03 September 2019

A Few Passing Thoughts on "God and the Faithfulness of Paul"

I ordered the 2017 volume God and the Faithfulness of Paul--the title of which is a little too cute as a response to N. T. Wright's 2013 magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God--only so that I could read one essay, the one by Seyoon Kim critiquing Wright yet again on Wright's alleged anti-imperial polemic in Paul, which is relevant to a research project I'm working on. But I got sucked in as I began skimming a few of the other chapters. And reading Wright's response at the end of the book made me want to go see what the contributors had actually said. So I began reading the essays one by one.

What a fascinating book. The editors have done a good job bringing together a diverse collection of authors to engage with Wright. They deserve our thanks.

A few reflections, amid broad appreciation for this volume.

The Key Critique of Wright

It was striking to see a consistent refrain coming through from this very diverse group of contributors. The common thread of critique throughout the essays, amid much deep appreciation, was as follows:

Wright's brilliant and creative connecting of the dots, his shaping of the master-story of which Paul believed himself and his readers to be participants, refreshingly resists the staid categories within which the New Testament has been read for the past several generations (law/gospel, the objectivity of justification vs the subjectivity of the Spirit, covenant vs dispensational theology, etc) and rethinks Paul from the ground up; and yet the very creativity of Wright's schema of monotheism/election/eschatology, all reworked around Jesus as Messiah and the spirit (he doesn't like capitalizing the third Person of the Trinity), is itself at times imposed onto the text to fit neatly with Wright's broader reading of Paul.

In other words, his gift for seeing the forest makes one wonder if he is misreading some of the trees.

I find this critique accurate, time-tested, and confirming of my own reading of Wright over the years.

Why No Historical Theology?

One of the temptations and weaknesses of the New Testament guild is to neglect church history and historical theology. This is understandable; as Wright laments in his closing essay, one cannot possibly master even the contemporary literature on Paul, let alone what others over the centuries have said. Even to master the literature on a single Pauline letter is itself a full-time job--and of course, as soon as you feel on top of the secondary literature, a fresh wave of journal articles and monographs appears and the mastery instantly vanishes!

But it does not follow that just because one cannot cover all the contemporary perspective therefore one should say nothing about historical perspectives. In his 2009 justification book, Wright repeated aligned himself with Calvin as over against Luther. But the way he cast the two key reformers bent both of them out of shape, especially Luther. Why not have a chapter in the 2017 volume on Wright's reading of the reformers, or just of Calvin? Someone like Mike Allen or Mike Horton or Gerald Bray or Tony Lane could have provided a fascinating essay. The essay on a postmodern reading of Wright could easily have been dropped to make room for such a chapter.

Befitting the current academic climate, there's a chapter putting Wright in dialogue with Barth--but Wright doesn't engage with Barth in his books. He does engage with Calvin and others. And Barth's own historical hero was Calvin. Go to Calvin and see what he and the reformers would say of Wright's vision of Pauline theology. (This volume did just this.)

One way we can learn from Wright without letting him set all the terms in such discussions (putting us in danger of missing key questions that Paul probes but Wright doesn't) is to ask what thinkers 200 and 500 and 900 years ago were saying about Paul's letters.

As C. S. Lewis put it, there are two ways to get out of your own time and thus expose your generation's blind spots: (1) Get in a time machine and travel into the future and see what writers are saying about Paul; (2) Get in a time machine and travel into the past and do so. We can't do #1, but we can do #2, and we miss a great opportunity for fresh insight if we don't.

The Cappadocians and the Puritans and the Princeton School didn't have the Dead Sea Scrolls or SBL. But their insight into what Paul was saying often outstrips our own, sometimes in surprising, refreshing ways.

Why Ignore the Evangelicals?

Several of the contributors are pretty obscure, with some not even working in New Testament. In his closing response essay, Wright points this out more than once. While he appreciated the response from Gregory Sterling on the need to bolster Wright's reading of Paul through engagement with philosophy, Wright was rightly mystified by the essays of a few others who simply were not tracking with his argument (see Andrew McGowan's comments about Wright's use of "symbol" language as an example).

More broadly, I was surprised at how little evangelical scholarship was engaged, by which I mean the work of those who teach at confessional Protestant institutions and who take all 13 letters attributed to Paul as authentically Pauline. Some of the best Paul work is being done by evangelicals--Doug Moo, Greg Beale, Frank Thielman, Don Carson, Clint Arnold, Bob Yarbrough, and others. Tom Schreiner's contribution to Paul study was discussed in the opening essay, but that was about it.

Perhaps if Doug Moo's Pauline theology (in the big Zondervan series that Andreas Kostenberger is editing) had been available, Doug's work would have been more involved in the discussion--it would have been a fascinating exercise to put Moo and Wright in dialogue. But aside from the few pages putting Wright in interaction with Tom Schreiner, there is almost no interaction with evangelical scholarship. One reason that's striking to me is that Wright himself in more than one place has identified Doug Moo as among the most incisive of his critics--"a truly great Paul scholar" were Wright's words. So why not make him a major dialogue partner?

A Few of the More Interesting Chapters

Some of the essays were less useful, connected only glancingly with Wright's project. But a few are worth pointing out as particularly worth reading.

Benjamin Schliesser opened with an essay of impressive breadth as he placed Wright's Paul work among others. The discussion of Dunn vis-a-vis Wright was fascinating. As just mentioned, too bad there wasn't more engagement with evangelicals.

