Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son

I am finding myself drawn the beauty that comes from candid concession of  inherent brokenness. Truthful transparency is vulnerability, which by definition, is the “susceptibility to physical or emotional harm.” Yet paradoxically, in it, there is much strength and freedom. There requires a sense of confidence and self awareness when one musters the courage to confess their needs – and thus confess their lack. Confession of lack is to admit that I can do nothing without Jesus.

Today I started reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I was impressed with his self knowledge, his recognition of weakness, and his ability to articulate it with such forthright honesty.  What begins as honest self knowledge and confession turns to Christ awareness and reception.  In this book he speaks of his mesmerizing experience with Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, which led him to his reflection of Jesus’ parable on the subject. Initially, Nouwen sensed a personal identification to the youngest son, which drew out his admiration for the painting. He then tells of his subsequent realization that he, in addition to the brash recklessness of the younger son, has also tended towards a behavioural pattern much like the pharisaic older brother.  Even more surprisingly, Nouwen admits that through the words of a friend, he is called live like the father:

“You have been longing for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation — to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.”

These words have rung true for me. My hope is to reflect and confess my own weaknesses as I consider Nouwen’s, and, like him, reveal my personal tendency towards the two son’s in the parable, while simultaneously  becoming increasingly aware of the calling to adopt the father’s mantle.

 

 

Jesus Baptized: The Holy Spirit and the New Thing

The Holy Spirit is a dominant theme throughout the book of Luke.  The Holy Spirit fills individuals in Luke (John, Elizabeth, Mary, Jesus, Zechariah, Simeon, cf. 1:15, 1:35, 1:41, 1:67, 2:25, 3:22, etc), and the work of the Spirit is spoken of in contrast to the many “evil spirits” that cause damage to the individual (7:21, 8:2). The Spirit is associated in the births of both John and Jesus; John will be “filled with the Holy Spirit before birth” (1:15) and Jesus will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit (1:35).  A common result from the infilling of the Holy Spirit is prophecy and praise (1:42-45, 1:64, 2:13). Joel Green and Scot Mcknight associate Luke’s use of the Spirit with prophetic acts that point to the recognition and assurance of salvation: “Elizabeth and Zechariah experience the Spirit of prophecy in invasive prophetic speech (the invasive quality denoted here by the Lukan favorite idiom “filled with” the Holy Spirit) … and as a result give oracles of recognition and assurance of salvation.”[1]

The Holy Spirit appears in a very special way at Jesus’ water baptism (Lk 3:21-22;  Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17; Jn 1:29-34).

It is interesting to note that in each of the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ baptism narrative introduces the rest of his ministry. What is really going on? What were the writers of the gospels telling their readers?

This moment is intentionally placed (in Luke’s account) in order to draw attention away from John the Baptism and centre in on Jesus. What Luke is saying to his readers, is that something special is going on here, a prophetic act in which the New Covenant is being announced.  It’s like he’s saying “It’s time for the project of the New Creation to begin, and it begins here, with Jesus.”

Scholars don’t agree on the purpose of the dove ascending on Jesus, and what that may intend to mean. I believe that it’s meant to allude to 1) the Noah narrative, where the dove was a messenger of new beginnings (Gen. 8:8-12), and 2) the creation narrative, where God’s Spirit hovers over the waters right as he is about to bring forth creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1:2). The point, I think, is that God is now doing something NEW in Jesus. The project of New Creation is beginning in Jesus who is the Christ.

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is meant to signify this powerful new thing that God is doing in history. It is “unique moment in history: the beginning of a new epoch in salvation-history – the beginning, albeit in a restricted sense, of the End-time, the messianic age, the new covenant.”[2]

With regards to this narrative, NT Wright claims that “John the Baptist is playing Samuel to Jesus’ David,” and thus, Luke’s readers are given notice that “there is a new kingdom, a kingdom of Israel’s god, and that the young man now anointed by his cousin in the Jordan is the king through whom it is to be set up.”[3]
The baptism of Jesus signifies the beginning of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, Jesus the Messiah, empowered by the Spirit, is bringing forth the year of the Lord’s favor: good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, and liberty those who are oppressed (Lk 4:18-19, cf Isa 61:1-2).

