July 15, 2009

N. T. Wright, Justification

Justification is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith, and in both evangelical and more mainline circles, it has been contested territory for a generation or more. N. T. Wright is one of the giants of biblical studies today, with broad recognition in both academic and in more popular circles, with an important multi-volume series from Fortress Press, Christian Origins and the Question of God, and with a string of popular presentations of important facets of the Christian faith, Simply Christian, Suprised by Hope, and After You Believe, all from HarperOne. He is also important because of his rather unique ability to attract admirers and detractors from across the theological spectrum. With his keen insight into Paul, both building on his past work and in anticipation of his forthcoming academic work on the Apostle, this important work zeroing in on the doctrine of justification is one for which I eagerly awaited. And Justification is truly a book to be reckoned with. It is a comprehensive (though, as the author admits, not exhaustive) statement of the place of justification in Paul's thought, and I find myself far more appreciative than anything for this carefully reasoned book.

Wright begins by laying out some important groundwork for the present book by locating it especially within the evangelical conversation concerning the classical "Reformed" view of justification, especially as espoused by John Piper (whose recent book, The Future of Justification, was a sustained critique of Wright's perspective particularly on this issue), and locating his views with reference to the new perspective on Paul, of which Wright could be considered one of the primary contemporary proponents, though he seeks to provide "fresh" perspectives that move beyond what is often termed the "new" perspective. I'd like to proceed in a thematic way by extending some words of appreciation and interest toward a couple of Wright's major themes.

Clearly, the largest idea that Wright advocates is locating of the doctrine of justification, and the understanding of the "righteousness of God," firmly within the context of covenant. He describes God's righteousness as God's covenant faithfulness, and, more specifically, God's faithfulness to the one-plan-through-Israel-to-the-world. The problem that God addresses in the Messiah is that Israel has failed in its part of the plan, to be God's instrument in and to the world, so the plan becomes one-plan-through-the-faithful-Israelite-to-the-world, as Jesus the Messiah becomes the instrument of God's work in and to the world, fulfilling God's covenant plans, demonstrating God's faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham even though it seemed to be foiled by sin.

Wright seeks not to upend the traditional Reformation emphases of justification by faith, God's grace, forgiveness of sins, but instead to locate them in the broader, deeper, and what he asserts to be more truly Pauline story of God's covenant and God's covenant people. He writes,

"Justification by faith—God's declaration in the present time that all those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, all those who confess him as Lord, are true members in the renewed covenant, and are assured thereby of final salvation—belongs inextricably . . . within the framework of Paul's vision of God's single plan of salvation, through Israel and hence through Israel's Messiah, for the sake of all the nations and ultimately for the whole cosmos." (247)

I think there can be no doubt that Wright has illumined some of the questions that were clearly on Paul's mind, and has demonstrated a certain logic, especially about Israel, that helps to fill out much that is right but incomplete in traditional thinking. He also stresses repeatedly that much of the "old perspective" is right and true, just as he often distances himself from or modifies the "new perspective" take, seeking to move beyond both to a more complete theology of Paul that incorporates both the sin-salvation and one-people-of-God facets into a more robust way of thinking.

Another interesting facet to Wright's argument concerns present justification and future judgment. He asserts, very clearly, that justification entails a present verdict that someone (or, maybe more properly, some people) are in the right with God, have achieved the status of righteous/righteousness. The second thing he discusses, at some length, is how this relates to the final judgment. Wright proposes that present justification corresponds to the future verdict of righteousness, but that the two aren't the same. The final verdict, as Romans 2 makes clear, is based on being "doers" of the law. But, and here is the pivotal move for Wright, this doesn't mean a return to the merit theology of the Medieval era, or a works righteousness, but it does mean living a new life enslaved not to the law and sin but to righteousness. This obviously raises some important questions, both about how we in fact live a life that attains this final verdict and how we know it—in short, the question of assurance. This is the topic Paul takes up in Romans 5 to 8, in explaining how the "verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced" (225). The answer for Paul, according to Wright, is the Spirit. It is the Spirit "who makes that victory [of Jesus Christ and of the Father's love triumphing in his Son's death] operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return" (239).

So much more could be said about this insightful and wide-ranging book. It is highlighted not only by his insightful restatement of the doctrine of justification but also by two chapters that provide a sustained and systematic reading of Romans and Galatians, to see how Paul's logic in those two central letters, as interpreted by Wright, informs the doctrine.

