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Know what you believe and why you believe it

The Virgin Mary and ECT: A Response

In the 1960s, it was virtually inconceivable that a Roman Catholic candidate could win a presidential election and conservative Protestants were at the forefront of the opposition to John F. Kennedy’s campaign.  However, in only two decades, everything changed.  With the rise of the Moral Majority and concern over a loss of cultural values, particularly the concern to protect the unborn, Roman Catholics and evangelicals found themselves working together, speaking together, and praying together.

Moving beyond political cooperation toward deeper theological and spiritual understanding, a new initiative was born when Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, and evangelical leader Charles Colson gathered a group of friends to discuss their differences and agreements.  In 1994, the first statement was issued from the group: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.”  Arousing debate within evangelical circles over issues that many of us considered (and still consider) essential to the gospel that were nevertheless left murky or marginalized, this document was followed by “The Gift of Salvation” in 1997.  As the group summarizes in the current document, a third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “affirmed a convergence in our understanding of the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition, which is the lived experience of the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  This was followed by “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness“ (2004), and “That They May Have Life” (2006).  This year’s installment, recently released, is “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.”

The authors of the recent document are to be commended for having managed to distill a complex history of differing interpretations in a brief space.  The format contributes to its clarity: framing the issues and allowing both traditions to speak charitably yet frankly of their differences.  The Roman Catholic partners in the dialogue begin by affirming the centrality and uniqueness of Christ, arguing that Mary, along with all saints in heaven, “cooperates” in Christ’s intercession rather than completing or contributing to it.  Although there is much here that challenges popular Protestant caricatures (often drawn from popular Roman Catholic practice), attempts are not made to explain some of the problematic language in dogmatic encyclicals and the First Vatican Council.  We must wait for the evangelical response before there are references to Mary as “co-mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix” (terms, of course, that the evangelical partners rejected).  Nevertheless, the point of the statement was to find common ground and further discussion.

The Roman Catholic partners continue by defending the traditional Marian dogmas: her immaculate conception (officially promulgated in 1854 by Pius IX), which is said to have preserved her from the stain of original sin; her assumption, body and soul, into heaven before death (promulgated in 1950), her perpetual virginity (i.e., celibacy even after the birth of Jesus), and the propriety of offering prayers to and through her.  They do point out that the immaculate conception was debated in the Middle Ages (rejected by Thomas Aquinas, for example), but affirm it as binding dogma.  Upon her assumption, Mary became the “Queen of Heaven,” “the Ark of the Covenant,” and “Mother of the Church,” although the authors insist that in these roles Mary directs us to her Son.  “In drawing closer to Mary, we are drawn closer to Christ….Any mediation attributed to Mary is only part of the mediation of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim 2:5).”  When “the prayers” are mentioned as part of the ordinary worship of the early church in Acts 2:42, the authors interpret this as encompassing the communion of saints in heaven and on earth: “As we ask for the prayers of the Church on earth, so also we ask for the prayers of the Church in heaven.”

To anyone aware of the developments at the Second Vatican Council and since, these reflections will not be surprising. Although they omit important statements that might stand in some tension with their qualifications of official Marian devotion, they provide a helpful summary.

The evangelical participants are also to be commended for their clarity and conviction.  The recognize the special honor in which Mary was held by the Protestant Reformers, who were happy to refer to her (as some of our confessions do) as “the Blessed Virgin Mary” and other titles.  In fact, even Zwingli, Bullinger, and other Reformers still referred to her as “immaculate” and “ever-virgin,” so they at least did not regard these beliefs as church-dividing—although we should be glad that their successors rejected these views.  The evangelical representatives recognize that the churches of the Reformation have always affirmed with the Council of Ephesus that Mary is Theotokos, “God-bearer.”  Reformed Christians do not share the reticence of most evangelicals in calling Mary the “Mother of God,” since, as the evangelical authors point out, this was a Christological debate meant to affirm the divinity of Christ rather than to raise the status of Mary.  The evangelical partners also offer respectful challenges (supported by exegesis) to Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, pointing out the unlikelihood of “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56) being cousins, as Rome contends.  They also challenge the bodily assumption of Mary and defend the exclusivity of Christ’s mediatorial work.

