Monday, November 30, 2009

There's No "I" in Worship

I made a statement in my morning sermon yesterday that struck some people as unsettling, but I plan to stick by it unless I can be shown to be wrong:

Worship, according to the New Testament, is an almost exclusively corporate, rather than individual, phenomenon.

Take for example what is arguably the locus classicus on the topic of worship: Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4 (in which the word “worship” is used no less than ten times). If we try to substitute the contemporary understanding of worship for what our Lord and the woman are talking about, the dialogue makes little sense. Worship, in the parlance of our times, usually refers either to singing songs specifically, or more generally to whatever goosebumpy, “Hallmark Moments” our private devotions happen to yield. But what Jew or Samaritan in antiquity, if they were in their right minds, would have argued that one’s personal quiet times needed to take place on a mountaintop either in Jerusalem or Samaria? The very fact that the initial argument between Jesus and the Samaritan woman focused on the where of worship demonstrates that it was not private devotions that were being discussed since, as everyone knows, those can take place anywhere.

Even the well-known passage Romans 12:1, in which Paul speaks of “our spiritual worship” cannot be taken to denote individual private worship. The apostle urges the Romans to offer their bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), and he then launches into a discussion of the one body and its many members, thus indicating that the Romans’ spiritual worship was that which they offered in covenantal assembly.

And then when we add all the “let us draw near” passages of Hebrews, we arrive at a picture of worship that is corporate, collective, and covenantal.

This is not deny the Reformed categories of individual, family, and corporate worship. But in our day and age, characterized as it is by the atomization of society, it is the corporate nature of worship that needs to be drilled into the heads and hearts of God’s people.

That’s all I’m saying….

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something for the Drive Home

My lecture "The Destiny of the Species" from last month's Ligonier Conference can be downloaded here.


Monday, November 23, 2009

N.T. Wright on Romans 3:27-29

There has been an exegetical point that Wright has often made that has been on my mind lately. It concerns Romans 3:27-29, which says:

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.
No one would deny that v. 28 is in some sense a culmination of Paul’s preceding argument concerning justification by faith. On the verses that flank it on either side, Wright writes:

The meaning of the all-important verse Romans 3:28 is held firmly in place by the verses on either side. Romans 3:27 indicates that “the Torah of faith” excludes the “boasting” of Romans 2:17-20.... How then must we read Romans 3:28? [We must read it as] the decisive statement which explains (as the gar, “for,” indicates) the dramatic claim of Romans 3:27, and as the statement whose immediate implication is that God has one family, not two, and that this family consists of faithful Gentiles as well as faithful Jews.
In other words, the boasting that justification by faith eliminates is not a boasting in one’s moral accomplishments, but a boasting on the part of the Jew who takes solace in his status as being from the nation through whom God would save the world. And further, the little word “or” at the beginning of 3:29 serves to show that if the status of “righteous” were manifested by ethnic boundary markers rather than by faith, then the Jews’ boast would be true, and God is, in the end, the father of Abraham’s physical offspring only.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Update From Today's SJC Proceedings

Just a quick update on the SJC proceedings:

We met for just over two hours, during which we (the complainants) presented our case, and Rob Rayburn (the respondant) presented his. The gist of our position was that on a number of points (such as the relationship of imputation to union, the efficacy of baptism, and the distinction between the covenants of works and grace), Rev. Leithart has expressly denied the clear teaching of the Westminster Standards, and that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery erred in failing to recognize this fact and act on it.

The respondant's position is that we (the complainants) are interpreting the Standards to be way more strict than they are (or have been understood to be throughout the history of the Reformed churches), thus "turning our church into a mere sect." If Leithart professes to hold to the Westminster Standards (which he does) and is a godly man who holds to eternal election, the five points of Calvinism, and paedobaptism (which he is), then it is wrong to "try to run him out of the church," especially when we have miserably failed to demonstrate that his views fall under the sanction of even one of the nine points set forth in the PCA's FV Report.

