The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Archive for the ‘NT Wright’ Category

Karl Barth and NT Wright on Philippians 2.5-11, ‘The Emptying’

Here is the pericope under consideration by both Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, respectively:

kenosis5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~Philippians 2:5-11

Here is how Barth comments on the reality of this passage:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God. [Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.]

And then N. T. Wright on the same passage and reality:

Let’s clear one misunderstanding out of the way in case it still confuses anybody. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus ’emptied himself’. People have sometimes thought that this means that Jesus, having been divine up to that point, somehow stopped being divine when he became human, and then went back to being divine again. This is, in fact, completely un-true to what Paul has in mind. The point of verse 6 is that Jesus was indeed already equal with God; somehow Paul is saying that Jesus already existed even before he became a human being (verse 7). But the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine. [N. T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 84, Nook version.]

Critical Reflection

Both Barth and Wright affirm the traditional (and dare I say contextual) sense of this text; that is, that the ground of Jesus’ person, the ground of his humanity is Godself. As Barth elaborates further on the implications of this, one of those has to do with the way this is perceived by those of us creatures who are confronted by this God who became human; for Barth–according to Hunsinger–what has happened in Christ is not an ontic (at the level of his ‘being’ the Son of the Father, eternally) change, but instead, because of this veiling and/or limiting of himself in human form, there is a noetic challenge that occurs. When we, as humans, encounter Jesus, we might superficially perceive that Jesus is simply another human, and might fail to recognize the reality, that far greater than simply being human (which he is fully), he is Godself, Light of light. And yet God in his own self-determined freedom, and gracious outlook, is willing to be mis-taken by the many (the ‘broad road’) if only to be recognized by the few (those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’).

For Everyone Reflection

The way this most dignified reality impacts me is to wonder, radically, at who this great God of our’s is. I often struggle (most recently) with trying to bring together the pictures of the warrior God we so often come across in the Old Testament, with the Shepherd God we encounter in the New Testament. One thing that viewing God from this self-sacrificing angle does is to orient God in such a way that even his more bodacious activity is able to be calibrated and grounded by his ultimate passion for his creation exemplified most clearly by the fact the he himself entered the very judgment that he inflicts and enacts on the nations, and by entering takes upon himself the depth of anxiety and desperation that it seems is a self-inflicted one, but one that he is compelled to by his being of love and holiness (so mystery).

The more basic, and yet profound reality that is revealed by Jesus is that our lives ought to be dominated by the same kind of self-less, self-given, putting others first attitude as Christ’s. The good news is that even though this is terribly impossible left to ourselves, that because of Jesus’ penetration of our dead hearts, he has saved us from the inside/out, providing his life and his heart as the foundation of our’s (see I Cor. 3:11 and II Cor. 3), and genuinely providing us with the means, by the Holy Spirit (where there is Liberty, see II Corinthians 3:17), to seriously put others before ourselves; in the same posture toward God, that Jesus had/has (a posture of ‘not holding onto ourselves’ but being able to truly spend ourselves, and as Paul ‘pour our lives out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and faith of others’).

*repost

Advertisements

Written by Bobby Grow

September 11, 2014 at 10:14 pm

Posted in Barth, Karl Barth, NT Wright

Karl Barth and N.T. Wright Side by Side on Philippians 2:5-11 and the ‘Emptying’

Here is the pericope under consideration by both Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, respectively:

kenosis5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~Philippians 2:5-11

Here is how Barth comments on the reality of this passage:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God. [Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.]

And then N. T. Wright on the same passage and reality:

Let’s clear one misunderstanding out of the way in case it still confuses anybody. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus ’emptied himself’. People have sometimes thought that this means that Jesus, having been divine up to that point, somehow stopped being divine when he became human, and then went back to being divine again. This is, in fact, completely un-true to what Paul has in mind. The point of verse 6 is that Jesus was indeed already equal with God; somehow Paul is saying that Jesus already existed even before he became a human being (verse 7). But the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine. [N. T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 84, Nook version.]

Critical Reflection

Both Barth and Wright affirm the traditional (and dare I say contextual) sense of this text; that is, that the ground of Jesus’ person, the ground of his humanity is Godself. As Barth elaborates further on the implications of this, one of those has to do with the way this is perceived by those of us creatures who are confronted by this God who became human; for Barth–according to Hunsinger–what has happened in Christ is not an ontic (at the level of his ‘being’ the Son of the Father, eternally) change, but instead, because of this veiling and/or limiting of himself in human form, there is a noetic challenge that occurs. When we, as humans, encounter Jesus, we might superficially perceive that Jesus is simply another human, and might fail to recognize the reality, that far greater than simply being human (which he is fully), he is Godself, Light of light. And yet God in his own self-determined freedom, and gracious outlook, is willing to be mis-taken by the many (the ‘broad road’) if only to be recognized by the few (those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’).

