Thursday, November 22, 2007

Books on Judgment by Works

The subject of a final judgment by works (and its relationship to the topic of justification by faith) tends to be a severely under-discussed subject in Christianity. So I have been pleased to see and read a few recent works on the subject:

Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment according to Deeds, 1999

Alan Stanley, Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?: The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels, 2006

Chris VanLandingham, Judgment & Justification In Early Judaism And The Apostle Paul, 2006

Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective, 2007

(If anyone has recommendations of any other works dealing with this topic, please do let me know!)

Each of these works approaches the topic from a different angle, and so provides various insights.

Yinger is interested in seeing how Paul and Judaism compare in their treatments of judgment according to deeds. He analyzes a variety of Jewish and Pauline passages and concludes there is no difference between Paul and Judaism on this issue - both teach a final judgment in accordance with deeds. Yinger strongly emphasizes throughout his work that such a judgment should not be understood as a simple counting up of good works and bad (as many Protestants seem to interpret it as), bur rather a holistic judgment that takes into account one's entire life, deeds and attitude, and takes into account repentance and forgiveness and mercy. Yinger is a strong advocate of the New Perspective on Paul and attempts to explore how Covenantal Nomism can be used to reconcile an affirmation of final judgment by works with the idea of justification by faith. He appeared to be firmly convinced it could, but I couldn't fully follow his explanation. He continually asserts that there is no conflict between the idea of justification by faith and judgment by works, yet I wasn't sure I understood why he thought this. My rating: 4/5, a good balance between simple and comprehensive with a tad of unclarity in his systematic theology.

Stanley is interested in the teachings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels which at face value appear to teach a final judgment by works, and he is interested in exploring the conflict with his Evangelical heritage. He analyzes these passages, very often coming to conclusions in his exegesis that he admits are unusual, and concludes that a final judgment according to works is indeed taught by Jesus. In order to reconcile this with with notions of faith and grace, he draws up a systematic theology in which believers gain faith through grace, and then with the power of the spirit and Christ are sanctified in order to pass a final judgment according to deeds. He seemed keen to affirm that only Christians can thus pass the final judgment, and non-Christians lacking grace, faith, Jesus and the spirit couldn't gain a positive judgment simply out of their own efforts and works-righteousness. On occasion this concern looked in danger of driving the exegesis. My rating: 3/5, some interesting thoughts, book could have used a good editor.

VanLandingham dismisses Yinger's analysis of the Jewish texts as insufficiently thorough, and embarks on his own extremely extensive analysis of Jewish texts (strongly reminiscent of Paul and Palestinian Judaism) which after a while demands judicious skim-reading. He concludes that Judaism does indeed teach a final judgment according to works. VanLandingham's foil for his project is E.P. Sanders, and VanLandingham takes Sanders to task for attempting to turn Judaism into a religion of grace rather than works. I found VanLandingham's interpretation of Sanders theses in PPJ quite different to my own impression of Sanders from my reading of PPJ, so I was a bit unsure here. VanLandingham makes clear he likes the notion of a final judgment by works (since it shows God is just, good and non-abitrary), and he is upset that the New Perspective has bought into the 'grace is good, works are bad' concept promulgated by the Reformation. He notes that the idea of a final judgment by works doesn't at all exclude things like repentance and forgiveness from being taken into account. The second part of the book turns to Paul's theology. After analyzing texts from Paul, he concludes that Paul teachings a final judgment according to works just like Judaism. He rejects the notion that this is a judgment of what the holy spirit or Christ has achieved in the believer and asserts that it is a judgment of the individual and what the individual has done. VanLandingham is concerned about how this can be reconciled with justification by faith. He (naively) accepts that faith means belief, but thinks that 'justification' has been misunderstood, and that justification by faith is simply that a person is forgiven their past (but not future) misdeeds when they become a Christian and given a (temporarily) clean slate. Thus justification by faith is roughly equivalent to the Jewish concept of repentance and forgiveness, and is not related to final judgment (which is by works). My rating: 5/5, yes it's a tome and hard-reading, but that's because it's got more quality content than you could shake a stick at.

Bird is a 'card-carrying Calvinist' who is interested in the New Perspective on Paul and would like to take a middle position between it and the Reformed tradition in order to get the best of both worlds. Unlike the previous works mentioned, Bird spends only a chapter on the theme of final judgment by works, and his interest lies in reconciling it with salvation by faith alone. He thinks the view that Christians receive the Spirit's assistance in doing good works and therefore being able to attain a positive judgment is a view that has much to commend it, and yet one which ultimately leaves no room for Christ. He therefore emphasizes Christ as the originator of good works and sees our union with Christ as the means by which Christ's works are done by us. My rating: 1 / 5, he doesn't really make arguments or give evidence so much as simply state his own view on various issues.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The difficulty of interpreting the bible

When a person is writing a theological or philosophical work, they express their ideas using a variety of words, phrases, analogies and concepts. In a work of any significant length, ideas will be repeated more than once but expressed in different terms and ways. Each individual expression of the idea will have some relation to the idea under discussion, attempting to express or explain some truth or some part of the concept. It may be a particularly good and helpful explanation (as far as the reader is concerned) or it may do more harm than good to that particular reader's attempt to understand the concept.

We could use a Normal Distribution to graphically depict these attempts at expressing and conveying a thought. The center of the distribution depicts the truth itself that is being attempted to be conveyed, and the datapoints are the various repeated attempts at stating and conveying that truth. Thus, many are pretty close to spot on. Most expressions and attempted explanations are somewhat close. But there are always a few outliers, which correspond to ways of expressing the idea that are not so close to the idea itself.

This has some serious implications for practical attempts to understand a difficult piece of writing:
1. The overall gist of the content is a much better guide to accurately comprehending the author's intent than taking a small part of the work in isolation.
2. Once you have got the correct interpretation there will still be outliers. Tiny and disparate pieces of the work will exist where you do not understand what the author was trying to say, or which might seem to contradict other ideas.
3. The outliers will fit better with a theory of explanation specifically designed to explain the outliers than with a correct understanding of author intent.

To illustrate point 3 with a more detailed example: In the graph above the thesis that the author was proposing is represented by zero. Imagine you read that work and accurately conclude that the author is attempting to communicate that concept. Someone else interprets the work and mistakenly concludes the author is trying to communicate a thesis that would be represented on the graph as -3. In defense of their claim, they cite a number of passages from the author's work in support of their thesis, quoting passages that on the graph would fall in the -2 to -4 range. The graph shows how every one of these passages would agree more with the -3 interpretation than the zero interpretation. What this illustrates is that when comparing one interpretation of a work to another, the presence of some passages that agree more with the faulty interpretation than the correct one is to be expected. All suggested interpretations of a work will almost certainly be able to cite some textual support (otherwise they probably would not have been suggested), but that does not thereby indicate their accuracy.

The situation is greatly complicated by the possibility of a multi-part theory being proposed to explain the same data. If someone said "I think the author's theory is -2, 0, 2", then the entire data set would more closely cohere to their theory than it would to the zero theory, and yet they would still in fact be wrong. Occam's razor then, is quite useful in this sort of circumstance. The difficulty however, lies in accepting that once you have the correct understanding there will still be outliers and resisting the temptation to construct ad hoc theories to deal with outliers.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Some truly weird illogic

Recently, in an otherwise fairly sensible book, I encountered a piece of absurd illogic.

In the gospels, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that to have eternal life he needs to keep God's commandments. Subsequently Jesus suggests that the man give all his money to the poor and as a result the ruler "goes away sad" because he was very rich.

Now have always thought, and still think, that it's obvious that the rich young ruler didn't want to give away his money because he liked having a lot of money.

In Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? the author Alan Stanley uses truly weird logic to come to a very different conclusion. He observes that some Jews of the time believed wealth to be a sign of God's blessing (which is true). But during this course of his argument, this mysteriously morphs into the extremely bizarre idea that if a person gives that wealth away then he loses eternal salvation! Thus, Stanley concludes that the rich man was relying on his wealth to save him, and thus was made sad by Jesus' suggestion he share it with the poor, because it threatened his eternal salvation. Stanley's final exegesis of this story is then that Jesus called the man to stop relying on his wealth to save him and instead rely on Jesus!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What the average Christian should believe

At times I have been skeptical of the Reformation idea that everyone should read their bible, because the bible is difficult to understand, and is arguably something that should be left to competant experts - and even they will make serious errors at times. In most fields, eg quantum physics, medicene, engineering etc we do just "believe the experts" and don't try and do it ourselves. But in most fields the experts have an extremely high level of agreement on major issues, whereas in biblical interpretation the experts almost always have severe disagreements, and experts can be found who support almost any given view about what the bible says.

So how does the man-in-the-street know which experts to believe? Generally people just believe their own tradition - they believe what their pastor tells them. A person born to parents who go to a Catholic church comes to accept the expert opinions of their own group's teachings and a person born Reformed likewise. This is, of course, hardly a practice that leads people to actually believe what is true - it is no better than tossing a coin. The chances that the denomination you were born into is correct, rather than any of the other 99 denominations all claiming to believe biblical truth is only one in a hundred.

It disturbs me when I see denominations teaching their adherants that "We are right, everyone else is wrong. Our experts are the best. Only our doctrines are biblical truth." I see people who belong to those denominations being indoctrinated into believing the Truth of their pastors teachings. These people then are taught to go out and teach the Truth to others and convert them into the fold of True Christianity (ie that denomination). In reality, these people haven't engaged in any careful unbiased analysis of biblical doctrine, and are just parrots who have been taught to repeat the phrases their masters have given them. If their doctrine is true, then it only due to luck. I find this idea, which I will here coin "denominational-discipleship" quite scarey. Through indoctrination it promotes proud and arrogant certainty and exclusivism that is not at all backed by any corresponding accuracy, evidence, or reason. I'm sure we can all think of people we have met who have been adversely affected by this process, and it is not a good thing.

But what this means is that picking experts at random (since what denomination you happen to be born into is random) and treating them as gospel is not a good idea. There is no reason why one randomly picked expert should be better than another. Some average Christians might listen to a few experts and go with the one that "sounded best" (according to some arbitrary measure of 'best'). But of course, as we all know, academic ability and rigour does not necessary correlate with rhetorical ability or debating skill. Good speakers aren't always good scholars and vice versa.

I believe it comes down to this: Where the experts disagree and tread lightly, only fools run in and claim they have the certain answers. It is the responsibility of the man in the street to not go claiming they themselves have the true and correct answers on a subject where the experts widely disagree. If someone has no time or ability for proper study, then it is irresponsible to put their own conclusions ahead of expert opinions, nor is it responsible to choose one set of experts over another without reason. If a person is not prepared and able to make the effort to carefully explore the expert opinions being offered, the evidence for them, and the research behind them, then that person is not entitled to have a firm or expert opinion.

Thus the simple answer is that that average Christian ought to accept the opinions of all the experts taken as a whole in their diversity. On subjects the experts disagree, then the person should be tolerant of a diversity of opinions. On subjects where the experts broadly agree, then the average Christian ought to accept the opinion of the experts. The average Christian then needs to be open-minded and tolerant of the wide variety of opinions that are held within Christianity. The man in the street should neither pick certain experts at random and take their word as gospel, nor should they take their own interpretation of the bible as gospel. Rather, they should just get a basic idea of the variety and types of different opinions that the experts have, accept all of them as possibly true, and then go no further. Sadly, few resources are available to easily facilitate this task.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Must Everything Change?

In a previous post I outlined a very different view of Jesus that I had discovered that the gospels depicted from the one that I had received as an Evangelical.

It is not just me that has come to this conclusion, as numerous scholars seem to have converged on the same view in the last decade or so. Scholars who take the gospels seriously seem to be increasingly coming to this same set of conclusions about how the gospels themselves depict Jesus. Our expanded understanding of the social background of Israel at that time seems to have demonstrated that the Jesus depicted in the gospels was the leader of a movement that aimed at social reform, "a prophet of social change", and that this is entirely plausible in the context as a historical reality (there being numerous such movements at the time in Judea).

