Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Calvin on Christian Freedom

I've been out for a while, mostly because a storm of rather biblical proportions recently hit Charlottesville and knocked out power in our neighborhood for three days. Now I'm in Seattle for a workshop on inverse problems and PDEs. Meanwhile, I guess it's time to blog again about Calvin.

Calvin writes about Christian freedom in Chapter XIX of Book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. He connects it directly with justification by faith. Because we are completely justified by God's grace alone, we have a freedom of conscience that allows us to be rid of any guilt imposed by any law, especially laws devised by humans, but even the law of the Old Testament. In particular, he believes in freedom on "things indifferent," i.e. outward customs and practices not directly tied to righteousness.

Calvin is very moderate with this idea. He says that we are likely to fall into one of two errors because of this doctrine. One error is to overuse this freedom so as to offend others. As an illustration, Calvin mentions those who in his day would purposefully eat meat during Lent and on Good Friday just to show Catholics that they were proud of their Christian freedom. The other error is to overuse this freedom for the sake of self-indulgence. This, he says, is not permitted. The purpose of our freedom of conscience is so that we can pursue God, not sin. If we have freedom of conscience, then we can accept God's full embrace; but if we run back to the embrace of sin, then we give ourselves over to the way of death.

I see some major problems with Calvin's view of Christian freedom. These arise when he starts trying to explain how it is that we can be bound to certain duties in this life when we have freedom of conscience before God. This particular statement strikes me as disastrous:
Therefore, lest this prove a stumbling-block to any, let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform. ... Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside.
To see just how disastrous this dualism is, it is important to see how it plays out:
By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free.
You could not ask for better soil in which to plant the seeds of secular modernity! These words imply that religious liberty does not imply political liberty. Thus the believer is reduced to hoping for a future freedom, while the state is allowed to assert its absolute authority here on earth. It is not hard to see how the ideas expressed here gradually morphed into the idea that religion is a private matter for individuals to cherish in their own personal lives, but irrelevant in the public sphere. These words make the common Christian impotent to stand up to the State's coercion. For this reason I am in profound disagreement with Calvin on this point.

On a more general note, Calvin seems to take all the real content out of freedom of conscience. Consider the last section of Chapter XIX (emphasis added):
Wherefore, as works have respect to men, so conscience bears reference to God, a good conscience being nothing else than inward integrity of heart. ... Sometimes, indeed, it is even extended to men, as when Paul testifies, "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men," (Acts 24:16). He speaks thus, because the fruits of a good conscience go forth and reach even to men. But, as I have said, properly speaking, it refers to God only. Hence a law is said to bind the conscience, because it simply binds the individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. The same rule does not hold in things indifferent. We ought to abstain from every thing that produces offense, but with a free conscience. Thus Paul, speaking of meat consecrated to idols, says, "If any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake:" "Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other," (1 Cor. 10:28, 29). A believer, after being previously admonished, would sin were he still to eat meat so offered. But though abstinence, on his part, is necessary, in respect of a brother, as it is prescribed by God, still he ceases not to retain liberty of conscience. We see how the law, while binding the external act, leaves the conscience unbound.
Calvin's dualism is oppressive here. In our minds, we are free, but in our bodies, we are slaves. Again, the political implications are disturbing.

Freedom is not something that can be grasped. One does not define its parameters and then rest easy in a self-satisfied feeling of justification. Freedom is a matter of difficult choices that must be faced with courage. Liberty is not something to be asserted without humility, yet an individual must not simply let the world around him control his destiny. As surely as a man must acknowledge his own inner depravity, he must also acknowledge the depravity of the State, and of all the powers at work in this world. One cannot continually abstain from certain things for the sake of not offending others. At times his actions will offend others, though his own conscience is clear. It is not at all clear when he ought to go through with those actions despite the risks. But that's the thing about freedom: it refuses to be clearly defined, yet always remains essential to living as true human beings.

Calvin's work on Christian freedom was probably very important, especially in his own context. Nevertheless, this is a probably a low point in my opinion of Calvin's seminal writing. I don't think I could disagree with him any more strongly on a philosophical level than on this point.

The next section in the Institutes is on prayer. It's a long chapter, so I'm sure the next time I'll write will be on that topic.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Only in receiving can we know"

In Chapter 4 of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Wilken writes about the early Christian quest to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. What's significant to me is what these early Christian thinkers had to say about epistemology:
Like Origen and Irenaeus, Hilary [of Poitiers] believed that God can be known only as God "has made himself known to us." The knowledge of God begins in receptivity, in openness to what is revealed and the willingness to accept what is given. Hilary singles out the word "receive" in a text from Saint Paul: "We have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is of God" (1 Cor. 2:12). When we speak of God we speak of what we know and we know what we have received and we receive what is given through the Holy Spirit. Everyone has the facility to "apprehend God," says Hilary, but it is only when one receives the gift of the Spirit in faith that the "gift of knowledge" becomes our own: "Only in receiving can we know."
One of the rare privileges I have living near family while I attend grad school is getting to watch my cousins' children, ages 1-5, grow and learn. If I were to base my understanding of how human learning works entirely on the environment of grad school, I wouldn't get anywhere close to what the early Christians were talking about. In the academy, knowledge comes through taking. It comes through skepticism, through holding things outside the mind until they're deemed worthy to enter in. Little children remind me that human learning at base level doesn't work like this. Learning comes through receiving.

My dear little cousins (once removed) have absolutely no control over what language they are being taught to use in order to communicate thoughts and feelings. The English language is, in a sense, forced upon them arbitrarily, as are a number of cultural habits that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. This is no doubt offensive to certain modern sensibilities which picture little children as blank slates with an infinite range of possibilities. Yet it is precisely by imitating the very particular customs of their parents, and by adjusting to the natural rhythms of the very particular world around them, that these children will be able to formulate their own independent thoughts and ideas. It is by receiving the very particular life we have been given that humans have a chance at that dream of universality.

How do we know what things are true? Modern secular thinkers seem to range in their answers between appealing to some sort of universal "reason," which always seems to have an elusive but ultimately impersonal meaning; and embracing some sort of relativism, which basically rejects the idea of ever conclusively evaluating something as "true." Many devout Christians have responded to these equally unappealing alternatives by asserting that Truth (with a capital "T"!) is grounded in the propositional content of Scripture as breathed by God. I suppose there is some truth (with a lowercase "t") in that, but the thought that really strikes me as more useful in developing true epistemology is that we worship God both as Sovereign Lord and as Father. We are little children. We come into a world we did not create and are shaped by its patterns, which we did not determine.

We are children. We receive knowledge. There is no one alive today with any knowledge of anything who did not first have a foundation built by a parent figure. I have heard of some extremely sad cases in which children are so abused and neglected that they utterly fail to learn any language whatsoever. After a certain age, it is simply impossible for them to learn it. It has nothing to do with IQ; after a certain point language can no longer be learned. It is unclear at this point whether ideas can genuinely be formed at all. What is clear is that without the gift of a parent's love, a child can gain no knowledge expressible in any human language. This is surely one of the most profound of all tragedies.

Yet that is precisely the condition of human thinking without a Father. We have knowledge of what is true only because we are taught. Every rhythm and pattern of nature that we notice is given to us by our Father. We learn because we receive. There is no other ground for actual knowledge. If the world around us does not exist intentionally, then neither is there any real knowledge, since knowledge is only the end result of a parent's love for his child. God our Father has sovereignly determined an order to the universe because of which we learn to speak His language back to Him. If this order is not from our Father, then we have not learned a language but mere nonsense. Without love, there can be no knowledge.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Merkel vs. Obama

I found this kind of amusing:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel directly contradicted US President Barack Obama on Saturday, saying spending cutbacks were now needed following the spate of throwing money at the global economic crisis.

Referring to the G20 summit in Canada next weekend, Merkel said in a videotaped message that "we are going to discuss when to quit the phase of short-term measures and go on to lasting budget consolidation."

Such a move was "urgently necessary, in the view of the Europeans and particularly of Germany," she said.
Obama, on the other hand, thinks governments should keep spending money they don't have, because the private sector clearly can't recover on its own.

Kind of crazy when our own president believes in socialism more than the Europeans.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Calvin on Justification by Faith

Now that I've written on N. T. Wright's view of justification by faith, it's time to get back to Calvin's view. Conveniently, this is exactly the section of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion that I've just finished reading.

I'm not sure that it's worth trying to compare Calvin's take on justification with Wright's. The two views come out of very different contexts, yet both views converge on a number of important issues. I had originally thought to write a post comparing the two views side by side, but I realized this is a much too ambitious project. Instead, I'll just let Calvin be Calvin, and I'll write what I think he's said in the past 100 pages.

