A Life Lived for Us: The Righteousness of God and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ in Wright, Torrance and the Reformation

Deep within his Big Paul Book, N.T. Wright (foot)notes his disagreement with the classic Reformed doctrine of the active and passive obedience of Christ. More precisely: it’s not so much that he disagrees with the fact that Christ was both actively and passively obedient – this is to my mind beyond dispute – but rather that he disagrees with Christ’s active obedience as something which merits righteousness which is then reckoned, credited or imputed to believers. Actually, even more precision is called for here, because Wright doesn’t especially really disagree with the idea that believers are reckoned to be righteous (this is, again, not really disputable). What he disagrees with is how that conclusion is reached, which, for the classic Reformed, is the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

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Wright, Wisdom, and the Return from Exile to Zion

In ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, N.T. Wright spends a good number of pages developing his return-from-exile theme. There’s a lot to this and I think most of it is spot-on. Some time ago, however, I read an interesting blog post, where the author noted a lack of textual support for one of Wright’s claims – namely, that in Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, the mode of YHWH’s return to Zion was that of Wisdom (let’s call this the Wisdom Return Thesis – WRT). What I want to do is look closely at Wright’s claim from a textual standpoint as well as from more of a meta-level, since he grounds a good deal of WRT in its prevelance in second-temple literature, and these two books in particular. What is Wright’s specific claim? On page 655, he lays it out  clearly: Continue reading

Theology’s Biblical Dilemma

I intended this post to be a sequel of sorts to my previous post on Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, this time focusing on their thinking on Scripture. It may prove a bit easier, however, to skip the formal differences and head right into a case study – namely, bringing the two into conversation on the topic of Biblical authority and revelation to see if, together, a view of Scripture can be maintained that respects the actual dynamics of Scripture without relegating it to the status of a lesser revelation than Jesus, as is a common fad right now. The dilemma is this: how can both the Bible and Jesus be affirmed as divine revelation without one taking precedence in quality over the other? If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, then logically, Scripture’s status is diminished, and if this is the case, how can Scripture be authoritative in any real sense?.

Both Wright and Barth see the authority of Scripture as being fundamentally mediated. Wright is explicit on this matter and frames his understanding of the authority of Scripture as the ‘authority of the triune God exercised through Scripture’.

‘…we recognize that it (the authority of Scripture) can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, p. 23)

He fleshes this out further by locating Scripture not within the context of God’s saving action (the more technical term being ‘the economy of salvation’) in history, but instead locating it within God’s redeeming action for the world (or universe, cosmos, whatever term you prefer) as a whole:

‘”The authority of Scripture” is thus a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church.’ (p. 27-28)

Wright thus secures the role of Scripture and its authority within the whole of God’s redemptive actions, which are fundamentally trinitarian in nature. This is further fleshed out by placing the ‘word of God’ within the life and mission of the church. The word of God in this sense is the story of Israel and God, the climax of which is the story of Jesus. Jesus is, then, in a sense the true story of Israel as well as its fulfillment. Wright further notes that this story carries power – God’s power to save – as the means by which the Spirit worked in the life of the church:

‘Here we have the roots of a fully Christian theology of Scriptural authority: planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God’s project to put the whole cosmos to rights. God accomplished all these things, so the early church believed, through the “word”: the story of Israel now told as reaching its climax in Jesus, God’s call to Israel now transmuted into God’s call to his renewed people.’ (p. 50)

We see that for Wright, the concept of Biblical authority cannot be divorced from either the triune God, the place of Scripture within God’s redemptive action, or the life of the church. The Scriptures form the narrative which, fulfilled in Jesus raised by the Spirit, shape and form the church. Put simply, the Biblical story is fulfilled by Jesus, whose story is Israel’s story, which the church is called to live out. There can be no separation of revelation here: everything is here connected, and there is no greater or lesser revelation. For Wright, a simple ‘Scripture is a lesser revelation, Jesus is the ultimate revelation’, won’t do.