It is likely that Luke’s frequent mention of the Holy Spirit (much more than any other Gospel) is put to use in order to remind his readers that God “gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (11:13), and may shed light on Luke’s intention to convey to the readers that now is the time of the new covenant, where God’s spirit is given to all flesh (C.F. Joel 2:28, Ez 33-36, Jer 36, Is 40-55).
The key here, is ALL flesh. This project is going to bring in the plan God had from the beginning, to make himself known to all the nations (cf Ez 36, Gen. 15, Jer 36). The allusion to Creation and the Noachic covenant points to God’s commitment to the whole of creation and serves to intensify the universal nature of God’s plan of salvation. It is likely that Luke intended the readers to recognize Jesus’ identification as the Messiah endowed with the Spirit in order to bring forth God’s eschatological program of salvation to all the nations. 
It makes sense that Luke, throughout his gospel account, focuses on the outcasts of society; women, the poor, tax collectors, samaritans, etc. The point, I think, is that the Holy Spirit is offered to all (11:13), just as forgiveness is offered to all (3:3, 24:47). The gift of the Holy Spirit, it seems; will lead to Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy (yes, three P’s… my homiletics teacher would be proud).  Through the Holy Spirit Jesus Promises Power (that’s got to be an A+)…and will eventually lead up to ….the day of Pentecost… (Okay I don’t know how this is happening right now)…
And finally it is on that day of Pentecost where the Spirit falls on all flesh. The New Covenant is materializing in a new and powerful way.
A little after Jesus’ baptism, he himself announces this New Thing that is happening, in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

Amen.
 


[1] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot Mcknight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 342.

 


[2] James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A re-examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today (London: SCM Press, 1970), 24.

 


[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 379.

The Blessings of the Kingdom

There are countless interpretations of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

One wonders, was Matthew being a legalist with regards to these teachings? Commonly, it is suggested that Matthew is warding off legalism with respects to the dominant Pharisaic presence, while at the same time, warning against an antinomianism common to those who “live by faith” (but not by works).

This seems to be a common struggle for many Christians, particularly Evangelicals. That is, the struggle of “faith” vs “religion/works,” as it is commonly referred to. Most often, Christians agree that it begins with faith and the works will follow. This is good, but not enough.

The beatitudes, (i.e “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” etc etc) don’t seem to fit in very cleanly with the above mentioned perspective. There is something missing. What is important to note about these sayings of Jesus, is that they are not describing the “way things are now” but rather

“they are annoucing a new state of affairs, a new reality which is in the process of bursting into the world. They are declaring that something that wasnt’ previously the case is now going to be; that the life of heaven, which had seemed so distant and unreal, is in the process of coming true on earth” (NT Wright, After You Believe, 105).

Now that Jesus is here, God’s kingdom of blessing is coming, a kingdom of renewal of creation, mercy, justice, peace, and love. And as the Kingdom arrives, the qualities of humility, meekness, purity and so on will shine through most powerfully.

So, his teaching is not a “rewards based” retribution theology, (ie behave this way and you will be rewarded), nor is it a “now that you believe in me, this is how you must behave.” Rather, Jesus is saying that God’s new world, God’s plan to bring restoration to the world – a plan beautifully exposed in Isaiah 11 – is coming to birth in Jesus.

These qualities become a reality as we anticipate the coming Kingdom – the New Creation.

Anticipation is a funny thing. When playing soccer, if I anticipate the ball coming towards me, the power of that anticipation will result in bodily movement; I will run towards the ball. Similarly, anticipation of the New Creation will result in new behaviour; transformation of Character. That happens as we follow Jesus.

There’s this interesting Greek word, telos. It connotes a sense of completion, goal, and fulfilment. A full word study may not be appurtenant here, but often, the word is mentioned in the context of the biblical vision for the New Creation, and to top that off, it is in view and anticipation of the telos that a Christ-like character is being formed. 1 Corinthians 15 is a great example of this, as well as the entire book of Revelation. Also, 1 Peter 4:7, which says:

7The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.

There are many more directives throughout the New Testament that we can look at.

One author summarizes the big idea beautifully:

“When [the New Testament writers] present us with a vision for the future, they refuse to move from the present to the future. They move from the future to the present. They are captivated above all by a conviction about what God will finally do – the panorama unveiled in Revelation 21 and 22 – a future when God will dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem, a future promised by and guaranteed in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And in the light of this ultimate hope, they dare to claim that this future can start now. They tell us that their lives are being breathed into by the breath of God, being reenergized by God’s Spirit, that they are already enjoying the life of the future.” (David Taylor, editor of “For the Beauty of the Church”).

