Monday, October 26, 2009

Still Thinking about Justification: Need Feedback

I thought -- very recently -- that justification was not core to Paul's gospel. I was wrong. The actual noun, dikaiosis, is indeed rare in Paul's letters, restricted to one section of Romans in fact. But what does Paul have in mind in 1 Cor 1:30, when he calls Christ "our righteousness" if not justification? Or 2 Cor 6:7, when he mentions the "weapons of righteousness"?

Having read N. T. Wright's Justification recently, it strikes me that Paul's justification language doesn't always mean the same thing. In some prominent cases it's legal or accounting language, as in Paul's argument that Abraham was "counted" righteous on account of his faith.

But in others -- and here's the point of this post -- I think Paul means something more, something Wright perhaps minimizes. I think there are times when Paul uses justification language to point to God's act of making things right. The old-fashioned English word rectification seems to convey the idea. Look at 1 Cor 6:11 (and here I'm borrowing from Lou Martyn by way of Stephen Chester): "but you were washed, you were made holy, you were justified/rectified (fixed?) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." Here Paul is making an argument concerning how believers should live in accordance with God's work in their lives. If justification doesn't entail some measure of "fixing," then Paul isn't making sense. (So I read 2 Cor 5:21, in which Paul and his colleagues become the "righteousness of God.")

I'm just at the beginning of thinking about this, but it seems to me that Paul's justification language is very, very big -- and that it extends beyond the mere categorical notion that God declares us "justified" in God's sight to God's active work of making things right with us. (So Wright would agree -- sort of.)

In conclusion, I'm writing to invite Paul people and others to help me get my mind around this. Is "rectification" part of Paul's justification talk?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

N. T. Wright, Justification

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of N. T. Wright's hugely selling book, Justification. This book does not so much set forth Wright's views as it defends them, particularly against John Piper's The Future of Justification, which is an attack on Wright's position. Because of its defensive posture, and because Wright spends so much time engaging the debates raging (mostly) among evangelicals, the book can feel a little off-putting. Nevertheless, Wright's understanding of justification is hugely important, and mainstream Christians do well to pay attention.

The book has two main parts, an apology/argument and an exegetical section.

Wright believes that the Reformation traditions have narrowed justification to a matter of personal salvation. In Wright's view, justification is part of something much greater, God's rectification of the whole cosmos. This, Wright maintains, has been God's plan all along. It's why God called Abraham (read Gen 12:1-3), why God worked and works with Israel, and why God has worked decisively through the true Israelite, Jesus. Justification is not just about declaring individual Christians "innocent." It's not about making them righteous by imputing righteousness to them. Justification is about God vindicating the faithfulness of Jesus, which makes it possible for those who believe into Jesus to share his status and -- eventually, through the work of the Spirit, grow into righteousness themselves.

In the previous paragraph I used several related words: justification, rectifiction, and righteousness. All of these derive from common Hebrew and Greek roots, which have to do with the legal verdict that one has been declared to be in the right. (Read the parable of the widow in Luke 18:1-8.)

I happen to think Wright is powerfully correct. He points out -- and he's obviously correct about this as well -- that Jews of Jesus' day were not preoccupied with going to heaven after they died nearly as much as they were about God fixing the world and redeeming Israel. Jesus' work and teachings make sense precisely in this context, as does Paul's appeal to the "righteousness of God" -- we know God is righteous because in Christ God makes good on God's covenant with Israel.

Finally, so what? The point is that too many churches and Christians have a narrow, individualistic take on faith. The gospel is about participating in something even grander than that -- not just God's plan to fix things for me, but God's gracious inclusion of me (justification, declaring me a part) in the plan to fix the whole world.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Clue from the Bible about Interpretation

As we ask where to go for helpful models of biblical interpretation, we must consider how biblical authors performed the same task. It's not that we can always follow the same strategies: I can't imagine a responsible way for modern readers to mimic Paul's appropriation of the Sarah and Hagar cycle (Gal 4:21-31). Of course, some people do it, but I'm not buying it. Nevertheless, Paul's move persuaded some people in his cultural context, and we might attend to that.

