March 3, 2013
Brick by brick we built a beacon, a Tower on the Great Plains in defense against the vastness. "Leave Manifest Destiny to those unafraid to die! Dwell in security." But those bricks could not save us from that confusing wind. Tongues and spirits broken, we depart to die in obscurity.
This is my second minisaga, written to fulfill in small part a vision I've had for a while of the story of Genesis 11 played out on the Great Plains in the 19th century. The vision isn't clear enough for a full story, but I hope it was clear enough for 50 words.
September 3, 2009
Over dinner this evening I listened to the audio from today's Panel on N.T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification at Southern Seminary (SBTS). I highly recommend listening to (or watching) the entire panel, especially if:
- You enjoy theology and/or biblical scholarship and don't know who N.T. Wright is or why he matters in the discussion of justification.
- Like me, you actually do know who N.T. Wright is, enjoy reading various things written by him, and appreciate many points of agreement with what he teaches.
Overview of the Panel
The panel was moderated by Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of SBTS, and included various professors of theology from the seminary (Drs. Burk, Schreiner, Seifrid, and Vickers - a personal favorite). I'm not going to take time to recap the whole discussion, because the panel itself recapped a discussion (or controversy?) in modern Evangelical theology that spans the last few decades. A lot of ground has been covered in what has been dubbed the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP).
The tone of the panel was both charitable toward N.T. Wright and his positive contributions to biblical scholarship and pastoral as it evaluated how what we believe about justification will affect our ministry. The professors do a good job of bringing listeners up to speed on the various issues at stake, and if you find yourself lost in the discussion, I encourage you to listen to the first half twice.
Issues at Stake
A few "traditional" issues that are questioned by the NPP include:
- The definition of the gospel, or "Good News." Is it an announcement of the salvation of sinners or is it enough to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus?
- The imputation of righteousness. Do we stand before God in righteousness based on what Christ has done?
- The scope of justification. Is it primarily a soteriological ("What must I do to be saved?", the traditional scope) or ecclesiastical (who is in my covenant community, the NPP) doctrine.
- The context of the New Testament. Was the religion commonly practiced as Judaism in the time of Jesus legalistic, and is Paul really responding to such legalism in his letters?
- The historical interpretation of Scripture on the doctrine of justification, especially since the Reformation. Basically, the NPP argues that the Reformers and their predecessors did not understand the context of the New Testament and so "got it wrong" on justification. (The "New" of the NPP is in relation to "Old" of the biblical commentary and scholarship on these issues since at least the time of Calvin, Luther, et al.)
There's obviously more to the NPP and even more discussed in the panel, but the panel did at least spend a few minutes on each of the issues above, making sure they accurately portrayed Wright's position and providing initial responses to these deviations from historical interpretation. For further study, I highly recommend The Future of Justification by John Piper (who, Dr. Mohler notes, wrote this as a scholarly critique from within the context of a full time pastoral ministry). I was actually greatly encouraged as I read what I've read of it. If you're not sure you want to buy it, you can download a free copy of the entire book via the link above... some business model!
As I've mentioned before, I really recommend listening to the whole thing. However, I will take the time to transcribe a few interchanges and statements by the gentlemen on the panel. These won't necessarily make sense in isolation, but I'm posting them because I found them to be particularly poignant responses to the NPP.
Reading Into Scripture
First off, Dr. Schreiner and Dr. Seifrid held a small interchange around 40 minutes in which they describe something of a hermeneutical misstep Wright makes when he discusses the doctrine of the imputation of righteousness in his recent book:
Schreiner: When he speaks of imputation he says that the traditional understanding is wrong, because justification is a courtroom, forensic doctrine. I agree with him there, but then he says in a courtroom the judge can't give his righteousness to the one who is being charged. I think that's amazingly reductionistic, as if the illustration of the courtroom is exhausted by our human experience. Instead you have to look at the biblical text to see the richness of what it is saying about what is happening. And yet he bases it on what happens in our courtrooms. I think that's quite astonishing.
Seifrid: I think that's right. Although the Scriptures of course understand God's justifying work in Christ and the final judgment as a forensic scene, what takes place there is beyond all human expectation because of God's marvelous love in Jesus Christ. Part of the problem also with Wright on this point is that He imports a modern courtroom into the Scriptures.
What about Adam?
Dr. Vickers sees something missing in Wright's understanding of the overarching story of the Bible:
There's something missing. I like when I hear Wright talk about "from Abraham to Israel to Messiah to the world." I like the idea of the big picture of Scripture. But what's missing in my view is, "Where's Adam?" And this gets down to what the traditional view is all about - Paul boiling the human race down to two people. Anyone you ever meet will either be in Adam or in Christ, and the actions of one of those two people affect and determine the status that people have before God. If you're going to deal with the traditional view, that's central.
