Archive for May, 2006

Lessons in Epistemology from G.K. Chesterton

May 28, 2006

For me, reading Chesterton has exposed the falsehood that one can draw a sharp line of division between modernism and postmodernism. Chesterton published his book Orthodoxy in 1908, which, by our reckoning, falls within the modern period. His description of modern thought sounds so much like postmodern thought that I must ponder whether there really is much of a difference between the two. Are we really living in an age of a philosophical paradigm shift, or could it be that we are merely reaping the fruit of a tree planted long ago by Descartes, Hume, and Kant? Does postmodernism represent epistemological progress, or is it merely one more step down the dark path of sinful human reason asserting its autonomy? Notice how much Chesterton’s world sounds like our own, and then think about it:

“. . . the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ but the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'”

“If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, ‘Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.’ We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

[Isn’t it amazing that Chesterton wrote this almost 100 years ago? I take it, then, that postmodernism’s pervasive attraction to questions and doubt, coupled with its pervasive suspicion of answers, certainty, and authority, is not a new development. It is but one more branch off the tree of modernity. There is nothing new under the sun.]

“The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. . . . As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Of course, I am not denying that there have been new developments in human thought since 1908. Since that time we have seen the rise of existentialism, philosophical “language games,” deconstruction, and a number of other things that I am not competent to mention or describe. But do these developments represent major steps into a new world of thought, or are they simply variations on the same theme that has been sounded since “Cogito, ergo sum”? Modern thought found its starting place in the thinking subject, man. That was its first mistake. Its second mistake was supposing that starting from the thinking subject, we could create a comprehensive map of universal truth, guided only by autonomous human reason. (By the way, this is why one cannot rightly categorize inerrancy as a distinctly modern doctrine; inerrancy is a theological truth derived from Scripture about Scripture that represents epistemological dependence on the authority of divine revelation, which is precisely what modern thinkers sought to overthrow. Inerrantists like Calvin built their epistemology not on the thinking subject but on divine revelation.)

Postmodern thought begins at the same place as modern thought: the thinking subject, man (or should I say, “person”)? The difference now is that the thinking subject recognizes that he/she is not omniscient and is, therefore, not objective. Autonomous human reason will not guide us to a comprehensive map of universal truth. All thinking takes place in, and is shaped by, a particular context. But having reached a dead end, postmodernism did not decide to turn around and try a different starting point. Instead, it said the dead end is all that there is (which is, ironically, a universal truth claim). Now, instead of grandiose claims about the power of human reason, we have relativism, which to my mind is simply another form of skepticisim. What Chesterton saw in his time has only intensified in ours.

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Good Reading

May 26, 2006

I know I have not been blogging as much lately. This is due to life. The ever present call (and joy!) of fatherhood has put some constraints on my ability to sit down and ponder blog topics for any extended period of time. Furthermore, with graduation last weekend and family in town, you can imagine that things have been busy around here.

I do want to highly recommend an article to you. Recently, at the 2006 Concordia Exegetical Symposium, Stephen Westerholm presented a paper entitled “Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question?”. It is a very persuasive defense of what has now come to be known as the “old perspective” on Paul, aka the “Lutheran” Paul, at least insofar as the doctrine of justification is concerned.

In this paper, Westerholm refutes the thesis of Krister Stendahl, who in his article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” argued that Paul’s message has been distorted by Western psychology. People like Augustine and Luther misread Paul through the lenses of their own struggle to find a gracious God. Therefore, they misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification as something that pertains primarily to personal salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin. In reality, Paul was concerned with groups–Jews and Gentiles–and how the gospel brings Gentiles into the covenant people. If justification by faith is the answer, Stendahl argued that the proper question is not, “How can I find a gracious God?” but, “Where do the Gentiles fit in God’s plan of salvation?”.

Those who are familiar with current trends in Pauline studies will recognize immediately that Stendahl was a precursor to the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”. Stendahl’s article was published in 1963, well before E.P. Sanders’ volume Paul and Palestinian Judaism appeared in 1977, which is normally identified as the launch of the New Perspective. While there is no single “New Perspective” (since proponents of it disagree on many different issues), there are some common threads to this school of thought:

(1) Judaism in Paul’s day was not legalistic; it belongs, rather, to a pattern of religion known as “covenantal nomism,” (Sanders’ phrase), by which the gracious election of God establishes the people of Israel as the covenant people, and their means of “staying in” the covenant is adherence to the Mosaic Law, which includes provisions for atonement and forgiveness of sins. We must recognize, therefore, that Jews in Paul’s day believed in grace and did not seek to earn favor with God by their works.

(2) Therefore, when Paul opposes faith and works, his primary purpose is not to combat self-effort as a means of salvation; rather, Paul seeks to identify the true people of God. In Christ, the people of God are identified by faith, not by Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws.

