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.
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’
Labels: Guest Post