Monthly Archives: February 2013

A new perspective on justification – a verdict?

Last year, I wrote about my intention to study the new perspective on Paul (NPP). At the time I stated that I would write a conclusion based on my studies. So here I am, finally fulfilling my own promise, aware that there are many more promises that I have yet to keep.

So what is the verdict? Well, I would say I am certainly better informed than I was. Though when I think through how to summarise the NPP, I don’t think I was terribly far wrong in my initial assessment last year (the link is above). Of course, there is much more flesh on those bare bones. If anything, the majority of what I have learned has been what is regarded as the traditional reformed view (or ‘old perspective’). I was introduced to the idea of imputation which I have never heard preached from any church I have been to. If anything, given my own personal links to Durham and that of the NPP (James Dunn is a professor at my alma mater and Tom Wright was bishop for most of my time there) I suspect that I may well have been exposed to the NPP without it being spelled out as such. The pastor at my old church, KCD did his doctoral thesis on Galatians shortly after the interest in the NPP began to take root in academic circles.

Instead of thinking only about justification, the thrust of the NPP is really more holistic than that. So to talk of a ‘new perspective on justification’, as I did in both my original post, is really rather to miss the point. The view of justification is a consequence of the wider context of Paul’s theology. Though I do find it interesting that in looking so hard at Paul, some sight of James seems to have been lost. When I was growing up in a christian home, school and church, the discussion had been about answering the prima facie case of the contradiction between Paul and James. Though a new perspective on Paul ought rightly to focus on Paul’s ideas, it did strike me as odd that one could overlook James and still arrive at a well-rounded, New Testament theology of justification.

The approach of the NPP is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. In continuing the ideas of the Reformation, the idea of accepting a thesis on the basis of tradition is thrown out. In this case, even some of the conclusions of the reformers themselves! What was disappointing about much of the reaction to the NPP appealed only to tradition rather than properly engaging with the methodology.

To my understanding of it, there are two key points around which the whole debate turns. Firstly, what did Paul (and for that matter, James) mean when they referred to “the law”  – was it a kind of legalism or was the Torah being used as a means of ethnic identification? Secondly, what did Paul mean by his use of the cognate words ‘dikaiosyne’ (noun) and ‘dikaioo’ (verb) – normally translated as ‘righteousness’ and ‘justify’ respectively.

To the first point, I have found the argument of the ethnic badge persuasive though not compelling. The best counter to this argument seems to have come from Don Carson’s Justification and Variegated Nomism, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read. From what others have said about it, he seems to advocate that 1st century Jewish belief was so varied that to speak of covenantal nomism (as advocated by Sanders and other NPP scholars) is too narrow a focus.

As brief and unsatisfactory as that previous answer was, I could not hope to do any better in answering the second question. While I, along with both the traditionalists and NPP proponent James Dunn, do not find Wright’s argument for translating ‘dikaiosyne theou’ as ‘God’s covenantal faithfulness’ convincing, there is a good case (depending on how you answered the first question) for supposing that covenantal faithfulness is an aspect of God’s righteousness.

If this study has shown me anything, it has highlighted my own muddled thinking on the subject matter. Before starting this investigation, I was quite happy to think of justification and sanctification as being synonymous with salvation. I am quite happy to be much the wiser now. That said, I am all the more conscious of how much I have yet to properly understand, both in the core texts themselves and of how those of alternative views have arrived at their interpretations. I could double the number of books to read on the subject, including Carson’s 2 volume tome mentioned above, Alister McGrath’s history of justification, studies by Simon Gathercole and much more on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis. However, I could all too easily disappear down the rabbit hole of justification. There are plenty more aspects of theology and its practical applications which I am woefully ignorant of.

So I intend to leave justification there for now. For my next area of study, I plan on staring into the depths and looking at the theology of hell. I’ll write more about my plan on that later.

Book Review: Justification – Five views by Various Authors

This is the last book that I intend to look at (for now) in my continuing quest to understand the new perspective on Paul and the grounds for critiquing it. To date I have read the following:

Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wight
The Future of Justification by John Piper
Justification by Tom Wright

You may note that of the main proponents of the new perspective, I have thus far omitted James Dunn. Well, Dunn is the representative of the new perspective here. So what we have are five essays from six different writers:

Traditional Reformed – Michael Horton
Progressive Reformed – Michael Bird
New Perspective – James Dunn
Deification – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Catholic – Gerald O’Collins & Oliver Rafferty

The book is highly structured, with the editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, writing a lengthy introduction, giving the background against which the essays are set. There is a brief history of the doctrine of justification, including the broad sweep of theological thought of the Reformation. Helpfully, the editors have included a fair variety of denominations including Anabaptists and Pentecostals – strands of christianity which form part of the tapestry of my own faith.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the 5 essays and the reaction to each of them from the writers of the other 4.

