Michael Bird on the Piper-Wright Debate

Michael Bird published an excellent article on the Wright – Piper debate in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (“What is There Between Minneapolis and St. Andrews?  A Third Way in the Wright-Piper Debate,” JETS 54 (2011): 299-309).  The paper was read at the Atlanta meeting of ETS, and although Piper did not appear as a speaker, his presence was felt as quite a few papers were offered defending traditional views of justification.  Bird comments on the polarized nature of the debate between the “Pipeazzi” and the “Wrightonians.” (I prefer to be called a Wright-Head myself, although I do not follow him around on tour waiting on a miracle.)

Bird describes five points of contention which are at the heart of the debate.  In each case, Bird describes both “sides” and more-or-less charts a course between the two, although overall I think he leans more toward Wright.  I do not really need to comment on his first point (Piper’s objection to the use of Second Temple Period sources to illuminate the New Testament) since Piper is clearly outside scholarship at that point and Bird’s criticisms are right on target.  Bird’s third point is the still difficult problem of the kind of genitive construction Paul had in mind with the phrase “righteousness of God,” something which I am not sure can be solved on exegetical ground.  On his fourth point, I agree with Bird that imputation of righteousness is helpful theological construction built on Pauline theology.  I too flinched when Wright urged the abandonment of the doctrine as non-biblical.  Like the “righteousness of God,” the relationship of faith, works, and future judgment (Bird’s fifth point) is an ongoing problem, but I think that there is a better chance of solving exegetical problems.  There are too many texts in Paul which imply a judgment in the future for believers to ignore, for either side in this discussion.

What really intrigued me in Bird’s article was his second point.  Piper employs an ordo salutis, while Wright has a historia salutis.  In other words, Piper is constructing a systematic theology describing the theological teaching of the whole Bible, while Wright is engaged in biblical theology and showing how Paul fits into an overall history of salvation.  Wright sees the whole Bible (and Second Temple Period), Piper sees the development of a solid theological system after the Reformation.  Because of this, the two men will never be able to agree on some of these issues because their starting presumptions and overarching goals are different.

Bird cites Markus Brockmuhl as saying “whereas lesser mortals may acquiesce in losing the wood for the trees, N. T. Wright deals in inter-galactic eco-systems” (303).  Wright is able to not simply understand and communicate the “big story” of the whole Bible, he is able to bring it to bear on the theology of Paul.  I think that this is where some hear “dispensational like” ideas in Wright.  Clearly N. T. Wright is no dispensationalist in the classic sense of the word, but dispensational theology has always tried to get the “big story” of the Bible right, and then bring that story to bear on the theology of Paul.  (In the end, tt is not so much that Wright is a dispensationalist, but rather than dispensationalism is Wrightonian.)

I have always been attracted to Wright because he is one of the few biblical scholars who is an expert in both Testaments, the Second Temple Period, and church history, and manages to draw these usually separate elements into his writing on Paul (or Jesus).  And it is just this inter-galactic eco-system style biblical theology that overwhelms the systematic theology categories and calls the all into question.  I think that in doing so, Wright is properly walking in the spirit of the Reformers.

Psalm 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)  I am speaking at Northern Grace Youth Camp the next week, back in two weeks with another Psalm.]

When I addressed Psalm 1, I suggested that Psalm 1 and 2 form an introduction to the book of Psalms.  Since Psalm 1 begins with a beatitude and Psalm 2 ends with another, there is a hint that the two Psalms were meant to be read together.  Psalm 3 is the first psalm with a heading identifying a circumstance in David’s life as the occasion for the Psalm.  Perhaps most important is the fact that these two psalms present two themes which re-occur frequently throughout the psalter, wisdom and eschatology.  Psalm 1 contrasted the blessed man, who is fruitful and successful in what he does, and the wicked man, who is fruitless and ultimately useless in all he does. Psalm 2 contrasts two kingdoms, God’s kingdom, ruled by his anointed one, and the kingdom of men, who chaff against God’s kingdom. The blessed one takes refuge in God’s kingdom (2:12).