For Everyone Reflection

The way this most dignified reality impacts me is to wonder, radically, at who this great God of our’s is. I often struggle (most recently) with trying to bring together the pictures of the warrior God we so often come across in the Old Testament, with the Shepherd God we encounter in the New Testament. One thing that viewing God from this self-sacrificing angle does is to orient God in such a way that even his more bodacious activity is able to be calibrated and grounded by his ultimate passion for his creation exemplified most clearly by the fact the he himself entered the very judgment that he inflicts and enacts on the nations, and by entering takes upon himself the depth of anxiety and desperation that it seems is a self-inflicted one, but one that he is compelled to by his being of love and holiness (so mystery).

The more basic, and yet profound reality that is revealed by Jesus is that our lives ought to be dominated by the same kind of self-less, self-given, putting others first attitude as Christ’s. The good news is that even though this is terribly impossible left to ourselves, that because of Jesus’ penetration of our dead hearts, he has saved us from the inside/out, providing his life and his heart as the foundation of our’s (see I Cor. 3:11 and II Cor. 3), and genuinely providing us with the means, by the Holy Spirit (where there is Liberty, see II Corinthians 3:17), to seriously put others before ourselves; in the same posture toward God, that Jesus had/has (a posture of ‘not holding onto ourselves’ but being able to truly spend ourselves, and as Paul ‘pour our lives out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and faith of others’).

Written by Bobby Grow

July 31, 2013 at 7:14 pm

‘What It Meant’ ‘What It Means’: Biblical Theology in Discussion

What the text of Scripture ‘meant’ and what it ‘means’ has been one rubric by which Biblical Theology (as a  movement) has sought to identify a working definition of what it means, in fact, to do Biblical Theology (especially in the 19th century and onward into the present). Without adequate attention to the history of this dialectic (between meant/means), we all too often can repeat history, and not appreciate the kind of material impact that uncritical acceptance of these kinds of formal questions can have on our own conditioned and particular interpretation of Scripture today. I have N.T. Wright in mind, but he is not the only one. What I want to consider further (and not much deeper than just posing a question and my own thoughts here), is if there has been thorough enough attention given to the someone like Wright’s own appropriation of his conditioned employment of past hermeneutical practice? In other words, I often hear many of Wright’s most vocal proponents repeating and building upon his material exegetical and historical conclusions; but I am just curious as to whether or not enough attention has been given to the actual methodology that Wright is indeed employing to come to the theological conclusions that he is coming to in his own project—as he attempts to mediate ‘what it meant’ with ‘what it means’?

My questions about Wright above could be applied to many contemporary Biblical Theologians of our day. I suppose I simply want to register my own hesitation in regard to whether or not enough critical self-reflection has been maintained among Wright’s & companies’ proposals in regard to bridging the gap between what it mean and what it means (and in fact if this gap ought to be bridged at all); and furthermore, whether or not this is indeed what Wright is attempting to do? And if so, how is he doing it? Does he have a well thought out prolegomenon (hermeneutical methodology) that indeed engages with these kinds of more formal questions; or is Wright & co. so focused on their material conclusions, that they simply presume upon a certain mode of: What it meant, must be what it means? This seems to me to be the mode that Wright & co. often operate in; a mode that does not attend strongly enough to some deeper and important methodological questions—I realize that I am generalizing quite heavily (esp. when I write Wright & co.), but I think some generalization here, at least in order to provide heuristic purchase, is necessary.

In light of some of these questions, I thought that I would do a series of posts that seek to engage with them a bit. Let me offer a quote from Gerhard Hasel as he offers something from D. H. Kelsey in regard to the dialectic of what it meant and what it means; Kelsey’s questions for this dialectic are meant to be critical, and in fact to problematize in such a way, that ‘what it meant’ ‘what it means’ is shown to be too reductionistic of way to attempt to relate meaning in the text of Scripture.

[I]t is evident that the distinction of modern times between “what it meant” and “what it means,” i.e., theological interpretation which is normative, is problematical in both its distinction and its task. D. H. Kelsey, for example, has stated succinctly that there are several ways in which both “what it meant” and “what it means” can be related to each other with varying results. First, it may be decided that the descriptive approach that seeks to determine “what it meant” by whatever methods of inquiry is considered to be identical with “what it means.” Second, it may be decided that “what it meant” contains propositions, ideas, etc. that are to be decoded and translated systematically and explicated and that this is “what it means,” even though those explications may never have occurred to the original authors and might have been rejected by them. Third, it may be decided that “what it meant” is an archaic way of speaking dependent upon its own culture and time that needs to be redescribed in contemporary ways of speaking of the same phenomena, and that this redescription is “what it means.” “This assumes that the theologian has access to the phenomena independent of scripture and ‘what it meant,’ so that he can check the archaic description and have a basis for his own.” Fourth, it may be decided that “what it meant” refers to the way in which early Christians used Biblical texts and that “what it means” is simply the way these are used by modern Christians. In this case there is a genetic relationship. Kelsey notes, “None of these decisions can itself be either validated or invalidated by exegetical study of the text, for what is at issue is precisely how exegetical study is related to doing theology.” If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” [Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate, 37-8.]

Far from merely critiquing N. T. Wright, these questions take issue with all would be exegetes and theologues who see Scripture as something significant enough to take serious. And I am not trying to totally critique Wright by offering these questions; he is just the nearest, most public and popular and prominent Biblical Theologian of our day who makes himself readily available as foil for such considerations as I am offering in this post. My concern with Wright is what is asked by Hasel in the last clause above, “If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” I am not sure that Wright & co. attend themselves enough with this concern. It seems to me that he/they usually just presume upon whatever their theological predisposition is, and then act as if all they are doing is Biblical study; but then of course this begs the question that Hasel gives voice to.

I will continue this series of posts by following Hasel’s subsequent and developing thought in the directly subsequent paragraphs to the one I just shared. Stay tuned …

Written by Bobby Grow

June 5, 2013 at 4:39 pm

The Problem with Canonical Critical Biblical Interpretation: Applied to NT Wright and Others [Making Sure Scripture’s Meaning is Not History Contingent, But Instead Christ Contingent]

When I was in undergrad (Bible College) there was this ongoing debate between almost all of the profs with one stand out prof (and I mean from the other profs). The debate orbited around a theory of hermeneutics/exegesis. It was a debate, in my context, that had its own idiosyncrasies, but those notwithstanding, in general, it is a debate that goes beyond those and offers some questions that are applicable beyond the particular ones that were 32e97-simoninherent to the ones being debated on my Bible College campus. The debate was between the majority of profs who endorsed the [Literal] Grammatical-Historical approach V. the minority position, held by this one stand out prof, who argued for a Canonical critical approach to Biblical interpretation—the ‘minority’ approach was actually the most popular on the campus, largely because this one stand out prof was simply an excellent communicator and teacher.

The Canonical approach articulated by this one prof came from his relationship (as a colleague and friend) with John Sailhamer; and Sailhamer was/is largely influenced by Brevard Childs’ Canonicalism.  The simplistic and basic thesis of the Canonical approach really finds a lot of resonance with what Hans Frei and the Lindbeckian Yale school of thought has to offer in regard to cultural-textual-linguistic reality. In short, and in basic form, the canonical approach taught at my school (undergrad) was that we didn’t need any historical reconstruction, maps, socio-cultural reconstruction etc. in order to interpret Scripture; in fact, as it was argued, these things could actually distort Scripture’s meaning. The supposition that stands behind this, is that Scripture has its own self-referential, narrative-rich environment, that does not need extraneous material to source its intended meaning. And thus there is a heavy emphasis upon literary studies, and the connections those provide intra/intertextually in the text. So in summary, this approach assumes that the text is sufficient by itself, to convey the meaning that God has always intended it to have.

It has become clear to me over the years that this approach, in principle, is a better approach than simply relying on the Grammatical-Historical approach; even though the Canonical approach, in a qualified ways, is relying on the GH as well (in the sense that language itself is shaped by its historical locatedness etc.). The problem with the ‘Yale’ canonical approach, though, is that it is too reductionistic (too structuralist); it is too reductionistic towards placing all of meaning in the text, and the text was given shape by its cultural-textual-linguistic organization and setting; so the text’s final referent for positing its locution and meaning becomes the community that interprets it—the community and people of God become its regulative reality.

