Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Luther's Insults

A friend shared a really funny website with me today: Luther's Insults. Imagine if theologians today still wrote these kinds of things...

Monday, September 24, 2012

So-Called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" A Forgery?

According to Francis Watson, biblical scholar at Durham University, the recently disclosed Coptic fragment, now called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," is in all likelihood a modern forgery, based on its correspondences with The Gospel of Thomas. See Watson's essay here.

This is, of course, not making quite so many headlines.

On Mark Goodacre's blog some comments from Richard Bauckham (formerly of St. Andrews) are of note. He finds Watson's argument "very convincing":

It is of course quite possible that an ancient writer could have produced the text by this process of compilation from the Gospel of Thomas.... But what Watson's argument shows is how easy it would have been for a modern forger to produce this text. In my mind that combines with the other reasons for thinking this papyrus text is very suspicious, viz., the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true".... It is just too good to be true that this tiny fragment happens to preserve the words in which Jesus says "my wife" and thereby feeds into all the popular feeling about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that has been swirling around since at least the Da Vinci Code. The massive coverage of this new fragment in the press and on the internet is itself evidence for the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true" criteria for inauthenticity. Of course, we're only dealing in improbabilities. History being what it is, extraordinarily improbable coincidences do happen.
Bauckham also makes an observation of note about the dating of the text:

It occurs to me we've missed something that Watson's argument really does demonstrate: that the text of this fragment (whether ancient or modern) was composed in Coptic, not translated from Greek. The Nag Hammadi Gospels and related texts were translated from Greek. So this is at best a late, not an early 'Gnostic" text, dependent on the Coptic version of Thomas. Not, therefore late 2nd century, as Karen King suggests. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Problems With Piper

In the past week I've been reading two books - one for a class, one for my own edification - and have found the interplay of the two in my thoughts both surprising and compelling. Or, more accurately, I've found it interesting to watch the ideas of one writer (as far as I understand them) bring unforeseen critique upon the other (as far as I understand him), in a way that I had never before considered.

The first book is John Piper's The Supremacy of God in Preaching. As far as Piper's books go, this one is more or less par for the course, in ways that are both good and bad. You have the deeply good and true conviction that the end of all things is God's glory; that humanity plays a part in this glory, a part that encompasses the totality of their being (but especially their affections and desires); that the task of sharing the word of God not only involves but is singularly devoted to impressing upon hearers the true greatness of majesty of God in such a way as evokes their reverence and awe and humble adoration.

On the other hand, you have the usual difficulties with Piper that stem from his attempt to situate any and every biblical idea within his own scheme of "Christian hedonism" - for example, a totally non-biblical definition of the concept, "the righteousness of God"; the reduction of authentic spirituality to certain feelings about God in apparent opposition to actions taken in obedience to God; also the myopic focus on individual spirituality which follows from this reduction. (One is left wondering, at times, what really distinguishes some of Piper's views from the German liberal Adolf von Harnack's diminishment of Christianity's "essence" to the solitary interplay of "God and the soul, the soul and its God.")

My interest is not so much in this particular book by Piper as it is with Piper's scheme of thought more broadly. I used to be quite enamored of our Baptist brother from Minnesota, embracing his scheme of "Christian hedonism" more or less wholesale, believing that it offered a wonderful freedom to Christians who were perhaps inclined to see their deepest desires and God's glory as being at odds with one another. This, he shows, is manifestly untrue. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" is the continual refrain of Piper's book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and at least at the time, I fully agreed with him.

But this pairing of superlatives (God is most glorified when we are most satisfied) is markedly incomplete. As I said, this is a myopic outlook on God's glory - it centers in on one thing and one thing only, the individual interiority in its apprehension of God, and situates the glory of God there, in radically exclusive terms. No wonder Piper speaks very little in Desiring God (or in The Supremacy of God in Preaching, or in most of his other books for that matter) about the Christian community, about the corporate context to which Paul is speaking when he talks about "Christ in you [plural] the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). His vision of what is the core of the Christian life can never make the (I would say irreducibly) collective dimensions of that life anything other than incidental. Worse still, the exclusivity of this pairing of God's glory with my emotions has the ultimate effect of generating an all-consuming concern, not with God himself, nor with the neighbor whom I am to love in God's name, but with how I myself "feel" about God. If the be-all and end-all of Christian life is God's glory through my satisfaction in him, it seems that my sense of satisfaction cannot but become the center of my attention, because all else depends on it.

