Atlanta, ETS and N.T. Wright

I spent most of my life engineering solutions to complex problems in the world of software technology.  

So I love to study complicated things and read thick books and stay up late into the night and create elegant ways to solve interesting dilemmas.

So last week I attended the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting.  ETS is a group of theology scholars that get together to discuss new ways of understanding this or that in the realms of theology and philosophy.  It's all about PhD candidates reading their proposals to each other.  

That's right, they stand at the lectern and READ to you for an hour - and this goes on for a few days.  Trust me, those of you that hate thick books and complicated things would much rather have both your eyes gouged out than sit through an event like this! 

But in fairness to the bespectacled-monotonous-paper-readers, the ideas these guys have are going to become the theologies and philosophies taught in seminaries and universities around the world.  Which means that the way we common folk think and live will ultimately be affected by them.

Which means that conferences like this are important indeed.

This year's main topic of debate was the issue of Justification.  Put simply, the question is "Do we merely BELIEVE something that gets us into God's coming kingdom, or is there more to it?"

Tom Wright says "we believe, and are declared 'in the right' by God.  Then, we pursue love and good works by the power of the Spirit, and then, at the final judgment, God judges us on the basis of the life we've lived."

The two other plenary speakers (Schreiner and Thielman) proposed more or less the traditional understanding of "how salvation works".  That is, that once we "believe in Jesus", our sins are forgiven and the righteousness that Jesus has is "imputed" to us.  At the final judgment, that is all that counts.  Our works have no substantial effect on the judgment.

As I've written and said many times before, the traditional view does violence to everything in the Bible before Matthew.  It turns God into a being that "used to care about how we behave, but now only expects us to believe something."  To be blunt, it makes God out to be a mild schizophrenic (Jesus's life being the point in time at which God totally changed his mind about having rules and such!).

And from a pastoral perspective, the traditional view makes it impossible to set a standard for behavior.  If you hold the traditional view, you might then take the position that "behavior doesn't matter, so I'm gonna do whatever I want".

Or, on the other hand, you'll set some arbitrary behavioral standards (like the standards I grew up with:  don't listen to rock and roll music, movies are evil, if you take a drink of beer you're going to drop into the bowels of hell, etc, etc).

The truth is, these arbitrary standards have little effective power to actually bring about a Biblical lifestyle because they aren't rooted in the Biblical worldview to begin with.  

Tom, on the other hand, has shown us the elegant structure of the actual 1st century Judeo-Christian worldview.  That is, that "what we do" still matters just as much to God as it did in the 13 centuries before Jesus.  

And the glorious, beautiful, awe-inspiring truth of the New Covenant is that now God has sent his Spirit to live inside us, to "cause us to keep God's statutes" as Ezekiel said he would in verse 27 of the 36th chapter of his magnificent book.

So I went to Atlanta to hear the whole thing play out.  I think Tom easily won the day (but you'd expect that coming from me - I've adopted his hermeneutical framework, for goodness sake!).  The three plenary speakers were gracious, and a good time was had by all.
Maybe someday I'll tell the tale of the specific events leading up to this conference that gave me a unique window into the inner workings of the debate and a special role that I never would've dreamed I'd have.  It's a fantastic story, but one that may only be appreciated by me and those close to me.
Anyhow, if you haven't thought these issues through - stay tuned!  I and doubtless many others will be talking and writing about this issue in the months and years ahead.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike,

I appreciate the pastoral application. I agree that Wright's view is very helpful when understanding the moral norms of Christian life that the NT expects. Likewise, good note on that fact that this should not be equated with petty moralism like "don't listen to rock & roll"

Mike said...

NearEmmaus,

Thanks for your comment! Of course, I don't want to be understood as a mere pragmatist, valuing only those things that work best for pastoral purposes.

But the beauty of the New Perspective is that not only is it incredibly faithful to the text in light of the trajectory set by the "covenant and kingdom story of the Jews" followed into the 1st century - but it also (when carried to its logical conclusion) brings our deeds back into their reasonable (logikos - Romans 12:1-2) place in our understanding of the New Covenant.

