(i’m taking a break for July and maybe August). so no blog writing, or as of lately, no pressure to write at least. have fun out there. maybe i’ll come back with some good thoughts. Steph and I have a lot of big decisions and changes this month so keep us in your prayers.
Just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I don’t really feel up to writing a full/exhaustive review or thoughts from it. So here’s a few brief thoughts:
-As most know, Wright can write. His pen is sharp and quick, which is bad for his real opponents but less helpful during friendly sparring. One will not be bored or feel tedious at any point in this book.
-Wright lets his frustration get the better of him at times, comparing his opponents to pre-Copernican geocentrists and other bits of “Why can’t they be as brilliant as me?” pepper the book (though unfortunately more in the book’s beginning.) I’m more of a make-your-argument-THEN-take aim guy, and I feel Wright might have found more sympathy by going in peacefully and working the disagreements from there. You almost wonder why he isn’t as conciliatory in the beginning than one finds him in later portions. Smugness is never a virtue, and portions border on it. I’ll include here the few frustrating bits where he says things like “I didn’t say that, PAUL said that” as if people are disagreeing with Paul directly and not with Wright’s interpretation of Paul.
-Wright has a lot to teach the “Old Perspective” guys. His skills in synthesizing great canonical themes are a treasure to the church and provide some great insight. He and the NPP guys are right in continuing to throw the Jew/Gentile conflict background at us, especially in Romans and Galatians. His chapter on Galatians is excellent.
-Wright hates the medieval language of “merit” being introduced in the exegetical topic of “justification.” Rightly so. That was the Reformers playing on the Catholic’s home turf and having to invent some fancy passing schemes to go around the mud if you ask me. And yes, sometimes guys let that language slip in where it really doesn’t belong in the subject of imputation.
-Wright emphasizes the concept of union with Christ, which seems to be a huge topic for Paul, was ironically a pretty big topic for Calvin from what I’ve read of him, and which many common Evangelical traditions have pretty much ignored.
-At times, it seems like Wright bends over backwards to avoid using the language of imputation, even when describing his own views. His take on the pistos tou Christou issue is that of the subjective genitive (Faithfulness of Jesus Christ) as opposed to objective (faith in Jesus Christ), but that reading implies that Jesus’ faithfulness is imputed to us, it seems to me. I wrote in the margin several times after some of his sentences…”so X is credited/given/dealt/reckoned to us…kind of like it is imputed to us?”.
-Wright has some amazing cards in his hand. Sometimes he overplays them. (kind of like in RSG where he’s dealing with the Intertestamental literature and pretends like a mere belief in “heaven” but not “resurrection” wouldn’t have given people enough hope to be martyred. I agree that Resurrection of the body is the biblical teaching…but the other conclusion has been proven to be false by countless historical examples.) He’s good at slipping in unwarranted (but usually GREAT sounding) conclusions after making a good argument overall.
-The issue I most had questions about going in (after hearing some of the Reformed critiques of Wright, some better than others, which had to lead to some of that written frustration here) was that of how this “future justification” works with the present justification in his scheme. now maybe he saved all that for his forthcoming Paul book or he deals with it in the recently released “After you believe”(?-help from any readers of that?) Ironically, he barely discusses it in detail. He makes a brief mention of it at the end of Galatians (in Gal. 5, though “hope of righteousness” could mean either “hoping for [future] righteousness” (as he takes it) or “hope produced by righteousness”. He doesn’t discuss the options but kind of launches into a prelim of what he’ll do in Romans 8.), but even the mention of it in Romans is small. It has something to do with actually living out righteousness in the power of the Spirit, making sense of the “reward”-type texts of Scripture, and somehow assurance and “resurrection life” fits in. I came in confused and left confused at that point. At points his description sounds (ironically) very similar to Reformed guys like Piper (justified in Christ now, future judgment vindicates/justifies the life lived by the Spirit…), but apparently they disagree with him there and I simply hope he’s making a fuller case elsewhere for his view. Many of his objections in this sections go more towards the Keswick-type pietism than his Reformed critics.
-I would still take “righteousness” as going deeper than “covenant faithfulness.” It does include that, which is why it works very well as a definition at some points, but I think it goes beyond just God conforming to the norm of a covenant, but to the kind of God who makes good covenants in the first place. Expanding this takes righteousness back to creation and better answers the problems of Genesis 3-11. (Piper’s view of the term narrows off in a different direction.)