Jesus tells his hearers, “Be perfect (teleios) because your heavenly father is perfect (teleios)” (Mt. 5:48). Teleios, is usually translated as “whole, complete, perfect.” Essentially, he’s saying, that you are people of the goal – people of genuine humanness.

The Blessing of the Kingdom is in light of the New Creation – And that is happening here and now because of Jesus. We are living in the “already and not yet” – we live in view of the “not yet” and we live it out “already.”

 

Attending to Jesus

I’m observing Lent for the first time.

Again I am reminded of Paul’s prayer, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

From a devotional I am using, Lent is described as

“a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate the death (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter Sunday) of Jesus. It is this very preparation and repentance – aimed at grasping the intense significance of the crucifixion – that gives us a deep and powerful longing for the resurrection, the joy of Easter.”

The purpose of Lent then, is to meet with Jesus. My prayer is that he would meet with me, so I’ll be attending to Him. Not simply when I have devotionals or time set apart for prayer, but my hope is that I will be attending to him wholly, fully, as I study and research for school, as I spend time with friends, as I work, that I would be attending to Him, waiting on Him to meet with me.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). 

Music and Bach: Rethinking Spirit Led Worship

hands-music-musician-piano

I’ve been wondering about the musical mechanisms we have employed in Christian Evangelical circles. I’m thinking of the two very different modes of musical worship – one which hold’s thoughtful and systematic planning in high regard, and the other which hold’s spontaneity in high regard.

I’m trying to think this through objectively, though of course, as a critical realist, I never reach strict objectivity because I, we, can’t escape our context and the biases and presuppositions that come with them. So then, for me to be “critically realistic,” I must take into account my subjectivities and interpretive lenses that have formed my thinking.

I will say that as a musician involved in leading worship and playing drums, I’ve experienced both: spontaneous and planned.
I’ve heard it said, that strictly planned worship simply does not allow the work of the Spirit; unless there is room for spontaneity. I understand the concern. My question is: what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking? Why is it that Christians in my tradition (not all of them of course, but many), have equated spontaneity with some higher work of the Spirit?

Yesterday, in Christian Though and Culture class @ Regent, we looked at The Enlightenment and its effects on Christendom. The lecture was titled: ‘Lord of Reason: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative in the Modern Era’. What resulted from this self-explanatory title, was a fundamentalist escape from culture. The Fundamentalist movement, which Mark Noll describes as being “intellectually sterile,” had absolutely nothing valuable to say about or contribute to culture:

“As a result of following a theology that did not provide Christian guidance for the wider intellectual life, there has been, properly speaking, no fundamentalist philosophy, no fundamentalist history of science, no fundamentalist aesthetics, no fundamentalist novels or poetry, no fundamentalist jurisprudence, no fundamentalist literary criticism, and no fundamentalist sociology” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 137).

Thankfully, prior to the rise of Fundamentalism, there were leaders within the Evangelical movement that were quite different. Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield are those often mentioned, but the one who has stuck out to me, was Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am no expert on this man (or anything really… except maybe eating), but I do believe that those who have equated spontaneous, unplanned songs of worship with a greater move of the Spirit can learn a thing or two from Bach.

He is known for many things, he is known for his incredible ability to have very “rational” and mathematical music. More importantly, he was able to fuse this rationalism with his theology. This may seem normal for us today, but back then, rationalism and mathematics were seen as causes of “the eclipse of the biblical narrative” within society. His music, what I would like to point out, was far from spontaneous. But if something is Spirit empowered music, it’s his. He teaches us that, as James Macmillan has written, “abstract complexity and spiritual joy are not mutually exclusive.” He is sometimes called the “fifth evangelist,” and that for a reason.

Surely, most readers will not understand the latin in his music, but one must ask, what have we done with music?

I’m not trying to speak against spontaneous music, since many believe that in it, there are greater forms of art (which is probably also questionable).

To get back to the question, what assumptions are intrinsic to this thinking – the thinking that spontaneous music is more spiritual? Maybe we can’t answer that definitively, but we can at least re-think what really is “Spirit-led” music.