What is the point of introducing the Psalter with Wisdom and Eschatology?  Most people have a sense that the Psalms are intended for worship.  This is certainly true, but worship in Israel (in contrast to modern America) is not simply setting a “mood” or generating a “spiritual feeling.” Worship in the Psalms always looks back to what God has done and looks forward to what God will do in the future.  The Worshiper therefore stands between these two events and must live on the foundation of the past and the hope of the future.

Since the Psalms were collected some time after the fall of the Israel and Judah, a worshiper using the Psalms looked back to the promises of God to establish his anointed one in Zion, but forward to an ultimate Anointed One who will rule from Zion.  Living between the fall of Jerusalem and the future re-establishment of a kingdom to Israel, the worshiper ought to live a life of wisdom, in harmony with God’s created order.  This is why so many psalms look back to the Exodus.  Just as God has (in the past) rescued his people from Egypt and brought then to the land of their inheritance, he will (in the future) rescue True Israel out of the nations are return them to the Land once again.

For the Church, we live between the death of Jesus and his future return.  Jesus’ death on the cross finally dealt with the problem of sin, providing the basis of salvation in the present age.  While we can be right with God, we are not yet “in the heavens.”  We are adopted into God’s family, but we are not yet with him in glory.  Therefore we look forward to the return of Jesus in the future.  Like Israel, we live between two “salvation events,” the crucifixion and the consummation of the ages.

“The Big Sale” at the Kindle Store

Amazon’s Kindle Store has a “Big Deal” sale running through July 27.  I browsed through the “religion and spirituality” section and found a few things which might be of interest.  Looks to me like the best books are all HarperCollins / Zondervan.

NIV Archaeological Study Bible ($2.99).  This is an excellent resource, many well written sidebars and good notes on historical and archaeological items in the text.  I would say that it is targeted at the interested layman rather than expert.  Well worth the three bucks.

Quest Study Bible ($3.99).  I used to call this the “Things to Do During a Boring Sermon” Bible, since every page is festooned with short notes with interesting trivia or facts which illuminate the text.  It is really the Pop-Up Video of Study Bibles.  Sometimes the “questions” are not what I was thinking about, but they are almost always informative.

N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Part 1) ($2.99),  This whole series is an easy to read introductory commentary, although it is extremely light on details.  I think these are best used in a small group Bible study.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth ($2.99).  This is a classic intro to Bible Study Methods.  Nothing revolutionary, just some solid tools for how to take your Bible reading to a deeper level.  This book is often used as a textbook for a basic Bible Study methods class.

Bart Erhman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend ($1.99).  I always like reading Bart Erhman, after I get past the shock title and cover art (which I assume comes from HarperCollins), I usually find a well written and generally accurate book on a historical level, with about a dozen edgy ideas intended to stir up controversy. It is sorting out the edgy stuff from the valuable which is the challenge.

Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist: When You Believe in God But Live as if He Doesn’t Exist ($2.99).  This book is controversial, and I get questions all the time from people who want to know my “take” on Christian Atheism.  If you are working with college-age people, this might be worth a read.

There are several titles which are usually described as representing the “emergent church.”  Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals ($2.99) and The Irresistible Revolution ($2.99).  I enjoyed The Irresistible Revolution, although there is a great deal of irony attached to reading it on a Kindle or iPad.  Claiborne is something like a Richard Foster for the Millennials, arguing for simplicity and discipline in an overly commercialized word.  He is a good balance to Joel Osteen, although I am not ready to give up my iPod yet.  Might be a little to hippie for most people.

Rob Bell is something of a poster child for the emergent church, although in my view he is not at all “emergent” in his church (but that is for another posting…)  Velvet Elvis ($2.99) was something of an initial shot of Emergence for many of my students, and is an unusually polarizing book.  Two other books from Bell are on sale:  Sex God ($1.99) and Jesus Want to Save Christians ($2.99).

Those are the Kindle “books” which caught my attention.  My guess is that most of these are available as cheap used copies, but this is a great chance to add to your Kindle Library without spending much money.

