Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Journey, Part 8: Back to the Gospel

This is part 8 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Through all of this thinking about the nature of the Bible and what we do with it, I never lost sight of the goal. I sought to understand what this all-important "gospel" was all about now that I'd acknowledged that the pat answers I'd been hearing weren't sufficient. I faced questions like "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?", "How do faith and works relate for the Christian?", the simple question "What is salvation, really?", and the big one: "How do the Testaments fit together?". Everything seemed open to revision, but somehow this no longer bothered me. After all that God had brought me through, I was beginning to trust Him even without having neat answers at the moment. It was while searching for answers to questions like these that I began the present series on the Gospel.

Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
This is the classic question of atonement, for which numerous theories have been advanced. I began searching for ways to think about the atonement that view sin, salvation, etc. in more of a "relational" way, whatever that meant (certainly not in the oversystematized way I described last time).
When we say Jesus destroyed sin on the cross, to avoid spiritual object thinking, we must consider 'sin' to mean 'separation from God of those united with Him.' (2013-6-9)
The penal substitutionary atonement theory seemed dependent on the juridical, spiritual-object definition of sin that I had grown quite tired of, and I instead began taking interest in the atonement theories held by the early church; Christus Victor and ransom theory seemed especially promising. Having learned about atonement only through the Reformed tradition, though, it was hard for me to fully shift my thinking to these new lenses.

Somewhat related to this, I was trying to see the cross as just one part of Jesus' redemptive work, alongside the resurrection and perhaps His whole life. I realized that emphasizing the crucifixion exclusively above these things was not pious, but a distortion of the true gospel, whatever it was. Part of putting it into perspective was acknowledging a fact that we forget surprisingly easily by fitting the cross into a theological system of salvation: God was dead. And we killed Him. Before my Good Friday post on the oft-forgotten tragedy of the cross, I journaled:
By making Jesus' death seem inevitable, fitting into my theology like a neat puzzle piece, I lessen the shock value of the cross. God not only became a man, but we killed Him horribly. ... The crucifixion was a defeat, not a victory. (2014-1-12)
I overstated my point here, since (as I would learn) the victory of the resurrection can't be separated from the defeat of the cross, but I was on the right track by seeking a theology that affirmed both.

How do faith and works relate for the Christian?
With somewhat more success, I sought to see past the dichotomy we had set up between human and divine agency, to see what role works could play in a Christian:
Faith is not simply a reduced cost of admission, it is an openness and desire to live as God's covenant people. The problem with salvation by works, basically, is not that it is intrinsically bad or prideful, but that it is impossible. The pride comes in if you delude yourself otherwise. In other words, faith doesn't simply replace works for us. Rather, the faithfulness of Christ fulfills in us what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not—He makes us righteous, just as the law commanded. Faith is not a soteriological substitute for works, but a recognition and acceptance of the supremacy of Christ, to do in us what we couldn't do ourselves. Works are still important—but because of our union with Christ our actions are also the power of God working through us. (Phil 2:12-13) (2014-1-30)
I was slowly coming to a more integrated view of faith and works as partners, not opponents. Taking up faith doesn't have to mean setting aside our own effort as if it were something bad. Faith does not simply mean ceasing to try to save ourselves and trusting in Christ's work instead; it is not simply an alternative to human effort, and the two are not opposite poles. Instead (as Paul describes in those verses which are the clearest description of synergism I knew of), by faith we recognize and trust in the mystery that because of the Holy Spirit, our own actions and decisions also become God's "willing and working" in us for His good pleasure. I started to see the perfect union of divinity and humanity that Jesus embodied as a pattern for the Christian life.

