N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review)

the-day-the-revolution-beganI suppose I’ll begin with a bit of a confession: I’ve been a devoted N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now, during which I’ve read all his major monographs and most of his popular works (excluding the commentaries, of which I do own the majority). Surprising as it may be for some, before I read Calvin, Bavinck, or even Vanhoozer, I was reading Wright. While I have become critical of certain elements, or tendencies in Wright’s work, I cannot stress how massive his (massive) works have been in shaping my broader Biblical and New Testament theology. This is especially the case with his atonement theology, which I have discussed and defended here).

When I heard he was coming out with a big book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began, I was very excited (as were half the theological nerds in the Western Hemisphere). Having read it now, I will say it’s vintage Wright in just about every sense of the word. Whether it’s the story-telling, the punchy language and style that grips you and carries you along (I read the 400 pages in about 2 days), the stimulating biblical insight, the pastoral application, and the passionate polemics—good and bad—it’s all there in spades.

Against MPP

I mentioned the polemics because they’re central to his project. Wright wants to explain how Jesus’ death at 6 on a Friday managed to launch the revolution of love which transformed the cosmos. But he thinks in the Western church that message has been overshadowed by another, cut-rate gospel. Instead of worrying about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), though, Wright is interested in correcting Moralistic Platonic Paganism (MPP). He says the church has all too often moralized our problem (making sin about bad behavior instead of its root, idolatry), we have platonized our eschatology (making it about going to heaven instead of resurrection and New Creation), therefore paganized our soteriology (making it mainly about an angry Father randomly punishing an innocent Jesus, instead of the loving self-offering of God).

This alternative set-up he calls the “works-contract.” It’s a cut-down story that sounds a lot like some 4 Spiritual Laws, or “Romans Road”, or Chick-Tract presentations of the gospel. Humans are supposed to be good, they fail, God is angry with them, but Jesus comes and obeys for us, suffers the wrath of God in our place, and so we get to go heaven with a much calmer God now. Against this, he sets a much more comprehensive story beginning with Adam, continuing on through Abraham, Israel, the Exodus, the Exile, and down on into Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s ways with us. For those familiar with Wright’s earlier works, the story is fairly familiar.

Before jumping in, I’ll say that I think Michael Horton has given a very fair-handed summary and review of the work. He touches on a number of issues I pass over and probably better worth your time than the lengthy business which follows.

That noted, I’ll first note a number of the positives of Wright’s work and then jump into a couple of lengthier engagement/critique sections.

The Goods

First off, this is a good distillation of Wright’s broader project of telling the story of Jesus in the New Testament in its many-splendored dimensions. Wright is at pains to keep the story of the gospel properly complicated because historically-situated. Or rather, he wants to make sure that we appreciate the fullest sense in which the death of Jesus makes sense “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15).

And so, Wright tells the big story about God’s creative purpose in Adam, and the winding plan of setting that purpose back on its course through the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and so forth. His expansion (not correction) of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as the “covenant of vocation” is fruitful (on this, see the Horton review). What’s more, his foray into the prophets, especially his examination of the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah are also very insightful.

This is also important because there is a tendency in some recent works in atonement theology to emphasize that language about atonement (sacrifice, justification, ransom, etc.) is metaphorical. Which is true enough as far as it goes. But some take that so far as to suggest that the metaphors were chosen by the apostles in a joyfully, haphazard way (and therefore culturally-relative one) to communicate something great had happened. Wright firmly insists that the apostolic presentation, indeed that of Jesus himself, is not random, nor interchangeable, but must and can only be understood in relation to the story of Scripture—as the culmination of the God’s works and ways with Israel.

Beyond that, his chapters on the First Century context and the Gospels might be my favorites. In a sense, much of this isn’t new, since the seeds were present in his Jesus and the Victory of God. That said, his special focus on showing Jesus’ self-understanding to be the broader matrix of the Passover and New Exodus, the forgiveness of sins which establishes the Kingdom of God is crystalized here with a clarity and specificity with respect to the atonement that hadn’t always come through in earlier works.

Indeed, I took particular delight in the section on the atonement in the Gospel of Luke. I took a special reading class in my M.A. in which I had to write on the atonement in each of the Gospels. Given the state of much of the conversation, I had a difficult time of it especially since I was probably too fixated at the time on finding particular sayings like the so-called “ransom saying” of Mark. But Wright’s attentiveness to the narratival-theological construction allows him to draw out representation, substitution, and the victory of the king in the stories of Barabbas, the encounters with thieves on the cross, and Jesus’ own depictions of his own suffering on behalf of Israel (213-216).

Which brings me to a final point of appreciation: Wright never loses sight of the fact that all of Jesus’ work must be held together, especially the cross and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the goal of the cross and the cross is the shape of the kingdom. What’s more, the threads weaving the two together have been there from the very beginning of the story until its grand denouement.

As such, there is much to be commended and plenty that will preach nicely throughout any Lenten season series any pastor reading this may be planning.

These things being said, I must turn to a couple of criticisms and critical questions. This will be lengthy, but please bear in mind that the book is 400 pages long, so to engage any of his multiple arguments with any coherence requires more space than usual.

On Caricature

Probably the most distracting and potentially misleading part of the work is Wright’s polemical engagement throughout with his “works-contract” construct. Funny enough, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”—an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together as a foil for his own reading of Paul—something Wright dinged him for in Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Now, Wright has a sense many will suggest that’s what he’s doing: “Some will no doubt accuse me of caricatures…” (147). So he clarifies that what he’s describing is quite real in much of the popular preaching and teaching in the church and the experiences of average lay-people.

That is something I think we need to be prepared to admit. And not just as a concession that is a set-up for a counter-argument. I think there is plenty of bad cross-preaching of all sorts and much of it verges into the works-contract kind. Conservatives, especially the Reformed sort, need to be careful to correct the sorts of mistakes (trinitarian, Christological, covenantal) which lead our people to “hear” the sort of Moralistic Platonic Paganism Wright talks about. Indeed, we shouldn’t just avoid it, but actively try to correct it. Insofar as Wright is correcting those accounts, there is much that is helpful in his reframing of the narrative. (Though, that said, I think at the popular level, Joshua Ryan Butler’s recent work The Pursuing God probably is more helpful still.)