Karl Barth’s theology of revelation is well-known (for a brilliant summary head here) and so I won’t recapitulate it too much here – instead I’ll focus specifically on how his notion of revelation cashes out in terms of Biblical authority. Barth, like Wright, argues for a concept of authority that is both mediated and delegated and finds its place in the life of the church. Both seek to avoid a ‘magic book’ concept of authority. Like Wright, Barth does not distinguish between greater and lesser kinds of revelation, because, like Wright, he grounds the status of revelation with the triune God. Kevin Diller expounds this point at length in ‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, where he treats Christian Smith’s appropriation of Barth in his book ‘The Bible Made Impossible‘:

‘Barth never seperates or stratifies revelation into kinds. There is no such thing in his thinking as a division between a more real, truthful and authentic revelation on the one hand and a less real, truthful and authentic revelation on the other. Barth is emphatic about this. Revelation is always and only God’s transforming self-disclosure in the gift of faith. We can distinguish aspects to God’s revealing action, but they correspond to the Trinity and are therefore distinguishable but inseperable…it is indeed impossible on Barth’s view of revelation to suggest that revelation in Christ is any different from revelation in Scripture.’ (p. 267-268)

Here we have a potential point of convergence: by grounding revelation and Scripture in the truine God, both Wright and Barth secure a high place for both without resorting to a ‘magical book’ view of authority, inspiration, or whatever. By grounding Scripture and authority in Israel’s story, made true and fulfilled in the life and story of Jesus, the embodiment of God and his redeeming action, raised by the Spirit, Wright can articulate a view of authority that avoids the problems of lesser/greater revelation when it comes to Scripture and Jesus. Barth, by placing revelation firmly within the context of God’s self-revelation and trinitarian life, can affirm the same – that while distinctions in form can indeed be made, there are no distinctions quality when it comes to revelation. While avoiding a ‘magical book’ view of the Bible and a static, overly-propositionalist view of revelation, Wright and Barth are both able to place Scripture in its proper context within God’s triune life and the life of the church and thereby give a solid answer to theology’s biblical dilemma.

There are issues, here, however, for these two ideas which take us somewhat abroad from the immediate topic of the post. For Wright, it can be asked if his scheme really does avoid the pitfall over greater/lesser revelation. Given that Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel, can it truly be said to have a non-lesser status? For Barth, if God’s revelation isn’t in the text but only made known to us by faith, exactly how does that cash out in terms of actual exegesis? If revelation isn’t in the text, does one simply wait to be struck by the Spirit? How would one really know if the Spirit moved/spoke/acted on them? These are two immediate issues that crop up and should be carefully thought through – but the potential for a unified answer from Wright and Barth on the question of Scripture, authority and revelation is certainly worth doing the theological work.

Barth, Wright and Election

Karl Barth and N.T. Wright do not typically make good bedfellows. There are a number of significant and (possibly) insurmountable differences between the two in terms of both methodology and theology. There are, however, at least a few interesting and perhaps not insignificant areas of concord between the two, and it is these that I’d like to explore here – I intend to open up space more than give answers and so my conclusions and ideas are more open-ended.

1.The first thing that comes to my mind is that both Barth and Wright are christocentric in their conception of election. They are christocentric in very different ways – but christocentric nonetheless. Both seek to focus election on Jesus. Barth’s (in)famous redrawing of election completely around Christ is rather well-known and fairly radical, Wright’s less radical. Whereas Barth sees God’s election of Christ in terms of God electing all humanity in Christ, Wright sees Jesus as elect in the sense of doing what Israel was originally elected to do but couldn’t do (there are some serious differences here that I’ll come back to). Jesus’ death and resurrection are his vindication as Israel’s elect messiah. What both accomplish is an object-ifying of election, in the following twofold sense: (1) it is focused on Christ and his person and work and (2) not focused on the individual’s question of how to be saved but on the objective grace of God in the election of Christ. For both Barth and Wright, there is an aspect of election that is true apart from whether or not we recognize it. For Barth, we are all reconciled by virtue of God’s election of all men in Christ. For Wright, the battle against sin, death and the powers has been fought and won and the Kingdom of God inaugurated, apart from what any person believes or thinks about it.

