Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part Two: Covenant

The second of N.T. Wright's four "aspects" to the Pauline doctrine of justification is that of covenant (the others being lawcourt, eschatology, and Christology). In Justification he writes:

The key passages [on justification] in Romans and Galatians are all drawing on, and claiming to fulfill, two central passages in the Penta-teuch: Genesis 15, where God establishes his covenant with Abraham, and Deuteronomy 30, where Israel is offered the promise of covenant renewal after exile.... Paul's view of God's purpose is that God, the creator, called Abraham so that through his family he, God, could rescue the world from its plight.
For Wright, "covenant" is shorthand for "God's-single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world":

The "covenant," in my shorthand, is not something other than God's determination to deal with evil once and for all and so put the whole creation (and humankind with it) right at last.... Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justfication, glorification -- all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
As one would expect, Wright sees justification in the light of a broader, covenantal category that addresses questions bigger than merely "how to get to heaven when we die." He points to the fact that Paul, in Romans 4:11, quotes Genesis 17:11 which refers to circumcision as "the sign of the covenant," but changes the language, calling circumcision "the seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith." For Paul, covenant is the larger issue of which justification by faith is but a part.

Echoing Horton's most recent critique, I don't see how any Reformed believer who is at all indebted to theologians like Geerhardus Vos or Herman Ridderbos (as I am) would see any problem at all with Wright's emphasis on covenant here. What is baffling (as Horton correctly points out) is that Wright continues to stubbornly insist that his view is the antidote to that of Reformed theology. As I will highlight in subsequent posts, there are differences between Wright's conclusions and those of confessional Reformed orthodoxy, particularly pertaining to the role of Christ's active obedience in all of this, but this does not mean that we are left with the option of choosing Wright or Calvin on this matter (a false dilemma if there ever was one). In other words, there is no reason why we can't emphasize covenant on the one hand, seeing our justification as one ingredient in a much more grand and cosmic recipe, while on the other hand insisting upon Jesus lifelong obedience as the basis for it all.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part One: The Divine Lawcourt

In his book Justification, N.T. Wright attempts to approach his doctrinal topic from four directions: lawcourt, covenant, eschatology, and Christology. These four aspects of justification, Wright argues, must be held together by the New Testament scholar in order to understand "what Saint Paul really said."
In this post I will interact a bit with the first of Wright's aspects: the lawcourt.

Wright begins by denying the claim of many that justification denotes "the entire picture of God's reconciling action toward the human race" (though the dikaios root "is indeed closely related to the whole theme of human salvation"). What, then, does "justification" mean? Wright argues that the word "righteousness" (Greek: dikaios) refers to "the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor." This has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral character of the person in question: on a human level a judge could incorrectly grant the status of "found by the court to be in the right" to a criminal, and it still would not change the fact that he now enjoys the status of "righteous." Turning to the verb form "to justify," Wright insists that what is in view here is not the remedial, Augustinian notion of "making righteous" (at least not if "righteous is referring to moral character). Rather, "to justify" means to declare that one is in the right with repect to the divine lawcourt:

"To justify" does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of "justification," not the character. It is in this sense that "justification" "makes" someone "righteous," just as the officiant at a wedding service might be said to "make" the couple husband and wife....
This is why, according to Wright, any notion of the "imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ" is flawed, though understandable. The righteousness spoken of in Romans 3 is not a moral quality, but a status of legal vindication (meaning that the notion that one person's righteousness could be given to another is a confusion of categories).

From a confessionally Reformed perspective, some of what Wright says is rather benign, and some of it is even refreshing (especially his insistence on the Reformation emphases of the declarative and forensic). But once you start messing around with the doctrine of imputed righteousness, that is where the good Calvinist must dig his heels in and resist.

I have up my sleeve what I consider to be a pretty solid defense of the doctrine of imputation (which I will bring out eventually). But in the meantime, what are some ways that you would refute Wright's claims here?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on N.T. Wright's Justification

I’d like to offer a few random and disordered thoughts on N.T. Wright’s latest book, Justification. I may go back next week and fill in some details in order to offer a more cogent critique, or I may just let the messiness stand (depends on how emergent I’m feeling). So here goes….

First, some positives. Whether it is in response to his critics, or whether he’s been saying this all along, I’m not sure, but Wright does have a lot more to say about human sin and the need for rescue than I was expecting. One of the most common complaints from confessional Reformed theologians about the New Perspective on Paul is its failure to do justice to the serious nature of man’s plight before God (focusing instead on man’s estrangement from his fellow man, especially that of the Jew from the Gentile). This failure is seen most glaringly in E.P. Sanders’s somewhat lame claim that when all was said and done, the real problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. Perhaps Wright has been paying attention to the NPP’s critics at this point (or maybe he has been saying this all along, I am not sure), because in Justification he makes it clear time and time again that the whole point of Yahweh raising up a worldwide family by means of the Abrahamic covenant is to rescue man from the curses of both Genesis 11 and Genesis 3. Ecclesiology does not eclipse soteriology, but is the context in which salvation takes place.