A better and constructive way to locate the text’s regulative meaning and reality is not to locate it in the people of God, or its canonical shape simpliciter; but the better place is to place it in a doctrine of God, and to see Christ as the regulative center wherein the text finds its ultimate source of meaning. This way the text does not become something owned by the community, but it is owned by its giver (God); and as such, He is able to actually speak to us through the text of scripture, as something and an instrument that belongs to His reality, which He has graciously invited us to as participants in His life through the mediatorial life of His beloved Son. One benefit of this, is that the text and its interpretation and regulation is not contingent upon our discovery of new manuscripts, archaeological finds, etc.

And it is this one benefit that I think should place people like N.T. Wright and all the historical projects that count as Biblical studies today into perspective. N.T. Wright is all the rage today (and rightfully so, his output of material is astonishing). But what is interesting to me is the instability, really, of what N.T. Wright’s proposal has built into it. That is, all of this ‘New’ stuff that Wright is offering in regard to understanding Christian salvation etc. is contingent upon the uncovering of historical data and its reconstruction. In other words, what is built into Wright’s groundbreaking work is idealistic assumption that not only can all of these various threads of the Second Temple Judaism period be uncovered, but then he as an historian (and all of these others in Wright’s discipline) can construct an appropriate framework in which to place this historical data; thereby creating a matrix which purportedly has the capacity to fund and inform Biblical exegetical conclusions in a certain way—indeed, an determinative way.

Ironically, Wright’s approach really gets us back to the cultural-textual-linguistic approach, a community driven/contingent approach, to biblical interpretation. The Bible’s meaning is contingent upon OUR recovery of the historical data, and OUR capacity to reconstruct that data in a way that gives the text its proper meaning. So the text (of Scripture) and its meaning is not contingent upon God in Christ, but upon OUR reconstruction of the historical data, as the Christian community; and as such, the center for meaning in the text of Scripture is not ultimately Jesus Christ, and thus the text becomes the possession of the community, in a way that can leave God out—or in the least, it makes God’s voice contingent upon the proclivities of human and natural history, and our discovery and appropriation of it.

So in principle I think my one prof was onto something. But ironically his approach was funded (by the ‘Yale school’) by an approach that ultimately bottoms out in a kind of community driven interpretation of the text (the difference between my prof’s approach and Wright’s is that my prof simply reduced everything to the Literary/Literal, and Wright reduces the text to the Historical—and both of these are finally reduced to the Community’s capacity to manipulate both the Literary and the Historical). What my prof was onto though was that the text and its meaning is not ultimately contingent upon historical reconstruction (because if it is, then we would have to ask: Whose reconstruction should we view as normative?); but his answer and way out was not adequate (i.e. Literary only), and in fact, ironically comes back to the same problem that He was/is intending to critique—the community becomes the norm.

The way forward is to understand Scripture and its ontology as Theological! To understand Scripture’s location and giveness from the center of God’s life in Jesus Christ, and to see Scripture as the product of God’s triune speech within the realm of gracious salvation and sanctification (so John Webster’s thesis). This way Scripture’s meaning is not ultimately generated by our reconstruction of human history, or our capacity to do literary work; but Scripture’s rule of faith is Christ.

I will have to end it here. Thanks for enduring my reflections on this. This post helped me get some of this out and think it through further, hopefully it has helped you out too.

Conversational [Dialogical] Theology: Being a Catholic Interpreter, with Advice for N.T. Wright

If the Christian life is dialogical, or shaped by conversation with God and His people; which it is (I would argue). And if Jesus Christ, according to Paul, promised that He would build His Church up by providing it with teachers/elders, evangelists, et al (Eph. 4); which He did. And this promise has come to fruition through all of the centuries since Jesus ascended, and into the present; then how can we ignore the fact that the Christian faith, and its self-understanding is catholic (i.e. universal, and reaches across all periods of the Christian church)?

I have learned much through engagement with N.T. Wright, but one lacuna or gap in his thinking (intentionally so on his part), is his failure to properly or thickly appreciate my point in the paragraph above. His common quip is that the Medieval church (and the early Reformed one) ‘got the right answers, but asked the wrong questions’ in regard to understanding the nature and ontology of Christian salvation. And that this, then, has had a distorting affect upon the subsequent development of the Christian church, since. And so, by and large (other than a head-nod, when he is pressed), Wright waves his hand over this whole period (from at least the 14th century into much of the present time—and he even goes after the ecumenical councils and the Greek Church Fathers), and acts as if he (and in many ways, he alone) can recover Christian truth about salvation, in particular, that had heretofore been lost; as if the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church of Christ, until he (and some of his company) have recently come on scene. Surely this is problematic, and overwrought! I have learned much from Wright, but Jesus has capably and conceptually been forming His church without Wright and our current situation, just as He said He would, through the teachers He has provided His church with through the centuries.