Of course, in consensus documents something more could always be said.  Rome’s claim that Mary is “Mother of the Church” is nowhere supported in the New Testament (or by Old Testament prophecy).  In fact, given the unity of the covenant of grace, it may be more easily said that Sarah is the mother of the church.  Or, since the church was already born with the announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, Abel’s sacrifice, and Seth’s calling on the name of the Lord, perhaps Eve is the mother of the church.  However, all of this is speculation.

Ask many Protestants today why they are not Roman Catholic and they may refer to “something about Mary and the saints.”  However, for the Reformers, the heart of the problem was the sufficiency of Scripture and especially the sufficiency of Christ the Mediator for sinners.  Are we justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, or by grace and our merits, faith and our works, Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints.

The mediation of Mary and the saints belongs to a whole system that includes purgatory as the place where departed souls may be relieved in their suffering by our prayers.  The Roman Catholic partners, in fact, mentioned this point, citing Lumen Gentium 49.  The sufficiency of Christ’s merits remains the most church-dividing issue between us and wherever there has been convergence, it has been the Protestant partner rather than Rome that has moved.  I am glad that the evangelical representatives added in this document their concern to guard the Reformation’s emphasis on “the normative authority of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone,” especially since both are compromised in the two earliest documents.  In my view, genuinely evangelical convictions were more faithfully articulated and defended with respect to Mary than with regard to these other issues that are more central to the faith and to our unresolved differences with Rome.

I applaud the evangelical participants for offering renewed reflection on the mother of our Lord.  She ought to be honored as the chief of saints for her unique role in redemptive history.  Nevertheless, as Calvin argued so long ago in making this same point, the greatest significance of her example for us is that she, though a sinner, was the recipient of God’s free grace and blessing in the Son whom she bore for the salvation of us all.  Let us, with her, embrace that Good News so that we, with her, may be blessed forever.

-Mike Horton

T-Shirt Theology

The old bumper sticker declared, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Here’s a t-shirt for the less certain among us (ht Inhabitatio Dei)

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WHI-969 | The Reason for God

How can we believe in God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world? Isn’t it arrogant to insist that Christianity is the only true religion? These questions and more will be addressed on this edition of the White Horse Inn as Tim Keller joins the panel to discuss his New York Times bestselling book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

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PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Zac Hicks

Contemporary Reformation

Our good friend, Gene Edward Veith over at his blog Cranach, asks the question, “If the Church were to go through another Reformation today, what do you think needs reforming? What are the issues today?”

Take a look at some of the answers. Then, contribute your own, here (comments are now open) or over at Cranach.

Horton’s byFaith Interview

Mike Horton was recently interviewed for the Presbyterian Church in America’s denominational magazine byFaith.  The interview is now online. Here is an excerpt:

So how does an evangelical church present God accurately to someone who doesn’t know Him?

First of all, we can’t put all of the weight on the sermon. The sermon is the most important part of the service, but we have to see the Word of God as communicated not only through the sermon but through the singing, liturgy, prayer, and sacraments.

Paul speaks of the Word of Christ as dwelling in us richly through singing. Children often learn the faith more by singing than in Sunday school. Do the songs we sing cause the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly?

Is the liturgy moving us from confession of sin and a declaration of forgiveness to corporate prayer, to the reading of Scripture, to preaching, and the Lord’s table? Are these things regular aspects of our worship, or do we focus more on what we do than on what God does in the service?

There are a lot of well-meaning folks who say—and they’re speaking against the consumer-driven worship service—that worship is about what we do for God; we’re serving Him; we’re the ones worshiping. And I want to say to them: It’s not that we’re consumers, but we’re not worker bees either. It’s better than that. It’s better than we could have ever imagined. The God of all the universe—who looks after the movement of the planets—became flesh for us, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Wright Wednesdays: Part 10

[This is the final installment of Mike Horton's review of N. T. Wright's Justification. The previous installments can be found here.]

