Thursday, March 31, 2011

On getting fat

This post explains why I have started putting on the ol' weight recently.

Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with custard coated apple pies, pizza, sugar, lack of exercise, etc.


It is all about gravity (and a bit of Newtonian calculation).

I'll let the BBC and some scientists explain why, here (it is a fascinating article). The key point to notice is that the UK experiences some of the earths most intense gravitational forces, more than in the East coast of the USA, for example.

Gravity, picking on us poor slim folk in the UK, has made us heavier.

Right, time for a Chinese takeaway.

Guest post by Mark Regier with reflections on Wallace's book summary - continuing the debate

"You are all Pelagians!" -Karl Barth (in conclusion of his tour of Britain)

Like women speaking in the congregation [CT's editorial comment: this is a guest post, folks!], it is normatively a disgrace for undergaduate students to break silence in matters of exegesis and theology. Which is why I (an undergrad in theology) was rather shocked when Chris asked me to write a guest post for his blog. Hopefully the aforementioned principle is not sullied in this procedure; hopefully the intelligentsia maintains its justifiable contempt for hot-headed young men who delight in their own opinions. I myself, in agreeing to Chris' request, have endeavored to break the rule for the sake of not being overrighteous.

Young fellas like me have had a hard go in theological education lately. Not only are we not adequately exposed to the reception geschichte of the New Testament documents, we are taught that this is a good thing. I don't know how many times I have been told by professors that a routine ignorance of the writings of say, Luther, should not negatively affect my understanding of, say, Paul. After all, what really matters is sola scriptura (here defined as an unquestioning acceptance of the writings of N.T. Wright for all matters of faith and practice). Speaking of N.T. Wright, the man is worshiped as a sort of God in the colleges, and woe to the Shadrach's, Mishach's and Abednego's who would think otherwise! But I digress. The above-quoted Karl Barth encountered a similar problem in his teaching days. So fatally toppled were the theological and exegetical structures of the previous century of German thought by his time, that students simply refused to submit to a thorough reading of Schleiermacher or De Wette or Ferdinand Bauer. Why all the fuss about what men thought and wrote so long ago about what I think and write about today? It never seems to dawn on us young 'uns that history is indeed capable of repeating itself, that whatever is has already been, and that- on occasion- what has been is capable of holding more weight than what is. Alas, says Koheleth, the wise man will not be long remembered!

Andrew Wallace freshly issued a guest post on this blog, and I think that a lot of his own concerns line up with mine. For starters, how does one relate the material of Paul to the rest of the New Testament? Surely this question is not foreign to the milieu of reception geschicte. Didn't Paul himself receive that which he passed on? Isn't Paul himself a part of the larger story set in motion by the man Jesus of Nazareth? Shouldn't the traditions of the earliest church and the subsequent Hellenistic movement have something to say about the way we read Paul? Even his soteriology? And what about the NT documents that reflect a reception of Paul's own material (be they the deutero-pauline literature, 2 Peter and- if you agree with E.P. Sanders and Luther- James)? Shouldn't these be studied and honored with exegetical authority? Though thoroughly secularized and dressed in modern technique, such concerns do adumbrate the Reformation practice of allowing scripture to interpret scripture. Secondly, Wallace shows a keen desire to understand the theological milieu of the "Ante-Nicene" writers. How often have these voices gone unheard! Precious few know about the bitchy old woman in the Shepherd of Hermas with her own peculiar spin on salvation, or the touching- if not rigorous- hortatory encouragements of 2 Clement, or the masterful weaving together of Pauline/Johannine/Matthean soteriological considerations in the surviving work of Ignatius. That Wallace wishes to give these writings a hearing as he wrestles with Paul is encouraging, and to be emulated. If for no other reason, this should give us an impetus to read Wallace's book.

I always shudder when, at this point, the poster or the reviewer or the criticizer re-calibrates the direction of his thoughts with a big "However" or "But." My friend and I used to joke about this, deeming "However" to mean something like, "Please dis-regard everything that has just been said and start listening now." I won't do Wallace this injustice. Rather:

Frick. Why the frick does he suggest that we are justified by faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus? How is that in the least the euangelion of our salvation? Tolstoy had to hide his gun so as not to blow his brains out after years of trying to keep the Sermon on the Mount alone in a relatively meagre fashion. Fortunately Tolstoy was selective. Had he widened his gaze to the sum total of the moral commandments of Jesus (be they expressed by his own lips or those of his apostles), the gun may have been kept in open view. Growing up in a Mennonite tradition, moral perfection and salvation have always been on friendly terms for me. With my congregation's adoption of fundamentalist eschatological concerns in the last 100 years, this has heightened to an anxiety over being left behind at the rapture due to moral failings. Later, when I studied at a Reformed college, I learned to channel these moralistic tendencies into a constant search for evidence of salvation. The Reformed folk have their own way of demanding justification by works: Saved by faith, so long as the behavior proves it. An older Puritan Divine by the name of Jeremiah Burroughs taught his congregation of 10,000 miserable souls to "strive to enter into a disposition worthy of the reception of God's grace," including the penitent discharge of good deeds. It is really the good deeds that matter.

