Friday, July 27, 2012

A Tribute to John Stott One Year after His Death

John Stott on the coast in his native land
(image @

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of John R. W. Stott, CBE, the Anglican clergyman and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II of whom journalist David Brooks once wrote , "if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose."  Despite his distinct Englishness (or perhaps because of it?), Stott was an almost universally respected figure in American evangelical circles.  Upon his death, tributes poured forth, memorial services were conducted, and a general sense ensued that evangelicalism had lost a champion who would be, if not irreplaceable, a man whose shoes would be exceedingly difficult to fill.

In the ensuing year, some reassessment of Stott's legacy has taken place, most significantly in a short biography by Alister Chapman of Westmont College.  Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary has also had a lot to say, lamenting the "uncritical adulation" and lack of "critical appreciation" manifested by Stott's hagiographers.  Though positively disposed to Stott, Trueman finds fault (his words: "the problems with him were") with Stott's "protology, eschatology, and ecclesiology," comparing him unfavorably to the two men he considers the most significant for 20th century British evangelicalism, J. I. Packer and Martin Lloyd-Jones.  He likewise compares Stott unfavorably to Packer in his "suspicion of systematic theology" and "increasing interest in social activism."  He even ties some of Stott's perceived faults to his upper class background, particularly his sense of noblesse oblige (would that more of the American upper class retained such a sense) and his favorable disposition to the notion of conditional immortality:
It seems more than coincidental that the great Anglican evangelical advocates of conditional immortality -- (probably) Stott, Wenham and Hughes -- were all public school chaps who no doubt played cricket in their heyday and would have had a sense of what was and what was not fair play instilled into them at an early age. English public school natural theology is somewhat different to that of the state schools.

Well, no one is perfect, after all, and Trueman is right to remind us of this.  Nevertheless, Trueman's absolute statement of Stott's putative theological deficiencies presumes an established position from which to cast judgement.  Was Stott's decision to remain within the Anglican Church a better thing to do than heed Lloyd-Jones's call in 1966 for evangelicals to leave their liberal denominations?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  One thing I do know is that evangelicals have had a more prominent role in that church recently than they did back in the 1960s — indeed, one of them, Tom Wright, even ascended to the bishopric of Durham.  Trueman is perfectly entitled to disagree with Stott, but this is not simply a black-and-white issue.  The same goes with his condemnation of Stott's protology and eschatology.  With the former I suppose he is referring to Stott's advocacy of theistic evolution, and from the case of Pete Enns at Westminster we know where Trueman stands on that issue.  But this is a hermeneutical and interpretative issue, not one of biblical authority, especially considering Stott's insistence on the historicity of Adam in his Romans commentary (Stott indeed once told me he was an "inerrancy man").  And as an Anglican, we must remember, Stott was never beholden to the Westminster standards Trueman, as an Ortodox Presbyterian, must uphold.  Similarly, it is difficult for me to claim that an "eschatology" that involves a possible advocacy of conditional immortality — "annihilationism," for those unused to the terminology is "problematic."  Such a position may or (more likely) may not be correct.  But the point is this: anyone who doesn't feel any moral or intellectual difficulties with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is either unreflective or heartless.  Perhaps Stott's "public school" background and Cambridge education influenced him in this regard.  But I likewise have certain misgivings about what I still think is the likely teaching of the Bible on the matter — and, I must remind you, I attended Haverford High, not the Haverford School.

I count it one of the privileges of my life to have met this man and conversed with him back in 1987 at the home of my late friend and teacher, Harold Hoehner.  In contrast to Trueman, I consider Stott one of the three most significant British evangelicals of the 20th century, along with New Testament scholars F. F. Bruce and I. Howard Marshall (no doubt due to my being a New Testament guy rather than a confessional church historian).  In particular, I appreciate Stott for the following:

1.  Stott wedded a strong sense of scholarship to clear proclamation of the Word and evangelization of the lost.  There are lots of good preachers with silver tongues.  But of all I have ever heard, Stott is only matched by James Montgomery Boice as one whose clarity and deceiving simplicity of proclamation reflected an academically responsible understanding of the biblical text.  And from his early work on university campuses in the UK, he never lost sight of the imperative to "make disciples of all nations."

2.  Stott had a global vision for mission.  Whether or not this was tied to his upbringing in imperial Britain and the legacy of Empire, he understood rightly that the gospel message is not a peculiarly "Western" message, but must be taken to the ends of the earth.  Stott may have remained an "upper class" figure his entire life, but he used his means for the furtherance of the gospel.

3.  Stott is arguably the most important figure for demonstrating to Western evangelicals that social concern and social justice are non-negotiable aspects or dimensions of the gospel message.  As the primary drafter of the landmark 1974 Lausanne Covenant (see also his  exposition and commentary on the covenant), he is largely responsible for moving evangelicals beyond the dualistic divide that severs the "spiritual" message of the gospel from the eschatological framework in which it must be heard.  And Stott lived his message.  The product of the upper class, he nevertheless lived a simple, unassuming life, taking residence in a two-room mews flat above the All Souls Church rectory garage in 1970, remaining there until 2007 (older dispensationalists may see some similarity here with the life of Lewis Sperry Chafer).

4.  Stott was an unapologetic theologian of the cross.  Indeed, Stott's greatest legacy may well turn out to be his landmark work, The Cross of Christ, which carried on the worthy tradition of fine British expositions such as was earlier manifested in 1903 by James Denney.  In an admirably clear style, Stott defends the notion that the "self-substitution of God" in penal judgment lies at the heart of the New Testament teaching on Christ's death.  But he does not leave the matter there.  He adds the needed, but often neglected, discussion of "living under the cross," tying the cross to Christian behavior and discipleship in a way that was uncomfortable to many American evangelicals, myself included, at that time.  Most importantly, however, he ties the cross to the issue of what it says about God.  In one of the most powerful things he ever wrote, Stott says:
I would never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.  The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'.  In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?  I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.  But each time after a while I have had to turn away.  And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from those thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.  That is the God for me!  He laid aside his immunity to pain.  He endured our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.  He suffered for us.  Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.  There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. [quoting P. T. Forsyth] 'The cross of Christ ... is God's only self-justification in such a world' as ours. (335-36)
5.  Finally, Stott was an unabashed proclaimer of the Lordship of Christ.  In the Christianity in which I was raised (basically, Charles Ryrie-styled dispensational fundamentalism), "clarity" was of the essence in proclaiming the gospel.  That meant a simple presentation of penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith.  I have had mush to say about this elsewhere.  Here I would like to focus on one thing that defined such thinking, namely, the assertion that the insistence on accepting Christ's Lordship "muddied" the gospel by compromising the doctrine of justification by faith.  As I now see it, such thinking has no more justification (pun intended) than Rudolf Bultmann's notion that tying faith to history compromised the classic Reformation doctrine.  Fundamental to my change of thinking to what I now consider a more biblical view was an address I heard given by Stott in April 1976 at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.  Yesterday morning I found my old cassette of that address and gave it another listen.  I close by citing a wonderful section that, for me, epitomises Stott's influence on my life:
It has been customary in some evangelical circles, and as regrettable as it has been customary, to distinguish rather sharply between Jesus the Savior and Jesus the Lord.  It has even been suggested in some evangelical circles that it is possible, and even respectable, to trust in Jesus as your Savior and not surrender to him as your Lord.  I don't hesitate to say that such teaching is biblically indefensible.  For not only is Jesus "our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," the one indivisible Christ, but his Lordship implies his salvation and actually announces it. ... It is impossible to affirm Jesus as Lord without thereby affirming that Jesus is Savior.  For Christ's title "the Lord" is a symbol of his victory over all the forces of evil.  If Jesus has been exalted, as indeed he has, over all the principalities and the powers of evil, this is the reason why he has been called Lord.  If Jesus has been proclaimed Lord, which he has, it is because all these principalities and powers are under his feet.  He has conquered them on the cross, and therefore our salvation that is to say, our rescue from sin, from Satan, from fear, and from death is due to the victory of Jesus over evil and his consequent Lordship.  And, my friends, it is a failure to recognize the supreme Lordship of Jesus which accounts for the semi-salvation from which so many of us suffer.  And we're only semi-saved because we don't really believe in the Lordship of Jesus, in his victory over evil.  And our salvation is due to his victory over evil.  It's because of his victory over evil that he is Lord and Savior. ... It is because he is Lord that he is our Savior.  So we begin to understand that the notion of a Jesus who is Savior but not Lord is too grotesque to contemplate.  No salvation without Lordship is the doctrine of the New Testament.
Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, July 23, 2012