-Longest chapter on Romans. “Greatest document ever penned by a human being.” Didn’t leave out chapters 9-11. Did leave out 12-16, which explicitly highlights that theme of Jew/Gentile relationships as core to Paul’s motivations for writing the letter.
-Since the nature of review largely focuses on disagreements, I’ll add that I thought he brought out a lot of great stuff in many places in the text.
-No mention of the pastoral epistles. I know why, but disagree.
-In all, Wright asks a lot of good questions. I didn’t always agree with his answers, but those are good questions. The OPP and NPP concerns must both be dealt with, and Scripture (not tradition) is our only way forward. At times, both sides (even Wright, though he attempts a middle ground in many places) wrongly go for an either/or when a both/and conclusion is warranted.
I just finished reading through the history of Israel from creation to exile in the year-long Bible reading plan I’m doing. My heart warms every time I read the last few sentences of this massive historical train of books that begins in Genesis and ends in 2 Kings. OT Scholars have often called this the “Deuteronomic history” of Israel, precisely for the way in which the latter books especially view the actions and events in Israel’s history in light of the covenant blessings and curses promised by Moses back in Deuteronomy. A king is faithful to the Law; God blesses the nation. The kings and people are unfaithful; covenant curses come upon them. Of course, the bad kings, it seems, always outnumbered the good, the high places and idol worship remained more than they were removed, and the ultimate covenant curse of the Exile was brought first in devastating fashion to the 10 Northern tribes of Israel by Assyria and then later to the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
2 Kings 25 is a terrible chapter. The author recounts how the army of Judah is defeated, the walls are broken down, the kings’ palace and Solomon’s temple are burned, all the wonderful objects of worship (some going back to Israel’s glory days under Solomon) are melted down and/or carried off to Babylon like plastic rings from a Chuck E. Cheese evening. All is lost. Israel failed the covenant. The curses have come.
But it doesn’t end there.
“27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Evil-Merodach became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin from prison on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month. 28 He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.”
The glimmer of hope. This is that scene after the credits of the movie where it’s alluded to that the main character hasn’t really died, that hope remains still in the darkest hour, and that good is not finished. Of course, the main character isn’t Jehoiachin. It’s God. And he’s still working. He’s not done yet. The pattern of Genesis where God’s chosen people (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, the Israelites at the Exodus) stumble and trip over themselves into what appears to be accidental blessing is resumed here in these few verses. The failed king is pulled out of prison and banquets at the table of a Gentile king. The candle that was snuffed out by Assyria and Babylon and wicked kings re-ignites just before the curtain closes. Israel may have failed YHWH’s covenant, but YHWH hasn’t failed Israel. He’s not done yet.
from N.T. Wright’s Justification, which I’m currently working my way through:
“But the present debate about Paul and justification is taking place between people most of whom declare their allegiance to Scripture in general, and perhaps to Paul in particular, as the place where and the means by which the living God has spoken, and still speaks, with life-changing authority. This ought to mean, but does not always mean, that exegesis–close attention to the actual flow of the text, to the questions that it raises in itself and the answers it gives in and of itself–should remain the beginning and the end of the process. Systematize all you want in between–we all do it; there is noting wrong with it and much to be said for it, particularly when it involves careful comparing of different treatments of similar topics in different contexts. But start with exegesis, and remind yourself that the end in view is not a tidy system, sitting in hard covers on a shelf where one may look up “correct answers,” but the sermon or the shared pastoral reading, or the scriptural word to a Synod or other formal church gathering, or indeed the life of witness to the love of God, through all of which the church is built up and energized for mission, the Christian is challenged, transformed and nurtured in the faith, and the unbeliever is confronted with the shocking but joyful news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. That is letting Scripture be Scripture.”
from Life Together:
“Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence from me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ, the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”
Recently, in one of our Wednesday night Bible studies at church, one of our regularly attending high schoolers made a comment that I think illustrates something wrong with the way we do church/spirituality as American Christians. We were studying a passage of Scripture, and I always encourage the students to have a copy of the Bible (we have extras provided for guests and the forgetful) to help them follow along and to check if I’m making stuff up or not. Well, apparently this student had decided that they were done engaging with the group and had shut their Bible before proceeding to do their darnedest to disengage the people sitting next to them as well. One of our adult leaders asked this person to stop talking and encouraged them to pay attention to what the rest of the group was discussing, and the leader insinuated that it might be helpful for them to open their Bible back up since that was the focus of our discussion. Which leads to the quote that spawned this blog and its title:
“I only read the Bible by myself,” the student replied in a matter-of-fact tone. The student may have said “I only like to read the Bible by myself,” but Snopes.com has yet to inquire as to which was the original source of this quote. Either way, I think the same underlying problem comes screaming out.