First, as I just noted, justification is an extremely important doctrine for Calvin--he spends a good 100 pages on it, taking up eight chapters in Book III. However, it is also significant what comes before and after. Book III opens with the Holy Spirit--He is the main character in applying the grace of Christ to our benefit. Faith is then defined, followed by a discussion of regeneration and repentance, and then a discussion of the Christian life. When Calvin starts talking about justification by faith, he has just been talking about denying ourselves and bearing the cross. I would argue that this point is vital to understanding what Calvin says about justification by faith. Obviously I have not read what comes after justification by faith, but I know that the topics will be Christian freedom, prayer, election and predestination, and the final resurrection.

It is quite significant to me that justification by faith is buried within Book III. Although evangelicals have followed Calvin closely in their statement of justification by faith, I don't think they have followed him in the priority he assigns to it. Calvin does not start with it as the very foundation of the gospel. Neither does Calvin build up to it as if justification by faith were the climax of it all. One might argue that this placement means Calvin views justification as the inner core of the gospel, but I don't think that will do, either. Calvin clearly views the doctrine as extremely important, especially insofar as the Roman Catholic Church has severely corrupted the doctrine in his view; but he does not equate justification by faith with either the beginning or end of salvation, certainly not with the whole of salvation. I think it's necessary to point out where the doctrine actually fits in his overall theology--not on the sidelines, but not as the star quarterback, either.

It would be pointless and tiresome to go through the whole eight chapters in sequence, so I'll just summarize what I think is significant about Calvin's view. For Calvin, justification by faith is both a humbling and an assuring doctrine. Sometimes the humbling effect comes across even stronger than the assurance. Perhaps this is because Calvin is trying to defend his view against his Roman Catholic opponents, who might suggest that Protestants are trying to get out of obeying the law. On the contrary, Calvin says. He repeatedly insists that God will bring His good work in believers to completion by sanctifying them with good works.

So how is justification by faith humbling? It says that all of our works are tainted, so that they can never merit favor before God. It says that we contribute nothing to our salvation. It says that we cannot give any credit at all to ourselves. We are justified by faith alone. And technically, Calvin says, we're not justified by faith, but rather through faith. Faith is not a work that merits justification, but a state of openness to God's grace. We are justified by God's grace, and it is by faith that we wholly rely on that grace. Note that no other kind of faith will do; mere acknowledgment of God's existence is not justifying faith, but only faith that rejects all the works of the self and trusts in God to be merciful.

Assurance goes hand in hand with this humility. Since it does not depend on human effort, but on God who shows mercy (the words of Romans 9 fit quite naturally), we can be assured that we are justified before God, and that we are free to come before Him as beloved children. Even though we cannot earn a shred of merit before God, we ought not to be afraid to come before Him, because we trust in His mercy. This kind of assurance cannot come without humility. But then again the humility cannot come without assurance, for how can one give up on trying to earn God's favor unless he is first assured that God is merciful?

What place does Calvin leave for works? This is probably the most fascinating part, because it's something evangelicals tend to short-circuit. First there is this issue of motivation. Calvin's motivation for good works is not only gratitude for God's mercy, but God's glory itself; when believers contemplate God's goodness, they are motivated by the sheer force of it to do the works God has given them.

Then there is also this issue of what benefit believers get from doing good works, and the twin issue of why God accepts good works as anything. Part of Calvin's answer to the latter question is quite remarkable: the same grace that causes God to forgive us our sins also causes Him to accept our good works as good, even though they are in fact tainted by our sin. There is a good bit of tenderness in what Calvin says here about God. It is as if he said, we are but children making a mess of all the chores our father has given us to do, but our father accepts them as acts of love because we are his children.

The other part is equally important: it is not the believers themselves who do the works God requires, but rather the Spirit of God working in them. Thus God accepts as holy the good works that He has done through us. Calvin comes a little close here to sounding as if the believer is simply annihilated in the process--if everything is up to God, is the believer now irrelevant? But I think Calvin has in mind here a spiritual union between the believer and God, so that the good fruit that begins to arise in a believer is the result of that union. This union is such that the believer does not "share the credit" for good works with God, but rather attributes all goodness in himself to God. This is kind of a mysterious thing, and in some sense it's not worth splitting hairs over, except that Calvin's view seems to be the only way to fuse both perfect humility and perfect trust in God.

What is the benefit to believers for doing good works? Well, one benefit is quite simply the blessing that naturally follows from such good works; this is a common grace that all people can accept. But interestingly enough, Calvin is quite comfortable saying that our good works also lead to final salvation. The only way I can possibly explain this is with Calvin's own words in Chapter XVIII, Section 1:
The statement that "God will render to every man according to his works" [Rom. 2:6] is explained with little difficulty. For the expression indicates an order of sequence rather than the cause. But, beyond any doubt, it is by these stages of his mercy that the Lord completes our salvation when "he calls those chosen to himself; those called he justifies; those justified he glorifies" [Rom. 8:30 p.]. That is to say, he receives his own into life by his mercy alone. Yet, since he leads them into possession of it through the race of good works in order to fulfill his own work in them according to the order that he has laid down, it is no wonder if they are said to be crowned according to their own works, by which they are doubtless prepared to receive the crown of immortality. But they are fitly said to "work out their own salvation" [Phil. 2:12 p.], for the reason that, while devoting themselves to good works, they meditate upon eternal life.... What then? Once they are, by knowledge of the gospel and illumination of the Holy Spirit, called into the fellowship of Christ, eternal life begins in them. New that God has begun a good work in them, it must also be made perfect until the Day of the Lord Jesus [Phil. 1:6]. It is, however, made perfect when, resembling their Heavenly Father in righteousness and holiness, they prove themselves sons true to their nature.
This illustrates precisely what I meant by saying that we need to fit justification by faith with Calvin's overall theology. For Calvin it is natural that, just as the Bible says, we will inherit eternal life in accordance with our works; but these very works Calvin views as gifts, and not sources of merit before God. We do not cooperate with God to achieve salvation; we receive every part of salvation from God as a gift. Justification by faith, however, is an important step in the process of salvation. It declares us firmly as completely forgiven by God, so that we will never have to fear His wrath. This teaching must surely have been a blessing to those who, like Martin Luther, struggled to know whether God would ever be satisfied with them.

In light of what I've read from N. T. Wright, I have to admit it is now obvious that Calvin never puts justification into a first century Jewish context. He never once mentions justification by faith in relation to ecclesiology (although he may do that later in Book IV, I don't know). Justification for Calvin is ultimately a question of how we know we are right with God. Thus Calvin is answering a question of his day, and scholars like Wright may be correct in pointing out that this isn't the question Paul was answering.

Nevertheless, Calvin's achievement here is that he did give Christians of his time a biblical way to think about that question that was on their minds. How do we know we are right before God? Is God's wrath waiting to punish us or reward us on the basis of how much merit we have before Him? Calvin's answer is a definitive "no." In fact, I don't think Wright gives Calvin enough credit for how close he came to abolishing the question entirely. Throughout this section I was struck by how many places Calvin said something to the effect of, "The category of merit should not even be applied here." If we had simply continued Calvin's line of reasoning, perhaps by now we would have seen the issue of justification by faith in a very different light. We would have seen that the real question we ought to be asking is not, "How do we know we are right with God?" but rather, "How is God's glory revealed to the world?" This is Calvin, through and through.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Logic and Faithfulness

One question I'm fascinated by is whether or not the rules of logic are necessarily right. That is, can we imagine a universe where the rules of logic are different? I realize this is an ill-posed problem. It is very easy to point out that the word necessarily is rather ill-defined, and therefore one can go around in circles all day arguing both sides of the question to no avail. But the question still intrigues me, especially since it has to do with the very foundations of my work as a mathematician.

Where do the laws of logic come from? Do we simply take them as axiomatic and then move on? Why do we attempt to constrain our use of language to a set of precise rules that can never be broken? I am speaking, of course, only of subjects such as mathematics where logical precision is a defining characteristic. Venture into poetry, speculative philosophy, or mystical theology and I'll grant that logic does not need to constrain our use of language.

As I grow accustomed to reading mathematical papers, and especially now that I have been introduced to the task of reviewing a paper (which involves the daunting task of checking it for correctness) I have noticed just how essential it is that words are, in some sense, faithful. For one thing, every proof depends on the fact that symbols don't change their meaning from page to page. For another, proofs of theorems constantly rely on lemmas that must in turn be based on earlier knowledge. This, too, demands some sort of faithfulness on the part of words and their corresponding concepts--I need to know that every time a certain set of hypotheses is satisfied, I get a desired conclusion.