The problem, though, is at times he lets on that it’s not just bad pop-accounts under his scalpel. Rather, he suggests even the more nuanced accounts of the older views that “theologians” (those sad, well-meaning blunderers), fall prey to many of his criticisms. This actually comes out heavily in his big chapter on Romans 3. He throws out about 15 reasons why the “old” reading of the text doesn’t work. Again, if he’s talking about a simple 4 Spiritual Laws reading, sure. But if he’s addressing the nuanced views of say a Greg Beale, John Stott, Michael Horton, Jeremy Treat, or even more older covenantal thinkers like a Herman Witsius (see his Economy of the Covenants), I think only about 2 or 3 of those points would receive pushback. More on this later.

This is part of the problem of mounting the sort of criticisms he makes in a popular-level book. It’s “popular” in that it has no footnotes or endnotes, which is no sin in itself. But he is making much more complicated arguments than typical “popular” treatments, like certain arguments going on within NT scholarship (such as his subtle digs at the Apocalyptic school, etc.).

It seems that if you’re going to be throwing around charges like that, it’s only fair to name the names. It’s not only that the accused have the right to face their accuser—they ought to know if they’re being accused.

Which brings me to the point about novelty and the rhetoric of newness I have raised before. I joked online earlier that a key point in Wright’s book is that he’s “not a specialist in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” (32). Which is fine. We have other specialists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for just that sort of thing. (I’m not one to talk as I’m not a specialist in anything yet!) The only problem comes when you decide to set up your own construction by way of explicit contrast with what was taught in those centuries. In which case, not misrepresenting or bowdlerizing them becomes more important.

With Wright, you get this sense that between the 1st and the 21st Century some decent things happened, but, it’s now that we can really get things sorted out. Past theologians are there mostly to be patted on the head for those things they didn’t botch, then corrected, but not so much to be learned from currently.

Now, I’m all for sola Scriptura, subjecting our tradition to the word of God afresh and so forth. There are any number of places where I’m going to side with Wright’s exegesis over, say, Calvin’s. But this sort of approach of Wright’s tends to have the danger of reinforcing in younger Christians a curiosity which is intoxicated with the novel and the “fresh” for its own sake. It’s the sort that leads you to think reading Calvin’s or Aquinas’ or Irenaeus’ exegesis probably isn’t worth your time in the first place. In which case, in our attempt to get free of 16th century cultural presuppositions, we’re exposed to the greater danger of becoming ensnared with 21st century ones.

Or again, for the parishioner who reads the book and loves it, if their pastor manages not to frame things exactly as Wright does here—if they happen to use theological shorthand at times that resembles the “works-contract” because they don’t have space to recap the entire biblical narrative—well then they’re now guilty of peddling MPP. I don’t think that’s Wright’s intent, but given the rhetoric, it might be (and likely will be) what people hear.

Puzzles Over Punishment

Moving to issues more properly exegetical and theological, I’ll admit that the status of punishment and propitiation in Paul leaves me a bit confused. I think it’s the result of Wright not saying a great deal, before he gets around to saying what he does mean. But even then, things don’t come out so clearly. Of course, it could just be my poor reading skills, but Horton also noted some confusion at this point, and Dane Ortlund was quite…frustrated  about this section.

What is clear is Wright is very sure he doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who gets angry we’ve done bad things and just needs to punish (i.e. kill something) to blow off steam, so he can love us in heaven. Good. Nor should any of us.

That said, Wright also doesn’t fit the vibe of the non-violent, post-Girardian (J. Denny Weaver, Brian Zahnd), or Neo-Anabaptist (D. Snyder Belousek) paradigm. Much of his rhetoric does at points, but he still says very clearly God has wrath, that he punishes sin, that Exile is the punishment of sin, and that punishment can even be a part of the righteousness of God insofar as it is part of his faithfulness to his covenant (in which he threatened punishment as the result of idolatry).

In all of this, Wright’s very good aim seems to be to show that there is nothing arbitrary about the connection between sin and the punishment of death. Choose the God of life, you get life. Choose the non-gods, the idols, obviously that will pay out in death. Now, theologically, I think his account of divine agency is fuzzy there as well. Since on the one hand he admits God is at work in the process in order to rule out a simple, mechanic process of cause and effect (338), but then goes on to the next page to almost reduce punishment language to merely a way of talking about the natural consequences of sin (339). So he seems to take with his left what he gives with his right at times in a way that is confusing.

But beyond that, in dozens of places, Wright says Jesus suffers the punishment of exile, the consequences of Israel’s sins, the curse of Torah, and so forth as their representative and therefore their substitute. The forgiveness of sins, “comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole” (211; cf. 240, 337). So, again, this is quite explicitly not an anti-penal-substitution work per se.

Second, it is also clear he wants to make sure that nobody ever tells the story of Jesus and the atonement without setting it within and as the culmination of the story of Israel. That is precisely when the image of “punishment” can threaten to become central to the whole story, and turn things from a Biblical drama, to a pagan one (339). This is also an important thing to be avoided.

He affirms most of the component pieces of penal substitution, then, even if he rearranges some of them and modifies others, especially in the reading of key texts, especially in Paul. And it’s there in these modifications that many questions arise for me, and I think might confuse others.

Romans 8:1-4

In Romans 8:3, for instance, he repeats his long-standing claim that Paul God condemns “Sin in the flesh of Jesus”, but not Jesus himself. Okay. On one view, that might mean something like, “Jesus, enters the story of election as the True Israel, enters their accursed state, assumes responsibility for it, for all their sin and idolatry, and suffers the penal consequences in a representative, substitutionary way in his death. In that death, God condemns our sins, but we know what he really thinks about Jesus.”

Here’s one oddity about that view.

Right before that, Wright makes a point of saying that Romans 7 is telling us that the Law was given to Israel (at least in part) so that “Sin” could be drawn to one point, heaped up and shown for what it is, “so that it could be condemned there once and for all” (282). But “Sin” in the singular refers to “the powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness”, a sort of short-hand personification of this, and maybe even “the satan” (284), who dominates and enslaves humans who have handed over their power to the powers in their idolatry; sins lead to and become and empower Sin (280). And so he says:

But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives…Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.  Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself… (287)

And so, he sees it as “penal” and even “substitutionary” since because of it “sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not” (287).

I have to be honest, I still don’t understand what it means that God condemns Sin personified in the flesh of Christ. Again, if you’re trying to parse the difference between condemning Jesus as a sinner loaded with guilt, or the one who assumes guilt for others, or the one who assumes liability to punishment, there are a number of scholastic distinctions that can help clarify this point. If that includes “the totality of what sin causes in the world and its nastiness”, sure.