However I wonder at the radical difference between this Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of creedal faith. The idea that Jesus was primarily a social reformer, who focused heavily on the economic suffering of the lower classes and who had borderline Communist ideals, who calls us as followers to go out and transform the world is not something that the average conservative evangelical in the pew wants to hear. It is radically different in almost every respect to the creedal picture of the Jesus as incarnate God who takes the sins of the world onto himself and in whose act of atonement we need to place our reliance and trust.

In centuries past, the social gospel of the liberals clashed with the creeds of the evangelicals. Back then the bible-rejecting extreme-liberal demythologizing scholarship rejected the evangelical Jesus and the gospels out of hand and constructed an unevidenced Jesus out of its own imagination. Whereas now it is those precisely those seeking to take the gospels seriously, and who perform careful research about the times and people of ancient Galilee that are finding this different view of Jesus. The issues are similar to what they were one hundred years ago, but the foundations are quite different. This time it is the scholars that are taking the evangelicals to task for not being biblical rather than vice versa.

The Emergent Church movement seems to be the popular spearhead of these changes within evangelicalism. Its leaders are well-versed in the latest biblical scholarship and have attempted to popularize it in their books. Brian McLaren and Steve Chalke, for example, have written books entitled The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything and The Lost Message of Jesus respectively and attempted to popularize this new view of Jesus as political and economic reformer and explore what it means for the church. Chalke's book caused a storm of controversy because of two sentences that mentioned the atonement, but nothing much resulted from his presentation of Jesus as a social-reformer. Perhaps this demonstrates that the problem with the new Jesus is not so much that anyone objects to him, but rather that our atonement theories can't handle him. Indeed, the more I study the life of Jesus, the more that objective atonement theories strike me as simply irrelevant.

Brian McLaren has just released another book entitled Everything Must Change, in which he works through this new understanding of Jesus and considers how and in what ways the church needs to change its doctrine and practices to be faithful to Jesus' mission. As the title might suggest, he thinks everything must change. This is, unsurprisingly, not proving popular with Protestant traditionalists who are convinced they believe biblical truth and thus that nothing ought to change. A somewhat amusing review says that McLaren's work should "shock and disgust any Christian", and:
"It seems increasingly clear that the new kind of Christian McLaren seeks is no kind of Christian at all. The church on the other side of his reinvention is a church devoid of the glorious gospel of Christ’s atoning death. It is a church utterly stripped of its power because it is a church stripped of the gospel message. McLaren’s new gospel is a social gospel, a liberal gospel and, in fact, no gospel at all."
For a more positive discussion of Brian's book, check out Scot McKnight's series of posts.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How does the average Christian know what to believe?

One of my favorite bloggers Dan has a post critical of John Piper and fundamentalist biblical interpretation.

Piper's advice: Ignore the experts and their research, and just read the bible and believe whatever you think it says.

Dan's response: Following carefully the expert opinions is of great importance in understanding the bible. In no other field would we dismiss expert advice: 'If one were to take [Piper's] advice with other experts, like one's doctor for example, the results could well be tragic.'

Commenter asks: What then is the average Christian to do, who has neither the time nor ability to follow carefully the expert opinions?

Another commenter responds: 'If it were any other subject, the only proper response would be "tough cookies." If you don't have the time or the ability or can't make the effort, then you'll be left out in the cold. Knowledge isn't egalitarian.'

So what is the correct answer? How should the average Christian with neither much time nor ability know what to believe?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Christ-likeness is a helpful term

I was reading this post and I was struck by the comment:
It is only Christ-likeness - and not works of the law - that will ensure that they survive the suffering and destruction that will mark the transition from the present evil age to the age that has now (from our perspective) come.
I think that's a great way of expressing Paul's thought. I think I need to use the term Christ-likeness more. It is a particularly good term at capturing what I have long argued Paul's theology is all about, but it is not a term I have used much.