Friday, August 31, 2007

Legalistic, or grace?

Talk about whether something is "legalistic" always annoys me because it is such an unhelpful word.

"Legalism" is not a clear category at all, and everyone who uses it seems to mean something different, so it's no longer a meaningful word. It's an emotionally loaded term though, so it does have a meaning of a certain kind - it effectively acts as indicating a negative value judgment. ie "it's legalistic" says more about the fact that the speaker places a negative value judgment on the referent than it does about actually describing the referent.

The opposite of "legalism" seems to be "grace", which is a word that is just as bad. I have heard people use the world "grace" to mean at least a dozen different things. It also indicates a positive value judgment.

Thus when I encounter a sentence like "Is it true that Judaism was a religion of grace, not legalistic works righteousness?" my eyes roll.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Things I look for...

I have been thinking about what qualities make a theological book or article "worthwhile" in my opinion. Since I read a lot of different articles and books focused on the same topics, what I look for focuses around whether I can get something out of the work I am reading that was not contained in the other works. Thus, a book or article can be brilliant, but if I don't learn something from it, it is not going to be worthwhile reading in my view. This could of course mean that the single overall best book on the topic for a person to read if they were only going to read one book on that topic, might not be "worthwhile" according to my criteria. I think there are four primary qualities I look for, at least one of which needs to be present:

1. Original scholarship
The author proposes new ideas, novel approaches, a radical thesis... something that makes me stop and think "wow, hadn't thought of that" or "hmm, that's an interesting idea".

2. Breadth of citations
Some writers interact a lot with the rest of scholarly literature. If a book makes reference to the ideas of a hundred other different authors then there's bound to be something to be learned from it.

3. Insightful analyzes
When dealing with a controversial issue, sometimes writers can beautifully lay out the various viewpoints that different people hold on the topic, and explain wonderfully the pros and cons of the different viewpoints. This is often a great help to clear thinking, even though no conclusion may be reached and no original research is done.

4. Strong arguments
This is where the writer provides an abnormally high level of good-logic and evidence-analysis in their arguments. Rather than survey the various views and then sit on the fence, the writer provides the strongest possible argument for their views.

I was thinking about these things because I am currently reading Ben Witherington's Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and trying to work out why I think it is so bad. I think I've convinced myself that the reason I hate it is because it fails abysmally on all four of the above criteria.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A brief history of Christian atonement thought

Christ is primarily seen as a teacher of virtue and monotheism. By hearing and following Christ's teachings and example, Christian converts are able to turn from their old sinful ways and live righteously before God. Some also add teaching of Recapitulation, or Christus Victor/Ransom-from-Satan (CV/RS). No original sin. Final judgement by works. Free Will.

250-500AD, Original Sin in the West
The doctrine of Original Sin develops in North Africa. Pelagius, Augustine, Cassian, between them result in Western Christianity adopting a significantly more pessimistic view of man than Eastern Christianity. Augustine invents the idea of Predestination, but it is not very influential.

350+, A not-so Eternal Hell in the West
In discussion of whether hell is eternal, or whether God might eventually bring hell to an end, it is suggested that perhaps hell is not eternal for Christians who are sent to hell (for their evil works). Western Christianity adopts the idea that for evil Christians hell is not eternal. This leads to it becoming "Purgatory". Thus, Christians unworthy to go to heaven go to purgatory temporarily, prior to heaven.

313-1000AD Atonement Models
In Eastern Christianity the atonement model of Christ-as-teacher merges with the model of Recapitulation to produce "Theosis", which is about both sanctification and ontological transformation (ie humanity becomes 'divine' by becoming godly and virtuous, and also by spiritually 'participating' in God). CV/RS and Theosis both universally taught in East. The East then goes largely into doctrinal stasis.

In Western Christianity the atonement models in use are Christ as teacher of righteousness, CV/RS, and an emerging new idea that conceived of Christ's work as targeted at God and as a gift to him. CV/RS is universally dominant over this period, with Christ as teacher being taken for granted, and Christ-as-gift cropping up occasionally.

1100+AD New and Old Models in the West
In Western Christianity, Anselm challenged CV/RS and drew up a formal version of the Christ-as-gift theory to replace it, which became known as "Satisfaction". The offense given to God by human disobedience was made up for by Christ's faithful obedience to God. Peter Abelard objected vigorously to Anselm's ideas, but rather than defend CV/RS against Anselm's challenge he attempted to reinvigorate the Christ-as-Teacher model, which became known as "Moral Exemplar". Western Christianity from this point on generally dropped CV/RS and became split between Satisfaction and Moral Exemplar

1400-1700 Satisfaction gets a face lift
Anselm's satisfaction model was based on the idea of God as a Feudal Lord and acting according to social norms in accepting Christ's faithfulness as repayment for our disobedience. As society passed out of feudalism his ideas were recast using a paradigm of a Law-Court: "Penal Substitution" (PS). This added to Satisfaction the idea of Christ suffering our punishment. A modified form of PS that was popular for a while was the "Governmental View" which attempts to drop some of the conceptual difficulties inherent in the original.

1500+ Reformation Theology in the West
The Reformers adopted wholehearted the Penal Substitution theology of their day. Original Sin was strengthened by them back to Augustine's levels. Augustine's predestination ideas were reintroduced. Salvation was by "faith alone" and all works were moved into the category of "sanctification" which was made tangential to the main salvation process. "Justification" was redefined, no longer being about inner moral transformation, and now considered to mean a righteous status declared by God that was contrary to our real state of sinfulness.

1700-2000 To the Present Day
The Eastern Orthodox continued to hold their Theosis and CV/RS views. They still endorsed free will, rejected original sin, and held to final judgment by works.

Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics continued to endorse and defend their party lines. Liberal Protestants held the Moral Exemplar view and free will and rejected original sin. Within conservative protestantism the Arminians and Calvinists debated their differences on free will, while the Catholics and Protestants debated their differences on the nature of justification and faith/works, and the conservatives and liberals debated over Penal Substitution and Moral Exemplar.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On interpreting metaphors and genres

Scholar Ben Witherington has a nice post that covers a few common mistakes I often see people make when interpreting the bible.

One thing that surprises me time and again is how bad people are at understanding the concept of, and interpreting, metaphorical language. Now I'm sure most people have done poetry at school, and that if you shoved a line of poetry under their noses and said "identify the similes and metaphors" they could do a reasonable job. And if you asked them to "explain the poet's meaning here" they could probably give a reasonable explanation about what the meaning behind the metaphorical language was and what the poet was saying.

Yet this knowledge seems to fly out the nearest window when it comes to the Bible. Put a line from the bible in front of someone and say "identify the metaphorical language" and you'll be met with blank stares. If you suggest that there's metaphorical language present then your words will be understood as meaning that you are denying the literal meaning of the text (ie refusing to believe the bible) and that this is because you don't believe in the supernatural and that you justify this by 'spiritualising' the text (eg they think you're talking about making the resurrection of Jesus a 'metaphor' for the 'new life' that people feel like they receive when they hear his marvelous teachings). The concept of trying to correctly identify instances of metaphorical language in an attempt to understand authorial intent just doesn't seem able to be fathomed by a surprisingly large number of people, no matter how much effort is put into explaining it.

I think this ties into another problem Witherington isolates - genre identification. Too many people treat the entire bible as if in genre it was a Systematic Theology textbook. ie any and all sentences are intended with dry literalism to state theological facts and the target audience is any theologically-interested reader. Systematic Theological language tends to be always literal and never metaphorical, hence (I suspect) the difficulty some people have with the very concept of metaphors in the bible. This problem also results in a failure to pay attention to the genre of the biblical passage being interpreted. One of the most glaring genre errors I see regularly is people interpreting passages as meaning that "no one can ever do good, so don't bother trying" in sections where the genre is Moral Exhortation.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A gospel of doing nothing?

When I first began theological studies from a conservative Protestant background, I quickly found a universally accepted truth was that salvation was "by faith alone", it was "by grace" and that it was our duty to "rest" on "Christ's finished work". It was considered important to realize that we could "add nothing" to "Christ's atoning work". It was important that we didn't try to "save ourselves" by "human effort". It was extremely important not to add the least bit of "works" to salvation, otherwise you'd be like those (heretical) Roman Catholics and teach (evil) "Works Based Salvation".

Paul's writings about "by grace through faith not works" were considered "irrefutable proof" of this view. Anyone who said anything different was being "unbiblical" and "straying" from the Bible's teachings. Salvation by "human effort" was how "human religions" worked, and all humans who are "in the flesh" inherently by their psychology wanted to try to save themselves, whereas the fact that Christianity relied on God alone for salvation separated it from other religions and caused it to be "nonsense" and "foolishness" to the "natural man". I found that in some quarters there was even worry that our very belief in and acceptance of Christ's finished work for us might be considered something we do, as a work based on human effort that saves us. Thus, some thought that we ought to think of even our faith in Christ's finished atoning work as something given graciously to us by God.