A couple of the eyebrow-raising statements from the respondant include: (1) His insistence that the Westminster Standards do not teach that the covenant of works sets forth a distinct principle by which we receive eternal life from that of the covenant of grace; (2) His encouragement to the SJC that they all read John Frame's review of Horton's Christless Christianity so as to learn from Frame how to avoid the dangers of Westminster Seminary California's sectarianism; and perhaps the most telling of all was (3) seeing firsthand what happens when one flattens out redemptive history so as to take Yahweh's dealings with Old Testament Israel under the conditional, Mosaic covenant as an unqualified, across-the-board paradigm for understanding how God relates to the church today. When asked by the commission, "In what sense are we saved by baptism?", the response was given, "Well, in the same sense that God can pardon his people and then damn them."

(For the record, my point is not that OT Israel has nothing to teach us, nor is it that the writers of the NT never refer us to Israel to learn from their mistakes. I get that. My point is that to read all the Bible's old covenant/new covenant language in purely existential rather than eschatological terms is to do violence to both the newness of the new covenant and the work of Christ as the second Adam and true Israelite who gained for us perfectly what his OT types could not.)

I am told that the SJC has 42 days to make a ruling. And to those of you who love asking, yes, if they find in favor of Leithart and against us, I will submit to that and never bring it up again.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Preliminary Hearing Before the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA

Just a heads-up: I am in Atlanta for a preliminary hearing with the Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America (which is the denomination's highest court). The purpose of the hearing is to address the complaint filed against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery by me and two others due to presbytery's failure to take appropriate action with respect to Rev. Peter Leithart, a minister in the PNWP. As many of you know, the 35th General Assembly of the PCA near-unanimously judged the theology of the Federal Vision to be out of accord with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the doctrinal standards to which all our ministers subscribe. Rev. Leithart is an avowed Federal Visionist, and therefore we feel that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery's repeated refusal to take any action whatsoever demonstrates a failure on presbytery's part to protect the doctrine of the church as we have confessed it.

We meet tomorrow (Thursday) at noon EST. Prayers are appreciated for all involved, including Peter.

Monday, November 16, 2009

St. Paul on the Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience

OK, we have given N.T. Wright the floor for our last handful of posts, it is now time to take it back.

For confessional Reformed believers, the biggest obstacle to a “new perspective” reading of Paul is Wright’s denial that Jesus’ life of obedient law-keeping is reckoned to the sinner in justification. Rather, Wright argues, the “obedience” that is so reckoned consist only of the Messiah’s death, and not his life. Wright loves to appeal to Philippians 2:8 at this point, which speaks of Jesus “becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

I would like to offer some points by way of response.

First, regarding Philippians 2:8, Wright would surely agree that his Reformed opponents do not deny that Jesus’ death was an act of obedience to the Father. In other words, no one is denying what this verse says. For Wright to appeal to it in order to refute the imputation of Christ’s active obedience places a much greater burden on the text that it can bear, for in Philippians 2:8 Paul did not say that Jesus’ death alone constitutes the whole of his obedience to the Father, but simply that Christ “became obedient to the point of death.” And moreover, the apostle’s language of “to the point of death” (mexri + thanatos in the genitive case) would seem to indicate that the Messiah’s death was the culmination of his obedience and not just the sole example of it.

Secondly, we have in Romans 5:18-19 one of the most clear Pauline articulations of the doctrine in question:

Therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one Man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
A couple points need to be made here in order for these verses to have their full effect. First, although the ESV regrettably follows the NIV in translating di’ henos dikaiomatos as “one act of righteousness,” the context (as well as many commentators) demand that the word henos (one) be rendered in the masculine gender instead of the neuter (though they look identical in the original). In other words, the word “one” should be understood to refer to a masculine subject (“the Man”) rather than to a neuter one (“righteousness”), thus rendering the phrase not “one act of righteousness” but “the righteousness of the one Man” (as it appears in the NKJV). Surprisingly, many who deny the imputation of Jesus’ active obedience cite Romans 5:18 in such a way as to give the impression that it answers the question definitively, thereby demonstrating a complete unawareness of the grammatical debate surrounding it. But as Cranfield says:

Since henos is masculine in its three occurrences in v.17 and also in its two occurrences in v.19, and since the whole subsection is concerned with the relation of the one man Adam and one Man Christ to the many... it is surely better to take henos here as masculine (Romans, 289).
Another grammatical point that is worth mentioning is that here in Romans 5, Paul teaches the substance of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience without ever using the allegedly controversial word logizomai. According to many Federal Visionists, this Greek word that is usually translated as “impute” does not mean to transfer something from one person to another, but only to reckon it to be so. But follow Paul’s logic in vv. 15-19: first, Paul teaches that Christ, like Adam, functions as a federal Head who represents, and acts on behalf of, a people; second, through Christ’s representation his people are given a gift; third, this gift results in justification; fourth, this gift that results in justification consists of righteousness; and fifth, the righteousness that is given is the obedience of Christ, which constitutes us righteous. To summarize, Paul teaches that the obedience of Christ is given as a gift to the sinner resulting in his justification, all without ever using the word logizomai.

Lastly, if Christ’s “righteousness” (both in Romans 5 and elsewhere) refers to his covenant faithfulness, then the question must be asked, “To what, exactly, was Christ faithful?” Remember, Paul makes it clear in Romans 5:18-19 that Jesus’ “righteousness” is his “obedience.” So if Jesus’ obedience is given to the sinner as a gift resulting in justification (which Romans 5 explicitly says), then is Wright correct in saying that Christ’s obedience is his death only? I mean, for all of Wright’s moaning about how supposedly a-historical and non-covenantal Reformed theologians are, one would expect that his understanding of the Messiah’s covenant faithfulness would be defined as faithfulness to Torah, the covenant of law. But if Wright is willing—at precisely this most crucial of points—to surrender his boasted historicity and attention to covenant by removing Torah-keeping from his definition of Christ’s covenant faithfulness, then as far as I am concerned, all bragging right are henceforth null and void.

Please don’t interpret me as being dismissive of Wright as a whole—he makes many important exegetical points throughout his body of work. On this point in particular, though, the confessional Reformed believer must respectfully dig his heels and say with the dying Machen, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ... no hope without it.”

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wright on Justification, Part Four: Christology

As we have been seeing, N.T. Wright insists that the doctrine of justification must be approached from four distinct but related angles. We have looked at the first three (lawcourt, covenant, and eschatology), and in this post we’ll consider the fourth: Christology.
According to Wright, Christology comes to bear upon justification in the fact that God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” had a problem, namely, that Israel had not offered to God the “obedience” (Wright’s term) that was necessary to bring about the fulfillment of God’s saving promises to Abraham. He writes:

The task of the Messiah, bringing to its appointed goal the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, was to offer to God the “obedience” which Israel should have offered but did not.... The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was the “through-Israel” bit: Israel had let the side down, had let God down, had not offered the “obedience” which would have allowed the worldwide covenant plan to proceed. Israel, in short, had been faithless to God’s commission.... What is needed is a faithful Israelite, through whom the single plan can proceed after all.
Now before we Reformed confessionalists begin celebrating too much over what Wright says here, we must realize that when he speaks of obedience his thoughts turn immediately to Philippians 2:8. “Jesus,” Paul says there, “was obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” For Wright, Jesus’ obedience as the faithful Israelite consists in his curse-bearing death—there is no sense in which the Father demanded a perfect performance from either Adam or Christ in order to qualify them to stand in his presence. And consistently with this is the denial of the merit of that law-keeping being transferred to those whom both Adams represented. No, what was given over to Adam’s offspring was the results of his deadly sin, and what is reckoned to the followers of Christ are the blessings of his death and resurrection.

