Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who’s Asking the Questions? Ethnotheology and Justification

At least one of the powerful ways culture shapes theology is its prerogative to ask questions. In doing so societies around the world are building scripts to live by, each nuanced with particularities of resources, religious traditions, education, etc. Walter Brueggemann calls our Western script, “technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism” spread on the “liturgies of television” promising safety and happiness. This has had a tremendous affect on the way we do theology. The questions that remain for an incredibly wealthy, oppressive, safe society are relegated to the non-tangible, spiritual realm. The core of our gospel (and I think ‘core’ is desperately dangerous language, deciding what’s in and what’s expendable) is justification by faith – how I get to heaven. There are at least two pressing problems with this.

First, I submit that what appears to be a pious preoccupation with God’s justification on our behalf is dangerously close to atrophying the larger narrative. God, eternally existing apart from the world has created, sustained, and filled it with image-bearers to reflect his glory. Upon our rebellion he has enacted a recreation replete with a new humanity, heavens, and earth. To reduce the focal point of our worship and the springboard of our action to our personal salvation is to swallow the gnat of John 3:16 and strain out the camel of Colossians 1:15ff. Of course our salvation tunes our hearts to praise but if we bind it to the lyrics of Indelible Grace, our view of God will surely diminish not expand.

Second, our banner of salvation-turned-hermeneutic jeopardizes our reading of the text – as if Jesus’ exposition of Moses and the Prophets had less to say about himself than about how we might renounce works and embrace life. Matthew’s gospel provides a tremendously uncomfortable example. Our modern gospel has trouble identifying the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of God – they do it all the time – unless we begin to take Jesus’ pre-resurrection, cryptic gospel talk at face value. In case his readers missed Matthew’s explicit claims to Jesus’ kingship, Jesus fills in the gaps by talking about entrance into the kingdom exclusively in terms of obedience (5:13, 20, 30; 6:14, 24; 7:13-14, 19, 23, 24-27; 8:18ff; 10:26-42; 12:33-37, 50, etc.). His parables of judgment do not divide believing/unbelieving but righteous/wicked or hearing-with-fruit/hearing. Interestingly, faith is used almost exclusively to mean trust in Jesus’ ability to act in the present, physical reality. So is Jesus saying we’re saved by works not by faith? That’s not the question he’s answering. What he does seem to be saying (unless his teaching was one big set-up for the apostle Paul to knock his notions of obedience out of the park) is that salvation and doing the will of God is inseparable; that Jesus is King and his rule extends to every aspect of our lives.

I am absolutely not doubting or belittling the doctrine of justification by faith. Neither am I appealing for an end of cultural questioning, as if there are supracultural questions that can replace our pesky cultural ones for all peoples to ask. I am saying that the reading of the Word is truly a hermeneutical spiral in which we ask our context-laden questions and receive surprising answers that sharpen new questions of the text for a faithful rendition.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

can i have a side order of polygamy please?

Andy and I lived together for over four years - a couple in college and a couple in seminary. He has never been deeply theological or hyper-spiritual, but always wanting to please the Lord whether he's cutting a record or running his lawn business. He's one of my favorite people on the planet.

So, he calls me today and asks, in 100% seriousness and curiosity, if the Bible ever says we shouldn't have more than one wife? I responded and was satisfied with what the Spirit gave me to say. I was just wondering how you guys would wax biblical and pastoral in your answer to him? It was tougher to think through it than I thought. Insights, please.

[apologies if this is not heady enough]

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Subjection of the Mind (or "Why The Enlightenment and Feminism Have Haunted Us Since the Beginning" or "How to Screw Up Everything")

Genesis three comes as a disturbing plot twist in an otherwise flawless creation narrative. In Genesis one and two, things were just gaining momentum in God's new world. Everything was new and bright. Animals were receiving names and enjoying a delightfully non-darwinian existence, plants were producing oxygen and enjoying being eaten, and man and woman were just beginning the cultivation of God's garden. Everything was––pardon the expression–– "coming up roses." And then we find Eve reasoning with a snake.

Eve's discussion with the serpent is a telling one. It is fraught with subtle logical derailments that send the rest of history hurtling towards a damned future of wars, curses and imminent death. Within the dialogue we see man, represented by the woman, progress through three stages of thinking:
  1. The mind in subjection to God.
    Eve responds well to the serpent's initial temptation, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden you may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'" (Gen. 3:2-3) Eve knows what God has commanded, and she knows what she can and cannot do, but as Paul would later point out in Romans, if we are justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 3-4, esp. 4:3: read work as knowing the law; faith knowing the giver of the law), knowing the law is of little value if we do not subject ourselves entirely to the One giving it.

    (It is perhaps worth noting that Eve does not mention the first part of God's original command to Adam, "From any tree in the garden you may eat freely," [Gen. 2:16] Could it be that it is equally dangerous to forget what God has allowed us to do as it is to forget what He has told us not to do?)

  2. The mind suspicious of God.
    We infer this step based on Eve's response to the Serpent. In order for her to rebel, she had to believe something of the serpent's line of reasoning. The serpent tempts, "You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil," (Gen. 3:4) Satan's suggestion is that God has maliciously kept something from man that is necessary for God to maintain His edge. In other words, Satan implies that God witholds information for the sake of self-preservation rather than for our protection. Of course, this is preposterous when we consider that God was willing to sacrifice the most beloved parts of Himself in order to redeem an obstinate people. But Eve is only making her decision based on the letter of the law and not on the attributes of the Giver of the law. In doing this, she fails to honor both the letter and the Person.

  3. The mind at war with God.
    The woman percieves some truth in the snake's words and she begins to reason in her own mind. Notice that every reason that she uses to justify partaking of the tree is idiocentric, "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food [she thinks first with her appetite], and that it was a delight to the eyes [then with her aesthetic], and that the tree was desirable to make one wise [and finally with her ambition], she took from it and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her and he ate." (Gen. 3:6) The mistake here is not that Eve reasoned– God forbid that we ever think using our minds is a bad thing! The problem is that Eve intentionally neglected thinking in subjection and fellowship to God and her husband––who is certainly not without blame–– and so in every way God's created order is flipped on its head. God is called a liar, Satan is exalted, women are masculinized, and men are emasculated. Fortunately this apparent victory for Satan is superficial. God is still sovereign, even though His creation rebels against Him. His law is still objectively true, His redemption is sure (Gen. 3:15), and the apparent mountain that Satan has seated himself upon will be shown to be nothing more than a winding inferno with all the rivers of hell emptying on his head.
Even though God's character is vindicated (as if it needed vindication), we still live with the same temptation that Eve faced. Our minds are constantly bombarded with the same temptation that she was, that is, to reason in spite of–– instead of with and under–– our God. This was the great mistake of the enlightenment and all similar movements. Shaeffer was right that whenever man emancipates himself from his God, he finds himself very much alone.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Romans 2:6-10 and the Necessity of Good Works for Final Salvation

It is not hard to see why Rom. 2:6-10 creates huge problems for the Reformed. Interestingly though, it is a text that has often been ignored in the rough-and-tumble of theological debate. In the interest of looking for a kind of biblical coherence in our hermeneutic, it might be fun to take a few texts that have historically caused trouble, and see if a more dramatic reading of them could be helpful. It may be that none of us, or maybe just myself, have learned to do a dramatic reading of the text. That may be the case, but I think we can move forward nonetheless.