However, now that I've learned a bit more than I once knew about both Pauline theology and the Church Fathers, it is with amusement that I look back on such ideas and claims.

Advances in biblical scholarship in the last thirty years have well and truly refuted the "irrefutable evidence" of Paul's grace, faith and works language... ironically it turned out that grace didn't mean grace, faith didn't mean faith, and works didn't mean works. The New Perspective on Paul has thus cast Paul's writings in quite a different light to the ideas above. Far from being the apostle who rejects the value of human effort, it in fact turns out that not once in any of his writings does Paul reject or deny the value or saving value of human effort to avail before God, and in fact he regularly affirms it.

Studying the early Church Fathers has been no less interesting. I find it reasonable to assume (contrary to some Protestants) that Christianity didn't suddenly disappear out of the world the moment that the New Testament was completed, and that post-NT Christian writings accurately depict the major doctrines of early Christianity. There's a quote by Clement of Alexandria (~200AD) that succinctly summarizes what appears to have been universal early Christian doctrine: "God desires us to be saved by our own efforts." (Stromata 6.12.96) As is attested in the numerous writings we have from the second century church, Christianity worldwide was a religion of "works based salvation".

It was with great amusement then, and also a little frustration and sadness that I recently read this article which made all the claims I had originally been taught as a conservative protestant about how the true gospel is about us trying to cease from human effort and rely on God's salvation. In the article he writes "We do not need a better set of how to's, or a better teacher, or a better therapist." which brought to my mind all the early Christian writings which boasted about Christianity providing precisely these three things. It is really quite amazing, when I reflect on it, that Christianity has come in such a full circle that this writer, in the belief that he is proclaiming the true Christian gospel can be attacking the very essence of original Christianity.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dikaio-, not so forensic

The Dikaio- words [dikaiosune (righteousness), dikaios (righteous), dikaioo (justify, set/do/make/become right), dikaiosis (justification, process of setting/making/becoming righteous), dikaioma (righteous acts)] are fairly important in biblical exegesis and theology.

Sometimes people talk about how the Dikaio- word group can be used in a "forensic" sense (ie legal, law-court language). Certainly this word group was sometimes used in law courts in the ancient world. There's nothing wrong with observing that. But, I was reminded with a shock recently while browsing the internet that some people actually think that the Greek word group itself has to do with law-courts and takes its meaning from a law-court setting and paradigm. In other words, they think that wherever we see a sentence containing a word from this group we ought to start thinking about a law-court setting. As these people read the bible wherever they see a Dikaio- word a law-court pops up in their minds.

The main trouble with this notion of the Dikaio- group as an "intrinsically forensic" word is that it is just utter crap. The vast majority of the uses of the word in both classical literature and the bible have nothing to do with law-courts. The Dikaio- word group is about morality. So it comes in useful sometimes in law-court discussions because law-courts generally try to discriminate the those who have done right from those who have done wrong and then do something about it.

In English, for example, we can talk about "guilty" and "innocent" people. Law courts use these moral terms precisely because they are interested in investigating the pre-existing moral status of individuals and subsequently announcing their findings. People do not become guilty of their crimes just because the court announces them guilty - rather they were already guilty or innocent prior to being tried and it is the court's job to search out and ascertain the truth. It is utter nonsense to talk of a judge making a person morally innocent by declaring them innocent. If the court gives the wrong verdict, the we would say "the judge got it wrong". In other words, the moral meaning of these English words is the primary one and the law-court usage is secondary and contingent on that moral meaning.

It is the same in Greek. "Dikaiosune" refers to morality / righteousness / virtue / goodness, and the "dikaios" are the good/virtuous/moral/righteous people, and so forth for the rest of the Dikaio- group. While such language can be useful in legal discussions, it is getting the cart before the horse to think that such language makes it a legal discussion. Use of such language makes it a discussion of morality and ethics. Moral language can be used in a judicial context of course, but the use of morality-related language doesn't make the context a judicial one. I shudder to think the sort of havoc screwing up the meaning of such a basic, central, and simple word makes to their exegesis and theology. But sadly, the linguistic nonsense of Dikaio- as intrinsically forensic terminology seems to propagate itself precisely because people like the theology it results it - ie the claim seems to be made for theological reasons rather than due to actual evidence for the view.

Pointless historical speculation: As far as I can tell, know or guess, the idea that Dikaio- is intrinsically forensic is a hangover from when the Latin Vulgate crossbreed with the origins of the modern judicial system half a millennia ago. The coincidence that the then-millennium-old Vulgate's Latin terminology happened to match with the then-current Latin judicial terminology was at the time projected back onto the underlying Greek.

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