How Not To Respond to the Aurora Tragedy

My initial response to the news that 12 people had been killed and more than 50 injured in a shooting at a movie theater in suburban Denver was, upon further reflection, chilling: not the overwhelming sadness for people whose too-short lives were cut off or for their grieving relatives, not the melancholy produced by yet another demonstration of human total depravity (indeed, as I have often said, the only empirically verifiable Calvinist doctrine), but a total lack of shock and even surprise that it had happened.  Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora — the list keeps growing at an ever-quickening pace, and who in their right mind would believe the pace will slacken?

When reading about the tragedy Saturday morning, I came across some remarks by a Republican congressman from (where else?) Texas, Louie Gohmert.  In contrast to the spineless "gag rule on guns" that most politicians have honored since the shootings, at least Gohmert spoke up and gave his opinion on cultural and pragmatic issues related to them.  Unfortunately, what he said is more than a tad problematic, whether one views his opinions historically, logically, or Christianly.

Two things Gohmert said in his radio interview stand out.  First, when asked why such seemingly senseless acts happen, he responded thus:
You know what really gets me, as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place. ...

Some of us happen to believe that when our founders talked about guarding our virtue and freedom, that that was important. Whether it's John Adams saying our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people ... Ben Franklin, only a virtuous people are capable of freedom, as nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters ... We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country.
As a Christian, I wish he had not uttered that first sentence, conforming, as it does, to the stereotype of the backwoods fundamentalist ignoramus.  In Gohmert's view, such acts happen because of attacks on, or corrosion of, America's "Judeo-Christian" foundations.  Well, of course I believe that acts of such stunning depravity are caused by sin, the very thing Jesus came to earth so long ago to defeat.  I also will grant that the indicatives of globalism and multi-culturalism have eroded some of the assumed (Christian) perspectives on morality that obtained even in my childhood in the 1960s.  But please — who, no matter what religion or lack thereof, doesn't know that murder is wrong and speak against it in no uncertain terms?  Also problematic, despite its assumed truth by many in the Religious Right, is his assertion that America was founded on Christian principles.  Elsewhere I have expressed my opinion that the United States was formed by a decidedly unChristian violent rebellion against its mother country.  And the list of national sins tolerated and committed by this country is a serious one: violent land theft from, and subsequent ghettoization of, the aboriginal "Native Americans;" forcible enslavement of, and later discrimination against, millions of people simply by virtue of the color of their skin; child labor; disenfranchisement of women; wars waged for the expansion of empire (Mexican War, Spanish-American War) or protection of the "national interest" (Iraq).  The claim that "at least we haven't produced a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot" simply damns us with faint praise (even America's greatest presidents, Lincoln and FDR, were men with mixed motives and uneven records of achievement).  America, like all other nations, is populated exclusively by sinners, a fact that does everything to dismantle claims of "exceptionalism" born of an illegitimate conflation of the Puritans and the much later "founding fathers."  The fathers were, to be sure, exceptional men much to be admired in many ways, but few of them were what a 21st century evangelical would consider to be "orthodox Christians."  I can think of three who were: John Jay, John Witherspoon, and Patrick Henry.  The rest are to be located somewhere on a sliding deistic scale from the somewhat orthodox (the Unitarian-leaning Adams, the Eucharist-shunning Washington) to the unorthodox (Franklin, Jefferson, Paine).  For Gohmert to cite the notoriously womanizing Franklin in this regard brings a wry smile to the face.

The fact of the matter is that in the reality world of universal human sinfulness, violence will happen.  Young men fueled by testosterone and afflicted with alienation (for whatever reason) will take their frustrations out on undeserving victims.  What has changed, however, is the ready availability of de facto weapons of mass destruction that make such tragedies both possible and increasingly common.  It is here that Gohmert's second statement has relevance.  Echoing the sentiments of America's most powerful extremist political interest group, the NRA, the congressman  said, "It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?"

My initial reaction was to think that such a sentiment simply refutes itself.  I still believe that.  The utter naivete it manifests is staggering.  Even worse is the assumption, by a self-professed Christian, that the solution to gun-based violence is an even greater proliferation of guns.  Has representative Gohlert never heard the words of Jesus (in a contemporary contextualization and only slightly out of context), "Those who take the gun will perish by the gun" (Matt 26:52)?

It is well past time for a rational and realistic national discussion on guns and the increasing havoc they are playing on our society.  To be sure, in the wake of Aurora some of the usual suspects have called for this: "liberal" academics such as Melissa Harris-Perry and journalists like E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News (though conservatives like Bill Kristol have chimed in as well), big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg and Michael Nutter, big-city police commissioners like Philadelphia's Charles Ramsey, pacifist-leaning Christians.  In my view, they are right, but, as usual, I am not optimistic about this happening.

The reason for this is the stranglehold the NRA has politically on Washington and ideologically on most of "conservative" America.  It is a strange fact that Americans who know little history or English grammar nevertheless "know" that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of the individual American to bear arms (curiously, their constitutional piety does not often extend to the 14th Amendment and the right of children born in America to "illegal" immigrants to American citizenship).  I myself am not confident that the Second Amendment, properly interpreted, guarantees this right.  Indeed, I find the Supreme Court's pronouncements on the amendment in 2008 and 2010 to be somewhat tendentious.  Nevertheless, even if the current de rigueur interpretation is granted, the matter is not as black-and-white as its supporters usually contend. 