(3) Therefore, those who read Paul through Reformation lenses misread him by falsely linking Paul’s Jewish opponents with the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Luther saw his own struggles with his conscience and the Roman Catholic penitential system in Galatians and Romans and failed to consider these books in their own context. As a result, Protestant scholarship has misread Paul by focusing too much on personal salvation and very little on questions of Gentile inclusion into the people of God and God’s plan for groups of people throughout history.

I think there are a number of valid insights that the New Perspective offers, and these insights have been incorporated into contemporary discussion of Pauline theology even in “old perspective” circles. However, I am also convinced that the pendulum has swung too far in the hands of New Perspective proponents, and Westerholm offers a sobering corrective to that unfortunate tendency. I am still convinced that the Reformers were basically right in their understanding of Paul and the doctrine of justification, though they lacked the depth of historical understanding that contemporary scholars have. Westerholm demonstrates convincingly from Paul’s letters that Paul was very concerned with matters of personal salvation and that the doctrine of justification speaks directly to this issue. In addition, Westerholm writes with a simple, clear, and humorous style that communicates issues of great complexity with clarity and wit that will keep you entertained. Even if you have never read a single book or article pertaining to Pauline studies, I invite you to read Westerholm’s essay; I think you will probably be able to follow it.

Also, if you want more of the same, don’t miss Westerholm’s book Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. And, for those who are somewhat familiar with Pauline studies, I also invite you to read Mark Seifrid’s essay at the Concordia Symposium entitled “The Narrative of Scripture and Justification by Faith: A Still Fresher Reading of Paul”. It is a critique of N.T. Wright’s covenantal/narrative framework for reading Paul.

[HT: Justin Taylor]

Justification and Daily Life

May 16, 2006

“Justification by faith” is a phrase, derived largely from the Apostle Paul, that has played an enormous role in church history. It has formed the center of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. Its importance to one’s understanding of the gospel is massive.

Growing up at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas, I formed a basic understanding of justification, although I don’t recall ever hearing the word “justification” used all that much. I understood it to mean, simply, “being made right with God.” Of course, that is a correct understanding, but there is so much more depth to the term. My pastor correctly taught that we are made right with God by faith alone, and not by our own efforts. We are righteous before God because of the cross, not because we can in any way merit righteousness.

All that made sense to me, as far as matters of salvation and eternity were concerned. But not until recent years did I begin to understand how justification impacts not only our vision of eternity, but also our day-to-day lives. If you think about it, our lives are dominated by the question of justification. This is because human life is always lived before others. We constantly strive to justify ourselves–our existence and our accomplishments–in the eyes of men. Oswald Bayer puts it this way:

Our whole life histories are placed before a permanent tribunal in which we act as accused, prosecutor, and judge. Throughout our lives we continually seek to find excuses for the fact that we live as we do, that we are existent rather than nonexistent, and that we are as we are and not something different.

This is the search for justification. We want other people to like us. The politician’s television advertisements are aimed at justifying him before voters. The teenager who dresses like all of her friends longs for their approval, for justification before the court of her peers. The entertainer craves the attention and approval of the masses, which fills his life with meaning and justifies his existence. The man returning to his hometown for the 10-year high school reunion can’t wait to show all of his friends how well he is doing; he longs for justification of himself, his life, and the paths he has chosen.

Everyday of our lives, we are asked to account for the fact that we exist and that we are who we are. Everyday of our lives, we comply and struggle for endless justifications. As social beings, we live in the company of others and constantly desire their approval.

There is something healthy in this. The fact that it often makes us strive to do better, even to be better, keeps society functioning. Virtually every motivational speaker I heard growing up in the Texas public school system had the same message: you have potential; work hard and achieve success. Certainly, that is a good and necessary message. But it is not the whole truth.

What happens when we fail? What if we work hard, but circumstances beyond our control nullify our hard work and leave our potential for success in shambles? Or what if we work hard and stumble at one point, at just the point that destroys it all? In my calling, that of the ministry, one moral lapse may compromise everything. On the other hand, what if obedience to God requires that we relinquish justification before others? If Scripture is any guide (and it is!), then this is sure to happen frequently. The world stands in antithesis to the holy will of God. Therefore, to do God’s will often puts us at odds with the expectations of the world and merits the world’s disapproval. Many Christians have been condemned before courts (both literally and metaphorically speaking) because they stood for the truth of the gospel. They relinquished justification before others and sought only to please God.

And then, of course, there is the raw truth that as fallen people, we may simply make a mess of things. I believe Jesus’ interaction with the self-righteous Pharisees often pressed home the truth that in order to find life, joy, peace, and abundance, we must first bump up against the hard fact that we are all royally messed up. Read Luke 7:36-50 and see if there can be any other explanation.

