Showing posts with label N.T. Wright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label N.T. Wright. Show all posts

Monday, August 11, 2014

Iconic Polarization

...The trouble with sharp, polarizing moments is that they become iconic. Like martyrdoms ancient and modern, and indeed like civil wars, they generate loyalties and counter loyalties: you must now take such-and-such a line, because otherwise you're a traitor.
-- N. T. Wright, Surprised By Scripture [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2014], p. 5 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review of Tim Gallant's "These Are Two Covenants"

These Are Two CovenantsThese Are Two Covenants by Tim Gallant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Tim Gallant's first book, "Feed My Lambs," was a fantastic book, filled with great historical and exegetical insights. This second book of his, "These Are Two Covenants," however, was not as good as I was hoping. Here are some major pros and cons for why I gave his second book only two stars.

1) Gallant addresses (in brief) the traditional Protestant Reformed & Evangelical perspectives and the NPP/N.T. Wright perspectives of law within the book of Galatians and Romans, and he seriously considers the best of both worlds. And so, because he does not limit his exegesis to any particular tradition, he offers some fresh insights on disputed passages within those two books. These fresh insights of his are definitely worthy of consideration as long as students of Scripture keep dabbling in "Pauline studies," looking for some balance between classical protestant interpretations and various nuances from (and similar to) the "New Perspective on Paul."

2) Gallant keeps all of his theological jargon to a minimum, which makes the dense theological content very accessible to the student of Scripture as long as they have an English Bible and Greek translation in hand.

3) Gallant very clearly affirms the doctrine of Justification by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as well as the Christian's necessity to faithfully obey God's law through the lens of Jesus Christ (i.e. his life & teaching). And so, he remains a very clear protestant in the classical sense of the term, and he also clearly opposes antinomianism.

4) Gallant also clearly disagrees with and criticizes some of the views of Sanders and Dunn (explicit views among the NPP, e.g. pp. 53,58), as well as some overlooked views of NPP critics (particularly John Piper, e.g. p. 57).

5) Gallant highlights (what I believe to be) a very important aspect of Galatians, namely that "the law" can be, and very likely was, understood and viewed in terms of a "covenant" with the people of Israel and not just a set of rules for believers in Yahweh. And also, along with this conceptual continuity of viewing the Mosaic Law as a covenant, Gallant also highlights the importance of viewing life under the Mosaic Covenant as life under an eschatological age which was (back then) fading away and becoming obsolete because it explicitly pointed to the coming Messiah and a new age under which all of the Christian life would be placed.

6) Gallant also presents a brief, but solid argument, that the notion of "meriting salvation" within Galatians is not at all Paul's concern (and I agree).

1) Even though this book is filled with fresh insights, select "chunks" of it appear to be a condensed version of N.T. Wright's commentary on Romans (which I found tremendously confusing), and either James Dunn's or Ben Witherington's commentary on Galatians. I don't have any life-altering or dramatic disagreements with any of those commentators, but I just don't find them to harmonize very well with each other, which left me feeling that Galllant was attempting to offer his own harmonization of those three men's views about the "Law" -- a feeling which smacked of trying to be novel in one's approach to Romans and Galatians.

2) Gallant seems to view both Romans and Galatians with a very strict typology of Jesus as the New Covenant and Israel as the Old Covenant -- which, in and of itself, is fine -- but this affects every one of his interpretations of nomos (i.e. "law") within Romans and Galatians, leaving in some instances a very arbitrary interpretation of what Paul meant by "law" when (allegedly) he's not referring to "keeping" or "fulfilling" the law in a strict typological sense.

3) Gallant seems to stress something which is not very obvious from the text of Galatians itself. His argument appears as though Paul is more concerned about Gentile Christians who revert back to life under the old aeon (i.e. the "age" of life under Old Covenant Mosaic Law) instead of life under the new aeon (the age of life under Christ). In other words, Paul's concern is more with one's public identification with the new aeon. This, according to Gallant, means that Paul's concern is more "cosmic" than the traditional Protestant understanding of Galatians. Instead of discussing what is most obvious about the concerns explicitly addressed by Paul, namely that some "Judaizers" were seditiously and insidiously dividing the gentiles among the Christian church by means of Judaizing dogma which rejected faith in Jesus alone as the ground of their justification in God's sight (as seen through the enforcement of circumcision as one's entrance into covenant with God), Gallant shifts the emphasis to be one's public placement within this New Covenant aeon which brings life through the Spirit, as opposed to the Old Covenant aeon which piles up transgressions and brings death. 
   It's as though, according to Gallant, Paul's typology was the driving force behind the entire letter to Galatians, and therefore he was more concerned with keeping Gentiles focused upon the New Covenant aeon (not the Old aeon), than the way in which Gentiles and Jews alike share in the New Covenant through faith in Jesus Christ, and how that was being jeopardized by the Christian Judaizers (i.e. false brethren) among them.

