Orthodoxy and Relevance

Christians have long talked about life as a journey, whether as runners or pilgrims or travelers or something else. Journeys tend to involve forks in the road, decisions to make, and obstacles to overcome. Sometimes, the decisions of this journey are between light and darkness, holiness and sin, redemption and backsliding. In these instances, the follower of Christ is called to choose the path of faithfulness. Other times, however, the decisions we make along the way do not seem to be inherently good or bad—it’s not immediately clear whether one path is better than the other.

Such an image of journey has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with what seems to be an increasingly common trope for contemporary Christians: the ongoing debate between orthodoxy and relevance.

Per Merriam-Webster, orthodoxy means “right belief, sound doctrine” and relevance means “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” Based on those definitions, you wouldn’t expect contemporary Christians to believe that orthodoxy and relevance are at odds with one another. But if you talk to many Christians, you’d be wrong. Let me explain. Continue reading

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MHT: Medieval and Reformation History

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Erasmus

Erasmus

In the medieval period, conceptions of the changelessness of the Church solidified through the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Venerable Bede, Dante, and Otto of Freising.[6] Rome—which was generally not thought of as “fallen” until Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—was increasingly identified as the seat of the elect of history. Such a view was radically challenged by the Protestant Reformers and their heirs, who increasingly advocated a narrative in which, far from being changeless, Roman Christianity had fallen into corruption and was in serious need of restoration to the pristine faith of the ancient Church. This perspective is especially evident in a work like Edward Johnson’s The Wonderworking Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England (1654), wherein the Church of New England was called to recapitulate the true and atemporal nature of ancient Christianity by encouraging a return to the separation of Church and State.[7] In the post-Reformation years, Catholics and Protestants alike proclaimed a form of Semper Eadem, best summarized in the words of fifth century Father Vincent of Lerins, that the truth of the Church is “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.”[8] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Erasmus and Luther Revisited

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Luther and ErasmusWhat then can be used in the soteriological constructions of Luther and Erasmus in light of such a critique? It seems that most scholars would especially prefer Luther, were he able, to rework his understanding of Romans in light of more recent scholarship, as a great deal of his interpretative framework has become the general Protestant manner of reading and interpreting the letter. Certainly many would argue against this justification theme as central to the letter, though it seems some scholars would be willing for certain understandings of Luther’s to remain, such as the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. On Luther’s understanding of foreknowledge and necessity, with concern for textual considerations only, it would seem that a good number of scholars, including those of the New Perspective on Paul, would argue against such a strong reading of God’s necessitating all of men’s willing and actions.[1] Very few scholars however, seem willing to remove the interpretation concerning the importance and immanence of God’s grace in the process of salvation. Would a revised Lutheran theology continue in its original uniqueness and strength concerning the total sovereignty of God in all situations without any real role for man’s will to play in the process of salvation? Luther uses a great deal of strong language in On the Bondage of the Will, language that would seem impossible to continue employing were Luther’s theology critiqued in light of modern scholarship on Romans. Without such strong language, Luther’s understanding may revert back to his earlier understanding as presented in his lectures on Romans, where God remains totally in control of all circumstances while seemingly leaving something for humanity to do. How such a view would differ from Erasmus’ presentation remains a topic to be considered elsewhere. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Scholarly Consensus

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Apostle Paul WritingAs one can easily see from our previous posts, there exists no common consensus interpretation of Romans 7-9 among scholars and commentators today. However we can note several important factors as well as some of the more widely accepted interpretations of Romans 7-9 and their application to soteriological concerns. As noted in our general review of several Pauline, context, and Romans scholars, the general tendency of modern scholars is to consider Romans 7-9 with regard for its original written context. This includes considerations of the general ancient Mediterranean context as Malina and Pilch noted, Paul’s Jewish context of Remnant theology as Longenecker writes, Paul’s practical missional context as Jewett reminds us, and the over-arching theme of the Letter to the Romans as emphasizing God’s righteousness.[1] The greatest critique of Luther and Erasmus both on this point consists of the fact the neither paid much attention to the context of Paul’s writings or purposes in a broad sense. Verse-bites and proof-texts from various passages of scripture (not just Romans 7-9) are used by both Erasmus and Luther for their theological constructions, usage that would be frowned upon by scholars today. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: N. T. Wright

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

N. T. WrightIn The New Interpreter’s Bible, N.T. Wright begins by writing that, “Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece.”[1] Wright describes the main theme of the letter as “God’s gospel unveiling God’s righteousness,” which describes “Paul’s own summary in 1:16-17, and the letter does, indeed, unpack this dense statement…. The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ summed up sharply and conveniently, for a first century Jew such as Paul, the expectations that the God of Israel… would be faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs.”[2] With this understanding of Romans, Wright argues that, “The flow of thought through the letter as a whole makes far more sense if we understand the statement of the theme in 1:17 as being about God and God’s covenant faithfulness and justice, rather than simply about ‘justification.’ It brings into focus chapters 9-11, not as an appendix to a more general treatment of sin and salvation, but as the intended major climax of the whole letter….”[3] For Wright, much like Dunn, there remains room within the larger theme of covenant faithfulness for other readings of major subjects, especially the salvation of humans.[4] However, “Paul’s [overarching] aim, it seems, is to explain to the Roman church what God has been up to and where they might belong on the map of these purposes.”[5] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: James Dunn

This is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

James D. G. Dunn

James D. G. Dunn

In the Word Biblical Commentary, James D.G. Dunn employs the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul to interpret his letters. This perspective argues that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans. The emphasis is important, that God is the one who justifies the ungodly, and understandably this insight has become an integrating focus in Lutheran theology with tremendous power. The problem, however, lay in what that emphasis was set in opposition to. The antithesis to ‘justification by faith’ –what Paul speaks of as ‘justification by works’—was understood in terms of a system whereby salvation is earned through the merit of good works. This was based partly on the comparison suggested in the same passage (4:4-5), and partly on the Reformation rejection of a system where indulgences could be bought and merits accumulated. The latter protest was certainly necessary and justified, and of lasting importance, but the hermeneutical mistake was made of reading this antithesis back into the New Testament period, of assuming that Paul was protesting against in Pharisaic Judaism what Luther protested against in the pre-Reformation church– the mistake, in other words, of assuming that the Judaism of Paul’s day was coldly legalistic, teaching a system of earning salvation by the merit of good works, with little or no room for the free forgiveness and grace of God.”[1] Dunn understands such a view as a caricature of Judaism, and affirms E. P. Sander’s conclusion that “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace—that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel, to be their God and they his people. This covenant relationship was regulated by the law, not as a way of entering the covenant, or of gaining merit, but as the way of living within the covenant…”[2] Here one can see that while the soteriological concerns that Luther and Erasmus derive from Romans are not disregarded by the New Perspective on Paul, but are recast within a contextual light. Understanding Romans as a construction of Paul’s theology that rejected the ‘works righteousness’ of pre-Reformation theology simply does not do justice to Paul’s contextual concerns. Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Joseph Fitzmyer

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Joseph FitzmyerHaving looked briefly at some of the overarching views of scholars on the purpose of Romans and the insights that can be gained from a contextual understanding of Paul’s message and the implications for scriptural interpretation, let us now consider some of the more popular modern commentaries on Romans. The Anchor Bible commentary emphasizes the context of the division of the strong and weak Christians in Rome, a disunity that seems to stem at least in part from a dichotomous relationship between Jewish and Greek Christians.[1] Here Fitzmyer writes that “[Romans] overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father.”[2] All Christians, indeed all people, are for Paul sinners who will one day face judgment for their sins. Fitzmyer argues that Paul insists on the impartiality of God’s judgment for sin, though he does not address Paul’s construction of any theological anthropology at this point.[3] Given the sinfulness of humanity, the major theme of Romans involves a call to Christian ethical action: “Christians are Jewish and Gentile persons who are justified by grace through faith and who live in Christ Jesus; they are no longer ‘under law but under grace.’ Yet, though already justified and reconciled through the Christ-event, they are still in this world and have to prepare themselves for the day, when ‘God’s just judgment will be revealed.’ Hence, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians” to live an ethical and Godly life in the spirit.[4] Key to understanding Romans 7:1-6 is Paul’s emphasis that “the law’s obligation ceases when death occurs.”[5] Concerning the law in Romans 7:7-13, “Paul implies that the effect of the law is to give human beings knowledge of sin, not only of the abstract notion of sin, but of sin as a dynamic overlord that induces a spirit of rebellion against God and disobedience to his commandments.”[6] Then, in Romans 7:14-25, “[Paul] finds that the problem is not with the law, but with human beings themselves. The trouble is that they are carnal, made of flesh that is weak, and prone to succumb to attacks of sin, which dwells within them. Because of such indwelling sin, human begins fail to achieve what God desires of them. Yet not all in human beings is sin; there is also the mind (nous), which does recognize God’s law and does acknowledge what it desires of humans. But the ‘mind’ itself is not empowered to resist the seductions of sin. Eventually, Paul recognizes the wretched state of human beings and acknowledges that only ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ can this situation be remedies, through divine grace and the power of the Spirit.”[7] Continue reading

Predestination and Freewill: Modern Scholars on Romans 7-9, Part II

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

BookshelvesMany context scholars emphasize the importance of remembering Paul’s Jewish-worldview[1] in reading and interpreting Romans.[2] Bruce Malina and John Pilch argue in their Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, that each of his letters would have been, to some degree, “pre-read” by collectivist recipients of the Ancient Mediterranean context.[3] Malina and Pilch believe that Paul was primarily apostle to the Jews living among the Gentiles, and thus place a strong emphasis on the elect status of the people of Israel within Romans.[4] Within his social setting, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul’s message was one of social and religious innovation and not conversion, which he only worked within the elect of Israel, though among the Gentile people outside of Israel.[5] Thus in commenting on Romans 7, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul writes concerning the relationship of the elect before Jesus’ death and resurrection and the current condition of those who have now becomes slaves to death. “Paul describes the before/after situation in terms of persons under the control of others (husband, slave owner, possessing spirit) who lose their control by death. A dead husband, a former slave owner, and an exorcised possessing spirit lose their entitlements to control others.”[6] Malina and Pilch read Romans eight in a similar manner, understanding Paul’s primary concern in light of “us” versus “them,” the elect controlled by the spirit and those controlled by the flesh.[7] In chapter nine, Malina and Pilch argue that Paul focuses solely on the elect of Israel as a people group marked off by the common features of “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and according to the flesh, the Messiah, Jesus.”[8] Regarding Romans 9:19-24, Paul’s construction of God indicates that He chooses whom to call and not call, and the comparison of the potter clearly indicated to the ancient Mediterranean audience that people have nothing to say about how God forms them. Thus, Paul can conclude that based upon his calling that God’s call goes to all of us Israelites, not only from those resident in Judea, but also from those resident among non-Israelites.[9] Thus Malina and Pilch’s social science commentary emphasizes Paul’s Jewish qualities in such a way that heightens the distinctive characteristics of Israel as the chosen people of God, though in a modified manner through Christ. Continue reading