When a mathematician defines a term, he is really establishing certain relationships between words. He is building a certain kind of trust. Whenever you see these symbols, he says, you can count on these other symbols being connected in this way. Theorems are maps of those relationships that take you much longer distances than the bare definitions. Think of a family tree. Each child is the child of two parents--this corresponds to a mere definition. But every child can be connected to myriads of other people by tracing his ancestry back to common ancestors and then down through some other line of descent. This is kind of what theorems are. Definitions are immediate connections that we create; theorems are broad connections that establish some sort of common bond that may have been unexpected.

How could there be any logic in the universe if there were no faithful relationships? If we had never encountered the possibility of trusting in someone or something, it's hard to imagine developing logical reasoning. If our minds never retained connections, never established relationships between things, then all hope of doing mathematics in particular and logic in general would be lost.

Whatever codified rules of logic we may have inherited from the Greeks on down, it seems to me that logic is really the simple manifestation of the faithfulness of the Creator. In some sense, logic is faithfulness. Language becomes illogical when words are used in an untrustworthy manner. You say one thing but you mean another; you use the same word to mean multiple things; you follow one sentence with another sentence without remaining faithful to the former.

There is a moral element to logic. It isn't just some abstract, impersonal idea. We hear this constantly if we listen to scholars talk about their interpretations of historical documents, particularly in biblical studies. They say, "I have tried to remain faithful to the text." There must always be a moral commitment in order for there to be any logic. Hence the Proverb, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge."

So do other things such as poetry deviate from this faithfulness? I don't think so. As long as the reader understands that words may not always mean exactly one thing, and that words may even contradict themselves to create something beautiful, then no faithfulness is lost. Like I said, our codified laws of logic are no substitute for the real heart of the matter: logic is faithfulness in words. Poetry and music have their own logic, for they have their own inner faithfulness. And when that faithfulness is not present, a good listener will notice. It is no different from a trained mathematician being able to spot a mistake in a mathematical research article.

Thus whenever we hear of a modern society based on reason and logic as opposed to faith in God, we must ask ourselves, on what are reason and logic based? They are always based on a relationship of some kind. Throw out any God save ourselves, and what are we left with? To what, exactly, are we to be faithful to?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Abortion and regret

Fascinating article here on the reality that regret "can cut both ways" when it comes to abortion. Delia Lloyd warns us not to forget that abortion isn't the only thing that can cause regret. She describes the personal story of her friend having a child to a man she did not really love, marrying the man, divorcing the man, and ending up as "a divorced, barely functioning single mother who suffers from severe depression."

Her point is this:
I'm writing because... we've gotten to a point where it's no longer OK to talk about abortion as a relief when the circumstances just aren't right for raising a child. For just as Mary Curtis rightly points out that poor kids and kids with single parents -- the ones society often labels "unwanted" because they weren't aborted -- are, in fact, often loved, it is equally the case that middle-class professionals do not always make the best parents.

What should we pro-lifers say to this? We do need to be careful, but I do think it is actually a sign of progress that "it's no longer OK to talk about abortion as a relief when the circumstances just aren't right for raising a child." The words "no longer" are significant. At one time pro-choice rhetoric had such a powerful grip on public sentiment that we were willing to view abortion is just another layer of contraception. The truth is, it's not OK to talk about abortion the way Lloyd wants to, because abortion isn't like that. Abortion is violence against human beings. Without denying that there are real problems for women--even middle class women--nevertheless we need to consistently maintain that violence is not a solution to these problems.

Lloyd herself seems conflicted:
Should she have been using birth control? Absolutely.

Should she have considered adoption? Probably.

Would she be better off without her kid? I'm not willing to go that far. But I will say that the question doesn't have an obvious answer when considered strictly from the point of view of her own mental health.

There is real pain in these words. Questions like these don't have obvious answers in this life, because this world is not the way it should be. It doesn't all come down to personal responsibility, and it doesn't all come down to societal factors. Rather, it is a crushing combination of the two that makes even the most beautiful gift--a newborn child--into a terrible burden.

If you were to ask me whether a woman should ever have to carry this terrible burden, I would say no. And if you were to ask me whether a woman should have the right to an abortion so she wouldn't have to carry this burden, I would say no. And if you then tell me I can't have it both ways, then I will simply point out that is the sign of the world's curse--this is why the world needs redemption.

What can we do practically? First, we can't flippantly dismiss these words:
In short, I'm sure there are many women who've had abortions that they regret.

But ... I'm also sure that there are many women who regret having had children they're incapable of raising.

That's an uncomfortable truth. But that doesn't make it any less true.
But we can deal with these words. We don't have to wallow in despair and pretend that the only answer is more access to abortion. The answers come through compassion. Volunteer pregnancy centers are by no means perfect, but they prove that people are willing to contribute to life-affirming solutions. Perhaps there are far better solutions possible, but we first have to devote some resources to those solutions, which means diverting resources away from abortions.

The message that must be constantly repeated, with as much compassion as possible, is that abortion doesn't solve any problems. Lloyd's heartrendingly honest words are a solemn reminder that the world wants abortion because it feels like the only practical solution to unplanned pregnancy. If we are going to save human lives, we have to offer something better.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stephen Hawking's recent quotes on religion

In a recent interview for ABC's World News, Diane Sawyer asked Stephen Hawking what his thoughts were on science and religion. Here is how he responded. (Note: the transcript given in the article is, in my opinion, very poor and has a faulty interpretation; I will copy what I think Hawking actually said, given that he probably meant to say something coherent.)

"One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They mean a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

Statements like these make it difficult to live in the intersection of science and Christianity. I want to take Hawking seriously--he is a brilliant man. I have occasionally found that Christians are tempted to apply a passage like 1 Cor 1:18-25 by dismissing the religious opinions of brilliant people. This seems to me wholly inappropriate for two reasons. One is textual: the whole letter of 1 Corinthians is designed to humble the proud church that Paul is addressing, and thus I find it quite plausible that Paul is not making so much a triumphalist statement against the enemies of the church so much as he is giving the Corinthians a little perspective on their own limited knowledge. The second is just the golden rule: we need to treat all people as we want to be treated, and we all want our ideas on religion to be taken seriously.

So how do I take Hawking seriously? I am amazed by Hawking's life and work, and at the risk of sounding cheesy I really do think he is a testament to the power of the human spirit. But I'm not going to take his words lying down. Probably these short statements made in an interview don't fully express Hawking's views, but he did make them, and I think it's fair to respond to them critically.

The two statements quoted above are fascinating to me because of the way in which they are meant to apply to all religion. Consider the first statement, against the idea of a personal relationship with God. Faithful members of some religions, even theistic ones, might be puzzled or even taken aback at this concept being applied to them. Surely Islam, for instance, does not take God to be literally personal. Even some Christian traditions take the utter transcendence of God more seriously than the personal nature of God.

Or consider the second statement, against religious authority. That comment certainly applies well to, say, Islam or Roman Catholicism. But consider the myriad Protestant denominations in Christendom; in what sense are they authoritarian? Consider especially the Emergent Church movement, in which even the authority of Scripture is a rather nuanced idea (and I'm probably being generous).

Hawking's statements only make sense on TV because Christianity has left cultural residue everywhere in the Western world. Thus everyone, no matter how little he understands of Christianity, has a vague sense that Christians believe in a personal God, and that they derive their beliefs about the universe from some source of authority, whether it be Scripture or tradition. It's hard to imagine such statements on religion being made in a place where Christianity is not the dominant religion.

That's not to say I know exactly why these statements make sense to Hawking. Everyone has some experience with religion, and our opinions are shaped by that experience. It is a very common experience for scientific people to be frustrated by a lack of skepticism among religious people. It is also very common for scientists to have quite profound feelings about the vastness and beauty of the universe, which doesn't always seem to be the focus of religious faith. I suspect these are the experiences behind Hawking's statements, though I can't be sure how these experiences took shape.

How do we move forward, out of broad misunderstandings of one another and into a world where the intersection of science and religion is not only possible, but in fact thrives? In my estimation, it will be uncomfortable for everyone. It will take some serious thought and discussion about big issues that are outside most people's area of expertise. Pastors and theologians need to think about science, and scientists need to think about theology and religion. The principle of charity should rule this discussion; we need to assume that all of us deserve to be taken seriously.