4) Gallant attempts to show that Jesus "becomes the Abrahamic covenant" and "the covenant to the nations," and he even says that this is the point of the "two covenant schema" in Galatians 4:24 (Gallant, p. 68), but I just don't think he invests enough time to clarify what he means by this. Although I agree with his general typological understanding of Jesus fulfilling Torah, I don't think Paul's allegory in Gal. 4:24 was supposed to illustrate Jesus "becoming" the Abrahamic covenant (or any covenant for that matter). Gallant's approach to these two covenants seem very strained (and unnecessarily so).

5) Gallant spends an awful lot of time towards the end of his book trying to explain the sense in which Christians under the new aeon "fulfill" God's Law (Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14), but virtually all of the law's objectivity as a standard for Christian ethics gets obscured by his own muddied language and over-emphasized typology. On the one hand he says that the word "fulfill... takes on an eschatological longer simply straightforward Torah-keeping," yet elsewhere he quotes Paul in first Corinthians 7:19 and defends his statement that "keeping the commandments is what matters." Gallant says that under the New Covenant there has come to be "a radical reordering of what we can now call the commandments of God." (p. 73).
   From this bold conclusion, and perhaps most embarrassingly of all, Gallant proposes that "Torah remains normative Scripture, but not a normative covenant, and the way in which it functions ethically is determined by God's act of redemption and new creation in Christ, with all that attends it." (p. 74) Now, when I first read this, I was hoping that Gallant would provide some objective standard (or even some "proof-texts") by which Christian ethics should function under this "radically reordered" New Covenant aeon, but he doesn't. As we just saw, he simply states dogmatically that the Torah "functions ethically," and then moves on. Elsewhere within the same page of his book, he follows up that claim by arguing that the Torah has been "transformed." However, even that argument of his falls short. In a weak attempt to clarify what objective standard determines the ethical function of Torah under this new aeon, he lists three very general picturesque aspects of God's act of redemption: A) the climactic satisfaction of God's justice upon the cross, B) the gift of the Spirit, and C) the ingathering of the Gentiles.
   These three "determinative" aspects hardly scratch the surface of providing a clearly objective standard for normative Christian ethics, nor does it show the way in which this "transformed Torah" remains valid in its present law-format for Christian ethics (other than the general notion that it remains "Scripture" but not a "covenant"). I think I understand the goal of what his hermeneutic is trying to achieve (i.e. that narrative of Scripture becomes this newly "transformed" standard for normative ethics); but still, in my eyes, nothing could be more vague and open to scholarly scrutiny than this explanation of "transformed Torah" and how it functions ethically.