Seyoon Kim's essay built on John Barclay's strong critique of Wright's reading of Paul in which Rome looms large as a foil to Paul's gospel and the proclamation of Jesus (not Caesar) as Lord. Kim incisively shows why Wright's claim is overdone. It is not Rome and Caesar in themselves that are the threat to the church--it is Sin and Death and the Flesh that are the problems, problems which manifest themselves through Rome and in many other earthly constructs, but the problem is deeper than a particular imperial construct in itself.

Dunn's essay was a real chuckler. He's in the "scholars-who-have-nothing-left-to-prove-and-simply-say-what-they-think" bucket. Wright lamented in his closing essay Dunn's "schoolmasterish" tone, but I found Dunn's comments right on, with the exception of Dunn's continued skepticism toward the recent consensus building around an early high christology championed by Bauckham and Hurtado.

Sigurd Grindheim was masterful in treating Wright on election and showing that Israel's basic failure was not so much that they were not a light to the nations but, more deeply, that they did not trust and love the Lord above all.

The elderly Peter Stuhlmacher is always a joy to read, representing (with Martin Hengel) the best of German NT scholarship in my view, appreciating the New Perspective but retaining the deep and right anthropology that understands the perversity of fallen humanity and Paul's solution to it in the gospel as lying deeper than ethnic exclusivism and corporate inclusion, respectively.

Eckhard Schnabel's engagement with Wright's understanding of "mission" helps fill out and at points correct Wright's explications of conversion, evangelism, and the saving nature of the gospel. It is a firm, clear, and needed essay--though the objection to Wright calling Paul's travels "endless" and "restless," asserting that Paul's travels did come to an end and that surely Paul rested from time to time, was bizarre.

And then there's Wright's lengthy closing essay, filled with the usual elegant prose and gentlemanly appreciation of most of the essays, combined with annoyance at others caricaturing him (despite his own caricaturing of others) and, at times, magically melting away substantive disagreements with a wave of his monotheism-election-eschatology wand and Voila, all objections go poof!

In Closing . . .

Fascinating book. Interesting to see how others are understanding Wright, and good to keep benefiting from Wright himself, who is a gift to the church when read duly critically. But I hope collections of essays like this one don't reinforce the impression that NT scholarship doesn't need the insights of pre-Enlightenment readers of Paul.

And Doug, please get that Pauline theology in our hands quick as you can!

04 April 2019

Reflections on TGC19

What a rich time.

A few thoughts, offered of course with the inescapably partial view of reality that we are all operating out of, and therefore needing to be filled out and supplemented with the thoughts of others...

1. The Gospel Coalition has to be one of the most striking examples of the Lord's care for his church in our generation. When leaders are asked about the state of the church today, the immediate reaction is often hand-wringing and lament. But TGC represents a wave of blessing and health and vitality and spiritual hunger and theological fidelity and evangelism fostering that is a big reason for celebration.

2. It's a particular pleasure, for me, to be there with my Crossway colleagues. I am just so proud of them. They are both humble and professional, instead of one or the other. They are not only colleagues but friends. How awful to do ministry alone. And we operate out of a deep well of shared theology and vision and commitments that makes our work together not only meaningful but fun.

3. Books. Books, books, books. I love books, and apparently so do other Christians. The swelling book lines in between sessions is itself a sign of spiritual health. Apparently people want to read, to grow, to learn. The day people come to conferences to hear sizzling preaching but don't care to take home books will be a sad day, if it ever comes. It isn't here yet.

4. Really appreciated Matt Boswell's leadership of the singing. That was one of my favorite things about the event. Don Carson on John 11 was rich indeed. Tim Keller on the new birth: typically insightful. Paul Tripp on suffering: deep wisdom. The best thing I heard all week was my dad's talk 'Pastor, Your Church Can Become Healthy Again.' I wish everyone at the conference could have heard it. Searching, deepening, eye-opening, emboldening.

5. One of the blessings of these conferences is to see friend-ministries we wouldn't otherwise--for me, talking to those representing Covenant Seminary, Rafiki Foundation, WTS, WTS Books, Christian Focus, Bethlehem Seminary, Third Mil, Indianapolis Theological Seminary--not to mention the many individual friends from seminary, grad school, etc one runs into. All these are impromptu conversations that have a way of bearing fruit as time passes; they're just as important, I find, as the planned meetings.

6. I'm grateful for denominations, including my own, and I'm glad to belong to one. But something isn't right if we evangelical denominations never come together. TGC provides that beautifully (as does T4G). I know something like TGC can't exercise church discipline, and that the leadership structure doesn't fit neatly onto what the New Testament prescribes for the local church, and so on--so what? It isn't trying to. It was conceived to provide an opportunity to come together around a theologically clear gospel of grace in a day of increasing fracturing. It's healthy to rally around the vital gospel doctrines we all revere deep in our hearts, even if that reverence clothes itself in denominationally distinct ways back home.

7. One final thought. I wonder what all of us who support TGC can do to consciously work against this great enterprise being quietly taken down by the flesh. Human nature being what it is, it seems to me virtually inevitable that an event such as this, with well-known speakers, and a big crowd, and a green room, and preachers quickly and quietly escorted around, provides a unique venue for venting the flesh, for schmoozing, for preening and parading--unless we deliberately fight against it. Left in neutral, we will slide toward worldliness; church history, the Bible, and honest self-knowledge all confirm this, unpleasant as the thought is.

