Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The value of good works

One of my major complaints about evangelical theology is the low value it places on good works. Here are some reasons why I beg to differ.

(1) The New Testament is full of comments which indicate that whether a person is (and does) good or evil is what counts at the final judgment.
eg Jesus: "the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." (John 5:28-29)
Likewise, Paul: "For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury." (Rom 2:6-8)

See also: Matthew 7:21-23; 12:33-37; 19:17; 25:31-46; Luke 6:37-38; 12:47-48; 13:27; John 5:28-29; Acts 10:34-35; Romans 1:18; 2:6-11, 14-16; 8:13; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 6:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 11:14-15; Galatians 6:8-9; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5-6; Colossians 3:24-25; 1 Timothy 5:24-25; 1 John 4:17; 1 Peter 1:17; 3:10-12; 2 Peter 2:9, 12-13; 3:7; Jude 1:14-15; Revelation 20:12; 21:8.

Christian writers in the second century reflect the same attitude. Justin Martyr, writing in 150AD to explain Christianity to the Roman Emperor, says:
"[Christians] hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions." (First Apology XII)
He defends this doctrine, saying it is for the public good because it encourages moral action. He further argues that Christ’s desire is for us to turn men from their wicked ways and lead them to godliness (First Apology XVI, and elsewhere). Justin defends our freedom of choice, saying Christians believe that both righteousness and wickedness are within our power rather than being “fated”, as some Romans believed (First Apology XLIII, and elsewhere).

Other second century Christian documents reflect the same attitude:
[God will] redeem each of us, according to our deeds. (2 Clement 17, ~150AD)
The Lord will judge the world, playing no favourites. Each will receive according to what he has done. If he is good, his righteousness will precede him; if evil, the reward for his wickedness will be before him. (Barnabas 4, ~100AD)
In the Athanasian Creed, written around 500AD, one of the famous creeds from antiquity still used today in some churches as a measure of orthodoxy, we read:
“At his [Christ’s] coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.”

(2) Traditional protestant theology has admitted that good works are good, but denied their saving value. It places this limit on the value of goodness due to (a) its belief that Paul teaches that no one can be justified by good works, and (b) its theological teachings on sin say that no human can be sufficiently good to be acceptable to God. My observations on these two ideas are as follows:

(2a) In recent years there has been a great deal of study done by scholars trying to understand ancient Judaism. A key discovery has been a new understanding of how the Jews of Paul’s time conceived of the “law”. They thought of it as a culture. It was the ancestral customs of Judaea, which they were determined to defend in the face of the onslaught of Hellenism (Greek culture). This was a big issue in the first century, and Jews were prepared to kill or die for their beliefs. The word “Jew”/“Judean” itself referred to someone who followed the ancestral customs of Judaea. Paul is trying to deal with this factionalism in his churches, attempting to stop them from splitting apart and also from following Judean customs. That is what he is talking about when he talks about the “law” and “works of the law”. So when he says justification is not by works of the law, he is not saying “no one can be right with God by human effort”, he is saying rather that God is indifferent to culture and customs.

Space does not permit a detailed proof of this here. I recommend however that people read the books of 1-4 Maccabees which record the historical background to the Jewish controversy over the Law (these are in the Catholic Old Testament, but not the Protestant one, but are highly useful background reading). Here I will give two examples from Paul: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Gal 1:14) Paul had originally been an extremely strong advocate of the need to maintain Judean culture (a Pharisee). As a result he had persecuted Christians because Jesus had attacked the value of following Judean culture, and Paul saw in Jesus’ followers a threat to his Pharisaic goals of getting everyone to follow the Judean traditions. He says about he was more advanced in “Judaism” (ie maintaining those traditions) because he was more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. As to his Judean-ness, he was: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:5-6) If a person gained favour with God through being Judean and following their customs, then Paul had it with bells on. However, due to the fact that he now follows Jesus’ teachings, he regards all that as worthless, and thinks a person’s culture and race does not count in the eyes of God. (Phil 3:7)