What is salvation, really?
Through this, though, I was still unsure about the nature of this salvation that we attained to through God's faithful working in us. I sought to thinking about it in a "relational" way, whatever that meant, not as a metaphysical "thing" that we simply need to get and defend.
I've been thinking about salvation as a spiritual object again, as something that God ties up with a proverbial bow and hands to us in exchange for either faith or good works. But again, this is a disconnected, non-relational way of thinking of it. (2014-1-30)
In our rush to "get in" (and to theologize about how "getting in" is easy and doesn't depend on us even though we have to make a decision, and about how once you're "in" it's impossible to come back "out"), could we be losing sight of just what "in" entails?
Protestants take a very minimalist view of salvation, like a student asking, 'what's the least I need to do to pass?' There are no right answers to wrong questions. (2014-1-24)
Admittedly, I was being unfair and overgeneralizing here. But I do think "salvation" is commonly thought of as something atomic, indivisible, all-or-nothing, devoid of degree, so we can slip into thinking that once we "have" salvation we're good and everything else is just icing on the cake, a little like how you can get a passing grade on that final exam and then forget everything you learned. It's the assumption behind "threshold evangelism". If this view of salvation is "minimalist" (in that we seek to reduce salvation to its essential essence and hold fast to that over everything else as what's truly important), I sought a "maximalist" understanding, whatever that looked like. I expected that it would do away with the distinction between salvation and sanctification and instead encompass both as part of the same process, and that it would not focus so much on individuals that it seemed to forget about the larger scope of God's redemptive purpose.

How do the testaments fit together?
The question of the testaments saw the most progress, partly because it was the number-one thing wreaking havoc on my faith so I spent the most time and attention on it. Presaging my entry on 2014-1-30 about how faith fulfills the law, I tried to see the law not as a list of dos and don'ts from which Christ sets us free, but as a covenant of God with a definite redemptive purpose, which Christ now fulfills.
Perhaps the law is not to be ultimately understood in terms of its provisions and requirements, but the kind of people and society it was meant to produce—perfectly bearing God's image, living in Shalom. So the 'righteous requirement of the law' in Romans 8:4 is not referring to doing all the rules, but the requirement to become this kind of people. And Christ's fulfilling it does not mean somehow checking all the boxes of the law, but enabling us to be transformed into His perfect, godly likeness. … In other words, what if the requirement of the law is not just to do certain things, but to be a certain people? (2013-8-25)
This helped to make sense of how Jesus could fulfill the law when he so cavalierly bent or broke the letter of it, and taught others to do the same. But more than this, what really helped answer my questions about how the covenants/testaments fit together was this wonderful thing called...

The New Perspective on Paul

Before I can define the New Perspective, I have to clearly define the "Old Perspective": it is the traditional (for Protestants) reading of Paul's letters (especially Romans, Galatians, and Philippians) as being, first and foremost, about how sinful people "get right with God" and go from the condemnation and death brought by sin to forgiveness and eternal life, which is considered to be the meaning of Paul's term "justification". In the Lutheran flavor of the Old Perspective, the law is something frightful and oppressive that constantly shows us our sin by contrasting it with God's impossibly high standards in order to drive us toward our savior Jesus, who fulfills this law on our behalf so that we can know God in His grace and receive Christ's "alien righteousness" by which alone we are justified. In the Reformed flavor, the law may serve this purpose, but we are not merely saved by Jesus from it but to it, to obey it not out of our dead, fallen sinful nature and feeble self-effort but by the life given to us by Christ and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, God working in us to do what we cannot do for ourselves. In this way "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes". (Rom 10:4)

This reading of Paul should be highly familiar for evangelicals, lying close to the heart of the "Gospel". The New Perspective, in contrast, reads these parts of Paul as being "about" something quite different: the destruction of racial and ethnic barriers between Jew and Gentile, and the creation of one united people of God from both groups when they were formerly enemies. "Works of the law", then, is read not as shorthand for "human moral effort", "works righteousness", or "pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps", but as "boundary markers" in the Torah (remember that "Torah" simply means "law" and both are expressed by the same Greek word, nomos) that were being used to mark out a distinctively Jewish identity for the early Christians that left Gentile believers out in the cold. "Justification" is read not so much metaphysically, as "getting right with God" spiritually, but sociologically, as being shown to be right with God, adopted into His covenant people.

A quick tour of the New Perspective

I first learned about the New Perspective through the writings of the former Anglican bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, who I already knew and respected even before that. In his book
Justification (in which he responds to John Piper's critique and makes the case for his understanding of the New Perspective), Wright explains that first-century Jews (such as Jesus, His apostles, and His Pharisaic opponents) were not given to theologizing about what happens after you die or how to be accepted into heaven. Their concept of heaven was not otherworldly, but pointedly this-worldly. The narrative in which they saw themselves was not one in which all people are innately sinful and justly condemned to hell unless they could acquire some kind of salvific righteousness to cover their sins. All of these were concerns of Luther and the late medieval Catholic Church, but not of first-century Judaism.

Instead, their narrative was one in which they, the children of Abraham, had been chosen by God out of all the nations (ethnoi, also translated "Gentiles") to be His people, His treasured possession, given promises of divine blessing and favor and an unending line of Davidic kingship (1 Kings 2:4). This was drastically at odds with Israel's present situation, kingless and instead subjected to rule by one foreign power after another. In a very real sense, even though the Jews were back in the promised land with a rebuilt temple, their exile was still ongoing. The fulfillment of God's promises to them had still not come. So they eagerly hoped to see God prove true to His promises; some took a more passive, fatalistic view (especially the sectarian Essenes) while others (e.g. the Zealots) took a more active approach, seeking to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel's place by violent uprising. The Jews awaited the coming of the Messiah to bring about this fulfillment, though the person of the Messiah was actually not as essential as the promises themselves, however God chose to fulfill them. All clung jealously to "works of Torah", the signs of their election by God (especially circumcision and the law), to show that they belonged not to the ethnoi but were the chosen nation of God who would soon be vindicated (or justified) when He restored them.

What Paul was doing, then, was presenting Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promises, albeit in an unexpected way. (Hence the controversy among the Jews, messianic and non-) But he was not simply answering Israel's cries for national liberation and promised (tangible) blessings with a metaphysical system for salvation from sin and death through individual reconciliation with God. If that was what Jesus had come to inaugurate, He would not have been crucified because no one would have understood Him enough to be angry. Instead, Paul argued, God's promises had been fulfilled not at the end of the age but in the middle of it, and not for all of Israel but for one man, Jesus. What was the meaning of this? In particular, what was the meaning of Jesus' surprising acceptance of Gentiles? Had He forgotten to whom the promises had been made? In response, Paul takes a step back and reminds his readers that before the law had been given, even before circumcision, Abraham found favor with God—by faith. And God's promises to Abraham which he believed never promised some kind of exclusive blessing of Israel and Israel alone. Rather, God told him that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Israel was supposed to be the means by which God's promises and blessing would come to the whole world. Salvation of the Gentiles is not some unexpected development, argues Paul; it was the plan from the start. The law was given as a tutor and guide for Israel, but it was not meant to permanently separate her from the nations; it was supposed to shape her into God's blessing to them.

But because of Israel's misconception that God's promises were for her instead of through her, the promises had gotten "stuck" and did not come to fruition. Israel became part of the larger problem of sin and death rather than its solution. What was needed was a faithful Israelite who would lead the Jews to their intended obedience and bring God's blessing to the whole world. And this is just what Jesus came to do. So, trying to sum up, when Paul talks about justification, he is not referring to the process by which an individual is "made right" with God. Again, this would have been a total non-sequitur for Paul's audience. He is talking about who is part of God's covenant people, and how you can tell. Formerly the Gentiles had been excluded; now they were invited, apart from the law that had been used to exclude them. Paul's Judaizer opponents in Galatians, like many other Jews, believed that the law of Moses was what marked out those who would be vindicated/justified by God; it was not what "made them right" with God but simply how they stayed in His covenant and demonstrated their membership. But, Paul argues, the boundary marker of God's people is not obedience to the law, but faith in Jesus Christ, the one God has chosen to unite His people and fulfill His promises at last.

Later, I also read Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles by Francis Wright, which offered an interesting attempt to move "beyond the New Perspective" (the book's subtitle). Watson very consciously calls attention to the immediate context and specific purpose of Paul's letters; he tries to show what, specifically, Paul was saying, addressing, and doing through them, in response to the tendency to read them as systematic theology. Specifically, he argues that Paul is trying to establish Christianity as a new religion and not simply a new sect of Judaism, hence his rejection of the Jewish law and embrace of the faith of Jesus Christ as its foundation. He is rightly wary of the possibility of overcompensating for the Old Perspective and understanding "justification" only sociologically. Watson does seem to go too far toward portraying Paul as opposing Judaism simply because it is not Christianity (rather than opposing it insofar as it has rejected and excluded itself from God's redemptive plan), but he offers an interesting and valuable counterbalance to Wright.