Thanks again!

Matthieu said...

Dear Mike,

Thanks for this interesting report.

Indeed, it seems that the "action" of the Spirit is the key in order to relieve the tension between "justification now" and "judgment according to works later".

It seems that Wright believes that the Holy Spirit works in Christians and transforms them into the kind of people of which God will say "justified" in the end according to their whole life. In other words, God says "justified" in the present because he knows (and we can know too => doctrine of assurance) that the Spirit will do the job and fulfill "Torah" in us.

Here is then my question at this point: the Spirit obviously never brings anybody to a "sinless" state, even after 90 years of Christian life. So, what's the point of Wright?

What does it mean, concretely, in somebody's life, that God "causes" the person to "keep God's statutes" (cf. Ez 36:27)?

In other words: suppose somebody "makes it through" this judgment in the end. How does the life of this person on earth looked like? Apparently, he will have kept "God's statutes". On the other hand, he's certainly not perfect. So... where do we draw the line between an acceptable life and a non acceptable one?

Having read only part of Wright's work, this is where I'm stuck so far.

Cheers,
Matt

PS sorry, English isn't my first language.

Mike said...

Matthieu,

You bring up the crux of the issue! For my answer, let's look at the big picture of covenant and kingdom that's displayed from Genesis to Revelation.

In that story, we see in the OT that the Jews were not expected to be sinless. In fact, provision was made in a multitude of places in the OT for the "infrequent stumble".

But then the biggest thing the OT shows us is that the nature of unregenerate mankind is not to merely sin "once in awhile", but to sin continually and habitually!

And furthermore, that "continual sinning" brings about Exile (i.e. removal from the Kingdom).

So, first of all, covenant membership never has required absolute sinless perfection.

And so, we shouldn't expect that membership in the New Covenant requires us never to sin from now until the final judgment. Like the Mosaic Covenant, there is provision in the New Covenant for the infrequent stumble.

But what about the nagging reality that unregenerate man "practices" sin?

That's what makes the New Covenant so much better than the Mosaic! Very specifically, the New Covenant promises the work of the indwelling Spirit of God to transform us from glory to glory into the image of Jesus himself!

You said "...he's certainly not perfect" about a person whose life was judged by God to have been in accordance with their faith. Let's look at the word commonly translated "perfect" in one of the most controversial sayings of Jesus.

Jesus, in Matthew 5:48 for example, tells his listeners to be perfect "as your heavenly father is perfect." What in the world could he have meant by that? Did he mean that we must be flawless in our lives, as is God?

The underlying Greek word there is teleioi. It's root is telos, meaning "goal or purpose". So, rather than interpreting "perfect" to mean "never again sinning" - we should see it as meaning "become full grown" or "fulfill the purpose for which you were made".

Also, when viewed against Paul's frequent use of transformation language (2 Cor. 3:18, Romans 12:1, etc) we see that God is not saying "if you sin between now and the judgment - you'll not be allowed in the Kingdom".

What God is saying to us is "you are now able to keep covenant with me by the power of my Spirit in you. So, train yourself to yield to the transforming power I've placed inside you and get on the transformation path! Complete the purpose for which I made you!"

And of course, in the final judgment, we don't draw the line. He does.

But in the meantime, we can look at passages like Ephesians 5:3-6, Galatians 5:19-21 and many others ("those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God"). We can then look at our lives, and simply ask "are we practicing sin like these passages depict?".

If the answer is "Yes" - then we can be fairly sure we'll have a big problem on judgment day.

If the answer is "No, by the power of the Spirit I am no longer practicing these things" then we can be sure that God's Spirit is working in us, to transform us from the inside out. We can be confident that he will surely accomplish his transforming work in us.

That transformation process will be complete on Resurrection Day, when we are raised soma pneumatikon (I Cor. 15:44) - a body energized by the Spirit of God himself - able to live fully submitted to God's will.

I hope that helps, Matthieu - but I would be happy to continue to help clarify this. It's quite important!