I can confidently claim that I will never own a gun.  And before anyone says that is because I am a soft product of the Philly Main Line, I must remind such a person that I lived for 12 years in a poor, crime-infested neighborhood of Dallas, where gunshots and hovering police helicopters were at least weekly occurrences, and where more than once I had to call the police because of prowlers/burglars on my or a neighbor's property. Nevertheless, despite my own aversion to guns, I have no difficulties with hunting rifles and handguns kept in the home for "protection."  Even less do I have a problem with riflery as a sport or of shooting clubs that people can join for hobby purposes.  That does not mean, however, that restrictions cannot rightly be placed on types of weaponry or on stockpiling of such implements of death.  There is simply no justification for allowing private citizens to own assault rifles and high volume drum magazines.  Nor are strict background checks, waiting periods, requirements for training, or limitations on frequency and volume of purchase overly burdensome, despite what the NRA thinks.  And, frankly, I cannot understand why anyone (usually, unsurprisingly, a man) thinks he must carry a concealed (or not) weapon on him while in public.  Actually, I think I understand the pathology of such a felt need, but I will refrain from writing about it.

Certain facts about the good old USA need to be faced head-on.  This morning I read that 15 people had been shot, four of them killed this weekend in my home city of Philadelphia.  Americans love to brag that the USA is "the greatest country in the history of the world," as President George W. Bush used to say with regularity.  If so, why is its murder rate so high?  Specifically, why are gun-related homicides so prevalent compared to other, supposedly not-as-great countries?  The statistics are staggering: the yearly firearm-related homicide rate per 100,000 people in the USA from 2004-2006 was 4.14, better than such places as South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica, to be sure, but far worse than other industrialized nations as France (0.44), Canada (0.76), Australia (0.44), New Zealand (0.17), Germany (0.22), Ireland (0.03!), Spain (0.21), Scotland (0.19), Japan (0.02!!!), and England/Wales (0.07).

I am aware that the gun-toting Swiss likewise have a low rate (0.58), so the presence or absence of guns alone does not explain the issue entirely (the mythological American metanarrative has a lot to do with it).  Nevertheless, guns make murder easier to commit, and without a shadow of a doubt easier to commit on a mass scale.  In particular, I am bloody sick and tired of the specious truism that "guns don't kill people, people do."  Well, of course guns, as inanimate objects, don't will to commit a crime.  But guns certainly do "kill people" in that they are an efficient tool used by murderers to do their dirty deed.  Claiming that guns don't kill people is the equivalent of saying that the atomic bomb didn't kill 70,000 people at Hiroshima in August of 1945.  Certainly the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding, murder-deriding citizens.  But some are not, and the easy availability of guns (James Holmes bought three of his weapons online with no background check, which in his case wouldn't have mattered) makes mass murder a much easier proposition than would be the case if more restrictions were on the books.  It is safe to say that Holmes could not have done this vile act if the most powerful weapon he had at his disposal was a knife (even a machete).  Call me "unAmerican," if you like.  You won't offend me, whose only ultimate loyalty goes to the one who was murdered on my behalf and whose shed blood set me free from slavery to sin.  But one thing I do know: the inconvenience of prospective gun owners and even, if necessary, the curtailment of their "right" to bear arms is small price to pay for the lives that are ruined and lost because of guns each year.  Something has to be done to make sure that tragedies like the one that happened last week in Colorado happen far less frequently.  Making more guns available is not the answer, and will only contribute to the cycle of violence that has gripped America and gives the lie to her self-serving claim to greatness.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Update: Jared Wilson and the Gospel Coalition Take Down Offending Post

Late yesterday evening Jared Wilson did what I consider to be the right thing: he (and the Gospel Coalition) took down the controversial post in which he not only extended "complementarian hierarchy" to the inner sanctum of the marital bedroom, but used such images of dominance as "penetration," "conquering," and "colonizing" (from a book by Doug Wilson) in doing so.  Wilson also posted an explanation/apology, which should go a long way to defusing the situation.

I am sure some will be disappointed by Wilson for doing this and will view his sensible response as a "capitulation" to the sensibilities of dastardly "egalitarians" or, even worse, "feminists."  But this was the right thing to do.  He is certainly entitled to express his opinions on the application of putative gender roles to the bedroom.  Nevertheless, a Christian must always act, speak, and write in such a way that needless offensiveness is minimized.  Such was the case, I believe, in this situation, where his descriptions of male "authority" and female "submission" in sex came uncomfortably close to sanctified rape.  I know, from the works of such "complementarians" as John Piper and Tim Keller, that such descriptions are not par for the course in writings from this perspective.

For me, this is a cautionary tale.  Blogging, by its very nature, is prone to this kind of retraction.  Blogs are, first of all, opinion pieces.  More importantly, they are more along the order of "interim reports" than final products designed for peer review.  As those who know me well are all too aware, I am not only opinionated, but have a decided tendency to speak and write in black-and-white terms for effects' sake.  When necessary, I can provide all the qualifications and shades of gray necessary, but doing so tends to inhibit conversation and dialogue.  Because of this, in years past I often told my students to take what I say and divide it in half.  Some never got that message, however, with results I have lived to regret.  So I take this as a lesson: always be careful with what I say, no matter how strongly I hold to a debated position, for, if I am not, I may cause harm and offense to one for whom Christ died.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jared Wilson, Sex, and Male-Female Authority Structures

When I first read the post yesterday afternoon, I was left — somewhat uncharacteristically — temporarily speechless.  After thinking about it all night while working my shift at Donnelley, I was angry ... and embarrassed.  I am speaking, as some of you are no doubt surmising, of a post by Jared Wilson on the supposedly respectable Gospel Coalition website ostensibly criticising the 2011 erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey.  It is not Wilson's criticism of the novel that bothers me.  Rather, it is his diagnosis of the pathology of rape and understanding of the proper dynamics of marital sexual relations that is more than a little disturbing.  Central to Wilson's post is the following quotation from Doug Wilson's book, Fidelity: What It Means To Be a One-Woman Man:

A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed. ...

True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.
It is explicit quotations like these that lay bare the disingenuity of the oh-so-pious moniker "complementarianism" to label what is, in reality, a base form of patriarchal hierarchicalism.  Perhaps Wilson actually believes that the radical feminists were right after all: heterosexual sex really is about the exercise of domination and power — er, "authority."  Fantasies of rape are just the response of men who are societally disallowed from expressing such "God-given" authority because of the nefarious ideology of egalitarianism which supposedly reduces sexual expression to an "egalitarian pleasuring party."

Response to Wilson's post has been swift, decisive, and devastating (see the valuable posts by Scot McKnight, Mike Bird, and especially Daniel Kirk and Rachel Held Evans).  As a result, the unrepentant Wilson has posted a response in which he decries the "shades of outrage" over the post and accuses his critics of "misunderstanding" what he was saying.  Well, his "clarification" reads as follows:
The Bible lays out complementary roles for men and women in covenant contexts, in which men are meant to be the heads of the household and the church and women are meant to be their helpers. Because of the fall, this authority/submission design has become perverted. It has even become perverted in the arena of sexuality when authority/submission becomes about violent rape and even “rape fantasies” as found in role playing by kinky husbands and wives or in popular pornography for women.
Note to Wilson: we got the point the first time, and we still don't agree with you.  It all boils down to divinely-designed, transtemporal "gender roles" and "patterns of authority" that make their way into the marital bedroom.  The debate over hierarchy versus mutuality isn't going anywhere because of fundamentally different hermeneutical programs.  Reading the Bible salvation-historically and/or narratologically clearly is difficult for some strands of Reformed theology (i.e., those not fundamentally influenced by the writings of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos).  Wilson, like many others, apparently reads the complementarity and "helper" texts in the second creation account in light of an assumed hierarchical authority structure.  He also fails to take into account that male authority over the female in the "home" is tied to the curse of Genesis 3 ("your desire will be for [i.e., to dominate] your husband, but he will rule over you") and neglects the way the "authority" of the husband over the wife is deconstructed in the context of mutual submission and imitation of Jesus' teaching and example of how authority is properly exercised (Eph 5).