What is the Good News?
Speaking of the pastoral implications of the NPP, Mohler and Burk said the following...
Mohler: N.T. Wright makes a fascinating statement. Bishop Wright says that the gospel is not primarily a message about how one is saved. That's an incredible statement, isn't it?
Burk: For him it's simply a declaration that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Lord. That's the gospel. That's the announcement. As John Piper so carefully points out, that is not good news unless you give an account of how the resurrected savior is for you and not against you. We're all sinners. We have committed sins against this resurrected Lord who's going to judge the world. It's not good news to know He's back! Ok? That's not good at all.
Mohler: It's not good unless there is a firm confidence in the fact that we will be found righteous in Him.
Burk: Right, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Even in the Apostolic declarations of the gospel narrative, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is an account of how that counts for us - that somehow he is a substitute for us and that he is justifying us. To leave that out of the gospel proclamation has horrible pastoral applications in addition to being unbiblical."
Dr. Schreiner in his closing remarks comments:
I think there's a danger for those listening to a discussion like this where we focus on Wright's weaknesses, I think there's a danger of a young student reading Wright and seeing the good things and thinking everybody up here on the panel overreacted. And so I think we'd all want to reaffirm. There are good things in Wright from which we can learn, but don't miss where he's gone astray. And a fundamental area, the gospel. Young students tend to want to believe something new, but if you stray in terms of the gospel, you've forgotten the gospel. Luther was right. We need to re-learn the gospel every day. If we think we know the gospel, if we think we've mastered the gospel, we don't know it. We have to be mastered by it.
Not Resting on Assumptions
Dr. Vickers in his closing remarks comments:
Where do we go from here? It goes to show that these ideas never go away. The centrality of something like justification, never goes away. ... It should challenge us not just to rest on assumptions, but to go back to the text, go back to the Scriptures, not just follow this person or that person but go back to the Scriptures and read them again. So that we can speak to some of the issues that we're talking about related to justification today were not things they were talking about in justification debates fifty years ago.
Dr. Mohler adds to this in his closing remarks:
We're not just merely defenders of a tradition. We are those who go back to the Scriptures and say, "How do we read, hear, obey, preach, and teach the Word of God in such a way that God is glorified, Christ is amplified, and the Church is edified." The biggest problem I have with Bishop N.T. Wright's perspective on Paul and justification is that I cannot imagine in the end how you would preach what I would recognize to be the gospel if you accept his assumptions.
September 2, 2009
My last post was long. It was a compilation of an hour's worth of teaching, illustration, and discussion. This one will be shorter. It is essentially a reflection on a statement in my last post. Toward the end, in response to the priority of God's rescuing work in 2 Peter 2:9, I wrote,
Just as much as God cares about preserving His good name, God cares about rescuing you from the deadly influence of false teachers.
Today I resolved this statement in my head by realizing that by rescuing us not just from the deadly influence of false teaching, but in ultimately rescuing us from Satan, sin, and death, God is in fact preserving His good name.
In other words, simply silencing the ignorant talk of foolish men (His words, not mine) is not how God preserves His reputation. He doesn't merely combat misinformation and silence the false witness of those whose words and deeds cause the way of truth to be blasphemed. Rather, because God presents Himself as a deliverer of people oppressed by sin and sinful men, His deliverance of us from evil is what upholds the integrity of His name. By continuing to rescue His people, God is proving Himself faithful. His actions speak louder than false words against Him.
There's a lesson here for us as well, and I alluded to it in my earlier reference to 1 Peter 2:15,
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
When false teachers downplay the reality or heinousness of sin or disparage the Lord's saving work, God responds by saving and proving them wrong. When people revile you, persecute you, and utter evil against you falsely on account of Jesus (cf. Mt. 5:11), you can respond by doing good in return while entrusting yourself to God and His deliverance (cf. 1 Pt. 2:23). Let your actions speak louder than false words against you.
These thoughts are unrefined but the truths are glorious. Feel free to help me refine my understanding and presentation of these ideas in a comment.
September 2, 2009
I taught 2 Peter 2:1-10a tonight at the Transformation House. I was up most of last night working and then gone all of today to Bowling Green on business, so I expected to deliver a short meditation on a happy nuance of the character of God I detected in verse 9. I even joked on the phone with my co-teacher that I didn't expect a whizz-bang lesson given my circumstances unless the Lord intervened. Hanging up, I decided to combat unbelief and turned that simple comment into a prayer. Not surprisingly, we ended up having an hour long Bible study that elicited positive interaction from the men present and greatly encouraged me. Amen!
And that's not even the best part of the story!
