N.T. Wright, leading proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. HT: Pastor John Keller Blog
On Sunday, January 31, 2016, Pastor Joe Troutman introduced to the adult Sunday School class the recent theological movement among some modern liberal theologians called the New Perspective on Paul and how it pertains to the doctrine of justification.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.(Romans 5:1-2 ESV)
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith–just as Abraham “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:5-6)
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A #33:
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In this day when America is, for better or worse, trying to wind down its war against radical Islamist jihadists, Skidmore College Professor and Director of Religious Studies, Mary Zeiss Stange, opines in a USA Today piece that we don’t think enough today about how religion can be a source of evil as well as good. Just let that sink in for a moment. But Stange’s focus is not on radical strains of Islam. Hers is on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. You know, that “hyperconservative offshoot of the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA” which she calls “Calvinism on steroids” because it “sees the world in stark either/or terms” in which you are either “saved and bound for heaven. Or you are a sinner, treading a one-way path to the fiery pit of hell.” She characterizes the struggle to discern one’s eternal destiny as “making extraordinary demands on a sensitive young person’s conscience and conduct.” Having painted this dramatic portrait of my denomination with such colorful brush strokes, broad as they may be, she then proposes the possible diagnosis for the “chaotic mood swings” which lead to Bowe Bergdahl’s “transformation from gung-ho warrior to pacifistic deserter”: “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church compels followers to feel the inner spark of absolute certainty of one’s own God-given righteousness.” This is what we hyperconservative Calvinists on steroids call “assurance of salvation.” But Stange’s description of this teaching is overly simplistic, and with the use of the phrase “absolute certainty,” she is associating the OPC with that predominant flaws of the fundamentalist movement. In the doctrinal standard of the OPC, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find a little more nuance in what we confess about the Bible’s teaching on assurance. Chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 3, reads,
This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Likewise, in Chapter 18, “Of the Assurance and Grace of Salvation,” the doctrine is treated more fully. Section 3 again demonstrates our allowance for degrees of assurance which may often fall far short of Stange’s portrayal of “absolute certainty.”
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
These excerpts indicates that not all will come to “absolute certainty” regarding their assurance of salvation, but this lack of absolute certainty does not necessarily entail the absence of faith. A weak faith, maybe, but a saving faith nonetheless. Since 2012, the congregations of the OPC have been praying that Bowe Bergdahl would come to faith in Christ, if he truly does not believe, or, if he does, that the Lord would strengthen that faith, that he might grow up “to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of [Bowe’s] faith.” We are careful to point out that assurance is a goal, yet it is not a constant, unwavering quality of the genuine Christian life. For those who find this assurance of faith elusive, it is our desire to comfort, encourage, and point them again to the imputed righteousness which Christ procured by his humble, sinless life, propitiatory death and glorious resurrection in the Word of God preached, and signified and sealed to them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these are ordinary means of God’s grace which can develop an assurance that is not contingent upon the strength of one’s faith, or the quality of his works. So it’s not as if those of us who believe in assurance of salvation strive to keep the heat turned up on people to make sure they get some “feeling” of certainty, or else they’re in trouble. That is mischaracterization of the doctrine of the grossest sort on the part of Professor Stange.
Yet it is just such a one-dimensional view of the doctrine of assurance which Professor Stange would have us believe makes my religion a “source of evil.” The idea that moral absolutes and the search for assurance of salvation are bad is consistent with the contemporary religious and philosophical culture in Western civilization, where secularism and relativism are the virtues of our time. I can’t help but see the climactic light saber duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which the latter paraphrases Jesus (and George W. Bush) by declaring the ultimate either/or proposition, “if you’re not with me, then you are my enemy,” to which the former replies, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
That’s right, dear reader, if you affirm the Ten Commandments, and believe that only through repentance of sin and faith in Christ can one find assurance of salvation from eternal conscious torment, then to liberals like Mary Zeiss Stange, whose kind of view is currently in favor, you have embraced the Dark Side, and your form of religious extremism is what makes people want to kill the innocent and take over the world, and it may even be what stresses our kids out when they can’t “feel” this “absolute certainty” and makes Bowe Bergdahls of them. I never cease to be amazed by the logical leaps which liberals make about orthodox Christianity. It’s positively fundamentalistic.
But Bergdahl’s woes cannot be the sole responsibility of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, because, from what I’ve read, the Bergdahl family were members of two different OPC congregations in the past, neither of which exist today. I’ve heard that it is possible that they may remain under the oversight of their regional presbytery, and Bob and Jani do retain an ongoing relationship with pastor turned missionary Phil Proctor, but the OPC does not seem to be as solely influential in the life of the Bergdahl’s, Bowe least of all, as it may appear.
As the father of a young lady who is growing in her understanding of Reformed theology, I have had to wrestle with the relative merits of “patriarchalism” versus “complementarianism.” What are the definitions of these fifty cent words, you ask? How glad I am that you asked!