6) Furthermore, Gallant provides an open challenge against Greg Bahsnen in particular, and "Theonomy" in general. From reading his very clear opinions against Greg Bahnsen (which he, virtually, criticizes exclusively, even though many other "Theonomists" could have been legitimately criticized), one would get the impression that Gallant has studied enough of Greg Bahnsen's literature and audio teaching on the subject of Theonomy to definitively present Bahnsen's views (and the views of "Theonomy" in general) as worthy of such stern criticisms. But, for those who have studied Greg Bahnsen's views of Biblical Law, Theonomy, and the "Theonomic movement" of the 80's (of which I am one), it does not take long to recognize Gallant's fallacious straw-man arguments. If, in fact, Gallant has studied Greg Bahnsen's books and audio lectures concerning Biblical Law, he most definitely misunderstood the most basic emphasis of Greg Bahnsen himself. For example, Gallant provides the childishly stereotypical caricature of Greg Bahnsen's view of Theonomy by claiming that "even the most insignificant details of the law remain binding (unless overturned specifically by new covenant revelation)." (Gallant, p. 77). However, this is Gallant's own spin on what he thinks Bahnsen meant, and not actually what Bahnsen ever taught comprehensively.
   Bahnsen's careful and detailed position is that all of God's revelation, including Mosaic Law, is morally binding, and that God's revelation in Jesus Christ and the teaching of his apostles abrogates all "restorative laws" (Bahnsen's words, not mine), and that all of the "civil" and "judicial" laws have expired, leaving the general equity thereof to be morally binding. And what Bahnsen meant by "general equity" is that all of God's laws, including God's "civil" or "judicial" laws, illustrate something about God's unchangeable moral character, and hence, God's moral law. And so, for Gallant to claim that Bahnsen thought and taught that "even the most insignificant details of the law" remain morally binding unless the writings of the New Testament authors "specifically overturn" them, is simply an distortion of the facts. One could reference Greg Bahnsen's numerous audio lectures on "Theonomy in Christian Ethics 1 & 2," "Theonomy and its critics," and "Theonomy vs. Autonomy" as but four very accessible audio resources to help clarify Gallant's misunderstanding of Bahnsen (which can be found here: )
   Gallant also outlines four specific points of critique against Greg Bahnsen's views proposed in his book, "Theonomy in Christian Ethics" (Gallant, p. 77), but he fails to acknowledge that Greg Bahnsen actually refuted all four of his claims in his follow-up book, "No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics." Moreoever, Gallant adds a footnote to one of his own articles about the subject of "fulfillment" in Scripture ("Fulfillment in the Gospel of Mathew", footnote 119, Gallant p. 78), which has its main objective of critiquing Greg Bahsnen's opening chapter of "Theonomy in Christian Ethics" concerning Matthew 5:17 and the theonomic interpretation of the word "fulfill" in that passage. Again, every single one of Gallant's misunderstandings of Greg Bahsnen's position have been addressed in his book, "No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics", and it can also be found in his audio lectures concerning theonomic ethics (as I referenced above). Gallant also appeals to Vern Poythress' critique of Bahnsen's position concerning the word "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17, but Gallant fails to address the fact that Bahsnen addressed Poythress' concerns in both writing and in his Biblical Hermeneutics & Exegesis lectures. Bahnsen even clarifies the benefits of Poythress' research, while still showing his (Poythress') misrepresentation of his (Bahnsen's) own theonomic thesis.
   Furthermore, later on in Gallant's book, he claims that this Theonomic view (and by implication, Bahnsen's theonomic thesis especially, because Bahnsen had been his main focus of critique over the previous six pages) provides "a neat severing of 'moral' law from 'ceremonial' and 'civil' law, as if he former simply carries forward and the other two are abolished." (Gallant, p. 81). This kind of clumsy exaggeration is flat-out embarrassing for those who have studied Greg Bahnsen's scholarly contributions toward on Theonomic ethics. NOWHERE in Greg Bahnsen's literature does he "sever" moral from ceremonial or civil law. Bahnsen distinguishes them, but he does not "sever" or separate them. Bahnsen views the Mosaic Law (and covenant) as a whole unit. And interestingly, even though Gallant attempts to critique this theonomic "severing" of moral law from other aspects of the Mosaic Covenant-Law (which Bahnsen does not do), Gallant himself (accidentally?) distinguishes between Mosaic Law and God's moral law (as Bahnsen does) when he mentions Paul's written list of "the fruit of the Spirit" as being morally binding, treating them in passing as moral codes of conduct which Paul even says: "against which there is no law." (Gallant, p. 73). In other words, Gallant, very naturally, distinguishes between Mosaic Law and moral laws of God in some sense, which is fundamental to Bahnsen's theonomic thesis. 

7) And last of all, during Gallant's critique of Greg Bahnsen's theonomic views of Christian ethics, Gallant proposes solutions in opposition to Greg Bahnsen's views which actually are (embarrassingly, for Gallant) endorsed by Bahnsen explicitly. For example, Gallant says that, contrary to Greg Bahnsen's views which allegedly "repeat" Torah, "The whole Torah (and not simply the 'moral law') is validated and established in Christ, and the whole Torah (and not simply the 'ceremonial law') is transformed into something new in Christ" (Gallant, p. 78). Greg Bahnsen agrees with this general statement in his audio commentary on Galatians: (which can be found here: ).