Here are some ideas which, in my opinion, get the conversation moving forward in the right direction. In response to the first complaint that Hawking has, let us admit that Christianity often downplays the utter transcendence of God. In light of this fact, here are some things for Christians to think about:

Christian evangelicals have tended to focus on a personal faith in God as the whole of salvation. As a result, our worship often tends to repeat nothing but thankfulness for the personal things God has given us, like forgiveness and guidance and friendship (which are not bad in themselves); the space in which we choose to worship often does not lift up the minds of worshipers to the majesty of God; and as a result, our worship and our lives most often fail to communicate to the world any consistent statement of God's transcendence. What would it look like if we, as N. T. Wright suggests, start believing that salvation is about what God is doing in the world, rather than primarily about how we develop a personal relationship with Him? What if we directed our creativity and our worship toward magnifying the incomprehensibility of God? This might require a massive shift both theologically and liturgically, but it's a shift I believe is necessary, if we are truly concerned with upholding the truth about God.

But even if I admit that Christianity has often failed in this regard, I also think that Hawking, like so many modern people, fails to take grace seriously. The message of Christianity is not that God's entire reason for making the universe was to have a personal relationship with human beings. Rather, it is that God, who created the entire universe, before whom even the stars are counted as nothing, is gracious enough to love human beings. The force of this point perhaps would be clearer if Christians communicated God's transcendence more effectively; but even so, modern people seem sadly resistant to the concept of grace, of any sort of bridge between utter transcendence and intimate love.

Now in response to the second complaint that Hawking has, I do not deny that authority has been used and abused throughout the ages. It seems like a lot of the time it has been for theological reasons; when much is apparently at stake, up to and including salvation, then much is required, even harsh things, to stop heresy. Personally, I often wonder if this is a theological weakness that we have. Why are we always erring on the harsh side of God's promises? Why not instead err on the side of God's grace, and refrain from casting out, separating from, or even killing (!) heretics?

For Protestants, I think we ought to think critically about this doctrine of Sola Scriptura which we have sought to uphold since the Reformation. We need to think about it epistemologically. How do we gain knowledge of God from the Scriptures? Is the correct interpretation clear to any faithful reader of the text? Evidently not, unless you're willing to dismiss all interpreters other than you as unfaithful. So how can Scripture be authoritative? These are not trivial issues. "The Bible says it, I believe, that settles it" is not a sufficient epistemology for faithful Christians devoted to seeking truth in God.

I do ultimately believe in authority, the kind exemplified by Jesus in the gospels. "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." (Luke 22:25-6) And I don't believe that science is not based on authority. In a positive sense, I think science demonstrates that authority can be earned, rather than arbitrarily lorded over people. Scientists are credible sources of knowledge because they have devoted themselves to understanding the world around us. In a negative sense, however, or simply as a matter of caution, I think we ought to recognize that scientists are humans who hold a somewhat privileged place in society; it is wise to be skeptical of such people, because power corrupts even those who attained it by the right means.

I don't say this is a very thorough discussion of the relevant issues concerning the intersection of science and Christianity. But someone needs to stimulate a reasonable discussion. I believe quite strongly in the ideals upheld by both Christians and scientists. I do believe in the powers of reason and logic, and I believe they are God-given. I do believe we should be critical of authority and always carry a healthy dose of skepticism, but this does not hinder my faith; rather, it enhances it. Why must skepticism and faith always been seen as opposites? As long as these are held to be opposites, so will Christianity and science be held to be at war. And I'm not sure who I would want to win.

"We are all terminal."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta has an enlightening article on an interview he did with Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

This quote will obviously stand out for most people:
"The single worst moment of my life... was the moment I was born."

What philosophy shapes this man's thinking? For instance, how can he be so willing to say something like this:
"They just don't get it in Oregon, " he said. "Or in Washington state or Montana, the other states," where assisted suicide has been legalized. In those states, a person has to be considered terminal in order to qualify for assisted suicide.

"What difference does it make if someone is terminal?" he said. "We are all terminal."

Kevorkian's philosophy seems to have an inner coherence. It is a radical individualism, based on the principle that humans have the right to absolute personal freedom. As Gupta realizes,
This wasn't just about assisted suicide; this was about upholding the ability for people to do whatever they wanted to do, without interference from doctors, the states or the federal government.

That the rights of the masses should not impede on the rights of a few. Someone once told me that was the "gist" of the Ninth Amendment, and it is something that has helped inform Dr. Jack Kevorkian's thinking and his life.

Kevorkian has taken this belief in personal liberty to the extreme. Each individual is entitled to determine the value of absolutely everything pertaining to his own existence, including whether or not to continue in that existence.

Gupta brings up a natural objection to this principle, yet Kevorkian does not waver:
"In times of desperation, people may make decisions they regret," I started up again. "This isn't about deciding whether you want frozen yogurt or ice cream. These decisions about patholysis are ... forever."

He agreed with that point, but quickly pointed out that he obtained mental health exams on all of his patients before agreeing to proceed. He also thoroughly reviewed medical records -- about what he was looking for exactly, he was less forthcoming. Fact is, he says he turned down "many" patients who had requested his services.

Could it be that the value of human life is ultimately undermined by the belief that reason comes from within the human person? So long as a human being is thinking rationally--by what standard remains unclear--Kevorkian believes he has the right to determine his life is not worth continuing.

I've been commenting on libertarian political and economic thought for a while now. In a previous post I said I disagree with libertarians that personal liberty is the highest political good. Kevorkian is the perfect example to illustrate my point. In his philosophy, the individual actually has supreme moral authority over himself. Taken to the extreme, this leads to devaluing human life; this is why he can say that the worst point in his life was being born.

Which from a common point of view undermines the whole philosophy, because if human life isn't even inherently valuable, why should a human be trusted with moral decisions? But then again, maybe these decisions being made aren't moral decisions at all, since they are being made concerning human life--which, it is assumed, has little or no inherent value. In which case it appears to make very little difference what rights we have as humans.

Where can reason even begin when the subject is your own life? What are the rational criteria for distinguishing between life and death? Death is not a product to be consumed; death consumes you. Death and life are not products to be compared; life is the presence of possibility, and death is the absence of any possibilities.

Our nation was founded on the belief in the right to life, liberty, and property. Perhaps the most fundamental error we could commit philosophically is equating any of these two. Life is not property. You do not have life; you are alive, or else you are dead. To be dead is not to have death instead of life; to be dead is for death to have you.

Which makes me wonder: can any political ideology be truly coherent if it accepts the idea that the ultimate destiny of all humanity is to die?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"The Face of God for Now"

The title of this blog post gets its name from the title of the third chapter in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. As with a previous blog post, the occasion for me writing about this is that I have missed yet another meeting with my Bible study during which we were supposed to discuss this chapter in Robert Wilken's book. Since I'm the one who recommended this book to our Bible study in the first place, I feel some sense of guilt for not being able to be there to discuss it. Also, it seems like a good exercise to blog through books like this one.

What I love about Wilken is that he reports on how early Christians thought, without assessing the relative merits of their ideas. This chapter, in particular, dealt with ideas which appear to me to exist in tension with one another. I'll explain momentarily.

The chapter deals with how the early Christians dealt with Scripture--"the face of God for now." No doubt about it, the early Church took Scripture very seriously. But the way in which they took it seriously is fascinating. The context in which they read Scripture was very different from ours. Ours is an era in which the Bible is now the most widely distributed book in the history of the world, and the Bible has greatly shaped our culture. For the early Christians, Greek and Roman thought was the setting into which the Bible came as something new.

"The Bible," Wilken says, "formed Christians into a people and gave them a language." [Emphasis mine.] The thing Wilken focuses on is not primarily the doctrines and information about the world that Christians could gain from the Scriptures, but rather the way it shaped their vocabulary, their imaginations, and how they thought about living.

There are two big ideas that seem to me to be held in tension throughout this chapter on how early Christians used Scripture. On the one hand, there is the idea that the Bible is tied to history; one cannot divorce it from its original context. On the other hand, there is the idea that the Bible speaks allegorically, which seems to imply that the Bible can, in fact, take on new meaning in new contexts. When you state these two ideas as I have, they appear to be contradictory. Wilken doesn't address this tension directly, but the chapter contains clues that he has a very nuanced approach to Scripture in mind.

I think it's worth digging into this a little bit, because it is not a simple matter to read Scripture. Early Christian interpretation of the Bible was not one-dimensional, and I suppose there were as many reasons back then as there are now to puzzle over the meaning of Scriptural texts.

As one of the headings indicates, the Bible became for the early Church "a single story." This did not happen without some struggle, as this section of the chapter indicates. "Some Christians, notably Marcion and the Gnostics, believed that the Old Testament was a book about a lesser God who... had nothing in common with the universal and loving God who had sent his son into the world." In response to this, Irenaeus argued that "the Bible was a single narrative whose chief actor was God." Hence,
The Bible is a book of events with consequences, not only for those who lived through them or were influenced by them, but for all men and women. Its meaning turns on the history it records, whether it be God's creation of all things at the beginning of time, the sin of Adam, the giving of the Law to Moses, Christ's birth from a virgin, or his Resurrection on the third day.