Conclusion

Reared in a pietistic evangelical environment, I recall the revolution in my own faith when the eschatology of the prophets and apostles challenged the narrow concept of salvation that I had been taught.  However, Wright had not yet written his first controversial tome.  In fact, as a teenager, I had read with enthusiasm the little book that he wrote with two other Oxford undergraduates, The Grace of God in the Gospel (Banner of Truth, 1972).  (On our first introduction, I told Tom that this was among the books instrumental in my “inviting Calvin into my heart” and he offered an equally tongue-in-cheek reply: “Now let me help you invite Paul into your heart.”)

It was the writings of Reformed theologians and biblical scholars like John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Anthony Hoekema who introduced me to the sweeping vistas of a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture.  Of course, my own dispensationalist upbringing was dismantled in the process. Then, as a student of M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, Robert Strimple, and others at Westminster Seminary California, I came more fully to see how God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 generated an unfolding drama that led to God’s single plan to bring salvation to the nations through Israel, concentrated on Jesus Christ.

Especially during my doctoral studies, I began reading some of the formative writers of post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy more intently and discovered that they had pioneered this biblical-theological interpretation of Scripture.  At its heart was a theology of the covenant, with the promise in Genesis 15 as a lodestar.  So it was from the most “traditional” of Reformed theologians that I learned that justification was a forensic concept drawn from the lawcourt rather than a transfer or infusion of virtues; that the covenant of grace marches from the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15 to the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15; that this promises gestates in the womb of Israel and is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus the Messiah; that this gospel is not simply going-to-heaven-when-I-die, but a renewed cosmos.

In one conversation in Oxford, Tom Wright concurred that although he had not read the older covenant theologians closely, he too was deeply influenced by Vos and Ridderbos.  Hence, my surprise when there are no footnotes to these writers, even when he is making their points, and most of the time Wright presents his views over against the whole Reformation (including Reformed) tradition.  In my view, Wright is at his best when he elaborates and extends arguments that, however controversial in the field of New Testament studies or in popular evangelicalism, are familiar territory for Reformed exegetes.

Where I think he is wrong is on his failure to see how the two promises made to Abraham in Genesis 15 (earthly land and the inheritance of the nations) lead to two distinct covenants: the conditional covenant of law at Sinai, where the people swear, “All this we will do,” and the covenant of grace that is based on the fulfillment of the law by the True Israel, Jesus the Messiah.  As a result, his sweeping biblical-theological vision misses crucial exegetical nuances, which Paul especially highlights in Galatians 4, with the contrast between law and promise, the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem, Hagar and Sarah, Sinai and Zion.  The further implication of this confusion of law and gospel is the false dilemma he often posits (in spite of his criticism of false dilemmas) between God’s righteousness as his own covenant faithfulness versus the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

First, he routinely misinterprets the Reformation doctrine as teaching that God’s personal attribute of righteousness is transferred to believers.  No reformer advocated such a thing.  In fact, Calvin added a whole section to his final edition of the Institutes to rebut the teaching of Osiander that we are righteous because Christ’s divine nature is imparted to us through mystical union.  Rather, Melanchthon, Calvin, and other reformers understood “Christ’s righteousness” as Christ’s fulfillment of the law as the representative head of his people.  Wright believes that our sins are imputed to Jesus Christ, so why not his righteousness?  Lacking engagement with any primary text from the Reformation for his assertions, he relies entirely it seems on Alister McGrath’s impressive though controversial study of the history of the doctrine of justification.  The choice is understandable.  Assuming discontinuity more than refinement, McGrath argues (as approvingly cited by Wright), “The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.” Wright repeatedly asserts, following McGrath, that justification “has regularly been made to do duty for the entire picture of God’s reconciling action toward the human race, covering everything from God’s free love and grace, through the sending of the son to die and rise again for sinners, through the preaching of the gospel, the work of the Spirit, the arousal of faith in human hearts and minds, the development of Christian character and conduct, the assurance of ultimate salvation, and the safe passage through final judgment to that destination” (86).  This does not even fit Lutheranism, but less the Reformed tradition.  If anything, these traditions carefully distinguish justification from sanctification.  One of the reasons for the much-maligned ordo salutis is to speak about the many and varied gifts that come to us in Christ.  Wright’s criticisms are often sweeping and dismissive and this leads inevitably to the second concern.