In the end, Gallant proposes that his view of the "Law" or "Torah" in Romans and Galatians (which allegedly is Paul's too) regarding its application for Christian ethics today is "a more robust holiness" (p. 81), but he fails to explain even one jot or tittle from an objective standard among God's own revelation to qualify what that "robust holiness" looks like for every Christian. Is it the life-style of Jesus? Is it the narrative of Scripture as a whole? Is it the narrative of this "transformed Torah" alone? He doesn't say. In other words, his explanation of the way in which this "transformed Law" functions is extremely vague, even though he says that Paul appeals to it, and Christians should too. These and other arguments of Gallant ultimately end up appearing more nebulous than cosmic, which is extremely disappointing for such a talented mind and faithful Christian man. My own opinion is that even if someone disagrees with "Theonomic ethics" in general, Greg Bahnsen's audio commentary on Galatians (a verse-by-verse exposition with 28 lectures total) is better than Gallant's attempt at clarifying Paul's letter to the Galatians. Bahsnen's audio commentary can be found here:

Friday, April 12, 2013

N.T. Wright on Weather Forecasting

When we read an Old Testament text which says 'the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood and the stars will be falling from heaven,' we ought to know as a matter of literary genre that the next line is not going to be that the rest of the country is going to have scattered showers and sunny intervals. This is not a primitive weather forecast.
-- N.T. Wright, speaking in a panel discussion at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Colonizing Earth with the Life of Heaven

  The resurrection stories in the gospels aren't about going to heaven when you die. In fact, there is almost nothing about "going to heaven when you die" in the whole New Testament. Being "citizens of heaven" (Philippians 3:20) doesn't mean you're supposed to end up there. Many of the Philippians were Roman citizens, but Rome didn't want them back when they retired. Their job was to bring Roman culture to Philippi. 
  That's the point that all the gospels actually make, in their own ways. Jesus is risen, therefore God's new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do. 
  And what is that new job? To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality. ...The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. It is more than the Christians knowing of Jesus in our own experience (that is the truth of Pentecost, not of Easter). It is much, much more than the assurance of heaven after death (Paul speaks of "going away and being with Christ," but his main emphasis is on coming back again in a risen body, to live in God's newborn creation). Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.
  ...When Paul wrote his great resurrection chapter, I Corinthians 15, he didn't end by saying, "So let's celebrate the great future life that awaits us." He ended by saying, "So get on with your work because you know that in the Lord it won't go to waste." ...Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity -- doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom, -- in an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus' own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, [point] back to the first and on to the second.1

1. N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2008] pp. 293-295 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Habit-forming worship

When human beings worship God the creator, articulating their praise and adoration because of who he is and what he's done, they are, whether or not they realize it, summing up the praises and adoration of the whole creation. That is another reason why the physical expression of worship, in liturgy and especially in the sacraments, remains important. We shouldn't expect to worship as disembodied souls who happen to be temporarily resident in these strange things called physical bodies, and then to be able to do our job as God's royal priesthood, picking up creation's praises and presenting them before God's throne. Remember: that is what we are called to do and to be. Don't be surprised if the body language of worshippers expresses something of what is being said and done. No doubt this, too, can become a hollowed-out habit, to be challenged from time to time in the name of authenticity. But to frown on the physical expression of worship (gestures of hand and arm, of head and knee, whatever) -- as though all such things were signs of hypocrisy or the attempt to put God in our debt -- would be as ridiculous as to suppose that such expressions were all that was required, without the devotion of the heart and mind. 
...The life of worship, then, is itself a corporate form of virtue. it expresses and in turn reinforces the faith, hope, and love which are themselves the key Christian virtues. From this activity there flow all kinds of other things in terms of Christian life and witness. But worship is central, basic, and in the best sense habit-forming.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 224-225 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Summing up

The normal Protestant objection to virtue, as we've seen, is that it's just hypocrisy, "putting it on" when you don't yet fully mean it. The standard answer is that this is the only way to acquire the deep-rooted characteristics of faith, hope, love, and all the rest. If we wait to start practicing these things until we "mean them" from the bottom of our hearts, we will wait a long time and probably mess up a lot of lives, including our own, in the process. But now we face the opposite problem: the charge that liturgy and other aspects of formal worship have become "just a habit," implying that because worship is a habit you don't really mean it. At one level, the two charges cancel one another out. If you're just putting it on, it isn't a habit; if it's a habit, you're not just putting it on! But there's a serious point underneath this second problem. 
Virtue, whether individual or corporate, is never something that can be taken for granted. Once the habit is formed, by many conscious choices and decisions, it has to be maintained in good running order. Here is the difference between "authenticity" and "spontaneity." Spontaneity objects to all habits: things ought just to happen! Authenticity, on the other hand, doesn't mind habits, so long as they don't become hollow. Fair enough. It would be good, frankly, to think that many of today's Christians were anywhere near the danger of forming habits of worship so strong that they could become "just a habit." That is perhaps a problem that is dying out. But if and when the danger is present, the warning is justified.  
When human beings worship God the creator, articulating their praise and adoration because of who he is and what he's done, they are, whether or not they realize it, summing up the praises and adoration of the whole creation.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 224