Thomas Torrance offers a better perspective on how to think about the dialogical nature of Christian interpretation and conversation/fellowship with God and His people. You will notice that in what Torrance communicates, he does not denigrate historical studies (which is what N.T. Wright’s discipline is), but gives them their rightful place; but he expands this idea of historical studies out beyond Second Temple Judaism, and into the history of the Church and history of interpretation, as if Jesus really has been offering fresh encounters with His people over all of the centuries of the churches’ existence. Torrance writes:

(iii) It is the combination of historical and ecumenical studies that is particularly valuable. Historical studies are necessary for the understanding of our brethren from another historical tradition, and yet it is only by engaging in conversation with those who belong to a Church that has embodied another historical tradition that we can fully understand the history of the Church. This applies not only to the separated Churches of the Evangelical world, but to the relations between so-called “Evangelical” and so-called “Catholic” Churches, between East and West, and indeed between the people of the New Covenant and the people of Israel who persist in living only according to the Old Covenant. It is thus that theological activity is enabled as fully as possible to engage still in conversation with the fathers of the Old Testament, with the Greek and Latin fathers of the ancient and mediaeval Church, and with the fathers of the Reformation in all its branches. We have to take very seriously the requirement of God to appear before Him, and to engage in conversation with Him, not alone, but with the whole company of God’s people past and present. It is thus that it belongs to the very nature of theology to be essentially catholic, and it is enabled to be that by historical and ecumenical dialogue with the fathers and brethren alike. [Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, lxviii-lxix.]

It is clear how Torrance thinks about this then. And I think it is much more of a healthy and balanced alternative than the sense that N.T. Wright often portrays in his own thinking. Ironically, I would note, Wright does not actually move away from the classic redemptive-historical-soteriological mode of Reformed-covenantal exegesis; instead he simply reorients it, by re-shaping it, a bit, through his historical reconstructive work of Second Temple Judaism. So he hasn’t really asked new questions from the Reformers, he has simply come up with new answers, albeit largely in the same ecclesio-soterio/centric frame that many of the ‘Reformers’ were working through.

The difference that Torrance offers, from Wright, is that he grounds his dialogical approach to theology/hermeneutics in a doctrine of Christ/God; which has to be the hermenutical order we follow. We must follow a Christ-centered hermeneutic as the key to providing the proper frame through which the right questions can finally be asked. As Torrance also writes of the best of the Reformed tradition:

[…] It is in that light that the Reformation as a movement for theological reform is to be understood, that is, as a thoroughgoing criticism of all the received doctrines in the light of correspondence to the Gospel and coherence with the central doctrine of Christ, and a radical reforming and correcting of these doctrines by bringing them into obedient conformity to the doctrine of Christ. It was in that movement of faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel that Reformed theology came to understand both the nature of true theology and the nature of its systematic presentation through consistent obedience to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus. [Thomas F. Torrance, “The School of Faith,” lix-lx.]

So it isn’t that Torrance, like Wright, is receiving medieval categories and thought forms uncritically; it is just that Torrance (unlike Wright) is critically ‘receiving’ the history of Christian thought by submitting it to the reality of Jesus Christ Himself. So the methodology is a principled Christological one, and one that is in constant flux as it is given fresh voice through conversation with God in Christ by the Spirit. We don’t need to toss the whole thing and start over (which is often the impression that comes across through Wright), but we need to be in submission to the Lordly voice of the Christian heritage and present, in a way that we operate, as Torrance would say, with ‘repentant’ thinking; Jesus’ voice, the voice of the living God, being that which regulates our reception of His voice given in the past through and to His people. So as in dialogue, healthy ones, this is an ongoing reality.