This point seems to feed into the first idea I highlighted above, that the Bible is tied to history. You cannot take away the Old Testament, because the Bible demands to be read as a continuous exposition of the history of God's plan. You cannot remove any part of Scripture, because it is all tied together.

But in itself, the "one story" idea is a slight departure from the modern understanding of a strictly "historical" reading of the Bible. A modern historian approaching a biblical text would probably first divorce it from the continuous narrative of Scripture, try to put it in its own historical context, and interpret its meaning in that way. The early Christians would not have done this, and in that sense one could argue they were not fundamentally tied to the "original meaning" of the text, as in the meaning the author had in mind when writing it (assuming the author was a product of his own time and place).

The following section is titled "The Inevitability of Allegory." Citing Origen as the first example of how Christians interpreted the Old Testament, Wilken writes,
In a homily on the book of Exodus he observed that Saint Paul had shown Christians "how the church gathered from the Gentiles ought to interpret the books of the Law." The text he took as exemplary was 1 Corinthians 10.... Paul's interpretation of the Exodus and the wanderings of the Israelite in the desert, says, Origen, differs from the "plain sense" of the text.... Origen proposes that the several examples by Paul should be taken as models to guide Christians in their interpretation of the Old Testament.

Here we see that the Bible is somewhat divorced from its historical context, quite on purpose. Wilken makes this point even stronger with this statement: "Interpretation has to do with context. As moderns we are so accustomed to think of context as literary or historical that we forget that the words of Scripture come to us in many ways." How can this be reconciled with the idea that the Bible "is a book of events with consequences," whose "meaning turns on the history it records"?

Perhaps the point on which these two ideas hang is that the Bible is "a book about Christ." Christ is the goal of all the history of Israel, and he is the focal point of all human history since his death and resurrection. All Scripture should be interpreted through the lens of Christ; that is, we ought to have in mind that every passage is somehow about him. Even if this requires getting away from the "literal" meaning of the text.

Is this a solution to the problem of interpretation? It's a step, but I don't see how it can be a full solution. For then the question becomes, how far can we go with this? It seems natural to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New, since in the New Testament we have eyewitness accounts of who Jesus was and what he taught. Yet how far can the Old Testament be bent out of its natural shape before it breaks? This concern played a big part of the Reformation.

I think there's another step we should take toward faithful interpretation of Scripture. Let me bring back that quote I used near the beginning of this post, but now with different emphasis: "The Bible," Wilken says, "formed Christians into a people and gave them a language."

The thing I always find so unfortunate about our interpretation of Scripture is that we so often fail to interpret it with the goal of forming Christians into a people. It's fine if we're all hesitant to give up our various interpretations of Scripture; no one seriously committed to faithful interpretation will just roll over for the sake of unity. But sometimes it appears that we simply have no intention of uniting Christians through Scripture. Many traditions appear quite intent on using it to divide themselves from the rest of us.

This is me dealing with these issues, not Wilken. But in reading this chapter, I can't help but try to work through the difficult questions of biblical interpretation. I like where Wilken ends up, though, which is something that every Christian tradition can agree on:
For early Christian thinkers the Bible, finally, was a book about how to live. God's Word is not something to be looked at, but acted on. Saint Bernard, the medieval mystic, said it well: the interpreter must see himself in that which is said.

Indeed, "You will progress in understanding the Holy Scripture only to the degree that you yourself have made progress through contact with them."

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Good news for pro-lifers this year. According to Ramesh Ponnuru, we'll see a number of pro-life women take office:

Two pro-life women won Republican nominations for the Senate this week. A Tea Party favorite, Sharron Angle, and the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina are running for the Senate from Nevada and California, respectively.

A third pro-life woman, Susana Martinez, became the party’s nominee for governor of New Mexico, and a fourth, Nikki Haley, a South Carolina state legislator, is expected to be a gubernatorial nominee in her state. If they win their primaries, Kelly Ayotte, the former attorney general of New Hampshire, and Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor of Colorado, will also be pro-life Senate candidates in November.

I found this part of Ponnuru's analysis interesting:

The number of pro-life women running for office has increased, perhaps paradoxically, because of the social changes of the last few decades. The first generation of women to become active in politics strongly identified as feminist and considered abortion rights central to their feminism. Pro-life women were more likely to be full-time homemakers. Their invisibility on the public stage contributed to an impression that the vast majority of women were pro-choice.

These days socially conservative women are likely to have careers, too. The growing number of Americans who consider themselves pro-life suggests that fewer people, of either sex, consider access to abortion to be crucial to women’s economic success.

Perhaps part of the reason that American opinion on abortion has shifted toward pro-life is that our real-life experience is starting to disprove the false rhetoric of the pro-choice movement. As soon as Americans believe you can be pro-woman and pro-life, one of the cornerstones of the pro-choice movement is abolished. Indeed, this November could be hugely important, not just for pro-life women politicians, but for the pro-life movement in general.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Free Markets, Evolution, and Design

I've noticed that a lot of atheists and Christians share the same basic premise about evolution: Surely a loving God would not have allowed spontaneous, unplanned growth to be the mechanism by which new species came into being. Christians who take this point of view hold onto God and reject evolution; atheists hold onto evolution and reject God.

That's kind of interesting. It's almost the exact same impulse that leads people to be skeptical of free markets. How can free, spontaneous growth lead to economic prosperity? Surely anyone who cares about the poor, our environment, and the betterment of society will have a better idea than to leave the economy up to free, unplanned exchanges between individuals.

Thus I shouldn't be surprised if secular liberals reject the free market. Spontaneous evolution is, for them, the result of the absence of sovereign grace; if we want to run the economy right, we need to figure out how to do what a loving God would have done had he bothered to show up.

One might then ask why it appears that so many Christians who reject Darwinian evolution appear to accept free market ideology. My response would be that it is doubtful that these Christians have any sort of genuine commitment to the principles of economic freedom. Voting Republican is certainly no sign of believing in the free market. And if many Christians do seem skeptical of big government, this surely has many explanations unrelated to economics, such as the tradition of individualism in American Protestantism.

And we should not be surprised if we see many Christians rejecting the principles of free markets. I believe I heard a comment from N. T. Wright once to this effect: "Many of the same Christians who reject Darwinian evolution also embrace social Darwinism."

Let me make one thing clear: social Darwinism is a caricature of the free market. The free market is not about "survival of the fittest." It is simply about unplanned, free exchanges between individuals. Indeed, this requires as its foundation a respect for human life, without which free trade will never happen.

But the idea that something unplanned can lead to the best result seems to bother us all on some level. Christians, because surely God's design of the world means he actually designed it; the plans must be lying around in His attic somewhere. Secularists, because surely we rational humans can do better than nature's horrific disorder.

On that provocative note, I think I'll stop here, and leave the details for another time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Liberty and Unity

The Freeman has an excellent post on its web site concerning "Competition and Cooperation." The basic argument is that through competition, we actually achieve cooperation as an extended society. This might sound counter-intuitive; normally we think of competition and cooperation as opposites. But the beauty of the free market is that it allows our competition with one another on a micro level to result in cooperation on a macro level.

This can be summarized as follows. The problem of economics is to figure out how to distribute goods and services to everyone in a society. That's a pretty huge problem on the face of it. With so many people living in our society, who can possibly figure out how to distribute needed goods and services to everyone? So we break down the problem by localizing it. Let each individual decide for himself what he will give in exchange for the goods and services he desires. The enormous problem of how to distribute goods and services to everyone is broken down into millions of much, much smaller problems. This brilliant move is what makes our complex economy possible.

Breaking the problem down in this way, of course, leads to competition. I can't just sell goods for any price I want. I have to adjust according to demand and competing supply. Likewise, I can't just buy goods and services for any price I want. I have to adjust according to supply and competing demand. This is a simple consequence of the fact that resources are finite. But through the competition that ensues we actually become part of an enormous cooperative entity that solves one of the world's most difficult problems--how to distribute resources in a society.

I've compared this before to the brain. As astonishing as this might sound, the individual neurons in your brain do not cooperate with each other according to a single plan! Instead, they each individually act out of something like "self-interest." But the result is human thought, as well as the many other activities of the brain. This wouldn't be possible without a complex network of neurons all acting in a decentralized manner.