One complaint that the confessional Reformed reader will still have, however, is with regard to Wright’s all-too-casual dismissal of the desire for personal salvation on the part of the person living in the second-temple period. Drawing from extra-canonical literature, Wright insists that the whole “What will happen when I die? Will my soul go to heaven?” mentality was just utterly foreign to the minds of people during Jesus’ and Paul’s day. What Wright seems all too eager to forget is the fact that New Testament characters asked these questions all the time. While we certainly don’t want to minimize the issue of table fellowship and Jew/Gentile relations, we must also remember that the rich young ruler had a heavy heart when considering the state of his own soul’s salvation, that the multitudes in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were “cut to the heart” after hearing Peter’s accusations about their sin, and the Philippian jailor’s first question to Paul and Silas was “What must I do to be saved?” If Wright is going to claim to be doing justice both to ecclesiology and soteriology, he will need to do a better job integrating passages like these into his system if he wants his claim to be taken seriously. If, as he admits, every Jew has an Adam living inside him, then we need a little more Eden and a little less Babel in his formulations.

Finally—and here I will echo Horton’s complaints—I wish Wright demonstrated a greater familiarity with traditional Reformed covenant theology. Often his foil is the Dispensationalist who insists that when God’s “Plan A” didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, he then put “Plan B” into effect, according to which man would be saved by the grace of Jesus instead of the demands of the law. I often find myself scratching my head in bewilderment at Wright’s approach, as if he believes either that contemporary Dispensationalism (1) is a worthy enough adversary to be taken seriously, (2) is the only alternative to the New Perspective’s brand of covenant theology, or (3) that the Reformers were proto-Dispensationalists. If Wright were to show a proficiency of understanding with respect to how the Reformers read Paul (and Moses), and if he incorporated the views of men like Vos, Ridderbos, and Kline into his critique of the Old Perspective, his arrows may land more successfully than they do when he shoots them at strawmen.

More next week, perhaps.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Boastings of a Straight-Faced Presbyterian, Part Two

I’ll now continue my response to Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman, who exhibited in the comments of this post great suspicion about whether anyone would dare, with a straight face, blog about the glories of Presbyterianism. This post will be an attempt to do just that. So hold on to your seats, folks, because I will now, with face quite straight, proceed to talk about how awesome Presbyterianism is.

For this second of two installments, I will focus on the issue of the grace of God in the salvation of sinners.

Now I realize that my friends from Tim’s tradition will insist that God brings just as much glory to himself by helping sinners save themselves as he does by just going ahead and saving them, but I don’t buy it. If, as Calvinists insist, man is spiritually enslaved to sin and to the devil and therefore unable to rectify his plight, then it would follow that it is God who must do the rectifying. If man is “dead in trespasses and sins” and “darkened in his understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in him, due to his hardness of heart, being past feeling and given over to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 2:1; 4:18-19), then what other conclusion can we reach other than that man is hopelessly hopeless without God’s sovereign intervention?

To put this another way, regeneration must precede faith. In the same way that in physical biology a baby must be conceived in the womb before it can turn around and act like a baby, so must the sinner’s heart be implanted with the seed of divine life before he can start acting like a saint (I Pet. 1:3, 23). Just as the doctrine of original sin teaches us that we sin because we are sinners and not the other way around, so the doctrine of the new birth demonstrates that we must be made new before we can act new.

So in the same way that a doctor would get a much less significant pay raise for convincing his patients to take their medicine than he would for resurrecting them from the dead after they ignore his advice, so the glory that God receives for man’s salvation is directly tied to how serious our malady was before he stepped in. At the end of the day, if God did no more for me than he did for my neighbor who (for the sake of argument) ends up in hell, then what accounts for my being a sheep and him a goat? Well, if all God did for me was beckon and woo, with the deciding vote being cast by yours truly, then there’s really no way around it: I saved myself. Now, the fact that God graciously made me a co-savior with Jesus doesn’t solve the problem of God’s diminished glory-getting—all it does is allow me to pray with the Pharisee, “God I thank you that I am not like other men.”

So there you have it: Presbyterianism is exceedingly praiseworthy because, in the case of the salvation of sinners, it sees man’s plight as more dire, and God’s power more divine, than just about any other tradition out there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Strange New World, Part One: Baptismal Initiation

I just began a new series of sermons at Exile Presbyterian Church on the topic of baptism called A Strange New World. The first message is titled "Baptismal Initiation," and can be downloaded here.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Said That?