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning the habits of a royal priesthood

It's interesting to study the scriptural account of the early church at worship in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the first Christians drawing on the Psalms and other scriptures to celebrate God's love and power and to be strengthened and sustained in mission.  
...In particular, of course, a church that is learning the habits of the royal priesthood will celebrate the sacraments -- those occasions when the life of heaven intersects mysteriously with the life of earth, not so that earth can control or manipulate heaven (that would be magic, not faith) but so that the story of heaven may become concrete, physical reality within the life of earth, catching up human beings within a world where all sorts of things make sense that don't otherwise, and all sorts of other things that might have appeared to make sense do so no longer.  
All of this life of worship is something to be learned. Communities can grow into liturgy and sacraments, and can take delight in discovering that these things can become, as it were, habits of the community's heart as well as of the individual's. Shared worship is part of what it means when we compare Christianity to team sport. It is together that we are God's people, not as isolated individuals. 
That being-togetherness does not, of course, mean uniformity. What counts is precisely the coming together of people who are quite unlike one another in everything except their commitment to the God we know in scripture and ultimately in Jesus.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 223

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Good Christian Liturgy

Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action, love taking thought, the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared -- an ultimatley better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about. 
...Good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying Psalms together, so that they come to be "second nature" within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshipping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 222-223 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Learning to be a gardener

N.T. Wright comments on the fruit of the Spirit:
The "fruit of the Spirit" does not grow automatically. The nine varieties of fruit do not suddenly appear just because someone has believed in Jesus, has prayed for God's Spirit, and has then sat back and waited for "fruit" to arrive. Oh, there may well be strong and sudden initial signs that fruit is on the way. Many new Christians, particularly when a sudden conversion has meant a dramatic turning away from a lifestyle full of the "works of the flesh," report their own astonishment at the desire that springs up within them to love, to forgive, to be gentle, to be pure. Where, they ask, has all this come from? I didn't used to be like this. That is a wonderful thing a sure sign of the Spirit' working. 
But this doesn't mean it's all downhill from there. These are the blossoms; to get the fruit you have to learn to be a gardener. You have to discover how to tend and prune, how to irrigate the field, how to keep the birds and squirrels away. You have to watch for blight and mold, cut away ivy and other parasites that suck the life out of the tree, and make sure they young trunk can stand firm in strong winds. Only then will the fruit appear. 
And, in case anyone should think I am imposing an alien note on Paul's cheerful list of these wonderful characteristics... we note the final characteristic in the list: self-control. If the "fruit" were automatic, why would self-control be needed? Answer: it isn't, so it is: it isn't automatic, so it is needed. All the varieties of fruit Paul mentions here are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people -- except for self-control. If that isn't there, it's always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the spirit's work.1 

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 195-196

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Galatians 5:18

"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law." Someone today catching just that snatch of conversation is very likely to hear it in terms of the strong implicit debate between those who think you should order your life by "rules" and those who think that what matters is "doing what comes naturally," living "spontaneously" or "authentically." And it isn't just our cultural climate that makes us assume that's the sort of conversation we're overhearing. For four hundred years the religious and theological climate has conditioned us to hear a religious version of the same point. Ever since the Reformation at least, a large number of Christians have assumed that the foundation of Paul's thinking goes like this: He spent the first part of his life trying to keep the rules of his religion, and then discovered not only that he couldn't but that rules weren't the point. God didn't want rule-keeping; he wanted "spontaneity." God had forgiven him all his rule-breaking, in and through Jesus Christ, and was now giving him his Spirit, who would produce the "fruit" without all that horrible moral striving.  
But is that what the conversation at the next table was really all about? 
In this way of interpreting... Paul's message, within this way of thinking, is, "You're free from all that! The Spirit will guide you from within, and you don't need to bother about all those rules that come at you from somewhere else, from tradition or philosophy or the Old Testament! Stop worrying about all that moralism; lighten up and be spontaneous. You don't have to try!1