“Sound Doctrine” – Titus 3:4-8a

This long sentence might be a summary of what Paul means by “sound doctrine” in Titus 2:1.  Gordon Fee called these lines “semi creedal” (1-2 Timothy, Titus, 200)  and nearly all agree that this section was used in some form of liturgy. Paul concludes by declaring this a “trustworthy saying”indicating verses 4-7 that this formulation was well-known to the church.  Since virtually every word can be traced to earlier Pauline writings, it is possible that Paul himself is the source, or someone created the song out of the theology of Paul’s letters. In either case, these few verses are a clear statement of Paul’s understanding of our salvation.

God has acted on our behalf and saved us out of our foolishness (verse 4-5a).  The appearance of the kindness of love of God refers to Jesus. The work of Jesus on the cross is God’s decisive act in history to solve the problem of sin.   Kindness and love are unusual ways to describe God’s motivation for sending Jesus into the world, but the words may reflect the Hebrew idea of hesed, God’s loyalty to his promises and covenant.   Because God is a faithful covenant partner, he acted in Jesus to enable those who are in Christ to keep the covenant in perfection.

Because of Jesus, we can be saved.  The word “saved” is in fact a metaphor which we miss since we use the term so frequently.  We were not just in danger, we were lost and in need to rescue.  In the Psalms David occasionally describes his personal salvation with being pulled out of a flood or a muddy pit, rescued from certain death and set in a level, firm place.

This salvation is not because of“works of righteousness,” rather it is based on the mercy of God.  idea of works of righteousness ought to be understood in the light of the false teachers who likely insisted on things like circumcision or keeping elements of the law.   Rather than a covenant which promises blessings for obedience, this salvation is based entirely on the mercy of God.

This salvation is a rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit (verse 5b-6). Paul uses a metaphor in this verse to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in our new birth.  “Washing” (λουτρόν) and the cognate verb (λούω) frequently refers to ceremonial washing which cleanses one from impurity.  The words are used in the context of preparing for worship or entering into the sanctuary.   For example, the verb is used more than a dozen times in Lev 15 in the context of physical impurity. In Lev 8:6 Aaron and his sons are ceremonially washed as they are installed as priests. In Lev 16 the verb is used to describe the washing of the high priest prior to entering the Holy of Holies.

Paul is therefore developing a metaphor which any person living in the first century would have understood.  If we are to be servants of God, we must be cleansed and made holy so that we are able to serve him (as priests in nay religion might have been cleansed).  It is the action of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation which “washes us” and makes us right with God. He may have in mind a text like Isa 1:16, where the Lord demands the people wash themselves of their sins, or Isa 4:4 where the filthiness of the nation of Israel will be washed away by a “spirit of judgment” and a “spirit of burning.”

Paul therefore has in mind the rebirth or recreation of the person who is dead in their sins; they are “made alive” in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is a hint of eschatology here as well, since the dawning of the new age is described with this same term (παλιγγενεσία).  This is the same regenerating work of the Spirit found in 1 Cor 6:1 and Eph 5:26.

The result of our rebirth is our membership in God’s family (verse 7).  Verse seven begins with a purpose clause and an aorist passive participle.  Our membership in God’s family is predicated on our having been made righteous, or justified, by God’s grace.  While he does not make the point here, justification by grace is always “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  The verb is passive, we do not justify ourselves nor can we create our own righteousness, we are dependant wholly on God’s grace and mercy.

Since we have been justified, we are “heirs” in God’s family. This is an allusion to the theme of adoption from Paul’s earlier letters (Romans 8, for example).  “Be what you are, a child of God.”   This status in God’s family is a guarantee of our future hope.  We know that our inheritance is held by God and that our eternal life is secure in him.

Therefore be devoted to doing good (8b).  To be “devoted” to something (φροντίζω) means to think about it, constantly pursue it, perhaps even to worry about it.  This is more than simply “keep it in mind.”  (I find that when someone says “I’ll keep that in mind” they usually mean, “I am going to ignore what you just said and do what I was going to do anyway.”) The word may be translated “pay attention to” doing good works.

It is remarkable that Paul can say in one line that we are not saved by works, salvation is totally an act of God’s grace, yet in the next line say that we need to do good works. But the order of the lines is critically important!   To reverse them is to destroy the foundation of “sound doctrine” described in these verses.