‘Christocentrisms’: What Does it mean to use the language of “Christ-centered?” And a little more application to NT Wright

There is more ways than just one to be Christ-centered or Christocentric in approach, hermeneutically, or biblically interpretively. Yesterday I had an exchange with T.C. Moore on Facebook that was prompted by my last post. His contention was that he believes N.T. Wright has struck an excellent balance between the employment of historical studies with a Christ-centered focus. And I might be inclined to say Yes and No. I might say Yes and No, because to use the language of “Christ-centered” has expanse to it, it is not monolithic, but instead, multi-valent; and this is something that we did not address in our quick exchange, but should have. So I am extending that exchange, and quickly touching on it in this venue.

christcentered

Marc Cortez, former Dean of Academics at Western Theological Seminary in Portland, OR, and now professor of Theology at Wheaton University (at their seminary), has provided an essay that explores just what in fact using the language of “Christ-centered” entails, in particular, in the theology of Karl Barth. Unfortunately I have not been able to read it yet, but I have come across reference to it in David Gibson’s published PhD dissertation: Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth. I mention Cortez, because, among others he has apparently identified how to understand what Christ-centered means by way of approach, especially when this designation is applied to Barth. The point is this though; that to say that someone is Christ-centered almost, in our day and age, is almost meaningless; it is like saying someone is an “Evangelical.” Until we define what we mean by “Christ-centered” (or ‘Evangelical’ for that matter), it could mean almost anything. It could be referring to someone’s intention, it could refer to a piety someone has, it could refer to a basic assertion (without explanation), it could refer to a mystical desire, or it could refer to an intentional and principled methodological approach in someone’s hermeneutic. Indeed, it is this latter way of being “Christ-centered” that I refer to when using the language of Christ-centered. It is the way that Karl Barth and the tradition he has spawned employs such language. Bruce McCormack describes what it means for Karl Barth to be Christ-centered in his method and hermeneutic:

‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ … ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule – not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ – in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understand of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. [Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, 454 cited by David Gibson, Reading the Decree, 9.]

Gibson correlates this with Richard Muller’s distinction between Barth and Calvin’s respective ‘Christocentric’ approaches; Muller label’s Barth’s approach as principial (or principled) and Gibson adds to this as ‘intensive’, while Muller  labels Calvin’s as ‘soteriological’ Christocentric, which Gibson adds to as extensive—I have written more on that here. Suffice it to say, it is not as simple as asserting that N.T. Wright is Christ-centered, what this post should at least illustrate, is that it is possible to be Christocentric in at least two discernable ways, if not more (and probably more).

The question that was driving the exchange between Moore and myself, on my side, had to do with whether or not N.T. Wright was sufficiently Christ-centered in approach or not. If we use my definition of what that entails, as described of Barth by McCormack, above, then I don’t think N.T. Wright’s approach is sufficiently Christocentric. And this because N.T. Wright, as I understand him, does not intentionally work from a hermeneutical practice and methodology that is robustly or principally Christo-centric. Wright, might be Christocentric in the way Calvin is construed by Muller and Gibson; as ‘soteriologically-extensively’ so (as I described in that linked article). But I am not sure Wright even meets these standards. What I see funding Wright’s approach is a kind of naturalist-historical approach to Scripture that he employs as a ‘Christian’ person, and with the goal of edifying the body of Christ. But again, I don’t see how we can say his approach is Christocentric, if in fact his method is primarily funded by tools that are public and without primary resource to a principled Christological approach.

In the end, I can still learn from Wright, and have! I know NT Wright is a smart guy, with good intention, and has laid bare many many interesting things about the social-historical context of Christ. But for my money, there is much more Christian depth available in the text of Scripture, much more devotional depth, that Wright’s approach necessarily leaves dangling, and for me, empty.

PS. To simply relativize my points above by asserting “well, you are just making your judgements about Christocentrism from your “Reformed” bias,” is neither here nor there. To make such an assertion is not an argument, it does not have legs, it doesn’t go anywhere, it is, in short: a non-starter. All that such a statement is is an exercise in description, it is an observation about a formal situation (i.e. that I think from a Reformed direction). What this statement does not undercut, is the material points that I am suggesting. It does not matter whether or not a point is made from a “Reformed”, “Arminian,” “Greek Orthodox”, “Roman Catholic,” “American Evangelical” perspective; what matters is whether or not the point is true, and thus sound.

Written by Bobby Grow

May 8, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Critiquing the New Paul Perspective[s]: Simon Gathercole’s Offering

I am not going to re-rehearse what is involved in the New Paul Perspective[s] controversy (if you are unfamiliar here is a link to wikipedia’s explanation of it, which I haven’t read, but it’s what I found for quick reference); it’s most popular advocate today is N.T. Wright. Another younger biblical scholar, Simon Gathercole, has offered critique of the NPP; here is a synopsis of some of the things he finds faulty about it:

1. We need to go back to E. P. Sanders and his insistence that Judaism in Paul’s day did not think in terms of salvation as something earned or gained by obedience to the law. Now it is certainly the case that Protestant scholarship had previously exaggerated this fact, but it is not wrong either. Documents from around the time of Paul state that some Jews believed obedience to the law was rewarded on the final day with salvation: “The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord” (Psalms of Solomon, c. 50 B.C.). “Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works” (2 Baruch, c. A.D. 100). There are a number of examples like this. Paul’s understanding of justification makes sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Rom. 3:20). Many of Paul’s contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God.