But one need not be an "egalitarian" to recognize that, in one area at least, mutuality is the apostolically-commanded order of the day: marital sex.  St. Paul wrote the following (quoting the complementarians' favorite translation, the ESV):
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.  Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)
Notions of male sexual dominance may have been the order of the day in the Greco-Roman world (Kirk nicely reminds us that Roman art often depicts conquered peoples as ravished women and notes that homosexuality was fondly embraced so long as the "penetrated party" was the social inferior of the penetrator), but they have no place in a Christian understanding of the marital bedroom.  Rape is all about power.  Marital sex emphatically is not, and even to suggest that rape is the fallout from metaphorical egalitarian "emasculation" is worse than offensive, not to mention historically and psychologically inane.

One also wonders if Wilson has recently read the Song of Songs lately.  Describing mutuality in the marriage bed as an "egalitarian pleasuring party" is emotionally driven and deliberately distorting.  Nevertheless, one could indeed articulate its descriptions of the sexual relationship between the king and his bride in these terms.  The  lengthy descriptions of the physical virtues of the lovers are culturally expressed, but what they clearly manifest is the utter delight both took in the other and the inestimable value they placed on the other's God-given attributes.  And it was not only the man who took the lead.  Note, for example, the following invitation from the girl to her beloved:
Come, my beloved,
let us go out into the fields
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love. (Song of Solomon 8:11-12)
This is no mere garden variety theological quibble.  St. Paul once said that he conducted himself at all times "for the sake of the gospel" (dia tou euangelion, 1 Cor 9:23).  Later he spoke of the need to "adorn" (kosmeō) the teaching about God through how one lives so as to make it attractive to those who most need the message (Tit 2:10).  One thing I can say with confidence: such viewpoints as Wilson expresses adorn the gospel with the ugly garments of male aggrievement over perceived loss of rightful authority.  And it is not only godless feminists who will consequently turn away from the message of the gospel because of the weight of such illegitimate excrescences added by such preachers as Wilson who, despite good intentions, know not what they are doing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mitt Romney, the Desire to Get Rich, and St. Paul

Yesterday a facebook friend pointed me to a statement made by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney  at a Mississippi fundraiser Monday evening — one that raised over $1.7 million, with ticket prices set at $2,500, $10,000 or $50,000.  This is what Romney said:
We're accused, by the way - in our party - of being the party of the rich.  And it's an awful moniker, because that's just not true. We're the party of people who want to get rich. And we're also the party of people who want to care to help people from getting poor. We want to help the poor.
The last couple of sentences made me smile.  I'm sure he means well, but I can't imagine anyone from North Philly or Kensington thinking his economic policies will lift any from those neighborhoods out of the grinding, hopeless poverty that weighs them down like a pair of cement shoes.  The one thing that could — good paying industrial jobs — aren't coming back any time soon, if ever, because of the exigencies of the global marketplace.  Be that as it may (I don't see the other party having brilliant solutions, either), what really caught my attention was the sentence I have highlighted: "We're the party of people who want to get rich." 

Mitt the Mormon might like to consider himself a Christian, but his very honest statement demonstrates a disconnect between his and a Christian worldview and philosophy of life.  What is more worrisome to me, however, is that the vast majority of Christians in America will have no problems with his statement — indeed, many would positively celebrate it — especially those so-called "evangelicals" who should know their Bibles better than to have developed an ideological consanguinity with Romney's political philosophy.  Do "evangelicals" not remember that St. Paul, in one of the last things he ever wrote, said the following?:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10, NIV [altered JRM])
Paul is writing in response to false teachers in Ephesus, one of whose faults was their "supposing" (nomizontōn) that "godliness" or "piety" (eusebeia, the true practice of the Christian religion [cf. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles {ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999} 135-70]) was a vehicle for (financial) "gain" (porismon) (1 Tim 6:5).  In response, the apostle affirms the connection made by the false teachers between eusebeia and porismos, but redefines both the nature of the "profit" brought by godliness and the conditions on which such profit might be had.  True piety, according to Paul, certainly does issue in genuine "gain," but emphatically not the "gain" of financial advantage.  The "gain" produced by such godliness is spiritual in nature, "the life of godliness itself," as Luke Timothy Johnson eloquently put it (The First and Second Letters to Timothy [AB 35A; New York: Doubleday, 2001] 294).

But such spiritual "profit" only accrues to those who accompany (meta) their "piety" with the concomitant virtue of "contentment" (autarkeias).  Autarkeia was a term used by the Stoics to refer to a detached "self-sufficiency" that enabled a person to resist the force of circumstances.  Paul clearly was riffing off these echoes of Hellenistic moral exhortation.  Once again, however, he fills the linguistic vessel with Christian content.  For Paul, the autarkeia that must accompany "piety" is defined in terms of the recognition that one both enters and leaves this life bereft of possessions (6:7; cf. esp. Job 1:21; Qoh. 5:14 [LXX]) and a contentment (archesthēsometha) with such necessities of life as food and clothing (6:8; cf. Matt 6:24-34; Luke 12:16-32).  This is a "contentment" rooted, not in prideful self-sufficiency, but in a dependence upon the God who strengthens the Christian and "will supply every need  ... according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:13, 19).

In verses 9-10 the apostle continues by stating, as clearly as one could hope, why the false teachers' worldview and desire for financial gain is wrong.  Not simply wealth or the possession of money, but the actual desire to get rich (hoi ... boulomenoi ploutein) leads to an inexorable downward spiritual spiral: temptation, the snare (sc. "of the devil"), senseless and harmless desires, all resulting in the inevitable "plunge" (bythizousin) into spiritual "ruin" (olethron) and "destruction" (apōleian).  Paul could not be clearer: the desire to become rich is a spiritual iceberg that will utterly plunge the unwary person who courts it into the icy depths of spiritual ruin.  He can confidently say this because the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (I hate to say this, but Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was wrong when he wrote way back in 1973, "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today"), including the most devastating of all, apostasy from the faith (apeplanēthēsan apo tēs pisteōs).