Second, alongside wonderful insights, Wright’s exegesis and theological conclusions are often reductionistic.  He says that justification is a forensic term from the lawcourt that declares God’s people “in the right,” and Christ as the True Israel fulfills the Abrahamic pledge in a way that could never have happened through the law, so what is wrong with saying that we are justified by God’s crediting Christ’s lifelong obedience, satisfaction, and resurrection-vindication to believers as if they had fulfilled all obedience in their own person?  As I have hinted at in various places along the way, Wright seems to have modified his views to some extent.  Yet it would be helpful to have a summary of exactly where he thinks he had it wrong.  He does write,

Of course—and my critics will no doubt have fun pointing this out—those of us, like Jimmy Dunn, Richard Hays, Douglas Campbell, Terry Donaldson and myself, who have tried to listen to the force of this point [a de-Judaizing of Paul], have not always followed either history or exegesis perfectly.  We have been so eager to think through the implications of the alternative (and deeply Jewish) readings of Paul that we in our turn may well have ignored elements (not non-Jewish elements, of course, but elements of Paul’s inner dialectic) that the old perspective was right to highlight and which it has been right stubbornly to insist on, even if sometimes feeling like Canute with the waves of the sea washing around his throne.  But if we are to listen to what Paul says, in a vital and overlooked passage like 2:17-20, we may yet achieve the proper balance…There was nothing wrong with the plan, or with the Torah on which it was based.  The problem was in Israel itself.  And as we shall see later, the problem was that Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’ (196).

However, Reformed exegetes have labored the point that the problem was never the Torah itself, but the fact that Israel too was “in Adam.”

In my view, Wright is not as radical in this book as he is in some of his earlier works.  He seems to have softened his emphasis on a future justification by works that might be quite different from the present verdict.  There seems to be a wider recognition of Christ’s representative work, not only in his death but in his life.  More than in his earlier works, he seems in this volume to speak less one-sidedly of justification merely as a verdict concerning membership in God’s people and (although this is still emphasized), and he refers to justification also in several places as a verdict that declares sinners righteous in Christ through faith.  In fact, his apparent moderation on this point makes for some confusion when he repeats his usual sharp contrasts between his own view and the Reformation perspective.  Despite these modifications, his polemical tone and sweeping strikes against the Reformation remains as firmly entrenched as ever.

A concluding evaluation of this book would be incomplete if I did not register my genuine appreciation for some of his points.  In spite of exaggerations and false dilemmas, Wright reminds us that justification is inextricably tied to God’s covenantal, historical, cosmic, and eschatological purposes for “summing up all things in Christ.”  Even if it is in some ways an over-correction, he does remind us that justification does not emerge simply out of need for personal or pastoral needs, but out of an unfolding plan that revolves around God’s faithfulness to his own righteousness and results not only in saved individuals but in a church and a kingdom.  Even if he tends sometimes to confuse this kingdom with his own political agenda, Wright properly reminds us that even in its seminal and liminal existence in this time between Christ’s advents, it is already true that Jesus is Lord.

God promised the holy land and a worldwide family in Gen 15 (222).  “And once again the point about the Torah is twofold: (a) to cling to it would be to embrace the wrath which results from having broken it; (b) to highlight it would be to restrict the covenantal promises to Jews only.  Both perspectives matter, and the two fit snugly together within Paul’s overall view of God’s call and promise to Abraham” (222).

WHI-968 | Applying God’s Law

Is the Bible merely a manual of timeless ethics? If so, what do we do with the various civil and ceremonial laws from the Old Testament? Are we, like Israel of old, called to cleanse the land of idolatry by a kind of holy war? How should we interpret and apply texts of this kind? These questions and more will be addressed on this edition of the White Horse Inn.

