White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Wright Wednesdays: part 3

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification]

Justification and God’s Single Plan: Justification and God’s People

Wright properly emphasizes the integral relationship between justification (soteriology) and the uniting of Jew and Gentile into one family in Christ (ecclesiology):

In Galatians 3:29, after heaping up almost all his great theological themes into a single pile—law, faith, children of God, ‘in Christ,’ baptism, ‘putting on Christ,’ ‘neither Jew nor Greek,’ ‘all one in Christ’—the conclusion is not ‘You are therefore children of God’ or ‘You are therefore saved by grace through faith,’ but ‘You are Abraham’s offspring.’  Why does that matter to Paul, and at that point?

Good question.  But it verges on bizarre that Wright could include Reformed theology in his sweeping indictment: “Most new perspective writers have no answer for that.  Virtually no old perspective ones even see that there is a question to be asked” (36).  Although he properly recognizes, “There is no such thing as a pure return to the Reformers,” Wright seems to think that he has attained a pure return to Paul, as if he did not bring his own questions and presuppositions to the text.  In fact, he advises, “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions.  It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions” (37).

Like many biblical theologians of late (even in Reformed circles), the question of how one is saved (the ordo salutis) is regarded as quite secondary to the main theme: the history of redemption (historia salutis).  Keeping these two aspects together was the genius of biblical theologians like Geerhardus Vos, but Wright’s penchant for downplaying the former over the latter has become standard fare.  For Wright especially, the proper concern for the history of redemption includes a strong sociological and political component: “Thus, for instance, the attempt to read a text like 1 Corinthians 1:30 (‘[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’) in terms of an ordo salutis,” says Wright, “…is not only unlikely to make much sense in itself, but is highly likely to miss the point that Paul is making, which is the way in which the status of the believer in Christ overturns all the social pride and convention of the surrounding culture” (42).  The real problem with Paul’s opponents was not that they were trusting in their own obedience to the works of the law, he repeatedly insists, but that Jews and Gentiles alike were elitist.

Wright complains that the reformers simply did not read Paul with his own concerns in mind, such as God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10), with the two peoples (Jew and Gentile) becoming one family in Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (43).  If they had, then there would have been “no split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29.  No marginalization of Romans 9-11” (44).  Again, at this point one suspects that Wright has constructed a straw opponent.  A cursory reading of Calvin’s Ephesians commentary tells a different story.  Nevertheless, Wright states confidently, “And, as I have argued before and hope to show here once more, many of the supposedly ordinary readings within the Western Protestant traditions have simply not paid attention to what Paul actually wrote” (50).  The Reformation tradition simply doesn’t see any “organic connection between justification by faith on the one hand and the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s people on the other…” (53).

Wright insists that the Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for God’s activity within history, for Israel and the world.  “They were not, in other words, understanding themselves as living in a narrative which said, ‘All humans are sinful and will go to hell; maybe God will be gracious and let us go to heaven instead and dwell with him; how will that come about?  Let’s look at our scriptures for advance clues’” (49).  As typical throughout this volume, Wright both caricatures the opposing view and transforms an important insight into the main point.  It is in the Gospels that we first encounter questions like, “What must I do to be saved?” and “Who then may be saved?” and “What is the work that I must do to be saved?”  Indeed, the severity of the sanctions for violating the Sinai covenant provoked this concern, particularly in the wake of the prophets’ judgments that were fulfilled in Israel’s exile.  But just as there is a greater exodus to come for all who believe, there is a greater exile.  Wright assumes that we’ve never talked about the first-century expectations being that of a political messiah who would end the exile and drive out the Romans.  Once again, his target is “a non-historical soteriology” (61).  The same criticisms can be found in Vos, Ridderbos, Murray, Kline, and host of other Reformed exegetes.  However, their target was not the Reformation but an individualistic and non-historical soteriology that is basically pietistic in origins.

Next week, we’ll look at Wright’s complaints about the importance we give to imputation.