Allow me to preface these definitions with yet another term—egalitarianism–and the environment in which these three terms have become points around which various parties rally. With the advent of feminism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, efforts to free women from all forms of tyranny, real or perceived, in society, the home and the church have sparked a two-pronged response. Feminism promotes the ideal of egalitarianism, which asserts the absolute equality of men and women in every way, so that the institution of marriage is often disparaged, women are encouraged to work outside the home and pressured to refrain from the honorable vocation of domestic engineering (that is, being a housewife), and to answer an unbiblical call to pastoral ministry in the Christian church. This movement became part and parcel of the ideals of liberal Protestant theology and practice throughout the twentieth century. Toward the end of that century, however, the movement began making inroads into otherwise conservative Evangelical churches.
Throughout the history of the development of Christian theology, orthodoxy was commonly believed among the whole church, and remained generally agreed upon and largely unwritten, since there was little to no disagreement about the orthodox interpretation of Scripture. This is why we see in church history how that it is the aggressive assertion of heresy which forces the orthodox to go back to the drawing board and more carefully work out and put into writing the correct understanding of the Bible. In theology as well as commerce, competition forces one to work harder to increase the quality of their philosophical principles, goods and services.
How, in this environment, are Christian families to insulate their children from the erroneous claims of modern feminist egalitarianism? In the next post, we’ll deal with conservative Evangelical responses to egalitarianism which have resulted in the spectrum with which we must deal today.
Here’s another example of how people are incapable of absolute objectivity. As you know, I’m currently reading Oxford Church Historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (© 2009, Viking). Fortunately, the author makes no pretense to absolute objectivity. In his telling of the history of Christianity (or, more fashionably, “Christianities”), he explains that at times his own opinion will show through. Boy, does it ever! In some cases, these opinions appear in the form of his own imaginative theory for how something fundamental to Christianity may have developed in a way other than how the Bible explicitly states that it did. What scholar worth his salt is going to take the Bible’s historical claims at face value? Especially those involving supernatural experiences.
In his introduction, MacCulloch calls “modern neurosis” the presupposition that the Bible is authoritative. The “scholarly” approach is to take the Bible “seriously” in a way that disregards the literal interpretation of the Bible.
“The Bible’s authority for Christians lies in the fact they have a special relationship with it that can never be altered, like the relationship of parent and child. This does not deny relationships with other books which may be both deep and long-lasting, and it does not necessarily make the parental relationship easy or pleasant. It is simply of a different kind, and can never be abrogated. Once we see this, much modern neurosis about the authority of the Bible can be laid aside. Maybe the Bible can be taken seriously rather than literally” (MacCulloch, page 8).
In what way might we take the Bible seriously without taking it literally? I suppose the answer is to simply admire and attempt to follow the Bible’s moral teachings, receiving them as wrenched from their presumably mythological context. In other words, orthodox Christians need to become theological liberals. We should bravely affirm that the Bible can be wrong about history, but right about morality and spirituality. In other endeavors, if one is wrong in one area, it undermines his credibility in other areas. If the Bible is historically untenable, then it is spiritually untenable. Why, then, bother with the Bible’s morality, when we can change our morals with the times—which is precisely what theological liberals do with biblical morality. They lay it aside, along with their neurosis about the authority of the Bible. MacCulloch’s own unrepentant homosexuality is a prime example of this fact.
In chapter one, “Greece and Rome (c. 1000 BCE-100 CE),” MacCulloch gives us an example of how he takes the Bible seriously, though not literally. In his description of imperial Rome’s racial inclusivity, and generous granting of citizenship to foreigners of all kinds, he finds the possible origin of the preaching of the Christian gospel among Gentiles. MacCulloch suggests that “pride” in Paul’s own Roman citizenship could have been the real source of his desire to invite Gentiles into the number of God’s chosen people. If we took the Bible seriously, then we, too, could confidently make up our own reasons to explain away the Bible’s historical narratives! MacCulloch leads by example:
Why was Rome’s expansion so remarkably successful? Plenty of other states produced dramatic expansion, but survived for no more than a few generations or a couple of centuries at most. The western part of the Roman state survived for twelve hundred years, and in its eastern form the Roman Empire had a further thousand years of life after that. The answer probably lies in another contrast with Greece: the Romans had very little sense of racial exclusiveness. They gave away Roman citizenship to deserving foreigners—by deserving, they would mean those who had something to offer them in return, if only grateful collaboration. Occasionally whole areas would be granted citizenship. It was even possible for slaves to make the leap from being non-persons to being citizens, simply by a formal ceremony before a magistrate, or by provision in their owners’ wills.32
Where this highly original view of citizenship came from is not clear; it must have evolved during the struggle for power between the patricians and the plebeians after the fall of the kings. In any case, the effect was to give an ever-widening circle of people a vested interest in the survival of Rome. That became clear in one dramatic case in the first century of the Common Era, when a Jewish tent-maker called Paul, from Tarsus, far away from Rome in Asia Minor, could proudly say that he was a Roman citizen, knowing that this status protected him against the local powers threatening him. It might have been his pride in this status of universal citizen which first suggested to Paul that the Jewish prophet who had seized his allegiance in a vision had a message for all people and not just the Jews (MacCulloch, p. 42).