For Paul on the other hand, salvation was impossible without the earth-shattering events of the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost. I mentioned previously that for Sanders, observance of the law was merely how people stayed in the covenant that God had already established. But obedience for Paul was no mere formality. It took mighty acts of God to make it possible.

2. Does Paul think primarily of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws when he uses the phrase “works of the law”? My own view, and that of a number of other scholars, is that Paul focuses on observance of the law as a whole. Works of the law simply means doing the law—the law in its entirety. So the issue at stake with works of the law is not so much Jewish identity as the ability of Israelites as human beings to obey the entire law. We shall return to this point later.

3. Criticism of “individualistic” readings of Paul can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some new perspective scholars want to guard against individualistic understandings of justification. Seeing faith to be transcultural, available to both Jew and Gentile, these scholars shift the emphasis from personal conversion toward the larger canvas of God’s dealings in salvation history. But we cannot escape the dimensions of conversion and personal faith in Paul. These are vitally important: The church is not a lump of humanity, but an assembly of individuals. Faith according to Paul is exercised by individuals (e.g. Rom. 4:5; 12:3; Gal. 2:20), and is also a feature of churches (e.g. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:4). Individual and corporate faith are not at odds with one another.

4. A further tendency of the new perspective is to confuse the content of justification with its applications. It is true to say that justification by faith is about including Gentiles into the people of God. But it is essential to see that the core meaning of justification by faith is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God. Then we can speak of the scope of justification, which is for all who believe, from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Unfortunately, in some hands, the emphasis on inclusion as a primary component of justification can have two further effects.

5. Seeing justification as primarily addressing how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God can lead to a downplaying of sin. This approach to justification can lose sight of Paul’s vital concern for how sinners can be made righteous. One leading New Testament scholar has described his view of justification as God building an extra room in his house for Gentiles. But this view neglects the fact that Israelites as well as Gentiles are sinners and need to be justified.

6. Since the emphasis in some discussions of justification is on inclusion, tolerance, and ecumenism, there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of doctrinal clarity. One recent commentary on Romans emphasizes mutual acceptance as the key to the book. It is revealing that the commentator then regards Romans 16:17-20 as a later interpolation, because the passage emphasizes teaching doctrine and staying away from heretics. Paul insists, however, that unity and doctrine are not mutually exclusive. True unity comes not at the expense of doctrine, but precisely around the central truths of the gospel.

Once again, it needs to be remembered that the new perspective does not put forward a single, united front. As a result, these criticisms will not all apply to one person at the same time. They are, however, tendencies to keep an eye out for when studying the new perspective. [full article here.]

If I had more time I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts on this, but Gathercole will have to suffice for now. I will say that I don’t think that the NPP and the more classical approach have to be placed in competition with each other (neither does Gathercole if you read the full article I have linked).

Gathercole has a fuller treatment of which his linked article is only a synopsis (I read it probably five years ago now); the full treatment is Gathercole’s book: Where Is Boasting: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1—5.

Written by Bobby Grow

November 4, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Resurrection and Evangelism at Work

Okay, so I’m at work, right! And a coworker and I start talking—he’s a little older than me (maybe 10 years, I’m 37)—somehow we started talking about religion (I mean, really, Bobby Grow talking about religion … come on). Actually my coworker said he’s not religious. Of course for me that’s like an invitation. He said (my paraphrase), “yeah, I grew up Roman Catholic; but once I got to a certain age, I just couldn’t handle a God who predestines people to heaven or hell, and who knows everything before you do it (or basically determines.” He continued, “yeah, I am a pagan; I am part of a heathen belief system, I am an Odenite.” He explained to me what an Odenite [although I’m not totally convinced that he just isn’t a gamer] is (basically a Anglo-European belief system that is polytheistic, worships nature, and has some overlap with eastern monism, interestingly). I talked to him for a second about that, and then said I could say some things about Christianity that might challenge his belief system; but that I would refrain. He said, “no, go ahead.” So I did. Basically I just challenged him with the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus; I said, on historical grounds, it is irrefutable. Which of course egged him on to react. He tried to argue that the resurrection was the result of mass delusion; that there had been studies on mass delusion. I said so, you need to prove that that applies to the conditions present in the resurrection of Jesus account. I said just to make this assertion as an argument is ultimately a fallacy. Then we started discussing the credibility of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection; I used this to help substantiate the validity of the resurrection, I mentioned how the Apostle’s died for their testimony. Then he brought up how Muslims die for their belief all the time too; that doesn’t make it true. I told him how that is a false parallel, and thus fallacious; and therefore he needs to provide something more substantial than that. Unfortunately we had to get back to work, and that ended our little joust (which has been driving me crazy, because I don’t think he really wants to get into it anymore!). I had a bunch more I wanted to talk to him about; in regards to the resurrection, and what precludes his belief in historicity of the resurrection (i.e. his worldview or naturalist assumptions).

