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Is There Anybody Out There?

August 15, 2006

Ever since I started getting all serious about the New Perspective discussion, the comments have dried up.  I better get back to posting about big butts and profanity or the blog’s gonna die!  I’m working on a “cussing vs. cursing” post that’s going to be an equal opportunity convicter.  I know I’m busted, and not for what you might think.

In the meantime, I’ve upped the pace to two posts a day so we can get this discussion over with for those who are not interested.  You don’t have to be a N.T. Wright defender to comment, BTW.  Toadies are still welcome and appreciated.

Here’s a few fresh words on the issue.  I’ve been reading Owen on justification over the last two days.  Two things I have learned:

1) There’s no new perspective under the sun.  Owen wrote almost 400 years ago, “Some of the Socinians would evade this testimony by observing that righteousness in the Old Testament is urged sometimes for benignity, kindness and mercy; and so they suppose it may be here.  But the most of them, avoiding the palpable absurdity of this imagination, refer to the righteousness of God in the deliverance and vindication of his people.”

Now, take a breath.  I’m not saying N.T. Wright is a Socinian.  I’m just saying this discussion is not new.  It’s just a data point.  Process it as you will.

2) John Piper preached a sermon last Sunday on Luke 18 (The Pharisee and the Tax Collector) that seemed to be a foreshadowing of his book to come contra Wright.  See discussion of the merits of this sermon here.  After reading Piper’s critics, I felt that they were right about his poor handling of Luke 18, though I still agreed with Piper’s concerns about Wright’s theology of justification. 

But it seems Owen might have liked Piper’s sermon.  This is going to be hard to read, hang in there.  Owen’s not a lightweight.  He’s answering the question, “What are the works of the law excluded in our justification?  Is it just ceremonial works that are excluded, or is even our Spirit wrought personal moral righteousness also excluded?”

Owen writes,

“The law itself, as merely preceptive and commanding, administered no power or ability unto those that were under its authority to yield obedience unto it….But as it was God’s doctrine, teaching, instruction in all acceptable obedience unto himself, and was adapted unto the covenant with Abraham, it was accompanied with an administration of effectual grace, procuring and promoting obedience in the church…. See Ps 1, 19, 119.

“This being ‘the law’ in the sense of the apostle, and those with whom he had to do, our next inquiry is, What was their sense of ‘works’ or ‘works of the law?’  And I say it is plain that they intended hereby the universal sincere obedience of the church unto God.

“In these works, therefore, consisted their personal righteousness, as they walked “in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” Luke 1.6; wherein they did ‘instantly serve God day and night,’ Acts 26.7.  And this they esteemed to be their own righteousness, their righteousness according to the law; as really it was, Php 3.6,9.

“Wherefore, the law and the works thereof which the apostle excludeth from justification, is that whereby we are obliged to believe in God as one God, the only God, and love him with all our hearts and souls and our neighbors as ourselves…

“The truth is, so far as I can discern, the real difference that is at this day amongst us, about the doctrine of our justification before God, is the same that was between the apostle and the Jews, and no other.  But controversies in religion make a great appearance of being new, when they are only varied and made different by the new terms and expressions that are introduced into the handling of them….

“The plea of the Pharisee unto this end consists of two parts:— 1. That he had fulfilled the condition whereon he might be justified. He makes no mention of any merit, either of congruity or condignity. Only, whereas there were two parts of God’s covenant then with the church, the one with respect unto the moral, the other with respect unto the ceremonial law, he pleads the observation of the condition of it in both parts, which he shows in instances of both kinds: only he adds the way that he took to farther him in this obedience, somewhat beyond what was enjoined, — namely, that he fasted twice in the week; for when men begin to seek for righteousness and justification by works, they quickly think their best reserve lies in doing something extraordinary, more than other men, and more, indeed, than is required of them. This brought forth all the pharisaical austerities in the Papacy. Nor can it be said that all this signified nothing, because he was a hypocrite and a boaster; for it will be replied that it should seem all are so who seek for justification by works; for our Saviour only represents one that does so. Neither are these things laid in bar against his justification, but only that he “exalted himself” in “trusting unto his own righteousness.”

2. In an ascription of all that he did unto God: “God, I thank thee.” Although he did all this, yet he owned the aid and assistance of God by his grace in it all. He esteemed himself much to differ from other men; but ascribed it not unto himself that so he did. All the righteousness and holiness which he laid claim unto, he ascribed unto the benignity and goodness of God. Wherefore, he neither pleaded any merit in his works, nor any works performed in his own strength, without the aid of grace. All that he pretends is, that by the grace of God he had fulfilled the condition of the covenant; and thereon expected to be justified. And whatever words men shall be pleased to make use of in their vocal prayers, God interprets their minds according to what they trust in, as unto their justification before him. And if some men will be true unto their own principles, this is the prayer which, “mutatis mutandis,” [with the necessary changes] they ought to make.”

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2006 9:58 pm

    Toadies are still welcome and appreciated. Ah, it’s good to feel wanted.

  2. August 15, 2006 11:19 pm

    The comments haven’t dried up, it’s just that we’re all still processing the last post! You think too fast! And I, well… as Carl often tells me, I don’t think. I am an F, after all…

  3. August 16, 2006 8:23 am

    I think this is good stuff and maybe I should mention it more. However when it comes to commenting on it – I find I am just getting my feet wet in the subject and don’t grasp it nearly well enough to form any sort of strong opinions or ideas on the matter.

