What was credited to Abraham by faith?

Still on the subject of judgment and works, justification and faith, and the fundamental misalignment of Reformed theology… Darren asks: “What was credited to Abraham by faith?” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at—he may just be asking what “it” refers to: “he counted it to him as righteousness”. If so, the answer is simply that God counted or reckoned his act of believing as righteousness. But it gives me an excuse to look a little more closely at Paul’s argument about righteousness and faith. We’ll begin with three other Old Testament passages:

  • Moses says that “it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25).
  • Having been delivered by God from his enemies, David declares:

The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psa 18:20–24; cf. 2 Sam. 22:21-25)

  • When Phinehas killed the man of Israel and his Midianite wife, it was “counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever” (Ps. 106:31, with reference to Num. 25:7-8). This is the closest parallel to Genesis 15:6. Notice that it is what Phinehas did (he “stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed”) that is counted to him as righteousness.

Justification by faith (in the story of Israel and the nations)

The classic doctrine of justification is roughly that God declares righteous—and will declare righteous at the final judgment—the sinner who has faith in Jesus. There is nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God—no works of any religious or moral “law”. The righteousness of Jesus may be transferred or “imputed” to us, but even then, it’s never really ours; it remains, in effect, on loan. Justification does not mean that we are right. It means that we have Christ’s rightness. This is how John Calvin defines justification:

Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…. (Institutes III 11.2)

There you have it—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, which is another way of saying that this is a matter of Reformed theology and not really what Paul was talking about. What our modern Protestant theologies have done is take an argument out of the New Testament story about Israel and the nations and rewrite it as an argument about the salvation of the individual.

Judgment according to works: a flawed paradigm

I was hoping that at least one of the views expressed in Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), edited by Alan Stanley, would recognize that the theological problem looks very different—and frankly much less problematic—from a narrative-historical perspective. Sadly not. The four positions can be efficiently summarized using the chapter headings:

  • Robert Wilkin: “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment.”
  • Thomas Schreiner: “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.”
  • James Dunn: “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?’
  • Michael Barber: “A Catholic Perspective: our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ.”

Each chapter is followed by critical—and sometimes quite scathing—responses from the other three disputants. In my view the manner in which these four theologians tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize the data is pretty strong confirmation that the traditional paradigm is flawed. What follows is a rough outline, with some exegetical illustration, of how I think the issue might better be approached.

Some women and the story of God’s people, and a brief obituary

Elkanah had two wives. Peninnah has children, but Hannah has no children. Elkanah favours Hannah, but Peninnah “used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb”. At the temple in Shiloh Hannah prays that the Lord of hosts will look on the affliction of his servant and give her a son. Eventually the boy Samuel is born, and when he is weaned, Hannah takes him to the temple and hands him over to the Lord. She then utters an impassioned prayer: “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation…” (1 Sam. 2:1).

John Barton on biblical criticism and reading the Old Testament

I have found John Barton’s defence of “biblical criticism” as a fundamentally semantic or literary enterprise extremely helpful in clarifying what I mean by a narrative-historical hermeneutic. The biblical text relates, on the one hand, to how things really were, and it is the task of historical-criticism to examine that referential relationship: is the text what it purports to be? does it give an accurate and trustworthy account of the people and events to which it refers? But it relates, on the other hand, to the communities which produced and read the text. This is also a historical relationship, but the critical task in this case is primarily to understand what is being said by and for the benefit of the original communities. It is this emphasis on what is being said that is so valuable in The Nature of Biblical Criticism.

Don Carson, kingdom, ethics and individual salvation

I managed to get an internet connection on the bus between Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes) and Tarsus and followed a link from Michael Bird to a Themelios article by Don Carson on “Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation”, republished on the Gospel Coalition site. It doesn’t seem an inappropriate theme to reflect on as we ride in air-conditioned comfort in the footsteps of Paul.