(2b) The theological teaching that no one can be sufficiently good to be acceptable to God is simply poor exegesis. The bible uses righteous versus wicked/sinner terminology the same as we talk about “good” and “bad” people today. You don’t have to be perfect to be “good” or “righteous”. Time and again, the bible shows itself quite happy to call some people “righteous”. Over eighty passages exemplify this usage:
Genesis 6:9; 7:1. 2 Samuel 4:11. Job 1:1, 8. Psalms 1; 5:12; 7:9; 11:3, 5, 7; 14:5; 31:18; 32:11; 33:1; 34:15,17,19,21; 37:12-17,21,25,28-30,32,39; 52:6,22; 58:10-11; 64:10; 68:3; 75:10; 92:12; 94:15,21; 97:11-12; 112:4,6; 118:15,20; 125:3; 140:13; 141:5; 142:7; 146:8. Proverbs 3:33; 4:18; 9:9; 10:3,6,7,11,16,20-21,24-25,28,30-32; 11:8-10,21,23,28,30-31; 12:3,5,7,10,12-13,21,26; 13:5,9,21-22,25; 14:19,32; 15:6,28-29; 18:10; 20:7; 21:15,18,26; 23:24; 24:15; 28:1,12,28; 29:2,6-7,16,27. Ecclesiastes 3:17; 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2. Isaiah 26:7; 57:1; 58:2. Lamentations 4:13. Ezekiel 3:20-21; 13:22; 18:9,20,24,26; 33:12-13,18. Amos 2:6; 5:12. Habakkuk 1:4; 2:4. Zephaniah 3:5. Malachi 3:18. Matthew 1:19; 5:45; 9:13; 10:41; 13:17; 13:49; 23:29; 23:35; 25:37,46. Mark 2:17; 6:20. Luke 1:6; 2:25; 5:31-32; 15:7; 23:50. Acts 24:15. Hebrews 11:4. James 5:16. 1 Peter 3:12; 4:18. 2 Peter 2:7-8. 1 John 3:7,12. Revelation 19:8; 22:11

Therefore to claim that the bible teaches no human can be sufficiently good to be “righteous” in God’s sight is nonsense. The bible teaches the exact opposite repetitively. Generally evangelicals make two exegetical errors which cause them to believe that the bible is claiming no one is righteous before God.

The first of those mistakes is to read Paul’s Spirit/Flesh discussions as if “flesh” referred to “sinful humanity”, and spirit referred to God’s action within us. In this reading, we sinful humans can do nothing good without God’s spirit transforming us. However dividing the mind conceptually into opposing components was a common Greek practice that went back at least as far as Plato (Republic 436c ff, Phaedrus 246b ff). The idea was that wherever we have conflicting desires, it must be because one part of our mind has a desire for one thing, and another part has a different desire. Paul, following this tradition, classifies these as the fleshly part of our mind which represents the desires of the body (for food, drink, sex etc) and the spiritual part of our mind, which represents desires for abstract goods (honour, justice, mercy etc). Such a division is exactly in line with standard Greek philosophy when discussing morality. If both the spirit and flesh are parts of our mind, then the traditional protestant exegesis of these passages falls apart, and Paul is not at all saying that we as humans are nothing but sinful flesh.

The second of those mistakes is to read Paul’s list of quotations in Romans 3:10-18 as if it were saying that no human in the world was ever righteous before God. Such a reading would put Paul’s argument at odds with the original context of every single one of the six passages he is quoting from (all of which contrast righteous people to unrighteous ones). What Paul is actually arguing is that following Jewish culture makes no difference in God’s eyes. Thus he quotes examples of specific times and places where people following Jewish culture have been called wicked and sinners because they did moral evil. This proves that simply following Jewish culture is not what makes a person right with God, but rather how they act. What is important, Paul argues, is morality, not culture: There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:9-11) It does not matter to God whether a person follows Judean culture or Greek culture, what matters is whether they do good or evil deeds.

(3) Protestant theology has traditionally translated pistis (faithfulness) to be “faith” and “belief”. Their idea was that this word represented the opposite to “good works”. They thought Paul was arguing against salvation by human effort, and in support of salvation by doing nothing (“faith”). However recent research into understanding the cultural context in which Jesus lived has totally failed to agree with that assessment. (Rather, Paul’s use of “faithfulness” and “favour” (aka grace) are related to the ancient Favour System) Faithfulness to Christ is about committing yourself to his teachings and message and living by them. Think of what it means to be a “faithful servant” (Mat 25:21). No one is stupid enough to try and translate that phrase as meaning “a servant who believes their master died for the sins of the world and does not try to earn salvation by works”. Yet evangelicals don’t seem to blink at translating faithfulness to Jesus to mean that. In reality, faithfulness to a person is loyalty to them, and acting as they would have you act. Paul is not afraid to talk about the “obedience of faithfulness” (Romans 1:5, 16:26) nor “work of faithfulness” - indeed he treats that phrase synonymously with “labour of love” (1 Thes 1:3) and “good resolve” (2 Thes 1:11). To Paul, “faithfulness to Christ” means following his teachings and living our live by doing the good works that Jesus taught us to do. Since Jesus criticised the value of Judean ancestral customs we have a choice – we can be faithful to Christ’s teachings, or we can start emphasising the value of Judean customs. Thus for Paul it is a choice between whether a person seeks God’s favour through faithfully following Christ, or whether we start following Jewish culture and do “the works of the law”.