Shortly thereafter, N.T. Wright describes what Paul really meant:
"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Mosaic Law." This has nothing whatever to do with preferring spontaneity to rules. It has everything to do with the new covenant in which God is pouring out his Spirit upon those who are "in Christ" so that in them the life which the Law wanted to produce, but could not, will at last be fulfilled (see Romans 8:1-11). ...In other words, you do not have to become a Jew... to be a flourishing and fruitful member of God's people.2

1.  N.T Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 190-191
2.  Ibid.,  p. 193

Friday, October 26, 2012

Surreptitious Takeover

Another passage which sits tightly alongside Romans 12 is found near the start of the letter to the Philippians: 
This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you can figure out properly things that differ from one another, so that you may be blameless and innocent for the day of the Messiah, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus the Messiah to the glory and praise of God. (1:9-11) 
The part I have put in italics show how the same theme works out. Thinking of and praying for his beloved people in Philippi, Paul wants them, of course, to grow in love; but this love is not a matter of "undisciplined squads of emotion," but a thought-out habit of the heart -- the heart knowing why it approves what it approves and why it disapproves what it disapproves.  
...Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think. 
I cannot stress too strongly that this is a mistake. The more genuinely spiritual you are, according to Romans 12 and Philippians 1, the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think, particularly about what the completed goal of your Christian journey will be and hence what steps you should be taking, what habits you should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 157-158

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mental Homework

Commenting on the book of Romans, N.T. Wright says:

For Paul, the mind is central to Christian character: virtue is the result of thought and choice. ...[T]his helps us... to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to "reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore, sin has no right to hold any sway over you. That mental homework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: "So don't let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires" (6:12). All of this -- and much more, actually, but at least all of this -- stands now behind Paul's deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don't let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 154-155 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Renewal of the whole

According to N.T. Wright’s interpretation of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “Paul summons to let the mind be renewed, and so to be transformed all through.”  He then quotes that passage in its entirety, only with his own translation from the original Greek text. His translation appears below with some helpful insights of his own following thereafter:
So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and appropriate worship. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out and approve what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable, and complete. (12:1-2)
…Paul sees that in Jesus Christ the long-awaited age to come has already begun. And that is where Christians must consciously choose to live.  …God’s new age has come thundering in through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the present age acts as a powerful undertow, preventing the incoming waves from having their full force. The undertow of the continuing present age does its best to persuade those who through faith and baptism are already part of the age to come that in fact nothing much has changed, and that they should simply continue as they were, living the same life that everyone else is living.  “The way the world is” is a powerful, insidious force, and it takes all the energy of new creation, not the least of faith and hope, to remind oneself that the age to come really is already here, with all its new possibilities and prospects. 
The antidote to the power of the present age, then, is to have the mind renewed so that one can think clearly about the way of life which is pleasing to God, which is in accordance with God’s will, good and acceptable and (here it is again) “perfect,” teleios, complete.  This renewal of the mind is at the center of the renewal of the whole human being, since the darkening of the mind was identified as central to the problem of idolatry, dehumanization, and sin in an earlier chapter of Romans.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 148-149, 152

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Domesticated Jesus

In After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Bishop N.T. Wright makes the following observation concerning Jesus as the great "moral example" to be copied. He writes:
Many people, reading a chapter about Jesus and virtue, would expect a discussion of Jesus himself as the great example. Surely, many will think, part of the point of his life was to show us how it's done?
...Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus' death. Jesus as "moral example" is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot.  

... [Jesus himself] doesn't go about saying, "This is how it's done; copy me." He says, "God's kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me." Only when we learn the difference between those two challenges will we have grasped the heart of the gospel and, with that, the taproot of a reborn virtue.  
...The way of life he was modeling was precisely not something that could be reduced to rules... Nor, certainly, was Jesus saying that people should "do what comes naturally": indeed, what comes "naturally" from the heart, was precisely the problem, as far as he was concerned. The only way we can get to the heart of understanding the moral challenge Jesus offered, and offers still today, is by thinking in terms not of rules or of the calculation of effects or of romantic or existentialist "authenticity," but of virtue. A virtue that has been transformed by the kingdom and the cross.1

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 125-127, 132

The way to & The way of

The way to the kingdom is the way of the cross, and vice versa -- as long as you remember that "the kingdom," once again, is not "heaven," but the state of affairs in which God's kingdom has come, and his will is being done, on earth as in heaven.

-- N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 116

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Beatitudes: Rules or Virtues?

