25 August 2005

Moonrise

the Man wakes to see
what he has no hands to change;
he smiles not to weep.

22 August 2005

The Quotable Westerholm

This weekend I finished the book which will serve as my introduction to the last two and a half decades of Pauline studies: Perspectives Old and New on Paul by Stephen Westerholm. Westerholm defends what seems to me to be basically the "Modified Lutheran" view as presented by Douglas Moo in Five Views on Law and Gospel.

Each of the three parts were helpful. In the first part, Westerholm summarizes Paul as he was interpreted by Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. While one might be surprised at how much each of these four theologians thinks like a twentieth-century evangelical, Westerholm brings a wealth of reading from primary sources to the table and does not hesitate to point out those elements which would not fit so well into the schema of modern Western Bible-believers.

In the second part, Westerholm brings his readers up to date on the current conversation. He makes an admirable effort to present each scholar on his own terms and in ways that each would approve. His bibliography and clarity are both great assets in this section.

In the third section, the author presents the "Lutheran" Paul from the Scriptures, showing the flaws of the New Perspective and nuancing the traditional "Lutheran" perspective to better fit the Scriptural data.

Three quotes from this third section are especially memorable; each highlights the error of a central pillar in the New Perspective platform, namely that Judaism is a religion of grace or a bastion of "good Protestant doctrine."

"The most important and salutary emphasis of the new perpective on Paul is the insistence that Judaism was not 'legalistic': Jews did not think they 'earned' salvation; they acknowledged God's goodness in granting Israel his covenant and strove to respond to that goodness by fulfilling its requirements. Admittedly, refutations of 'Lutheran' readings of Judaisim as a relgion of works-righteousness at times owe more of their terminology to 'Lutheranism' itself than to Jewish ways of seeing things. Judaism did not, after all, distinguish grace or faith from works done in obedience to God, nor did it thematically attribute salvation, the election of Israel, or the granting of the covenant to God's unmerited favor. To say that salvation in Judaism was 'by grace' and imply that 'works' (in the 'Lutheran' sense) were excluded is simply not true to Judaism; nor should one expect that a Judaism that did not see humanity as fundamentally 'lost' nor requiring the death of God's Son for its redemption would construe the relation between divine grace and human works in the same way Paul did" (pp. 443-44).

"We may say that in a literature that does not see grace and works opposed in any way, one should not expect direct declarations that salvation, or even election, is simply a matter of grace.... Here Sanders's polemical purposes have surely imposed a 'Lutheran' construction on the texts: neither the 'total' gratuity of the election, nor, indeed, any exclusion of human contributions is in view" (p. 348).

"The position of Judaism on the relation between grace and works as Sanders himself portrays it seems to differ little from that of Pelagius, against whom Augustine railed, or that of the sixteenth-century church, upon which Luther called down heaven's thunder" (p. 351).

Westerholm has done his homework, and this volume provides a good springboard from which to dive into the rest of the conversation.

17 August 2005

Pre-coffee

Life before coffee:
I ruin my English muffins,
Perpetually.

09 August 2005

"Shall Never Lose Its Power"

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, as vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb! Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved, to sin no more.

E'er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

Then, in a nobler sweeter song
I'll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.

-- William Cowper, 1731-1800. Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship (London: Wakeman Trust, 1991): 248.

We sang this hymn during our communion service recently, and I couldn't help but exult in the power of the Christ's death to reach its goal in me and in the human race. The final glorification of all the elect of every nation and through every age has been secured by the dying (and now living!) Lamb.

"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand" (Isaiah 53:10).

05 August 2005

Certainty, Humility, and the Follower of Christ

In "Post-Conservatives, Foundationalism, and Theological Truth: a Critical Evaluation" (JETS 48 [June 2005]: 351-63), R. Scott Smith, on the apologetics faculty at Biola University, critiqued the recent works of Nancey Murphy (Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary). Murphy has written a number of books which claim that the philosophical framework known as foundationalism, which Modernism and Evangelicalism presupposed, is fundamentally flawed. In defending foundationalism, R. Scott Smith critiques Murphy in ways I could only dream to do. His writing is clear, especially for the complexity of the topic, and his knowledge of the subject at hand incomparably outdistances my own.

However, in the opening paragraphs of his article he makes a concession which concerns me. Nancey Murphy claims that foundationalists have always required certainty for the basic (i.e. foundational) truths upon which all knowledge rests. But Smith responds "foundationalism need not require certainty" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 351). Now I am thoroughly unconcerned about the state of foundationalism as a philosophical movement, but Smith is not merely a foundationalist: he is a Christian. Yet as a Christian, he claims that the entire Christian faith "could be wrong. For example, it is possible that I am just a brain in a vat, and these sentences are just the result of the stimulation of 'my' brain by a mad scientist" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 363).