As presented in the Synoptics, Jesus' teaching on divorce provides an interesting case (Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; see 1 Cor 7:10-16). Luke only includes one saying, whereas Matthew and Mark provide a full scene on the subject. What do we learn?

First, we're talking not about Scripture but about the appropriation of traditions going back to Jesus. Note that Mark, presumably addressing a largely Gentile audience where women could initiate divorce, envisions contexts when a woman might divorce a man. Matthew, presumably addressing Jewish followers of Jesus, does not. We may never know what Jesus himself said about divorce -- maybe he spoke to the question on multiple occasions -- but that's not the point. The point is that both Mark and Matthew appropriated traditions concerning Jesus' teachings to address their own cultural contexts.

And Paul? Paul apparently knows the same tradition. There are three steps to his argument.
  1. In 1 Cor 7:10-12 he relies upon a word from the Lord to command women not to divorce their husbands.
  2. However, admitting people will divorce anyway, he continues to rely on Jesus tradition: If a woman leaves her husband, she ought not marry someone else.
  3. Finally, in 7:13-16 Paul addresses an entirely new context. Jesus could not have been speaking to "believers" married to "unbelievers," since there were no "believers" in Jesus' own day. Paul must address the situation, but here he speaks in his own authority: "I and not the Lord."
There's sooo much more to say about these passages, and others have done so. For now, here's the point. Early Christians did not passively repeat sayings of Jesus; rather, they adapted Jesus traditions to their own cultural contexts. The Jesus tradition figures strongly in their deliberations, yet it cannot be the final word. That seems about right to me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sweet News for Sinners

In the current Christian Century Beverly Roberts Gaventa includes Sinners among her 10 recommended books in NT ("Take and Read," October 20, 2009, p. 22). I'm grateful to Professor Gaventa for such an honorable mention.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sex and Christians in the 50s

A few years ago I found myself in love with bluegrass and the blues. And while listening to Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues" (1928) I encountered these paired lines:

Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Oh, he could grind my coffee, 'cause he had a brand new grind
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long

I heard this while innocently driving along, and I said to myself -- out loud: "Damn, did she really say that?" In 1928? I suppose it had not occurred to me that people were having sex in 1928. You should see the lines about cabbage....

My introduction to Bessie Smith came back to mind the other day, when I found this book in the church library, Sex and Love in the Bible, by William Graham Cole (Association Press, 1959). All I know about Cole is that he taught at Williams College; his publications suggest that maybe he was a pastoral theologian, someone who worked on the intersection of psychology and theology.

Cole's was a great book. Fifty years ago he was telling the truth about the Bible, sex, and modern morals. He spelled out how "biblical family values" couldn't be found in scripture and shouldn't be imposed on modern believers. He sought to bring gospel values to bear on people's sexual lives with sensitivity and honesty. Following the common psychological wisdom of his day, he regarded homosexuality as an illness -- we know better now -- but he insisted upon treating sexual minorities with dignity and as equals. I have no doubt he'd hold a progressive position today. In short, here is a serious theological publication from fifty years ago that gets it.

Yet so many Christians these days act surprised when matters of sexuality come into our communal reflection. I recall a local denominational gathering just after the UCC had endorsed equal marriage rights for all persons. One speaker lamented that this resolution had been thrown upon us so suddenly -- as if the UCC hadn't been working on these issues for over thirty years! Not to mention the work among Presbyterians and Lutherans over almost as long a period.

Friends, it's long past time that Christians move beyond platitudes, ignorance, bigotry, and naive biblicism. Serious biblical and theological work on human sexuality has been going on for a long time. This doesn't mean we'll all agree on every point. But it does mean we'll have to be as honest with the Bible and sexuality as we've come to be with the Bible and slavery, interest, and church leadership. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.