What might God do if TGC and all of us went into an event like this with Francis Schaeffer's essay 'No Little People, No Little Places' emblazoned across our mental horizon? Schaeffer wrote:
The Scripture emphasizes that much can come from little if the little is truly consecrated to God. There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense, but only consecrated and unconsecrated people.
Later in the same book but in a different essay ('The Lord's Work in the Lord's Way'), Schaeffer reflected:
If we have the world's mentality of wanting the foremost place, we are not qualified for Christian leadership. This mentality can . . . fit us for being a big name among men, but it unfits us for real spiritual leadership. To the extent that we want power we are in the flesh, and the Holy Spirit has no part in us. Christ put a towel around Himself and washed His disciples' feet. We should ask ourselves from time to time, 'Whose feet am I washing?'
Schaeffer himself had learned this secret of walking in the Spirit rather than in the flesh, and he knew how imperceptibly and naturally we can slip from doing the Lord's work animated by the Spirit to doing the Lord's work animated by the flesh. His close associate Udo Middleman wrote of Schaeffer:
He was not slick. He revolted against false appearances of leadership, growth statistics, and any show, in which he saw the dangers of pretense, performance, and praise of men. He had been there and found it dishonest, dangerous, and finally condemning.
What a joy, an honor, to participate in and support TGC. Now, as we return home, may we celebrate a thousand blessings flowing from that great event and all that it represents, doing so with sober-minded realism about how quickly we can all slip into fleshly motivations, and with ongoing prayer, and with an insistence on spotlighting Christ himself in all we do and say and desire. If we don't, what began as gospel rallying 12 years ago will, in another 12, become one more venue for Christian fracturing, thus denying the very gospel that TGC came into existence to hold high.

24 October 2017

All I Had to Offer Was My Worst

Fate holds nothing on the providence I know
No longer bound to things of wood and stone
When all I had to offer was my worst
You saw my heavy heart and loved me first

Your beauty staring down my brokenness
You chose to throw Your heart into the mess
Compassion crashing down upon my debt 
You were there

All this time
Like a river running through my failure
You carried me all this time
Like the splinters buried in Your shoulders
You carry me now
Hallelujah

If ever now my heart cries hallelujah
If ever now in the wonder of Your grace
A thousand times a thousand years my soul will say 
Grace

You saw the crushing weight my flesh deserved
You kneeled and wrote forgiveness in the dirt
And one by one the stones fell where they lay
As one by one my accusers walked away
With nothing left to throw they made a cross
And knowing only love could count the cost
You were there

All this time
Like a river running through my failure
You carried me all this time
Like the splinters buried in Your shoulders
Your love carried all my shame
Jesus how my soul will praise You 
You carried me all this way
Like a diamond in the scars upon Your crown
You carry me now
Hallelujah

If ever now my heart cries hallelujah
If ever now in the wonder of Your grace
A thousand times a thousand years
My soul will say
Hallelujah

Forever now in the greatness of my Saviour
Forever now in the brightness of
Your Name Jesus on this rock I’ll sing Your praise
Hallelujah

07 September 2017

Depth with God

. . . all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.  Psalm 42:7

Every seasoned saint who walks deeply with God, I am coming to believe, has been through a very distinct experience.

I could call the experience 'adversity' or 'suffering' and that would be true but unhelpful. I have in mind something more specific, more comprehensive. 

I have in mind the experience of God's children when they walk through the deep valley of a single instance of adversity or suffering so great that it cannot be handled in the same way as the various disappointments and frustrations of life. This particular adversity passes a threshold that the garden variety trials do not reach. 

An Over-the-Head Wave

I think of swimming in the ocean of Laguna Beach in southern California on family vacations years ago. Wading out into the water I would immediately feel the waves beginning to come against me. First my ankles, then my knees, and so on. As I continued, though, inevitably a wave would come that could not be outjumped. It washed over me. I'd get completely submerged and there was nothing I could do to avoid it. The wave would send me tumbling head over heel underwater. Total disorientation.

That total-submersion wave is what I have in mind. I'm not thinking of bad grades, failed dating relationships, rejected applications for school or jobs, a dear friend moving away, a fender bender, the flu. These are forms of adversity. But they are waves that hit us in the knees. We lose our balance, but quickly get it back. We keep walking, weathering the trial but essentially unchanged. We aren't forced to change. Such trials wash into all of our lives with some regularity.

But those who live into their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and are quietly walking with the Lord from a posture of fundamental trust have weathered something deeper. At some point in their lives a wave has washed over them that could not be outjumped. And somehow they survived emotionally. They softened rather than hardened.

Finally Believing What We Say We Believe

Someone who has become a Christian and truly believes what he or she confesses to believe comes to a point in life where they must suddenly, for the first time, bank all that they are on that professed belief. Their true trust must be proven.

It is not as though they didn’t believe before. They did, sincerely. But their belief had only to that point been tested by the gently lapping waist-high waves of adversity.

At that moment of life meltdown we are forced into one of two positions: either cynicism and coldness of heart, or true depth with God. A spouse betrays. A habitual sin, left unchecked, blows up in our face. We are publicly shamed in some way that will haunt us as long as we live. Identity theft empties all our accounts. Our good name is stolen. We hear words from the lips of a son or daughter that had only been the stuff of nightmares. A malignant, inoperable tumor. Abuse of a loved one, the kind of abuse that makes us physically nauseous to think about. Sustained, inexplicable depression. Profound disillusionment in some way. Life goes into meltdown.

A Universal Experience

When I consider the saints I know who exhale that depth of trust that makes them almost otherworldly, it seems like there has always been a time of weathering a wave of adversity that went over their head.

In light of what we find in Scripture, what else would we expect?