In the book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright comments about Jesus' promises of "blessings" upon obedient servants of God. Wright observes:
Jesus is not meaning either "If you can manage to behave in this way, you will be rewarded" (a kind of legalist solution) or "now that you've believed in me and my kingdom project, this is how you must behave" (the sort of thing some post-Reformation theology might insist on) -- though the latter is closer to the truth, albeit not in the sense usually imagined. To shuttle between those two options is to remain impaled on the horns of a philosophical dilemma and its theological ramifications rather than coming round the corner to see things from Jesus's very first-century Jewish point of view. 
What Jesus is saying, rather, is, "Now that I'm here, God's new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you'll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now." These qualities -- purity of heart, mercy, and so on -- are not, so to speak, "things you have to do" to earn a "reward," a "payment." Nor are they merely the "rules of conduct" laid down for new converts to follow -- rules that some today might perceive as somewhat arbitrary. They are, in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring.  
...[T]he Beatitudes could be mistaken for a set of rules. They aren't, however. They are much more like virtues, and that's how they work: grasp the end, the goal, the telos, the future, and go to work on anticipating it here and now. That doesn't mean (as I keep stressing) that there are no such things as rules; as we shall see, the Beatitudes are both guidelines for those who are learning virtue and a checklist to which virtuous Christians can refer from time to time. But to read the Beatitudes as rules is to miss the point.  
...God wants you to be, as we might put it, humans rather than puppets. You will have to think about it, to struggle with it, to pray for grace and strength; but it is at least now within reach. ...The authenticity that really matters is living in accordance with the genuine human being God is calling you to become. What the ancient Law really wanted -- genuine human life, reflecting God's glory in the world -- will start to appear.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 103, 106-108

Monday, October 1, 2012

Worshipping and Reigning: The Telos of Human

Bishop N.T. Wright comments further about the the apostle John's vision in the book of Revelation and how one's understanding of that vision affects Christian character in the present time, prior to Christ's return, and also the goal of what he calls "genuine humanity".  He writes: 
The early Christians held out a breathtaking, radical vision of the ultimate goal of all things: the new heavens and new earth, the renewal of all things, the new Jerusalem "coming down from heaven to earth" (Revelation 21:2), a world flooded with the joy and justice of the creator God.  
... The Bible opened, as we saw, with God assigning a particular vocation to human beings: that they should look after God's creation and make it fruitful and abundant. The Bible closes with a scene in which this has at last come about, only far more so. Forget the vague and wishy-washy piety which speaks of "heaven" simply as a place of rest and adoration. ...In the final chapter of the Bible, we find two things highlighted as the central activities of human beings within God's new creation... 
...Worshipping and reigning: those are the twin vocations of the new people in the new city. 
... There can be no mistake. The book of Revelation, so often dismissed as merely dark, strange, and violent, holds out a vision not only of all creation renewed and rejoicing, but of human beings within it able at last to sum up the praise which all creation offers to its maker, and to exercise that sovereignty, that dominion, that wise stewardship over the world which God always intended for his image-bearing creatures. They will be priests and rulers, summing up the praises of all creation and exercising authority on behalf of God and the Lamb.  
... [T]he "new Jerusalem" in chapters 21 and 22 is designed, it seems, to be like the Temple. There is no specific Temple in this new city because the city itself is a Temple, or rather is the true Temple, the reality toward which the Jerusalem Temple had been pointing all along. Its measurements and adornments speak of this, as do the rules for its holiness (21:8, 11-21, 27; 22:3, 15). This, John is saying, will at last be the reality of which the Garden of Eden itself, and then the ancient Jerusalem Temple, were foretastes. This is the place where the living God dwells, the place from which his healing river will flow out to refresh and cleanse the whole world (22:1-2). Kings and priests, set now in a throne room, now in a Temple. That is the goal, the telos, of Human.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 77-81

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Humanity and its Goal

In his book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Bishop N. T. Wright discusses the telos, or goal, toward which all of human existence aims. He writes:
Creation, it seems, was not a tableau, a static scene. It was designed as a project, created in order to go somewhere. The creator has a future in mind for it; and Human--this strange creature, full of mystery and glory--is the means by which the creator is going to take his project forward. The garden, and all the living creatures, plants and animals, within it, are designed to become what they were meant to be through the work of God's image-bearing creatures in their midst. The point of the project is that the garden be extended, colonizing the rest of creation; and Human is the creature put in charge of that plan. ...And that, as the New Testament declares, is also the goal for which we are aiming--indeed, the goal of all human existence.1