What happens when, in our endless search for justifications, we fail to justify ourselves before others for any of the above reasons? This is where the motivational speakers can’t help us. Everything they tell us about success, about happiness, about making this life count, hangs on our achievements. If our achievements do not materialize, the success gurus leave us with nothing. But justification by faith holds us up in a sea of despair.

The doctrine of justification by faith is, essentially, this: we are declared righteous before God because of something that has happened completely outside of us. Jesus Christ the righteous died in the place of the guilty and was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. Faith connects us to him. Because he is righteous before God, we are counted righteous in him and for his sake alone, even though we are not, in ourselves, righteous. We are sinful rebels against God who stand forgiven and accepted into his family because God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours and wipes away our sin in his cross. Nothing we do affects this reality. It is completely outside of us, outside our accomplishments and failures, outside all of our efforts to justify ourselves in the endless ways that we do. If God justifies us for Christ’s sake alone, then nothing we do or fail to do can impact this, the ultimate justification.

Who decides what really “counts” in this universe? God does. This is his universe. And God has declared that all who are in Christ “count”. He has justified all who receive righteousness by faith. Paul speaks of it as the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How can a righteous Judge justify the ungodly, acquit the guilty? Only through the cross of Christ, for it is in the cross that God condemned sin while still receiving sinners. Only through the substitutionary death of Christ do we stand justified before God.

I constantly evaluate myself on a number of levels: am I a good husband, a good father, a good student, a good pastor? I certainly hope that I am, by the grace of God. But what happens if I stumble at any of these points (and I have stumbled at all of them, though some more than others)? What happens if my struggling church eventually goes under, and I am left wondering if I have failed as a leader? Do I consider my call invalidated and my life’s work wasted? Or do I rest in the justifying verdict that has already been pronounced over me in the court of Heaven? God has already given me value for the sake of Christ alone. Therefore, whether I have all the world or none of it, I have more wealth than all the success gurus could ever promise. I have been justified–justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone–and nothing will ever change that. My success story was written in blood 2,000 years ago on a hill called Golgotha and chiseled on the stone rolled back from an empty tomb. And though I may seem a fool by standards of worldly success, I will glorify the God who magnifies his grace by passing over human distinctions and imputing the righteousness of his Son to ungodly fools like me:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Two Posts You Shouldn’t Miss

May 14, 2006

One is my friend Alistair’s post about bad days. It is loaded with biblical wisdom and encouragement. It really spoke to me because I recently had a bad day; I guess, if I have eyes to see, that is not such a bad thing after all.

Another is Ochuk’s recent post entitled “The McLaren Code”. It is a very thoughtful response to some statements Brian McLaren recently made about The Da Vinci Code and the “Religious Right”.

To Borrow a Title from Myles: "It’s Over!" (said in Strongbad’s voice at the end of "Teen Girl Squad" issues)

May 11, 2006

This morning I took a test for the class “Theology of the New Testament”. It was the final requirement for my Master of Divinity degree. I have fought the good fight and finished the race. It was almost three-and-a-half years ago that I walked into my first class here at Southern Seminary. It doesn’t seem like it has been that long, and yet it does feel like I have just made it to the peak of a very high mountain. Graduation is scheduled for Friday, May 19th. I am going to take the next few weeks to enjoy this before preparing myself for the next mountain ahead: the Ph.D.

Joni also successfully completed the program for seminary wives. She will be recognized tomorrow (May 12th) along with her fellow Seminary Wives Institute graduates and the graduates of Boyce College (which is located here on the campus of Southern Seminary). I am so proud of her, especially in light of the fact that she persevered to the end even after giving birth to Benjamin. Speaking of Benjamin, I know he must be excited that his daddy has much more free time now to play with him.

God has carried us through this chapter of our lives that is now closing as the next one opens. In a few weeks we will be moving to the parsonage next to our church, which is about 50 miles outside of Louisville in Milton, Kentucky. I am excited about the new possibilities for ministry that will come as a result of living with our people, in their community. I am also a little anxious about the changes that are coming; let’s face it: big changes in life are stressful, and we have certainly had our share of them lately, with more to come. But God brings us through them all for his purposes and his glory, and I only want to be found faithful to his call.

But for now, it is time to relax, to enjoy, to celebrate!

The Bible as Revelation, Part 3

May 5, 2006

Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first if you missed them.

Thus far I have argued that the Bible is both a record of divine revelation and is itself revelation. The revelatory acts of God (culminating in the Christ event) are both recorded and interpreted by God for us in Scripture.

My purpose in this final post on the topic of the Bible as revelation is to interact specifically with the Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture. According to Neo-orthodoxy, the Bible cannot be identified as the Word of God. It is, rather, a vehicle for the Word of God. God revealed himself through his mighty acts in history, and these mighty acts were recorded by the biblical authors through a process of spiritual illumination. Revelation is a dynamic event, not a static deposit like the biblical canon. The Bible is a witness to revelation, but it is a fallible human witness. The Bible becomes the Word of God when God sovereignly chooses to speak through it in an event of Person-to-person revelation.