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PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Doug Powell

Coming Soon from Modern Reformation

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A Response to Professor John Frame

How many blogs must comment on something before the blogosphere can be abuzz? We’ve seen eight or nine posts over the last several days commenting on John Frame’s recent “book review” of Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity. So, we’re not quite convinced that this is a dispute of blogospheric proportions, but we also thought in the interests of fairly characterizing Frame’s review for what it is, we should provide some kind of response.

First, it is stunning that Professor Frame should so totally disagree with Horton’s basic premise: that evangelicalism is in sad shape and getting worse. Literally hundreds of books, articles, and conferences have taken up that issue over the last two decades and arrived at the same conclusion: it is! Frame complains that Horton only quotes “unbelievers” who apparently wield facts as weapons in a deliberate swipe against the church.  Briefly, we would point out that a Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, wrote the forward to the book, agreeing with its premise and emphasizing the need for evangelicals to pay close attention to the errors of their mainline cousins. We have also spent significant airtime on White Horse Inn with Christian Smith, a committed Christian and a noted sociologist, who painstakingly documented his conclusion about the reign of “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Most recently, Mark Galli in a Christianity Today cover story (“In the Beginning, Grace”) makes many of the same analyses as Horton does in Christless Christianity. Galli even names more specific names and movements than Horton does (including names and movements that Frame evidently thinks are doing just fine).  So much for Horton being an axe-grinding, dogmatic observer of the Christian scene! [For readers who are interested in seeing more of the evidence first hand, visit our website and listen to all of the free programs that showcase the problem within both evangelical and Reformational churches.] That Frame cannot or is not willing to see this problem is troubling and calls into question the integrity of this review. It also does a disservice not only to his own readers but to the many, many evangelicals in exile who have seen in the book the sad tale of their own experience.

Second, the strength of a review comes not in what it says, but in what it implies and by this measurement, Frame’s insinuations undercut his own standing to review this book (or nearly any other if this is characteristic of his style). About two-thirds of the way through [rather than read it all, you can just search on the word “disqualifies” to find this quote], Frame writes,

So the qualifications of church officers in 1 Tim. 3:1-13 and Tit. 1:5-9 are primarily qualities of character, so that these officers can be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). When Horton confesses on 117, “…I am not an exemplary creature,” he perhaps unintentionally disqualifies himself for church office.

Of course, context is key and Horton’s remarks were not meant to be read as a sort of pulpit confessional, but as an example of preaching Christ not ourselves. Does Frame think that being “above reproach” means a preacher should lead his congregation to his own character? Sadly, examples like these are to be found in nearly every section of Frame’s review. Thankfully, most people will not take the time to discover for themselves the personal, accusatory nature of Frame’s critique.

Third, Frame’s ten-point summary does deserve some rebuttal because Frame says that these ten points are at the heart of Horton’s work and “are not warranted by the Reformed Confessions and … in my mind are not even Scriptural.” We respond that Fame’s ten points bear no resemblance to the book he is reviewing or the body of work that Horton has delivered via his academic work, popular level books, conference papers, sermons, etc. Here are the ten points that Frame claims summarize Horton’s theology (in italics), with a brief response to each point.

1. Attention to ourselves necessarily detracts from attention to Christ.

No, it can detract from Christ. But it does not necessarily detract from Christ. When it comes to the gospel, “we preach not ourselves, but Christ,” because the gospel is not about us at all.  Confusion over this matter does detract from Christ. However, the good news about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection has implications on the way we live, and so we must give some attention to ourselves as we let the light of the gospel shine in every dark corner, which challenges us to rethink our actions, self-centeredness, etc.

2. We should not give attention to the way we communicate the gospel, or to making it relevant to its hearers.

Relevance and context are clearly different than pragmatism. To which has the evangelical church at large given itself?

3. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are a zero-sum game. The idea that man must do something compromises the absolute sovereignty of God.