Horton’s essay is very traditional and reminded me much of John Piper’s book on the same subject. Though he makes some good points, and presents his view very clearly and faithfully, I couldn’t help but think, having read some of the ‘new perspective’ writings already, that his essay just lacked some key aspects. It was like a landscape painting without the sky.

Michael Bird is not a theologian I had ever heard of before, though I liked his essay very much. This may be because of confirmation bias, I freely admit, as his view is very closely aligned with my own. While he recognises the value of traditional thought, this is not because tradition has intrinsic value; he recognises the fallibility of the likes of Luther and Calvin, who were merely doing their best to be faithful expositors and interpreters of the biblical authors. I will aim to read more of Bird’s writings in the future.

James Dunn was another that I liked. He is quick to point out that not all of the proponents of the ‘new perspective’ are univocal, and he does distance himself from one aspect of Wright’s writings that I found myself disagreeing with, namely the reinterpretation of “God’s righteousness” as “God’s covenantal faithfulness”. Indeed Dunn’s essay serves to highlight the fact that the real core of the arguments over justification are semantic. What do we mean when we speak of justification and righteousness and what did the biblical authors mean?

Karkkainen is an odd one. In his responses to the other essays, he rarely engages, but rather alludes to his own essay. His view itself is one that is completely new to me. To explain briefly, it is a sort of conflation of Lutheranism with Eastern Orthodoxy (the latter of which I confess near total ignorance, the former only slightly less so) whereby people are made to be ‘like God’ though Karkkainen is a little woolly in his definitions, a point picked up by one of the responses. I found myself interested, yet unconvinced by his essay. I know I will have to do more reading on this subject though to come to a more rounded, informed opinion.

The piece on catholicism is split into two parts. The first is a very straightforward statement of catholic doctrine written by Rafferty where his appeal is almost entirely to the Council of Trent. Some of the pronouncements of it are reproduced in Michael Horton’s earlier essay. Rafferty’s part does nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Reformation (and the council of Trent) marked the final separation between christianity and catholicism. Only a full renunciation could mark the beginnings of the restoration of Rome to the church of Christ. O’Collins’ section is a personal testimony. Here, he seems to take a very different line of thinking which is much more open to the possibility of the need of catholicism to change. His testimony culminates with his being part of a “joint declaration on the doctrine of justification” in 1999 between the catholic and Lutheran churches, though it is noted that this document is binding on neither church.

What I found most striking was that the deification and catholic pieces almost entirely discussed tradition. This was true to a fair extent of the Traditional Reformed piece, though not quite so much. It was really only the Progressive Reformed and the New Perspective views that gave any weight at all to scripture. Were these two omitted and one were to approach this without any prior knowledge, one could easily get the impression that the documents over which the debate occurs are the writings of Martin Luther and the decrees of the council of Trent. Jesus, Paul and James barely get a look-in.

Interestingly, I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was 90% of the way through the book, only to find a very similar critique in the last 10% made by Dunn in response to the essay on the catholic point of view. So while each essays, and the responses to them, are highly informative as to the stance of each of the writers, very little is given (with pun fully intended) by way of justification of their own view.

Overall, this is well worth a read and serves as a good summary of different points of view.

Fluid dynamics of the London Underground

As many of you will know, I work in London even though I live outside the capital. This entails me not only having to commute into London, but also having to navigate the London Underground in order to get to work (this is largely behind why I can post book reviews so regularly – a long commute gives me a lot of time to read).

In particular, I travel on the Victoria line, getting on at London Victoria station. If, or when, my mainline train is late in, then the station is extremely busy and the Underground station is shut. This prompts this kind of view in the morning:

Victoria

When you get people all trying to get through the station, I have observed a certain sort of “fluid” behaviour of people, where the crowds move like a gas or a liquid. One aspect I find quite fascinating is the ability of regular commuters, like myself, to walk across a busy concourse without bumping either into one another or into the ambling tourists, particularly when walking at right angles to one another. I attribute my ability to dodge oncoming traffic to my years of training on video games, in particular the Indianapolis 500 and Nascar racing games.

Those going to the Victoria line will be familiar with the recorded instructions to “stand on the right and walk down on the left.” Anyone who travels through London ought to be familiar with this maxim, though having escorted my mum from St Pancras to Kew Gardens and back again, I’m aware that it’s not a truth that is universally acknowledged.