This brings up other questions: God has given us many gifts; Scripture, reason, art, experience, tradition. How are we using them? Is the idea that a spontaneous “letting go and letting God” mentality in music really a means of the Spirit of God being ‘allowed to flow’? Could that be just laziness? Could it be that with all the gifts that God has given us, and if we consider that since our fundamental calling is to be Human, and that as Human, we are called to Cultivate (essentially, to Create Culture), should we not be making the best of what we have with our God-given skills ? Would not these things bring greater glory to God? I think these are important questions that need evaluation.

Here’s one piece Called “Agnus Dei in G minor” – Paul Hofreiter sums this piece up:

“The most intense solo in the entire work is the Agnus Dei in G-minor. This angular music makes strong use of imitation between the alto voice and the violins, creating a bridge between humanity and divinity as Christ offers his body and blood for the salvation of humankind. The jagged and chromatic nature of the music in the aria demonstrates the profound reality that Christ has, indeed, participated in our humanity in all its anguish and death. There is no mistake for Bach in the understanding of the purpose and reason for Christ’s death.”

Also, for more info on this subject check out http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/tas3/musicon.html

Jesus, Culture, and Faith

In a class I’m taking called “theology of culture”, we’re looking at the Christian ethic as it relates to culture. How should a practicing Christian engage with culture?

I can’t go into detail about the course at this moment but the point I would like to make is that this question IS important. If we are to take seriously the call to be “in the world, but not of the world” we MUST not rush to conclusions as to what that may or may not look like. Christian thinkers have, through the centuries, employed varying interpretive lenses in order to live out this calling faithfully. We all have them: interpretive lenses. Those lenses are shaped by our very culture, which intensifies the need to THINK through these issues.

The 5 typologies given by Richard Niebuhr in his “Christ and Culture” are astoundingly important:

Christ Against Culture
Christ the Transformer of Culture
Christ in Paradox with Culture
Christ in Above Culture
Christ of Culture

Again, I can’t go into detailed description for each typology here, but what stood out to me was that each typology is to some degree and in certain contexts, a viable option. No thinking Christian could simply place themselves in strictly one of these categories for every cultural confrontation. Essentially, they are contextual categories. What I mean is, with every confrontation with culture, discernment needs to take place. Maybe on monday I’ll fall under the first typology, but on thursday I’ll fall under the third one.

With that in mind, discernment and wisdom, biblically speaking (and practically), are employable when one is in a state of dependance on God: Faith.

We must believe that God has and will continue to provide us with enough (not all) answers in order for us to discernibly and thoughtfully live according to his will and his glory.

By faith we can trust that God will “fill [us] with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding…in order that [we] may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that [we] may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light”

Colossians 1:9-13

With All Your Mind

Why is it that many Christians today separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the mind? As if any thought of the mind is a product not of the Spirit but of the flesh.

Mark Noll wrote on this subject, calling it the “Scandal” of the Evangelical mind: simply put, that there is no mind. He argues that Christians today, specifically Evangelicals, don’t think ‘Christianly’ about culture the way their Fathers did. By Fathers, I’m referring to the Fathers of Evangelicalism; John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and others.

In my thinking, the Liberal Theology in the 19th century rejected the supernatural and embraced science, humanistic endeavours, and ultimately the mind (and that definitely created a problem, but that’s not my point right now). This liberal theology welcomed the popular consensus that reason was of utmost importance. Maybe it’s a bit of an overstatement but I think in many ways the fundamentalist reaction to liberal theology in the 19th century was one that led to the rejection of the use of the mind, creating a false dichotomy between the mind and the Spirit.

Here’s how:

The wake of the 20th century saw immense supernatural activity amongst Evangelicals, resulting in the birth and growth of Pentecostalism. Being raised Pentecostal, I tread carefully on these waters, but not uncritically. Perhaps the embrace of the supernatural at the expense of the natural became catalytic in the discarding of the mind. (As a side note, this seems to fit perfectly well with a pre-millenial eschatology that longs for an escape from this ‘evil’ world, dualizing God’s “good” creation. I realize that statement opens up a whole other dialogue, let’s forget I said that for now). Don’t misunderstand me here, I believe in the supernatural and I believe that it’s something we can and should seek, but not at the expense of the natural. The supernatural work of the Spirit was never meant to be worshiped, just like the natural (creation, our bodies, etc) was never meant to be worshiped.

Let’s talk about it.