And this is where the other book I've been reading this past week becomes relevant. The second book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. Though the book remains incomplete in its final form (Bonhoeffer died before he could finish it), I am certain that it is nonetheless to be counted among the most significant theological works of the twentieth century. Particularly the first chapter, with its opening punch to the ethical gut of the modern man ("The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge."), issues a challenge to all human thinking and acting in the world, but not least to presumptuous Christians with a penchant for fabricating their own legalistic structures of piety. At the heart of Bonhoeffer's understanding of the ethical life lies the conviction that "the good" is not something the human mind is capable of apprehending apart from the revealed knowledge of God, because any form of knowledge, however noble and admirable, which does not recognize everything that "is" to be what it is within the unity of knowledge that is God the creator, is (a) fundamentally out of touch with reality, and (b) a reflection of my mastery over existence by my own intuition and understanding, rather than an acknowledgment of the dependency of all things on God for definition and direction.

In connection with this, Bonhoeffer warns away the attempt of Christians to "know their goodness," particularly by constructing a conscious scheme within which they might perceive how fully and successfully they honor their God. There is, for Bonhoeffer, one thing and one thing only when it comes to being in a right relationship with God: accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, and choosing to "know thyself" only and ever only as one who is, at base, "chosen and loved by God" (we could say, 'justified by faith'). Within this secure self-knowledge which is really just one aspect of our broader knowledge of God, we become hearers and doers of God's word, and we become shameless in our doing of it - that is to say, our repeated question is not "what is the principle for which I must strive, that forms the basis of God's glory in my life, and of which I must continually fear falling short?" Rather, knowing ourselves to be totally accepted in Christ already, we then ask, "What is the will of God?" and we do it as it becomes clear to us, not giving thought to standards, schemes, and measures that might try to evaluate the purity of our action or intention. Within this picture Bonhoeffer includes the love of God - his love for us in Jesus Christ, the very same love that becomes our own as we receive it and respond to it in faith. To love God and others, for Bonhoeffer, is to think, feel, and act out of our acceptance of God's love for man in Jesus Christ, not simply to "reply" to God with some separate and independent love of our own, whose quality we are wont to measure and tweak and tend and keep.

Bonhoeffer's picture, even of the Christian's affections, centers in on God's lordship over us through Jesus Christ, and our apprehension of that lordship as the ground of all our affections. In contrast with this, Piper confuses God's lordship over us with our affections. In his scheme of "Christian hedonism," what occupies center stage is not the Lord of lords himself, but my emotions about this lord; accordingly, this scheme in practice has more to do with my lordship (my mastery over my emotions about God, who will not be glorified unless I feel really, really, really, really good about him all the time, and who is being horrendously dishonored if I feel anything less) than it does with God's. For all his knocking of Immanuel Kant (whose view of the matter he misunderstands, incidentally), Piper's "ethic" of the Christian life is every bit as duty-based and liable to enslave, even if Piper is able to make convenient additions about how God forgives our failure and how the Holy Spirit empowers our affections by grace.

To illustrate, let's consider how this plays out within the act of worship. In the days of my enthusiasm for Christian hedonism, I became increasingly concerned with the degree to which I found God desirable during church services. That, after all, seemed to be the "objective," in light of what Piper was saying. Now of course, one finds that the quickest way to obliterate an emotion is by focusing all attention on the emotion itself. (C.S. Lewis said something like this about anger, I think?) Many a worship service, therefore, became a wrestling match, an all-out war for my attention in which I was held in suspension between the awareness of two realities, both of which drew my attention, ironically, away from the God I was worshiping: (1) that I could only feel emotional about God if all my attention was fixed on him, and (2) that deficiency in such emotions amounted to dishonoring God. The nagging sense of these twin realities would turn many a worship service into a frantic, affective triage. What seemed at first glance like freedom became, instead, slavery.