2. A second area where harmonization could happen is in the ecclesiological aspect of election. For both Barth and Wright, election is primarily corporate, and concerned more with the establishment of the Church than with the saving of individual souls. For Barth, the Church is in a sense eternal and hidden within Israel (he spends a good deal of time in CD 2.II on this issue). Further, he sees the role of Israel and the role of the Church as related dialectically – Israel as the witness of God’s judgement, the Church as the proclaimer of God’s mercy. Wright sees election as primarily corporate in the following sense: we are in Christ, in the Messiah, and so form the one body, the one family, the one people of God, the Church. To be one of the elect, then, is to fundamentally be part of a body.

3. A third area where concord can be found is the extent to which both Barth and Wright think covenentally and historically about election, especially in terms of the promise(s) to Israel. For Barth, ‘The Church lives by the promises to Israel,’ (CD 2.II, pp. 203). For Wright, the person and work of Christ is the final climax of the story of the promises made to Abraham. There is a significant difference between the two on this issue, which will again be circles back to.

4. The fourth and final area I see the hope of reconciliation is the identification of Jesus as the True Israel, and the role of Israel as the background or ‘prehistory’ of Jesus.  Barth identifies Jesus as the true Israel on page 214 of 2.II, as well as identifying the community as the environment of Jesus. Torrance would take this a bit further and argue that Israel formed a socio-historico matrix from which the Incarnation of Jesus was made intelligible. Barth also argues that Jesus was elected to assume Israel’s flesh and blood (p. 207). Wright, arguing for Jesus as the climax of the covenant, also identifies Jesus as the True Israel, because Jesus did what Israel was called to do, that is, undo the sin of Adam. Jesus was the Israelite fully faithful to God’s plan.

These are areas of potential harmony between Wright and Barth – they are also, as I said above, broad and perhaps wrong. I hope to fill in the details in the future to see just where this proposal might go, but now I move to areas of significant disagreement.

1. Barth’s concept of election is very much eternally-focused. From all eternity God elects. Wright is, essentially, the opposite, arguing that if Adam hadn’t fallen, God would not have sent Abraham to undo his son, and I suspect there is a methodological reason for this. Wright is thinking in terms of temporal history – a linear progression from Adam to Abraham to Jesus. The temporal sequence, and not eternal status, of God’s call and election of Israel/Jesus is what occupies Wright, perhaps for the reason that historically Wright has tended away from the more traditional grammar and subject-matter of dogmatics (it’s no secret he has a bit of the Hellenization thesis on his mind). By anchoring his theology in history, Wright hopes to avoid speculative theology about eternity, substance, persons, natures, essences, decrees, etc. This has the consequence, however, of making the Incarnation a very, very contingent event and of effectively marginalizing Jesus. On Wright’s account, not only was Jesus’ person and work contingent, it shouldn’t have even been necessary, since Israel, had it remained faithful to its calling, would have been able to undo the sin of Adam. If Barth is guilty of christo-monism, surely Wright is guilty of the opposite.

3. While both Barth and Wright think covenentally, I find Wright more satisfying overall because of what was just a weakness: his focus on history. For Wright, the covenant and corresponding Torah are something like national charters, constitutions and even marriage certificates for Israel. Their very being is tied to these covenental concepts, and Wright spends significant amounts of time tracing just exactly what this means in terms of theology for the Christian. Wright’s seeing the covenant and Law/Torah as historical, contingent things is here a strength. Barth, by contrast, tends away from paying close historical attention to things like Torah and the covenants. Thus Katherine Sondregger:

‘The Church Dogmatics as a whole says remarkably little about Law itself. Even in Barth’s account of the earthly Jesus, the Royal Man, there is little about Christ’s teaching and observing and ratifying of Israel’s Law…There is much about ‘Divine command,’ much about Divine instruction and direction, much about Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and much about the famous, living voice of God, the Deus dixit. And all these of course are in the neighborhood of Israel’s Torah; but they are self-consciously event-oriented, dynamic versions of what Israel and Jews of all ages call the ordinances, statutes and precepts of the Divine covenant with his people.’ (‘Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel’)

Past these helpful but broad categories, Barth is not really able to make much theological use of the historical aspects of the covenant and the corresponding Torah.