If Jesus asks us to love God with our whole being, including our minds, then thinking (about both God, culture, and the world), should not be considered an action that is mutually exclusive to the work of the Spirit. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is not manifested ONLY when something supernatural happens, that is a false dichotomy. God is the God of the natural and the supernatural. Christian’s need to again begin thinking Christianly about culture, about God, and about how they are to engage in the world. Not escaping it, not leaving it, not disappearing from it, but showing the world what it means to be human; this involves the mind empowered by the Spirit.

Your Kingdom Come?

The historical transition from the Pagan Roman Empire to the Christian Roman Empire was a big part of Christian history, having massive implications. How should it be viewed? Here are some thoughts.

Though it is difficult (for me) to affirm any extreme theological assertion with regards to many matters, in my opinion, Christianity cannot (ever) provide an authentic basis for political rule. The only alternative, biblically speaking, is to live in a (paradoxical) way that seeks to acknowledge Christ as the King above all kings, while living and engaging with a world that does not.  (As apposed to running away from it, or inventing doctrines that promise future escape, completely disregarding the creation narrative… but that’s another issue).

At the fall of Rome, pagan’s argued that Rome’s traditional gods were wreaking revenge and causing its downfall for siding with the God of the Christians. Augustine responds by differentiating God’s kingdom from the kingdom of the earth: The “Christian” kingdom of Rome was not the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ claim that his kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it does not effect this world, on the contrary, it is one that subverts the worldly kingdom with a Kingdom in which the “first shall become last, and the last shall become first” (Mark 10:31).   I agree with Jacque Ellul that the militant and political interpretation of the Gospel is a falsification, and I would add that it is a recurring misunderstanding of the Gospel message, revealed with Jesus’ own disciples: their expectations of what was to happen represent the same expectations of all of Israel; that God would eventually send a Messiah who would militaristically and politically take charge of Israel (Luke 9:46; Mark 9:33; Matt 18:1; Acts 1:6).

The alternative then, is to seek the kingdom of God as revealed in the Gospels: a kingdom that subverts all notions of unequal and unjust social systems through selfless love: a world in which claims to rank and status have no place at all. This is a paradigm exemplified most beautifully by God himself, who leaves his throne to die on a cross in shame.

How should this impact our political stance?

BOOK REVIEW: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission – John Dickson

(citations are from the kindle edition)

In John Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, Dickson brings an unexpected approach to rediscovering the biblical grounds for orthodox Christian missions. The reader will find a professionally written composition that includes exegetical data understood in its historical, biblical, and linguistic context, in addition to personal stories of gospel encounters, bringing to life the propositions grounded in scriptural analysis. It is informal and theoretical, yet made remarkably practical. Dickson’s stories remind the reader that doctrines alone cannot bring to life the truth of the gospel, but that true missions must involve an encounter with the reality of Jesus’ Lordship. This is Dickson’s overall argument; that to promote the gospel in a biblical fashion involves every aspect of ones life being rooted in the embracing of ‘the Gospel as revealed in the gospels’ — the ‘here and coming’ kingdom of Jesus being Lord. Thus, for Dickson, the Gospel is more than a set of doctrines but is rather founded on the narrative of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and the key to all of these is that they point to Jesus being Lord and king. This is what is primarily central to the Gospel. In light of this gospel, its promotion is not founded on soteriologically driven themes that prioritize personal salvation (though it may include them), but on the story of Jesus, his kingdom, and its consequences.  Dickson’s ability to stay balanced is an uncommon, yet pleasant approach. He claims that “the gospel message is not a set of theological ideas that can be detached from the events that gave these ideas definitive expression.  Nor is the gospel a simple narrative devoid of theological content” (1872).  Ultimately, an encounter with this gospel inevitably leaves an impact on every aspect of life.  Confronting the matter regarding evangelism training programs, Dickson rightly claims that programs “that focus on the doctrines of sin, atonement and grace without also stressing the need to be gentle, respectful and gracious are incomplete” (2788). Therefore, rightly understanding and receiving the gospel of Jesus being Lord must inescapably result in a graceful lifestyle that simultaneously beautifies and promotes the gospel message.