We have individualized the Christian life to a soul-destroying level.
Ok, so that’s not exactly a shocker for those who read my blog. I doubt there’s many people who would outright disagree completely with that. There might be some caveats and clarifications, but I don’t think there’s a lot of pastors, teachers, authors, etc. out there blatantly saying, “All that matters is your personal walk with Jesus, you don’t need to be a part of other people’s lives or care about them or help/be helped by them, etc.” Especially not since those all important categories of giving and volunteering stem heavily from appeals for the betterment of people around us.
But it doesn’t take intentional sabotaging of the corporate dimensions of the Christian life to produce the narcissistic Christian culture we find in the West. Mere neglect will perform adequately in sabotage’s stead. For the sake of focus and brevity, let’s stick with this issue of Bible reading.
The student says, “I only read the Bible by myself” as an acceptable Christian attitude to Scripture. There’s a couple reasons one might say this: first, if you only read the Bible alone, then no one knows if you’re actually reading the Bible. So it’s a pretty much non-falsifiable statement that tries to give one positive spiritual reputation. But dealing with a hypocritical slant on this is beyond my goal in writing this.
The second reason, however, is more at the heart of our problem of individualistic thinking. “I only (like to) read the Bible by myself” attitude didn’t appear out of nowhere. The thinking behind this probably follows from year and year of being drilled the importance of “personal” Bible reading. Evangelicals love “personal” (by that we mean, “individual”) anything. “Personal quiet time”, “personal prayer life”, “personal identity”, “personal holiness”, and of course, the big kahuna of the “personal” phrases, a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Now, none of these things are necessarily wrong. We would be wrong to discount “personal” implications of the teaching of Jesus, the guy who challenged people to “hate” their families and pursue Him above all. You can’t simply follow Jesus in a “corporate” sense only. The problem isn’t that the “personal”/individual dimensions of the Christian life are fasle; the problem is that the personal is all that many pastors and teachers ever get to.
By neglecting the role of corporate dimensions of our life in Christ, all those “us” and “we” and “our” passages, or the plethora of “one another” commands, we’ve individualized the Christian life in a way that Jesus never meant for his followers to. Our individual Bible reading is preferred over corporate interaction with Scripture. Note how most evangelical churches have resigned Paul’s instructions of “give attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” to merely the Pastor’s reading of that days’ particular sermon text at some point. (I think we could learn something from the older liturgical traditions here who emphasize the public reading of several sections of Scripture together.) Paul says “public reading.” He doesn’t tell Timothy to have a really good quiet time, or even to tell the church to do so. (Granted, the lack of individual Bible ownership made public reading of Scripture even more vital.)
Emphasizing our individual reading of Scripture to our corporate experience of God’s Word reeks of pride. My “personal” reading is more beneficial to me. Why? Perhaps because I am better at picking texts to read than my church is, or I am better at reading the Word and figuring out its meanings without other people’s ideas and objections slowing me down. I’m not going to go full postmodern and say we need each other because everyone’s opinions about a particular interpretation of the text provide a valid perspective (teach 8-9 grade Sunday School sometime if you’ve bought into that; some ideas are clearly wrong, misinformed, and very unhelpful!), but we need each other precisely because all of our own opinions aren’t correct. As CS Lewis wrote arguing for the importance of reading old books, we all go wrong at some point, but in a group, we’re all unlikely to error in the same place. It provides a helpful humility for us as we read Scripture to do so corporately and provoke each other to love and good deeds, often ourselves being the ones in need of correction. That’s something you won’t get just having your “personal” Bible reading.
Even if you’re only reading the Bible for yourself, there is much of Scripture that emphasizes the corporate dimensions. Which means that if you continue your whole life reading the Bible only by yourself, you’re not reading it very well.