It just so happened that having finished the post on Justification with reference to Wright, Gorman and Campbell, I had an email from a friend at Regent College asking what I thought of Stephen Westerholm’s critique of the New Perspective in a CTQ article from 2006 entitled “Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question?” Well, it wasn’t what I was planning to do today, but it’s all in a good cause—so, Barney, here is roughly what I think.
We approach the problem of the meaning of “justification” in the New Testament much as many hopeful rescuers approached Sleeping Beauty’s castle. We know the story of how the fair Princess Dikaiōsis, deceived by a wicked fairy, pricked her finger on the spindle of a Reformation spinning wheel. We know that as a result she and her whole kingdom fell into a deep sleep, and that an impenetrable forest of tangled theological briars grew up around the castle.
The 9Marks site had an eJournal devoted to the “Awful Reality” of hell last year. Reading through the various articles in defence of the traditional interpretation goaded me into starting a general account of New Testament teaching on this thing which we wrongly label “hell” as part of my vaguely proposed “glossary” series. I got as far as Andrew David Naselli’s first point under the heading “How does the New Testament describe hell?” and realized that it was not going to be easy to keep matters concise.
In the final chapter of Defending Constantine Peter Leithart does two things. He rejects Yoder’s argument about the Constantinian “fall” of the church as being both historically and methodologically flawed; and he puts forward an alternative account of the “major (if not exactly epochal) shift that took place when Constantine converted” and of the subsequent history of the European church. A strong clue as to what shape this alternative account will take is given in the quotation from Augustine that heads the chapter: “God is not the ruler of the city of the impious, because it disobeys his commandment that sacrifice be offered to himself alone.”
In a chapter on “Christian Empire, Christian Mission” in Defending Constantine Peter Leithart challenges the view of John Howard Yoder—widely accepted amongst modern theologians if not amongst historians—that Constantinianism was a fundamental departure from the intention of Jesus and the New Testament. Leithart’s analysis suggests that it is not so far-fetched to see a theologically coherent development, embodied in the missional self-understanding of the early church, between the initial New Testament impetus and the eventual merger of church and state.
This is the first of what I hope will become a series of “glossary” type posts giving a fairly basic and compact explanation of core “evangelical” concepts from—as you might expect—a narrative-historical perspective. Our understanding of these concepts is in transition. I do not at all put these definitions forward as conclusive or authoritative, but I hope that they will provide some temporary focus in the process of reconstruction. We kick off with “salvation”, partly prompted by a post by Michael Patton a couple of days back, in which he addresses a question that he hopes no one will ask: “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” What follows doesn’t really answer the question, but it at least presents a very different frame within which to address it.
I am increasingly coming to the view that a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament will sooner or later be seen to have significant implications for how we understand the transition that the church made in the fourth century from persecuted minority to privileged imperial religion. For the most part, theological opinion today holds that Constantinianism was at best a regrettable compromise and at worst a catastrophic departure from New Testament Christianity. I think that an important strand of New Testament prophetic thought has in view—quite concretely and realistically—the ending of the persecution of the early church, the defeat of paganism, and the public, empire-wide acknowledgment of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords”. The exegetical argument does not amount to an exculpation of Christendom—and it is certainly not a call for its reinstatement. But I do think that an evangelical theology needs to re-examine the modern prejudice against Constantine and the Christendom paradigm, and to consider other ways of integrating the transformative event into its self-understanding.
Dane Ortlund, Senior Editor at Crossway Books (Bible division) recently asked 25 scholars and pastors to sum up the “message of the Bible in one sentence”. You can read the contributions, some of which are really quite good exemplars of the genre, on his Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology blog. I have two rather contradictory reactions to it, one essentially postmodern, the other much more “modern”—or as I would prefer to call it, “hermeneutically correct”.
The lengthy responses provoked by the third post on missio Dei make for very good reading. I am neither a historian nor a missiologist. What interests me primarily in this discussion is the question of where the New Testament’s view of the future lands us. The traditional view—notwithstanding the complications introduced by various forms of millennial expectation—is that it lands us at the end of the world, on the brink of a final transformation of all things. This is the moment when Jesus comes back, the kingdom of God is fully established, there is a final judgment, the faithful go to heaven, the unbelievers either to torment or oblivion, death is destroyed, and all things are made new.
I started out with a brief history of the missio Dei concept from its origins in Karl Barth’s argument that mission is essentially an attribute of the Triune God, not an activity of the church, to the appropriation of the term by the missional church movement. I then suggested that as a matter of biblical interpretation it makes more sense to understand the mission of God in terms of the escalating conflict between the one good creator God of Israel and the gods of the nations that routinely threatened the political and religious integrity of the people of God, culminating symbolically in the parousia event of the victory of the suffering churches over the “Babylon” which was Rome. So then what?