N.T. Wright on Building for the Kingdom

‘…what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized,and directed by the Spirit, is to build *for* the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord *is not in vain*. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Surprised by Hope’, p. 208)

Wright and Dogmatics

I commented on a blog yesterday that N.T. Wright is trying to say a lot of what the dogmatic tradition is trying to say – i.e Chalcedon – but using different language. By this I mean that Wright is trying to explain (for example) the relations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Jesus’ self-understanding without using the same grammar. Instead of nature, substance, essence, hypostatic union, etc, Wright is using Jewish grammar – Wisdom, Word, etc, to explain the relations between the Trinity and Jesus’ humanity/divinity.

This is not an arbitrary move. Wright sees the classical grammar not as wrong per se – he’s not one of those ‘damn you and your Pagan Greek philosophy!’ types – but as unnecessary, because had the Church not strayed from (to paraphrase Wright) the secure harbours of Jewish thought, she would have seen that, though different, more subtle and more nuanced, Scripture came with Trinitarian/christological grammar built in, and not had to develop the grammar that it did.

Wright is hardly above criticism in this. He doesn’t seem to want to integrate what he’s saying with the dogmatic tradition – which is just odd. His christology leaves something to be desired. His ideas on election aren’t very fleshed out. A lot of his ideas in general aren’t spelled out with systematic rigour. These are all things he needs to reckon with.

Barth Rant

A post in a Facebook group:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.

This, to me, is a huge problem. The idea that orthodox theology is purely about retrieval, purely about going back to the past. I find it quite ludicrous, honestly. I just got back from a run so maybe it’s the adrenaline, but this is just ridiculous to suppose that anything new or modern, or anyone who takes something new and modern seriously, is a prisoner of modernity.

God always has something new to teach us – and just as often as not, this involves not a retrieval but a move forward, often into the unknown. To suppose that the faith once and for all delivered means that there is never anything new to learn or never a new way of saying an old truth or (God forbid) a whole new truth to learn seems to me to be a bad case of head-in-sand syndrome.

This does not mean that the church sacrifices old truth for the sake of relevance – but the church must be prepared to receive new things from God, and to not freeze what God has given into all that God will ever give.

On the Temple and the Body

As I continue to meander through the world of second-temple Judaism, I’m struck again and again by the temple, which was just ridiculously important in 2TJ, on a cultural, theological, religious, spiritual, ethnic, and every other kind of level. It was simply essential.

The temple is often referred to in modern times when explaining why someone shouldn’t partake of a vice (say, drinking, dressing immodestly, tattoos, what have you). ‘Your body is a temple to the Lord’, says Paul (some translations say sanctuary, but most seem to say temple). This is, as far as I can tell when it’s being used in the above sense, taken to mean this: the temple was a really expensive, nice building that belonged to God that you wouldn’t want to deface. Your body is a temple, so don’t do any of those vices. I don’t really think that’s a caricature, honestly.

Now, the temple was far more than a nice building, though it was indeed a very nice building. The temple was where heaven and earth met, and where God dwelled. The glory of the Lord, with all its smoke, fire, power, presence, peace and magnificence, was in the temple. People died in the temple. People died for the temple. People made it a point to destroy the temple when they took over Jerusalem. Jesus went nuts when people ran rackets inside the temple. God’s glory left the temple, and the Prophets predicted its return, and Israel lamented when it didn’t return. The temple was it.

When Paul says that the body is a temple, all that is in his head, Paul being a Jew. He wasn’t simply saying, hey, your body is a nice piece of God’s workmanship, don’t scratch the paint (though no doubt that probably a decent thing to go ahead and practice). He was saying, your body is where the glory of the Lord is. Your body is where the presence, glory, power, radiance and magnificence of God is through the Holy Spirit. Your body is where heaven and earth meet, and where people can look and see something of the glory of God (let’s be a little naive and ignore any inklings of dualism or mind/body stuff here). I all too often fall quite short of being that which radiates the glory of God.

My point here isn’t to engage in the debate over what vice a Christian should/shouldn’t do. My point is to, for myself more than anyone, really appreciate what the temple imagery means when its used in relation to the body in the New Testament.

On Scripture, the Spirit, and God Speaking

Yesterday a friend posted this link on his Facebook:

http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2013/03/05/review-of-jesus-calling/

I don’t care too much about the book under criticism or the specific source of the criticism -I’ve never been to the White Horse Inn before I clicked that link yesterday, so this is purely a theological post.

This was my reply I posted as a comment (click the link and read the review to see exactly what I was responding to:

1 – the criticism: Seems pretty ballsy to declare with no qualifications that apart from the written scriptures, neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit speaks today, since:
      (a) not once in Scripture is this claim made – not once does it say that apart from the written scriptures neither God nor Jesus nor the Holy Spirit speaks.
      (b) it assumes a ‘closing of the canon’ which is again, not once mentioned in *any* way in Scripture.
      (c) there is in no way *any* problem with God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit speaking to anyone in a personal way apart from the written scripture – in no way does that contradict or undermine the finality of Scripture.