Paul pulled no punches, and neither should any Christian teacher or preacher.  I, for one, am sick and tired of preachers who minimize what the New Testament (or the Old, for that matter) actually says about wealth and poverty either out of concern not to offend wealthy parishioners or, even worse, an unexamined "conservative" Americanism.  In my experience, Christian teachers have spent more time qualifying the story of the "rich young ruler" than in expounding what our Lord actually said about the rich and the kingdom of God.  In my experience, most Christian "preachers" have utterly explained away the early church's practice of communitarianism (Acts 2, 4), even going to the length of claiming that such an "unwise" practice led to the poverty the Jerusalem church later experienced in Acts (tell that to Luke, who saw this practice as an illustration of how "great grace was upon them all" [Acts 4:33]).  And I have heard more than one exposition of 1 Timothy 6 that so emphasizes Paul's condemnation of the desire for wealth (intended target: the poor and others who want to improve their financial lot) that they forget that one necessary corollary of what Paul says is a condemnation of those who have an inordinate desire to maintain their wealth.  Wealth, according to Paul, is an illegitimate concern.  If one doesn't have it, be content with what one has, so long as life's necessities of food, clothing, and shelter are taken care of.  If one does have it, one must be willing to use it to part with it, if necessary —  so as to meet the needs of others.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  I dare say that most people, myself included, are to some degree guilty of the sin Paul describes.  One teacher who didn't pull punches on this passage is my old friend, Buist Fanning.  Buist is a soft-spoken, reserved kind of guy, as befits a man from old Charleston, but a sermon he gave on this passage at Dallas Seminary in the late '80s is one I will never forget, not least because of a brilliant telling of a faux "dream" he had had of Winnebagos and such falling from the sky.  The point he made has had a lasting influence on my thought: all of us who want more than we have are guilty of the desire to get rich.  And the result of such desire has been detrimental to community, both in the people of God and in the national and worldwide communities as well.

Getting back to Mr. Romney's statement of what the GOP stands for, I believe it epitomizes what is wrong with American political discourse today.  It is not simply a matter of the GOP being wrong.  Both political parties are wrong because they have both imbibed from the same poisonous ideological well (i.e., same end, different means).  Romney's political and economic visions, however, are transparent in this regard.  I would argue that the major problem with his political philosophy is that it makes the pursuit (and protection) of individual wealth the driving force of life and political policy to the exclusion of communitarianism and the common good (i.e., the tension between individualism and one's responsibility to others is snapped).  In such a worldview taxes are not one's means-based contribution to the common good and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, the means by which we buy "civilization, " but a "penalty" paid by the "virtuous" and hard-working "productive people" to subsidize the "others" who are lazy, "unmotivated" and un- or under-productive.  Such thinking, I would argue, is simplistic at best and arrogant self-centeredness at worst.  Once again, I am not saying that the typical solutions of Romney's opponent are optimal.  But the curious fact is that most American evangelicals buy into Romney's vision.  And whatever one's political loyalties are, that simply ought not to be.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More Thoughts on Bishop Jefferts-Schori and Salvation in Christ Alone

Saturday I wrote a post detailing "The Sad, Sad Case of the Episcopal Church in the USA."  Lest anyone misunderstand me, I want to make it clear that my beef is not with lay Episcopalians or any particular Episcopal Church, let alone with historic Anglicanism per se, toward which I am pleasantly disposed.  My problem is with the official hierarchy of the church that gives direction to the shriveling denomination as a whole, in particular the church's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.  My contention is that the Episcopalianism represented by Jefferts Schori is sub-Anglican at best and sub-Christian at worst.

Defenders of Jefferts Schori, such as Huffington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass (see, e.g., here and here), speak glowingly of the type of "liberal" Christianity embodied by the bishop:
Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus' command to "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself." As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations--a form of faith that cares for one's neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus' injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.
My political vision certainly does not match that of the common-variety evangelical.  Moreover, I have been a relentless critic of the throw out the baby with the bathwater-style evangelical reductionism that has divorced the preaching of the cross from its necessary embodiment in a cruciform discipleship that seeks to implement social justice.  Nevertheless, so-called "liberal" Christians like Bass and her bishop Jefferts-Schori simply perpetuate a mirror image of the evangelical one-sidedness they deride.  Yes, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (the "Jesus Creed," as the evangelical Scot McKnight calls it) is the core of Christian praxis.  Yet, as the Gospels teach us, even the Pharisees did not dispute this (cf. Mark 12:28-34 et par.; numerous later rabbinic texts illustrate the same point).  But understanding this, and even the attempt to act upon it, only left the inquirer "not far from" the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34). 

Many "evangelical rejects" who have been unconscionably hurt by the evangelical machine have found comfort in such traditions as Bass and Jefferts Schori embody.  I understand that completely, as I do the renewed sense of worship that often attends a (re)discovery of beautiful ancient liturgies.  But we must make one thing clear: loving God and neighbor is a necessary defining feature of Christian vocation, but it is not a sufficient summary of what Christian identity and belief entails.  Bass rightly praises the positive influence liberal Christianity has played in American society in contrast to the sectarian vision of much fundamentalism.  But that does not alter the fact that "liberalism" as a Christian belief system is a 19th century reaction to orthodoxy (e.g., Schleiermacher, Harnack) that was definitively critiqued by Albert Schweitzer in 1910 and devastatingly shown to be a different religion from Christianity by J. Gresham Machen in 1923.  One simply cannot cherry-pick favorable teachings of Jesus and act as if St. Paul never existed.  Hermeneutical and historical concerns join together here to invalidate an understanding of Christianity born of an enculturated wishful-thinking.

A prime example here is this video of Jefferts-Schori in which she clearly disputes the notion that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  In the space of a mere 2 minutes and 40 seconds, she manages to utter the following:
"Clearly the other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus."

"Ghandi, the Dalai Lama ... show us what look like fruits of the Spirit ... If I deny that that person has some access to God because of the evidence I see I think I'm dong something pretty close to the sin against the Holy Spirit."

"I believe that the whole world has access to God; I'm just not too worried about the mechanism."

"In some pats of Christianity we have turned salvation into a work, that you have to say 'I claim Jesus as my Lord and Savior in order to be saved.'  That turns it into a work.  It denies the possibility of grace."
I would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious example of poor biblical interpretation and irresponsible theology from any educated Christian, let alone a woman who is charged with oversight in a major American denomination.  The first thing that immediately struck my attention is that what she says does not even match a criterion of what it has historically meant to be an Anglican.  Article XVIII of the 39 Articles of Religion (2006 American edition) is entitled "Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the name of Christ."  It reads as follows:
They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature.  For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
More importantly, I would argue that her pronouncements likewise are subChristian because their explicit denial of the soteriological uniqueness of Christ implicitly manifests a substandard Christology and explicitly contradicts the words of both Jesus and the apostles.  Jesus himself, in response to a query by Thomas, made the following outrageous claim:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
St. Peter, while speaking to the "rulers and elders of the people" as well as the "teachers of the law" (Acts 4:5) showed he remembered Jesus' words when he likewise uttered the offensive claim:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
I am perfectly aware of such notions as exclusivism (salvation through explicit faith in Christ alone), inclusivism (salvation through Christ alone for both Christians and those who have "responded to God" through their own faith traditions), and universalism (salvation for all because of Christ no matter the faith practiced or life lived).  I am a trained theologian with a terminal degree, after all.  One thing should be clear to anyone who has read the New Testament, however.  No matter what we might "like to think" about God, he has only given hope to those who actively put their faith in Christ and submit to him.  Indeed, this is part of the raison d'etre of evangelism.  To quote the apostle Paul: "How are they to believe in him on whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14-15a).

Jefferts-Schori is obviously an inclusivist, basing her view on God's undefined "grace."  Because of this "grace," she is certain the whole world has "access" to God.  As a result she is relatively "unconcerned" about the "mechanism" of this access.  Considering the clarity of the New Testament witness in this regard, such a statement may sound pious, but it is in reality both pathetic and disingenuous.  She tips her hand in her outrageous claim that the requirement to exercise faith in Christ turns salvation into a "work."  This is yet another example of using pious-sounding language to evacuate the clear, and clearly inconvenient to her, meaning of the biblical text.

Was St.Paul, after all, the apostle of works-righteousness?  Would she dare to correct Paul and Silas when they told the Philippian jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved? (Acts 16:31).  Would she dare to inform the apostle Paul that he was inconsistent when he simultaneously tied "justification" to faith and to grace alone (Rom 3:21-31; cf. Eph 2:8-9)?  Would she deign to instruct the apostle Paul about his error in tying grace to the event of the cross (e.g., Rom 5:20)?  What would she say to Luke when he attributed the faith by which the Corinthians had believed in Christ through Apollos's ministry to the grace of God (Acts 18:27)?  And is she ready to throw out of the Bible (or at least the Bible she uses) the most significant text of all in this regard, Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness"?  Jefferts-Schori, in other words, has a sub-Pauline understanding of grace.  Grace is not simply the beneficence of an indulgent God, but the undeserved favor shown to sinners, who all deserve wrath, in the penal death of his Son on the cross of Calvary and the application of its achievement to the sinner through grace-given faith.  Unfortunately, such theology offends the sensibilities of such church leaders as Jefferts-Schori.  But they can hardly claim scriptural warrant for their "reimagining" of what genuine Christianity teaches.

The last thing I would like to say concerns Jefferts-Schori's assertions about other "Abrahamic faiths" and her stance that adherents of these religions need not be evangelized.  God, according to the bishop, had made certain unconditional promises to both the Jews and to "the people of Ishmael" that have not been rescinded.  She doesn't identify precisely what these "promises" entail.  Implicitly, however, she would include what Christians call "salvation" as one of them.  Now, I have no clue as to what grand, eternal scriptural promises she would say pertain to Muslims outside of Christ.  I do know that it was only the seed of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob that had been placed in covenant relationship with YHWH.  The seed of Ishmael, like the seed of Isaac, were not part of the chosen people exclusively "known" by God (Amos 3:1).  They were rather lumped in together with my forebears as Gentiles who would one day be blessed "in" and "with" Abraham (see Galatians 3 for how that is worked out in the New Testament).  There is no justifiable theological rationale for excluding them from the necessity of bending the knee to Christ (apart from the politically correct desire to appear "open" and "inclusive," good words that have had unnecessary connotations attached to them through the usage of "liberals" [another good word ...]).

Jefferts-Schori's comment about the Jews brought a smile to my face, however, for, if one did not know better, one might have been forgiven for getting the impression that she was a dispensationalist!  There are promises to the Jews that have never been rescinded.  True enough, but the bishop has no intention of applying her words to the promise of the land or a Davidide ruling over the world from Jerusalem.  What she means is something like what many post-holocaust scholars have dubbed "the two-covenant theory."  According to this theory, Gentiles relate to God through Christ, but the Jews still can relate to God through their own covenants.  Ironically, what is meant to be a "compassionate" and "anti-imperial" position vis-a-vis the Jews who have suffered so much at the hands of supposed Christians turns out to be, in reality, antisemitic if it thereby closes off the only path to salvation made available to them.  And we have no doubt where St. Paul would have stood on this matter.  He rebuked Peter because the latter had, in Antioch, acted inconsistently with his knowledge that all people (himself, a Jew, included) are justified only by faith in Christ (Gal 2:15-16).  In Romans he speaks of the gospel of Christ as applicable to the Jew first (Rom 1:16).

As the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 1:20, all God's promises — and that includes his promises to the Jewish people find their "yes" in Christ, and in him alone.  Christ is the true "seed of Abraham" who rendered to God the obedience the exiled nation owed him, thus reversing the covenant curse and extending the Abrahamic blessing to the Gentiles (Gal 3:7-14).  As a result, it is Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ that constitute the true "seed of Abraham" (Gal 3:29) and "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) who receive the benefits of "justification" and covenant membership.  As the apostle argues elsewhere, on the basis of God's faithfulness to his promises, ethnic Israel does have a future — only not a guaranteed future for those outside of Christ, based on the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, but a future when, after God has gathered the "full number of the Gentiles," "all Israel" will be "saved" and "grafted back into" the olive tree as natural branches who finally accept their Messiah (Rom 11).  For, you see, St. Paul had no conception of any "salvation" for anybody apart from faith in the Christ who commissioned him to preach.  And neither should we.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Sad, Sad Case of the Episcopal Church in the USA

This morning, while reading up on the recently concluded 77th triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I became overwhelmed with an uncontrollable melancholy.  I should not have been surprised.  Indeed, I really wasn't.  But the list of  matters brought up for discussion funeral rites in anticipation of resurrection for dogs and catsdismantling the effects of the "doctrine of discovery"  (which, in effect, apologizes to Native Americans for introducing them to the Christian gospel), banning discrimination against transsexuals (including in matters such as ordination), and approving church-wide blessing of same-sex partnerships — ran the gamut from the stereotypically ridiculous to the safely politically-correct to the downright  transparently unfaithful to the Scripture their standards still profess to be the Word of God.

Anglicanism is part of my heritage.  My grandparents were members of the Church of Ireland and, after immigrating to the US in 1920-21, attended the Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Greenville, Delaware, where my father was baptised as an infant in 1921 (a plaque still stands there with my father's name on it honoring the men from the church who served in WWII).  Anglican New Testament scholars, theologians, and preachers from Charlie Moule, Dick France, Anthony Thiselton, and Tom Wright to J. I. Packer, Alister McGrath, and John Stott have played an enormous role in shaping my own understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith.  The beauty of Anglican liturgical worship is unparalleled, and it is only partly in jest that I have proclaimed at times to be on the verge of switching to the Episcopal Church "because of the architecture."

But the American branch of the worldwide Anglican communion is rudderless and in danger of collapse.  As recently as 1970, the Episcopal Church claimed 3 million members.  Today it has shrunk to less than 2 million, meaning it has less members than the minuscule African Methodist-Episcopal Church.  Not only is it hemorrhaging members, it is shedding both individual congregations — in 2006, the vast majority of the historic Falls Church (VA) voted to disaffiliate with the ECUSA and join the Anglican Church in North America; in the same year, the ECUSA kicked the conservative congregation of the historic Church of St. James the Less in Philadelphia out of its building for having disaffiliated from the Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania — and even entire dioceses in such large cities as Fort Worth and Pittsburgh.  The resulting situation, in which a shrinking church spent $18 million this past year suing churches in its own denomination (1 Cor 6 anybody?) to retain white elephant, un- or under-used historic sanctuaries, reeks of spite and is, more than anything else, the ultimate indictment of the abject theological liberalism that has bankrupted this denomination. 

Make no mistake.  When the claims of Christ are rejected or minimized, the church, for all practical purposes, ceases to exist.  The Episcopal Church, like the UCC and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the UMC, PCUSA, and ELCA, is famous for its politically correct posturing on hot-button social issues.  One might suppose it has simply misplaced its priorities.  In some instances, perhaps this is the case.  More often, however, they have, like Esau, substituted their glorious inheritance for the bowl of porridge provided by a desired cultural acceptance.  Exhibit A in this regard is Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.  Jefferts Schori, in direct contradiction to Acts 4:12 and Article XVIII in the Thomas Cranmer's 39 Articles, has publicly denied that Jesus is the only way of salvation.  Even worse (if possible) was her denouncing of the notion that "we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God" as "The Great Western Heresy" (for fine rebuttals of Jefferts Schori on these points, see the responses by David Virtue and Fuller Seminary's Rich Mouw).  Virtue aptly quotes the retired Bishop of South Carolina, The Rt. Rev. Dr. C. FitzSimons Allison, to the effect that Bishop Jefferts Schori's remarks are not a distortion of Christology, the Trinity or even the Creed, but are rather the announcement of a different religion: "It doesn't measure up to heresy. She is trying to reduce Christianity to the blank space in the creed between the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate." Indeed.

What is a traditional/conservative/evangelical Anglican (or Anglican sympathizer) to do?  The easy thing to do would be to follow the example of conservative Presbyterians and secede (of course they, like the Baptists, have unfortunately seceded into multiple "conservative" denominations).  The other option would be to emulate Martin Luther and attempt reform from within.  That is a noble goal, but we all know how that turned out for Brother Martin.  Even rock 'n roller John Mellencamp knew how such things almost always turn out: "I fight authority; authority always wins."  The only hope is that ultimate authority resides in heaven.  It is to him that Christians owe their ultimate allegiance, and to him that they can, as my old teacher Claire Hitz used to say, "always pray."  The Episcopal Church certainly needs that prayer today.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Darrell Bock on the Gospel in the Speeches of Acts

Over at Euangelion, Michael Bird has drawn my attention to a fine article by my old friend, former Master's thesis advisor and basketball partner, Darrell Bock, in the recent I. Howard Marshall Festschrift.  This article, entitled "The Gospel before the Gospels: The Preached Core Narrative," examines the early apostolic speeches in Acts in order to shed light, as the title suggests, on the narrative shape of the "good news" as proclaimed in the earliest "Palestinian Christianity." 

Bock is uniquely qualified to write this article as certainly today's preeminent evangelical Lukan scholar, a specialty dating back to his doctoral research on Luke's use of the Old Testament (under the supervision of Marshall), and proceeding through his major commentaries on Luke and Acts to his spanking new treatment of Lukan theology.  He is also one of a growing number of evangelical scholars who are reexamining the New Testament to define more accurately what the "gospel" — the very term from which "evangelicals" derive their self-designation — actually entails, in contrast to what our traditions tell us it entails.  His recent short book, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel, is one of the two readable-yet-responsible books on the matter (the other being Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel) that all interested Christians should read.

One quotation immediately struck me:

In the church today we often present the gospel as if it were about forgiveness of sins alone. Jesus died for our sins, so believe and be saved. However, what this speech [Acts 2] highlights is not so much how Jesus saves us, but where that act of saving takes us. It takes us to God’s Spirit and a restored relationship with God rooted in enablement to respond to God. This parallels what is said about the new covenant in Jeremiah, where forgiveness and the Law of God on the heart are the benefits God promises will come to his people one day. In this way, gospel and covenantal promise come together. God’s having exalted Jesus makes all of this possible. This is the message of Acts 2.
Yes!  I was raised in an ecclesial environment that exclusively valued "clarity" and "simplicity" in gospel presentations.  That meant an exclusive emphasis on the forensic status of the individual before God; hence the almost exclusive focus on the cross as penal substitution (the resurrection wasn't an optional extra, but, though considered essential as a matter of intellectual assent, its significance was largely left uninterpreted) and justification by faith (not to be compromised by mention of such things as baptism and Jesus' Lordship).

In other words, I was taught that the essence of the "gospel," despite such texts as Romans 1:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and the speeches in Acts, not to mention the narrative shape of the books called "Gospels" in the New Testament, lay in St. Paul's theology of the cross as interpreted through Reformational interpretations of two key texts: Romans 1-4 and Galatians 2-3.  Now, I gladly acknowledge that both Luther and Calvin gave us powerful contextualizations of Romans and Galatians for the church of their day.  I likewise believe in penal substitution as a viable aspect of what Christ accomplished on the cross and heartily affirm justification by faith alone.  Nevertheless, even in my days as a young, theologically untrained Christian, I was observant enough to realize that both the Gospels and Acts could (or at least should) not be read in the straightjacket provided by  a truncated reading of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Bock, along with McKnight and other scholars such as Tom Wright, clearly understand that, while such matters as penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith are essential emphases related to the gospel, they must be understood in light of even more fundamental perspectives provided by salvation-history (the gospel as the fulfillment of the story of Israel and God's covenant [i.e., Abrahamic, Davidic, and New] promises), eschatology (the gospel as the announcement of the irruption of the kingdom of God), and the contours of the biblical story (the gospel not only as the solution to the individualistic problem caused by Genesis 3, but as the means to fulfilling God's creative design for humanity in Genesis 1).  Could it be that writers like Bock and McKnight are evidence that a critical mass of educated Christians are starting to think this way?  I can only hope so.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Christian Smith on Presbyterian Narcissism

Properly calibrating the proper relationship between Scripture (exegesis) and tradition is a problem both perennial and practical, not least in defining group identity for any number of Christian denominations and sects.  Does one interpret Scripture through the lens of tradition?  Or does one interpret the Bible with tradition (in which case such Reformational perspectives as sola scriptura and prima scriptura both fit the bill)?  Or, perhaps, should one interpret Scripture without tradition, even sweeping tradition into the dustbin as a hindrance to contemporary appropriation of the Bible (a radical view of solo scriptura)?

One who has wrestled with such matters is Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame.  Smith was raised as a good evangelical boy, attending Wheaton College and eventually graduating with a BA from Gordon College.  Even after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard and joining the faculty at the University of North Carolina, Smith's credentials as a card-carrying conservative Presbyterian were impeccable.  Nevertheless, things changed, as he publicly converted to Roman Catholicism, later explaining his defection in terms of evangelical Protestantism's wrongheaded embrace of "biblicism."  I have fairly substantial criticisms of Smith's work, but he unquestionably has his fingers on the pulse of such Reformed groups as the PCA and OPC, who to varying degrees claim to be both "biblicist" (or at least "biblical") and "confessional."  In contrast to modern Roman Catholicism, whose scholars gladly admit that the church's teachings go beyond Scripture (for a wonderful example, see Joseph Fitzmyer's fine Commentary on Romans, where at times in his exegesis of chapter 3 he sounds positively Lutheran), such conservative, self-consciously "Reformed" Presbyterians insist that their very detailed confessions embody the "system of doctrine taught in the Bible.They thus imagine they can have their cake and eat it as well, seemingly ignoring the common-sense insight that all interpretations of Scripture are historically-located, and hence historically conditioned.

The point is that such a commitment to finely detailed traditional confessions not only clashes with the confessions of other Christian bodies, but also leaves very little wiggle room for adopting more recent perspectives on Scripture derived from advances in other areas of knowledge or reassessment of the historical meaning of the biblical text itself.  And this has, not surprisingly, led to such unfortunate matters as heresy trials and professorial removals because of positions adopted that are perceived as being "against the teaching of the confession" and thus assumed to be against Scripture itself.  Moreover, many of these disputes are over seemingly picayune differences in interpretation occasioned by the current state of academic biblical studies.

Smith deals with this matter in a recent guest post on Pete Enns's blog.  In this post Smith applies an insight of Sigmund Freud that the psychologist termed the narcissism of small differences.  Smith summarizes this concept as follows:
The basic idea is this: groups of people are often most sensitive and snotty toward those who they are most socially alike. Human groups do not have their fiercest conflicts with those who are quite different from them. Instead, they display the greatest pettiness and viciousness in fighting those who they look the most like.
This phenomenon is indisputable.  One of the things that struck me most when I was studying the "factionalism" of Second Temple Judaism in my doctoral student days was the degree to which the various "parties" vilified the others, even (at times) lumping Jews with different convictions together with the Gentiles as obvious "sinners" (classic in this regard were the Essenes of Qumran, who labeled the [almost certainly] Pharisees as "seekers after smooth things").

This tendency has certainly been true to my own experience as well.  I was raised in a very dispensational fundamentalist home and attended a very dispensational fundamentalist college.  Yet, the major focus of my college professors' polemic was not on the "liberal" German theologians and biblical scholars whose teachings dominated secular academia, but rather on the "Reformed Covenant Theologians" whose theology conflicted with the dispensational premillennialism the school's doctrinal statement implicitly taught was the essence of the faith (and this despite being taught a very "Calvinistic" theology of the accomplishment and application of redemption by my dispensationalist father!).  It was a major scandal (!) when one of the school's most prominent students "defected" to Covenant Theology and attended Westminster Seminary.

The fact of the matter is that such small matters of theology (or, in many older fundamentalist circles, practice) serve as de facto boundary markers that define group identity and provide people with a safe place to anchor the intellectual contours of their faith.  The obvious problem, however, is that such a focus on small differences tends to exaggerate the magnitude of these differences and simultaneously blinds one to the major issues that should garner one's attention instead.  One further problem that I have noticed:  defense of the particulars of one's "distinctions" in small matters becomes the occasion of pride for those who perceive themselves to be the pious defenders of tradition (they would say "truth") against attack from nefarious newcomers.

It is here that groups like the PCA have succumbed to what I believe is an unfortunate lack of focus.  Of all contemporary denominations, they have been most active in recent years in policing their ranks against the intrusion of unwanted ideas from outside the camp.  The most famous instance concerns the so-called "New Perspective on Paul."  The 34th General Assembly of the PCA in 2007 appointed an ad interim committee to study the New Perspective, Federal Vision, and Auburn Avenue Theology.  The committee's report clearly condemned the New Perspective (as well as the other matters) with detailed comparisons of the writings of Jimmy Dunn and (especially) N. T. Wright with the Westminster Confession.  On many occasions they clearly misunderstood what Wright was actually saying (so I would argue), but they did definitely show a divergence between certain emphases of the New Perspective and those of the confession they clearly were much more qualified to interpret (it is no surprise to me that the major players on this committee were church historians and theologians).  Setting aside the propriety of confessionalism per se, what struck me is the black and white clarity with which they viewed the situation and the more than implicit sense of the danger they perceived in the New Perspective to the core of the Christian faith.

I know that the New Perspective, at least as expressed by N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Bruce Longenecker, and even Jimmy Dunn, does not constitute a danger to the core of the Christian faith, even to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith.  I say this because I wrote my dissertation on Paul's teaching on justification in Galatians back in 1995, long before the controversy over the New Perspective became hot in evangelical and Reformed circles.  Indeed, when I started my research, I intended to defend the traditional view of justification (a la Tom Schreiner) against the criticisms of Dunn and (especially) Ed Sanders.  My research, however, much of it influenced by Wright's 1992 Climax of the Covenant, led me to embrace a modified New Perspective that in no way denied the chief emphases of the Protestant teaching on justification, but which grounded theology better in the historical-critical concerns of the text.

By the first decade of the 21st century, however, the neo-Reformed crowd had clearly risen to the occasion, and a spate of books appeared (and keeps on appearing) condemning the "errors" of the New Perspective.  The dispute came to a head at the 2010 ETS Convention in Atlanta, when Wright and Schreiner squared off in a series of lectures on justification.  Schreiner is one of the best advocates of the so-called Old Perspective, but Wright clearly (in my view) won the day.  Moreover, he clearly self-identified as a Reformed theologian and argued that his modifications to the older Reformed understanding in no way invalidated their core insights.  Schreiner, for his part, was firm in his response, but acknowledged at the end what few of his defenders would. "Wright," he said, was a "rocket bursting in the sky over the evangelical world.  All we want to do is change the trajectory slightly."  That is clearly right, and the mark of a scholar who actually knows the issue.  Nevertheless, when I remarked in a biblical faculty meeting at the college where I was then teaching that Wright's view wasn't at fatal odds with the Reformation view of justification, I was (by virtue of my "favorability to the New Perspective") henceforth considered unworthy to teach at the (nonconfessional!) school by the department chair, who is not a New Testament scholar but a church historian.  It is this "narcissism of small differences" that will serve to mute the witness of the evangelical church to Christ for years to come, unless the trend is reversed.

Last week I came upon yet another example, when I read of the attempt by some to ban the practice of intinction (i.e., the dipping of the host in the wine before giving it to the communicant) in PCA churches.  Indeed, last month, by a margin of fourteen votes, the 40th General Assembly voted to send a proposed amendment to the Book of Common Order to the Presbyteries that will effectively ban such a practice.  Now, I am no lover of the practice of intinction.  But argumentation to the effect that "Jesus said to both eat and drink" manifests a brutal hermeneutic that masks a (probable) deference to tradition and makes a mountain out of a molehill.  And, if you ask me, any church body that uses unfermented grape juice and serves individual pieces of leavened bread on trays for individuals to partake of themselves, often at their own time, has no ground on which to stand to criticise other s for how they celebrate the Eucharist.

Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35).  By this standard, the fissiparous narcissism of small differences is a scandal that directly hinders our mission as followers of the risen Lord.  Let us all study the Bible and come to firm, detailed opinions.  All beliefs matter, after all.  But let us not overstate our differences or use them as pretexts for unnecessary division, for not all beliefs matter to the same extent.