Ethics in Titus

Saturday I am presenting a workshop at the Family Bible Conference in Grand Rapids.  Titus 1-2 will be covered by Jim Shemaria and Mat Loverin, I have been assigned chapter 3.  I started by ignoring verses 12-15 (travel plans), although verse 14 has the same themes as the rest of the chapter.  I further narrowed my text by placing verses 1-2 with the end of chapter 3, as a conclusion to the central ethical section of the book.  Initially I thought this would make my job easier, but verse 3-8 are a densely packed theological statement which serves as a foundation for the ethical section.  Paul is essentially saying “Since we have experienced such a great salvation, we therefore ought to live in this way…”  This is my introduction, I will return to this topic over the weekend.

The problem Paul addresses in the letter of Titus is the potential for teachers to arise from within the church who teach bad doctrine and are not living an exemplary life.  In order stave off the sorts of which Timothy has in Ephesus, Titus is told to appoint men to the office of elder who are qualified for the position doctrinally, but also men who are of good reputation and will not bring shame to the churches on Crete.

Is this the right way to think about ethical and moral living?  We should behave properly because the world watches us and is either drawn towards Christ because of our consistency, or they are driven away because of hypocrisy.  One of the biggest factors in the anti-church “Spiritual” movement among younger Christians is dissatisfaction with the structure of church since it seems to harbor hypocrisy.  It is not hard to find examples of hypocrisy in every church and denomination, nor is it hard to find people who have rejected Christianity as a whole because of the actions of public Christians.

There is a great deal which is applicable to the church today since modern churches have the same sort of reputation problems as the churches in Crete.  The members of the church are urged to live exemplary lives in terms of both the Greco- Roman world and the Jewish / Christian world.  The elder qualification list in 1:5-9 begins with “above reproach” – someone who is blameless.  Various social groups are addressed in chapter 2 with the same interest in what outsiders think of the members of the church.  What runs through all five of these sets of commands is the idea of being “sensible.”  There is a derivative of the Greek –sophron– for each of the first four categories of believers. This word has the idea of common sense, which is a cornerstone of Greek virtue.  “The Hellenic model is avoidance of extremes and careful consideration for responsible action” (BDAG, citing Aristotle, EN 3.15).  Common sense was “a characteristic of persons distinguished for public service,” and is used in 1 Tim 3:2 as one of the qualifications of an elder. For a woman, the word could take on the idea of chastity or modesty, also characteristics which were important to the Greek world. In fact, these words occasionally on women’s graves, praising them for their high moral character (BDAG).

In every case, this section highlights the sorts of things which would appeal to the Greco-Roman world.  The moral life of the Christian in Titus 2 ought to be attractive to the outsider, drawing them to Christ not repelling them with hypocrisy.  I think this might cause raise some questions, since most people think that the Greco-Roman world was rather sinful and immoral, but that is just the point.  Greek and Roman writers often decried the decline of moral values, Christianity called people to reject the “passions of the world” and embrace a new kind of life.

In Titus 3:3-11, we find the reason for our living for the sake of the Gospel.  Paul develops a contrast between what the believer was (before Christ) and what the believer is now (in Christ).  The person who is “in Christ” has become new, they have been made alive though the washing of the Holy Spirit, and they are in fact now a child of God.   Paul’s call to devote ourselves to doing good (verse eight) is simply the natural response to this change from foolish suppression of the truth to our adoption as heirs of God.

In Praise of Harry Potter

Tonight the final Harry Potter film opens and many bloggers are commenting on the series. Never let it be sad that I too cannot jump on a bandwagon. Like many, I have read through the books many times and have thoroughly enjoyed the films (Prisoner of Azakban remains my favorite book and movie). I am too old to have “grown up” with Harry Potter, but I have watched by eldest daughter as she read the books and watched the films. One of my happiest memories is watching the Potter movies with her over and over (always skipping the Dursleys). For many years she would ask me, “if I get a letter from Hogwarts can I go?” I always said yes, believe it or not.

Since I am teaching at a youth camp at the moment, I was able to talk with some college age campers who did in fact grow up with Potter. We all remember the controversy: Should Christians read Harry Potter? Many people I know were adamant that Christians were somehow destroying their faith by reading the books (even though there is more magic in Narnia and more violence in Middle Earth). For me, the stories had redeeming value, were generally clever, and got my daughter to read at a serious level. We always talked about what was happening in the stories and she was pretty savvy at hearing Christian themes in the books, however generic they might be.