Abraham is told to slit the throat of his only son. Jacob wrestles with God and is crippled the rest of his life at just the moment when he needed God most, about to meet Esau. Moses kills a man and loses everything the world holds dear. David ruins his life through an afternoon's indulgence. Job reaps the nightmare of all nightmares. Jeremiah, Hosea, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul--more of the same.

When that moment comes looking for us, sent by the hand of a gentle Father, we will either believe that what we said we believe has just been disproven, or we will believe that what we said we believe will sustain us. The two lines of professed-belief and heart-belief, to this point parallel, are suddenly forced either to overlap completely. We must bank on our creed, or let our hearts cool and harden. We cannot go on as before.

It's the difference between saying you believe a parachute will float you safely to the ground and actually jumping out of the plane.

Let us not be simplistic or formulaic. Many such over-the-head waves may wash over us in life. Or we may experience a crushing trial in our 20s--then another in our 40s that makes the trial 20 years before seem only waist-high--and so on. God leads each of us in his own way. No two journeys are identical. But I remain struck at how often it seems to have been one defining, devastating blow when a senior saint reflects back on life.

The Tragedy of Shallowness

I know Christians in the latter half of life who are not deep people. They are dear people. But they are shallow.

If they will take off the mask and be truly honest, they will acknowledge that what they are after in life is a solid 401k, health, and being liked. Nothing wrong with any of these things. But these have seized their heart’s deepest loyalty. As a result they are not compelling men and women. Not magnetic. They are wispy, not solid. They are nice but frothy.

Could it be that at some point a wave came crashing over their head and they believed that their creed had just been disproven? That they concluded, "Well, I guess after all God was not as good as I thought he was." Could it be that the very moment which they now look back on and view as the moment when God failed them was the Father inviting them into his deepest inner heart?

Might it be that the Lord stands as ready as ever to welcome them into depth, into a communion with him more sublime than they knew was possible, and that it is just on the other side of giving in and banking everything on him?

He Went through the Wave

Recognition of the strange ways of the Father should not drive us into a fearful, darting-eyes day-to-day existence. Recognition of his ways should simply sober us, encouraging us not to throw in the towel when the nightmare becomes reality.

He is in it. He loves us too much to let us remain the shallow, twaddling people we all are and will remain as long as the waves only reach our waist. Sometimes I hug my kids so hard they yell "Ouch!" The loving squeeze of the Father's arms are painful, but it is the pain of a Father's love. It is when pain sweeps us off our feet in total disorientation that God is loving us most.

How do we know? How do we really know?

Because he proved it. In flesh and blood, before our very eyes. His own dear Son joined us in the haunted misery of this broken world. The dark bottom of the valley is where Jesus lives. He dwells in the waves.

But more than that. He not only experienced what we experience, with us. He walked through the greatest nightmare himself, for us. The tidal wave of true separation from the Father washed over Another so that it need never wash over us.

And so we are assured, when life implodes, that we have never been safer. We are being invited further up and further in.

20 July 2017

Shrouded Under That Goodly Robe

Faith wraps the soul up in the bundle of life with God; it encloses it in the righteousness of Jesus, and presents it so perfect in that, that whatever Satan can do, with all his cunning, cannot render the soul spotted or wrinkled before the justice of the law. Yea, though the man, as to his own person and acts, be full of sin from top to toe, Jesus Christ covers all.
Faith sees it, and holds the soul in the godly sense and comfort of it. The man, therefore, standing here, stands shrouded under that goodly robe that makes him glisten in the eye of justice.
--John Bunyan, Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, in Works, 1:331

27 April 2017

This Great and Strange Expression

John Bunyan, in his book Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, on John 6:37--'Whoever comes to me I will never cast out' (ESV), or as Bunyan's KJV put it, 'Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out':
They that are coming to Jesus Christ, are ofttimes heartily afraid that Jesus Christ will not receive them.

This observation is implied in the text. I gather it from the largeness and openness of the promise: 'I will in no wise cast out.' For had there not been a proneness in us to 'fear casting out,' Christ needed not to have, as it were, waylaid our fear, as he doth by this great and strange expression, 'In no wise.' 'And in him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.'

There needed not, as I may say, such a promise to be invented by the wisdom of heaven, and worded at such a rate, as it were on purpose to dash in pieces at one blow all the objections of coming sinners, if they were not prone to admit of such objections, to the discouraging of their own souls.

For this word, 'in no wise,' cutteth the throat of all objections; and it was dropped by the Lord Jesus for that very end; and to help the faith that is mixed with unbelief. And it is, as it were, the sum of all promises; neither can any objection be made upon the unworthiness that thou findest in thee, that this promise will not assoil.

But I am a great sinner, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ.

But I am an old sinner, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ.

But I am a hard-hearted sinner, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ. 

But I am a backsliding sinner, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ.

But I have served Satan all my days, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ. 

But I have sinned against light, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ.

But I have sinned against mercy, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ. 

But I have no good thing to bring with me, sayest thou.

     'I will in no wise cast out,' says Christ.

This promise was provided to answer all objections, and doth answer them. 
--John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, in Works, 1:279-80

15 April 2017

An Easter Sunday Meditation

We closed our Good Friday meditation (below) by noting the pervasive darkness throughout Mark, climaxing in the three-hour darkness from noon to 3:00 as Jesus is crucified. But even as darkness deepens as Mark's Gospel unfolds, a glimmer of hope gains strength that there will be a rising from death and darkness.

Why, after all, are there so many references to 'rising' (37), a higher proportion of references to 'rising' than all other three Gospels? Why use the language of 'rising' even when this language is unnecessary and even awkward? Why is the resurrection account so terse and cryptic in Mark? Because Mark has been preparing the reader for Jesus' rising by quietly sprinkling in 'rising' language throughout.