  4. August 16, 2006 9:35 am

    If could also be because your posts feed hasn’t bee working for several days, at least at Bloglines. And since some (myself included) don’t watch your page itself but rather monitor the feed, we’ve been unaware of your new posts. I discovered this post when someone commented on it and it appeared in the comments feed. : ) The posts feed returned this morning, so perhaps now you’ll get more comments, unless people are overwhelmed by the weight of the collected posts. : )

  5. Oddball permalink
    August 16, 2006 10:37 am

    I’ve also refrained from posting because I’ve read so little Wright, but I’ll go out on a limb here. This is the only work I’ve ever read by Wright:

    I find these quotes very troubling:

    “It is important to stress, as Paul would do himself were he not so muzzled by his interpreters, that when he referred to “the gospel” he was not talking about a scheme of soteriology. Nor was he offering people a new way of being what we would call “religious”. Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord. It is, in other words, the thoroughly Jewish, and indeed Isaianic, message which challenges the royal and imperial messages in Paul’s world.”

    But later Wright appears to qualify this by saying:

    “The gospel of the true God, then, unveils the covenant faithfulness of this God, through which the entire world receives health-giving, restorative justice. That is the context within which, according to Romans, those who believe the gospel—who respond to the proclamation, that is, with “the obedience of faith”—are marked out by that faith, and by nothing else, as the eschatological people of God, the people whose sins have been dealt with on the cross, the people now assured of salvation/glorification. Nothing that I have said about what we might call the political dimension of Paul’s argument should obscure for a moment that the message of the gospel is good news for sinners. Rather, that emphasis should be highlighted and celebrated within the framework of God’s triumph in Christ over all the principalities and powers. Nothing, not even Caesar’s system, can separate us from God’s love shown in the Messiah, Jesus.”

    Is it possible that Wright is just “overcompensating” by emphasizing an aspect of the gospel that he believes has been long neglected, unduly minimizing individual redemption in the process?

  6. August 16, 2006 10:57 am

    I think “overcompensating” is a good word. Another way of thinking of it is in terms of foregrounding/backgrounding. Wright foregrounds the covenantal/corporate and backgrounds the forensic/individual. We do the opposite. Has he gone too far? Many are concerned that he has. Carson says that he accuses us of reductionism, but that what he offers is a new reductionism. If he was just adding color to the background, he probably wouldn’t get such heat. His stuff from Psalms and Isaiah sounds great. But when he starts taking away Romans 3 and 2 Corinthians 5 from us, we get flustered.

    Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, I think NTW has trouble seeing the trees for the forest. I’m more of a forest guy myself, so I sympathize with the tendency to be overreaching with my overarching themes.

  7. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    August 16, 2006 8:06 pm

    I think there’s a little more to this, though, than a simple case of misunderstanding. N. T. Wright has a longstanding and pretty easily discernable ecumenical agenda which drives his shift away from the doctrines which have historically divided the Protestant Church from Rome.

    Now, this might be considered a gratuitous and uncharitable Ad Hominem attack against him, except that he’s made several statements that indicate this.

    Full disclosure here: The quotes taken here are from Wright’s book ‘What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?’ I have not read that work, but have taken the quotes from an article that was critical of his position. Not having an unlimited time to read, I won’t take the time to read a whole book by him unless I undertake to work on something formally that requires me to do so. This is clearly a bias I have, and I recommend that you duly note my negative opinion and weigh that into your consideration of my argument. Whatever.

    Anyway, here they are:
    “The doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.” (p. 158)

    “Many Christians, both in the Reformation and in the counter-Reformation traditions, have done themselves and the church a great disservice by treating the doctrine of ‘justification’ as central to their debates, and by supposing that it describes that system by which people attain salvation. They have turned the doctrine into its opposite. Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial differences. (pp. 158-59)

    “Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself, properly conceived, isn’t the thing which should determine Eucharistic fellowship” (p. 22)

    There are others, too, but that ought to do well. The author of the article Dr. Sydney Dyer of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, concludes, “His effort to take the doctrine [of justification] out of the realm of soteriology and to put it in the realm of ecclesiology is undoubtedly motivated by his desire to tear down what divides Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. His view of justification is an attack on the very heart of the gospel.” Then he quotes Gal. 1:8. I buy that. And I would point out that when the Reformation occurred, it arose first among a small group of priests who shared very close cultural, racial, doctrinal, and even social similarity–and to paint the difference between Reformed and Romish views of this doctrine as the result of cultural arrogance or racism is at best ignorance.

  8. August 16, 2006 8:20 pm

    Actually I don’t have a problem with the last of the three NTW quotes the General cited above. (I do with the first two) We are saved by faith in Christ alone, not by faith in the orthodox doctrine of justification. But the problem is that some reformulations of the doctrines of justfication are so wack that affirming them basically means not believing in Christ alone. As far as I can tell so far, I wouldn’t say this of Wright’s doctrine, though certainly I would say it of Pelagianism, for example.

  9. Bethlen Gabor permalink
    August 16, 2006 8:33 pm

    Eh, okay, I’ll buy into the third quote, too, once it’s removed from the context of the others.

  10. August 16, 2006 10:09 pm

    I’ve been a bit too busy to read and chime in; however, I will say that although I despiseth not academia, sometimes we make things way more complicated than need be.

    The simple gospel is such a beautiful thing. And being both Wright and wrong must really stink.

  11. Oddball permalink
    August 17, 2006 10:32 am

    It seems to me that Rome has also given some ground in the justification debate:

    To paraphrase a magazine article I once read on the subject, Rome hasn’t quite adopted the Protestant view, but they now appear to tolerate it. In other words, it’s now possible to be a faithful Evangelical and a “good Catholic.” There are many reasons I wouldn’t want to return to the Catholicism of my upbringing, but I don’t think Rome is an utterly apostate church. I do think it’s plagued with nominalism in the industrialized world and pagan superstition in the developing world, but that’s another discussion.

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