Carson is responding to a number of different views on the kingdom of God advanced in recent years that diverge from “traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought”. Most of them are attempts to reintroduce a social and ethical dimension to the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, either alongside or in displacement of a supposedly Pauline focus on individual salvation. As Carson puts it:

…the focus of their frame of reference is one or another of these large visions, usually tied to a distinctive understanding of the kingdom, heavily leaning toward societal transformation (either of the entire society or, in the Anabaptist heritage, the ecclesial society).

Where should a statement of faith begin?

I was asked a while back by Brad Knight what I thought of this post by Roger Olson. Olson addresses the question:

When composing a Christian statement of faith, a statement of faith for a Christian church, educational institution, whatever, what or whom should the first article be about? Where should it begin?

He rejects starting either with God, because it may lead to subordinationism, or with the Bible, because it may lead to biblicism, and argues instead that “our primary focus of faith as Christians, that which conditions all else, is Jesus”. We cannot begin with a “generic or even pre-Jesus” account of God and then “project that onto Jesus”. We must confess fundamentally and primarily, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsay, that “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all”. Martin Luther, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann are also invoked in support of this view.

Rocking the boat: Noah in narrative-historical perspective

Following the brilliantly intense Christian Associates staff conference in Budapest, my wife and I are spending a couple of weeks in eastern Turkey. Yesterday we went to see the remarkable rock structure, in the hills close to the border with Iran, that is believed by some to be the petrified remains of Noah’s ark. The archaeological site is named after the Turkish army captain İlhan Durupınar who noticed it in aerial photographs taken after it was exposed by earthquakes and heavy rain in 1948, but it is known locally as Nuhun Gemisi, “Noah’s ship”.

Evangelicals, historical criticism and the second coming

One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical thought in recent years has been the willingness of scholars to engage with scientific and historical criticism. I have recommended the work of Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns before. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, is very much in the same vein. It serves as a good introduction to a number of critical debates. Did Adam and Eve exist? Did the exodus really happen? Did Israel’s covenant theology predate the exile? Did the prophets always predict the future accurately? Does the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy compromise the canon? Is the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels historically reliable? And is the Paul of Acts compatible with the Paul of the Letters?

The aim of the book is to show that historical criticism can be done honestly and critically by evangelicals without jeopardizing the fundamental tenets of a Christian confession. The argument in most of the chapters is that even if, in any instance, we were to accept—let’s say hypothetically—the findings of historical criticism, the basic theological truth at issue remains pretty much intact. Not surprisingly, there is less willingness to entertain the hypothetical possibilities when it comes to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

Making space for God in post-Christian Europe

I spent last week teaching at a church family camp in Belgium on the theme of “Making space for God in post-Christian Europe”. It was a great opportunity to think through, with a highly motivated but marginalized group of people, how a narrative-historical approach to the New Testament might help us to rethink our response to the overwhelming challenge of secularism. This is brief summary of the main points that I wanted to get across.

We began by talking about the crisis as it is experienced by the evangelical churches in Flemish-speaking Belgium, wedged uncomfortably between the formerly dominant Catholic Church and an increasingly aggressive secularism. On the one hand, the identity of the evangelical churches has been determined to a large degree by a rigorous anti-Catholicism: many of their members are converts from the Catholic Church and regard it as the great prostitute, Babylon. On the other, they are painfully aware that their young people are finding it very difficult to keep believing in a culture that is so hostile to faith. In an article in The New York Times (“A More secular Europe, Divided by the Cross”) Andrew Higgins quotes Gudrun Kugler, who is director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians:

“There is a general suspicion of anything religious, a view that faith should be kept out of the public sphere,” said Gudrun Kugler…. “There is a very strong current of radical secularism,” she said, adding that this affects all religions but is particularly strong against Christianity because of a view that “Christianity dominated unfairly for centuries” and needs to be put in its place.

One way or another, this situation accounts for the reluctance of the churches to depart from a very narrow and conservative understanding of their task.


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