How, then, can we truly be one society? If each of us busies himself with his own interests, how can we have unity with others? I am not speaking, of course, of the people we know and interact with face to face. There is nothing about free markets that would prevent people from cooperating with people they know personally. Otherwise it would be difficult to have a family business!

I'm speaking about people we don't know--which, in this world, will always be the vast majority of people. How are we united to them? Well, let's go back to the brain again. Each neuron acts out of "self-interest." Yet because they are interconnected with one another, their collective interactions constitute the miracle of human thought.

So it is, I think, with human beings. The free market shouldn't be treated as a concession to human self-centeredness, as in, "Well, we really ought to all work together, but since that will never happen, we should try the free market, instead." Rather, the free market is the best way for us to cooperate as a society. The market's purpose is to bring us together in a way that would simply not be possible if we tried anything else.

Let me pause to make a rather abstract point. It seems to me that the question of how to distribute goods and services to a society is not merely difficult; it is on a different level altogether. I would categorize this problem as a "higher order" problem. This was the point I was trying to make earlier in "Decentralized Learning." In the brain, logical reasoning is a higher order problem than an individual neuron can solve. It is only when neurons cooperate in that decentralized way that they, as a collective, can solve this higher order problem. In the same way, economics is a higher order problem than an individual human being (or think tank, or government agency) can solve. It is only through that abstract form of cooperation known as the free market that we can solve this higher order problem.

Just as neurons in the brain are connected in an organic way (literally), the free market works precisely when we are connected to one another on a fundamental level. As the folks who write at the Freeman will tell you, the market cannot exist without the rule of law. If people lack basic respect for human life and dignity, then of course the market will fail.

But where I would probably depart from the libertarian philosophy is that I see no reason to make individual liberty the highest political ideal. I don't think the goal of society is merely to ensure each of its members can be left alone in peace. What if we were to say instead that the goal of society is to connect each of its members to one another in an organic way? This ought to safeguard against two pitfalls. On the one hand, it frees us from massive centralized authority, which invariably grows more and more tyrannical; on the other hand, it opens us to the possibility of genuine connectedness and unity with other human beings.

In terms of economics, it seems the market would work even better if we were all happy to be involved in it. Imagine a society in which people were actually excited about the idea of solving the problem of distribution through individualized market activity. Imagine if people had some sort of implicit faith that by acting in a rational way to safeguard their own well-being, they were also contributing to the aid of a greater whole, namely the society to which they were connected. I think this is already true of Americans to some limited extent. But I think people tend to caricature this kind of faith as materialistic, shallow, and selfish. It need not be any of these things. The idea that we are working together through a localized, individualized economic system is as beautiful as it is useful.

We humans need ideas to help unify us into a society. Often the free market is seen as something that works against that unity, and for that reason other ideologies have come up to compete against it. But I believe the free market is the best economic ideology, precisely because it allows us to achieve the kind of extended unity that is necessary to build a modern society.

Often you will hear the free market defended on the grounds that it is not ideology; it is just "facts." This is not my reasoning, nor do I think this reasoning is the kind we need. My grounds for supporting the free market have nothing to do with markets being "the natural state of things," or some such idea. On the contrary, I would argue that we should actively seek to create free markets. Free markets are the goal. They are not simply what happens whenever you just let everything run on its own. What happens when you let everything run on its own is that wicked people do whatever they please. That is not freedom; it is tyranny and lawlessness.

I think many people are wondering these days what basic set of ideas will give us unity as a free society. The principles of economic liberty should be included in that set of ideas, in a way that inspires people to greater appreciation of our economic system. I find the idea of an extended society working together in a decentralized way quite beautiful, even mysterious. How can it be that my tiny little decisions about what to eat and what to wear affect people all over the country and even all over the world? Yet that is how far our unity with one another extends, and it is all because of the gift of economic freedom.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision (a review)

I am now finished reading N. T. Wright's recent book entitled Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision. I'm sure all the buzz about this book has come and gone, but I had occasion to read it for two reasons. First, it's been a while since I read anything by Wright, and ever since I read Surprised by Hope I have been a huge fan of his views. Second, I have just come to the place in Calvin's Institutes in which justification by faith is addressed at length. I thought it was time to pick up Wright's book and consider its message for myself.

I am nowhere known as a book reviewer, so I don't suppose it matters how I present this review. For my own sake, let me spell out how I'm going to organize this post. First, I want to give my criticisms of the book, because I do have some pointed comments to make especially about its style and tone. Then I want to go into the theology presented in the book, and see if I can offer some helpful evaluation of the relevant issues for the ordinary Christian.

The bad news first. I find the tone of Justification a little pompous. For one thing, I think it's in slightly bad taste to begin Chapter One with a parable directed against one's opponents. The parable goes something like this: Imagine trying to explain to a rather unenlightened fellow that the sun doesn't go around the earth, but the earth around the sun. The fellow responds by showing you a beautiful sunrise, and telling you that if we just stick to what's right in front of us, the plain and simple truth will shine clearly--that the sun goes around the earth. You try to employ modern scientific knowledge, but to no avail; this man trusts his own two eyes more than your fancy science. This illustration, though clever and certainly quite useful throughout the book, puts Wright's opponents on the defensive right away. And even though Wright self-consciously writes that he is aware of this fact, I don't think this softens the blow.

The remainder of the book, as well, shows the most exasperated side of Wright I've ever seen. As I noted before, this is perhaps inevitable. Wright has been pummeled from all sides by pastors, bloggers (I know, the irony is not lost in me), hateful e-mailers, and so on. Eventually a person treated in this way is going to fire back, and all things considered Wright is extremely courteous in this book. Nevertheless, his tone goes a little over the top in defending his views as more enlightened than those of his opponents. Honestly, the ending might have done me in, if I hadn't been so fascinated by Wright's argument. Let me sum up the ending by saying that it recaps his defense of his position using the language of Romans 3. Do I need any more evidence that Wright is being overconfident?

Sensitivity is required, especially when speaking to evangelical Christians, who often feel belittled by the intelligentsia denouncing their views on science or politics as backward or even sinister. I would not be surprised to learn that the average evangelical reading this book starts to hear echoes of Richard Dawkins berating them for stupidly rejecting Darwinism.

I also have one serious complaint about the structure of the book. Instead of starting with a parable, Wright should have just started by spelling out his view on justification by faith. I really had to read all the way through the book to get to the ideas everyone cares about (although it was worth the read). Instead of laying it all out in the beginning, and then using the rest of the book to defend, Wright chooses to carefully reconstruct his views from the ground up. This might have worked if he had chosen a less polemical style, but as it is I can't imagine anyone who doesn't already appreciate Wright actually finishing this book. Besides, I think good writing in general, at least at the popular level, should lay out a compact thesis at the beginning. It lets the reader process the whole argument much better.

Now that I've gotten my complaints out of the way, let me get into the theological heart of the matter. I do so with some hesitation. I confess that I often despair at the very fact that there are arguments in the Church over core theological issues such as justification. The very fact seems to be an argument against religion, does it not? (If you don't believe me, I'm pretty sure you have never met any atheists.) So my inclination has been to simply try to understand both sides of the justification debate in an intelligent way, and then argue for tolerance of both sides, rather than insisting we vigorously defend one side or another.

However, Wright is saying some big things, which, I will argue, ought to be defended. Despite all my complaints about this book, I am persuaded by it that Christians need to fundamentally rethink our core message. Wright is appealing to that Reformation principle of semper reformanda, "always reforming," and he is asking us quite seriously to let go of the traditions that are holding us back from realizing God's will for us. This is a bold appeal, but Wright is just credible enough to be taken seriously.

Let me begin by doing what Wright should have done--laying out a compact thesis to summarize the core message of Justification. I'll try my best to summarize the traditional evangelical doctrine of justification by faith, and then put Wright's doctrine beside it, so that it will be easy to compare. The traditional doctrine goes like this:
  1. Our Problem: We are all sinners, justly deserving God's wrath, who can by no means justify ourselves in God's sight through our good works.
  2. God's Solution: To send His only Son into the world to live a perfect life and to suffer and die in our place, so as to cancel out the debt we owe and transfer the merits of Christ's righteousness to our account.
  3. How We Receive This: Faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Now, here's what Wright is saying:
  1. Our Problem: We have all sinned, and because of this we are estranged from God and the world has fallen into corruption; moreover, Israel, whom God called to be a light to the nations, has failed to live up to its part in God's plan to redeem the world.
  2. God's Solution: To raise up the Messiah, his only Son, that he might succeed where Israel failed by remaining faithful to God's covenant; that he might be the sacrifice of atonement for his people; that he might rise again to launch God's work of new creation; and that he might bring all nations into God's people, so that through God's redeemed people the world might be redeemed.
  3. How We Receive This: By faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Now of course I have merely tried my best to give an accurate and yet concise summary; if I am wrong in anything, I apologize. Assuming these summaries are more or less fair representations of the views I'm trying to compare, what can we say about them? First, notice that there is considerable overlap. Anyone who views the second summary as grossly heretical is, in my opinion, being absurd, even if you think the first summary is the complete truth. In both summaries, the major problem is sin. In both summaries, forgiveness of sins is accomplished through Christ's death. And in both summaries, justification is by faith alone, not by works.

What is missing from Wright's view that is present in the traditional view? In a word, imputation. Wright just doesn't see any need for imputed righteousness, nor does he find it in Paul. God is not keeping a balance sheet; we don't need Christ's extra merits to get us into the black. Rather, our justification is simply a matter of God saying "not guilty." And the reason he is able to say that is because we are found in Christ, that is, in his family. Therefore he is our representative before God, our atoning sacrifice, our priest. For this reason we have all the assurance we need that we are right with God.

But the relationship does not stop with God declaring us justified, i.e. "not guilty." We receive everything else through the Spirit. We are adopted as God's children. We are sanctified, and steadily progress in actual holiness. And on the last day, we will judged to be righteous--because of our works? Well, in the sense of Romans 2:6-8, yes. God will judge impartially; He will not lie at the final judgment. But that doesn't detract from our assurance of salvation. God has declared us justified, and that is no lie. "The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6) If we have faith, we will be saved, all by God's grace, and not because of our special merits. Justification is, among other things, a sure prediction of God's future judgment, which God is able to guarantee because He is the one who brings our salvation to completion. In the end, this is the same ordo salutis, i.e. the same process by which we are saved, that you would find in, say, the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Now let's notice what the traditional view lacks, which Wright stresses. The real difference between Wright's view and the traditional view is in the question, not the answer. Wright spends a considerable amount of time complaining about the traditional question of Western Christianity, "How do I get to heaven when I die?" One of Wright's key insights into Paul is that Paul was not trying to answer this question. This sounds so extraordinarily counter-intuitive for us because of all the theological baggage we've had passed down to us, but it's worth challenging our presuppositions on this point. Notice what I've put in bold under the summary of Wright's view. This is the key difference between the two views. In the traditional view (or at least the way it's been presented) personal salvation is the purpose of justification. In Wright's view, the point of justification is really what God is doing to redeem the whole creation.

I find this view not only exciting, but necessary. It makes sense of the whole Bible, from Adam and Eve to Abraham to the Gospels and to Revelation. It makes sense of the beautiful world in which we live, which surely has some greater purpose than to simply be wiped away so that God can start over (or to be left behind entirely). It even makes sense of our lives, if you think about it. Protestants have come up with some rather creative explanations for why we are supposed to do good works even though we are justified by faith, but Wright's answer (which, if he is correct, is also Paul's answer) is quite simple: the point of justifying us is so that we can be the people through whom God is redeeming all creation! That is quite a purpose for us to live by.

How does Wright defend this view? Three ways. One, by using historical evidence to demonstrate what Paul's words meant in context; two, by arguing from the Old Testament, and showing how Paul used passages in robust ways (rather than just "proof-texting"); and three, by arguing straight from Paul's words. The first of these is apparently the most controversial, which I admit confuses me as much as it does Wright. The argument he makes is that in order to understand what Paul is saying, we need to understand what kind of thought was present in first century Judaism. In other words, what ideas were present for Paul to interact with?

Apparently there are those who just don't trust this method, or are convinced they've already got Judaism pegged. Among Protestants it is often taken as axiomatic that Judaism is a "works based" religion. Therefore it is assumed that what Paul was saying is that Judaism is the wrong kind of religion, and what we need is a religion based on grace through the saving work of the Messiah. This, Wright argues, is historical revisionism. Works for the Jews were not a way to earn God's favor; that had already been established by God's making His covenant with Abraham. Rather, works were a way for the Jew to prove that he was being a faithful member of God's covenant community, a true descendant of Abraham. The real question on the first century Jewish mind was not, "How can we earn favor with God?" but rather, "How is God going to fulfill His covenant promises?"

Wright argues beautifully that it is exactly this question that Paul is addressing in Romans. The Jews have failed to uphold their end of God's covenant because of their basic human sinfulness. Therefore the redemption of the world can't come through the law! How, then, can God fulfill His promise to bring about the redemption of the world through Israel, through the descendants of Abraham? God does this through Jesus the Messiah, the Israelite who is faithful to the covenant. Through Jesus, God makes Abraham the father of many nations, because now all who believe in Jesus are counted Abraham's true descendants--they are justified by faith, just as Abraham was--and moreover they are counted dead to sin and alive to God, so that they may live in the new creation begun in Christ. And thus the promise to Abraham can be fulfilled, that through him all the nations will be blessed.

What implications does this have for us? One topic that Wright harps on a lot toward the end of the book is ecclesiology, i.e. what it means to be the Church. Part of the result of Wright's view is that the Church is central to God's plan. The Church is God's new creation, through which the redemption of the world will be revealed. Evangelicals tend to get uncomfortable with this suggestion. Perhaps that is because its implications are not altogether clear--but what is clear is that the "me and my Jesus" approach just won't cut it. The Church is the whole point of justification; ecclesiology is not a separate issue.

I can hardly begin to hash out all the relevant theological issues in one blog post, so let me end on a note that I think will be far more significant to evangelicals. The proof that Wright's view deserves to be taken seriously is that it makes sense of Scripture. The first thing I did after I finished reading Wright's book was to read Romans. It was truly astonishing how much more sense it made as a single letter. Specifically, Chapters 2, 4, 9, 10, and 11 all made so much more sense in the whole flow of the letter, just as Wright said they would. Chapter 2 isn't just some false hypothetical that Paul uses to set up a "gotcha" moment in Chapter 3; Paul means what he says (but that doesn't contradict anything Paul says later). And Abraham in Chapter 4 isn't just an example to illustrate Paul's point about justification by faith. Abraham is central to the whole purpose of justification. It's through justification by faith that the family of Abraham is made complete! And chapters 9-11 aren't just weird chapters which say troubling things about God's right to predestine whomever He will; they fit perfectly within the flow of the whole argument starting from the beginning of the letter, because Paul has been talking precisely about how it is that God will fulfill His covenant promises to Israel.

Here's my challenge: try it yourself. Read Wright's book on justification, and then read Paul. See if it doesn't suddenly click. See if it isn't much easier to read straight through a whole letter and actually get the main point. In my own experience, it made reading Romans much faster, because I wasn't bogged down in details that seemed totally disconnected from one another. I was reading Paul the Apostle, not Paul the doctrine machine, who randomly spits out words that we then have to fit into our systematic theology.

So there you have it. I don't say Wright has all the answers, but I do think he has a better answer to what justification by faith is than I've ever heard before. It makes sense out of Paul, it makes sense out of the overall narrative of Scripture, and it makes sense out of real questions that we face today. What does the Church really have to offer the world? A way of relieving our guilty consciences? A way of getting to heaven? A way to make God no longer angry with us? Perhaps all these things are part of it, but what surpasses them all is this: we offer a way for the world to be healed. What is justification? Is it our entire salvation? No; it is a sign, a guarantee of our salvation--and not just our salvation, but the redemption of the whole world.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts on N. T. Wright's book on Justification

I'm almost finished with N. T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. Just a couple of observations tonight. Reformed types who are so up in arms about Wright's views have apparently missed the fact that there can't be any stronger defense of "Covenant Theology" than this book. Honestly, before reading this book I'd never encountered an argument for justification by faith that actually made the whole Bible make sense.

In a lot of ways, N. T. Wright reminds me of John Calvin, in the following sense. He combines 1) a steadfast devotion to the authority of Scripture; 2) a towering intellect and an immense scholarly understanding of the Bible; and 3) a passionate desire to defend 1) using 2), making no compromises to the traditions of men. This book on Justification brings out the most polemical, the most exasperated, and the most passionate I've ever read from Wright. Reading it alongside the Institutes, it's hard not to see the similarities with Calvin's writing. Those who live under constant assault are bound to launch back at some point or another.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Calvin on the Christian Life

As I blog through the Institutes of the Christian Religion, I often take note of the order in which subjects appear in John Calvin's seminal theological work. I have already noted the fact that the arrangement of the books is decidedly Trinitarian: Book I ("The Knowledge of God the Creator") corresponds to God the Father, Book II ("The Knowledge of God the Redeemer In Christ...") corresponds to God the Son, and Book III ("The Way In Which We Receive the Grace of Christ...") corresponds to God the Holy Spirit. In this scheme, Book IV ("The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein") which is the last book in the Institutes, could perhaps correspond to the Church. But I'll get there in about the middle of August; right now I'm still only halfway through Book III.