But once you throw in condemning Sin as the powers, or even as the satan himself, there is a bewildering lack of clarity, as there seems to be no mechanism for metaphysical or moral identification in which Christ’s death equals the condemnation of the powers or Satan. Nor is it at all clear how this condemnation of the powers or Satan or the total situation deals with the guilt and liability of human punishment. So this is a coherence question I’m left with.  (If you have any suggestions as to where I’ve gone wrong, feel free to comment below.)

Romans 5:8-11

Another section I have questions about is Romans 5:8-11. Admittedly contradicting his own earlier reading in his commentaries and books (272), Wright rejects the view that Paul says Jesus saves us from God’s coming anger (5:9), by being a present propitiation, having wrath fall on himself instead (connecting it with Romans 3:24-26). He thinks that doesn’t make sense anymore, though, because being “being justified in by his blood” is supposed to save us “from the wrath or anger that is still to come.” But if wrath has been meted out in Christ in Romans 3:24-26, “why would Paul speak of it in chapter 5 as still future”, or as a store of wrath still to come (2:5)?

Now, on its own, I’m not convinced that argument is very strong. It seems easy to speak of a proleptic wrath executed now in the Messiah which counts for believers, which anticipates and corresponds to a judgment of wrath still to come in the future and would fall on them were they outside of Christ. Or it is at least analogous to speaking of a proleptic resurrection in Christ now, which corresponds to a resurrection still to come in the future. I suppose that we could be dealing with a proleptic declaration that no wrath is coming for you because of the event of the cross, but it’s not at all clear or necessary. Not enough to make me prefer Wright’s new exegesis over his old, at least.

Wright says again later on in his discussion of Rom 3:26-27, that if in 5:9 (which he takes to be summarizing the effects of 3:26-27) being “justified by his blood” just means “being saved from wrath”, 5:9 would be a tautology “(“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”). To this, I’ll simply note that some repetitions, or pleonasms, can be clarifying since it’s really a way of speaking of the same reality from different aspects.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that if 5:9 is summarizing the effects of 3:26-27, we have a strict tautology. Rather, it could mean that “being justified by his blood” (being declared in the right in the court, etc. etc.), Paul is clarifying that one of the effects is being saved from wrath in the future.

These linguistic or exegetical points aside, I suppose my theological question is whether Wright believes Paul to be saying that wrath is something entirely future, which is staved off by an act which is definitely not the execution of wrath or propitiation in the present. Based on certain passages, that’s very fuzzy (see 330-331).

But then I wonder if Paul thinks “condemning Sin in the flesh of Jesus” in the present is an act of God’s wrath? In the Old Testament, wrath is not simply an emotion, but often is another way of speaking of God’s judgment, his condemnation in accordance with his law. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7 clusters wrath and anger with the punishment of idolatry together as largely the same thing (cf. also 2 Kings 17’s narrative of Israel’s deportation). Another way of saying it is that condemnation or punishment is wrath considered legally.

In which case, if Romans 8:3 does speak of the condemnation of Sin because of which those who are in the Messiah no longer face condemnation in the future (8:1), it seems that Paul does think that at least Sin has suffered the wrath of God upon himself in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, though there will be wrath meted out in the future against sinners as well.

On a similar note, jumping out of Paul (and I suppose that’s dangerously systematic), when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup of God’s wrath in connection to the cross (Mk. 14:36; Matt 26:39; p. 221 in Wright) does he drink it then? Because that would seem to be the natural reading (see Jeremy Treat’s examination of the removal of wrath through Jesus in the gospel of Mark in The Crucified King, 132-133).

And if so, does Paul disagree that is what’s happening there on the cross (that Jesus is experiencing God’s eschatological wrath then)? Or is it just that Wright thinks Paul is speaking of a different sacrificial logic in this passage? Or maybe it’s a different kind of wrath at the end-time? In which case, is Wright simply saying that in those verses (Romans 3:24-26, 5:9, 8:3) Paul isn’t talking about wrath being suffered by Jesus, even though if you asked him, he would of course affirm he had on an independent logic? But if so, does that deflate the argument that Paul pointing to the deflection of wrath in the future means he can’t be relating it to the suffering of wrath in the present by Jesus?

I get that Wright’s a biblical scholar who looks askance at certain systematic constructions for flattening out, or dehistoricizing too many edges of the various texts. At some point, though, the systematicians get to look back and ask whether those edges are too sharp that they’ve become a reading hazard.

Of course, on Wright’s older reading, the reading where Paul talks about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath against sin now in the cross, saving us from his eschatological wrath in the future, it appears there is an easier, or more straightforward fit with Jesus’ and within Paul on this point. In which case, for now I suppose I’ll retain that version of Wright.

Romans 3 and Purgation

Now, I should say something very brief about his argument in chapter 13 about Romans 3:21-26. In the first half of the chapter he drops anywhere between 10 to 15 arguments against taking it in a way that fits with a “works-contract” view, both the “bargain-basement” outline he sets up (301), as well as the more nuanced versions. Now, about 12 of them are great arguments against a very simplistic “Romans Road” presentation, but I think the points behind them can be easily incorporated in the “nuanced” versions as well (including Wright’s older view).

One point which doesn’t fit so easily concerns what he says about the redemption or Exodus that comes through putting Jesus forth as a hilasterion of Romans 3:25. Wright has changed his views from his commentaries and earlier books here. He still thinks the term refers to the lid of the ark, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle or Temple. But Wright no longer connects it to the logic of covering (327), nor to propitiation as he used to, where in the past God over-looked sin, but now he punishes it in Christ. According to Wright, if that was the logic, then Paul shouldn’t have connected it with the Day of Atonement (330).

Instead, he has adopted a different view which connects the logic of the Day of Atonement with cleansing and purgation, not covering or punishment (though for that matter, he thinks covering didn’t imply punishment either). On this view, the death of the sacrifice is ancillary to the all-important releasing of the blood which the priest manipulates in the Day of Atonement ceremony. This blood symbolizes the power of life which cleanses. So death is necessary to the release blood, but isn’t central to its meaning in that sense (329).

The idea is that through idolatry, humans become sinful, their sins leads to and bring the pollution of death. But death is contrary to God who is the source of life and is a defilement of God’s holy Temple. This defilement accumulates throughout the year around the people, the land, and the sanctuary. In order to enter the Presence of God, then, “the sacrificial blood is the sign of God-given life, a life more powerful than death, a life therefore that purifies both sanctuary and worshipper. Cleansing thus enables meeting” (334). Jesus is the place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet, and this is enabled by his cleansing blood.

In the end, it seems he’s suggesting some sort of “propitiation via expiation” view whereby wrath is turned away by cleansing. Or in light of the way he connects it to the other texts above, a “future propitiation via present expiation/purgation” view. At least that’s the best I can come up with given the back and forth of affirmations and denials gives in the chapter.

Now, Wright has many things going for him. For one thing, he’s right that not every sacrifice in the OT has mainly to do with punishment and too often they have been treated as such in popular accounts. What’s more, there is definitely a clear element of purgation and cleansing in the Day of Atonement rituals as scholars as Jacob Milgrom and others following him have shown. Some of the more interesting bits of recent scholarship on sacrifice of late has been around pinning down just how that is supposed to work.

In response, though, I’d like to note a few things to complicate matters and suggest that death is significant as death for more than its life-blood releasing function.

First, I suppose I simply disagree about the blood. Leon Morris’ old linguistic work on the meaning of “blood” still has merit. Considering the wider use of the term blood in the Old and New Testaments, the dimension of life released by violent death within it cannot be entirely erased or reduced to life simpliciter.

Second, and this may be too broadly formulaic, but ever since Genesis 2-3, death just is the punishment for sin, the curse of the Law, the outworking of wrath, etc. in Scripture. While not all deaths are suffered as the direct judgment of God, theologically there is no death which is not the result of the curse and wrath of God. It seems very hard, then, to eliminate this meaning entirely from the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

Third, I am not sure Wright lets the Passover and the Day of Atonement interplay do enough work. At the Passover, though atonement isn’t the main point, the blood on the door acts as a covering protecting Israel from the angel of death, the judgment and wrath of God destroying the sinful flesh of the representative firstborn of every house. In the Passover, there is protection from the wrath of God against guilty sinners, yes through the covering of blood, but also through the death for death equation.

Finally, I can only note that Leithart’s recent account of sacrifice in Delivered from the Elements of the World (91-121) as a very helpful alternative. He takes into account all of the most recent developments in the very dense literature of sacrifice and comes up with a nuanced account of substitution and sacrifice, which includes all that Wright says and more. So he has purgation, but he also manages to retain the notion “covering” in kipper and kapporeth translated to hilasterion without reducing it strictly to purgation. What’s more, he also maintains the importance of the death of the sacrifice dealing with the problem of sinful flesh. Perhaps his attunement to the ubiquity of that problem accounts for much of their differences.

Or again, you could go back to Wright’s older reading.

I realize this last section on Romans 3 is my weakest in the subsection, but it’s gone far too long anyways, so let me make just one last criticism.

Disarming the Power of Prosecution

As I noted earlier, Wright is very helpful in not separating what God has joined together: kingdom and cross, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of the powers. The quibble I have here is that I think he’s missed a key, linking element.

Take Colossians 2:13-15. Here Paul talks about the ironic stripping and defeat of the powers in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Wright, the powers are both the earthly principalities, rulers and authorities (Herod, Caesar, Caiaphas, etc.) as well as the “dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them”, or the demonic (259). How does the forgiveness of sins coming through the cross which “blots out the handwriting against us” (Torah which excluded Gentiles and condemned Jews), lead to victory over the powers?

Wright thinks that it happens because the powers gain power precisely in our idolatrous worship of them. We hand over power to them and they enslave and dominate us. But “when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power” (259). Because sin is defeated, the idols power is broken. Because I am dead to the Law, it’s divisions don’t divide, and the blessings of God can flow to the Gentiles. Now, this is all true, but I think it misses the fact that part of the power of the powers is that of accusation.

The Devil is the Accuser, and part of his power over sinners the judgment of the Law itself which rightly condemns them for sin, even if Satan a perverted prosecutor. We are guilty. We do stand condemned, exiled from God’s presence. So when the powers accuse, they have a point. That is, until they are stripped of that point. Verse 15 logically follows off of verse 14 because the forgiveness of sins comes in doing away with our guilt and sin in it condemnation in the cross of Christ.  This is how we are “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It’s also why in John’s vision, in one of the great cosmic battle scenes, the saints are said to conquer over the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) by way of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but since one of the strongest points of Wright’s work is to tie these two themes together, that this key bit of analysis remains murky is puzzling and weakens the argument as a whole.

(For more on all this, Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King is the best work to date treating both biblical and systematic categories. On Colossians and Revelation, see 111-127)

Conclusion

I suppose I’ll cap this all off by saying, this I think Wright is eminently helpful on the atonement in general, but that he is even more so in his earlier works. There is plenty to take, digest, preach, and indeed, live in this volume. But I worry, though, if this is someone’s first or second volume on the atonement or the cross, especially someone without theological training, the heavy polemic as well as a couple of the material proposals would be confusing and misleading. Of course, no volume is without its flaws, so go ahead and take it up, just bear some of these things in mind.

That said, I will continue to read Wright with anticipation and delight, and continue to recommend his books, but on the subject of the atonement, I will likely be referring to his earlier works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: If you’re looking to read or recommend accounts that avoid MPP, but don’t quite fall into these issues a few volumes come to mind. I’ve already mentioned Joshua Butler’s popular work as well as Jeremy Treat’s. Both are top notch. Also, Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed is fantastic. Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker didn’t get a lot of attention, but I think that’s a mistake since it’s a very balanced, recent offering.

Finally, I have my big, long post on answering objections and correcting mistakes around Penal Substitution which has more recommendations at the bottom.

 

Huckabee’s Heart-Change And Ours: Millennial Issues With Love, The Body, and Marriage

weddingA couple of weeks ago the SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land and the universe was engulfed in a sea of rainbow-colored joy. Or anger. Or grief. Or ecstasy. Honestly, there were about as many reactions as there were colors in the rainbow. In any case, a swarm of articles on the subject have gone up, both by non-Christians and Christians of all persuasions; articles full of arguments, historical narratives, questions, answers to questions, cartoons, and God knows what else.

And, honestly, I have tried to avoid them. Pretty much unsuccessfully, but there you have my vulnerable confession of how little I’ve wanted to have anything to do with discussing the subject online. It’s a difficult enough issue to discuss in person, especially when you want to be pastoral. What’s more, this is not a hobby-horse for me. In the last four years of ministry, I’ve explicitly taught on the subject twice, and only because the biblical text in question raised the question.

One of the most recent of these articles was by Tyler Huckabee–an Evangelical writer, blogger, and former editor of Relevant magazine–in which he wrote about his change of heart on same-sex marriage. It’s a personal narrative of sorts, with an articulation of his reasons thrown in, and a closing appeal at the end.

What I’d like to do in this piece is offer some analysis and commentary on his post.

