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Archive for November, 2010

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74

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“In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic and historical books of the Old Testament…  

“Finally I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers … But it was in vain that I looked for the light which these books were to shed on the historical and prophetical books…  Even where there were points of contact between them, differences also made themselves felt, and I found it impossible to give a candid decision in favor of the greater antiquity of the books of Mosaic Law…”

(Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 2nd 1883, ET 1885, p. 3)

It so happened that only a month ago and by accident I set myself a roughly similar ‘reverse course’ of reading in the Bible as described above – histories and prophecies first and Pentateuch second.  When by chance last week I read the above observation by Wellhausen, I recognized a certain ‘feasibility’ in his conclusion.

My reading had started with a desire to examine the parallels and differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings (which in some cases are remarkable).  After getting through these books twice apiece, I read the non-narrative portion of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah to see if their teachings could be found in the histories I had just completed (not much).  I turned to Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers to check their textual relations to Deuteronomy (interesting).  Before finishing I made a quick once-through of Joshua and Judges.

This unconscious preparation had me poised to see in the hint from Wellhausen the truth of this old critical hypothesis: that precious little of the specific practices and laws of Leviticus, Numbers, and Exodus, are present (or even alluded to) in the prophetic record or histories of the period between Joshua and Josiah.

It’s not patently obvious that any of the Kings of Israel or Judah or any of their priests and prophets knew of these alleged books of Mosaic law in the form in which they have come down to us.  What then?  Can the Torah be a work of post-exilic Judaism (5th-6th cent. BC) which only utilizes favorable bits of ancient Hebrew history (and constructs other favorable bits), to give a final, ‘received’ form that is no earlier than the Babylonian exile?

“In the course of a casual visit in Gottingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the books of the Mosaic Law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah.” (Ibid)

Note:  The idea is not that the Exodus, or Mt. Sinai or the wilderness never happened – only that our version of these events are those of a much later theological mind.

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Recent publication of a book by Thom Stark has got my attention because it looks like it treats of the issue of scripture inerrancy by a method that is much more constructive than the kind of anti-Christian rantings we expect from Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, or John Loftus.

I’m not sure – but short reviews of The Human Faces of God and a revealing interview of Stark give me reason to hope.

It was a recent two-part review by Kevin at Diglotting which got my attention in the first place.  Meanwhile Steve at Undeception has been busy in the same vein, and both writers have me thinking a little more systematically about the question: ‘What would we expect to see in a good Christian theology that explicitly rejects the dogma of Bible inerrancy?’ 

It’s no secret that many theologies have been written without support of the dogma of Bible inerrancy.  And I think all of the good ones have argued for a concept of Bible authority in which scripture remains normative for theology in a foundational sense.  Martin Kahler, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, H.R. Neibuhr,  Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I believe all these thinkers and more have stressed the authority of the Bible without defending its inerrancy.  We see here a ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ or there a ‘Doctrine of Revelation’ or a ‘Doctrine of the Word of God’ which give greater breadth to a more mature and more promising theological approach to the Bible than the irrational restraints of inerrancy allow.

I notice that these kinds of theologies all tend to show greater development of the role of Christ himself  as Word of God – rather than alleging that the letter is identical with ‘the Word.’  And I think the question of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ will see much-needed development any time the Bible is purged from the fetishism of inerrancy.  Because a theology’s rejection of the dogma of inerrancy should not change its need to treat constructively of inspiration.  The Spirit’s role in inspiring our fallible reading of the Bible becomes just as important and just as interesting as its role in inspiring the original (fallible) writer.

Evangelicals need quickly to see this as the new world of honest religion – it doesn’t signify the end of the world for faith.  Faith remains the key to our salvation by the grace of God.  The current drama – what looks to be the fast-approaching end of the dogma of Bible inerrancy – would not even be necessary if it hadn’t been for the proliferation of so much fundamentalism among Evangelicals in North America during the 19th and 20th centuries – while the issues of working with a fallible text were being treated by responsible thinkers in the religious mainstream.

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Kevin at Diglotting put up a book give-away offer that has my interest: Peter – the Myth, the Man, and the Writings, by Fred Lapham (2004).

The apostle Peter has already come up for criticism on this blog as one of my special NT problems.

I currently judge Simon Peter as chiefly responsible for the wrong-headedness which introduced error into the early kerygma.  Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-41), in my view, twisted the evangelism of Jesus in a way which eventually submerged the Galilean gospel of grace beneath the new church’s post-resurrection news-for-Jews:  Repent before the crucified and very angry and very soon to be returning Jewish Messiah brings down the whole age on your heads in the manner depicted by your apocalyptic writers.

It was this ill-considered sermon of Peter which, in my view, changed history for the worse by fomenting all the distracting ‘success’ of fear-based evangelical preaching.  Peter channeled the enthusiasm of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem into the first Judeo-Christian megachurchagogue (Acts 2:40-42) of the type which now proliferate in places like Texas.

From that point the progress of the Holy Spirit was ‘in check’ until it made two key moves:

(1) to go out ‘in person’ and turn Paul (Acts 9), and then

(2) to speak sense to Peter (a thing which required that the Apostle be semi-conscious – Acts 10) in order to loosen him up and get him over to Caesarea to witness God’s real plan in action (Acts 10:34-45).

The damage was already done to the kerygma, but at least Paul was inspired enough by the news from Caesarea (Acts 11:18-26) to take the mission out to the whole world (Acts 13ff).

Maybe Lapham’s book will cool me off a bit 🙂

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