If we only had the scholarly authority to associate things that are historically verifiable–like the extent of Roman citizenship–with fundamental elements of Christianity–like their proclaiming to Gentiles the life, death, resurrection and royal ascension of the Jewish Messiah–then we wouldn’t have to suspend our disbelief enough to take the Bible literally when Paul’s physician-associate, Luke–himself a careful historian (cf. Luke 1:1-3)–records in the sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus, and divine calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles:
[9:1] But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.  And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.  Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”  And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,  and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”  But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;  and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. (See also Acts 22:1-21)
I mean, seriously!
“The differences between the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist and corresponding ceremonies in the Mysteries are as profound as their similarities are superficial.”
The quote above was penned by Bruce M. Metzger, in his article, “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” published in the January, 1955 edition of the Harvard Theological Journal (p. 13). Metzger’s conclusions from his study of the methodology of scholars who make much of the parallels between Christianity and pagan mystery religions is that the parallels are analogical, rather than genealogical. In other words, the elements of Christianity which parallel paganism were not derived from paganism, but, as above, “their similarities are superficial.”
In short, don’t be sucked in by the claims of “pagan parallels” as an attempt to discredit the historicity, inspiration and authority of the New Testament, or to relativize it, like Rob Bell was…
Ever watched Adult Swim’s Moral Orel? It’s like a spoof of Davey and Goliath, and serves as a platform for heavy-handed satire of the moralistic idiosyncrasies of some Christians. Most Christians would find it distasteful to watch, although it probably reflects more truth than our kind are willing to admit—when it isn’t’ caricaturing moralistic Christianity.
Upon watching a few clips of this show and seeing just how much they make it look like an edgy version of Davey and Goliath, I was reminded that this show isn’t only a satire of politically Right-wing Christians, but can step on the toes of liberal Christians as well. The fact is that Davey and Goliath was a production of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a theologically liberal denomination of Lutherans despite the presence of the word “Evangelical” in their name. But it is also true that a generation or more of conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals were raised loving Davey and Goliath and being conditioned to liberal forms of moralism. This must be a small reason why moral and social do-good-ism is an example of common ground shared by today’s conservative culture warriors and liberal progressives. The development of the contemporary political spectrum among Western Christians has a long and storied past, involving the influence of eschatology, pietism and revivalism among other things. These influences raise a question, the answer to which we may find instructive.
“On which is it better for the Christian church to focus her efforts:
civic moral activism, or her own doctrine and practice?”
I submit the following:
- Organized religious efforts toward civic moral activism are derived from a fundamentally utopian vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize doctrine and practice.
- Organized religious efforts to maintain the purity of each denomination’s own doctrine and practice are drawn from a fundamentally realistic vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize organized religious civic moral activism.
What’s eschatology got to do with it?
- An Augustinian interpretation of the millennium shared in its broadly among Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christendom
- The Roman Catholic version promoted medieval Constantinianism (church over state).
- Lutheran and Reformed reformed amillennialism, tended to focus on doctrine and practice (confessionalism), but had little opportunity to engage in organized religious civic moral activism as we know it today.
- Post-Reformation Protestant Europe replaced Constantinism with ecclesiastical establishmentarianism (state over church); Confessional Protestants complied, affirmed the state’s role in defending the church from heresy, and theoretically denied the state’s right to affect church’s doctrine.
- Twentieth/Twenty-first century Reformed Amillennialism of three varieties (at least): Kuyperian, Two-Kingdom and Theonomic (aka, “Dominionist”)
- An “over-realized” (or utopian) form of amillennial eschatology
- Tended to engage in organized religious civic moral activism
- Held by theologically liberal progressives as well as fundamentalists in the early 20th century.
- Twentieth/twenty-first century Reformed Postmillenialists of two varieties (at least): Kuyperian and Theonomic.
- Anabaptist eschatology (Anabaptism a non-Roman Catholic version of medieval monastic mysticism)
- Tended to retreat from society and thus avoided both organized religious and individual civic moral activism.
- Adopted by fundamentalist Protestants during the bulk of the 20th century in reaction against theologically liberal Postmillennialists.
Two religious trends add complexity to the preceding eschatological and social tendencies: Pietism and Revivalism:
- Lutheran deviation
- Focused on personal piety, neglected doctrine and practice
- An essentially Wesleyan trend adapted by Calvinists (Reformed); partly inspired by Pietism.
- Focused on individual conversion and piety and promoted organized religious civic moral activism.
- It is better for the church to focus on maintaining the purity of her own doctrine, piety and practice, and to leave civic activism (moral or otherwise) to the individual.
- Thus, I find that an Amillennial, Confessional Protestantism that is relatively uninfluenced by pietism and revivalism is the ideal approach for the Christian church.
The preceeding is my attempt to organize the many things I’ve been learning over the years regarding the development of modern American Protestant confessionalism, liberalism, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. This being merely a blog post, and not an academic essay, those of you who are more informed on these issues are invited to critique my bullet points for the sake of accuracy. Those readers for whom the above raises questions or critical comments, these are especially welcome. You sharpen my iron, I’ll sharpen yours!