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.


jim thompson said...

first, have you read that book on the hermeneutical spiral by Grant Osborne? I've heard its really good. second, whoever says that justification by faith is the "core" of the gospel [hinging on whatever the heck "core" means], is very likely being drug around by some doctrinal statement written over a few centuries ago and not by the text of the NT. i love most of the ol westminster and the 1689 london confession, but they were good scripts for then. i like what Brueggemann calls our Western script. it stings a bit, but resonates b/c its true. It means, though, that our doing theology today must have an acute awareness of and a possible engagement in technology, therapy, etc - since these are not innately immoral things.

or not? what u think?

Paul-David Young said...

I suppose the obvious question is how do other cultures interpret and understand justification?

I too have been wrestling with some of these texts lately. Why does everything in the bible have to point to or come back to Romans 1:17? Most of this debate hinges on what Luther said. Paulling touched on it a while ago but what did Calvin really think about all of this?

Christina Ottis said...

The obsession with our (Westerners) own salvation has become quite deceptive. The Psalmist writes, "restore to me the joy of YOUR salvation;" nevertheless, we often focus on the joy of feeling our own goodness. I recently found myself piously pursuing my sanctification, only to realize that what I was pursuing was not to glorify God, but to look "good" to others and feel less badly about myself. Yet I disguised it in confession and accountability. I have been reading a book by Ajith Fernando. I value the perspective of a non-Westerner that has ministered with a non-Western gospel. He stresses the fact that nothing Christ ever did was without sacrifice, beginning with his incarnation. True obedience demands sacrifice. This fact makes it a lot more difficult to pursue my own glory. I think it's quite possible that a sacrificial nature could be telling fruit, regardless of the culture or the culture's "core" doctrine.