The happier pentecostal writings of John Bevere follow the same line, but on a happier note. God has saved us for relationship with Himself. "This is the easy part," says John. The hard part comes in the obedient working out of this relationship. Those who do not work likely will not be saved. An interesting two-tier view of justification, no?

All of this is emotional blabbering on my part. What matters for both me and these writers (and Wallace) is that in salvation we find moral transformation. But God help those (like me) who haven't! This is the catch 22 of all works-righteousness: moral transformation is a matter of salvation. God will help you. God will give you His Spirit of Grace in order that you may fulfill the commands. Even Pelagius spoke like this. It is sort of a way of back-tracking from the despair literally bursting out of all ends of the argument, a way of saying: "Yes, this looks impossible. But with God all things are possible." Fulfillment of the commands is a "datum," to use a word from N.T. Wright. Ok ok. But what if, somehow, the commands are still not fulfilled? Writers like Wallace and Bevere suggest that obedience is the condition of final salvation. What if obedience, scripturally defined, is not appropriately given? The answer is clear: damnation. On the principle of justification by faithfulness then, I can already accept the fact that I am going to Hell. Jesus has not given me the transformation spoken of so positively by writers like Wallace or Bevere. To be sure, I've taken all the steps laid out by these men and more. I've gone through all the agonous "purgative" periods of fasting, self-flagellation, despair, and endless striving. Conversely, I've gone through periods of quietism; delicately attending to those much-adored spiritual disciplines in the solitude of loneliness. I've gone on missions trips, preached the gospel to unbelievers, prayed till my lips turn blue, exercised forgiveness, attended church faithfully, helped out in bible studies etc.. etc.. ad nauseam. I've had schleiermacherian experiences that would blow the panties off of Santa. But you know what? It has been seven years of all this, and I’m still the same old ungodly wretch. You do not want to know what I thought this week about Angelina Jolie. My lips are still unclean, I'm still a lazy doofus, still ungrateful, still unkind. I am still hateful and spiteful and ruthless. I still disobey my parents, I still have slight thought's about God's grace. I still doubt in prayer, and at the moments of my most ecstatic feelings of charity and adoration of Jesus, I can still locate a brightly burning wick of spiritual pride and narcissism in my soul. Now a writer like Reinhold Niebuhr would step in and say, "It's ok Mark. God justifies based on intent rather than content." But my intent sucks! You do not want to know what I thought this week about Angelina Jolie. Furthermore, the types of sins I seem to habitually commit come under the purview of what the NT considers deserving of death. The Law of God works freedom for those who keep it. But for those who near the whole of it, but stumble even at just one point...."well," says James, "You've actually broken all of it." I think Paul would probably agree. Where then, can one truly boast of moral transformation? If the Law of God reckons one lawless on account of the breaking one or two points, can anyone really dare to say that personal morality stands? Not if the law has the final say for the judgment (cf. Jas 2:12; Rom. 2:13).

All of this is to say that Jesus did not step onto this earth to congratulate us with or for a moral potency to do good. The apostle Peter, for all of his long journeys in the various psychological stages of the ordo salutis, was still falling into condemnation and hypocrisy in the days of Paul (Gal. 2:11). Where is the moral transformation in that? Goodness, the final day must be one of mercy and grace if it is to be one of joy at all (1 Pet. 1:13; Jude 21). But mercy is a quality relative only to ungodliness and unworthiness.

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude this long-winded post sans rhyme and sans reason with a passage from Barth's Romans:
"Any attempt to stretch the relation between concrete and temporal things to cover their eternal Origin ends in destructive and incurable skepticism. The claim that the law worketh the promise breaks down on the plain truth that what is concrete and visible is incompatible with the promise. The only conspicuous element in the promise is that it is not coterminous with the actual and moral impressions in the world of God's revelation....This inevitability of judgment affects all religions in so far as their reality is merely the reality of temporal and concrete things. It affects religion, even when it is upright and sincere and genuine, even the religion of Abraham and of the Prophets, even the religion of the Epistle to the Romans....In this context the word 'law' embraces all who set out to experience the infinite, all who venture upon its contemplation or description or representation. This is always transgression. Wherever men suppose themselves conscious of the emotion of nearness to God, whenever they speak and write of divine things, whenever sermon-making and temple-building are thought of as an ultimate human occupation, whenever men are aware of divine appointment and of being entrusted with a divine mission, sin veritably abounds (v.20)....No human demeanor is more open to criticism, more doubtful, or more dangerous, than religious demeanor. No undertaking subjects men to so severe a judgment as the undertaking of religion." (Römerbrief, 2nd ed. 135-136).