For me, Harry Potter was always about the world which exists just behind ours, if only we had the eyes to see it. Muggles do not see Platform 9 and 3/4, nor do they bother to notice the strange people who walk through a solid brick pillar. Muggles see a strange weather pattern and see a storm rather than Death Eaters flying through London. How the Muggles do not see the Knight Bus is beyond me.

In short, Muggles do not see things as they really are. They are simply blind to the reality all around them. In the world of Harry Potter, the Muggle is more interested in money and possessions than in seeing what is really going on in the world. To use the words of another favorite writer of mine (Douglas Adams), Muggles are more interested in digital watches (iPods, cell phones) than in seeing a mystical and magical world which is right before their eyes.

It is not at all hard for me to draw an analogy to contemporary culture. There are few people who see the world for what it really is. The Christian “story” is an explanation for what is wrong with humans (sin) and how God is creating a new world in which that problem is solved (redemption through Jesus). If one is really viewing the world as a biblical Christian, we see spiritual warfare; we see how the enemy blinds the eyes of people so that they do even know there is something wrong; we see God working in mysterious and often mundane ways to redeem this fallen world. What the Muggles call “coincidence,” we see as the sovereign hand of God to bring about his will.

If you think about Harry Potter in this way, it is not hard to find other analogies. Defense Against the Dark Arts? Every Christian engages in something like that. While I am tempted to draw the analogy between Hogwarts and seminary, I think that might be going too far. Maybe. There are so many archtypical themes in the books that it is easy to be inspired. Good defeats evil. Love overcomes hate. Courage is rewarded. Loyalty is a virtue to emulate. Every life is valuable and worth cherishing.

So enjoy your Harry Potter binge this week. Re-read the books, watch all the movies, proudly where your Gryffindor tie to church, raise your glass of Pumpkin Juice to J. K. Rowling. But spend some time thinking about the way the world really is, just behind the facade the world throws up to blind the Muggles.

Imitators of Christ

I am at West Coast Grace Youth Camp, teaching in a college program intended to help people become comfortable with camp ministry. I started by discussing the somewhat obvious fact that the cam counsellor is a model of the faith to younger campers. This is my conclusion from this morning’s session.

In 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6 Paul praises his readers because they have become imitators of both Paul and the Lord. Imitation of a model was considered to be a form of flattery in the the Roman world, so it is not surprising that Paul would expect his disciples to imitate him. While most people in contemporary culture would be put off by a teacher offering himself as a model of spirituality to be imitated, this was a normal practice in Paul’s day.

Imitation is important because we are command several times in scripture to imitate a model. Paul praises a church for imitating him in 1 Thess 1:3-5 and in Phil 3:10 he presses on toward the goal of Christ-likeness. The very name “Christian” implies that the follower of Jesus are to be “little Christs.”

Understanding imitation is also important because most people imitate some role model anyway. It is natural for humans to gravitate toward someone they respect and imitate they way they speak or the way they act. Think about someone from the “north” who spends a little time in the “south.” Most people start to pick up the accent, even if they do not notice t until they return home and everyone hears the accent. (You can use whatever country you like here, every part of the world has a South with different accents!)

I think that humans are imitators by nature. Children imitate their parents or older brothers and sisters. Kids imitate their favorite sports stars when the play a sport, Musicians often betray an “influence” (how many “new Bob Dylans” have their been?) If we naturally imitate others, we have to make sue that we are imitating the right model. I think that imitation should be intentional. People ought to choose a proper model and use them as a guide to developing their spiritual life. We do this for learning and instrument or perfecting a sport – why is it that we try and be total individualists when it comes to developing spiritual life?

A third reason that imitation is important is that Christians are also constantly modeling their faith to others. People watch and learn whether you like it or not. This too is a biblical model for discipleship. The disciples of Jesus were to be models for later disciples, Paul appointed Timothy and Titus and expected them to model their fait to the churches where the served. So too then the individual Christian imitates a mature role model and then model their faith to others. This chain of model and imitation creates a chain of tradition, which can be good or bad.

The challenge is to be a model worth following.