So what about the order of Book III? It begins significantly with explicit reference to the Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, Calvin says, the Christian life doesn't even begin. Without the Holy Spirit, nothing Calvin says after Chapter I means anything.

Then in Chapter II, faith is set forth as the means of regeneration through repentance. Interesting. Justification by faith doesn't come later, until Chapter XI. Not that justification by faith is secondary for Calvin. He spends eight chapters on it; one can hardly make the case that it is not central for him. But justification has a specific place in Calvin's theology--and it isn't the first place!

In fact, in between Calvin's refutation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of satisfaction and confession and those chapters on justification by faith, there are five chapters (VI through X) on how we ought to live as Christians. This perhaps even highlights the significance of Calvin's doctrine of justification by faith. It is clearly not a matter of finding away around strict moral guidelines. In fact, I would argue that the doctrine of justification by faith flows naturally for Calvin out of the principle of self-denial, which he outlines starting in Chapter VI.

Indeed, Calvin titled Chapter VII with the words, "The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves." He then proceeds into Chapter VIII: "Bearing the Cross, a Part of Self-Denial." It is here in this chapter that I find Calvin being his most intense. I can't help but nearly feel crushed under the weight of this man's passionate zeal. A few quotes to show what I mean:

For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil.


Why should we exempt ourselves... from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit, especially since he submitted to it for our sake to show us an example of patience in himself? (Sec. 1)

And it is of no slight importance for your to be cleansed of your blind love of self that you may be made more nearly aware of your incapacity; to feel your own incapacity that you may learn to distrust yourself; to distrust yoruself that you may transfer your trust to God; to rest with a trustful heart in God that, relying upon his help, you may persevere unconquered to the end; to take your stand in his grace that you may comprehend the truth of his promises; to have unquestioned certainty of his promises that your hope may thereby be strengthened. (Sec. 3)

Even poverty if it be judged in itself, is misery; likewise exile, contempt, prison, disgrace; finally, death itself is the ultimate of all calamities. But when the favor of our God breathes upon us, every one of these things turns into happiness for us. (Sec. 7)

If you haven't gotten a taste of this level of intensity, then you haven't experienced Calvin. Yet Calvin has a realistic and compassionate sensitivity to the genuine sufferings of this life, which is nevertheless made to reinforce his central point about self-denial:

Yet such a cheerfulness is not required of us as to remove all feeling of bitterness and pain. Otherwise, in the cross there would be no forbearance of the saints unless they were tormented by pain and anguished by trouble. If there were no harshness in poverty, no torment in diseases, no sting in disgrace, no dread in death--what fortitude or moderation would there be in bearing them with indifference? But since each of these, with an inborn bitterness, by its very nature bites the hearts of us all, the fortitude of the believing man is brought to life if--tried by the feeling of such bitterness--however grievously he is troubled with it, yet valiantly resisting, he surmounts it. (Sec. 8)

In Sections 9-11, Calvin elaborates on this last point by drawing a distinction between Christian and Stoic suffering. The Christian gives genuine expression to his sorrow, not trying to hide from it, yet overcoming it through faith in God.

Chapter IX goes beyond self-denial and demands denial of the world and its pleasures. He says, "Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life." (Sec. 1) I find this part of Calvin's thought a little troubling. In many parts of the Institutes I have been bothered by Calvin's implicit and explicit dualism, and here I have the same issues.

On the one hand, I can't help but agree with Calvin that longing for eternal life is good and right. I am quite willing to criticize the culture in which I live, including probably most of my peers, for its devotion to this idea that "This life is all we have; let's make the most of it!" Making the most of something is only relevant when it is clear you have something to begin with. If what you have is, in fact, nothing, then making the most of it is quite meaningless.

But on the other hand, I find myself cringing at statements like this: "Indeed, there is no middle ground between these two: either the world must become worthless to us or hold us bound by intemperate love of it." (Sec. 2) On the face of it, this statement is clearly absurd. A third option is quite possible, at least in theory, namely that one loves the world in a proper way, so as not to become an idolater, but rather a faithful steward of it.

Calvin does admit that we ought to be grateful for this life (Sec. 3), but he seems to do so only with some ethereal future glory in mind. It is as if this world is just practice, the real thing is yet to come, and the practice materials will then be nothing more than scraps to be thrown out. This is disappointing, but perhaps not if I put Calvin in his historical context. If I have any sense of the history and influence of philosophy upon Christian theology, Plato is to blame for this dualism.

And here's the painful irony for me. I know that Calvin was deeply concerned with earthly affairs. I know, for instance, that politics mattered to him. I know he believed strongly that all human institutions should submit to the will of Christ. So why did he submit himself to a philosophical dualism that undercuts his own vision for society? If there is no middle ground between sinfully loving this world and righteously despising this world, then where is there room for genuine redemptive action in this life? I guess I don't see how Calvin was truly consistent with himself on this point.

But enough of that. Chapter X is not nearly so difficult for me, nor is it terribly controversial. Calvin simply offers some practical advice on "How We Must Use the Present Life and Its Helps." His principled moderation is characteristically Protestant: he rejects false asceticism, but he also wants to curb lust. I like the way he says it in one part:
Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God's beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it robs a man of all his senses and degrades him to a block.

But no less diligently, on the other hand, we must resist the lust of the flesh, which, unless it is kept in order, overflows without measure.

The next chapter is the beginning of his discussion of that wonderful (and these days amazingly controversial) topic known as "justification by faith." I think I'll actually wait until I'm finished with this section to write about it. At the same time, I'll be reading N. T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. I'll give a little comparison between the two, hopefully to shed some light on this amazingly controversial little topic in modern day Reformed circles.

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." The he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' The he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (Luke 12:13-21)

This passage has a very ordinary application which I'm sure has been repeated often enough: don't be greedy. The saying, "You can't take it with you," seems almost directly inspired by the parable Jesus tells. It's easy to glide through this passage as another moral teaching on how we ought to put our priorities in order.

Yet as I came once again to this passage in Luke's gospel, I was struck by these words of Jesus, which seem always to go unnoticed: Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?

Contemplate for a moment. This Jesus, who in the New Testament is called the Word made flesh, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, the Messiah, the Son of David--this Jesus is now telling one of his followers, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"

I wonder if the man was taken aback by this question. Was Jesus denying his own authority? Didn't he just say, "Something greater than Solomon is here"? (Luke 11:31) Of course the Messiah would have authority to judge and to arbitrate. To whom else would you turn for judgment, if not your king? Especially a king greater than Solomon.

What might this say about what good government should look like? You will hear many people borrow phrases from Jesus in order to derive general principles for a just society. Rarely, if ever, will you find someone try to base an idea of good government on what Jesus actually did as a leader.

The relationship between Jesus and his followers is a curious matter. At times they are his sheep; at other times, his friends. He asks that they come willingly, never looking back; yet he also reminds them that they are but servants, and he their master. He has compassion on the crowds and feeds them; then he turns around and offends them with his cryptic teaching. He is at once supremely gentle, and extremely demanding. He is at once egalitarian and supremely authoritarian.

But here in this passage it seems that Jesus is refusing to exercise authority as King, and exercising it only as Teacher. How in the world does Jesus expect to be King if he won't arbitrate a simple dispute over property? Don't the common people need strong leaders to resolve conflicts? What would the world look like if our leaders left it up to us to resolve our differences? Even more incredible, what if they told us simply not to worry about these differences?

Yet these are the words of the King of the Universe: Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?

I think this demands that we rethink our political life. Jesus does not dictate what the man and his brother should do with their inheritance. Instead, Jesus is selling something. "Look," he says. "The rich man ended up with nothing, even though he thought he had something. Don't be like the rich man." Jesus is convincing us to invest properly, not in things that won't last, but in the Kingdom of God, which will last forever.

The worst thing the Church can do is assume it operates outside the market. On the contrary; every effort it makes toward bringing people to Christ is a market activity. We convince people to invest in something, and Christ has no qualms about saying that this investment is meant to have a return. Jesus gives us a vision of a truly free society, in which people are motivated by enlightened self-interest--that is, they understand truly what it means to have treasure, as opposed to the world perceives as treasure. They do not need an arbitrator over them, because they seek the treasures that are in heaven, which lead to the good of all people.

Is this an idealistic fantasy? Well, is the Kingdom of God among us, or not? Perhaps the world is simply not ready for such questions.