue this critique at a later date.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Mild-mannered Peter Roberts

My 13 year-old brother, Peter, has started his own blog. Actually he has started another one too. Mind you, I don't expect to read anything of significance on them!

Notes on Election III 

In my previous post on the subject of election I promised to address some of the questions that I might have raised regarding the comprehensive nature of God’s eternal decree. This is what I now intend to do. Sorry for the delay. Looking back over my previous post, I am afraid that I might have expressed myself badly in a number of places. Whilst my thought has not changed substantially on the subject, my language needs to be clearer. I apologize for any confusion that may have arisen from this. My thoughts on this subject are necessarily limited. They are intended to be suggestive, not definitive. I am only at the beginning of my theological thinking and am sure that I would be far better qualified to address this subject after having engaged in study for 50 years more. I am no philosopher (by any stretch of the imagination!) and this subject has led me to touch certain areas in which I would prefer not to manifest my gross ignorance. Nevertheless, all of this being said, I aspire to read my Bible as a simple Christian and express its truths as a simple Christian. As I believe that the Bible addresses simple people such as me, I believe that simple people can understand the core of what the Bible wants us to know on the subject of the eternal decree and its relationship to history (if not all of its implications). The more that I come in contact with the general approach that Reformed theologians take to the subject, the more I am struck by its tendency to leave me with a very different impression than the biblical text does. General Reformed theology appears to lack harmony with the spirit of the text, even if it appeals to the letter in its defence. At this stage I must state that my problem is more with a popular way of viewing the doctrine of the comprehensive eternal decree, and less with the doctrine per se. For this reason I want to suggest other ways of viewing the truths that this doctrine is designed to protect so that the misunderstandings that can so easily arise from it can be sidestepped. To begin with, I would like to re-establish the points on which I find myself in agreement with the Reformed tradition. Firstly, I believe that God is sovereign over everything. I do not believe in any autonomous realm. The idea that ‘chance’ could have any reality is the greatest threat to the biblical doctrine of God. Secondly, and more specifically, I do not believe that man has a ‘free’ will if what is meant by this is an ‘autonomous’ will. Thirdly, I do not believe that my salvation can be attributed to anything apart from God’s sovereign grace. What assurance could I have if I did? Fourthly, God’s sovereignty should not be seen as a terror as God’s sovereignty is personal, not capricious. God’s universal and comprehensive sovereignty is a comfort to the Christian. Fifthly, the freedom of man is not opposed to the sovereignty of God. Man is truly free because God is truly sovereign. I believe that compatibilism is the biblical way to describe the relationship between God’s will and man’s will. They do not operate on the same plane; God is the Creator and man is the creature. If man was surrounded by chance none of his decisions would have reliable consequences. God, by securing the process of cause and effect, grants man freedom that he would not enjoy in an Arminian universe. Sixthly, God has exhaustive foreknowledge. Open theism is a dangerous heresy. I will now move on to my critique. It will be noticed that many of my criticisms are directed at misunderstandings or misuses of the language of the comprehensive eternal decree and not so much at the idea itself (although I will criticize it as well). However, I believe that these misuses and misunderstandings are so widespread as to merit a re-examination of our language. I. A Tabula Rasa decree A common understanding of the comprehensive eternal decree results in man being treated as a tabula rasa. By saying, ‘God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass’ (WCF III.1) we can leave ourselves wide open to a particular misunderstanding (admittedly, the Westminster Confession goes on qualify this statement in important ways). The crucial problem with the statement above is that it fails to make a distinction between the manner in which God decrees particular events. When God decreed that Adam should fall, was His decree that Adam as a man created in the image of God living within the Garden of Eden, with Eve as his wife, would fall? Or was the decree that Adam as an abstract potential man would fall? I hope that people see the difference. This discussion is closely related to traditional discussions about infra- and supra-lapsarianism. I hope to offer some suggestions regarding ways to move beyond these debates later on. What I would maintain is that there are decrees within decrees. When God decreed Adam’s fall He was not writing something on a blank slate. No. When God decreed Adam’s fall He was decreeing something with regard to a real person, with a real nature, real hopes, real desires, etc. As the Westminster Confession rightly points out, no violence was offered by God to the will of Adam or to his liberty or to the contingency of secondary causes. God had already established the boundaries within which the decree of the fall would have to operate by His decree of creation. For many people like me, the way in which Reformed theologians are often inclined to express the doctrine of the comprehensive eternal decree leaves us with an impression of fatalism and of the futility of history. History is a fait accompli in the eternal decree of God and it is meaningless for us to do anything. My solution is to reject the language of the comprehensive eternal decree. I would like to explain why I think that this rejection is justified. God the Father from all eternity unchangeably ordained that He would glorify His Son. This determination has, as its necessity, the very Trinitarian being of God Himself. To this end He determined (amongst all of the possible ways He could have done it) to do it through the creation of the world and men. This determination does not have the necessity that the first decree possesses (i.e. the necessity of God’s own being) but is a free determination of the will of God. Every decree following the creating decree (and arguably even that) is in a real sense not an ‘eternal’ decree. When God decreed to save me, this decree was situated within the constraints of time and space that had been established by the creating decree. It was certainly not an ‘eternal’ decree in the full sense. The context of the decree was temporal creation, not eternity. For this reason I suggest that we abandon the language of a ‘comprehensive eternal decree’ as unhelpful and seek to put something else in its place. I will continue this critique, Lord-willing, in following posts.

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