Big ups to whoever can correctly identify the source of the following quotation:

"But if 'righteousness,' within the lawcourt context, refers to the status of the vindicated person after the court has announced its verdict, we have undercut in a singe stroke the age-old problem highlighted in Augustine's interpretation of 'justify' as 'make righteous.' That always meant, for Augustine and his followers, that God, in justification, was actually transforming the character of the person, albeit in small, preliminary ways (by, for instance, implanting the beginnings of love and faith within them). The result was a subtle but crucial shifting of metaphors: the lawcourt scene is now replaced with a medical one, a kind of remedial spiritual surgery, involving a 'righteous implant' which, like an artificial heart, begins to enable the patient to do things previously impossible.

"But part of the point of Paul's own language, rightly stressed by those who have analyzed the verb dikaioo, 'to justify,' is that it does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of 'justification,' not the character."
And as always, no Googling....

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Boastings of a Straight-Faced Presbyterian, Part One

I mentioned a couple days ago that I plan to take up Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman’s challenge to post an article on the glories of Presbyterianism with a straight face. This post will be part one of two, and rest assured, my face is very straight.

The first locus I would like to address to demonstrate Presbyterianism’s awesomeness is our doctrine of Scripture. We confess:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5).

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (WCF 1.10).
Here we see that, despite the manifold internal evidence whereby Scripture demonstrates its divine authorship, it is ultimately through the testimony of the Holy Spirit whereby the believer is taught to esteem what has been written.

Does this leave any loopholes? Of course is does. Does it answer every conceivable objection? Not by a long shot. But Presbyterians are not rationalists who toss and turn at night over the possibility that a hole in our system might be poked, nor do we wring our hands over what to do if someone disagrees with us. If our Lord could appeal to what "is written" to answer the tests of the serpent, and if Paul could prescribe a remedy for heresy that consisted primarily in getting the gospel right even if he himself got it wrong, then despite its lack of perfect tidiness, we are content to trust the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Scripture to Jesus' sheep. If he is our Good Shepherd, then we can hear his voice.

Concerning the role the church has in interpreting Scripture, we confess that

It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word (WCF 31.3).
Again, this does not preclude the possibility of confusion, but we live in a confusing world filled with false prophets and bad angels disguised as good ones (didn’t Jesus warn us about this?). But despite its lack of airtightness, this approach does pretty good justice to the distinction between revelation that is uttered under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the one hand, and the non-inspired interpretation of those utterances on the other. Sure, the church can make mistakes and must grow in her understanding of God's Word, but why should that be something we are afraid to admit? Paul wasn’t:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:11-16).
So to sum up, the Reformed understanding of the relationship between the church and Scripture is anything but pristine, but it does accurately reflect the nature of life in this age before the consummation. Indeed, on that Day all the loose ends will be tied up and all our questions will be answered. But until then, we who embrace our pilgrim status and are enabled to boast in seeming weakness and glory in seeming shame are content to labor, to learn, to grow, all the while knowing that God will guide his church into all truth.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just How Awesome Are We? Stay Tuned, You'll See....

Last month, Called to Communion blogger Tim Troutman wrote a piece titled "What is the Catholic Faith Like?" In it, he says:

For those outside her only pay lip service to what she wallows in. They say they believe in a certain priest-hood too – we have priests! They say they believe in the Real Presence too – we worship the Eucharist! They say they believe in the communion of saints – we ask them to pray for us! They say they believe in Church authority too – we submit to the See of Peter!
Now, I grant that Tim's article was intended more as a description than a defense, but I couldn't help but feel like his point was that the appeal of Catholicism is that it's well, the most Catholic of all the available options. I commented:
I can’t but think that what you’ve written... is a tad self-congratulatory. I mean, I could write about Presbyterianism and simply highlight its “Presbyterianness” as an argument for why Presbyterianism is so awesome. After all, no other church holds to the Westminster Confession like we do, so therefore we’re better.
To which Tim responded:
But JJS, I would like to see that post on Presbyterianism’s greatness. I’m curious as to what it would look like. I’m wondering what Presbyterianism has that no one else does, and what it is, specifically, that Presbyterianism embraces fully to which others only pay lip service. A lot of great things can be said of Presbyterianism, I won’t deny it for a second. But I have to admit my skepticism as to whether something like this could be written of the Presbyterian church with a straight face.
Well, you can't say that kind of thing to a graduate of Westminster Seminary California and not expect the challenge to be taken up, so this week I hope to write two posts on "Presbyterianism's Greatness," with one focusing on our view of Scripture, and the other on our view of divine grace.

Stay tuned....

Friday, October 09, 2009

What's Radder, WSC or BMX?