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Mega-disappointment and Ordinary Means

Carl Trueman’s newest post at Reformation21 gives great insight into the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that is so widely discussed around the blogosphere and conference circuit.  His penultimate paragraph should be required reading for every church leader in the land:

Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.  In the real world, many, perhaps most,  of us worship and work in churches of 100 people or less; life is not loud and exciting; big things do not happen every Sunday;  budgets are incredibly tight and barely provide enough for a pastor’s modest salary; each Lord’s Day we go through the same routines of worship services, of hearing the gospel proclaimed, of taking the Lord’s Supper, of teaching Sunday School; perhaps several times a year we do leaflet drops in the neighbourhood with very few results; at Christmas time we carol sing in the high street and hand out invitations to church and maybe two or three people actually come along as a result; but no matter — we keep going, giving, and praying as we can; we try to be faithful in the little entrusted to us.  It’s boring, it’s routine, and it’s the same, year in, year out.   Therefore, in a world where excitement, celebrity, and cultural power are the ideal, it is tempting amidst the circumstances of ordinary church life to forget that this, the routine of the ordinary, the boring, the plodding, is actually the norm for church life and has been so throughout most places for most of the history of the church; that mega-whatevers are the exception, not the rule; and that the church has survived throughout the ages not just – or even primarily – because of the high profile firework displays of the great and the good, but because of the day to day faithfulness of the mundane, anonymous, non-descript  people who constitute most of the church, and who do the grunt work and the tedious jobs that need to be done.   History does not generally record their names; but the likelihood is that you worship in a church which owes everything, humanly speaking, to such people.

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The Archbishop, the Reformation, and the Theology of the Cross

Our friends over at Mockingbird NYC posted a fantastic quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book, The Wound of Knowledge, in which he draws a direct link between the Reformation’s rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to infallible authority and Luther’s Theology of the Cross.

The Reformation put a question of the utmost gravity to all Christians, a question about the continuity and dependability of human response to God. It affirmed that the Church was capable of error; that no amount of scholastic tidiness could guarantee fidelity to God; that there was in the Church no secure locus of unquestionable authority. It pointed eloquently to human brokenness, the failure of reason and order. But it did so only to claim triumphantly that the Church’s security lay in this very failure, in the insecurity and un-rootedness which drove it always back to its spring in the Word made broken flesh. Against the self-sufficiency of Christendom is set – rightly and decisively – the cross. To Christians looking for a sign, an assurance, it offered only the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, God hidden in the death of Christ… Luther is a reminder to Catholic and Protestant alike that the strength of Christianity is its refusal to turn away from the central and unpalatable facts of human self-destructiveness; that it is there, in the bitterest places of alienation, that the depth and scope of Christ’s victory can be tasted, and the secret joy which transforms all experience from within can come to birth, the hidden but all-pervading liberation. (p. 160-61)

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W. H. Auden on the Crucifixion

Regular Modern Reformation contributor Rick Ritchie who blogs at Daylight sent over the following thought-provoking quote from the poet W. H. Auden:

Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

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On the Nature of Faith

One of the most difficult things about Christianity is that it completely contradicts the natural order of things. Consider, for instance, what we think about winning, success, and life: they all go together in our minds! Sadly, too many “talks” masquerading as Christian sermons in even Reformation-minded churches confirm us in our innate desire for what Luther termed, “a theology of glory.” But true gospel-centered, “theology of the cross”-focused Christianity says that life comes after death, that glory comes through suffering, that losing our lives is the only means of finding them, and that God is most active when he seemed most remote.

This is bread and butter for White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation (often to the consternation of our critics who want us to talk about life-change and progress). Reading this week in Ed Clowney’s The Message of First Peter (published by IVP in 1988), I was reminded of the pastoral comfort that this message (not the one focused on success and betterment) gives:

Peter has reminded us that the testings do not destroy our faith, but purify it. Since the peculiar nature of faith is its looking, not to oneself, but to the Lord, it is most strongly grounded when it is most dependent. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So the Lord said to Paul, and Paul could therefore say: ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ In order to resist the devil we draw near to God. (216, emphasis mine)

Our prayer is that you would find yourself in churches and surrounded by communities of faith this Sunday that emphasize this great truth and encourage you by pointing you to the strength of the Lord, the God of all grace.

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Horton at Gordon-Conwell This October

Mike Horton will give a plenary address, “Rediscovering the Church after Evangelicalism,” at the Renewing the Evangelical Mission conference honoring David Wells this October at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston.

The conference will be October 13-15 (Horton to speak the afternoon of the 15th). Early registration ends September 4th.  Other speakers include Os Guiness, Bruce McCormack, Mark Noll, J. I. Packer, Cornelius Plantinga, Tite Tienou, Kevin Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf, and Lauren Winner.