However, in the mornings there is only one downward escalator, which creates something of a bottleneck. Very frequently, both the left and the right side of the escalator are crammed full of people standing. No one on either side can walk down. Yet when the barriers have been closed and the escalator cleared, then the adherence to the rule as soon as the barriers have been reopened is very strong. So how do we get from the situation where those on the left can walk down to the one where they are forced to stand?

Well, I have observed how a blockage begins on the left hand side. What happens is that someone is standing on the right when they get impatient at all the people walking past them, so they decide that they want to change lanes. However, in order to do this, they need to break the smooth flow of people. i.e. someone on the left has to stop in order to let the lane-changer get in front of them. Because one person stops, the person behind them also has to stop in order to not walk into the back of them. Before long, the blockage point has spread all the way to the top of the escalator.

So when the mainline train is late into Victoria and I’m having to rush to make it to work on time, if you dare try to cross from the right to the left, don’t expect me to give way to you. What you do will hold other people up and cause a general nuisance.

There is another feature of Victoria which I have yet to make up my mind about. Those of you familiar with Victoria underground station will be familiar with the ‘bag lady in green’. Never having a ticket, she will venture through towards the barriers before turning back and walking into the oncoming crowd. It seems as though this is her version of being sociable. She’s always friendly and willing to say hello, though I do wonder how long she spends at the station each day and what her life is like at other times. I might well think something similar about the thousands of other travellers on the tube with me, yet the well-being of this one person concerns me slightly more. I wonder at her motivation for her peculiar behaviour, though I dread the day when I realise she might not be there any more.

Book Review: The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose

This was another of my ‘books of shame’ that I felt the need to re-read. I actually got quite a long way into it first time and I can’t recall why I put it down. The aim of the book is to explore the notion of artificial intelligence (AI), whether or not machines can truly “think”. In order to get to this question, Penrose first spends a lot of time (most of the book, in fact) looking at a wide variety of seemingly unrelated topics.

After an initial discussion of AI, Penrose launches straight into what is probably the hardest chapter to get your head round. It’s all about algorithms, Turing machines and the computability of mathematical problems. He doesn’t spare the detail with pages of binary digits and computer programming languages. It takes a long time to work through, but if you can brave it, there is much easier, and more enjoyable, science in later chapters.

Once you get over the initial hump, we ease back into some gentle maths with Penrose first outlining his neo-Platonic view of notions of reality (one I admit that I share with him). He does this via some very basic complex analysis, looking at the detail of the Mandelbrot set, though without going into too much depth for the casual reader. From here he looks at the world of classical physics and then quantum physics, giving the reader a general grounding in the basics of modern physics whilst every now and then alluding back to the premise of the book, essentially asking if a machine could ever be constructed that would be capable of making the intuitive leaps that humans have managed in coming to our present understanding of the cosmos.

For the most part, this should be readily understandable with a modicum of scientific education, though to someone who didn’t do maths or physics at A-level, much of it may be new and take significantly longer to get to grips with. But even the expert reader shouldn’t get complacent. Penrose’s approach takes much which we may be familiar with and turns it sideways, giving good reason to scratch our heads and think things through anew. The 2nd half of the chapter on quantum mechanics is, admittedly, a bit tougher to get through; the section on spin was where I found my bookmark from the first time I tried to read it and gave up.

After finishing with quantum mechanics he looks at the thermodynamics of the universe, a line of thinking which led, many years later, to Cycles of Time. He ponders over some ideas of quantum gravity but not to any depth that one might be satisfied with. For other takes on that, I’d recommend The Road To Reality (also by Penrose), Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe or The Three Roads To Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin.

Eventually, Penrose comes back to the question of AI. In order to do this though, he needs to look at the basic physiology of the brain. Now Penrose is a mathematician and a physicist; he’s not a neurologist. As such, this section of the book doesn’t come across anywhere nearly as strong as the rest of the book. It is clear that this is a written by an educated amateur in the field rather than an expert. For much more detail on how the brain works, I would recommend John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain.

One fascinating idea that Penrose puts forth is that what may distinguish human intelligence and consciousness is not our rationality, but our irrationality. If all people behaved in accordance with a strict rationality (though even most rationalists, myself included, exhibit some irrational behaviour from time to time) then the strong AI proponents might have more of a case. But the very evidence of irrational behaviour is what Penrose finds most interesting.

