Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Authority of Scripture, NT Wright, and On Controversy

I have, over the past couple years, had some exposure to Open Theists. To be fair I have never read their books or heard their speeches. My friends who are interested in converting to Open Theism tell me their understanding of the theology. My two main concerns are these: first, that the reason Open Theism is attractive is because God as described by the Bible is unattractive and so unacceptable to them; and second, that while Open Theists may find some verses that support their theory, their theory disregards and occasionally contradicts other passages of Scripture. So before you convert to Open Theism, don’t you think you should be very familiar with the whole Bible, even those obscure God-revealing passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ecclesiastes and Acts (I’ve started a list) that point to God’s sovereignty and comprehensive omniscience? Conveniently, God did not set us in the world interpreting the Bible – or even books about the Bible – by ourselves. So even if I am not acquainted with a relevant passage of Scripture, it is likely that one of my concerned and involved friends will be. I appreciate that.

In fact, in every case I can remember where my friends found it necessary to point out where the Bible contradicted my ideas, I came away respecting them much more, willing to listen to anything they have to say much more, and considerably humbler in my own handling of the topics of God and the Bible. General observation would declare that I have a ways to go in the field of humility, so I am welcoming further interference by God’s Word-wielding friends. That is one of the reasons Open Theism has become a fixture of tension-perspective in my studying. My friends have been led by their investigation of the theory into bringing up parts of the Bible and God’s character that are rarely examined, parts I find comfortable to ignore.

Anyway, the other month someone mentioned NT Wright, and in the back of my mind I remembered reading that his theology was weird, but that was before I’d ever really heard of Open Theism, and something said maybe NT Wright was one of the original Open Theists. I Googled his name and Open Theism and not much came up, so I was wrong, but then I was wondering what his deal was.

Two weeks ago a friend mentioned he was reading an article by NT Wright about the authority of Scripture. Wow. It’s so hard to explain that these are all connected in my mind, these topics, but trust me. I am, as far as the “five points” go, a Calvinist. And I discovered when I admitted I was a Calvinist that I had been a Calvinist all along. Because Calvinists are those people who believe that God is smarter, wiser, and better than we are, so they submit to Him. Submitting to Him is usually manifest, to these intellectual theologians, by submitting to the written Word of God, the “inerrant Scriptures”. Sola Scriptura is the Latin phrase for one of the (again, five) pillars of the reformation. Anyway, Calvinists almost always subscribe to Sola Scriptura (except for the CJ Mahaney, Sovereign Grace crowd) and I am a Calvinist and Open Theists don’t agree with the Five Points much at all, so NT Wright arguing against the authority of Scripture is associated with Open Theism. There.

Anyway, I’m interested in the “sola” part of Scriptura, having run around a bit with that Sovereign Grace crowd but having depended my whole life on the revelation of God being complete in the Bible. So I went over to NT Wright’s article myself (online for free) and read it. Obviously most of the theologians I read would be skeptical of a Christian leader who sidesteps the authority of Scripture, so maybe, I thought, that was the questionable thing I had heard about him years ago. The article is long, transcribed from a speech, but I skimmed and paid more attention to interesting parts. Essentially his thesis is that the Bible was not written to be a law, so it is not set to be our authority.

Mostly the Bible is narrative, accounts of God’s ways, of God’s character. The Bible is true, but how authoritative is it that once upon a time a prophet cured poisoned water by throwing flour in it? Is it more authoritative that once upon a time a prophet told the Church to collect money weekly to have it ready to give to the poor when the messengers came for it? Or is it authoritative that the apostles commanded the Roman Christians to submit to governing authorities? Are the promises for us? Are the commands? Instructions? Reasoning? And, my goodness! Have you ever noticed how the apostles interpreted Scripture! We don’t do it like them at all!

While still pondering these things, I was babysitting for a friend who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Thus his house is full of Calvin, Sproul, Piper, and Grudem. He is also an inner-city church planter, so he has numerous books that are borderline Emergent, books about “missional” living and “incarnational” ministry, the messy life books like Blue Like Jazz and semi-mystical works of early Christian authors like Augustine. Every time I am at their house, I scan their bookshelves. On this occasion, after the two little boys were in bed I picked up an issue of RC Sproul’s Tabletalk Magazine to read in the quiet evening ahead. The subject was NT Wright’s doctrine of justification. I discovered that this was the subject on which I had heard warnings against NT Wright. For the purpose of this blog, I will not here describe or refute the “new Paul” ideas NT Wright has proposed. (Piper wrote a whole book on it. Download as PDF at this link.) Because while I was edified by Reformed teachers talking about justification, substitutionary atonement, etc. the most interesting article was the last one.