Bonhoeffer invites us to something different. His proposal does not have fundamentally to do with our affective capacities, but delves deeper into that on which all our affections should be situated: the knowledge of God, and the knowing of all things only "in him." God is not most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him - he is most glorified in us when we forsake the knowing of good and evil that is involved in scrutinizing whether our love for him is satisfying, and take hold of his love for us in Jesus Christ, knowing ourselves and all our feeble affections only within that love that embraces us no matter how we are feeling at present. Our self-awareness in worship then becomes a way of being aware of God and his goodness and his grace. And, wonderfully enough, the issue of this awareness is thankfulness and gratitude to God (something, incidentally, that Piper lambastes as a driving force for religious affection in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals), and this in turn issues in joy - the joy of knowing this God's unfathomable love, and of knowing myself and all my affections within that love, needing to do nothing to earn or obtain it, capable of doing nothing to magnify or diminish it. This kind of self-awareness, the self-awareness of the justified man, readily widens itself out to include others - not only I, but we, the justified, adopted and loved children of God, worship the one who loved us and freed us by his blood, contrary to the muddle of affections (to say nothing of our other sins and flaws) in which we daily live out our lives. How true and how freeing is this love, and how much more evocative of my delight than a distracting preoccupation with my emotions about God, needlessly endured because of my ignorance of the antecedent reality of God's incorruptible glory in the acceptance of sinners (such as myself, however I feel) in Jesus Christ! 

Maybe Piper would agree with everything I just said. But the point is, whatever his intentions, I fear that people will (as I did) put down Desiring God with the impression that their own emotions and experience of God rather than God himself occupy pride of place in the Christian life. Surely this is not what Piper intends, but it is nevertheless where I feel his emphases (at least in his book) incline us. For Bonhoeffer, a maxim like "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" would be inherently dangerous if it were meant in any way to constitute a directive for our spiritual lives - such maxims pose the danger of demanding of us an ongoing self-reliance whereby we differentiate ourselves tirelessly from ourselves again and again, scrutinizing our emotions and actions to determine by our judgment whether they are pleasing to God. We quite simply do not need schemes and principles such as this, because the business of our lives as Christians is not to take the temperature of our emotions and flagellate ourselves according to their deficiency (as Piper revels in doing, it seems, in a number of his books), but to know that we are loved by God in such a way as delves far beneath our temporary abilities and inabilities to feel a certain way about him. His acceptance, his love, and his glory are equally often magnified, it seems, in that he embraces us and draws us near to himself in spite of what we feel, and does not allow the transience of our emotions to impede him.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

Yesterday I gave a sermon on the opening blessing in Ephesians. You can download it or listen to it in your browser by clicking on this link; or, to download it, right click and select 'Save As': http://www.allsouls.com/downloads/DavidWestfall7.15.12.mp3

Monday, April 16, 2012

Thoughts On "Justification" by Markus Barth

JustificationJustification by Markus Barth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Markus Barth's book, though originally written in 1968 (and translated into English in 1971), comes across as new, fresh, and profoundly relevant. I would highly recommend it to all - not only those who are interested in the present debate on justification in Paul, but to anyone who would understand the doctrine better and its relationship to the whole of Christian faith. The book is well-written in an unconventional 'dramatic' format that can be read quickly (it is under a hundred pages) and, for that matter, devotionally.

One thing that this book demonstrates is that the so-called 'New Perspective on Paul,' is really not so new, nor is it an alternative to many of the traditionally-held views of protestants. Well before Dunn and Sanders, Barth is writing about justification as the supremely ecclesiological doctrine, focused on the unification of Jews & Gentiles (and by extension, men, women, and people of other races and different social strata) in the one Messiah who has given his life for all and incorporated all alike, by faith, into his righteousness. Coupled with this ecclesiological focus (at no point treated as an alternative to soteriology, as some recent treatments oddly seem to suggest), Barth also brings in a very robust pneumatology, stressing that the verdict given in Christ is then carried out in the transformation of human lives through a Spirit-led participation in and reflection of the righteousness of Christ.

The following are, I think, the best key insights offered by Barth in this little book:

1) Justification as Christological - My general impression has been that, in many protestant tellings, justification is all about the verdict given to the individual sinner, who is declared righteous in spite of his being a sinner (simul iustus et peccator). What happens in this courtroom setting is that Jesus steps in as a mediator, saying in effect, 'Judge, please pretend I did all those things that make this person guilty, and pretend he did all those things that make me righteous.' The merits and demerits are swapped, and the Christian is thus enabled to stand righteous before God, despite not being so empirically.

