Justification, in Summary

This post originated as a Facebook comment. There’s obviously lots to flesh out, tighten up, and correct and plenty to debate, but here’s my summary of justification.

Historically, its as factual as factual can be that Torah, in 2nd temple Judaism (all of Judaism, but specifically here), was not seen as a bad thing or a burden or something which was a kind of impossible standard one had to keep in order to go to heaven, and it still isn’t within Judaism. On factual, historical grounds, that’s pretty much beyond dispute. Calvin was right on when he saw the Law not as an entrance requirement but rather as something given to the redeemed people.

Alright, so what’s the point of Torah? It was not primarily, as commonly supposed, a way for people to recognize their own moral failings, as if it were a kind of Kantian moral imperative which hangs over all men, and that once the failure to meet this standard was recognized, the Gospel could then be preached. That was not the point though, though Torah did expose one’s failings and did serve to kill sin by imprisoning it. But here’s the thing: in Judaism, when you messed up, you made atonement and moved on. People mess up and don’t keep Torah perfectly, because we’re sinners. Okay. Make atonement, square yourself away and get back in step.

So if Torah isn’t primarily something that exists to show that it can’t be met, what is it? Here, modern scholarship is pretty much in accord in saying that Torah was not what one did to get into the people of God but what one did which showed that one was in the people of God. It was, in the days before Jesus, an ethnic marker of sorts. Torah belonged to the people of God, and the people of God kept Torah. One can disagree with the theological/dogmatic implications, but that is, again, pretty much an established fact.

The problem, however, is in that second to last sentence. Israel were called to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to the world. People were to look at Israel and go, ‘What a people! What a God!’ But, as Scripture drives home, this was not the case. Sin worked through Torah, turning the heart upon itself, and what was supposed to the charter for the people of God, what was supposed to be the distinctive thing about the people of God, ended up being used to keep people *out* of the people of God. The promise of Abraham is being killed by the curse of Adam.

The rest, as they say, is history, up until an incident in Antioch, when the ethnic problems come to a head. Paul says to the Judaizers, no. You’ve missed the point. The second you begin to do with Torah what Christ had done, which is to redefine the people of God around faith instead of adherence to Torah, you’re right back where we started, keeping people who aren’t ethnic enough out. That is something Paul won’t stand for.

That is the fundamental issue – Torah cannot be used as a means to define the people of God anymore, because now the people of God are defined as those who, by faith, both their faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ, are in Christ. Jesus defined adherence to Torah not as rigorous obedience and boasting but as loving God and loving your neighbor – and this, Paul declares, is true Torah. This – faith and love – are what defines the people of God. Paul says, look, keeping Torah is fine, if you want to do it. But if it becomes something that separates people at the table, then you’re right back where we started, and you’re going to have Torah staring you down.


Note on Historical/Theological Studies

I was in a discussion recently about the relation of biblical/historical studies to theological/dogmatic studies. It’s a bit of an odd question, to me at least, but I’ve found that dichotomies puzzle me in general. To be sure, historical study in and of itself can’t be the basis of dogmatics (I can’t imagine someone concerned with dogmatics would studying Scripture with that idea). Historical study can, however, inform theological and dogmatic issues (say, the translation of a word, or the context of a certain historical event, or any number of things). Something that comes to mind is (as an example) the priesthood of Christ, a doctrine which would probably not make a lot of sense if there wasn’t an historical understanding of the Jewish priesthood.

N.T. Wright on Miracles

‘The older liberalism, dating back at least to the eighteenth century and in particular to Hume, claimed that ‘miracles’ never happened, or at any rate that there could never be sufficient evidence to believe that they had; hence, that Jesus probably never performed any, hence, that perhaps he was not after all ‘divine’. Bth of these lines of thought, in fact, contain the same non sequitur: the strongest incarnational claims in the New Testament (e.g. those of Paul) have nothing to do with Jesus’ might works, and the accounts of the mighty works in the gospels are not usually offered as ‘proof’ of Jesus’ divinty.’

‘The very word ‘miracle’ itself, and for that matter the words ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, are in fact symptomatic of a very different range of possible worldviews from those which were open to Galilean villagers at the time. The evangelists use terms like paradoxa, things one would not normally exxpect; dunameis, displays of power or authority; terata or semeia, signs or portents. The closest we come to ‘miracle’ is the single occurrence of thaumasia, ‘marvels’, in Matthew 21.15. These words do not carry, as the English word ‘miracle’ has sometimes done, overtones of invasion from another world, or outer space. They indicate, rather, that something has happened, within what we would call the ‘natural’ world, which is not what would have been anticipated, and which seems to provide evidence for the active presence of an authority, a power, at work, not invading the created order as an alien force, but rather enabling it to be more truly itself.’

