Sunday, May 31, 2009

Theology and Rationality

In his recent article "What Is Systematic Theology?" in the International Journal of Systematic Theology, A. N. Williams helps us come to grips with what it means for theology to be rational. One of his several emphases in the article is that God, himself rational, bestows upon humanity our rationality. Williams argues that because God is rational and because he purposes that his creatures come to know him, theology is a rational discipline even though we must acknowledge the limitations set in place by human finitude and fallenness. He goes on to say that with God as the source of their rationality all disciplines can operate rationally and seek out the rationality embedded in reality. However, lest this appear to rob theology of its uniqueness, Williams notes that theology, as the field of inquiry concerned with the Source of all rationality, remains unique and positioned to speak to other disciplines as an older sibling speaks to a younger. This simile is an intriguing illustration of how to coordinate theology and other areas of discourse without compromising the glory of the study of God.

I'm reminded again of Alister McGrath's Nature, volume 1 of his Scientific Theology. There McGrath judges that divine rationality, the rationality of the created order, and the rationality of human beings resonate together and thus launch the possibility of human knowledge. One of the beauties of this line of thinking is that it opens up space to affirm a qualified "universal rationality" that instead of aiming to undercut Christian belief is bound up with it!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Matthew Levering's Scripture and Metaphysics

Presently I'm reading through Scripture and Metaphysics by Matthew Levering, a thought-provoking book bringing St. Thomas Aquinas' utilization of metaphyics into dialogue with contemporary scepticism toward the place of metaphysical reflection in theology. Levering focuses on Aquinas' understanding of theology as the pursuit of contemplative wisdom. Contemplation, say Aquinas and Levering, leads into the transformation of the human person and his or her active life of serving God. Perhaps if theology were viewed more often in this light, it wouldn't seem impractical to so many Christians!

Here is something that caught my attention as a fledgling theologian:

"Indeed, it is only if our contemplative exercises are sustained by continual prayer and sacramental grace that the practices of contemplative wisdom may avoid the poison of pride, manifested in the careerism and ecclesial infidelity of the 'academic theologian.'"

There's nothing like a spiritual kick in the seat of the pants from someone who is no slouch when it comes to rigorous academic work! I'm deeply grateful for spiritual encouragement and exhortation from Christian scholars.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Church and Ethnicity

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it," writes St. Paul (Eph. 2:13-16).

If one of the thrusts of the gospel is to bring together ethnic groups in one body, what might be some of the implications for how we structure and even name our churches? Is it appropriate to have an English-speaking, predominantly caucasian congregation meeting upstairs in the sanctuary on Sundays while a Chinese-speaking congregation meets downstairs in the very same building? Is it appropriate for the two congregations to have different names? Is it appropriate for a church to name itself, e. g., "Korean Presbyterian Church." What might all of this mean for the messianic Judaism movement? Is it okay for a church body to self-identify as Jewish? How can church leaders honor the reconciling power of the gospel by facilitating ecclesial unity?


Justification and N. T. Wright Pt. 2: Thoughts on Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision

I'm not sure that I plan on making the doctrine of justification a long-term focal point for theological study, but for now I'm glad to be interacting with the current debates. Having just finished Wright's new book, Justification, I'm impressed by certain of its features and find myself wanting more clarification and adjustments with respect to others.

A Few Positive Features:

1) Wright aims to move beyond the old/new perspective divide and incorporate insights of both camps; this he does with Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians.

2) He notes that some of the new perspectivists, in their eagerness to underscore Jew-Gentile dynamics in Paul's writings, have run the risk of downplaying viable Reformation commitments (p. 196).

3) He remains to the last a big picture thinker, constantly reminding readers of the scope of God's plans.

A Few Hang-Ups:

1) Wright certainly respects the Christian tradition, but sometimes one still gets the sense that, to him, those who disagree with his views do so only because their commitment to tradition renders them resistant to a fresh reading of Scripture. I don't believe he intends for this to be an easy way to win an argument, but it may sound that way to those who uphold a more traditional perspective on Paul for traditional and, more importantly, exegetical reasons.

2) While Wright's work rightly keeps in view the big picture of redemptive history, Justification can give the impression that his is the only exegetical tack committed to this.

3) Wright spends plenty of time upholding the covenantal contours of "righteousness" languge, but I'm still convinced by Deut. 6:25 (and Simon Gathercole) that when we receive a righteous status from God it is a matter of being counted as one who has done what God requires of people (not least in the covenant treaty), not merely one who just is a member of his people.

4) This last "hang-up" actually has to do with a blurb on the back cover recommending the book. Scot McKnight unfortunately calls some of the "old" perspective adherents "religious zealots." In my view, that is uncharitable and, at the risk of sounding uncharitable myself, a cheapshot. I'm not interested in following along with everything John Piper or others have to say, but the fact remains that the comment is out of place.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Justification and N. T. Wright Pt. 1

With the release of N. T. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan, Paul's Vision, the topic of justification and the new perspective is capturing attention and making a plethora blog appearances. Having just completed a paper on the subject, I'm interested and excited to see it being explored carefully from a variety of angles.

I'd like to post some ruminations, beginning with a few comments on my appreciation of Wright's scholarship. First, his Christian Origins and the Question of God project is very ambitious and helpful in several ways. It's intriguing to me that in the first volume (The New Testament and the People of God) he spends a good amount of time and energy outlining his epistemological commitments that will undergird the content of the project. His account of critical epistemic realism vis-a-vis biblical studies is definitely worth reading. Second, his book The Last Word (the title in its American printing) is a useful piece of work on the nature and function of the Bible's authority. He contends that when we speak of the Bible's authority we are in fact speaking of the authority of God himself and then he rolls out some thought-provoking ideas centering around that thesis. Third, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy and serving the church (he serves as a bishop in the Anglican church) is very encouraging. Among other things, he has vigorously defended the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Now, as for the debates about justification in Pauline theology, I think there's a bit of a mixed bag. For this post, I'll focus on what I perceive to be one strength and one weakness. On the one hand, Wright and others have rightly prodded us to recognize the Jew-Gentile interactions and tensions that pervaded Paul's ministry and epistles. In Antioch and Galatia certain Jewish Christians were acting in such a way that Gentile Christians were pushed to behave like Jews. In the Roman context certain Jewish Christians held the presumption that their obedience to God was quite superior to that of Gentiles. Paul's teaching on human sin and justification by faith is meant to level the playing field. In the latter section of Ephesians 2 Paul carefully articulates how the action of God in Christ unites Jew and Gentile. In Philippians 3 we read about some Jews (Judaizers, I think) whose delight in Jewish distinctives posed a potential threat to the Gentile Christians in Philippi (I take the Greek verb blepete to mean "look out for" rather than just "consider").

On the other hand, the emphasis on Jew-Gentile relations can be used to downplay that Paul resists Jewish nationalism as a kind of merit theology. In other words, we need to make sure we do some integrative work. In Galatians, for example, Paul is pressed to deal with the imposition of Jewish emblems (e. g., dietary laws) on Gentile Christians but ends up rejecting this imposition precisely because it amounts to an attempt to merit acceptance with God.

In the next post, I'll talk about the underscoring of the covenant motif. But, for now, any thoughts?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Christology and the Correspondence Theory of Truth

In my mind it is quite difficult to determine where we would turn if we were to abandon completely the correspondence theory of truth. Other theories (the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory, and others) seem to fail us and so I am happy to affirm, with William Alston, David Clark, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others, a minimalist correspondence theory of truth wherein we do not demand a precise account of the nature of that correspondence relation between truth-bearers (especially propositions) and the states of affairs to which they pertain.

However, the Gospel of John presses us to add some nuance to our understanding of truth. In John 14:6 Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life." So our understanding of how truth is borne out must include more than just propositions (briefly, a proposition is the descriptive content of an assertion). It must include the very person of Jesus Christ!

In other words, we need an unashamedly Christian understanding of truth as correspondence. We need to uphold both the propositional and the personal contours of truth, keeping in mind that propositions may be deeply personal and that knowledge of persons involves knowledge of propositions pertaining to those persons. This is an important commitment not least because of how easy it is to find some who focus on the propositional at the expense of the personal and the other way around.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: Six Theses

This semester I've been working on a paper dealing with justification and the new perspective on Paul under the supervision of Dr. Craig Blomberg. It's been a taxing but rewarding endeavor and, though I'm nearly finished with the paper, I sense that I've only scratched the surface. In order to guide my exploration of the topic, I developed six theses for the traditional perspective and then six theses for the new perspective that I believe sum up the emphases of both camps. (That I arrived at six theses instead of that holy number seven probably calls attention to the incompleteness of the paper.)

The Traditional Perspective

1) The Pauline teaching on justification by faith was designed to combat Jewish (or, more precisely, Jewish Christian) legalism threatening the health of early Christian churches.

2) By “works of the law,” Paul means deeds done in response to the composite of God’s moral requirements, which are embedded in the OT law and known in at least a rudimentary way by Gentiles.

3) It follows from human depravity that human beings cannot perform the works of the law and so cannot be justified by them.

4) We are justified by the grace of God in Christ, which must be received simply through faith.

5) To be justified is to be declared righteous in the sight of God, who acts as judge in the divine courtroom.

6) This act of justification is what enables one to join in the people of God.

The New Perspective

1) Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is not designed to combat Jewish legalism penetrating Christian communities. In short, the problem is not works-righteousness but lingering covenantal nomism and nationalism.

2) By “works of the law” Paul means conformity to certain commandments especially conducive to marking off the Jewish people as God’s elect.

3) While recognizing the impossibility of human beings earning salvation, the new perspectivists stress that the problem of the “works of the law” lies not in their championing human achievement. Rather, the problem lies in imposing these Jewish boundary markers on Gentile Christians, a problem borne of the Judaizers’ failure to keep in step with the flow of redemptive history.

4) As more traditional interpreters argue, human beings are justified by the grace of God in Christ, which must be received simply through faith.

5) To be justified is to be declared righteous, but this is primarily a matter of being declared a member of the covenant.

6) The event of justification is not what enables one to join the people of God; it is a declaration of which persons truly are part of the covenant people.

Any reactions to the developments represented here?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Theology and the Spiritual Life

Here are some connections I've found between theology and the spiritual life:

1) Theology creates space for genuine wonder.

2) It engenders humility before the incomprehensibility of God.

3) It keeps me from becoming discouraged in church. (Having some understanding of what God is up to among his people offers hope when church appears, from my limited point of view, to be uneventful.)

4) It helps us read and respond to the concrete situations of life, including inner personal dynamics related to human sinfulness and God's work in sanctifying us.

5) It gives us the ability to move naturally within the framework of the gospel so that we can have intelligent, compelling conversations with those outside the faith.