2 – the observation: the reliance on Warfield says exactly one thing: rationalism. Warfield hated mysticism, for whatever reason. For him, the spirit operated by means of rational proof and evidence- not mysticism. This is a gutting of Christianity, period. Christianity is mystical – the entire point is communion with the divine, and there isn’t a definition of mystical that doesn’t fit. Warfield was desperate for matheatical certainty – just look at his apologetic for the canon.

3 – the question: why is it necessary in a devotional work like this to include a comprehensive view of the atonement? Not every work of christian writing has to include ever aspect of Christian theology. If a writer wishes to write about simply being in the presence of Jesus, they don’t have to produce a work on that outlines the atonement and the historical aspect of the faith. It is in fact okay to simply bask in the presence of Jesus, without doing anything else.

I was going to add to what I wrote above, but keep getting stuck with writers block, so I’ll leave it alone for the time being and instead direct your attention to the best study done on the subject of the Holy Spirit I’ve been able to find. I hope for some good discussion on this subject matter.

https://bible.org/series/whos-afraid-holy-spirit-investigation-ministry-spirit-god-today

Bonhoeffer and a World Come of Age, pt. 2

Some time ago I wrote on Bonhoeffer’s very interesting take on ‘man come of age’ and his (in)famous ‘religionless Christianity’. The main theme that Bonheoffer develops is really twofold – the first that the world has come to a point where it doesn’t need God anymore (at ;east in the normal ‘religious’ sense) and the second is his attack on using God as a filler for gaps in our knowledge, otherwise known as God of the gaps.

‘It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case) then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize His presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.’ (‘Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 311)

‘Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God’. In questions of science, art and ethics this has become and understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’ – and, in fact, just as well as before.’ (p. 326)

‘Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’. Even though there has been surrender on all secular problems, there still remains the so-called ‘ultimate questions’ – death, guilt- to which only ‘God’ can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without ‘God’?’ (p. 326)

Bonhoeffer develops some answers to this problem in his Christology lectures (even though they predate his letters form prison) – namely, that God can’t be seen as who we grab on to when we are at the end of our resources but rather that which is at the very center of our lives and existence. His lectures on Genesis also contribute to this theme – that God is not at the boundary of our lives but at the center.

‘It always seems to me that we trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not at the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness…God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the center of the village.’ (p. 282)

N.T.Wright, Second-Temple Judaism, and Early Christology

‘Chalcedon, I think, always smelled like a bit of a confidence trick, celebrating in Tertrullian-like fashion the absurdity of what it believed, and gave hostages to fortune which post-Enlightenment fortune has been using well. But the NT writers, by re-using the Jewish god-language in relation to Jesus and the Spirit managed to say everything that needs to be said, and to make it look more, from one point of view at least, so natural, so obvious, so coherent with the nature of God and with the full humanity of Jesus that fortune receives no hostages at all. Ironically, the Jewish setting and meaning were either misunderstood or forgotten so soon within the early Church that the fathers struggled valiantly to express the truth, but with one hand, the biblical one, tied behind their back.’

‘Long before secular philosophy and terminology was invoked to describe the inner being of the one God (and the relation of this God to Jesus and the Spirit), a vigorous and very Jewish tradition took the language and imagery of Spirit, Word, Law, Presence (and/or Glory) and Wisdom and developed them in relation to Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit.’

‘Long before anyone talked about “nature” and ‘substance”, “person”, and ‘Trinity”, the early Christians had quietly but definitely discovered that they cpi;d say what they felt obligated to say about Jesus (and the Spirit) by telling the Jewish story of God, Israel and the world, in the Jewish language of Spirit, Word, Torah, Presence/Glory, Wisdom, and now Messiah/Son. It is as though they discovered Jesus within the Jewish monotheistic categories they already had.’(N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’, originally published in Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42-56)

(There is a lot going on in this article, but I’m going to focus on one particular theme here – that of the church moving away from its Jewish foundations.)

Wright’s criticism of Chalcedon is interesting – I’m a sucker for anyone who challenges, in a substantial way, a long-standing and powerful tradition. The primary critique here (and Wright has emphasized this elsewhere), that the post-apostolic Church (say, from 300 to 600, or so) drifted from the biblical framework of the apostles and Jesus is a heck of a claim – can it stand up to sustained criticism? (For the record, I haven’t read his big books. I own and have read Justification, Paul, Scripture and the Authority of God, Evil and the Justice of God, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as well as most of the articles/essays on his unofficial webpage. More for the record, I would count myself fully in agreement with the bulk of what he says; IE justification, Paul, you know, the controversial stuff.)