Allow me to explain this more fully by quoting from an interview of Karl Barth conducted by Donald Grey Barnhouse in 1934. The interview was republished in Eternity magazine in April, 1984:

[Barnhouse speaking]: I said, “There is one matter, however, to which I wish to return for the heart of the criticism of your theology has been your position as to the Word of God.” Our conversation on this point follows. Dr. Barth speaks first.

“I believe in the divinity of the written Word, but the difficulty with some is that they have gotten a divinity that is too human.”

“Do you believe that God speaks outside of the Bible?”

“No, there is no revelation apart from the Bible.”

“Then you would not agree with those who think that the writers of the Bible were inspired only as Shakespeare was inspired?”

“No, No. No. No. The Bible is the only source of divine revelation.”

“Now, Dr. Barth, perhaps we are just at the point that has caused the difficulty. You say that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation, but do you believe that all of the Bible is God’s revelation?”

Dr. Barth had a book in his hand. He divided a page with a gesture of his hand and said, “If this part of the Bible speaks to me, it is God’s Word to me.” And then indicating the other part of the page, “If this part does not speak to me, it is not God’s Word to me.”

That is enough to make some people’s hair stand on end, but I was convinced that there was something more that appeared upon the surface of his speech, so I said, “But Doctor, suppose the part that hasn’t spoken to you really speaks to me. Is it then God’s Word?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “It is then God’s Word for you.”

“And do you believe that the part which is God’s Word to me may someday become God’s Word to you?”

“Of course. Anything in the Bible may become God’s Word to me. This is why the Bible is the book of the church.”

“And is there anything outside of the Bible that can ever be God’s Word to any man?”

“No. The Bible is the only source of God’s Word.”

I quote at length because this is one of those rare occasions when Barth speaks with simple clarity, addressing questions that ordinary Christians are asking. More than anything I have read, Barnhouse’s interview has helped me grasp Barth’s doctrine of Scripture.

Now, I have three points of critique:

1. The Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture does not explain how the actual meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences of the Bible have any significance. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Whereas the propositional view [of divine revelation] highlights God’s use of the biblical words in the past (e.g., inspiration), Barth calls attention to God’s use (or not) of the biblical words in the present (e.g., illumination). The question to be asked of Barth concerns the relationship of the Bible’s quasi-sacramental mediation of Jesus’ real presence to the verbal meaning of the text itself.”

2. Defining revelation solely as a dynamic event is artificial. Events must be interpreted, and even the interpretation could be considered an event in itself. Although I am by no means well-read when it comes to the subject of speech-act theory, I do understand the basic premise that speech is itself an act. With our words we don’t just speak; we actually do things: we command, we inform, we question, we invite, we promise, we interpret, etc. Even though we often think of words and actions as things that belong to different spheres of life, so much of what we do is actually done by speaking. Consider the following examples:

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

“I object, your honor.”

“I want to order a number 3 with extra pickles.”

“The chair recognizes the gentleman from Pennsylvania.”

In every example, speaking constitutes the act by creating a new reality. A minister effects the pronouncement by his words. A lawyer objects with his words. A customer orders with his words. The chairman of a congressional session recognizes with his words. Words function. They actually do things. There are ways in which combinations of words may be defined as events.

This means that there can be no strict separation between revelation as event and revelation as proposition. The Bible itself is one of God’s mighty acts, which contains numerous components of revelatory action: promises, threats, commands, interpretations, etc.

3. Furthermore, the separation between personal revelation and propositional revelation is also artificial. What if I told you that I know my wife like no one else in the world knows her, but I just don’t know any facts about her? That would be insane! In a relationship, knowing someone includes knowing something about someone. There is no warrant for excluding propositional truths from the total package of personal divine revelation. When Isaiah, at his great theophany, heard the cherubim call to one another, he heard two propositions: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory!” He didn’t say, “Shut up, cherubim! I’m only interested in a personal relationship with God, and I have no need for your static theological propositions!” He fell on his face and cried, “Woe is me!” The theological propositions (expressed in praise, another speech-act) cannot be separated from the total package of the revelatory event. Our God is a God who speaks, not just in warm fuzzy feelings but in actual words, verbal symbols that constitute person-to-person communication. We cannot know him unless we know something about him, and what we know about him comes from what he has told us about himself. What he has told us includes propositional truth.

Therefore, I conclude that the Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture is ultimately found wanting, because it puts asunder what God has joined together: words and the Word, events and their divine interpretation, propositions and personal relationships. The Bible is, in its entirety and at all times, the Word of God.