One of the more exciting prospects of the end of the semester and the beginning of Summer is the departure of assigned reading for my classes. This means that I’ll get back to reading only the things I want to. I thought I’d share briefly what those things are at the moment:

Strange Fire by John MacArthur- This book is written in MacArthur’s usual erudite fashion, with sternness and clarity. Though I’m only half-way, it has been the best critique of The Charismatic Movement, Word of Faith preachers, and the prosperity gospel that I have encountered. This is not least because the author has a relentless devotion to the supremacy of Scripture. MacArthur is actually one of those authors that I started out reading and that I have continued to read through the last couple of year. We don’t line up in every way, but from the perspective of a reader, it’s really enjoyable to work through MacArthur’s written thoughts. An important theological thought that I’ve gleaned thus far is that perhaps the greatest critic of the Charismatic Movement is the Holy Spirit himself, who demands that all focus, and worship, and glory be unto the Son. This book isn’t about rhetoric, or winning an argument. It’s an urgent call for orthodoxy.

The Church by Mark Dever- Dever has devoted his graduate work and ensuing career in Christian ministry and scholarship to loving the doctrine of the Church. It’s often overlooked, and the book does a superb job of laying out the centrality of the Church on the basis of the centrality of the Gospel for Christian life. Dever has organized the book to be about 1.) What the Bible says 2.) What the Church has believed and then 3.) based on Scripture and Tradition, how ought the Church look today? I’m nearly finished, and have enjoyed reading this book. It’s written from an unashamedly Baptist perspective, but every churchman, denominations aside, can benefit from reading this presentation of the doctrine of the Church.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens- I was a fan of Hitchens for his debates and his appearances in mainstream media. As a new-atheist, he is far and away the most interesting of the uninteresting bunch, though his arguments against theism don’t hold very well. He is a moralist, and a contrarian. Liberal and conservative. This book has more than 100 of the Hitch’s essays. Only a few deal with criticism of religion, and they’re much better as argument for Atheism than his book God is Not Great which I have criticized elsewhere. The essays cover a vast aray of topics like historical imperialism, the modern conflicts in the Arab world, the future of education in the West, and even why women aren’t funny. It’s vintage Hitchens, and all the essays taken together probably make it the most well-written book in this blog post.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright- I started reading this a few months ago, inching my way through an intellect as high powered as the Apostle in question. This book answers all of the outstanding questions that Piper and others had about Wright’s view on justification that weren’t answered in his book by the same title. From the perspective of someone who is working on a BA in History, I really enjoyed parts 1 and 2 of the book in which Wright is reconstructing the world and worldview of Paul as a man of 3 worlds: Jewish, Greek, Roman. This book has many things in common with the New Testament and the People of God by Wright, which was the first in this series. I will have much more to say when I’m finished and I’ve been taking notes the whole way through. This book is being acclaimed as the most extensive look at Paul ever written by scholars from all over the theological map.

Those four are keeping me the most busy for now, but in the next week or two I hope to start From Heaven He Came and Sought Her which is a compilation of arguments for the doctrine of definite atonement, and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham which argues for the gospels as historical documents based on eyewitness testimony. Looking forward to learning a lot this Summer.



Reading Scripture: No Easy Task

I said this about 2012, I will say it about 2013, and I expect it for 2014. In all the books concerning Theology and Christianity that I’ve read the past couple of years, whether they be written for lay people or academics, a recurring theme continually strikes me as having incalculable significance for today’s Church. Reading the Bible is no easy task, and yet it is vital to the life of the Church.

This past week I’ve read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture together with N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Initially it was very clear that they take different approaches to understanding (and Hauerwas would prefer I said using) Scripture.

Wright appears to fall very neatly into the Historical Critical camp, writing against fundamentalism:

Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes…Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. Real, fresh, historical readings of the Bible, measured rigorously by the canons of real historical work, can and do yield fresh insight.”

In his book, Wright analyzes the polarization of debates and the need for fresh Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. He has an entire chapter that lists out the major misreadings of the “left” and “right.”