Ultimately, no firm propositions are put forward in this volume. The book ends with some musings and a tentative point of view. I intend to follow up, albeit not for a while, with Penrose’s later volume, Shadows of the Mind. In the meantime, what we have is a book which is very loosely about artificial intelligence, but which is really a book about the foundation of computing, along with a tour of some of the great ideas of maths and physics.

A Valentine’s Day special: The flawed romanticism of The Princess Bride

Happy Valentine’s Day, one and all!

There, that’s done. Now I can carry on a give you some miserly thoughts on the theme of love. Those of you who have met me may testify that I am about 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 8 in height. The observant among you will also note that my avatar is that of a mouse. Therefore, it may not be unfair to describe me as a Rodent Of Unusual Size (ROUS). We large rodents often feel prejudiced against, particularly when it comes to casting in films. There are just so few roles for us. While some may strive for equality in the realms of politics, and others have called for quotas of ROUS in company boardrooms, the cinema is what we really love.

A notable exception to this was the 1987 film, The Princess Bride, when Rodents Of Unusual Size were granted a small cameo role in a scene in the fire swamp. While some protested that it cast us in a villainous role, I was personally not offended by it. However, there is another aspect of that film which I wish to talk about today.

What was not so much offensive, as utterly baffling, was the opening story involving Buttercup and Westley. We are given a bizarre account whereby Westley declares his love by the simple use of a three word phrase, not one of which fitted into “I love you.” This declaration is less than straightforward, to say the least. I know men have difficulty finding the right words when it comes to expressions of love, affection or even modest fondness, but I really think he could have done better.

Then we have to ask ourselves, how did this arise? He may have seen Buttercup each day yet the two never held a proper conversation; unless you consider her ordering him around to be a conversation. Personally, I don’t regard that to be an adequate basis on which one might get to know the hopes & fears, likes & dislikes of another person. If anything, it shows Buttercup to be an extremely mild-mannered proto-dominatrix.

How can you claim to love someone if you don’t know them? Can “true love” be cultivated by the mere observation of how another person looks, moves and orders you about? Though some knowledge about a person may be gleaned from observation, a knowledge of the person requires an understanding that can only come by an intimate and personal conversation. Did Westley and Buttercup ever sit down at the kitchen table and talk about anything and everything over hot chocolate and toasted crumpets until the sun came up the next morning, not realising how much time had passed?

I’m honestly not sure which is more old-fashioned: this idea of love based on sight alone or my idea of actually getting to know someone a little before any such passions arise and take shape. There are times when a conversation may be held in complete silence, with a look of the eye, a tilt of the head or a half smile. Such an understanding, though, can only come once two people have already become accustomed to the minutiae of each other’s mannerisms, which takes quite some time to achieve; getting it wrong along the way can cause misunderstanding, laughter or tears. Only by getting it wrong do we eventually get to know one another well enough to get it right.

Well, I’ve wittered on for long and I’m sure you want me to stop.

As you wish.

Book Review: The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

It’s been a couple of years now since I read The Pursuit of God, having mixed thoughts on what is probably his most famous work. When you read Tozer, you ought to be aware of what you are getting; mostly sound, orthodox teaching, told with great fervour. Tozer was a man with a passion for God, though he wasn’t a theologian. I don’t always agree with him or how he chooses to phrase certain things, but he is nonetheless a thought-provoking writer and is more often closer to the mark than far from it.

The aim of this book is to list, and give some flesh to, some of the attributes of God. Tozer’s motivation for writing this book was a complaint that christians have forgotten the great writers of the past (he points at Augustine and Anselm in particular) and that we no longer think particularly highly of God. Crucial to Tozer’s idea is that we worship God as It truly is, lest we come up with ideas about God which are either misguided or incomplete which would lead to a kind of idolatry; this is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with and is the motivation behind why I constantly try to understand God, christianity and scripture.

What I found most interesting was his idea that our descriptions of God are all describing One. i.e. God does not really have “aspects” to Its character, but we have to distinguish such aspects for our own linguistic interpretation and understanding. Though interesting, I thought it went a bit too far to describe God as “simple”. If people are made in God’s image, and people can be very complicated beings, I don’t think it helps anyone to suppose that God’s character could ever be described as “simple”.

Tozer manages to straddle two very contrary realms of being at once very conservative and also of being a big fan of the mystics. Neither of these are areas I am comfortable in; I’m much more of a liberal rationalist. In fact, Tozer’s anti-rationalist and anti-scientific stance really did quite annoy me as I think it does some otherwise good writing a great disservice. The other book that came to mind as I was reading this was J.I. Packer’s Knowing God which is equally conservative but not as mystic.

