Monday, November 30, 2009

Justification - 3

Justification sets people in right relationship with God.

The new status of 'righteous' that a person has as a result of being justified sets them in right relationship with God. They have right standing with him. He has found in their favour. Justification, however, is not primarily about 'my personal relationship with God'.

It is here that Wright believes we need to be careful. Although 'righteousness' in the bible is a relational term, it is not strictly about what we would call a personal relationship. Just because the judge has declared someone righteous does not they are going to 'go off arm in arm for a drink' together. Justification effects relationship between God and humans, but justification and reconciliation are not the same thing, Wright argues. It is perhaps here, more than anywhere, that Wright may be accused of hair-splitting. He is determined, however, to keep justification in the law-court and not confuse it with the interpersonal relationships which are its outworking (reconciliation).

He quotes from Alistair McGrath in his huge volume on the history of the doctrine of justification -

'The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man's relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament. The 'doctrine of justification' has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins...' 1.

I can appreciate that Wright is aiming for clarity in the way Pauline language is being used. However, I must admit, I'm not sure the Pauline usage will sustain the kind of precision Wright is attempting. Paul seems to be able to slide between justification and reconciliation pretty quickly, see Rom. 5:9-11.

'Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.'

Wright says of this passage in own commentary - 'The fact that this deeply personal notion (reconciliation) is offered in explanation of, rather than in addition to, the mention of justification in the first half of v. 9 indicates that the meaning and effect of justification is to bring humans into the forgiven, reconciled family of God.' 2. (emphasis mine)

This last reference to being brought into the 'family of God' brings us to the next aspect of justification we shall look at, the covenantal. Justification by faith includes us within and defines the people of God.

1. A. McGrath (1996), Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification from 1500 to the Present Day (Cambridge: CUP)
2. N. T. Wright (2002), Romans in the New Interpreters Bible Vol. X, 393-770 (Nashville: Abingdon)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Justification - 2: Declaration

Justification is a declaration.

When a person is justified by God he declares that they are in the right. He has found in their favour and they have right standing before him. This is the language of the law-court and is therefore sometimes referred to as the forensic, judicial or juristic understanding of justification.

Both Piper and Wright acknowledge the place of the law-court within justification, and they both accuse the other of down-playing this imagery! This does make one full of hope for a resolution to this debate.

This declaration is what we call today a 'speech-act'. Through his declaration, God has created a new status for the person justified. The status that someone has when the court has found in their favour is what is called 'righteousness'. This status implies the forgiveness of sins, since within this setting humanity is seen as being in the dock facing a guilty verdict. Within this law-court setting 'righteousness' has nothing to do with moral righteousness. This is why this view is sometimes seen as a legal-fiction. We will need to go on to examine the language of righteousness, particularly the 'righteousness of God', and to ask what is going on in this declaration. What is the relationship between the 'righteousness of God' and the 'righteousness' which is ours as a status as a result of God's declaration?

Augustine thought that justification was more than just a declaration. He thought that justification involved a transformation as well. We are actually made righteous. This was thought to be through an impartation of some of God's own righteousness into the believer. We shall go on to explore the difference between this and the reformation view of imputation, and how this differs (or not) from what Wright is saying.

Wright is keen to set this law-court imagery within a Jewish setting, and within the framework of the covenant, rather than some later version of a law-court such as in the time of Anslem, or Calvin.

Of course there are many other things involved in someone 'becoming a Christian' including baptism, unity with Christ, reception of the Spirit which enables us to say 'Abba Father' and 'Jesus is Lord', reconciliation, regeneration etc, etc. Part of what Wright is trying to do, is to be specific about what Paul meant by justification in context without using it as a short-cut term for all of these things. Lots more that could be said about declaration of course but that will have to do for now.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Roll Away Your Stone

'It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works
It's not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.'

Justification -1

Romans 3:28 'a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law'

Galatians 2:16 'we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin.'

What does it mean to be 'justified by faith apart from works of the law'?
'I'm justified - just as if I'd never sinned!' was the slightly cheesy answer that I grew up with. Justification was seen to be synonymous with 'becoming a Christian', and 'forgiveness of sins.' Well, I think it is indeed connected with these things, but to identify justification with them hardly does justice (ahem) to this complex theological term. For one thing, it makes it all about me as an individual. It says nothing about God, his purpose or his people.

Here we will try and examine the idea under 4 headings - justification is a declaration of God, it sets people in right relationship with God, it includes us within and defines the people of God, and it is present and future. In other (more theological) words, it is forensic, relational, covenantal and eschatological.

Things get quite complicated quite quickly when we scratch the surface of what is going on with this significant Pauline concept. Many further questions will be raised. What is the relationship between 'justification by faith' and works? How is justification by faith connected to the 'righteousness of God' (whatever that is!) What is the place of justification by faith in Paul's thought? How has justification been understood through church history? Does any of this really matter? Or is this whole discussion just 'text trading and theological arm wrestling', 'a curious indoor sport for those who might like that sort of thing but not enormously relevant to wider concerns facing the church.'? 1.

1. T. Wright (2009), Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Justification and Righteousness

I had the pleasure of leading a seminar on 'Justification' and 'Righteousness' in Paul for the first years at college as part of their 'Introduction to the New Testament' course. We had 50 minutes to discuss what is one of the most hotly debated and complex topics in New Testament studies. I enjoyed the opportunity to get my head back into the debate but it made me realise just how nuanced and complicated the subject has become. The seminar also made me away just how far removed this complex debate is from the average Christian, and even the average ordinand. However, being a self-confessed theology geek of the highest order, I do enjoy trying to get my head round the subject.

The debate over the meaning of justification and righteousness, particularly what is meant by 'the righteousness of God', was at the heart of Luther's reformation. In recent times it has been central to the discussions of what gets called 'the New Perspective on Paul' (NPP). A would-be student of Paul could literally spend all their time following developments on this topic. For a taster see the excellent Paul Page. On a popular level, the most recent manifestation of these discussions has been the debate, in print, between John Piper and Tom Wright. Tom Wright has long been one of the names associated with the NPP, although he would be the first to point out that there is no one monolithic view which may be labelled the NPP and that he is himself critical of many of the views lumped under this label. Tom's views have filtered down onto the popular level enough to cause concern amongst some (mainly) Reformed/neo-Reformed theologians and pastors who think he is dangerously distorting an important doctrine. John Piper wrote a book responding to Tom Wright, which may be found online here Tom Wright responded to Piper in his book 'Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision'. See an interview with Tom Wright about the whole thing here.

One of the things I have found interesting is that whilst the debate has become unfortunately characterised and polarised as Piper vs Wright, there are plenty of Pauline scholars who have taken on board at least some aspects of the NPP and Wright's views. One example would be Michael Bird, who whilst being fairly conservative, and Reformed, seems to have drunk fairly deeply at the Wrightian well. Here is a summary statement of his of what justification is:

'Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age.'
(from A Bird's Eye View of Paul, p96)

At the risk of boring any readers who are not particularly theologically inclined I thought I might spend a couple of posts looking at Justification and the Righteousness of God, more for my own benefit than anyone else's

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Atheist Campaign

In a move not entirely unrelated to my last post, a new poster campaign from the British Humanist Association has been unveiled.

The posters follow their previous 'bus' campaign which stated 'There's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' They seem to be part of a campaign to get rid of faith schools.

Richard Dawkins said on Radio 2 today that it was a consciousness raising exercise, to encourage the media and others not to label children as 'Christian', 'Muslim' etc. People should not assume that children automatically follow the faith of their parents. They should just say 'children of Christian parents', 'children of Muslim parents' and so on. Dawkins said he was not wanting to interfere with the way parents bring up their children, what values and beliefs they pass on etc, but this is a little hard to swallow.

Bishop Nick Baines and Kevin Brewster have already done a better job than I can at showing some of the flaws in the views of the poster campaign, of which there are many.

Children are not a blank slate religiously, until they grow up. To think this completely buys into the myth of religious neutrality. They are like sponges absorbing and learning all the time. They are bombarded from all sides with messages and images, ideas and worldviews, many of which are antithetical to the Christian faith. As Bishop Nick rightly says 'to not tell a child that there is a God is not to leave that child philosophically neutral, but to positively indoctrinate the child into the assumption that there is no God. Why is that more rational or less bad?'

It also strikes me as rampantly individualistic. It denies the reality of the Christian family, or the Muslim family. It is my Christian belief that William and Emily can be full members of the Christian family, the covenant community, the church. (This touches on debates about infant baptism, but I'm not going there now!). I'm sure Muslims and Jews feel the same way about their children in their respective faith communities. The idea that children are just autonomous, free-thinking, individuals whose minds we should 'leave alone' is naive beyond belief.

What is interesting is that there have been a variety of Christian responses. Jonathan Bartley at Ekklesia seems to firmly support the campaign, largely in connection with the faith schools issue. I'm not sure if Jonathan is completely against faith schools or just against the idea of them (or at least CofE ones) having selective admissions policies. (I would agree with this second complaint). In their article Ekklesia says that the Bible Society thinktank Theos gave money to the campaign. If this is true, then I think it can only be because they think it will start discussion. They completely disavow the ideas involved in their own article on the subject. Ekklesia also say that Bishop Nick Baines welcomed the campaign, which is true in so far as he thinks it will generate discussion, but is selective quoting considering he also slams the views involved.

The Evangelical Alliance also say they welcome the campaign, being glad that the humanists agree with evangelicals that children have to make their own decisions about faith. What, I wonder, do they consider children of Christian parents to be until they have made this decision. Neutral? Outside of the church? Pagans?

Finally, there is the response of Jan Ainsworth, who is the Church of England's Chief Education Officer, who obviously thinks the whole campaign is misguided, and I tend to agree with her.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Atheist Fundamentalism?

I got into a bit of a debate recently on twitter with someone who objected to my use of the term 'atheist fundamentalists'. My use of the phrase was in something of an offhand remark (as is the nature of twitter) to an article in the Guardian in which atheist philosopher Michael Ruse argued that the 'New Atheists', the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens etc, bring atheism into disrepute. I thought it was quite a reasonable and refreshing article but some of the comments showed that Ruse had touched on a raw nerve. These comments, to my mind, exhibited the classic behaviour of fundamentalism. By fundamentalism I meant an unthinking, narrow-minded, dogmatism, unwilling to see the other's point of view, and absolutely convinced of its own correctness. There is no such thing, my objector insisted, it is a misnomer. For one thing atheists, it is claimed, have no fundamental beliefs. For another thing, the term 'fundamentalist' has a particular provenance within a certain section of American Protestant Christianity. It is insulting, it was claimed, to genuine fundamentalists, to apply this term, willy-nilly, to people of other worldviews, of other faiths, or no faith.

On the one hand, I have to acknowledge that it was a bit of a cheap shot. Fundamentalist has become such a pejorative term that it is basically only used as an insult. I certainly wouldn't like to be called a fundamentalist, and by the rules that I claim to live by I thereby shouldn't apply this label to other people. I admit that part of my reason for calling some atheists 'fundamentalists' is that I know that it will wind them up. However, I would like to push back a little on my claim that atheists can be 'fundamentalists' as much as 'religious' folk.

Firstly, I have to disagree with the view that atheists have no fundamental beliefs. Whether you say atheists hold the view that there is no god or, as many atheists prefer to phrase it, they hold the view that there is not enough evidence to convince them of the the existence of god, this is a belief. Science is unable to adjudicate on the existence of God.

Secondly, like it or not, the word 'fundamentalist' has entered the popular discourse. 'Fundamentalist' is regularly applied to narrow-minded and dogmatic people of many different religions and worldviews. This may be unfair to the North American Christians who self-identify as fundamentalist but that is too bad. We talk of 'Islamic fundamentalists' or 'freemarket fundamentalists' and it is usually clearly understood what is being said. We don't have to be wooden literalists about the use of the word 'fundamentalist'

Thirdly, I'm in good company (in my opinion) as Alistair McGrath (who is nothing but gracious in his interactions with Dawkins et al) has labelled the viewpoint of 'the new atheists' as 'atheist fundamentalism'. See the subtitle of his response to Dawkins

'Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine'

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Michael Ruse supplies the blurb on the front cover of this book - 'The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why'. It is no wonder that Ruse has become anathema in some atheist circles. He has denied the faith.

Lastly, the 'New Atheists' themselves acknowledge that atheists can act religiously. When Hitchens is reminded in debates of the atrocities committed by prominent atheists in the 20th century he says 'ah, but they were acting religiously. They learnt all of their worst tricks from religion etc, etc.' I tend to agree, because I believe that all human beings are religious at heart. If people do not worship God they will devote themselves to something else and this can include worldviews. Atheists are just as capable of being narrow-minded and dogmatic as 'religious' people. That's what I saw in some of the responses to Ruse and, it seems to me, is something akin to fundamentalism.

So what do people think? Is there such a thing as an 'atheist fundamentalist'? Is it acceptable to apply the label fundamentalist to other people, or is it too much of a pejorative insult?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Theology "Quiz"

I don't usually respond to quizzes on facebook, or anything where you get 'tagged', but I'll make an exception for this one as Steve Bishop and Jon Swales have already done it. (I suspect there will be a lot of overlap in our answers!)

1) What's your favourite theology book?
N.T. Wright - Jesus and the Victory of God
made me realise that Jesus was far more radical and exciting than I'd ever thought, got me into NT studies, and made me want to go and study theology.

2) What Christian(s) book has been most influential in your thinking? Why?
anything by Tom Wright, who is also mainly to blame for me becoming an Anglican.
The Divine Conspiracy - Dallas Willard
anything by Fee
too many others to mention

3) Where do you attend church?
St Mike’s, Stoke Gifford Bristol

4) What is your denominational affiliation?

5) Who is your favourite theologian/Christian philosopher?
Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, Jurgen Moltmann

6) Who is your favourite preacher?
(of all time?) Martin Luther King

7) What is your calling as a Christian (if you've figured that out!)?
to love God, to follow Jesus, to be a son, and husband and father, to minister the love of God and the word of God to people, helping them to grow as disciples of Jesus

8) What spiritual virtue do you desire most?

9) What is the greatest challenge to the church today?
to be turned inside out, to realise that they exist for the benefit of those who do not yet belong to her

10) What bothers you most about the local church?
it bothers me if the local church becomes inward looking, obsessed with petty squabbles about irrelevant minutiae

11) What encourages you most about the local church?
that it can be a community of hope and love. a place where very different people can come together in the name of Christ and be accepted, healed, transformed and sent out to be agents of transformation in the world.

12) Pre, post, or Amil?

13) Antichrist...past or future?

14) If you could only keep 5 Christian books with you on a desert island, what would they be?
(I'll assume, like on Desert Island discs, that I already get the bible. I'll also assume a Greek NT, and a BDAG lexicon!)

A Theology of Hope - Jurgen Moltmann
Surprised by Hope - Tom Wright
Calvin's Institutes -only chance I'll ever get to read them
Church Dogmatics - Karl Barth - ditto
Does Lord of the Rings count?

15) What got you thinking theologically?
Trying to figure out where the Vineyard movement was theologically, and then defending them against accusations of heresy.
Which, like with Steve, is a lot to do with George Eldon Ladd, the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Can't wait to see this 'Debate Movie'. Collision shows the course of several debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson. It seems to be well produced, and both participants seem to think the film represents them fairly. The two actually seem to get along pretty well and they seem fairly evenly matched. Quite amusing how they are selling it like it's some high-octane action movie. It's out on DVD and Video on Demand in the US but I'm not sure when (or if) it will get a UK release.

See some more video clips here

I hope Wilson holds up better than Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan who got an absolute kicking in the 'Intelligence Squared' debate from Hitchens and Stephen Fry shown on BBC world on the subject of 'Is the Catholic Church a Force for good in the World?'. Widdecombe and Onaiyekan were embarrassingly poor as Andrew Sullivan pointed out.

Spruced Up Blog

I've given the blog a bit of a spring autumn clean in the hope that it might inspire me to do a bit more blogging. I've mainly just tidied up the side-bar a bit and added some shiny new buttons. I realise I'm probably talking to myself here but hey, it keeps me happy.

Firstly, I've removed the flickr widget. Being too tight to fork out for the flickr pro account it was only showing the most recent 200 photos that I'd uploaded, which were pretty old. I mainly upload photos to either facebook or picasa these days. When I put a new album up I'll put a link to it on the blog. There is a button to access the old flickr photos.

I've also removed the My Delicious widget. Although I will probably still bookmark links with delicious I'll try and keep it for the really interesting pages and just use twitter for the more ephemeral stuff. You can access My Delicious links with this button

There are various other buttons for twitter, facebook, youtube etc.

I've put my rss feed for the blog through feedburner and the new feed is You can subscribe to it with your rss reader of choice with this button

You can still subscribe to the comments feed here

Lastly, I've added a little 'share' gizmo to the bottom of each post (courtesy of blogplay) so you can more easily share my wisdom/drivel with the world.

Many thanks to Bruno Maia of IconTexto for the buttons.