My question to Wright (if I had the chance to ask him one) would be this: If Jesus, as our covenant representative, needed to qualify himself to bear the covenant curse by first leading a sinless life, then why is this the case? If the medieval notion of merit (which apparently plagues Reformed Protestantism) is so wrong-headed, then why did the Father insist upon perfect law-keeping from his Son before he could offer himself upon the cross? And since Christ’s covenant faithfulness was necessary (as Wright admits), then why would it not be a part of what gets reckoned to those who are united to Jesus? Or, did the Father wait until the Son’s earthly life was ending and his death beginning before he exclaimed, “OK.... Ready? Set? Go! Start redeeming NOW!”

But to be fair to Wright, that was four questions....

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Covenant Radio Interview

In case anyone's interested,
I was interviewed the other day
on Covenant Radio about my book,
Dual Citizens: Worship and Life
Between the Already and the Not Yet,
and the podcast can be downloaded here.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wright on Justification: Part Three: Eschatology

After highlighting lawcourt and covenant, N.T. Wright moves on in Justification to a discussion of the third of his four aspects of the doctrine, namely, eschatology. Wright argues that Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, expected that there would come a time in which all the world's wrongs would be put to right, but unlike his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, insisted that this ultimate goal had already been launched in and through Jesus the Messiah.

Paul believed, in short, that what Israel had longed for God to do for it and for the world, God had done for Jesus, bringing him through death and into the life of the age to come. Eschatology: the new world had been inaugurated! Covenant: God’s promises to Abraham had been fulfilled! Lawcourt: Jesus had been vindicated—and so also all those who belonged to Jesus will be vindicated as well! And these, for Paul, were not three, but one. Welcome to Paul’s doctrine of justification, rooted in the single scriptural narrative as he read it, reaching out to the waiting world.
"For Paul," Wright goes on to say, "the events concerning Jesus the Messiah were nothing short of an apocalypse, the denoument of history, the bursting in of God's sovereign saving power to the world of corruption, sin, and death."

I remember some vigorous debates between faculty and students during my years of study at Westminster Seminary California on this very issue: Is there an eschatological element to our justification? In other words, is it solely a present phenomenon, or is it a present glimpse of a yet-to-be-announced verdict? I remember my own mind resonating with Horton's discomfort over one particular issue, namely, whether justification could truly be said to be eschatological if, as Wright insists, its basis in the present (faith alone) could be different from its basis in the future (the whole of our lived lives).

A good question, to be sure.

Now, Justification is the first of Wright's books I have read cover-to-cover (and it was not yet written when these debates were taking place at WSC), so it is possible that he has softened or nuanced his position since then, I'm not sure. While I certainly have serious misgivings about a supposedly already/not yet concept of justification if the basis of the former is different from that of the latter, I am somewhat comforted by the way Wright addresses this issue in his newest book:
This lawcourt verdict... is announced both in the present, with the verdict being issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived (emphasis original).
So for Wright, although the basis for future justification is the entirety of the believer's earthly life while the basis for present justification is faith alone, there is no instance in which the person being justified in the here and now could conceivably fail to be justified on the last day. The Spirit serves to ensure that the "doing of the law in order to be justified [on the last day]" will take place for all those justified in the present.

Some thoughts on all of this....

While I certainly do not expect Wright to conform to doctrinal standards to which he has never subscribed, his formulation of justification is, from a confessionally Reformed standpoint, problematic. Although Federal Visionist-leaning brothers in the PCA will almost certainly disagree, I see no basis in the Westminster Confession for the idea of a "future justification according to works." Yes, there will be a final judgment of all men that will serve to vindicate God's people and his mercy toward them, but confessionally speaking, "justification" takes place "not due to anything wrought in, or done by [us], but for Christ's sake alone." In order to be faithful to our Standards, therefore, we must beware of speaking of our final vindication on the last day as a "justification by works."

This leads me to another brief point. Although Wright's admission that the believer's final justification by works will be more of a vindication than a verdict that we nervously and nail-bitingly await, his statement that present justification's "basis" is faith alone is still, from a Calvinistic standpoint, incorrect. The basis of our justification is the work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. Faith serves as a non-meritorious and non-contributory instrument whereby we receive what justifies, but it is never to be thought of as the ground or basis of our being received into Gods graces.

OK, discuss....