There are some other aspects which are a little uncomfortable. Tozer often phrases things in terms of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ with a tone strongly implying the supremacy of the former over the latter. As for the Holy Spirit, that is completely absent. The overall impression is a kind Arian binitarianism. Yet at the same time, there is a contrary high Christology, with the humanity of Jesus often overlooked.

So without endorsing everything that Tozer says, or how he says it, this is still a thought-provoking book with enough in it to make it worth recommending.

Foolish christianity

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

This was Jesus’ encouragement to his listeners, as we have it recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of the gospel. Interestingly, there is a footnote in most bibles over whether the “falsely” was included in the original text, as some early manuscripts have it, whilst others don’t. I’ve erred on the side of inclusion, though I admit I’ve not looked into the textual criticism on this matter.

I had a discussion a while ago where an atheist friend was mocking fundamentalists who wanted to celebrate “being fools for Christ” by holding onto some absurd views and then claiming they were persecuted when they were ridiculed for doing so. Such a portrait is not wholly unfamiliar as most churches I have been a part of have harboured a small clutch of such people. My aim here is not to ridicule, I love such people dearly, even if it’s not always reciprocated. But I would lovingly correct them as I really don’t think that holding onto conservative ideas such creationism or intelligent design (see here for more on these) really add much credibility to christianity. There are plenty of other ideas that are often claimed by christians which do little to make us appear credible witnesses; I’m sure you can think of some others.

To many people, there are at least some aspects of christianity which may be deemed absurd. What aspects, and to what degree, will vary from person to person. Some might reject christianity in nearly its entirety, others may pick at bits of various creeds, others may criticise what various christians say or write. Others I know have rejected christianity because they’ve been hurt by christians acting insensitively, though that I’ll save for another time.

When I asked the question, “How do you define a christian?” I looked a little at a creedal definition. Now when it comes to the question of the virgin birth, I don’t consider this to be a core part of my faith. Though I don’t denounce the idea, I remain strongly sceptical of its historicity and do not affirm its truth. Likewise, if you read my rather tongue-in-cheek take on The Purpose Driven Life, you’ll see that I don’t refrain from criticising other christians. Does this make me a bad christian? Maybe. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My point is this: even if we regard the core claims of christianity to be true (aka the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with the subsequent implications of the existence of God, the nature of sin and the narrative story of the covenantal restoration of humankind, etc.), not everything that is written it its favour is necessarily correct. You might even take issue with my carefully worded parentheses in the preceding sentence. I freely admit that there are aspects of christianity which run counter to our intuition based on everyday experience, probably none more so than the resurrection. Yet I would contend that to dismiss the claims on the basis of its counter-intuitive nature would be a mistake. There are many other things we know to be true in spite of being counter-intuitive. To pick from my own educational background, I would cite the dual slit experiment of quantum mechanics and Noether’s theorem as examples.

But it would fly in the face of rationality to suppose that anything and everything counter-intuitive is true. There is good reason why some things are counter-intuitive, they are just plain nonsense. It does no one any good to claim that holding foolish ideas is a credit to the Church and the message it proclaims. Yet the apparent foolishness of some aspects of the gospel can be a source of embarrassment (something Paul wrote far more eloquently about than I could in 1 Corinthians).

I have read many supposed refutations of the resurrection, yet none that I have encountered take into account the belief in resurrection. i.e. why, given the difference between the christian view of anastasis from that in the contemporary Judaism and paganism, would a belief in a Jewish messiah having risen with a transformed body begin in the first place and become so uniform and widespread within a generation. Yet even this might not be the most “foolish” aspect of christianity. For me, the dichotomy between the idea of a God who is at once just and merciful is one of the greatest paradoxes – certainly one that I would make no claim to fully understand. The notions of grace and forgiveness run against a common human desire for punishment and retribution. You may think of other aspects, but to my way of thinking, these are the most dazzling. Yet even I cannot focus my eyes on the sun, I do not deny its power – so it is with these follies of the christian faith.

After I wrote the first draft of this, I heard a sermon at church which went in a very different direction. The preacher stated that she claimed she had been healed, only to be told by the doctor that there had been a misdiagnosis. By stating this, the doctor was somehow robbing her of her testimony of healing. I sat and listened, but couldn’t help but be sceptical.

I quite like hearing testimonies of healing, but I would really like to see some evidence to back it up. If christians can’t back up the claims in their personal testimony, I wonder how they expect others to believe anything else they might say. If we’re to be mocked or even persecuted, let it be for telling awkward truths, not just for being fools.