The final article in that edition of Tabletalk Magazine was not directly related to NT Wright at all. It was a review, a recommendation for John Newton’s “On Controversy,” a letter of Christian wisdom written to a friend about to confront another man about a matter of disagreement. I have been learning a lot lately about meekness and confrontation and debate, challenged to listen more and pray more and bite my tongue more. This article reaffirmed that and pushed me farther. There remains value in discussion, in communicating disagreement or different perspectives, especially when there is mutual respect and interest not to be seen as the winner, the correct one, but in having everyone know the truth. We should not pretend unity by avoiding difficult subjects. In fact we ought to have more in mind than mere consensus.

I have a friend who is a poet, who is burdened about the division in the Church and about the way Christians have boiled the Word of God down to a list of rules. He wrote a poem about that and much more that I want to finish with, but you have to go read it at his blog.

To God be all glory.


Doc Op said...

Dear Lisa,

I always enjoy reading your posts, both for your candor, and the purity of spirit you display as God lives in you.

As is, I identified in part with your Pastor friend (reading a range from of authors from strident Calvinists to authors with Emergent tone. I am probably closer to the middle mush and don’t regard myself as a Calvinist, but I can’t seem to shake that larger framework. And I have associations with those who have bought the whole NT Wright line in full, (and beyond) and I see how it expresses itself in true disregard for scripture. As I see it, the next step in the process is to say that Paul… or even Jesus, were simply bound by the cultural lens of the day.

That scenario then means each person just pics what he or she wants from scripture, even to the point of flagrant disregard.

That said, I attempt to read the scriptures holistically, looking for the large sweeping themes and as such, I am less certain about some things than some of my conservative contemporaries.

It seems, depending on what scriptures you read, you can come up with very different biblical emphasis.

There are a number of topics in the scripture over which I find ideas in tension , and either have not experienced real resolution, or actually believe the tension is part of the truth.

Here are some quick examples.
God’s expansive love for humanity (all people) v God’s specific love for his elect and specific hatred for some.

Differing views about how God interacts with History…God is shown directing the steps of rulers, while in other passages proclaiming “surprise” at the actions of people. God is shown directing history, or History is shown as the product of human actions, often against God’s stated will.

Salvation as “easy” – simply calling upon the Lord. Salvation as “hard” – seldom chosen or characterized by a challenging pursuit of holiness.

Salvation characterized by Faith only, Salvation characterized as belonging to the righteous.
Differing concepts of God’s judgments. The Old Testament tends to proclaim present judgments carried out in this world, the New Testament on future judgments, carried out either after death or the conclusion of the age.

Differing ideas about what constitutes damnation, from mere death or perishing, to a state of active ongoing punishment.


These are just some quick samples. And I experience more resolution in some of these areas than others. For example, I see little to distinguish faith from righteousness. The Righteous live by faith, and genuine faith culminates in our being made righteous. When you find one trait, you find the other.


Anyway, I do not want to be an agent of confusion, and pray that God richly direct you as you try to think on your own (but able to learn with your brothers and sisters) and always subject to His rule and guidance in both your heart and thinking.

Lisa of Longbourn said...

Thank you for your comment, Doc Op.

You and my pastor friend have all those books you read from a variety of authors. God has set me up with such a variety of friends that they all provide lots of tension in my thinking already! I'm trying to learn to appreciate them more. And then I get in and research when I'm intrigued, or when I'm worried about my friends. =)

You bring up good questions, not new ones to me. I don't know about any of the other readers! The questions don't have to cause confusion, though they often cause, uh, humility. I'm left blinking my eyes at things too large for me to understand, pleading with my God to hold on to me and to gently teach me His ways. As much as I love the consistency of Scripture and truth, and the big picture "larger framework" vision given by good Bible scholars and teachers, ultimately life is about responding to God's love. The other things serve that goal. I just forget. Especially when arguing.

So the "On Controversy" article was really helpful in the idea that I could preempt the distraction.

Have a good day. Thank you again for reading my blog.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn