Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Interview with Dr. Peter Enns

Dr. Peter Enns is the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He's the author of the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus and contributed to the D.A. Carson edited Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism with his excellent essay on expansions of Scripture. I recently had an email exchange with Dr. Enns, whose most recent book Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament I reviewed in three parts (which are available here, here and here). Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I responded to some other reviews - the book in question has raised no small amount of controversy in the Reformed world. Having recognized popularly prevailing gnostic notions of Biblical inspiration, Enns seeks to balance the equation with a robust explanation of Scripture's humanity - not with a view to canceling out it's divine nature, but in the hopes of deriving a nuanced analogy with the incarnate Word of God Himself. In our exchange he kindly agreed to be interviewed for the blog, which I promised my readers I'd reproduce here earlier this month.

Here it is!

Raja: Can you say a few words about the theological tradition that you currently inhabit and why it’s important to you?

Dr. Enns: As a young Christian I was introduced to the Reformed faith quite “accidentally” by stumbling into a PCA church in central Pennsylvania (New Covenant Fellowship in suburban Harrisburg). My fiancĂ©, now wife, Sue and I began attending a Bible Study led by the pastor on Revelation. He was a WTS grad by the name of John Woll who opened up the book for us in fresh and exciting ways (“You mean the locusts aren’t helicopters?!”). That was my introduction to the Reformed Faith: a serious and honest engagement with Scripture, to go where it leads, to see it as an unfolding drama culminating in Christ, and to see how relevant and exciting God’s word is to his people here and now. This remains very important to me as I continue to work toward reflecting Reformed convictions in my own work and everyday journey. Also, what is central to me in faith and life is the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty, his deep love and mercy, and my being given a new life in union with the crucified and risen Christ.

Raja: What are some conscious weaknesses of the tradition which inform your own work?

Dr. Enns: Well, any tradition has weaknesses, since we are all fallen creatures and articulate truth imperfectly. What I greatly admire about the Reformed faith in general is intellectual depth and breadth, which are of great service to the God’s people. But that strength has also been a weakness: when combined with spiritual immaturity it can lead to spiritual pride expressed in an uncharitable or even condescending tone toward other Christians who do not share those convictions or who do not hold them in the same sort of way. I think the Reformed faith needs to be extra careful to reflect Christ’s humility and think of its great tradition as a tool more than a weapon.

Raja: Is there a theological tradition outside your own that you particularly appeciate?

Dr. Enns: I appreciate different traditions for different reasons, and I feel that the various traditions all have things to learn from each other while also offering criticism when necessary. I wouldn’t say there is any one or two that make the top of my list; I try to maintain a posture of open-mindedness toward other Christians while also embracing the tradition to which I have committed myself. C. S. Lewis’s analogy in the preface to Mere Christianity has always struck me as a healthy, mature, Christian outlook. He speaks of Christianity is a grand hall out of which doors open into several rooms. We are not meant to live in the hall for long but to choose the door that we are convinced best reflects the truth. But, as Lewis continues, “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different door and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under order to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

Raja: Do you think Christian academics are often insensitive to the needs of the Church, and if so, how do you address this in your own writings?

Dr. Enns: I think they certainly can be insensitive, but it may be a bit of a caricature to hold all of us guilty. Still, I had a conversation with Scot McKnight about this not too long ago and he reminded me that, in the not too distant past (before the 1970’s), evangelical academics wrote much more to lay audiences. It was seen as their duty to write books that people not of the academic guild could benefit from. For whatever reason, McKnight detects a shift in the 70’s where establishing oneself in the academy became more of a priority. It is very hard work to combine a life of rigorous academic work and service to the church at large (add to that how highly specialized the various disciplines have become), but we must try to make that happen (McKnight actually pulls this off very well). But to do so means, for most of us, making decisions about what to publish and where. I would also add that part of the insensitivity can stem from academics failing to remember that they are servants above all. Sometimes we think more of what it is we know and the urgency of bringing all of that at once to people who are not prepared to hear it. If we think first, however, of what will be of benefit to others, it may affect the questions we ask and how we go about answering them.

Raja: To what degree does the evangelical debate over modernism and postmodernism in theology enter your discussion of inspiration in Inspiration and Incarnation?

Dr. Enns: I’m not sure how well that distinction captures it, at least not in a strict academic/philosophical sense of the words, but it may be appropriate from a, let’s say, temperamental point of view. For example, I&I is clearly a missional book, and so lines can be drawn to the emerging movement. I would hope, however, that a missional mindset not be exclusively associated with any one movement. (While I was in seminary, I was encouraged to think along missional lines by my professor Harvie Conn, who was quite intentional about a missional hermeneutic throughout his nearly thirty years at Westminster Theological Seminary) Also, my thoughts on inspiration are deeply influenced by what I refer to in my book as an incarnational approach, which was always lurking in the background in my seminary education, and a desire (begun in seminary and augmented in graduate school) to account for how the Bible looks as a function of its historical contexts. It is a bit interesting to me that these two influences are anything but postmodern: Reformed orthodoxy and training in modern biblical studies. Simply studying the Bible is itself an introduction to a missional hermeneutic (Chris Wright’s recent IVP release The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative is a wonderful and timely summation of this notion.)

Raja: Where do you feel that critics have misunderstood you most? What would you say have been the best or most helpful criticisms?

Dr. Enns: I think where the criticism have been most helpful is in pointing out some ambiguities and imprecise (and therefore misleading) aspects of the book. For example, even though I feel I qualify the matter at junctures, I can also see how I can leave the impression that evangelicalism as a whole has been misguided and in need of sweeping correction. I actually say the opposite at the outset and the bibliographies include evangelical authors, but there are a few phrases in the book that fail to make that distinction and have led to understandable confusion. Similarly, the book is not calling for a complete overhaul of Christian doctrine, only a more deliberately positive accounting of its complex human dimension, and how that accounting can influence Christian doctrine. Where I think the book has been most misunderstood is in its missional dimension. I think some critics expect a book that deals with inspiration to have a certain look and use certain vocabulary, and so respond to a book that I actually had no intention to write. Another area where the criticism has been helpful is in helping me articulate more clearly in my own mind where the divide might be among evangelicals, and I think it may have to do with the role historical study plays in how we think about Scripture, or perhaps to what extent historical context will contribute to doctrinal formulations that were made before the serious influx of historical information over the past 150 years or so. That is an exceedingly complex matter to untangle, in my opinion, but it is a task waiting to be done.

Raja: Do you read Christian blogs, and do you see theological blogging as a worthwhile enterprise?

Dr. Enns: If done “right.” Blogs can be helpful if the rhetoric and posturing are toned down. I do not think, however, that the internet is a helpful venue for any sort of really serious theological debate but more of a place for musing and dialog. Debate requires a patience and distance that are not encouraged by the “tyranny of the urgent” inherent on the internet. When we have instant access to others—without the subtleties that accompany a face-to-face meeting—we are more prone to say things that upon further reflection we would likely not say (and email may even be worse). The internet is instant yet impersonal, even anonymous at times. That encourages posturing more than a true meeting of the minds.

Raja: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Enns: I’m glad the Yankees got Pettitte back, although I hope his back problems are a thing of the past…. Although I will always owe a deep and inexpressible debt of gratitude to “The Simpsons,” it has been losing its edge for some time now, and so “The Office” has become my favorite TV comedy…. I am really hoping I can stick with my workout schedule for more than two months into the new year.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Sacred Sexuality

I'm still thinking about sex, but it's not just because I'm a man, and I'm pretty much always thinking about sex. It's because a few posts ago I sketched out some problems with inclusivist views of sexuality over against the ancient, traditional and Biblical depiction of sexual union as fundamentally heterosexual. My main point there was the fact that sexual union is theologically constructed on the foundation of God's covenantal union with His people. This, I said, prevents Christians from affirming homosexual union, because the mysterious projection of this covenantal relationship requires the difference of manhood and womanhood to retain the picture of monotheistic worship - i.e. the exclusive worship of the "Other". This, not a stock condemnation of Gentile behavior, is what undergirds Paul's condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:18-27. From the very beginning (in which the man and woman were created after God's own image) their complementarity afforded them the ability to image forth God's nature together in the advancement of His kingdom. Procreation was the means by which this was to be done, in the hopes of producing the "seed" by which the serpent's head would be crushed - but the essence of their sexuality was in their image-bearing capacity, not in their procreative agenda.

It's this image-bearing/representation that not only Paul is building from in Ephesians 5:28-33, but Moses builds upon in Deuteronomy 27:20-23. He prefaces this list of "cursing" for sexual vices with a clear statement of Israel's election and vocation in verses 9-10 (see also 28:12). Statements like these remind the reader that all of the commands to Israel recapitulate the command made to Adam, to bear God's image in the extension of God's kingdom over all the earth. In other words, sexuality is much more deeply rooted in Biblical theology than its occasional appearance in a vice/virtue list. It's bound together with the imago Dei and the unique manner in which heterosexual union pictures God and His relationship with His people. This bears itself out, of course, in Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and elsewhere.

Human sexual conduct is a function of Divine representation in covenantal union, which means that the theological significance of sexual union doesn't just prohibit homosexual behavior:

1) It prohibits bestiality: When God prohibits sex with animals in Lev. 18:23, he calls it "perversion". This word signifies a confusion of the created order. That perversion can be linked to the created order which distinguishes the creation of man and woman from the creation, which they are to rule over together. The distinction of the man and woman from the animals is prominently highlighted in Gen. 1:26-28 as based upon creation in his own likeness.

2) It prohibits incest: The Hebrew word "perversion" is also used of incest in Lev. 20:12 (with some versions even using that word to translate it), a crime which incurs the death penalty. Again, the reversal of the creation norm is the heart of the prohibition, and the resulting death re-narrates the consequences of the Fall.

3) It prohibits rape: Deut. 22:25-27 also echoes the Genesis account in comparing rape to (lit.) "a man who rises against his neighbor and murders him", carrying resonances of the Cain and Abel narrative with the same linkages between sin and death; but perhaps more importantly it likens the rationale for the death penalty to that of murder. Rape is a capital crime because it mars the image of God (see Gen. 6:9).

4) It prohibits polygamy: The theological significance of sexual union depends upon the exclusive relationship of one man and one woman. While this is less clear within the pages of the OT, whose patriarchs maintain multiple wives without express authorial censure (though the disastrous results of polygamy remain un-sanitized in these accounts - cf. Deut. 17:14-17, 21:15-17), the words of Jesus in the NT clearly place the Genesis narrative at the foundation of theological considerations about sex (see Mat. 19:4-8).

5) It prohibits adultery and prostitution: The imagery of adultery and prostitution provides the most powerful imagery in God's rebuke of Israel for her waywardness to the covenant relationship which wed them together with YHWH in the exodus event. Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1-4 are the bizarro Ephesians 5. The stability of sexual union depends upon the imagery of devoted monotheistic worship, and the opposite is also true; the chaos of adultery and prostitution is patterned after idolatry. Notice that the coherence of God's complaint prioritizes passionate love and expectations of covenant loyalty in the institution of marriage - not just procreation. The "knowledge of God" and Adam "knowing his wife" are unavoidable parallels.

6) It prohibits pre-marital sex: The primacy of "covenant" in describing God's relationship with His people stands behind the "mystery" defined in Ephesians 5. The betrothal of the Bride to Christ is sealed by baptism, with public vows. Witnesses attest to the covenant, a role assigned to the creation in God's union with Israel. In the same way, the marriage vow re-enacts the cosmic drama of God's saving purposes and sanctifies the relationship as more than just the harlequin romances of passing desire.

The act of sex is a consummation of this thick description, not in the conscious thought of imaging God's love for His people and not in a procreative agenda, but in the uninhibited expression of the lovers' passion for one another. The tangled bodies of men and women in the act of sex is a monument to God's love, much like communion proclaims the Lord's death - not in words but in the eating of it. But in order for this mysterious representation to redound to the glory of God, it must not only be heterosexual - it must be exclusive, within the bounds of covenantal commitment, with the utmost respect of the image-bearing partner and as the consummation of a relationship characterized by self-giving love.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Hegelian Forray into Calvinism

Caution: Intramural Aside Ahead!
Those who could care less about debates in the Reformed blogosphere, skip this and read the posts below.

Okay, so the title of this post doesn't make any sense, but since the subject of this post is mostly dead around the blogosphere, I had to think of something - not to mention that it sounded smart, and that's enough to prop up my ego (which, let's be honest, is precisely what blogging is all about anyway). But the reason I thought this title might fit was because of what I've seen going on at one of those blogs I read semi-regularly - namely the web-home of Phil Johnson and friends, proudly blogrolled to your right. The atmosphere there lies somewhere between genuinely encouraging and noxiously abrasive - but there's enough of the former to keep me coming back to read the Godward musings of men loosely connected with my alma mater. Beyond the odd (as in occasional) devotional (in a good way) post, every once and awhile something very interesting takes place. Without making any value judgments about it (yet), you'll notice that from time to time some not-so-distant theological cousins show up and wreak the same kind of havoc on the PyroManiacs that others have accused of the PyroManiacs of unleashing on them. A strange role-reversal takes place whereby SOMEONE ELSE plays the role of the PyroManiac TO the PyroManiacs. It's enough to blow your mind, like when you find out that all of the characters John Cusack is interacting with in the movie Identity are actually some demented fat guy.

Man, I'm really not hitting with these analogies today.

In the past it's been those more fundamentalist than Phil and crew, but as of late it's been those who are more professedly Calvinist than the bunch. The kerfuffle erupted over a Francis Chan gospel presentation mentioned at the BHT which, apparently, wasn't hardcore enough for some of TeamPyro's Calvinist readership. The exacting, theologically Pavlovian terminology was conspicuously absent from his presentation, causing some Reformed watchdogs to foam rather than salivate, and the result was a basic defense of the video's integrity on the part of the TeamPyro crew. In a really great series of posts Phil, Frank and Dan all showed their dismay at the hair-splitting over-shrewdness of the critics.

The Pyros insisted that there is essential agreement, objected to vacuous labelling of their nuanced position, protested exaggerations about their view, balked at the bumper-sticker rhetoric being used against them, accused the opposition of not actually reading their posts and called for a greater appreciation for Christian conduct over an obsession with doctrinal precision. The Calvinist vanguard stood their ground, which (of course) was the self-professedly more consistent, more Biblical and more God-exalting position, to the exasperation of their "conversation" partners.

And the broadly-Reformed universe collapsed on itself.

This is where my opaque title comes into play - an over-simplified summarization of Hegel's philosophy of history involves a thesis sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Some previous TeamPyro posts (which Phil helpfully linked in his excellent article) warn against what he considers excessive listening and dialog. He's not a big fan of conversation. These posts also warn against being too narrowly divisive, of course - but they fail to create criteria by which someone is being "narrowly divisive" as opposed to "fighting for the Gospel" - instead they supply a kind of ad hoc criteria which defines divisiveness as "anyone to my immediate right" and heresy as "everyone to my immediate left". What becomes clear in all of this is that the Pyro's critics could have easily written the previously linked post about "conversation" with reference to the defenders of Chan. It's this kind of methodological problem that not only allows Phil to characterize me as one of the "doctrinally freewheeling TMS graduates" who "seem enthralled with certain currently-stylish flavors of epistemological skepticism", but also leaves himself wide open to the spirit of his critics' accusations (i.e. that he denies the absolute sovereignty of God, and possibly the Gospel itself).

Death to the Pixies

I still remember the first time I caught a glimpse of Frank Black on a poster at the local record store. I had just started getting into The Pixies and the raw wailing of the 90's alternative punk god, my mental projection of him being the typical screaming Seattle waif of a front-man. What I saw was a portly balding lumberjack. The delightful wrongness of that image sort of represents the quirky greatness of The Pixies, and my appreciation for them has only grown as of late. After my conversion to Christ I predictably threw away all of my CD's, including a lot of Pixies I now wish I still owned (it usually takes you a few years in Christ to "get" the idea of common grace). A few years ago I picked up the compilation, Death to the Pixies, in the hopes of replacing what I'd lost in the most economical way possible. The result was both glorious and satisfying.

The compilation consists of two CD's, one recorded and the other live. The recorded CD seemed to be a haphazard selection, with representative tracks from their albums just flung together without any discernible arrangement. But from the opening track I was instantly reminded just how BIG their sound was. The guitars tear at your face and Black's shredding vocals are just as beautiful as I remember. I probably would have chosen a different opening track (Cecelia Ann from Bossonova), but "Planet of Sound" is probably one of my favorite rock songs of all time. One thing I hadn't noticed from my high-school days was the amount of Biblical allusion in their lyrics, with darker themes of Old Testament narrative (like incest and rape) being parodied in various songs ("Nimrod's Son" comes to mind). But the lyrics aren't Marilyn Manson-ish tripe - it's an intelligent wrestling with absurdity that provokes more than it defiles. Much like their lyrics, their explosive vocals and careening guitars never dissipate into chaos or lose their melodic energy.

The live recording shows just how well-deserved their reputation for stellar stage presence really was, with many songs mirroring the tracks on the recorded portion of the compilation. The comparison helps to highlight the points of departure and improvisation ("Wave of Mutilation" is slower, for example). Even though a few songs sound somewhat "phoned in", with "Monkey Gone to Heaven" as an obvious example, there are a number of renditions that make you want to run around flapping your arms like a chicken - "Broken Face" and "Isla De Encanta" chug with all the power of a speeding train. Their incredible sensibilities for pop rock are on full display in "U-Mass", "Dig For Fire" and "Allison".

With so much obvious talent compressed together, it's no wonder that the sheer mass of such singularity would result in the Big Bang that threw the band in all different directions. I've gone and purchased a Breeder's album (Last Splash), which I've thoroughly enjoyed - but the contrast in Kim Deal's sweet, airy melodies and Frank Black's powerful barking is an indelible loss. Even the tracks in which she provides the only vocals, such as the live version of "Into the White" on the second CD (and "Bone Machine" on the first CD), where her voice washes over you in dreamy waves, it's the juxtaposition with Black's grounding, gravelly contribution elsewhere on the album that makes it like apples of gold in settings of silver.

There are some tracks I wish would have been included, of course - "Alec Eiffel", "Hey", "Is She Weird?" and "Letter to Memphis" stand out in their absence (for me, anyway). But in the end, this is the reason "Best of" albums are such a good idea - it makes me want to slowly begin buying back the albums I've since destroyed or given away.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Few Antitheses on Same Sex Relationships

Having enjoyed Kim Fabricius' continuing propositions series at Faith and Theology, I was excited to see him recently address the issue of homosexuality in the Church. Same-sex relationships, of course, remain one of the most divisive issues in Christendom (as demonstrated by the gaining fissures within Anglican Communion), producing far more heat than light on all sides of the debate. Given such an atmosphere of off-putting rhetoric, any salient theological insight should be received with gratitude, and I'm thankful for Kim's efforts to crystallize the deeper issues which concern both the ancient voices and those of contemporary dissent.

Antithesis #1 Kim addresses the nature/nurture issue in proposition 2, and provides what I think is the bedrock for an inclusivist case - namely, that homosexuality is about identity, not a set of practices or learned behavior. It's at this point where the discussion can get unnecessarily bogged down in scientific analysis about genetic predisposition - but one has to ask whether the "natural" can provide much help for Christians who are discussing the normativity of certain behaviors. Demonstrating that a behavior is "natural" requires further distinction (both in contemporary discussion and the use of Biblical arguments from "nature"), since Christian ontology is a complex of two elements - namely, the divinely stamped image of God and the fall of man into sin. All sorts of activities can also be shown with confidence to be genetically predisposed, yet Christians passionately affirm them as defective of the image God, not representative of it. Describing homosexuality as a congenital disposition, then, merely restates the debate, not advances it.

Antithesis #2 The use of the Bible in resolving these sorts of questions has been an axiomatic problem for theologians, for which homosexuality is a banner example. But Kim doesn't resort to the common tactics of simply dismissing the Bible on the grounds of interpretive impossibility - he actually acknowledges (in proposition 3) that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexuality. His real objection in appealing to Biblical authority is that it's not exactly clear whether the phenomena the Bible condemns is actually the same phenomena as is currently conceived. But this tabling of the Scriptures on the topic may be premature, on two fronts. The first is what seems to me to be an undervaluing of the sophistication of Greek sexuality. Kim's point about the difference between ancient and modern conceptions of same-sex love seems to assume the reduction of homosexual behavior to cult prostitution or episodic erotic encounters. But a few biblical scholars (and not a few classicists) acknowledge the warm, loving, and committed variety of ancient same-sex relationships. Kim is right to assume that the issue of identity bound up with homosexuality is much more pointed today than in ancient times, where activity and identity were conflated - but its important to note that these notions weren't pit against one another. Identifying oneself as "homosexual" would have certainly been foreign to Greek ears - but the "natural" attachment to the same sex celebrated by the ancients doesn't seem too far from our understanding of homosexuality (and much closer to Paul's than some are willing to admit).

Secondly, though, the Bible's teaching on sexuality goes far beyond apophatic pronouncements and prohibitions. The positive teaching of Scripture gives a theologically nuanced affirmation of heterosexuality, out of which these prohibitions grow. Jesus' teaching about man as male and female, mysteriously fused together in marriage is God's institution of a normative social convention. The imagery projected by this union is explained by Paul as the mystery of Christ's love for the Church. Far from being one metaphor one could choose among many, this is a "mystery" - the same word used in Ephesians to describe the amazing union of Jew with Gentile in the dissolution of national ethnic barriers in the Church. The Biblical language of idolatry as a diversion from this monogamous heterosexual union isn't incidental. Both adultery (Ezk. 16) and homosexuality (Ro. 1) illustrate idolatry and corrupt this intended projection. Exactly how all of this works, as Paul says in Eph. 5:32, is a mystery. But what remains clear is that he is "speaking with reference to Christ and the Church". If these connections to the imago Dei were ad hoc constructions of the later church, I might agree with Kim about the exegetical difficulty of Gen. 1:26-28 as a proof-text - but as it is, the Biblical writers themselves have seen the sexual prohibitions as having grown out of God's ideal design. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of Romans 1 to see the listing of homosexuality as just another Jewish polemic against Gentiles, or as just another sin which emerges from idolatry. Same sex relationships are given a par excellence place in his argument against idolatry because it pictures the replacement of the Other - God - for that which is the same - created things (a very Barthian critique).

Antithesis #3 Kim appeals to a trajectory principle to marshal Biblical warrant for the inclusion of practicing homosexuals in the Church - an approach with as conservative prestige as to attI. Howard Marshall and William Webb. But this is a controversial concept, to be sure. Kevin Vanhoozer has aptly warned, "One problem with this approach is that the interpreter has to assume that he or she is standing at the end of the trajectory, or at least further along (or better at plotting line slope intercept formulas!) than some of the biblical authors in order to see where it leads." Again, this is a very Barthian concern, in that it puts the interpreter in His place, in the driver's seat of the redemptive-historical train. At best elusive, and at worst prejudicial, the trajectory approach toward inclusion is capable of casting nets wider than anyone might wish, depending on the judgment of the one who happens to be "plotting the slope".

Antithesis #4 I hesitate to add to Kim's eloquent call to live in the truth and witness to Christ in proposition 12. It is a beautifully stated fact of Christ existence, namely our reliance on the Spirit for words and actions tempered with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Yet, in the context of the Churchly warring over this issue, it should probably be said that no one has the corner on this particular market. Not so much an antithesis as a clarification, it should be said that for those who see homosexuality as fundamentally unbiblical, there is a vast difference between our view of the morality of homosexuality and our view of the Church's moral obligations to homosexuals. That is to say that the warmth of contact and fellowship of Spirit-filled Christians with lesbian and gay people can be a reality for those who, despite their views on homosexuality as sinful, take very seriously their ethical responsibilities toward these commonly mistreated individuals. If there is any hint of antithesis here, it's at the notion that inclusion be defined in terms of a coupling of divine grace and ecclesial ontology with the moral acceptance of homosexuality - which is an all too infrequently mentioned bully tactic.

Remarkably, though, Kim Fabricius has managed to contribute to the Church's wrestling with these explosive issues without resorting to anything like the tactics he decries, delivering with the same characteristic grace and insight as we have come to expect from him.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

War of the Words

One of the hallmarks of evangelical Christianspeak is a term upon which our patron saint, Billy Graham, has built his career - it's the word "saved". You might recognize its usage in popular phrases such as, "Are ya SAVED tonight?", "When did you get saved?" and (my favorite) "That guy needs to get saved". It is, in fact, such a ubiquitous stand-in for describing evangelical Christians that a satirical movie by Brian Dannelly could lampoon us (rather successfully) under that simple monosyllabic banner. To be a Christian is to have been "saved". The more doctrinally fastidious would be quick to point out all of the corresponding components to that past event, to be sure - namely, present sanctification and future glorification; but generally salvation should be regarded as a past-tense fact. Sanctification is a term that belongs to the outworking of that past fact, and glorification is a term that belongs to the consummation of it.

It might strike you as strange, then, that in comparison with today's evangelical terminology that the word "saved" is in considerably modest circulation within the pages of the New Testament. Not only is this the case, but to the chagrin of the more dogmatically inclined, the salvation terminology of the Bible doesn't comport with the rigidly chronological categorization everyone is so familiar with (justification, sanctification, glorification). In fact, the Biblical word "salvation" speaks primarily not of a past event, but a (certain and secure) future hope (cf. Mt. 10:22, Ro. 13:11, 2 Tim. 2:10, Heb. 9:28, 1 Pet. 1:9). The lesson here is that theologians, even very good theologians, use Biblical words differently than the Bible uses that same terminology. This isn't because they're doing something evil or underhanded, but because they are trying to draw together all of the diverse strands of Scripture into one discernible whole - and that can be very helpful. But if people don't understand that the Biblical writers themselves didn't mean exactly the same thing these theologians mean by these words, it can result in confusion - and even more often that that, contention.

Before listing some passages to prove that point, though, it's important to notice that the Biblical passages which contain those words most familiar to systematic theology - words like justification, sanctification, adoption, regeneration, etc. - are not the only passages in the Bible which speak to those theological topics. Justification, for instance, deals with concepts of judgment, wrath, righteousness, law and covenant. Studying about justification, then, means more than just looking up every time the word shows up in the Bible. It means rooting out the concepts attached to that word. But more to the point, once you do find all the occurrences of these words, you need to know that they aren't even used the same way in every passage. The word "sanctification", for example, doesn't mean the same thing in 1 Co. 6:11 as it does in 1 Co. 7:14. That's an incredibly important point. It means that not only do theological words (like justification, sanctification and glorification) not mean the same thing in the Bible as they do in systematic theology - but they don't always mean the same thing even in the Bible itself.

With those caveats out of the way, and getting back to the issue at hand, once you begin looking up words like "salvation", "justification" and even "glorification", the time line mentioned above unravels. In fact, every term used by systematic theologians to describe our salvation - all of them - have an “already—not yet” pattern. Whatever saving activity is being described, it is generally (and variously) presented as beginning at a point in time, carried through the present and brought to final fulfillment or realization at the end. Numerous passages could be listed, but I'll list just a few - notice in the passages selected how the word differs both from usage in other passages listed and from common theological currency among Christians.

Salvation is past (Eph. 2:8), present (1 Co. 1:18) and future (Mat. 10:22).

Redemption is past (1 Pet. 1:18), present (Col. 1:14) and future (Eph. 4:30).

Regeneration is past (Titus 3:5) and future (Mat. 19:28, Rev. 21:5).

Forgiveness is past (Jn. 20:23), present (1 Jn. 1:9) and future (Mt. 18:34-35).

Adoption is past (Eph. 1:5) and future (Ro. 8:23).

Justification is past (Ro. 5:11), present (Ro. 6:7 - "freed"= lit. justified) and future (Mt. 12:37).

Sanctification is past (1 Co. 6:11), present (Ro. 6:22) and future (1 Thess 5:23 - see also 2 Thess. 2:13).

Glorification is past (Ro. 8:30, i.e. proleptically), present (1 Pet. 1:8) and future (2 Thess. 1:10-12).

Much carnage has resulted among Christians because of the fundamental failure to ask what someone means by the words they're using. So the next time the theologically meticulous and doctrinaire among us (yeah, I'm included) are tempted to take someone to task for their theological imprecision, we can ask ourselves whether it's wise to indict the New Testament writers along with them.