I here will state briefly a joint critique of both Wright and Barth: they are seemingly unable to allow for any role other than failure to Israel. For Wright, Israel failed in their national calling, and for Barth, Israel is not obedient to its election. Thus Michael Wyschogrod:

‘…reading Barth one would gain the impression that there is nothing but faithfulness on God’s part and unfaithfulness on Israel’s. This is not so…Along with the unfaithfulness, there is also Israel’s faithfulness, its obedience and trust in God, its clinging to its election, identity and mission against all the odds. True, all of Israel’s obedience is tinged with its disobedience but all of its disobedience is also tinged with its obedience. It is true that Israel does not deserve its election but it is also true that its election is not in vain, that this people, with its sin, has never ceased to love its God and that it has responded to God’s wrath…by shouldering its mission again, again searing circumcision into its flesh and, while hoping for the best, prepared for what it knows can happen again.’ (‘Abrahams Promise’, p. 223-224)

To bring this overly long post to a close: there are areas of legitimate concord between Karl Barth and N.T. Wright. These areas are neither obvious nor easy and would require both to learn from each other. There are also areas of perhaps-insurmountable disagreement. There are also areas where both Wright and Barth jointly fail. But, with any luck, this bloated blog post can serve in some way towards moving two of the most important Christian thinkers in theology together in a fruitful way.

(The quoted paragraphs comes from this perceptive essay)

Reading Notes 1/4/2015

I received ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, Christmas eve, and finished the first volume in roughly 7 days – lots to think about. While I’m onboard with most of what Wright argues, I think he seriously overstates the theme of Israel’s national failure – partly because, at a textual level, the evidence he needs just isn’t there. Arguing from the implicit to the explicit is fine – but when every lack of data is brushed off with ‘the implicit narrative’ or ‘every second-temple Jew would have known this’, there’s a problem. Wright’s thesis is strained, at best – the texts he argues from (largely Romans 2:17-23 among others) simply don’t support his idea. I don’t even think he needs it, honestly. I wonder if he’s holding on to said thesis just for the heck of it. For a much more scholarly critique, see Larry Hurtado. It was nice to see him town down some of the anti-imperal rhetoric and relegate it to a somewhat more implicit role (somewhat).

I’ve been reading Pelikan’s Reformation volume, along with various writings of Luther, trying to get a handle of Lutheran dogmatics – christology, specifically (communication of attributes and all that). Christologically, I’d side with the Lutherans over the Reformed (who really do have some Nestorian tendencies), though the Lutherans have their own Eutychian leanings. When it comes to the law/covenant, though, Reformed wins every time. Even allowing for Luther’s rhetoric, I can’t get behind his idea of the law being an ideal that huamnity can’t attain, and in virtue of that, driving one to Christ. Two great web resources on this specific issue: Concordia Theology and Lutheran Theology

I forgot that I had a volume with the major christological dogmatics of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazanien, and Athanasius, as well as all the major christological documents from the post-nicene controversies – Nestorius/Cyril, Leo’s tome, Chalcedon/Constantinople statements, Arius/Eusebius, etc. I’ve been reading the Nestorius/Cyril exchange, as well as the various christological statements.

My Cambridge Companions to Aquinas, Augustine and Plato have all arrived – I’m about halfway through the Augustine volume, which is fun because I’ve never really read and secondary work on him aside from an article here and there. It’s good to get a better handle of Augustine – though funny enough, as sophisticated as his metaphysic is, his theology is pretty blunt – ‘God damned you. Deal with it.’ But seriously though – good volume. Excellent article on the nature of God – so far that’s the standout. There are essays on his epistemology, philosophy of time, memory, language, cognition, etc. Looking forward to it.

I’ve also been reading a good amount of sci-fi short stories, starting with basic Star Wars (the ‘Tales From’ series) and branching into space opera, reading from this great volume. Lots of great old stories – it’s especially interesting reading the ‘harder’ sci-fi from older periods. In one instance, the ‘ether’ was said to have currents, waves, etc, that spaceships could get sucked into – lots of great fun.