Barth gives us a different picture, one that I think is more fundamentally in line with the apostle Paul's teaching. Justification is a verdict rendered, first of all, not for the individual sinner, but for Christ, and rendered in the form of an event - namely, his resurrection from the dead, following his faithful death. In vindicating Jesus on Easter, God pronounced him to be "the righteous one," the one who was faithful and obedient where the rest of humanity was not. From the perspective of the sinner who is justified by faith, the verdict is not so much rendered 'anew' or 'separately,' as it is enjoyed "in Christ" as already having been given; if you are in Christ, his already-rendered verdict ("risen!"; "righteous!") is yours too. As a consequence, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and in so doing 'justified' him (Rom. 4:23-25; 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Tim. 3:16) now dwells within and does the same for the sinner, fashioning for him or her a new self, "created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" which is to be "put on" for the remainder of one's life (Eph. 4:20-24).

Thus, as so many Reformed thinkers back to Calvin have stressed, justification is experienced only in Christ and the righteousness in which we share is his - it is in this sense 'alien' - but not in the legally fictive way that some protestant interpretations have implied. The verdict is matched with an ontological reality, namely the receipt of the Holy Spirit, invading our sinful state with a new identity that replaces the old and puts the old to death. The 'alien righteousness' of Christ indeed does not become 'intrinsic' to the believer (at least not this side of the eschaton), but nonetheless comes to reside in the believer; the transfer of identity from the old to new, the old being crucified with Christ and the new raised to walk in newness of life with Christ, means a righteousness that is not simply pronounced, but applied. (Barth follows the forensic metaphor in his division of the justifying act into the 'giving of the verdict' and the 'carrying out of the sentence.')

2) God's Righteousness/Justice - The justifying act, Barth stresses, is the activity of God himself, in Christ, of reconciling the world to himself. It is not so much the execution of 'justice' in the sense of meting out punishment where it is due (thought this notion may well be contained in God's righteousness), but refers primarily to God's saving justice, God's righteousness in the sense found most strongly in the Psalms and in Isaiah - including, crucially, the idea of God's faithfulness, particularly to the covenant. God's righteousness is his saving activity, in fidelity to his own promises to Israel, of 'rectifying' his people, and with them the whole created order. Barth's presentation of the theme accomplishes what more recent interpreters (especially N.T. Wright) have wished to capture in the Pauline texts, without absolutizing a single aspect of this righteousness (as Wright seems to do with 'covenant faithfulness'). Also, Barth takes note of the importance of God's righteousness to theodicy, to the vindication of God himself in the light of his creation's rebellion. ('Will the creator let it all go to ruin? Will he simply immolate all of it in the fires of judgment? No! His saving righteousness has now been unveiled through the faithful death of Jesus of Nazareth for the whole world, through which he is reconciling all things to himself in heaven and on earth!')

3) Jesus' Faithfulness - Crucial to this scheme is the idea of Jesus' faithfulness to the will of God his Father, which obtains the verdict we enjoy in him. The righteousness and faithfulness of the creator God is met with the faithfulness and consequent righteousness of the Son of God, who sums up in himself both the faithfulness that was sought (and not found) from the creation, and the faithfulness of God to the creation. I am not quite certain as to whether or not Barth had a definite answer to the pistis Christou question in Paul's letters (to be translated as "faith in Christ" or "the faith/faithfulness of Christ"), but either way, his stress on the faithfulness of Jesus and its relationship to our justifying righteousness is 'faithful' to the Pauline texts. Beyond this, it is of immense personal importance to justified sinners such as myself (which is of course part of the reason Paul is writing about it to begin with!) - my standing before God is not grounded upon my own goodness or obedience, nor even for that matter on my own faith or faithfulness! Rather, it is the faithfulness of the Messiah, in whose faithfulness I participate by the Spirit. "Nevertheless I live; but not I - the Messiah lives in me! And the life I live now in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (my translation; not to suggest this would be Barth's rendering).