Wright’s more well-known criticism is of a flat way of thinking about the relationship between God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus – Jesus, so the claim goes, didn’t simply strut around declaring Himself to be the second person of the trinity in a take it or leave it way. Such categories (at least in the flat and often reductionist forms, which is more often than not what Wright spends his time attacking) weren’t really part of the NT frame of thought – the Jewish categories listed in the second quote were. Wright’s point, if I’m reading him right, is that the Church, without really noticing it, started to think of Jesus and God in more reductionist terms since the 17th/18th century (and in more subtle ways, since the early fathers) – i.e., deism and the like, and that such a move would have been prevented had the Church stayed anchored in the Jewish modes of thought in the early church. The Church needs to break out of the enlightenment/post enlightenment way of thinking and return to the early modes of thought of the NT.

I think one of the underlying questions is whether or not non-biblical ideas (say, some secular philosophical ideas) have any place in theology. I think Wright’s claim has some substantial force – if one looks at the post-apostolic church, there is a lack of the Jewish story of Israel as the grounding of the language of theology. Not a total lack – but I don’t think one can really claim that the early fathers had the narrative of Israel at the forefront of their thought, and in a sense, that’s okay. Their problems were of a totally different type – philosophical attacks on Christianity had to be answered, and answered in form that meant something to the attackers. Simply referring to the narrative of Israel doesn’t do a whole lot if your opponent is a Stoic, or Cynic, or Platonist. But, if I may be so bold as to speculate, the problem seems to have come when the concepts used in a given scenario to answer a given objection actually started to become the actual reality. I may not be right in that claim, but as I see things that seems to be about the case.

These are broad statements – and I’m definitely not saying anything along the lines of ‘Christianity was fine until that cursed (platonic, stoic, deistic, etc) came along and ruined it! I have no problem with a Christian metaphysic, and I think it’s impossible to not have a metaphysic. I think lots of the ideas of (say) the early apologists were great – for example, early logos-theology (Justin Martyr and co). I suppose my own position would be sympathetic towards Wright’s criticism – but not without my own criticism of Wright. I have a nagging feeling that I’m missing a key concept here, though.

Criticisms welcome.

A Polemical Moment

Over at internetmonk, a post on some recent sexual scandals in the evangelical world was published. I won’t reproduce the whole post – but the part I wish to comment on I will. This will be a rhetorical, inflammatory and polemical post.

Folks, Christians are no more or less broken and capable of sinning than anyone else in this world. Simul justus et peccator — we are simultaneously righteous and sinful until the day we are glorified.

It is time to stop pretending. It is time to stop saying we have the answers and can rise above the moral degradation of our times.

All we can do is look to Jesus. We have no room to boast. We have no room to claim any kind of transformation that makes us “different” from our neighbors. We are not different. We are human. We fail.

It’s not about transcending sin. It’s about admitting our own sinfulness, naming our own sin, being harsh with ourselves and being kind and loving and forbearing toward others. It’s about being forgiven, again and again and again. (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-church-cant-hide-its-sexual-brokenness)

This, to put it bluntly, is a load of theological bullshit, plain and simple. The simul justus et peccator principle invoked here is a mere excuse for the bad behavior of Christians – and while it is true that Christians are just as capable of sinning as anyone else, it absolutely does not follow that we have no answers and cannot rise above the moral degradation of our times. The entirety of Scripture testifies to the fact that such an assertion is completely unfounded. We do not have room to boast – but we DO have claim to a transformation that makes us different from our neighbors. Like it or not, there IS a code of conduct that Christian moral behavior is to follow, and it is a higher moral standard than the world outside the church.

While Christianity is not about making naughty people more moral, improved moral behavior is in fact a part of Christianity and one that is strongly commanded throughout the whole of Scripture, from the Mosaic law to the Apostolic writings. Christian character, both in the typical moral sense as well as in a more theological sense is to be visibly different than those outside the body of Christ such that the world outside the Church can do nothing but admit that a fundamental change in the innermost depths of their being, in their very fiber and fabric of their nature, in their very essence, has happened to those inside the church that could not have happened save for a radical encounter with Christ in which the aforementioned change is effected.

Christians are called to rise above the moral degradation of our times; our behavior is to be such that it is noticeable by those who are not a part of the church for both its moral uprightedness and its kindness, love and forbearance – not because Jesus died to make us more moral but because we are fundamentally, ontologically different. Christians are in Christ – our being has undergone a total and radical change its innermost depths such that our former, weaker nature is no more, period. The quoted piece above is nothing but cheap grace and theological bullshit.

Barth on God’s Mercy

‘The merciful God has taken action on our behalf both in freedom and in power. In freedom: for our sin and guilt were not His and He did not have to become so. Because this is so, faith believes in God’s grace and election in virtue of which we receive that which we have not deserved. But also in power: for He has really taken to Himself and removed from us our sin and guilt. Therefore faith is joy and gratitude, an assurance which can no longer look back, only forwards. In freedom and power, awakening a humble but assured and unshakable faith, He took our place because He was God’s eternal Son, because it was manifest Him that God’s eternal being is mercy, because there is nothing more real and true behind and beyond this substitution, because this substitution is the very essence of God’s own being, of His divinity, for which we must glorify Him in joy and gratitude if we are not to sin wantonly against Him, if we are to let God be God.'(Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 375)