Hauerwas takes a different approach, as he usually does I am told. His book is written to ask:

“Is your Bible made in the USA? Most Christians assume that they have a right, if not a pious obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

The two most common reactions for folks who haven’t read Hauerwas before are to assume that he is either an elitist lunatic or that he can’t actually be serious, he just means to shock. I can tell you that after having read the book, neither is true. While Hauerwas does want to shock Christians on the one hand, he is doing it with the utmost seriousness, humility, and sincerity. I think the book makes a compelling case in support of the thesis I quoted above. Though, being a History major and having read Wright and others like him for some time now, I still feel comfortable in the higher criticism camp of interpretation. Contrasting with the view Wright portrays in his quote, Hauerwas writes:

I believe that the battle between literalistic fundamentalism and critical approaches to the Bible is the result of the abstraction of the text of the Bible from such practices. They share the assumption that the text of the Bible should make rational sense (to anyone), apart from the uses that the Church has for Scripture. Fundamentalism and biblical criticism seek to depoliticize the interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that the text has an objective meaning. The result is unchecked power to some interpreters over Scripture without such power being justified.”-p.18

Scripture can be rightly interpreted only within the practices of a body of people constituted by the unity found in the Eucharist. The Church, as the body of Christ, stands first and is more full than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, but it reminds us that Christ appears before us not only in Scripture, but in the Church.” Hauerwas goes on to mention the earliest Christians not having the written gospels, and so text could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and the Gospel came to life in the Church. There is a complex relationship between community and text, and in this case Church and Scripture.

Hauerwas also critiques Sola Scriptura when it is used to mean sola text, saying: “That Christians have thought it possible to translate our Scriptures should be sign enough that no strong distinction can be made between text and interpretation.” There is also a lot of good writing about America and individualism resulting in destructive understandings/uses of Scripture.

To the above, Wright responds in his own book: “…one hears it said frequently that all reading of scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person’s interpretation is as good as another’s. This is of course a classic postmodern position that there are no such things as texts, only interpretations, since when I read a text it becomes something different from what it becomes when you read it (Heisenberg’s uncertainty again).”

Hauerwas responds:

“Fundamentalists and biblical critics alike argue that their project is to get to the text’s “real meaning.” But of course the text has no real meaning, rather Scriptures are maintained by the Church as having particular prominence because Christians have learned that the Scriptures exist to further the practices of witness and conversion. If i deny the text has a meaning, some biblical scholars fear an uncontrollable subjectivism. Interpreters, especially laity, can simply make of the text anything they wish, creating the meaning of the text at will. Such a presumption however assumes the only entities involved are the text and the individual interpreter. Texts and interpreters, however, work only within contexts that make what they have to say irrelevant or interesting. Of course the Church creates the meaning of Scripture.”

When time allows it, I’d like to lay out completely the ways in which Wright and Hauerwas have written the two books almost completely parallel to the other. Both are incredible scholars, and as I have read so much of Wright the last three years, I am looking forward to owning much more that which Hauerwas has written as well.

The differences are clear, but there is an extremely unavoidable similarity in their books: The need for a transformed self and spiritual formation.

Hauerwas writes: “According to Athanasius, any attempt to make Scripture intelligible in and of itself can only be seen as an attempt to protect ourselves from the challenge of having our lives changed. Such change means making our lives available to others who have begun such a transformation. In short, if we are to understand Scripture it is necessary that we place ourselves under authority, a placement that at least begins by our willingness to accept the discipline of the Church’s preaching.”

And Wright echoes: “We urgently need an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of Scripture.” Such an integrated view needs to highlight the role of the Spirit as the powerful, transformative agent. It needs to keep as its central focus the goal of God’s Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus on earth as in heaven and one day to be completed under that same rubric. The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase the authority of scripture, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church–precisely as the Scripture-reading community.”



What is the New Perspective on Paul?

In the past week, I had two of my closest friends ask what on earth the New Perspective on Paul was about. I really did enjoy talking through some of the bigger issues like the shape of Paul’s theology, specifically his revised Jewish understanding of election, justification, and eschatology because of his central belief that Jesus was promised and long desired King of Israel. An exhaustive look at the NPP is something completely beyond me, but I am about 3/4 of the way through N.T. Wright’s massive book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I also own, but have not read, James D.G. Dunn’s book entitled The New Perspective on Paul and E.P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. 

This short video features two well respected New Testament scholars, and also two of the important emerging voices from amongst the more properly titled New Perspectives on Paul (emphasis on the plural). You might note from their words that before there can be a NPP, the foundational work has to be in a new perspective of Judaism–which is why Sander’s book takes such an important role as an initiator of NPP studies. Let me know what you think:

N.T. Wright’s Justification: Introduction

Wright’s response to John Piper’s book “The Future of Justification” (which also happens to be a response…) is entitled “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.” I’m hoping that my posting regarding my reading will hold me accountable to finish the book and think well about each section. I have to say I am looking most forward to the ending sections where he exegetes through Romans and Galatians. In case you’re not already interested in what Wright (who admittedly holds but one of the many emerging “new perspectives” on Paul) has to say, Al Mohler accuses him of seeking to completely undo the Protestant Reformation. That’s probably an overreaction, but I’m hoping it at least intrigues you if you’re not already familiar with any branches of the New Perspectives on Paul or NPP as it will appear henceforth.

I’ve tried to compile the most essential parts of his introductory chapter. Keep in mind that most of what he does here alludes to areas that will be expounded upon in future chapters and that my brief synopsis merely alludes to his allusions.

1. Wright discusses what salvation is, particularly noting that the reduction of the concept to ” going to heaven when you die” is cursory and inadequate. In the Bible, salvation is not the rescue of people from the world but the rescue of the world itself. Here he notes that the reformed tradition represented by Piper would mostly agree. Wright is hopeful that viewing salvation in this larger framework will affect the way readers think about the questions, namely that of Justification, that follow.

2. Formerly discussing the what of salvation, Wright moves to address the means of salvation-that is how it is accomplished. He agrees with Piper that it is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on out behalf, appropriated through faith alone. But there is something missing–or rather, someone missing. Where is the Holy Spirit? “The work of the Spirit is every bit as important as the work of the Son.” This brief mention of the essential Spirit’s work in the life of the Christian will play into Wright’s larger plea that the development of Christian character over the course of a lifetime is significant to justification. It also sends the person firmly planted in Piper’s reformed garden the message that Wright thinks of justification as a process requiring good works of the spirit. More on that when it becomes relevant in the book.

3. Finally is the claim that salvation and justification, although used interchangeably since Augustine, and certainly since Luther, are separate and to consider them the same is to be untrue to scripture itself. This allows Wright to transition into the separate question, apart from salvation, of what is justification? It’s purpose and meaning? Piper insists that it means imputation of righteousness, but Wright sees it as the place where four themes meet: The work of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, the covenant, the divine law-court, and eschatology.

In conclusion, Wright says that all the debate rests on the text of Paul’s letters, which is where he plans to move in the coming pages. He calls for fresh readings of scripture, not heavily conditioned by tradition, though he insists not all tradition is dismissible. He realizes of course the scope and severity of his claims, and also understands the challenge of hundreds of years of reformed tradition and it’s understanding of salvation and justification. In a turning of the tables, Wright cleverly aligns himself with Luther and Calvin in a historical allusion: “There is considerable irony, at the level of method, when John Piper suggest that, according to me, the church “has been on the wrong foot for 1500 years.” It isn’t so much that I don’t actually claim that. It is that that is exactly what people said to his heroes, Luther and Calvin. Luther and Calvin answered by fresh readings of scripture; the Council of Trent responded by insisting on tradition.”

Looking forward to all that remains in this important book. Its argument is at the forefront of the Evangelical divide.