‘The word ‘miracle’, by contrast, has come to be associated with two quite different questions, developed not least in the period of the Enlightenment: (a) is there a ‘supernatural’ dimension to our world? (b) Which religion, if any, is the true one? ‘Miracles’ became, for some, a way of answering ‘yes’ to the first and ‘Christianity’ to the second. Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are, in this scheme, a ‘proof’ that there is a god, who has ‘intervened’ in the world in this way. Hume and his followers, as we saw, put it the other way around: granted that ‘miracles’ do not occur, or at least cannot be demonstrated to occur, does this mean that all religions, including Christianity, are false, and the Bible untrue? This posing of the question precipitated two possible answers from those wishing to preserve something of the tradition: a non-miraculous ‘Christianity’ on the one hand, and a rearguard anti-critical reaction on the other. Today these questions seem a little lame. Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no natural explanation. But Christian apologetics has moved on as well: ‘miracles’ are not advanced as a ‘proof’ of anything much. What matters far more is intention and meaning. What did Jesus think he was doing, and why? What did his deeds mean to those involved, and to those who passed on the tradition?’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, p.186-188)

Witherington on Historical Faith

‘Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective real of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. This is the approach of people who want to maintain their faith even at the expense of historical reality or the facts. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of Christian faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene or Priscilla. Whatever may be said of such an approach today, its nonhistorical faith is not the faith that the early Christians lived and died for. They had an interest in the historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or worse, was grounded in it.’ (Ben Witherington III, ‘New Testament History: A Narrative Account’, p. 167)

Witherington on Heaven

‘Notice how very little the New Testament says about dying and going to heaven, and that when the matter is discussed, for instance in 2 Cor. 5:1-10, Paul makes clear that life without a body in heaven is by no means his own hope or expectation in regard to how he will spend eternity. Indeed, Paul refers to life in heaven without a body as nakedness, which to an early Jew was hardly the most desirable state of affairs. While it is true that under the influence of Greek thought medieval Christianity often substituted the discussion of immortality of the soul for the New Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body, this is not what the majority of New Testament passages are speaking of when they refer to the afterlife. Indeed, it could be said that in the new Testament life in heaven is seen only as an interim condition. Resurrection is something that happens in the earthly realm to real people who have died, It is not an event in some other real (for instance, heaven) and is not immune to historical scrutiny and evaluation. It is interesting that J. Murphy-O’Connor has suggested in a recent book, Paul: A Critical Life, that the whole reason that Christians believed in the everlasting existence of the human personality beyond death at all was precisely because they believed that there had to be a person there for God in Christ to raise up on the last day. How very different this is from what one usually hears today about dying and going to heaven.'(Ben Witherington III, ‘New Testament History: A Narrative Account’ pp. 166-167)

Athens and Jerusalem?

The thing that has most jumped out at me in my study of the world of the New Testament (2nd temple Judaism, historical context of the Gospels, etc etc) is just how far the categories of modern theology are from the world of the NT. To take one example: were one to go back to, say, 30 AD and talk to a certain carpenter about the hypostatic union, or essence, nature and being and being cosubstantial with the father, said carpenter would probably look at you like you had matzo balls coming out of your ears.

Now, I’m absolutely not pulling that old ‘Greek philosophy’ criticism that seems to get thrown around a bunch. There’s nothing wrong with using concepts/grammar/categories that aren’t strictly ‘biblical’. Anyone who spends any time reading this blog will realize that I think that discussing the finer points of the hypostatic union is important.

I suppose my question then is at odds with my last paragraph. At what point does it cease to be productive to use foreign (non-biblical) categories in our understanding of Scripture, Jesus, God, etc? N.T. Wright has made some powerful points criticizing the use of terms like nature, substance, etc in (for example) Chalcedon and to an extent the Nicene Creed, though his criticism of the NC is that it screens out the Jewish narrative of Scripture. I’m somewhat inclined to agree with him when he makes these points. Should we be using categories of thought that would have been utterly foreign to Jesus?

The extent to which our questions are foreign to the biblical world has been most clearly illustrated (in my opinion) by the recent debates over justification. Wright has pretty much demonstrated that the questions which were being brought to the text not only were the wrong questions but the wrong concepts and frameworks of thought (and yes, I regard Wright correct, broadly, in that debate) altogether. This isn’t to debate over justification but rather to illustrate that when we impose our own thinking on Scripture instead of allowing the reality of God and the Word of God through Scripture to impose its reality upon our thinking we’re going to come up with things foreign to Scripture.

Anyway, I’ll end this incoherent coffee fueled rant.

My Christmas Present: Two Abandoned Kitties

A final Christmas post, this one involving myself, my wife, and some new family members.

Smiling Sticks

My Christmas Present: Two Abandoned Kitties

About two weeks ago my husband and I noticed two kitties hanging around our neighborhood. They seemed domestic in behaviour (they would always run up when I greeted them) but they had no collars so I figured they were strays. After a couple days we asked a neighbour and they told us someone had moved away and left them. This broke our animal loving hearts! We knew we had to take care of them, whether that meant bringing them to a shelter or into our own home. (If you knew my husband, you wouldn’t be surprised that bringing them to a shelter was very quickly ruled out!)

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Study Note

I’m exploring the world of the New Testament with Ben Witherington III, and his book ‘New Testament History.’ It’s a fantastic book, a tad slow in the beginning but once he gets to the birth/passion narratives, it’s just great. I highly recommend it as both an intro text and an intermediate study text.

I was reading some N.T. Wright essays before I went to the library and got the book, and the two authors lead me to really think about Jesus’s self-understanding. Wright obviously done a lot of work in this area, but Witherington made just a few comments in his book that sparked my interest.

‘If indeed this story accurately represents Jesus understanding [of the last supper] (whatever the particulars about the authenticity of the words of institution), what astounding faith and trust he must have had to have believed that his death would accomplish such a thin, and then to be so supremely confident that he could symbolically distribute the benefits of that death in advance of it happening! This high moment must be compared to his moment of struggle in the Garden of Gethsemene.’ (‘New Testament History’, p, 146)

I’ve never thought of the last supper from that angle, though it certainly is an angle that I think makes a lot of sense. There’s some definite similarity with Wright’s approach to Jesus’ self-understanding – a very flesh-and-blood, living, breathing human understanding. It takes the actual humanity of Jesus very seriously.