A Few MidWeek Links

A few fun links I’ve found on the web:

What N.T. Wright does with the early high christology of Hurtado, Tilling and Bauckham, by  Andrew Perriman

‘Wright aims to take the EHC argument a step further—in a way that effects some measure of reconvergence between the two strands, though he doesn’t put it in such terms. He accepts Hurtado’s thesis that it was the experience of the presence of the risen Christ that led the early Christians to worship Jesus and then develop a high christology through a rereading of the scriptures. Chris Tilling’s relational christology gets an approving mention in passing. But the more important hypothesis to emerge in recent explorations of early christology is Bauckham’s argument that Jesus is included in the unique “divine identity” of the one God.’

To Trust the Person Who Wrote the Books, by Francesca Aran Murphy  (review of Stephen Long’s book on Barth/Balthasar, with a reply by Long)

‘The thesis of this book is that von Balthasar spotted that when Karl Barth criticized the Catholic idea of an analogy of being between creatures and God, he had confused the Catholic analogia entis with the doctrine of a “pure nature,” used by Tridentine Catholic theologians to theorize a virtual reality which is emptied of grace. Long’s thesis is that von Balthasar thought that when Karl Barth heard “analogy of being between creatures and God” the word “creatures” got itself translated into “pure nature” and so Barth imagined that Catholics were constructing a real (rather than hypothetical) foundation for theology upon this “pure nature,” which is graceless and Godless. Long observes that von Balthasar has not only this negative observation about Barth to contribute, but also a positive perception of a “turn” toward acknowledgement of the “analogy” made by Barth round about the time he wrote his book on Anselm, and which is apparent in the Church Dogmatics. Barth may prefer to call it “analogy of faith” rather than “analogy of being,” but in effect he has perceived that, in the person of Christ, there is an analogy between creature (created human nature) and God (uncreated divine nature), and that this analogy is the operative center of theology. Long’s thesis is, moreover, that von Balthasar was right about this, and not merely right about that as a textual claim with regard to Barth’s writings, but right about reality—there is a Christ-formed analogy of being between creatures and God, and above all there is no non-hypothetically, actually existent pure nature.’

Wagner and German Idealism, by Roger Scruton

‘Wagner was to the end of his life a philosopher. All the currents of philosophical thinking that were important in his day, from Fichte’s idolisation of the self to Marx’s critique of the capitalist economy, and from Feuerbach’s repudiation of religion to Schopenhauer’s theory of the will, left traces in his dramas. There is no work of philosophy that delves so deeply into the paradoxes of erotic love as Tristan and Isolde, no work of Christian theology that matches Wagner’s exploration of the Eucharist in Parsifal, and no work of political theory that uncovers the place of power and law in the human psyche with the perceptiveness of The Ring. While taking us into the heart of philosophical concerns, however, Wagner never sacrifices concrete emotion to abstract ideas. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde, to take what for me is the greatest example of this, succeeds in displaying the philosophical mystery of erotic love only because Wagner creates a believable drama, and music that moves with the force and momentum of desire.’

The Conversation Shifts, by Scot McKnight

Some thought this new perspective on Paul — typified in the writings of Sanders, Dunn, and N.T Wright — would unravel the guts of the Reformation doctrine of sin (self-justification) and justification if one did not check the new wave of thinking. All the while at the foundation of this new perspective was a genuinely radical revision of what Judaism was all about. As it turns out, the “old” perspective assumed and in some ways required that Judaism (and especially Paul’s critiques) be a works based religion. With the growing conviction that Judaism was a covenant and election based religion (Sanders, Wright) there came a radical change in how Paul’s opponents were understood and therefore what Paul was actually teaching. He was, to use the words of Dunn, opposing “boundary markers” more than self-justification.’

Quick Note on Justification in Wolterstorff

Wolterstorffs take on justification is interesting. Whereas Wright emphasises the fact of God’s covenant faithfulness, Wolterstorff tries to really focus on the content of said faithfulness – namely, the justice of God’s covenant faithfulness. Wolterstorff .holds that that the topic of Romans is more about justice than covenant faithfulness alone (Wright). God’s inclusion of Gentiles is thoroughly just in the tradition of the Old Testament teachings about the justice of God. The inclusion of the Gentiles does not violate justice