Now, some of you might be asking, given that up until now I’ve kept my trap shut, why this piece? In a lot of ways, I think many millennials are resonating with this one in a particular way. It is representative of the reasoning and feelings of a many of the youngish, Evangelicals on the fence who might read the piece and say, “Ya, man, that’s kind of the deal for me too. Thanks for articulating it for me.” This is a niche that seems worth addressing.

Also, we are in similar positions. Unlike guys like Gagnon and Brownson, or DeYoung and Vines, I haven’t written academic or a popular book on the subject. Neither has Huckabee. We’re both bloggers and ex-somethings. He’s the ex-editor of a major, Christian magazine and I’m a soon to be ex-college pastor of a not-so-major college group. Also, everybody says Huckabee is a sweet, reasonable guy, so I figure he’ll be a good conversation partner.

To start, you probably ought to read his article before this one, or what follows might not make sense.

Appreciation. First, there are a couple of things I appreciate about Huckabee’s article.

Obviously, he clearly thought about it slowly and maturely, and I can appreciate that writing it can’t have been easy given the church friends he’s had/has, or the way this might affect future publishing opportunities in the Evangelical world. It will certainly make other spheres of influence easier to navigate, particularly the much broader culture outside Evangelicalism, but there will certainly be some cost. Some might cynically say that the timing is suspicious, but I think that would be unfair. It’s clear he’s been chewing on it for a while.

The other thing I really appreciate is that he doesn’t just do the full “conversion to the light” narrative, and run to seeing traditional Christians holding a classic view of marriage as obviously bigoted, or motivated by some deep-seated animus. That’s something many who have adopted an affirming stance only recently can’t seem to stop themselves from doing. And I hope, if Huckabee doesn’t change his mind back, that’s something that he’ll influence others to understand as well.

That said, I’ll try to give you what I take to be the heart of Huckabee’s argument, and offer up some assorted criticisms and questions in no particular order. To be clear, for me, the issue in this article is the affirmation of same-sex marriages or relationships as the church, not the State question, which is an interesting and important, but fundamentally distinct issue for another time.

The Main Argument. The heart of Huckabee’s argument, rooted in his reading of Genesis 2, is that the main aim of marriage is not procreation or the propagation of the human race–the relational God is more romantic than that—but rather to deal with the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, the procreative function is there, but for Huckabee, it is not primary, nor central, nor even necessary to the definition and reality of marriage as an institution or practice. No, Huckabee sees the issue of loneliness as the pressing one in Scripture, and our focus on procreation has misled us on this point. For this reason, we have unfortunately restricted those with same-sex attraction to the position of irredeemable loneliness solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And Huckabee admits that he can’t do that anymore.

The rest of Huckabee’s arguments, or stories about the way his textbook Bible college theology crumbled in the face of real people’s struggles, are aimed at shoring up that contention.

The first real comment worth making is that his entire argument is premised on the assumption that marriage and sex are the main or only viable relationships to deal with being “alone.” For Huckabee, close friendships, parental relationships, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, extended families, or even the community of God given to us in the church, are just not in view as part of God’s remedy for humans being alone. And this is where I think Huckabee’s main argument shows some real inconsistency.

Huckabee rejects the claim that the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 gives us the normative standard for marriage as the man/woman pair. He finds irrelevant Adam and Eve’s obvious, bodily complementarity, highlighted linguistically in the Hebrew pairing “ish/ishah” in the outburst of Adam’s poetry “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman / because she was taken out of Man” after having Eve plucked from his side (2:23). The earlier command in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply”(1:26-28), and even the later indications of Torah and Tanakh that marriage and procreative possibility are linked (levirate marriage, Mal.2:15, etc) are likewise of decisive importance. None of these things point Huckabee absolutely to the idea that marriage and the uniting of two to become one flesh is only about a man and a woman. It’s only and primarily about “being alone” and finding someone to fix that problem.

If that’s the case, my question is, why restrict the solution to the problem of “being alone” to the specific relationship of marriage with its spiritual and physical union, just because that’s specifically what happens to occur in the text? In other words, if all these other features of the narrative don’t figure in determinatively as a normative part of the solution to Adam’s “being alone,” why should the sexual union part of it figure in either? Why not just see it as a story of God giving one sexually-non-determinate person another sexually-non-determinate person to be friends with?

I actually think that’s a valid question, in general. Even a traditional reader might affirm the importance of sexual differentiation (all those other feature I just listed) and still note that Adam and Eve together form the basis and beginning of human community in general. That in turn provides a basis for all those other relationships that give humans whole, meaningful lives that don’t have to be spent “alone”, even outside heterosexual marriage.

It is here that Huckabee, like so many of us, has bought into the cultural (and dare I say, “Evangelical youth group”) myth that marriage and sex is the only possible completion of our human experiences of love and wholeness. Ernst Becker pointed out that in the modern period, with the loss of belief in God, we’ve idolized the sexual and romantic Other so that it has become nearly impossible to imagine a full, whole, or even joyful-though-costly life without one. And this conceit I find to be entirely untrue on the basis of Scripture, reason, and not to mention, experience.

While Huckabee worries that the procreative view insults or diminishes those couples experiencing barrenness—which I’d argue it doesn’t—I am quite sure his view ends up diminishing and deeming as lesser the experiences of millions of single, celibate men and women in the Church, both gay (and the vast majority who are straight), throughout history down into the present. I refuse to believe the contemporary narrative which sees them as “cursed” by God simply because they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in this life, something they may even deeply desire. There’s more to be said here, but let’s pass to the next subject.

Scripture and the Meaning of the Body. One of the main themes that emerges upon examination is Huckabee’s handling of Scripture and the body. One particular element that stood out to me was his handling of the apostle Paul’s thought on the matter. Of course, that’s not a surprise. If you’re going to change your mind on sexuality and marriage, you’re going to have to reckon with Paul’s many statements on the issue.

Some of his responses are fairly common these days. He raised the often-mentioned and often-answered question of whether Paul “knew” about the kinds of gay relationships we’re talking about now, only to assert that we can’t know either way. I think Paul did, but even if he didn’t, it actually wouldn’t matter given the way Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is thoroughly rooted in his reading of Genesis 1-3. But, we can’t settle that out here.

This section was far more interesting to me:

Paul was a bit reserved about marriage to begin with: “To the unmarried and the widows,” he says in 1 Corinthians. “I say it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry.”

This is a rather dim view of sex, which isn’t all that surprising, considering Paul. He seemed hugely unbothered by anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. I love him for this, but I can’t help but think he would scratch his head at a good deal of the fuss made about marriage in modern Christianity.