These are just a few of the issues to which Markus Barth's book speaks, and more could be said. But to anyone interested in the doctrine of justification - particularly to those who need a breath of fresh air in an area often characterized by repetitive voices simply talking past each other - Justification should be a very welcome and edifying presentation.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

N.T. Wright, "How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels"

N.T. Wright's lecture based on his book, How God Became King at Calvin College's 2012 January Series.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review of "The Trinity and the Kingdom" by Jürgen Moltmann

The Trinity and the KingdomThe Trinity and the Kingdom by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moltmann's engagement with Trinitarian theology is highly thought-provoking. One thing I greatly appreciated was his insistence that, following the biblical writers, we must begin by talking about the threeness of God and then move toward oneness. In line with this, I think he successfully demonstrated the inadequacy of some western formulations of the trinity that consider it sufficient to say that the different persons all share the same 'divine substance,' as though this were all that mattered. (In my mind, this can tend toward tri-theism even more than Moltmann's 'social' model of the Trinity, since it doesn't lay enough stress on the mutual indwelling of the persons in one another - they are simply three beings that hold a certain attribute in common.) Perhaps the most engaging portion of the book is in its discussion of 'the passion of God,' i.e. the question of how the triune God of Christian confession relates to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. In keeping with his strong theology of the cross (best exemplified in his masterpiece, "The Crucified God"), Moltmann insists that we regard suffering love as intrinsic to the very identity of God, such that a creation in which the Son did not offer himself up to death would be inconceivable.

With reference to the title, Moltmann's book is 'heavy' on trinity and 'light' - extremely light - on kingdom. He doesn't even attempt sufficiently to ground his ideas within the ancient biblical concept of the kingdom of God; he simply uses the term as though it manifestly means what he thinks it does (which it manifestly doesn't, at least not if he intends to mean by it something like what the biblical writers of the second temple period meant by it). His general inattentiveness to the biblical text and ancient historical context at this point (as at others) is hampered further by his modern allergy to any hint of hierarchy whatsoever, which in my mind yields a skewed conception of the kingdom of God that demands we sweep large portions of the biblical text - both in the gospels and in the epistles, as well as vast swathes of the Old Testament - under the rug. In tracing the connections between a monarchical monotheism and human systems of oppression, he throws the baby out with the bathwater, assuming that the problem is with the notion of power and authority per se and not in our human perversion of them in disobedience to the good authority of a loving God. The great hope of the biblical writers seems to be that God would be acknowledged as king on earth as in heaven, and that his will would be done and the knowledge of him would be perfected; only the Reign of God, on earth as in heaven, could yield true creaturely freedom. (This latter point, in fairness, is something Moltmann recognizes - he acknowledges that true 'freedom' entails not only an openness of decision but specifically a willingness for the Good.)

Moltmann's ideal, however, leaves us with a God who is not a king but a friend (as though the two were mutually exclusive!). His argument depends on a softening of the biblical concepts of fatherhood and sonship, as well as a total ignoring of the idea of headship, such that he emerges with a totally egalitarian reading of the Trinity that seems to leave little room for Paul's affirmation, precisely on the point of authority and submission, that "the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3) and that the Son to whom all things have been subjected will himself be subjected to the Father in the age to come such that the God to whom all is subjected will at last be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:27-28). Where God's status as "all in all" for Moltmann entails something like Christian panentheism, for Paul it clearly means exactly what Moltmann, despite using his phrase, does not want it to mean - namely, that the entire created order is, at last, fully in unmediated submission to its Creator King. In the final analysis, Moltmann emerges with a picture of the age to come that, while interesting and certainly appealing to modern western liberal democrats, does not appear to resemble clearly the biblical picture of God become king in Jesus of Nazareth, and implementing his rule through the Holy Spirit.

Moltmann thus escapes a heterodox subordinationism, but ends up denying any form of hierarchy whatsoever within the Godhead in the process. The biblical witness speaks strongly otherwise; this needn't equate to hierarchical systems within the church as he fears, moreover, since 'monarchical monotheism' (as Moltmann calls it) is precisely the thing that is meant to keep hierarchical relationships in check (as with slaves and masters) because both slave and master, both husband and wife, both parent and child, and both Jew as the gospel's first recipient and Gentile as equal second are in every case equally answerable to the very same Lord and God over all. Slaves and masters alike have a Master in heaven; husbands and wives are all alike under the headship of the same Bridegroom; parents and children, Jews and Gentiles, are all alike the children of one heavenly Father. When God is all in all, there can be no oppression because this is not how he rules the world; domination between God's creatures suggests a lack of subjection to God the king, not a genuine recognition of him as such.

At this point, though, I've strayed more into philosophical differences with Moltmann than with anything wrong with the book. Apart from the imbalance between his discussion of the Trinity and of the Kingdom (with a particular dearth of textual engagement when it comes to the latter), this book is an excellent, engaging inquiry into perhaps the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. If you are looking to delve into Moltmann for the first time, however, a better place to start would be "The Crucified God."