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Wright Wednesdays: part 2

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification.]

Justification and God’s Single Plan: The Covenant and History

According to Wright, “Paul’s doctrine of justification is the place where four themes meet, which Piper, and others like him, have managed to ignore or sideline.”  “First, Paul’s doctrine of justification is about the work of Jesus the Messiah of Israel.”  The story of Israel too often functions “merely as a backdrop, a source of prooftexts and types, rather than as itself the story of God’s saving purposes” (11).

Second, Paul’s doctrine of justification is therefore about what we may call the covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized…For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien…Despite the strong covenantal theology of John Calvin himself, and his positive reading of the story of Israel as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, many who claim Calvinist or Reformed heritage today resist applying it in the way that, as I argue in this book, Paul himself does, in line with the solid biblical foundation for the ‘continuing exile’ theme.  Third, Paul’s doctrine of justification is focused on the divine law-court…For John Piper and others who share his perspective, the lawcourt imagery is read differently, with attention shifting rather to the supposed moral achievement of Jesus to gaining, through his perfect obedience, a righteousness which can then be passed on to his faithful people…Fourth, Paul’s doctrine of justification is bound up with eschatology, that is, his vision of God’s future for the whole world and for his people.

This eschatological perspective not only brings into view the wider purposes of God for creation but also highlights “…two moments, the final justification when God puts the whole world right and raises his people from the dead, and the present justification in which that moment is anticipated” (12).

Wright argues that the “old perspective” obsesses over personal salvation to the exclusion of that wider horizon of history and eschatological redemption: “the theological equivalent” of a heliocentric universe.  “But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us.  We are circling around him” (23).  “If the Reformation had treated the Gospels as equally important as the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened,” he suggests (24).  Aside from the apparent concession (viz., that the Epistles are concerned with the question, “How can I be saved?”), it is difficult to square his interpretation of Reformation theology as human-centered rather than God-centered.  After all, there is a wide consensus among historians as well as theologians that the Reformation was obsessed with shifting the focus from us back to God.  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” according to the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Furthermore, all of the major Reformers wrote volumes on the Gospels (as well as the Old Testament) and it is clear from these commentaries and sermons that they read Scripture as an unfolding plot with Christ as the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.  They wrote at great length on the kingdom of God, the reversals in the plot as it thickens around Jesus, his signs, and his teachings.  I will refrain from repeating myself throughout this review and leave the point at this: Wright has clearly not read widely in the sources that he criticizes and this creates a straw opponent against which his views may be easily contrasted.

As Wright scanned the biblical and theological dictionaries on justification, he said, “Again and again, even where the authors appeared to be paying close attention to the biblical texts, several of the key elements in Paul’s doctrine were simply missing: Abraham and the promises God made to him, incorporation into Christ, resurrection and new creation, the coming together of Jews and Gentiles, eschatology in the sense of God’s purpose-driven plan through history, and, not least, the Holy Spirit and the formation of Christian character” (32).  This may well be the case especially among those New Testament scholars who regard the covenant as a Reformed concept.  It is no wonder, then, that he singles out Reformed theologian J. I. Packer as an exception in his entry on justification for the New Bible Dictionary (32).

Surprising to anyone who has read the Reformers and especially the covenant theologians in the Reformed tradition who followed in their wake, Wright seems to paint the “old perspective” as if it were a dispensationalist scheme.  “It is central to Paul,” he says, “but almost entirely ignored in perspectives old, new and otherwise, that God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah” (35).  After all, the Westminster Larger Catechism (#191) encourages us to pray (with the Lord’s Prayer), “that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in…that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.”

Next week, we’ll look a how Wright pairs soteriology with ecclesiology.

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3 Events / 3 Cities / 3 Opportunities

We have 3 events, 3 cities, and 3 opportunities for you to join the conversation to “know what you believe and why you believe it.” Please visit the links provided for more detailed information, or to register for the specific event.

2009 Ligonier Seattle Conference and Pacific Northwest Cruise
Mike Horton will be joining R. C.  Sproul, and Alistair Begg in Seattle on September 25 – 26 for the Is There Life After Death? conference.

In addition – there is also a cruise following the conference at which both Mike and R. C. will address the topic:  The Importance of the Church.  The cruise sets sail on September 28 from Seattle and returns to the port on October 2.

[Note – the conference and the cruise are separate events.]

2010 Ligonier West Coast Conference in Los Angeles
Mike Horton will be joining R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and Peter Jones on March 26 and 27 for the Are We Practicing Christless Christianity? conference. We will examine many of the popular misunderstandings of the gospel in our day and seek to equip evangelicals to stand firm with the good news delivered once for all to the saints.

2010 Ligonier National Conference in Orlando
Mike Horton will join Alistair Begg, Steven Lawson, Al Mohler, Burk Parsons, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, R. C. Sproul Jr., and Derek Thomas June 17-19 for Ligonier Ministries’ 2010 National Conference in Orlando, FL. We will address some of the toughest questions Christians face. Our goal is to equip you to answer questions that all Christians and non-Christians find perplexing.

We hope that you will be able to join us at one (or all) of these upcoming events.  If you are planning on attending please inform our Director of Development, Chuck Tedrick, so we can personally greet you.

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The Tyranny of the Church

Commenting on 1 Peter 5:3, where the apostle Peter charges the elders to exercise their ministry by “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” Ed Clowney writes,

The elder has authority; he is called to exercise a shepherd’s oversight. Christ the Chief Shepherd (5:4) has called him to exercise a shepherd’s care. But the undershepherd is not a stand-in for the Lord. He presents the word of the Lord, not his own decree; he enforces the revealed will of the Lord, not his own wishes. For that reason, any undermining of the authority of Scripture turns church government into spiritual tyranny. If church governors add to or subtract from the word of God, they make themselves lords over the consciences of others. (The Message of First Peter, 202)

Clowney’s words are not only applicable to the Reformers’ grievances against the Roman Catholic Church (a point he makes in the footnote to that paragraph in his commentary) but also to some current expressions of church government.

Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a resolution to allow for the ordination of those “in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  What is this but the exaltation of one’s own decree above the word of the Lord, the elevation of one’s own wishes before the revealed will of the Lord?

Sadly, the tyranny of the church over the consciences of others is not limited to those traditions that seem to be most cavalier in their treatment of Holy Scripture.  Even traditional and conservative denominations are apt to find ways to speak beyond what the Bible speaks and thereby become “lords over the consciences of others.”

  • The Southern Baptist Convention is reviewing motions made at this summer’s assembly to sever all ties with Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 church planting network he began. The reasons? According to an article in Christianity Today, its Driscoll’s “history of using risqué language, and the fact that he drinks alcohol and talks about sex.” A separate motion would ban “any speaker who cusses or drinks.”
  • Among conservative Presbyterians, the general assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have taken up the issue of women in military combat with the PCA receiving the study committee report as advice and the OPC adopting the resolution against women in combat.

From the Left, the church tyrannizes the sheep by neglecting the revealed word for their own misguided sense of social justice.  From the Right, the church tyrannizes the sheep by going beyond what Scripture says to uphold their own social conventions.  One side subtracts from the word and the other adds to it, but both are guilty of exercising authority beyond that with which they have been entrusted.

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Another Two Kingdoms Perspective

We’re grateful to Kevin DeYoung for interacting a bit with our responses to his recent webpost comparing and contrasting the Two Kingdoms’ approach to church and politics with that of the neo-Kuyperians.

Just to show that this Two Kingdoms stuff isn’t merely the domain of Reformation types, we thought the following report today from the Wall Street Journal was worth reposting:

[President Obama recently held a conference call with some of the nation's top Jewish rabbis.] Josh Yuter, a rabbi and blogger who participated in the conference call, notes that the president urged the rabbis “to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons”–an idea Yuter finds troubling:

To be sure, most of the Rabbis on the call probably would advocate for substantial health care reform anyway, and I do not know to what extent the President sought out religious leaders or the religious leaders proposed the audience with the President. In either case, I find the blurring of church and state to be disconcerting not only on political grounds (and legal/tax purposes), but also for competency. Rabbis have enough difficulty understanding the nuances and intricacies of their own religion to be promoting specific policies in areas for which they have no expertise.

It seems that no matter what party is in power, the temptation to speak beyond our areas of expertise is strong. We should be grateful for those even in other faiths who recognize this temptation and remind our ministers of their rightful calling.

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