Having spent the last 9 months preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students, knee-deep in commentaries on the subject, I must admit I found the comment rather bizarre. What can Huckabee mean by Paul’s preoccupation with “strictly spiritual” matters? Surely not the idea that Paul didn’t care about both body and soul? That’s the point of the argument in 1 Corinthians 5-7. Read any of the major commentaries (Thiselton, Hays, or Wright) to verify this.

I mean, goodness, in the chapter right before, Paul says to the Corinthians to honor God in your body (6:20). Why? Because resurrection means the body is for the Lord (6:13), to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), which is why God bought it at a price (6:20). For Paul, you shouldn’t eat idol food because food can be a form of worship, and, indeed, even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God (10:31). Everything is “strictly spiritual” for Paul.

This brings me to Huckabee’s criticism of Matthew Lee Anderson’s massive article on marriage, procreation, and same-sex marriage. As you might guess, central to Anderson’s point is that eros, the romantic love central to marriage, finds its fulfillment in procreation, as the child becomes an icon of the parents’ love. What I find interesting was that Huckabee criticized it as a “crude materialism” that reduces love to “flesh and function.”

That’s a rather odd criticism of Matt’s piece and there are a number of ways’ of responding to it. The one that’s relevant to us comes in view when we connect this criticism to his comments on Paul, as well as his earlier reading of Genesis 1 and 2. When we do this, Huckabee’s critique reveals a semi-Gnostic, anti-materialistic view of humanity as body and soul, flesh and spirit, and his failure to appreciate the way the Creator has written a moral and spiritual grammar into the body itself.

For those who chafe at that idea, remember, Christianity is something of a crassly materialistic faith to begin with. God makes dirt. Then he shapes and breathes life into a man out of the dirt. Then he makes a woman from the man. Then, God becomes a man born to a woman as a gendered Jew in the 1st Century. That’s all very crudely materialistic.

Or again, our two sacraments involve or are analogues of the processes of flesh and function–dunking the body into the waters of death and resurrection, and consuming the broken body and shed blood of the covenant. It should come as no surprise, then, that marriage is an irreducibly physical reality where two become “one flesh” as a biologically and spiritually complementary pair. Here the physicality and the spirituality are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual meaning depends on the physical and vice versa.

In fact, it is precisely this meaning that is at the heart of one of other Pauline texts that Huckabee doesn’t deal with:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Paul reads Genesis 2, God takes uses the sign of marriage, specifically in its binary, male and female, complementary-flesh-uniting character to point to Jesus’ own love and union with his Bride. And here’s where we come to one of my points: even leaving procreation aside—which I don’t think you should for very long—you can’t alter the pair of man and woman in marriage without altering the grammar, the syntax, the meaning of marriage and it’s God-ordained purpose of pointing to Christ’s saving love for his Church through the “crudely materialistic” processes of “flesh and function.” Childbearing or not, marriage as a sign-post of the gospel is entirely dependent on the sexual grammar of male and female.

Incidentally, can we all agree that anybody with this depth-dimension to their view of physical union can’t have a “dim view” of sex?

Instead, Paul gives us a complex view of sex with a double-movement. First, he de-idolizes our sexual desires and reminds us that they are not ultimate, nor devastating if unfulfilled. He is a contented celibate man, just as his single and celibate Lord Jesus was. He too has the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). Second, he points us to the unique, Christologically-charged meaning of the sexual act and the body that finds its expression in appreciating the glory of sexual difference in marriage. It is precisely such glorious tensions that I love him for.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and Loving the Loves of Others. We’ve all heard that phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Nobody actually has a problem with this saying when it comes to something like, say, racism. I mean, think about it. Love the racist, hate the racism, right? Otherwise, what are your options? Love the racist and his racism? Hate the racist and the racism? No. Love the racist and hate his racism seems about the only option, unless you want to go into some other sort of pattern like “love the racist, feel mutely about his racism”, or “love the racist, understand his racism non-judgmentally and be open to a conversation about these things”? Obviously not.

Huckabee says that in this particular case it’s very difficult because the “sin” in question is part of their identity in such a way that it is categorically different, raising all sorts of problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, I would quickly point out that the gospel is fundamentally about gifting us new identities in Christ. I would say, rather, that in the case of same-sex desires, too often we have accepted the modern mode of identity-construction via sexual desire, which, to my reckoning, is an entirely unbiblical assumption.

Pressing on, Huckabee writes:

But I know that faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love. And a love that must hold people’s identity at bay is an imperfect love—a love that refuses their own loves. If someone were to say they loved me but saw my own marriage as an affront to God, I would say that that person does not then really love me. I could not abide that sort of love in my life. I just could not.

Huckabee says here that he could not abide the sort of love that refuses to love his loves, to affirm his marriage. But does that really make sense? I know he’s been married for a year, and so he’s thinking in relation to his own marriage, but what if we thought about children?

I’m not a parent, but I work with students, and if there’s one reality that I’m acquainted with well about them, it’s that they quite frequently love the wrong thing, person, or persons. Or, they love them in the wrong way.

In fact, that’s at the heart of one of our most classic definitions of sin and idolatry: disordered love. In other words, at the heart of sin lies the fact that we often love the wrong things, or we love good things wrongly, with the wrong intensity, aim, or way. My students are a mirror of my own heart in that regard.

Thirty years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

So, take the mother who loves her children above God. That’s an idolatrous love. That’s a wrong love. Or let’s switch back to romantic loves. Maybe the young man who loves his girlfriend possessively and obsessively. Or the woman who loves the husband of another woman as she ought to love her own. Or, take the case of the disordered love of incest. I do not mean to say incest and same-sex attraction are the same–do not misread me here–but simply to bring up a case we still mostly recognize as wrong in our culture. Brother and sister are supposed to love each other, even passionately. But the problem is that we all sense that it’s not supposed to be in that particular way. Even love that has an appropriate object can be wrong if it’s the wrong sort of love for that object.

Each of these cases is of a love—a real, honest love—which we are actually called to, out of love, not love and affirm in its entirety. No, at the proper time and context, if we love the person, we cannot love their loves because they are, in some way, destructive. They are another manifestation of the way that all of our loves have gone wrong this side of Eden.  (Note, I say “in its entirety”, because a man can show tender, thoughtfulness to another man, just as the couple involved in adultery can, excepting the act of involving the other in sin, be quite loving to the other.) But here’s the thing: love can, love does, in fact, at times, love must question our loves.

The fundamental question is, “What has God said about our loves in Scripture?” Remember, this is the God of love who created us, who we rejected for the sake of other, lesser loves, and who yet pursued us in love to redeem and bring us back to himself while we were yet sinners at the cost of his Son’s life (Romans 5:8). We must trust that his love moves him to reveal to us the proper patterns and parameters of marital love.