The value of the New Perspective

My study of the New Perspective on Paul was very helpful for understanding the gospel, more than anything else, for three main reasons:

First, the New Perspective reading of Paul is much more contextually sensitive than the Old—to both Paul's historical context and the literary context of his letters. I think Wright's criticism that the Old Perspective today is a result of reading Scripture with "nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions" is accurate. We assume that Paul shared Luther's late medieval concerns with the metaphysical salvation of the soul, along with his heavily Catholic-influenced definitions of "works" and "merit". I began to become suspicious of this, and saw a possible key to resolving the seemingly inescapable tension between the Testaments:
The 'life' promised in Lev 18:5 can't be eschatological life. This wasn't anywhere on Israel's radar. (2014-2-3)
But I repeat the question I asked before: what if Paul is not simply laying down abstract doctrine for the church to believe at all times, but is writing contextually to particular churches facing particular problems? The New Perspective (especially as represented by Watson) takes this question seriously. It recognizes the historical realities of Paul's situation and his purpose in writing his letters and reads them through this lens, not our modern concerns about how one "gets saved". It recognizes that Paul was not writing systematic theology in his letters. Rather than taking people for a ride along the "Romans road" or calling a collection of prooftexts from all over Paul's letters "the gospel", the New Perspective sagely fits them into Paul's larger situation as the apostle to the Gentiles. It makes a serious, honest attempt to find what Paul was actually trying to say and do through his letters, getting beneath how we have interpreted him through the centuries.

Second, as I mentioned in my post on the impersonal gospel, the New Perspective recognizes that justification, and the gospel in general, is not about us. Of course any evangelical will be the first to stress that "it's not about us, it's about God"—but does the theology really show that? The "gospel" as commonly stated is about what God does—for us. It is too often seen, primarily, as a message of personal, metaphysical salvation. We view it as a sign of Jesus' great love for us that we can consider His sacrifice on the cross to have been "for" us, personally. As I expressed on 2013-1-10, I was getting tired of this kind of individualism.
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
I thought about all the historical narrative and Jew/Gentile language as if it were the backdrop to God's continuing mission of saving individual souls—which He doesn't always succeed at! (2014-2-25)
The grand gospel narrative, for Paul, is not metaphysical but historical. (2014-2-25)
The New Perspective, in contrast, doesn't just say that it's all about God, it demonstrates it. By situating Paul's message firmly in its historical context it reveals the historical and cosmic dimensions of salvation as well as the metaphysical, as something grand and epic that doesn't just boil down to you and Jesus. Rather than making the gospel somehow less personal, this change makes it into something superpersonal, that draws me up out of myself and my own life into an unimaginably vast and ongoing historical salvation plan for the whole world that I am called to take part in.

Third, and most obviously, the NPP alleviates most (if not all) of the confusion I'd been having about how the Old and New Testaments fit together. By showing how the Mosaic law was a gift in its original context, how the Jews could be called to obey it without this constituting a call to seek "works righteousness", what place deeds have in the life of Christian faith, and how Paul's opposition of "works of the law" and "faith of Jesus Christ" doesn't mean that the Mosaic law itself is a bad thing but that it had been misused, it effectively cured the confusion I was having about the gospel apparently being a God-given solution to a God-given problem.

In such possibilities I saw the seeds of a new, better theology, one that would be an effective answer to the doubts that had sprang up like weeds and would help me to live out the gospel more authentically than I had ever been able to before. But this vision of the gospel seemed like just that—a vision, an ideal, something expressed in airy theology that we can and should strive for but shouldn't expect to see consistently realized in the real Church, work in progress that she is. It seemed like I would have to work out this theology myself essentially from scratch. I didn't know of any church that demonstrated it, certainly not in the Twin Cities.

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