And as Jesus rises, the ever-deepening darkness throughout Mark suddenly melts away. Light bursts onto the scene. 'And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen . . .' The sun had set in Mark 1:32. The sun rises in 16:2. Evening has given way to light. The world's night has come to an end. Eden has dawned afresh.

And I ask myself: What was the resurrection? Beyond the apologetic significance of the resurrection, even beyond the soteriological significance of the resurrection (saving us, along with the cross) and the eschatological significance of it (launching the new creation)--what was the resurrection?

What is Easter, for those who are in Christ?

Easter is the promise of final in-breaking light to every pocket of darkness in our lives. Easter is the proven certainty of a sunrise on every self-inflicted sunset. Easter is the promise of reversal.

It is striking how closely the New Testament wishes to associate Christ's resurrection and that of the believer, such as throughout 1 Corinthians 15. The two--his and ours--stand or fall together. Resurrection out of death and horror is not something we merely admire in him. It is something we will ourselves will be clothed in. And not just the bodily part of rising--though that is worth its own series of meditations. I have in mind the rising out of despair and dismay. The opening up of every dead-end in this life. The restoring of every soured relationship. The granting of every closed desire, the unlocking of every locked door.

Out of disillusionment, enthrallment. Out of cynicism, belief. Out of boredom, wonder. Out of death, life. 'The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus . . .' (Isa. 35:1).

The doctrine of the resurrection is the promise that the universe will be rinsed clean and re-Edenized, from the farthest galaxy to my sad little life. And the cosmos itself knows that the most crucial part of final resurrection is not its own re-Edenizing but mine--the stars of heaven are on the edge of their seats to see the radiance of glorified sinners in whose resplendence their own dazzling light will be as darkness (Rom. 8:18-19).

But the resurrection says more. Not only that life will come out of death, calm out of pain. But, more deeply, that pain is somehow, strangely, generative of calm and life; descending now creates ascending then. For those united to a risen Christ, all our anguish now will double back over itself onto joy.

The doctrine of the resurrection is the shocking revelation that the deeper the darkness in my life now, the brighter the light in my life then. Sunset, sunrise.

We tend to think of the Christian life in three categories.
Category #1: things in our life that will finally prove to have spiritually advanced us (quiet times, witnessing, successfully resisting temptation, loving another, etc)

Category #2: things in our life that are ultimately spiritually neutral (eating breakfast, driving in your car, paying the bills, sleeping)

Category #3: things in our life that finally send us backwards (sinning, being sinned against, failing, hitting a dead-end, running out of energy, dashed hopes, aborted ambitions, rejection, being misunderstood)
The doctrine of the resurrection is: for those in Christ, there is no Category 2 or 3.

If Jesus was raised from the dead, then even the darkness in our lives is part of a mosaic that would finally be less beautiful without it. We are that invincible.

But of course I have been talking about this all the wrong way. I've been speaking of our future. And so it is. But the teaching of the New Testament says something more. This triumphant rising out of despair is not just for the future. It has washed into our present. The bodily resurrection is future. But the personal reality of our resurrection is present. We have been raised with Christ now (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). We didn't unite ourselves to Christ in the first place by our good. Therefore we can't divorce ourselves from Christ now by our bad. The reversal has already begun.

And this Life that has washed over us here and now will come to inevitable final expression in our concrete existence with Jesus on the new earth, when every sadness and darkness will be folded back over onto itself. The old burdens will not only melt away but become wings by which we are able to fly higher than we would had we never suffered the burdens in the first place, as Lewis put it in The Great Divorce. Our present sadness is itself seeding and ensuring and nurturing radiance then.

Every pain of a cross here will become the glory of an empty tomb there. Or in Pauline categories, suffering now creates glory then (Rom. 8:17). Because Jesus walked out of the tomb.

12 April 2017

A Good Friday Meditation

'. . . we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God . . .'  -Isaiah 53:4

In learning of Peter Singer's most recent round of unthinkable ways to treat other human beings I am brought to reflect afresh on the writhing rebellion of an impenitent heart, the black twistedness of sin. And my mind drifts back to my own heart.

After all, his wickedness is more a mirror than a window, since he and I come of the same human race. And I realize anew how domesticated sin is to me in terms of actual felt reality. Many days I hardly feel it. It is largely theory, not reality. Both around me but also within me. I can't feel my own sinfulness. Why? Because, as Lloyd-Jones said, of that very sinfulness. Like a disease one symptom of which is thinking you're okay. At times my sin deeply distresses me. But most of my life flows on oblivious to its quiet tentacles.

In reading Singer's argument, however, I am waked from the stupor of merely theoretical belief in sin. I ponder what it will be like for Peter to stand before God if he does not repent before he dies. Psalm 29 says that the voice of the Lord splits trees in half. Trees. Morally neutral trees, which glorify God just in being trees. Shattered at his very voice. Stricken. What will the voice of the Lord do to a wormy rebel who advocates for the legal rape of the disabled? The image of the sword coming out of Christ's mouth in Revelation 1 to judge suddenly seems non-exaggerated.

Peter Singer's sin cries out for judgment not only as guilt, but as horror.

So does mine. Of course, it would be evil to say we are all as culpable as Peter Singer. But it would also be evil to deny it.

On the one hand, each of us will give an account to the Lord. The Bible teaches individual accountability (2 Cor. 5:10). I am responsible for myself, not what Peter Singer has done.