And this is true even when it doesn’t feel like it, as any parent who has ever said no to one of the many destructive loves of their children knows. How much more, then, ought we acknowledge that the Infinitely Wise Creator God knows and loves perfectly, even in a way that our finite and fallen minds may find difficult at times? It is here that our generation has yet to truly struggle with the counter-intuitive love of God.

Have I Considered That I Could Be Wrong? Huckabee closes his confession with a final appeal. He tells us that he knows he could be wrong on this issue. Christians disagree here as they have in other places, and he thinks that God won’t condemn either those who affirm a traditional position or a progressive one in the end. But the question he asks is this: 

However, I do urge you to consider: If you are wrong, what is the cost in the here and now? A life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves? A life judging love?

That’s the wager. It’s not one I’m willing to make.

I have to admit, I’d hate to be wrong here for that reason, if that’s really the gamble. But is it? First, I’ve already dealt with the “judging love” objection above, and to be clear, the relevant question is not my judgment about love, but God’s. But is it really only the traditionalist like me who has a scary wager to make?

Huckabee quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9, earlier, but he doesn’t manage to connect the dots here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…

Huckabee asks us to consider the consequences here and now. And those are real, though I think even there Huckabee fails to consider the consequences even here and now if he’s wrong. But still, what about then and there? Do we really want to play the “consider the stakes” game, then? Because the thing Huckabee’s argument doesn’t consider is that you might be telling someone to continue walking unrepentantly in one of the many sins that Scripture says constitutes a rejection of the grace of eternal life.

What if God agrees with Paul, the apostle Jesus personally appeared to and appointed by knocking him off his horse and calling him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or what if he agrees with the way the Church has been reading him for the last 2,000 years and not a minority of white, wealthy, post-Enlightenment Christians in North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century? What if, right?

See, that is just not a wager I can make.

Wrapping It Up. To sum up, I haven’t actually made full-blown argument for natural or traditional marriage. Nor have I dealt with even half of Huckabee’s concerns, nor even my own. All the same, I think his piece reveals much about the problems we Millennials seem to have with issues concerning the meaning of the body, Scripture, and even the nature of God’s love. I pray that if you’re on the fence on these things—a position I can certainly understand—that this article and analysis help in some way.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those look for more resources, I’d recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book on the matter. Or, for a heavy academic work, Robert Gagnon’s. Or, if you want a more personal meditation, I’d highly recommend Wesley Hill’s thoughtful work. Finally, for a depth theological exploration of the subject of sexual differentiation in marriage, Christopher Roberts’ book is fantastic.

A Trifecta of Joy Commands

joyThere is a delightful little trifecta of commands in the middle of Paul’s laundry list of exhortations towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

In that little burst of admonition, Paul gives us a snapshot of the life of joy that God intends for his children. Not only his children in easy circumstances, but even those like the Thessalonians who were under serious threat of harm, persecution, and loss.

What does it mean to rejoice, though, and how can we do it always? Well, Calvin points out its parallel passage in Philippians 4:

In like manner, in Philippians 4:4, having said,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all. Be not anxious as to anything. The Lord is at hand.

He afterwards points out the means of this—

but in every prayer let your requests be made known to God, with giving of thanks.

In light of this, he says that rejoicing always, or being filled with joy regularly is, “moderation of spirit, when the mind keeps itself in calmness under adversity, and does not give indulgence to grief.” That is not to say that a person never grieves, nor that the person is slap-happy all the time, burying their emotions and plastering a fake smile on their face. He says that the person doesn’t “give indulgence”, doesn’t coddle, doesn’t nurse, doesn’t cultivate grief in the soul in every situation, nor even in those that might tempt us to despair. Instead, Paul “presents as a source of joy a calm and composed mind, that is not unduly disturbed by injuries or adversities.”

How do we do this, though? Well, through prayer. Calvin knows that it is very easy to be “borne down by grief, sorrow, anxiety, and fear”, so he says Paul “bids us repose in the providence of God.” What’s more:

as doubts frequently obtrude themselves as to whether God cares for us, he also prescribes the remedy — that by prayer we disburden our anxieties, as it were, into his bosom, as David commands us to do in Psalm 37:5 and Psalm 55:22; and Peter also, after his example. (1 Peter 5:7.)

Prayer brings us into the gentle presence of our Fatherly God. Prayer reminds us that all things are in the hands of the Lord of History. What’s more, it actually effects change as the prayer moves the God who moves all things. Once we do this, “giving thanks in all circumstances” becomes a thinkable reality. As Calvin expounds it,

For, in the first place, he would have us hold God’s benefits in such esteem, that the recognition of them and meditation upon them shall overcome all sorrow. And, unquestionably, if we consider what Christ has conferred upon us, there will be no bitterness of grief so intense as may not be alleviated, and give way to spiritual joy. For if this joy does not reign in us, the kingdom of God is at the same time banished from us, or we from it. And very ungrateful is that man to God, who does not set so high a value on the righteousness of Christ and the hope of eternal life, as to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As, however, our minds are easily dispirited, until they give way to impatience, we must observe the remedy that he subjoins immediately afterwards. For on being cast down and laid low we are raised up again by prayers, because we lay upon God what burdened us.

Prayer reminds us of our many benefits in Christ, which allows us to consider the joyful, thanks-inducing reality beyond the current circumstances. There is always reason for joy for the Christian and so Paul tells us to constantly be praying, unburdening ourselves, and tapping into the deep reservoir of comfort we have in Christ.

Finally, we need to remember that this is all God’s will towards us in Christ. God’s intention is for us to live a life of constant joy, in all situations, in prayerful communion with him, pouring out thanksgiving for all of his manifold blessings. These are not burdensome commands. These are, as John Piper has put it, the “duty of delight.” This, indeed, is the endgoal of both God’s commands and his promises: our delight in his glory.

So then, today, remember the trifecta of joy commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gentle Heresy-Hunting with Paul

correctopponentsHeresy-hunting gets a bad rap nowadays. If there’s one thing that nobody wants to be, it’s a “heresy-hunter.” And who can blame them? I mean, cruise around the Internet and you’ll find any number of “discernment” ministries dedicated to finding anybody who doesn’t line up with their particular, historically-contingent, possibly cultish understanding of Christianity and placing them on the “list” with a page dedicated to listing their dubious tweets.