This is an outright misrepresentation and we’re disappointed that Professor Frame should characterize Horton’s theology in this way. He is not a hyper-Calvinist and nothing in Christless Christianity or anything else that he has written bears this out.

4. God’s work of salvation is completely objective, external to us, and not at all subjective, internal to us. (Here he backtracks some.)

This is another caricature.  Horton’s argument is that the gospel is completely objective and external to us: it’s the Good News about Christ’s person and work.  However, Horton clearly says that God’s work of salvation includes regeneration and sanctification.  The Spirit applies the redemption that the gospel announces.

5. God promises us no earthly blessings, only heavenly ones, and to desire earthly blessings is a “theology of glory,” deserving condemnation.

Horton’s critique is that we are trying to use God to attain our best life now, rather than to see God as the object of our faith and worship, for “every blessing in heavenly realms in Christ” (Eph 1:3-4).  Lost in exaggeration, Frame’s caricature of this argument misses the point.

6. Law and gospel should be utterly separate. There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.

This is a longstanding complaint by Frame. Not only does he consistently misrepresent the Lutheran view on this point; he seems to be unaware of the consensus of Reformed theologians that the confusion of law and gospel is the heart of theological errors.  This point has been made not only by Calvin, but by Beza, Ursinus, Perkins, Owen, and Spurgeon all the way to Louis Berkhof and John Murray.  In Christless Christianity (and elsewhere), Horton very clearly affirms that law and gospel are to be distinguished but never separated.  The one thing that Professor Frame accurately says about the book on this point is that “There should be no good news in the bad news and no bad news in the good news.”  That’s why the law reveals our sin and misery (as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism confess), and the gospel reveals God’s saving grace toward us in Jesus Christ.  One should be far less bothered that Professor Frame is confused about Christless Christianity than that he seems confused about the difference between commands (imperatives) and declarations of God’s promises (indicatives).

7. Preaching of the gospel must never use biblical characters as moral or spiritual examples. Nor must it address practical ethical issues in the Christian life.

Of course there are moral examples in Scripture, and Horton affirms this in his book; the point is that the Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero.  All we ask is that if you use a character as a moral or spiritual example, be sure to include not just the exemplary things that he or she did but also the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a “friend of God” or a “man after God’s own heart” to look forward to a Redeemer. Don’t stop with the example, look to where the example actually points: to Jesus Christ.  And ground your practical ethical issues in the new creation, just as the New Testament writers do. For more on the relationship between doctrine and ethics, see Horton’s People and Place.

8. A focus on redemption excludes a focus on anything else.

This is baffling. Is Frame intentionally misrepresenting the book or is he unable to read the book without even a modicum of Christian charity? Stunning.

9. In worship and in the general ministry of the church, God gives and does not receive; the congregation receives and does not give.

Read Horton’s A Better Way for a substative rebuttal. That Frame and Horton have differences of opinion on what happens or should happen in a worship service is an understatement, but point 9 does not reflect either the points made in Christless Christianity or A Better Way. Horton has consistently argued that worship is dialogical; the congregation is a participant with God in the worship service.  God serves us in Word and Sacrament, and we respond in songs of praise, prayer, confession, and attention.

10. Analysts of the church must compare the Church’s focus on Christ with its focus on other things, rather than considering that many of these other things are in fact applications of Christ’s own person and work.

If churches actually saw their focus on other things as extensions and applications of Christ’s ministry, we wouldn’t have an issue. But the facts (as cited in the works of both unbelievers and believers in many different traditions) just don’t bear out Frame’s optimism about mainstream evangelicalism here.

Much more, of course, could be said about Frame’s review. But we hope that those who only read blog recaps of books and reviews of books will at least be informed now as to the significant weaknesses of his review. It should not be taken seriously and will not be taken seriously by those who are closer to the problems of evangelicalism than Frame appears to be.

Wright Wednesdays: Part 9

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N.T. Wright's new book, Justification, a response to the criticisms of John Piper and others to his reconsideration of the Reformation's understanding of Paul and the universal problem of guilt and righteousness. Want to catch up or refresh your memory? Here are the previous installments.]