-Mark Regier describes himself as ‘an arrogant douchebag of a student who is completing his third year of undergraduate studies at Canadian Mennonite University. His qualifications for one day becoming a theologian are empty rhetoric, vainglorious desires to be new and creative, contempt for everything that has been written before him and most of what is being written around him, and the fact that he has read The Politics of Jesus


Friday, March 25, 2011

Guest post by Andrew Wallace

I have been enjoying Chris' continuing review of Douglas Campbell's huge tome The Deliverance of God. Those people interested in the topics covered there will likely enjoy my new book which has just been published. Chris has invited me to fill you in on it here. My book deals with many of the same issues, but is a much easier read (I imagine I'm not the only one who's struggled to reach the end of Campbell's monstrous work).

Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation
By A. J. Wallace & R. D. Rusk (2011)

This is the book for you if:
* You like the New Perspective on Paul.
* You are interested in understanding how the Gospels depict Jesus.
* You would like to understand Paul's theology, and how it can be reconciled with the rest of the New Testament.
* You would like to know more about different ideas of atonement.
* You are interested in learning how the concept of salvation has changed throughout church history.
* You are interested in reading a systematic presentation and defense of the moral influence view of atonement.
* You are looking for a believable alternative to Penal Substitution.
* You love Douglas Campbell's ‘PPME’ model and want to read about one.

This book provides a brief critique of the Reformation paradigm of salvation by faith alone, which centers on Penal Substitution. In contrast to that theory, it presents a complete alternate system of salvation, and systematically argues that this alternate system is really what the first Christians believed and taught. This alternate system is not one of our own creation, but rather (as our historical analysis demonstrates) has been extremely popular throughout Christian history – particularly during the first few centuries.

We begin by looking at the question: "If early Christians didn't think Jesus' purpose was to die as a penal substitute for the sins of humanity, then what understanding of his life and death did the Gospel writers actually have?" To answer this question, we briefly survey the gospels in the light of socio-historical research to see how Jesus' contemporaries would have understood his words and actions as presented in the Gospels. For those familiar with socio-historical studies, there is little new in this section of the book. However, for those accustomed to thinking that the sole purpose of Jesus' life is found in his death on the cross to atone for the sins of humanity, this analysis of the Gospel accounts may be eye-opening.

The second section of the book works through a number of important New Testament theological concepts: Grace, Faith, Final Judgment, Forgiveness, Righteousness, Works of Law etc. Based on the findings of recent scholarship, we provide dramatic reinterpretations for each of these concepts, which challenge the standard Reformation views. For example, we review the conclusions of many recent scholars (Douglas Campbell among them) who have pointed out that ‘faithfulness’, rather than ‘faith’, represents a more appropriate translation of pistis. We also argue this point extensively using additional evidence from the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings. This understanding leads us to interpret Paul’s statements of 'salvation by faith' very differently - that salvation comes through faithfulness to Christ (obedience to Christ's teachings). We show that salvation is primarily about positive moral change. This moral change leads to an assurance of positive final judgment, as God's judgment is based on the moral character of the individual. Throughout our reinterpretation of these concepts, we draw from extensive biblical support and cite many scholars who agree with these alternative readings, and so in one sense we propose nothing new. The significance of this book is that it ties all of these reinterpretations together into a systematic paradigm of salvation ("Moral Transformation") and extensively demonstrates at each point that this view was what the biblical writers really taught.

The third section of the book looks at what the early Christians considered significant about Jesus and his activity. Here we begin by drawing together verses regarding salvation to illustrate that they believed Jesus had saved them through a process of moral transformation. The chapters analyzing the early Christian concept of Jesus as a martyr and their use of sacrificial language in reference to Jesus should be of particular interest. The concept of Jesus as a martyr has only recently begun to receive considerable attention in scholarship on early Christianity, so this section may well interest many readers. We argue that Paul understood Jesus' death primarily as a martyrdom, and numerous statements throughout his letters attest to this, especially ones in Romans. The understanding of sacrificial systems within scholarship advanced a great deal in the 20th century with numerous anthropological studies of sacrifice being conducted. The conclusions of such studies have important consequences for understanding what the New Testament writers meant when they used sacrificial language about Jesus. Penal substitution advocates have traditionally seen sacrificial language as decisive proof of their view. However, we use this improved understanding to argue that the sacrificial language in the New Testament is incompatible with penal substitution.

The fourth section of the book presents an extensive historical case that the moral transformation paradigm of salvation finds universal attestation in the writings of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, and is strongly attested throughout much of the rest of Christian history. We also outline the key doctrinal changes over the centuries, which culminated in the Reformation doctrines of salvation by faith and penal substitution. Finally, we offer a brief critique of these Reformation doctrines.

Each individual point in this book has been argued for by scholars, but this book ties all these together in a way that, to my knowledge, is very unique. I know of no other book that ties all this scholarship together into a complete picture and shows how strongly it challenges us to re-understand the early Christian paradigm of salvation.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Special journal issue for Tom Torrance

Our friend Jason Goroncy has just drawn attention to a special issue of Theology in Scotland, which is in memoriam of T.F. Torrance. Definitely worth a look (see, here).

This snippet is from The Mediation of Christ:
"God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself"