01 January 2017

N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began: A Few Reflections

This week I read Wright's new book on the crucifixion, The Day the Revolution Began. I'm not a Wright-hater. I owe him a lot. Some of his writings have been instrumental for my own development in understanding the Bible. At least one article of mine spawned from ideas he gave me while listening to him lecture. There are several points of his--such as the notion of a continuing exile in the first-century Jewish mindset, or Jesus as true Israel, or the Israel typology underlying Romans 5-8, or his understanding of our final future (what he calls the after-after-life), or his approach to the relationship between history and theology--where I agree with him against his conservative North American critics. And on top of that I like him as a person. But this book is just awful.

I pretty much agree with Mike Horton's review though I thought he was too easy on the book. I'd like to add three thoughts to Mike's review. I'm not going to do any summary, just critique. For summary read what Mike wrote.

There are virtues to the book too, including the quality of prose and several good insights. An example of the latter is the connection, new to me, between James and John's request to be at Jesus' right and left hand, when these two places, ironically, were reserved for the two thieves to be crucified next to Jesus (p. 221).

But I can't review this book by trotting out a bunch of virtues and then saying one or two things that could have been stronger and concluding that it's a nice book that everyone should read. The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright's other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn't.

False Dichotomies

This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

Thus we are told that 'the question of whether people go to "heaven" or "hell"' is simply 'not what the New Testament is about. The New Testament, with the story of Jesus's crucifixion at its center, is about God's kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.' (p. 40).

Here are some other artificial either/ors:
What if, instead of a disembodied "heaven," we were to focus on the biblical vision of "new heavens and new earth?" (p. 49)

The human problem is not so much "sin" seen as the breaking of moral codes . . . but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (p. 74)

The "goal" is not "heaven," but a renewed human vocation within God's renewed creation. (p. 74)

[The apostles] do not simply have some new, exciting ideas to share. . . . They are not telling people that they have discovered a way whereby anyone can escape the wicked world and "go to heaven" instead. They are functioning as the worshipping, witnessing people of God. (p. 166) 

One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of "evangelists" in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with the problems of "sin" and "hell." The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. (pp. 196-97)

Galatians is not about "salvation" . . . The letter is about unity. (p. 234; italics original)

The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not "sin," but "ungodliness." It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. (p. 268)
The response in each case is: Really? Doesn't the New Testament teach both, at some level? Are you leaving behind a one-sided view for an equal and opposite one-sided view, when a synthetic both/and is what is needed?

It is indeed a hugely needed corrective that, say, Christians' final destiny is not disembodied heaven. We need to hear this. Our final, permanent state is earthly and embodied. But his correction becomes over-correction when he avoids any affirmation of the intermediate state and seems to leave no room at all for any disembodied existence at any time.

Part of the difficulty is that at times Wright will say 'not simply that, but this' whereas other times he says 'not that, but this.' But that little word 'simply' makes all the difference (see pp. 76-77 e.g.). And the fact that he isn't consistent in this way creates confusion and ambiguity.

Another part of the difficulty is that his dichotomies are sometimes set up in a way that is simply not in accord with the biblical evidence. Thus: 'Almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell." The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent this-worldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem' (p. 196). I appreciate the way Wright encourages us to read the Gospels in a historically sensitive way and to understand how first-century Jews would have heard Jesus. And the fall of Jerusalem is certainly in view in much of what Jesus says. But it simply is not true that 'almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell."' Jesus himself does, repeatedly, and often with the very image of 'fire' that Wright wants to leave behind (Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:3; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).

Caricature

Closely tied in with the problem of false dichotomies is the problem of caricatures. I say 'closely tied in' because the false dichotomies are themselves caricatures. Wright caricatures a certain view and says it's not that, but this. But the thing he's rejecting would often be largely unfamiliar to those who hold it. It's a caricature.

Here are a few other caricatures--in other words, representations of views which, if the holders of such a view were to read it, they would not discern themselves in it. Caricatures are thus the opposite of love; they are not charitable presentations of a view, but uncharitable, to score rhetorical points.

Thus the 'line of thought' Wright is engaging 'goes like this':
All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in "hell." Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead. (p. 38)
In this view, God hates sinners so much that he is determined to punish them, but Jesus more or less happens to get in the way and take the death blow on their behalf. (p. 42)
Never mind that Wright will go on 200 pages later to admit that in Jesus' death he was 'bearing the punishment' (Wright's words) that God's people deserved (p. 211), and so the view that Jesus 'took the punishment instead' turns out to be Wright's own view. For now I just note: Who in the world would see themselves in the view that God is angry and wants to kill people? That he 'hates sinners so much'? Aside from perhaps a few fringe hyper-fundamentalistic types I see none of Wright's critics, not the thoughtful ones, in this view. It is a caricature. It is irresponsible. It is fundamentally writing for Self rather than writing out of love. 

In another place Wright seeks to distance himself from 'the idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn't the right person' (p. 44). What careful Christian believes that? How many biblically responsible evangelical/reformed pulpits (which is whom Wright designates as the critics from whom he is distancing himself) preach that, and in that way?

In yet another place he casts his opponents' view as 'a dualistic rejection of the "world," with a smug "otherworldly" pietism, and with a severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire' (p. 98). Hands up all cheerful hell-lovers?

Again: 'At the center of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood' (p. 185). The Bible is not about "an angry God looming over the world and bent upon blood' (p. 349). But of course. Who would describe the God of the Bible that way? Later he speaks of the Bible as 'a narrative not of divine petulance, but of unbreakable divine covenant love' (p. 224). Who preaches a gospel of divine petulance?

At other times he caricatures the academic community more than the church community. For example: 'comparatively modern readings of Luke and Acts have shrunk the meaning of the "kingdom" simply to the final return of Jesus' (p. 161). I know of no respectable Bible scholar who believes the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts is only about Christ's second coming.

Sometimes the caricature is so misleading as to actually say the opposite of what evangelicals believe. For example: 'The common view has been that the ultimate state ("heaven") is a place where "good" people end up, so that human life is gauged in relation to moral achievement or lack thereof' (p. 147). Yikes. Heaven is for the morally good people? This is gospel confusion at its most basic. This is the same error my 4-year-old tends to still make but which my 6-year-old and 10-year-old now know to be error. From one of the world's leading NT scholars?

Wright complains in other books and in lectures of being misrepresented by conservative American evangelicals. Much of the time I sympathize with his point. He does get misrepresented. Why then does he turn around and do the very same thing, misrepresenting others?

How? How, How, How?

There's an even deeper problem with the book. Wright is unclear on how the cross does what it does.

Throughout the book I kept writing HOW in the margin. Wright tells us (if you'll forgive a run-on sentence) that 'the death of Jesus has opened up a whole new world' (p. 82) and 'the death of Jesus launched the revolution' (p. 83) and 'by six o'clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically' (p. 156) and 'Jesus believed that through his death this royal power would win the decisive victory' (p. 183) and that in the crucifixion 'the covenant was renewed because of the blood that symbolized the utter commitment of God to his people' (p. 194) and that the crucifixion is 'the personal expression of [the love of God] all the way to his death' (p. 201) and that 'something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in its place' (p. 207) and that 'a new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love' (p. 222) and that 'the cross establishes the kingdom of God through the agency of Jesus' (p. 256) and that 'Jesus in himself, and in his death, is the place where the one God meets with his world, bringing heaven and earth together at last' (p. 336) and that 'when Jesus died, something happened as a result of which the world was a different place' (p. 355). We are even told repeatedly that 'sins are forgiven through the Messiah's death' (p. 115).

But Wright doesn't divulge how this worked. Notice how vague and foggy the above statements are.

Why did Jesus need to die? How did his death begin a revolution?

Then in the course of a few pages in the middle of chapter 11 (on Paul) I began to understand, in part anyhow, why Wright is evasive throughout the book. He writes: "Nowhere here does Paul explain why or how the cross of the Messiah has the power it does, but he seems able to assume that' (p. 230). A few pages later he writes of 'modern Western expectations' and the 'supposed central task of explaining how the punishment of our sins was heaped onto the innocent victim' (p. 232). Later, speaking of 1-2 Corinthians, 'At no point does [Paul] offer anything like a complete exposition of either what the cross achieved or why or how it achieved it' (p. 246).

Wright is vague on how the crucifixion works because he thinks the New Testament is.

At times he tries to explain that in Jesus's death the powers of evil are conquered and we idolators (not sinners so much as idolators) are freed through that great act of self-giving love. But even in these places where he tries to explain the how, he doesn't really explain the how. I still don't know how it works. In what sense does Jesus' death free us?

Part of the solution, I think, which would go a long way toward strengthening the book, is to build in to a book like this a thick understanding of the holiness and justice of God--complementing, not competing with, God's covenant love which Wright rightly emphasizes again and again as God's most fundamental internal motivation. But without God's holiness and justice, you cannot explain the way Christ's death works. Even though Wright says in the book's opening pages that the crucifixion is not simply a beautiful expression of the great love of Christ but is something more than merely exemplary, his own exposition often seems to explain the crucifixion in just this way. Related to this one-dimensional view of God as benevolent but not really wrathful in any traditional way (also prevalent in Doug Campbell's writings on Paul) is Wright's explanation of divine punishment as simply the consequence of sin (p. 338).

Conclusion: A Street-Level Test

I agree with Wright regarding so much of what he wants to leave behind, even if he uses caricature to cast it. For example I agree with his rejection of a 'works contract' as the framework for understand the work of Christ. But the answer to those who have drilled the theological screws in too tight and made the crucifixion artificial and overly formulaic is not to under-explain it as Wright does.

I've been strongly critical of this book because Wright is otherwise one of our (our) strongest authors and because there is so much that is helpful in his corpus that it is frustrating to have such a weak book at this stage in his career. And it is sad that many younger people may read this as their first substantive book on the meaning of Christ's death.

At the end of the day here's the question to ask of a book that claims to be a popular level book on Christ's crucifixion. A street-level test for someone trying to track with Wright in this book would be: If your college-aged son or daughter came to you in abject distress at their idolatry or sinfulness or addictive behavior or enslavement to the world's priorities, and sought your counsel, what comfort would you have for them according to this book? Beneath all the clever cuteness about how all reformed evangelicals have been asking the wrong questions, after all the ornate assembling of the Bible's storyline, what is the actual comfort of Christianity for your beloved child? What can you give them? What can you say? This book does not give you much to latch onto. And that is a problem, a problem of a fundamental and not peripheral nature, especially for a book pitched at a general Christian population. 

I will not be recommending this book to the people at my church. Those who want to read about the meaning of the crucifixion should go to Donald Macleod's Christ Crucified or John Stott's The Cross of Christ. And I look forward to Wright's next book, which I will read and, I expect, enjoy.

10 December 2016

Union

If this enterprise succeeds and flourishes, the church is vitally strengthened, globally, for the next generation.

Many organizations will be asking for your money this time of year. Few are as worthy of it as this one, led by Mike Reeves.

We will all be dead soon, the window of opportunity to give to God's work having passed.


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30 November 2016

All the Light and Warmth of His Affection

Geerhardus Vos on the love of God, reflecting on Jeremiah 31:
It means that in the most literal sense He concentrates all the light and warmth of His affection, all the prodigious wealth of his resources, his endless capacity of delight, upon the heart-to-heart union between the pious and Himself.

And what God for His part brings into this union has a generosity, a sublime abandon, an absoluteness, that, measured by human analogies, we can only designate as the highest and purest type of devotion. It is named love for this very reason, that God puts into it His heart and soul and mind and strength, and gathers all His concerns with His people into the focus of this one desire.

It is when speaking of this that Scripture employs its boldest anthropomorphisms. Here nothing but the absolute and unqualified are in place. He who would give God less than this total by a mere fraction would give Him nothing at all.
--Geerhardus Vos, 'Jeremiah's Plaint and Its Answer,' in Richard Gaffin, ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (P&R, 1980), 296

26 November 2016

Sons in the Son

Thoroughly enjoying Dave Garner's new book on adoption, which could not be more aptly titled: Sons in the Son. What a rich treatment. Finding myself corrected. I'm reviewing it for Themelios and will say more there but may put up the occasional snippet in the meantime. Here's one.
The union of the sons in the Son grants believers full personal appropriation of the person and work of Christ, their Elder Brother. This exhaustively filial union takes on the deepest implications of solidarity and gracious brotherhood. No greater cohesion exists than the bond created by the Spirit of the Son with the sons.
--David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (P&R, 2016), 251

02 August 2016

Complete and Ecstatic Happiness

C. S. Lewis, in a 1933 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, with a compelling re-orientation to overcoming sin. 
God not only understands but shares the desire which is at the root of all my evil—the desire for complete and ecstatic happiness. He made me for no other purpose than to enjoy it. But He knows, and I do not, how such happiness can be really and permanently attained. He knows that most of my personal attempts to reach it are actually putting it further and further out of my reach.

I may always feel looking back on any past sin that in the very heart of my evil passion there was something that God approves and wants me to feel not less but more. Take the sin of lust. The overwhelming thirst for rapture was good and even divine: that part of lust need not be rejected. But it will never be quenched as I tried to quench it. If I refrain—if I submit to the collar and come round the right side of the lamp-post—God will be guiding me as quickly as He can to where I will get what I really wanted all the time.

When we are tempted, we must remember that just because God wants for us what we really want and knows the only way to get it, therefore He must, in a sense, be quite ruthless towards sin. He is not like a human authority who can be begged off or caught in an indulgent mood. The more He loves you the more determined He must be to pull you back from your way which leads nowhere into His way which leads where you want to go.

I think we may be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion (it raises its head in every temptation) that there is something else than God—some other country into which He forbids us to trespass—some kind of delight which He “doesn’t appreciate” or just chooses to forbid, but which would be real delight if only we were allowed to get it. The thing just isn’t there. Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as He can, or else a false picture of what He is trying to give us—a false picture which would not attract us for a moment if we saw the real thing.

18 June 2016

Apprehending Divine Love

Read a book on the love of God recently. It was fine. True, faithful, careful. It has its place on our bookshelves.

But the ceiling on my wonder at God's love was not raised. It was analytical. Something about it was detached. Removed. The author tried to switch at times into explicit "devotional" mode, which just made the whole thing feel artificial. Why isn't the book devotional in its very nature, in every sentence?

At the same time I was reading Bunyan's The Saints' Knowledge of the Love of Christ, on the last few verses of Ephesians. Just the opposite. Heart-expansive reflection on Scripture. Vision-lifting. Why are books like this so rare today? Why are the Puritans so consistent on this point? I find the same thing in Sibbes and Goodwin. Soul-solidifying. No anecdotes, no jokes, just deep probing of the depths of the human heart's darkness, and bringing that darkness into the full light of divine mercy. I don't need a clever autobiographical hook to get me reading a book. I need immediate, to-the-point unfolding of the truth at hand.

Bunyan:
It is common for equals to love, and for superiors to be beloved; but for the King of princes, for the Son of God, for Jesus Christ to love man thus: this is amazing, and that so much the more, for that man the object of his love, is so low, so mean, so vile, so undeserving, and so inconsiderable, as by the scriptures, everywhere he is described to be.

He is called God, the King of glory. But the persons of him beloved, are called transgressors, sinners, enemies, dust and ashes, fleas, worms, shadows, vapors, vile, filthy, sinful, unclean, ungodly fools, madmen. And now is it not to be wondered at, and are we not to be affected herewith, saying, And wilt thou set thine eye upon such a one? But how much more when He will set his heart upon us?

Love in him is essential to his being. God is love; Christ is God; therefore Christ is love, love naturally. He may as well cease to be, as cease to love. . . .

Love from Christ requireth no taking beauteousness in the object to be beloved. It can act of and from itself, without all such kind of dependencies. The Lord Jesus sets his heart to love them. . . .

Love in Christ decays not, nor can be tempted so to do by anything that happens, or that shall happen hereafter, in the object so beloved. 
--John Bunyan, The Saints' Knowledge of the Love of Christ, in Works, 2:16-17; emphasis original

26 May 2016

Home

A place I love. A place that is home. Deeply so. 



16 May 2016

All Sorts of Sins

Thomas Goodwin:
God hath ordered his elect, take the whole body and bulk of them, to fall into all sorts of sins, one or other of them; so as there is no sort, kind or degree of sin, no way of sinning, manner of sinning, or aggravation of sin, but in some or other it shall be pardoned, and he doth it to magnify his grace in Christ, in whom he gathers them. 
--The Works of Thomas Goodwin, 1:156, commenting on Ephesians 1:10

01 March 2016

This Isn't About Trump

One Washington Post essay after another these days is blasting away at Trump. Maybe at this point it's the wrong target.

Imagine the following scenario. Trump wins a majority of Super Tuesday states and steps up to the podium for a victory speech in Texas or Georgia or Alabama. He takes off his obnoxious red Make America Great Again hat. He pauses, looking down, somber. Here's what we hear.
I have something to say.

I've made a horrible mistake.

This election process has finally caught up with me and has revealed to me what my whole life is about.

I went into this election really believing that I wanted to make America great. I realize now all I have really wanted--the campaign underneath the campaign--is to make Trump great. I thought I wanted America to win. I see now that all I really want is for Trump to win. I'm grateful for your kind support. But I see now I don't deserve it.
I know my supporters may not like this. But I can't take it anymore. Enough is enough. I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. So what I want to say is: I would like to ask for the American people's forgiveness. If they withhold it I can't blame them. But I have to ask you all to forgive the folly, the bombast, the self-exaltation, the fierce resistance to correction, the pride. I've been wrong.

I have considered quitting the campaign, but I do for now plan to continue. And I have resolved: no more yelling, no more lying, no more name-calling, no more hate-mongering, no more elitism-nurturing, no more boasting, no more question-evading. Yes, this nation is in a downward spiral, but now I see that I and people like me have been leading the way...
And so on.

So implausible as to be laughable, I know. But my question is: How would the millions who back Trump respond?

We know how they would respond. We know because as the outrageously immoral and self-inflating statements from Trump have piled up since last June, his support has not waned. It has increased. We therefore know that those supporting Trump are not doing so because they see him as morally exemplary. In the meantime he remains opaque on his actual positions and how he would accomplish his big promises. We therefore also know that they are not supporting him on account of superior tactics in his policies.

One can only conclude that they like him--including these so-called evangelicals--because of who he is. Because of the bombast, not in spite of it.

They want a man like Trump in charge. They want the big talk, the egotistical claims, the elitist mindset. His supporters aren't overlooking these things for the sake of other virtues in him or his policies. These anti-virtues are themselves what attract Americans.

We therefore know how Trump supporters would respond to such a speech. While true evangelicals would celebrate his recovered moral sanity, his present supporters, including the so-called evangelicals, would howl.

Such penitence would not be a step forward, in their minds. It would be a step backward. It would be the loss of what they crave in a president.

As Trump has gotten haughtier and haughtier the past 8 months, his support has, inexplicably, grown. Do we really not see that if he were to become humbler and humbler, his support would decrease?

If so, then the problem is not Trump. It's Americans. The bombastic, haughty candidate in this election just happens to be Donald Trump. It could be any self-aggrandizing billionaire and the results would look the same. The problem isn't Trump. It's us. Trump is simply a big golden mirror showing Americans, showing Republicans, showing alleged evangelicals, what they really love.

Many are questioning whether Trump is mature enough for our vote. I would question whether we are mature enough to cast it.

12 January 2016

When Discouraged

Richard Sibbes, in a book published in 1630, five years before his death:
Suffering brings discouragements, because of our impatience. 'Alas!' we lament, 'I shall never get through such a trial.'

But if God brings us into the trial he will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross (Zech 13:9).

From our own strength we cannot bear the least trouble, but by the Spirit's assistance we can bear the greatest. The Spirit will add his shoulders to help us to bear our infirmities. The Lord will give us his hand to heave us up (Ps 37:24).
'Ye have heard of the patience of Job' says James (James 5:11). We have heard of his impatience too, but it pleased God mercifully to overlook that.

It yields us comfort in desolate conditions, that then Christ has a throne of mercy at our bedside and numbers our tears and our groans. 
--Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (Banner of Truth, 1998), 54-55

A three-minute introduction to Sibbes from Mike Reeves:


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