“Works of the Law”: Soteriology and Ecclesiology

Following D. G. Dunn, Wright insists that the “works of the law” are not “the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate.  They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile…” (117; cf. 172).  Aside from the fact that the Reformation tradition—Lutheran as well as Reformed—has always affirmed the abiding role of the moral law for the Christian life, the deeper problem with this view is what it excludes.  Of course, the Torah included the ceremonial and civil commands that governed the theocracy and marked Israel off from the nations.  To be sure, these Israel-specific laws functioned as boundary markers.  And surely their obsolescence (or rather, fulfillment) in the new covenant opens the door to the realization of the Abrahamic promise of the gospel to all peoples.  However, is that it?  Is there nothing more to the Good News than, “Jesus is Lord, so you don’t have to be circumcised and keep the dietary laws?”  The new perspective misses the deeper problem of the “works of the law” as a means of justification in Paul.  Paul’s teaching on justification surely involves an ecclesiological component (uniting two peoples into one in Christ), but only because it is the soteriological answer to a universal human problem: guilt before a holy God (Rom 3).

Wright insists that “justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin” (170).  “The Reformation legacy, eager to deny that ‘good works’ in the sense of morally virtuous deeds can play any part in commending us to God, was happy to cite this passage [Eph 2:10] by way of answer to the normal charge that ‘justification by faith alone’ would cut the nerve of all Christian morality.”  We’re not saved by good works, but unto good works.  “Well and good.  This is not far, of course, from what the new perspective would say about Judaism: rescued by grace then given Torah as the way of life.  But I do not actually think that that is what Paul is talking about here…[T]he point of this is not simply ‘because you now need to be virtuous’ but ‘because the church is the body of Christ in and for the world’” (171).

Wright wonders, “Is resistance to ecclesiology in Paul bound up with resistance to finding too much for the Spirit to do as well?”  The coming together of Jews and Gentiles into one body is integral to the mystery in Ephesians (173).   “If initial membership is by grace, but final judgment is according to works—and the New Testament, at first glance, including the Pauline corpus, does seem quite clear at this point—then what account of those ‘works’ can we give?  Is this not, at last, the moment when Jewish ‘legalism’ is exposed?”  Wright doesn’t deny that there are Second Temple texts that highlight the importance of works at the judgment (75).  “First, the key question facing Judaism as a whole was not about individual salvation, but about God’s purposes for Israel and the world…The ‘present age’ would give way to the ‘age to come,’ but who would inherit that ‘age to come’?” (76).  This seems right, in light of some of the questions that Jesus’ hearers ask.  However, don’t these questions inescapably involve the personal question, “How can I be saved?”  “What right do you Pharisees think you have to escape the wrath to come?”, Jesus demands of the religious leaders.  “You assume that you are among the righteous to be raised on the last day, but are you really?”  And his clear answer, especially during Holy Week on the Temple Mount is “No!”

So again Wright and the new perspective help us to embrace a wider context—and we are foolish if we ignore their seminal insights on these points, but they apparently fail to understand how the cosmic-eschatological concerns and the personal anxiety over salvation from sin’s guilt and power are interdependent.  Again he assumes he’s the only one who has ever tied justification to the covenant in Gen 15 (82-3).  What was Israel’s expectation during Jesus’ ministry?

The answer, from source after source in the second-temple period, confirming what we might have guessed from Scripture itself, was this: Israel will be vindicated, will inherit the age to come—but it will be the Israel that has kept Torah, or that, through penitence and amendment of life (as in Daniel 9, looking back to Deuteronomy 30), has shown the heartfelt desire to follow God’s ways and be loyal to his covenant…’All Israel will inherit the age to come,’ said the Rabbis, with the following clauses indicating that some would not, opting out by their own rank refusal to follow Torah.  Torah thus functioned, implicitly at least, within not only a covenantal framework but also a broadly eschatological one.  The ‘age to come’ would see Israel vindicated at least.  But the way to tell, in the present, who would thus be vindicated in the future was to see who was keeping Torah (in some sense at least) in the present…These questions could be addressed in terms of a theological account of how much of this law-keeping was up to one’s own initiative, and how much would be owed to God’s grace and help (76).