But on the other hand the deep blackness of the human heart left to its own devices is so desperately and universally intransigent toward beauty and goodness and glory that the difference between the most upright sinner and the most vile sinner is so slight that it must hardly register on heaven's scale. What is a difference of a few inches on earth when viewed from outer space? As Handley Moule put it in his Romans commentary, you may be in the deepest valley and I on the highest mountain but we are equally unable to touch the stars. And I am sobered back into the reality that I am far more like Peter Singer than I am willing to believe. Which unwillingness is itself further indictment of this very truth.

But there is another salutary effect of reading Peter's rage-eliciting argument, beyond being reminded of who we all are. We taste, just for a moment, righteous, objective, indignation with sin. In our own fallen and finite way, we see things from God's perspective. Clarity comes. We feel a certain choking revulsion. We know wrath. Appropriate, measured, and just, but wrath all the same. Healthy wrath is not arbitrary, malicious, uncontrolled. True wrath simply insists on the right. On justice. On commensurate repayment. The horror that he is bringing on other humans, we know should be brought back on his own head. That's not a wrong response. Something is wrong with us if we don't feel horror and wrath toward such things.

And so we not only come out of our slumber with regard to ourselves. We also ponder Calvary afresh, where a choking revulsion erupted not from one human to another but within the very Trinity.

What happened at the cross, for those of us who claim to be its beneficiaries?

It is beyond calculating comprehension, of course. A three-year-old can't comprehend the pain of his parents' divorce; it's beyond him. How much less could we comprehend what it meant for the Father to reject the Son and tear asunder a love so rich, so divine. But reflecting on what we feel toward Peter Singer gives us a taste of what the Father felt toward the Son. The righteous human wrath we feel is a drop in the ocean of righteous divine wrath the Father unleashed.

After all, the Father did not punish Jesus for the sin of just one man but many. What must it mean when Isaiah says of the servant that 'the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all' (Isa 53:5)? What was it for Christ to swallow down the cumulative sickness, twistedness, self-enthronement, of the elect? What must it have been for the sum total of righteous divine wrath generated not just by one man's sin but 'the iniquity of us all' to come sweeping over a single soul?

It's speculation, but for myself I cannot believe it was physical extremity that killed Christ. What is physical torture compared to the full weight of centuries of cumulative wrath-absorption? That mountain of piled up horrors? How did Jesus even retain sanity psychologically in absorbing the sum total of, say, every lustful thought and deed coming from the hearts of God's people--and that is one sin among many? Perhaps it was sheer despair that broke him down into death. If he was sweating blood at the thought of God-abandonment, what was it like to go through with it? Would it not have been the withdrawal of the Father's love from his heart, not the withdrawal of oxygen from his lungs, that killed him? Who could hold up mental stability when drinking down what God's people's deserved? Richard Bauckham notes that while Psalm 22:1 ('My God, my God, why have you forsaken me') was originally written in Hebrew, Jesus spoke it in Aramaic and thus was personally appropriating it. Jesus wasn't simply repeating David's experience of a thousand years earlier as a convenient parallel expression. Rather, every anguished Psalm 22:1 cry across the millennia was being recapitulated and fulfilled and deepened in Jesus. His was the true Psalm 22:1 of which ours are the shadows. As the people of God all our feelings of forsakenness funneled through an actual single human heart in a single moment of anguished horror on Calvary, an actual forsakenness.

Who could possibly bear up beneath it? Who would not cry out and shut down?

When communion with the Father had been one's oxygen, one's meat and drink, from eternity past in the unceasing mutually flowing rivers of intra-Trinitarian delight and love? Who could survive that? To lose that communion was to die. The great love at the heart of the universe was being rent in two and cast into darkness.

The sun set at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Mark 1:32) and we are told eight times throughout Mark that evening is present, reminding us that the world's evening had come. Almost all of Mark 14 takes place under cover of darkness. Then a noontime darkness descended as Jesus hung on the cross (Mark 15:33), the darkest moment of all of human history, anticipated in the ancient prophecies (Amos 8:9-10). The world's Light was going out.

And in venting that righteous wrath the Father was not smiting a morally neutral tree. He was splintering the Lovely One. Beauty and Goodness Himself was being uglified and vilified. 'Stricken, smitten by God . . .'

So that we ugly ones could be freely beautified, pardoned, calmed. Our heaven through his hell. Our entrance into Love through his loss of it.

What must it have been like?

What must he have felt?

In my place?

07 April 2017

What if Death Were Optional?

C. S. Lewis, to Warfield Firor, an American surgeon, 1949:
Have you ever thought what it would be like if (all other things remaining as they are) old age and death had been made optional? All other things remaining: i.e. it would still be true that our real destiny was elsewhere, that we have no abiding city here and no true happiness, but the un-hitching from this life was left to be accomplished by our own will as an act of obedience and faith. I suppose the percentage of di-ers would be about the same as the percentage of Trappists is now.

I am therefore (with some help from the weather and rheumatism!) trying to profit by this new realisation of my mortality. To begin to die, to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on one. But of course it is continuings, not beginnings, that are the point. A good night's sleep, a sunny morning, a success with my next book--any of these will, I know, alter the whole thing. Which alteration, by the bye, being in reality a relapse from partial waking into the old stupor, would nevertheless be regarded by most people as a return to health from a 'morbid' mood!

Well, it's certainly not that. But it is a very partial waking. One ought not to need the gloomy moments of life for beginning detachment, nor be re-entangled by the bright ones. One ought to be able to enjoy the bright ones to the full and at that very same moment have the perfect readiness to leave them, confident that what calls one away is better.
--The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2 (HarperCollins, 2004), 986-87; emphases original

01 January 2017

N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began: A Few Reflections

This week I read Wright's new book on the crucifixion, The Day the Revolution Began. I'm not a Wright-hater. I owe him a lot. Some of his writings have been instrumental for my own development in understanding the Bible. At least one article of mine spawned from ideas he gave me while listening to him lecture. There are several points of his--such as the notion of a continuing exile in the first-century Jewish mindset, or Jesus as true Israel, or the Israel typology underlying Romans 5-8, or his understanding of our final future (what he calls the after-after-life), or his approach to the relationship between history and theology--where I agree with him against his conservative North American critics. And on top of that I like him as a person. But this book is just awful.

I pretty much agree with Mike Horton's review though I thought he was too easy on the book. I'd like to add three thoughts to Mike's review. I'm not going to do any summary, just critique. For summary read what Mike wrote.

There are virtues to the book too, including the quality of prose and several good insights. An example of the latter is the connection, new to me, between James and John's request to be at Jesus' right and left hand, when these two places, ironically, were reserved for the two thieves to be crucified next to Jesus (p. 221).

But I can't review this book by trotting out a bunch of virtues and then saying one or two things that could have been stronger and concluding that it's a nice book that everyone should read. The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright's other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn't.

False Dichotomies

This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

Thus we are told that 'the question of whether people go to "heaven" or "hell"' is simply 'not what the New Testament is about. The New Testament, with the story of Jesus's crucifixion at its center, is about God's kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.' (p. 40).

Here are some other artificial either/ors:
What if, instead of a disembodied "heaven," we were to focus on the biblical vision of "new heavens and new earth?" (p. 49)

The human problem is not so much "sin" seen as the breaking of moral codes . . . but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (p. 74)

The "goal" is not "heaven," but a renewed human vocation within God's renewed creation. (p. 74)

[The apostles] do not simply have some new, exciting ideas to share. . . . They are not telling people that they have discovered a way whereby anyone can escape the wicked world and "go to heaven" instead. They are functioning as the worshipping, witnessing people of God. (p. 166) 

One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of "evangelists" in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with the problems of "sin" and "hell." The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. (pp. 196-97)

Galatians is not about "salvation" . . . The letter is about unity. (p. 234; italics original)

The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not "sin," but "ungodliness." It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. (p. 268)
The response in each case is: Really? Doesn't the New Testament teach both, at some level? Are you leaving behind a one-sided view for an equal and opposite one-sided view, when a synthetic both/and is what is needed?

It is indeed a hugely needed corrective that, say, Christians' final destiny is not disembodied heaven. We need to hear this. Our final, permanent state is earthly and embodied. But his correction becomes over-correction when he avoids any affirmation of the intermediate state and seems to leave no room at all for any disembodied existence at any time.

Part of the difficulty is that at times Wright will say 'not simply that, but this' whereas other times he says 'not that, but this.' But that little word 'simply' makes all the difference (see pp. 76-77 e.g.). And the fact that he isn't consistent in this way creates confusion and ambiguity.

Another part of the difficulty is that his dichotomies are sometimes set up in a way that is simply not in accord with the biblical evidence. Thus: 'Almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell." The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent this-worldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem' (p. 196). I appreciate the way Wright encourages us to read the Gospels in a historically sensitive way and to understand how first-century Jews would have heard Jesus. And the fall of Jerusalem is certainly in view in much of what Jesus says. But it simply is not true that 'almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell."' Jesus himself does, repeatedly, and often with the very image of 'fire' that Wright wants to leave behind (Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:3; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).

Caricature

Closely tied in with the problem of false dichotomies is the problem of caricatures. I say 'closely tied in' because the false dichotomies are themselves caricatures. Wright caricatures a certain view and says it's not that, but this. But the thing he's rejecting would often be largely unfamiliar to those who hold it. It's a caricature.

Here are a few other caricatures--in other words, representations of views which, if the holders of such a view were to read it, they would not discern themselves in it. Caricatures are thus the opposite of love; they are not charitable presentations of a view, but uncharitable, to score rhetorical points.

Thus the 'line of thought' Wright is engaging 'goes like this':
All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in "hell." Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead. (p. 38)
In this view, God hates sinners so much that he is determined to punish them, but Jesus more or less happens to get in the way and take the death blow on their behalf. (p. 42)
Never mind that Wright will go on 200 pages later to admit that in Jesus' death he was 'bearing the punishment' (Wright's words) that God's people deserved (p. 211), and so the view that Jesus 'took the punishment instead' turns out to be Wright's own view. For now I just note: Who in the world would see themselves in the view that God is angry and wants to kill people? That he 'hates sinners so much'? Aside from perhaps a few fringe hyper-fundamentalistic types I see none of Wright's critics, not the thoughtful ones, in this view. It is a caricature. It is irresponsible. It is fundamentally writing for Self rather than writing out of love. 

In another place Wright seeks to distance himself from 'the idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn't the right person' (p. 44). What careful Christian believes that? How many biblically responsible evangelical/reformed pulpits (which is whom Wright designates as the critics from whom he is distancing himself) preach that, and in that way?

In yet another place he casts his opponents' view as 'a dualistic rejection of the "world," with a smug "otherworldly" pietism, and with a severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire' (p. 98). Hands up all cheerful hell-lovers?

Again: 'At the center of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood' (p. 185). The Bible is not about "an angry God looming over the world and bent upon blood' (p. 349). But of course. Who would describe the God of the Bible that way? Later he speaks of the Bible as 'a narrative not of divine petulance, but of unbreakable divine covenant love' (p. 224). Who preaches a gospel of divine petulance?

At other times he caricatures the academic community more than the church community. For example: 'comparatively modern readings of Luke and Acts have shrunk the meaning of the "kingdom" simply to the final return of Jesus' (p. 161). I know of no respectable Bible scholar who believes the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts is only about Christ's second coming.

Sometimes the caricature is so misleading as to actually say the opposite of what evangelicals believe. For example: 'The common view has been that the ultimate state ("heaven") is a place where "good" people end up, so that human life is gauged in relation to moral achievement or lack thereof' (p. 147). Yikes. Heaven is for the morally good people? This is gospel confusion at its most basic. This is the same error my 4-year-old tends to still make but which my 6-year-old and 10-year-old now know to be error. From one of the world's leading NT scholars?

Wright complains in other books and in lectures of being misrepresented by conservative American evangelicals. Much of the time I sympathize with his point. He does get misrepresented. Why then does he turn around and do the very same thing, misrepresenting others?

How? How, How, How?

There's an even deeper problem with the book. Wright is unclear on how the cross does what it does.

Throughout the book I kept writing HOW in the margin. Wright tells us (if you'll forgive a run-on sentence) that 'the death of Jesus has opened up a whole new world' (p. 82) and 'the death of Jesus launched the revolution' (p. 83) and 'by six o'clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically' (p. 156) and 'Jesus believed that through his death this royal power would win the decisive victory' (p. 183) and that in the crucifixion 'the covenant was renewed because of the blood that symbolized the utter commitment of God to his people' (p. 194) and that the crucifixion is 'the personal expression of [the love of God] all the way to his death' (p. 201) and that 'something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in its place' (p. 207) and that 'a new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love' (p. 222) and that 'the cross establishes the kingdom of God through the agency of Jesus' (p. 256) and that 'Jesus in himself, and in his death, is the place where the one God meets with his world, bringing heaven and earth together at last' (p. 336) and that 'when Jesus died, something happened as a result of which the world was a different place' (p. 355). We are even told repeatedly that 'sins are forgiven through the Messiah's death' (p. 115).

But Wright doesn't divulge how this worked. Notice how vague and foggy the above statements are.

Why did Jesus need to die? How did his death begin a revolution?

Then in the course of a few pages in the middle of chapter 11 (on Paul) I began to understand, in part anyhow, why Wright is evasive throughout the book. He writes: "Nowhere here does Paul explain why or how the cross of the Messiah has the power it does, but he seems able to assume that' (p. 230). A few pages later he writes of 'modern Western expectations' and the 'supposed central task of explaining how the punishment of our sins was heaped onto the innocent victim' (p. 232). Later, speaking of 1-2 Corinthians, 'At no point does [Paul] offer anything like a complete exposition of either what the cross achieved or why or how it achieved it' (p. 246).

Wright is vague on how the crucifixion works because he thinks the New Testament is.

At times he tries to explain that in Jesus's death the powers of evil are conquered and we idolators (not sinners so much as idolators) are freed through that great act of self-giving love. But even in these places where he tries to explain the how, he doesn't really explain the how. I still don't know how it works. In what sense does Jesus' death free us?

Part of the solution, I think, which would go a long way toward strengthening the book, is to build in to a book like this a thick understanding of the holiness and justice of God--complementing, not competing with, God's covenant love which Wright rightly emphasizes again and again as God's most fundamental internal motivation. But without God's holiness and justice, you cannot explain the way Christ's death works. Even though Wright says in the book's opening pages that the crucifixion is not simply a beautiful expression of the great love of Christ but is something more than merely exemplary, his own exposition often seems to explain the crucifixion in just this way. Related to this one-dimensional view of God as benevolent but not really wrathful in any traditional way (also prevalent in Doug Campbell's writings on Paul) is Wright's explanation of divine punishment as simply the consequence of sin (p. 338).

Conclusion: A Street-Level Test

I agree with Wright regarding so much of what he wants to leave behind, even if he uses caricature to cast it. For example I agree with his rejection of a 'works contract' as the framework for understand the work of Christ. But the answer to those who have drilled the theological screws in too tight and made the crucifixion artificial and overly formulaic is not to under-explain it as Wright does.

I've been strongly critical of this book because Wright is otherwise one of our (our) strongest authors and because there is so much that is helpful in his corpus that it is frustrating to have such a weak book at this stage in his career. And it is sad that many younger people may read this as their first substantive book on the meaning of Christ's death.

At the end of the day here's the question to ask of a book that claims to be a popular level book on Christ's crucifixion. A street-level test for someone trying to track with Wright in this book would be: If your college-aged son or daughter came to you in abject distress at their idolatry or sinfulness or addictive behavior or enslavement to the world's priorities, and sought your counsel, what comfort would you have for them according to this book? Beneath all the clever cuteness about how all reformed evangelicals have been asking the wrong questions, after all the ornate assembling of the Bible's storyline, what is the actual comfort of Christianity for your beloved child? What can you give them? What can you say? This book does not give you much to latch onto. And that is a problem, a problem of a fundamental and not peripheral nature, especially for a book pitched at a general Christian population. 

I will not be recommending this book to the people at my church. Those who want to read about the meaning of the crucifixion should go to Donald Macleod's Christ Crucified or John Stott's The Cross of Christ. And I look forward to Wright's next book, which I will read and, I expect, enjoy.