1. N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 74-75 

Monday, August 27, 2012


N. T Wright makes a very interesting series of observations concerning the Gospel of Matthew, it’s opening words, it’s overall structure, and it’s purpose as a whole. He writes:
Matthew’s first chapter has long been a puzzle to modern Western readers. The genealogy (1:1-17) appears to be about as unexciting an opening as it could be. But to those with eyes to see (itself a Matthean theme, as in 13:16), it tells the story that must be grasped if the plot of the whole gospel is to be understood… 
The Structure of the genealogy shows where he will lay the stress. Other Jewish books of the period structured Israel’s history into significant periods (e.g. 1 En. 93:1-10; 91:12-17; 2 Bar. 53-74); Matthew is following a standard tradition, though adapting it to his own ends... This is not the story of world as a whole, as in Luke (whose genealogy goes back to Adam), though Matthew has not forgotten the world outside Israel, as we shall see. It is the story of Israel.1

Continuing his thoughts a page later, he says that Matthew is “a book so clearly crafted and sculpted, and, moreover, [is] one which proclaims on page after page that it chronicles the way in which the scriptures were fulfilled."2

And in conclusion, he writes:
Matthew, I suggest, had this entire scene in mind as he arranged his material into its eventual form. …Jesus, like Moses, goes to his death with the promises and warnings still ringing in his people’s ears. After his resurrection, Jesus, like Moses goes up the mountain and departs from his people, leaving them with a commission to go in and possess the land, that is, the entire world (28:16-20). And, if my suggestion is correct, Matthew has woven this covenantal choice into the very structure of his gospel, portraying it as the choice set before his contemporaries by Jesus, and thereby himself setting the same choice before the church of his own day. 
Matthew’s story, I suggest, is structured so as to bring out this entire theme. The motifs of plot… need to be set within this wider framework. Matthew presupposes a telling of the Jewish story according to which Israel has failed, has ended in exile, and needs a new exodus; and he undertakes to show that this new exodus was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He does this at a multiplicity of levels: the often-remarked ‘fulfillment’ passages (‘All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…’) are simply the tip of the very large iceberg. Matthew’s plot and structure presuppose the entire Jewish story-line to day. They claim to be bringing about that of which Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 30. They are not simply a collection of types, historical precedents arbitrarily repeated. They claim to be the continuation and proper completion of the whole history itself. 3

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned R. T. France and Peter Leithart, and their contributions to the study of Matthew's gospel. In connection with that post, I believe N. T. Wright definitely seems to be on the same page as them when it comes to the overall story of Matthew’s gospel. Each of these scholars have arrived at the conclusion that Matthew did not just write the story of Jesus; Matthew wrote the story of Israel. France holds the perspective that Jesus “fulfills” the essence of what the Old Testament teaches concerning Israel: their life, death and resurrection as God’s covenant people; and it’s that general pattern (life, death, resurrection) to which he is willing to commit, thereby placing limits upon further interpretations (or what he considers to be unnecessary speculations). France definitely sees Matthew's gospel saturated with Old Testament typological symbolism; but he isn't as ready to go as far as Leithart and N. T. Wright with the details. 

Leithart holds the perspective that Jesus “fulfills” the role of God’s faithful “son”, and that Matthew structured his gospel according to Israel’s general narrative (the position of which I have become thoroughly convinced). But N. T. Wright’s view is a bit different from the other two, yet comparatively more distant from France than Leithart. The only areas in which I find Leithart disagreeing with Wright (or perhaps I should say, complementing Wright’s work) is with the detailed order of parallels between Israel’s life and Jesus’ life. Wright doesn’t go into as many details as Leithart does, which is why I find Leithart’s final analysis to be more helpful. Again, Leithart's scholarly contribution can be found on his website. I plan on utilizing Leithart's contribution in future posts, but expanding upon it in a variety of ways, using the notes I made about a year ago for our small bible study group. 

Back to my main point though: Notice carefully that whatever the difference may be between these great scholars, Wright is in complete agreement with France and Leithart when he says that “Matthew presupposes a telling of the Jewish story according to which Israel has failed, has ended in exile, and needs a new exodus; and he undertakes to show that this new exodus was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”

 I believe this profound insight must not be overlooked when studying Matthew's gospel.

1.  N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992] p. 385
2.  Ibid., p. 386
3.  Ibid., p. 388-389