Wright has clearly taken the arguments back to Paul and sought to show how fresh readings of the original texts of Scripture can bring fresh light. His writing is always well-crafted and clear, and he does an admirable job of presenting his arguments at a level that appeal to an interested general reader in addition to those more thoroughly versed in the current debates within biblical studies. It certainly remains to be seen which of his readings will win the day, but there is without doubt much of value in the overall framework he proposes, especially of setting the gospel in the larger framework of God's work in the world. I look forward to seeing where this conversation goes in the future.

July 09, 2009

Alicia Britt Chole, Finding an Unseen God

Thanks to Bethany House Publishers for a review copy. This is a delightful, honest story about finding, or better, being found by, God. In two converging threads, Chole narrates her own journey through Atheism to faith in God while also reflecting on the nature of God and belief. Chole's own story highlights her father, a man who she deeply respected and loved, and who didn't believe in God. Before reaching junior high, Chole had embraced her father's Atheism, and into high school she grew to be outspoken in her disdain for faith of every kind. But in the summer after high school, wholly unlooked-for, God met her.

Woven together with her own journey to faith is Chole's thoughtful reflections on Atheism and its adherents, for whom she has the utmost respect, and her description of the nature of belief in God, complete with four "filters" (consistent, livable, sustainable, transferable) through which various belief systems can be sifted, all in search of truth. Last, through five things that she likes about God (God delights in sincere questions; walking with God sharpens the mind; God is not a fool; God is the ultimate realist; God is knowable), she paints a beautiful portrait of what God is like; one especially suited to those seeking or being sought by God.

While some might be put off by the interwoven story lines, I think Chole pulls off the two threads to good effect. Her writing is very clear, with many finely turned phrases elegantly communicating the depth of her reflection. This book is not an argument for God's existence, a handbook of apologetics, but is instead a thoughtful and honest story of being found by God. I would not hesitate to put this book into the hands of an Athiest or an agnostic, or even any Christian who may need to meet God afresh, because Chole's compassion and respect for others comes through clearly in her writing and earns her a hearing.

July 01, 2009

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine

My blogging has been erratic of late, and I've had Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine sitting on my desk to review for a couple months now, waiting for the time and the ambition to take on such a substantial task. I'd just skip it and move on, except it was such a spectacular book I have to at least make note of it.

I have to start by saying that I loved this book. Though it was over my head at points (he enters into many important theological discussions about theological method which I have but only a surface familiarity with, not to mention the philosophical theology and hermeneutics that continually arise in his discussions), its value is obvious even without grasping or appreciating all of the finer points.

Vanhoozer gives, in essence, an apologia for the importance of doctrine, asserting that it fills the essential role of guiding the church to "demonstrate faith's understanding by living truthfully with others before God" (xii). Throughout the entire work, one of the themes that continually arises is the importance of doctrine for life, in that doctrine is not an esoteric or abstract exercise but a concrete, lived reality with the utmost practicality. I think this point, made repeatedly, is one of the most energizing in the book, as it brings an excitement to doctrine when its horizon is broadened to include the way we live.

I will not attempt here a summary of this substantive proposal about the method of doing doctrine Christianly, but will simply say that it is clearly a tour de force, anchoring Christian wisdom firmly and faithfully to Scripture all the while using a robust hermeutic to reinvigorate the Scripture principle. This all deserves a careful unpacking, but suffice it to say that he sets for the Bible as the "script" that provides the authoritative direction, the "drama" in which we find ourselves players. This brings up another important dimension of this book, the sustained metaphor of drama that provides the framework for Vanhoozer's thought. The pervasive use of such a metaphor could be a distraction, but Vanhoozer uses it to good effect, carefully building may points and relationship off of this central idea. And once you've developed an ear for the way he uses and applies the various dramatic dimensions, with actors, script, drama, dramaturge, and so on, the metaphor serves to enlighten, instead of obscure, his points. In fact, it would seem that maybe "metaphor" isn't quite the right term for the role "drama" plays, because the correlation between doctrine as "drama" and the fact to which it referrs, that doctrine involves description and prescription concerning a narrative-infused world in which we live under God means that doctrine truly is dramatic.

I have only but scratched the surface of this programmatic proposal concerning doctrine, but I hope that doesn't obscure my excited endorsement. I look forward to working through this book again in the future and digesting further its deep insights and catching again its passion for the dramatic truth of the gospel. If you have any interest in theology and the role of scripture in it, do not miss this book.