So much for their not being interested in questions of personal salvation, grace, and the extent to which one had to cooperate with God in justification!  In fact, Wright refers to examples from early Jewish literature suggesting the importance of weighing works as the basis for final judgment and vindication.  In fact, the Qumran community agreed with Paul in their expectation of the fulfillment of Deut 30. “Where they diverged was on the questions (a) What events have precipitated the advance covenant renewal with us in the present? (b) Who will be vindicated when God finally completes what he has thereby begun? (c) What are the signs in the present which mark out those who will be vindicated in the future? And perhaps also, as we shall see, (d) What theological account of how one passes from present grace-given membership to future salvation?” (77).  From his own summary, it would seem that these questions are more integrally involved with the concern for personal salvation than Wright allows.

So again, the problem is not so much what is affirmed as what is denied.  Wright is on target when he criticizes evangelicals for separating salvation (soteriology) from the church (ecclesiology) (132).  He is also correct in seeing in Paul a thorough integration of those issues.  The problem is that while the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (and male and female and free and slave) is for Paul a critical implication and consequence of the gospel, for Wright it is exactly reverse.  For him, the message of sin, forgiveness, and salvation is an “of course” (131).  “The problem of human sin, and the divine answer in terms of the rescue provided by the Messiah, is the presupposition.  It emerges gloriously at several points, notably Galatians 2:19-20 and Galatians 3:22.  But it is not the main argument” (133).  It’s not just “at several points,” however, but throughout his epistles that Paul makes central the themes of personal salvation in union with Christ.  Because neither Jews nor Gentiles keep the law, they are all lumped together under a common curse, but because Jesus Christ has taken our place, Jews and Gentiles together can be children of Abraham—part of God’s single, worldwide family.  That is Romans 1-4 in nuce.

“How can ‘ecclesiology’ be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification,” Wright asks, “when Scripture itself gives it this high a place?”

Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, it serves directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world?  It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective’s reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? (174).

Before we criticize too quickly, it is important to allow Wright’s concerns to sink in.  Justification is not treated in the scriptures simply as an individual affair, but as a cosmic renewal, a divine re-writing of the tragic script that we have written for ourselves and the rest of creation. The church is integral to God’s saving plan—not as the source of redemption, but as the minister of reconciliation.  Further, this ministry leads simultaneously to a justified and renewed people who fulfill their callings in the world with an eschatological anticipation of Christ’s fully-realized reign in a renewed creation.

However, this plan would be pie-in-the-sky if it were in our hands to accomplish or to complete—or if the justification of the ungodly were merely an “of course” rather than the reason why a united family of God is emerging in this passing age.  Wright’s real target seems to be not so much the Reformation tradition as pietism.  As on other points, his solution is just as one-sided, however.  He worries that the “old perspective” on justification will revive “Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ theology…” (174), although it is not clear exactly what ostenstibly dangerous view he has in mind.  Although he is anxious about an over-realized theology with respect to justification, he seems to advocate just such an eschatology with respect to the kingdom of God.  In recent years, Wright has emphasized the political context of Jesus’ ministry and apostolic preaching, over against the claims of Caesar, particularly in an effort to challenge U.S. militarism.  Even here, there are important insights.  However, is Romans really a political manifesto against Caesar, especially when Paul’s call to obey emperors appears in chapter 13?  The “two kingdoms” doctrine, which Calvin held as well, does not separate Christ’s reign from the world’s powers, but it also does not confuse them.  In this time between Christ’s two advents, the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ and creating an end-time harvest of Israel and the nations.  For now, the kingdoms of this world have not yet been made the kingdom of Christ in geo-political terms.  Nevertheless, the church announces that imminent hope and lives in the present with patience, suffering for the sake of the gospel, until Christ returns in glory.

Next week, we’ll conclude this series with some final thoughts on the book as a whole.

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