While I appreciate the damaging blows Smith deals to the post-conservative Christian philosophy of Nancey Murphy, here are my immediate concerns with his concession:

  • The inerrancy of Scriptures has been brought into question. The Scriptures' teaching on its own truthfulness excludes the possibility of error. The Scriptures do not present themselves as a set of documents whose propositions must be tested by external criteria in order to be accepted. The Scripture establishes itself as the criterion by which all other propositions are to be tested (see e.g. Acts 17:11).

  • The sovereignty of God over the realm of possibilities has been seriously compromised. The underlying assumption behind the "brain in a vat" scenario is that human imagination, not the Divine person and character, determines what is possible and what is not. Biblical theism concludes otherwise (e.g. cf. Matthew 19:26 with Hebrews 6:18).

  • The possibility of assurance of salvation has been obliterated. While assurance of salvation comes through various means, it rests on the basis of the truthfulness of God's promise. That is why the Westminster Confession said that "an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation" belongs to Christians (18:2). However, if it is possible (however improbable) that I am only a "brain in a vat," then the very foundations of Christian assurance are hollow and brittle; instead of "an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:13-20).

  • In the end everything we know about Biblical Christianity rests on the Authority's (i.e. the Triune God as revealed in the Protestant Canon) inability to err. Unfortunately for both Murphy and Smith (on this point they seem to be agreed), this inability means that traditional Christian theism lacks "epistemic humility" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 363). That is, Christians have had the arrogance to claim that they actually know something for sure.

    Now I grant that Smith's article was not about the need for epistemic humility, or humility in what we know; therefore, I should not expect to find any sort of defense of this definition of humility. Nevertheless it seems that the Biblical picture would indicate that certainty and humility are not mutually exclusive. Instead I would contend from the following points that certainty is a necessary part of Biblical humility:

  • In the same sentence Jesus calls himself humble and asks people to follow him as the way of salvation (Matthew 11:28-29; see also his exclusivistic claims in John 14:6).

  • Jesus taught those who would follow him to combine certainty and humility. We can dare to be meek only because we know beyond all doubt that the meek "will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5).

  • Christians throughout church history have evidenced obedience to this call to humility and certainty. While the world screamed with torch in hand that God is neither good nor powerful, humble Christians submitted to the stake and sang through the flames (see the certainty implied in Jesus' promises, Matthew 5:11-12).

  • Also, imagine the opposite of humility with certainty. What kind of humility is it which dares to remark glibly "Yes, yes, but you could be wrong," to the Creator of all that is and Determiner of all which can be?

  • I grant that Christians can be and have been some of the most arrogant people in the world. But we must not allow our feelings of guilt in this matter to lead us to allow the world to press us into its mold of thinking. Unbelievers, with their disdain for anyone who claims to know something for sure (Proverbs 1:7), do not define humility; the Scriptures define humility. The Scriptures call everyone to abandon making much of self (who certainly is not worthwhile), and to make much of God (who certainly is worthwhile). "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31). This is the start of Biblical humility.

    01 August 2005

    9 Reasons God Will Establish His Kingdom

    All the pleasures of God are leading irrevocably to the establishment of a kingdom where disobedience and unbelief will be no more. God will reign in righteousness and justice and peace, and all of life will be the obedience of faith and joy.

    1. God's pleasure in his Son is leading to the kingdom of obedience because God wills to conform all its inhabitants to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
    2. God's pleasure in his sovereign freedom is leading to the kingdom of obedience because he will omnipotently cause us to walk in his statutes and observe all his ordinances (Ezekiel 36:27).
    3. God's pleasure in creation is leading to the kingdom of obedience because creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; creation itself will mirror the majesty of God perfectly when the world is filled with righteousness and faith (Romans 8:19-22).
    4. God's pleasure in his fame is leading to the kingdom of obedience because he has an awesome passion to remove the reproach of his name that comes from our transgression (Isaiah 48:9-11; Ezekiel 36:22-23).
    5. God's pleasure in election is leading to the kingdom of obedience because he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world "that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1:4).
    6. God's pleasure in bruising the Son is leading to the kingdom of obedience because Christ died for the church "that he might sanctify her...and present the church to himself in glory without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing" (Ephesians 5:25-27; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 10:10).
    7. God's pleasure in those who hope in his love is leading to the kingdom of obedience, because the internal light of hope shines brightest in the external rays of righteousness and love (Colossians 1:4-5; Hebrews 10:34-36).
    8. God's pleasure in the prayers of the upright is leading to the kingdom of obedience because the sum of every prayer is "Hollowed be your name; your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:9-10).
    9. And as we will see in the last chapter, God's pleasure in concealing himself from the wise and revealing himself to infants is leading to the kingdom of obedience, because only the childlike turn knowledge into the grace of obedience rather than a ground for boasting (Luke 10:17-24).

    The above paragraph and bullets are from John Piper's Pleasures of God (p. 258; I added the last reference from his discussion in the chapter).