As you may know, over at the Old Life Theological Society Darryl Hart has been challenging the label "Radical Two Kingdoms" affixed to people associated with Westminster Seminary California by Federal Vision-leaning theonomist-reconstructionists (yes, that feeling you're experiencing is irony).

I appreciate his point here:

But here is an important point: at least the current advocates of 2k theology, like Stellman, are trying to be self-consciously Reformed about their engagement of Christ and culture, or religion and politics, and do this in a modern context. That is, they draw on redemptive-historical notions of pilgrimage, exile, and differences between Israel and the church, to come up with a 2k theology that disentangles the gospel from a theology of glory, whether proclaimed by the Religious Right or neo-Calvinists. Meanwhile, the theology of glory crowd trots out defenses of state church arrangements from the 16th and 17th centuries, as if committed to them, but all the while embracing Roman Catholics and Mormons in the public square for the sake of a faith-based America.

That’s not radical. It’s two-faced.
Hart's point is that you don't get to call 2K folks historically "radical" if your tolerance of Catholics and Mormons places you closer to us than to Calvin on the Christ/Culture spectrum.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Where'd You Get That Jacket?!

Over at the Old Life Theological Society,
Darryl Hart questions Doug Wilson's label "R2K"
(radical two-kingdoms) when describing my view
and that of Westminster CA.

Check it out.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Dominion Mandate in This Age, to Infinity, and Beyond

If you have been following Doug Wilson's posts on my book Dual Citizens, you will have noticed that the theme of dominion has come up quite a bit, especially among his commenters. The complaints usually go something like this: Genesis 1:28 talks about how Adam was to take dominion over creation, and yet Stellman's focus on the believer's identity as a pilgrim and exile fails to do justice to the dominion mandate given by God at creation."

Assuming that this is a faithful summary of the critique, I would like to offer a response.

I agree that God told Adam to exercise dominion over creation, and I agree that Adam's dominion-taking would have helped usher in God's eternal kingdom, a kingdom which would have brought with it eternal life and Sabbath rest for Adam and his posterity. But where many go wrong, in my view, is in the fact that they seem to stop reading at Genesis 1.

After the Fall, God tells man that the elements of prelapsarian life, such as marriage, childbearing, and labor are to continue on, albeit in a context of curse. In a word, these aspects of life will now be perverted to reflect the curse sanction that God had pronounced on creation due to Adam's rebellion. Marriage will now be a power-struggle, childbirth will now be painful, and bread will now be produced through sweat and an uncooperative earth. The same is true of the dominion mandate.

The dominion motif comes to the fore again after the flood, only now Noah is to practice his mastery over creation in the context of a covenant that is not redemptive but common, a covenant made "between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations" (Gen. 9:1-17). As shown by the inauguration of the kingdom of man in Genesis 4, the cultural work of human hands is valuable for building a temporal, common kingdom, but due to the Fall, our cultural endeavors cannot bring about the kingdom of Christ (a kingdom which Jesus said "is not of this world").

What, then, of the dominion mandate?

We read in Psalm 8 a divine commentary on Genesis 1:28, one in which David speaks of man thus:

You have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet... (vv. 5-6).
Sounds great, right? It sounds like the dominion mandate is still in force, reiterated in all its prelapsarian glory. But again, we need to keep reading. When we come to Hebrews 2, which is a commentary on Psalm 8 (which is a commentary on Genesis 1), we see a truly Christocentric interpretation of the dominion mandate. According to the writer,

Now in putting everything in subjection to [man], [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (vv. 8b-9).
Talk about an already/not yet hermeneutic! According to the author here, there is a promise to man of dominion that is still outstanding and unfulfilled, one which we do "not yet see." But what do we see? "We see Jesus" who, like Adam, was made for a litte while lower than the angels. He is the One who exercises dominion, the One to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Will we, the men and women whom Jesus represented and whose nature he assumed, ever get to share in this dominion? Indeed we will, but the writer to the Hebrews insists that this dominion is "not yet." Immediately preceding the quotation from Psalm 8, Hebrews says:

Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking (v. 5).
The implication is that though this present fallen order is not under man's control, the world to come will be. The conclusion, then, is clear: The dominion mandate of Genesis 1 has not been revoked, but due to the Fall, man cannot by his own cultural labors usher in the power and glory of the kingdom like Adam could have. Rather, this promise is now reformulated Christocentrically, with Jesus experiencing "the dominion of the resurrection" now, as demonstrated in his ascension to the Father's right hand. We, on the other hand, do not see these things with our eyes, but only embrace them by faith and hopeful cross-bearing. The day will come, however, when faith will give way to sight and the cross will give way to glory. On that day, and not before, "the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ," and we will reign with him forever and ever.