The climactic chapter that has brought most personal gain for myself would be that of the Gospel. Dickson puts into perspective what the gospel really is, the “Gospel as portrayed by the gospels.” He shares a most enlightening conclusion that to tell the gospel involves “recounting the deeds of the Messiah Jesus” (1685). I have gained a personal sense of urgency coming from the realization that the majority of evangelical circles today have deduced the gospel to four spiritual laws centered on personal salvation. In engaging with the ‘cognitive dissonance theory’ that Dickson makes reference to, I ask: is it not possible that we have modified the gospel to fit our consumerist society? Have we, due to our consumerist mindset, deduced the gospel to matters of personal benefit, and at what expense? When the promotion of God’s glory is central to the gospel then we are disarmed in being consumer driven. Subsequently, the privatization of the gospel experience has perhaps caused us to fail to realize that the gospel has more to do with breaking cultural barriers than we might think. In Dickson’s chapter “Following the ‘Friend of Sinners,’” he briefly points out that Paul criticized Peter for “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” when he separated himself from the Gentiles (Galatians 2:14).  Thus, when we act in line with the truth of the gospel, we are not creating cultural barriers, but like Paul and Jesus, we live “oriented toward the salvation of outsiders,” (715) since “eating with sinners was for Paul exactly what it had been for Jesus: an embodiment of the salvation message itself” (731). One can perhaps make the argument that we have sidelined issues of racial segregation at the aggrandizement of personal salvation. Thus, the gospel has much to do with community; it is not a private salvation but a communal and public one. Citing Rodney Stark as referenced in Dickson’s chapter entitled “Being the Light of the World,” Stark claims that  “a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity.” It is this new ‘culture’ that resulted from a kingdom-centered gospel, and this is the key to a continuing revitalization: when the message of Christ’s here and coming kingdom is central to the gospel it will empower the Church to truly be the Light of the World (1366).

 

N.T. Wright – Justification

It is unfortunate that most have pigeon-holed N.T. Wright into being a theologian with “liberal tendencies.” Many have categorized him as unbiblical in his “New Perspective” approach that at first glance seems to undermine classical Protestant Theology. “Justification by faith” has become the end all of Protestantism, more specifically for Reformed Theology, and Wright’s approach is not to discard it completely, but to understand in the grand framework of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The implications regarding our definition of justification is enormous, and Wright is simply using the New Perspective as a means to show that Paul’s use of “justification by faith” has way more implications than simply securing ones destination to heaven. Paul’s use of Abraham throughout his epistles, namely Galatians, and Romans, aren’t merely examples or illustrations of faith, but rather provide a framework in which we understand what faith and salvation really is.

The first part of this book is dedicated to a grand introduction, engaging with the “justification” on the basis of history, tradition, and of course the Bible. The second part of the book focuses on the exegesis of Scripture, as he goes through various Pauline epistles, bringing them into light through his exposition framed by the Abrahamic covenant.

Without giving away too many details in this book I will say a few things. Wright defines words like “righteousness” and “justification,” and does so with historical and literal context in mind. These words have familial and communitarian implications and essentially provide a greater Ecclesiology, Christology, and Missiology.  For Wright, the righteousness of God is not explicitly (though perhaps implicitly) a moral virtue, but specifically refers to his covenant faithfulness made with Abraham. This is made clear throughout Wright’s exposition of the book of Romans. Our ‘righteousness’ has to do with our covenant membership and behaviour. The marker then for those who are part of this covenant community is — like abraham — faith, not “works of Torah.” The problem is, that since the late medieval period, the church has ‘de-judaized’ the gospel, and has assumed that the problem with Judaism, and specifically 1st century judaism was legalism; essentially, that Jews from the 1st century were trying to earn their salvation. This is precisely wrong.

The 1st century Jews were quite aware that they were already a part of this covenant family, and the works of the law were a “marker” that intensified their separation from their gentile neighbours. For them, they were “justified by the works of torah” – in other works, they were counted as part of the covenant family and the works of torah was evidence of that fact. There is no such idea that 1st century judaism is attempting to earn salvation, it was already given by God through Abraham.

It was an ethnic elitism that had become problematic for the famous Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Legalism was not the problem. God’s purpose of the Torah was not to intensify some kind of ethnic elitism but to provoke the surrounding nations to become part of the family of God, always intended since God’s covenant with Abraham. They were to be a “light unto the nations,” so that through Abraham, “many nations would be blessed” (Gen. 15). For this reason, Jesus reminds them that they are “a light unto the nations” and a “city set on a hill,” yet unfortunately, they failed miserably.

With this in mind, (and much more if you read the book for yourself), Wright points out that being “justified” by faith, has more implications than merely assuring the believer that he will one day go to heaven. So, if you’re wondering what those implications are, read the book. I highly recommend it.