Or again, there’s that guy (and it’s almost always a guy) who spends his time listening to local pastors’ sermons just so he can find that damning 2-second analogy he can email you five pages of footnotes about. Nobody wants to be him, so there’s an understandable recoil. And this is on top of our general cultural aversion to being doctrinaire about matters of religion (unless it’s a food religion, in which case we’re simply being “healthy,” and one can do no evil in the name of health).

All the same, one of the interesting fruits of reading G.K. Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology a while back, was realizing that there’s a proper place for heresy-hunting in the church. In fact, we have a church office whose task is, in large part, to oversee, guide, and prevent against creeping false doctrine in the church: the Elder. According to Beale, Paul’s teaching on the office of elder in the Pastoral Epistles, is connected to the reality of false-teaching in the end times or “latter days” (p. 820).

Of course, in Beale’s telling, “the latter days” is a description of this time between the first and second coming of Christ. In other words, the many exhortations to guard against false teaching are a permanent and essential function of the elder in Christ’s church (Titus 1:5-16; 1 Tim 1:3-7, 19-20; 4:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:14-18; 23-26; 3:1-13). Shepherds keep sheep from wandering astray, and they guard the sheep against wolves who would ravage them with cunning and destructive teachings about Jesus that would rob them of comfort, joy, holiness, and peace.

I go into how to do that wisdom and gentleness like Paul does over in the rest of the article at For the Church. If you haven’t checked them out, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a great new resource site.

The Folly of the Cross and the Wisdom of God: An April Fool’s Meditation

foolIt is fitting that April Fool’s Day should fall in the middle of Holy Week this year. Though it’s not noted in the Church Calendars alongside Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday, yet the gospel of Christ’s passion has always been caught up with the reality of folly has it not?

Writing to the Corinthians who were caught up in a worldly admiration of “wisdom”, so-called by the intelligentsia of the Greco-Roman world, Paul reminds them of the “foolishness” of the Cross.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

To a world that has inverted the order of things, chosen creation over the Creator, and whose understanding has become darkened (Rom. 1), the word of salvation the Cross is something only a fool could believe. What power is there in a man broken, bleeding, dying the death of a criminal, strung up between two bandits? What delicate wisdom in the heaving, labored, last cries of one more revolutionary, peasant preacher, expiring in the backwaters of the Near East?

Paul, of course, does not mock true learning, or the various technical, scientific, philosophical, or literary pursuits that Image-bearers pursue. But the reality is that the gospel is not something you come to see because of your native intellect or the pursuit of a couple of extra degrees. Human knowing–like all human doing–is caught up in the reality of sin, rebellion, and wilful avoidance of a knowledge of the true God.  Our idolatry extends to our ideas about what’s “reasonable” and good so that we begin to call good “evil”, and evil “good.”  Down becomes up, and left becomes right. Our folly stems from our alienation from the God who made all things (Col. 1:21). Claiming to be wise, we became fools, by trying to know the world apart from the God who made it.

Little wonder, then, that this is what put Jesus up on the cross: the foolish unbelief of the world’s finest minds.

None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Jesus came into the world as Wisdom, the Logos of God incarnate, the light of the world (John 1:1-3). But according to the irrational logic that passed for wisdom in his time, Wisdom himself had to die, extinguished by the darkness. To the religious leaders of the nation of Israel, it was better that one man die for the sake of the nation than that his kingdom message upset the balance their real-politicking had established (John 11:48-52). The greatest legal and political power of the day, Rome, saw nothing but an opportunity to exert their power and cynically extract a confession of political loyalty out of a subject nation (John 19:15). Paul knew first-hand the reaction preaching Christ to the intellectuals of his day provoked (Acts 17:32); the wisest men in the world still couldn’t recognize the good news when they heard it.

No, to see the wisdom of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ, you need new eyes, a new heart, indeed, the Spirit of God himself who given to us “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (1 Corinthians 2:6-7)

Though this wisdom is a hidden one, not seen by the rulers of the age, blind as they are in sin, it is, nonetheless, the wisdom for our salvation that undoes the death-dealing folly of the world. In the foolish wisdom of the Cross, God appointed his Son to undo the curse of brought on by our sinful folly through his sin-bearing death. In the wise weakness of the Cross, God appointed his Son to undo the power of death, by allowing Christ to be killed so that he might rise again because the pains of death could not rule over him who has the power of an indestructible life (Acts 2:24; Hebrews 7:16).

Beyond that, through union with him, the Crucified and Risen Christ becomes a personal remedy for our own folly:

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31)

Calvin comments on this verse here:

Now he ascribes here to Christ four commendatory titles, that include his entire excellence, and every benefit that we receive from him. In the first place, he says that he is made unto us wisdom, by which he means, that we obtain in him an absolute perfection of wisdom, inasmuch as the Father has fully revealed himself to us in him, that we may not desire to know any thing besides him.

Again, a parallel verse Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Calvin expands there:

The meaning, therefore, is, that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Christ — by which he means, that we are perfect in wisdom if we truly know Christ, so that it is madness to wish to know anything besides Him. For since the Father has manifested himself wholly in Him, that man wishes to be wise apart from God, who is not contented with Christ alone.

Christ is the only sure way we come to know the true heart of the Father. “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13). Instead of our idolatrous, vain attempts to make sense fo the world without reference to its Maker, in  union with him, our alienated minds and logics are judged in light of and reconciled to the wise purposes of Creator, just as he is revealed to be our gracious Redeemer. In Christ, folly will be driven out as, “wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Prov. 2:10).

Soli Deo Gloria

Kingdom Opportunities Means Kingdom Adversaries (TGC)

Kingdom adversariesPaul’s ministry philosophy never ceases to surprise me. Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wraps things up by informing them of his plans to come to them soon, but not yet: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9).

Paul says he’s going to stay in Ephesus because there’s a wide door open for effective work. Apparently people are responding to the gospel, being discipled in the way of the Lord, built up into the image of Christ, developed into community, and trained as elders. The kingdom is moving forward.

Also, “there are many adversaries.”

I don’t know why, but that little phrase stopped me short. I suppose that despite everything I’ve seen, read, and been told about Christian ministry, I still have this sense that if God is for a thing, there shouldn’t be any opposition; if it’s a real opportunity for the kingdom, that will automatically mean the field is clear and there are no obstacles or enemies. My assumption seems to be that if God is with me, then everything will go smoothly and all will embrace me.

And yet nothing in the story of Scripture leads us to believe that’s true.

You can go read the rest of my article here at The Gospel Coalition.

Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

Head in HandsChristians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible.

For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years–in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class.  In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be ‘associated’ with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because “in Christ” you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his name not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Soli Deo Gloria