What I really wanted to get back to with him was what he had said originally about religion; how he rejected Roman Catholicism because it presents a God who predestines and knows and determines everything. What I wanted to say to him is that not all Christians believe this about God. I wanted to tell him that God is love; which would have brought us right back to the theological import of the cross and resurrection. I wanted to tell him that the God he rejected is the god of the philosophers and not of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But, alas, I didn’t get the chance; and fear I never will. He still talks to me, but I can tell that he doesn’t really want to go there. Just pray that I can go there with him again sometime, somehow.

Here are a couple good videos on Resurrection from NT Wright and Richard Bauckham:

Written by Bobby Grow

November 29, 2011 at 11:07 pm

N. T. Wright, some Answers

Here is a Q & A session with N.T. Wright at St. Andrews church in Southern California (my mother-land 😉 ). It is good and long. Watch and see what you think:

ht: Brian MacArevey

I have come to the conclusion that there is more about NT Wright that I like, than I dislike; and I mean his heart, and his biblicism (even if I don’t follow him down every turn).

Written by Bobby Grow

June 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Posted in NT Wright

Two For Christmas, One For Review: With Special Attention to Wright

I just got two new books for Christmas, and another arrived in the mail (from Jessica at Oxford University Press) for review. The Christmas pair are:

NT Wright’s: Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Justification

and then,

Eric Metaxas’: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

and for review:

J. Todd Billings’: Calvin, Participation, and the Gift

As I sit on my sick-bed (I had the flu, I’m getting better) I’ve read through the first 100 pages of Wright’s book (and the first 50 on Bonhoeffer). What is becoming clearer to me, as I read Wright (afresh), is that I don’t thoroughly disagree with him; in fact in quite a few ways I can say a hearty, amen! Mind you, I haven’t finished the book yet; but thus far I think, ironically, that Wright’s reading of Paul and his supposed law-court theme does not do justice to Paul’s whole corpus. Although what I have found refreshing about Wright — which is in line with Evangelical Calvinism — is his point on re-reading the Pauline corpus through the lens provided by Ephesians and Colossians, Wright says:

Suppose we conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we come to Ephesians first, with Colossians close behind, and decide that we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in the light of them instead of the other way round. What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10; compare Colossians 1:15-20). And we will find, as the means to that plan, God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 1:11-12, 13-14) in an through the redemption provided in Christ and by the Spirit, so that the Jew-plus-Gentile church, equally rescued by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:1-10), and now coming together in a single family (Ephesians 2:11-22), will be Christ’s body for the world (Ephesians 1:15-23), the sign to the principalities and powers of the “many-splendored wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10). . . .

I think this is a helpful corrective, and one that we in ‘EC’ want emphasize as well; especially in regards to Christ’s supremacy over all of creation (see here)!

Yet with this good stuff in mind, I still think Wright (from what I know of him) is not necessarily emphasizing what Paul emphasized (or at least Wright might be overemphasizing [“law-court”] to the despair of what others like Calvin emphasized [“adoption” — which is what Vanhoozer recently reminded Wright of at the Wheaton conference] or Luther [“marriage framework” cf. Eph. 5]). I think, if anything, what Wright is doing is calling “interpretive tradition” (whether that be Lutheran or Calvinist) into check; alerting those who follow such tradition that they need to be consistent with their own Protestant principle of sola scriptura & The Priesthood of All Believers — something, that Karl Barth — in his own way — was doing in his The Theology of the Reformed Confession. I need to keep reading Wright; thus far I would not declare myself as “Wrightian,” but I will say that a lot of what he is saying is healthy — especially relative to pressing everyone back into the text (which should really press us into the Person of the text JESUS CHRIST!).

Written by Bobby Grow

December 27, 2010 at 12:46 am