The passage in 2 Peter begins a discussion of false teachers, their ill effects, and their poor prospects for the future. Instead of diving right into the passage itself, we first examined Jeremiah 6:9-15 where the Lord forewarns Israel of his coming wrath on account of the nation's abject rebellion and the disregard of the prophets and priests for the ministry of the Word. Not only were the false prophets superficially binding up a broken people, but they weren't even ashamed of their hypocrisy. They declared "Peace, peace," when there was no peace... like a string quartet trying to calm a drowning crowd in the icy North Atlantic.
Beginning in Jeremiah served to strengthen our understanding of the heinousness of false teachers. Not only do they bring destruction on themselves, but in leading a whole people astray they bring down the wrath of God on many. (Isn't it enough for someone to walk alone into destruction? How much more severe it must be to lead a line...) Israel was in a very bad spot, and the Lord did exactly as He promised.
Segue into 2 Peter. I reminded the guys of the previous weeks' teaching... Peter, on the strength of the inspiration of the true prophets, and having witnessed the glory of God in Christ, came to understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophets. He didn't make up a fairy tale about the magical man who walked on water and did good to all. He accepted the authority of the Word and deduced from his life experience that the only rational conclusion was that Jesus is the Son of God, the savior of sinners. He spent his life reminding those who came to faith that this truth was worth living out and defending till death.
However, believing the gospel and living according to the Bible will not come easy. By and large, the world is set against such behavior. Some would be happy to see us compromise our convictions or abandon our faith, and it tends to be because they want something we have or because our holiness highlights their sensuality. This was easily demonstrable in the lesson by virtue of the fact that most of the men present shared the following experience of a friend of mine who lived with me.
Some years ago, my roommate, Rob Smythe, and I brought in a third man to live with us who had been evicted from his apartment. We were still fairly new at such ministry and didn't recognize the fact that his eviction was due to a drug addiction. We began the process of working with him to plan to save his paycheck and not squander it on new clothes and drugs, but week after week he spent his paycheck before we could put any of our plans into action. One day, I diagnosed his "flirtation" with drugs as an addiction, and he told me in all seriousness that no one had ever told him that before. Until that day, smoking crack was just something he did socially but not something that he depended on. His friends were happy to delude him and squander his wealth on their crack, and all the while he was at least nominally active in another church in the city. You know the saying... "With friends like these..."
Well, that story (of which I've been given permission to share) really resonated with the guys there. Not only was this a clear example of a man's friends eager to bring him down, it was the common experience of many men with addictions who are taken advantage of by their friends and who have done the same in turn. However, it's not just the world and our supposed friends, but even those within the church who would preach, "Peace, peace," or, "Social activity, not addiction," that keep us from believing, loving, and obeying the Bible. Peter writes that he wants to always stir the people up by way of reminder so that even after he's dead and gone, the faithful will stand firm despite the source of the attack on their biblical fidelity.
So... these false teachers. They lead others into sensuality. They take advantage of others' wealth. On account of them and their obvious hypocrisy (to the world, that is), the way of truth is actually blasphemed. In other words, these people are doing evil, leading others to do evil, and leading still others to speak evil of the Lord and His gospel. There's no doubt what they have coming for them, or as Peter writes, their destruction is not asleep.
He then goes through this list of events where the wicked are unreservedly punished. Fallen angels are bound in darkness. The ancient world is wiped out by a flood. Sodom and Gomorrah are burned to smithereens. A few words come to mind. Unequivocal. Absolute. Destruction. And don't you expect Peter to write that the Lord has the same in store for the false teachers his friends will encounter? I know I did. And this is the good part I mentioned way up above.
Peter actually takes a different approach. Yes, he does get to the point that the unrighteous will be kept under punishment until the day of judgment, but he comes in at an unexpected angle. What's funny is that I should be geared to expect it. Here's what I mean...
The horror of the Flood wasn't just about wrath. It was also about Noah, a preacher of righteousness, being saved in a boat thanks to the instruction of God. The flames of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't just about wrath. They were also about righteous Lot being saved from the city where not even ten righteous men could be found. In fact, Peter even points out that the wickedness of those around Lot greatly distressed him. No longer. The wicked men were burned, along with the cities whose names they have forever tarnished.
And so when we get to the end of this passage. The warning about false teachers and the promise that their destruction is not asleep is not just about God preserving His good name. Certainly, the Lord will vindicate His name. But notice in verse 9 what appears first... "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials." That's right, Christian. God cares about you. Just as much as God cares about preserving His good name, God cares about rescuing you from the deadly influence of false teachers. He will judge, but His judgment is not just about Him having His way. His judgment is for your good, to spare you from the trial or temptation of hearing and being enticed by false teaching.
God cares about you, and in your fight to remain faithful, the Lord knows how to rescue you from trials. That thought, that simple meditation arrived at "roundaboutly" was a great encouragement me to me this evening, and I hope it is to you, too. Thanks for sticking with me.