This text has been read about 6 or 7 different ways. Doug Moo has a very helpful summary of all of them in his commentary of Paul's letter to the Romans. Only 2 of those readings will concern us. One, the historic Reformed reading of the text (surprisingly not Calvin's himself) , and the reading I will take in which I have followed essentially Tom Schreiner, N.T. Wright, and Calvin (although Calvin does not spend quite as much time on this text as the other two, and leaves some loose ends untied). I will articulate briefly the first, and then defend my own. Historically, the reading that has come from our tradition has said that the promise in verse 7 of eternal life for those that seek, "glory and honor and immortality (Rom. 2:7)" is a legitimate, and real promise. The problem is, that sin has made it impossible for anyone to actually meet their side of the agreement. This is, so to speak, the way to "get saved" apart from Christ. The inverse is, that everyone who is selfish has, "wrath and fury" (Rom. 2:8), to look forward to. Of course, everyone is selfish, therefore, all who do not have Christ to absorb the punishment for their selfishness will have to absorb it themselves eternally. Paul is, then, setting up a hypothetical way of salvation for those who are apart from Christ that he will eventually tear down. This view takes into account Rom 3:9-20, which in the structure of the argument is quite close to our text, and is therefore crucial. Paul says, "no one does good, not even one (Rom. :12)... by the works of the law human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). The problem with this interpretation is that while it makes sense of some of the context, the text itself says nothing whatsoever about it being hypothetical. As was said before though, if this reading is not retained, it seems to be in conflict with the 3rd chapter of Romans. But, if Paul appears to be muddled, the reader has not read enough of Paul, who continually holds things together that at first glance appear to be internally inconsistent. The role of works in the life of a Christian, and the doctrine of justification by faith would be a prime example of that. "Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:21)(Schreiner Romans 115). The fact that Paul states that works will play a part in final judgment, in other places that cannot be written off as hypothetical, demonstrates that this text does not contradict the next chapter of Romans.

Now, the question still must be answered what exactly do these good works do? Or, what is the incentive for performing them? This is where I think N.T. Wright's discussion of the role of works for the first-century Jew is helpful, and is potentially similar to the way Paul would have viewed good works for the Christian. "The 'works of Torah' were not a legalists ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity, of belonging to the chosen people in the present, and hence the all-important signs, to oneself and one's neighbours, that one belonged to the company who would be vindicated when the covenant god acted to redeem his people. They were the present signs of future vindication" (Wright The New Testament and the People of God 238). This was, of course, the way that first-century Jews viewed obedience, not necessarily the way Christians viewed it. There does not have to be continuity between the two, but it is probable that there was. For the sake of brevity, we can all squabble about that later. Works then, in the context of final judgment, are the badges that demarcate believers. The process of final judgment will be more than an angelic secretary shuffling through the file-cabinets of the Lambs Book of Life to find a name. The Lambs Book of Life will be worn on the sleeve's of those that are in Christ. These works do not make someone in Christ, in the same way (to use a disturbing example) that the yellow star of David that was worn by Jews during WWII did not actually make them a Jew. It merely demarcated them for the gestapo, and in that sense was linked to their final judgment. In Romans 2 the man who seeks for "glory, and honor, and immortality", is still given eternal life. In verse 28 it is clear that this person is one who is circumcised, or the one who has a pure heart has it by the Spirit (Rom. 2:29). The good works that are done, in this life, will be done by Spirit-filled Christians, and will be profoundly monergistic. Left to their own devices they would be in the category of Rom. 3:11-18, with the Spirit, though, they fall in the category of Rom. 8:4. But, to say something like, "when you get to heaven don't even mention your work's, just mention Christ's", is simply un-Pauline. It would not be appropriate, or wise to stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and boastfully go on-and-on about all the widows and orphans you took care of, and I contend that imputed righteousness plays an ever-important role here, but I think it is clear that the alien-righteousness believers possess, contains visible qualities (cf. Phil. 3:7-11). To say that this is forsaking the gospel is an adventure in Sproulian point-missing.

In conclusion, how is this to be exposited dramatically? First, this is exactly how doctrine puts its walking shoes on. It is interesting to note that when Paul talks about doctrine that is unsound in 1 Tim. he doesn't mention Arminianism, or Sabellianism, or Gnosticism, but says that the law is laid down for, "the lawless, and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Tim. 1:9-11). Right doctrine's primary antecedent is right living, according to the gospel. Secondly, to retain Vanhoozer's theatrical metaphor, good works are the costumes that identify the protagonists in the Drama. Once again, the costumes do not make the protagonists the protagonists, the Director did that. But, he prepared the costumes beforehand that they might wear them. Thirdly, these "costumes" happen to do more than demarcate the heroes, although they do not do less. Good works are an integral part of advancing the Cause of the Director, and moving the Drama towards its comedic end. The pseudo-protagonist who shows up at the curtain call without his costume on has not played his part, and will be shown to be no protagonist at all.