Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gandalf And The Atonement (Part 4)

Today I will continue responding to Gandalf's letter/response to my recent series on NT Wright where I severely criticized Wright for corrupting the Gospel by denying penal substitutionary atonement. I know Wright says he affirms it, but if you read the series you will see how this is standard practice for Wright to affirm something when he is really only affirming his own redefining of critical biblical truths.

The third point of Gandalf's letter I wish to respond to is the following:

You repeatedly note that certain concepts and issues are missing in Wright's books or are presented in sketchy or ambiguous manner (individual sin, hell etc.).

Have you read "Surprised by Hope"? I did not find you quoting that in your posts. In that book I found both explanation for his lack of mentioning certain things in other booke in detail, namely, that he likes to view all things as "big picture" where God wants to redeeem and bring back to right the whole cosmos (with the fate of individuals just being part of it, like in a puzzle consisting of numerous pieces but all belonging to the same story). However, in the same book he really gives explanations for questions like individual sin (includng an explanation of the word hamartia), final judgment and hell.

You probably will object to his view that hell isn't like a torture chamber in the midst of Gods kingdom and that he very much follows a middle ground between traditional teaching and a view that sees the lost ones simply becoming what they desire/practise (a grumble instead of a grumbling man or woman is an example for this from "The great Divorce") and hence being at some point no longer humans in Gods image. But I think you'll have to admit that he teaches final judgment with two outcomes, completely dismisses universalism and that God really cares for righteousness and is not laissez-faire with sin on an individual level.

The comments Gandalf is referring to is my critique of Wright's book "Simply Christian" which is supposed to be a book that summarizes the Christian faith. It is a bad joke when Wright tries to summarize Christianity in a book and ignores issues as big as Christ's deity, the Atonement, personal sin, judgment, and God's wrath (at least in a specific personal sense). Even if he discusses these things in another book (which we will get to next), it is unbelievable that these issues would find themselves scant or absent from his summation of Christianity. It is always difficult to figure out where Wright stands on so many issues because he seems to dwell in a shroud of smoke, never being explicit or clear on things in which Scripture is both explicit and clear. In these hazy postmodern times of vagueness I think it would be worthwhile to heed the counsel of the great theologian George W Bush - "if they're not for us then they're against us".

Anyway, for the sake of Gandalf I will close with Thomas Schreiner's (professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author, most recently of New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ) assessment of Wright's book "Surprised By Hope".

How should we assess Surprised by Hope? Wright's fundamental thesis here is correct. Heaven will be on a new earth, and therefore it must not be regarded as floating in some kind of spiritual never-land. We look forward to our future resurrection, and to the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. Wright's defense of the resurrection of Christ, defended more fully in his major book on the topic, is the finest treatment I have read on the subject. Wright does affirm the intermediate state, but he rightly stresses that the future hope of believers is the resurrection. Furthermore, Wright is on target in saying that we are to strive for justice, truth, and beauty in this world. Some believers have said that this world is destined for destruction, and hence only focus on the salvation of the lost.

Yet there are some significant problems with the book. Surely some believers have mistakenly thought that heaven was only spiritual, but many (most of those I know) do not conceive of heaven in this way. We could say that Wright exaggerates his thesis to make his point. Well and good. Still, he is excessively critical of the phrase "go to heaven." After all, we have a number of statements in Scripture about entering (going to!) the kingdom in the future (e.g., Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; Mark 9:47; 10:15; John 3:5; Acts 14:22). Scripture also speaks of heaven as a realm above and separate from us (Matt. 6:1, 9, 10, 20; 18:10; Luke 24:51; John 1:51; Acts 1:10; 2 Cor. 12:2; Col. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:4). That does not, to be sure, communicate that our future destiny is non-physical, but it does stress that it is a realm separate from our present existence. Yes, Wright is correct in saying that heaven will be a transformed earth, and that heaven will come, so to speak, to this world. But since the Scriptures also speak of us "entering" the kingdom; since they speak of heaven as a world above and beyond us; and since the new creation is not yet here in its fullness, I don't believe it's wrong to say that we will "go there," as long as we recognize that this is just one of the ways to express the reality that awaits us. In fact, Wright's protests against using the phrase "go to heaven" betray an overly literal understanding on his part. Hence, against Wright, the hymn Away in the Manger does not contradict Scripture when it asks God to "fit us for heaven, to live with thee there" (p. 22).

As noted above, Wright often emphasizes that our work in this world is important. Christians ought not to think that their work in politics, economics, business, art, and so forth is insignificant. There has been a kind of pietism that has denigrated such work. Still, it isn't clear that forgiving third world debt is a moral obligation on the same level as abolishing slavery. Wright too confidently dismisses all who disagree with him on this matter, sweeping away any objections with rhetorical statements. Moral claims in the public sphere must be advanced by careful reasoning, and Wright does not provide arguments to support his conclusions. Perhaps in the future he will tackle the matter with reasoned public discourse instead of dicta from above.

Wright commends evangelism as part of our work as believers, but he clearly emphasizes being engaged in the political sphere. Surely Wright has his emphases backwards here. The Scriptures teach that only those who believe in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins will enjoy the new creation. Isn't the most important thing for human beings, therefore, to gain acceptance into this new creation? Aren't there great artists and gifted politicians who have improved our life in this world (for which we are all thankful), and yet who will not be part of the new creation because they have rejected the gospel? Moreover, while Wright correctly affirms that everything done in this world matters, there is also discontinuity between this world and the next. The curse of Genesis 3 will not be lifted until Jesus comes again. Our work in this world is provisional and always touched by the curse. The invention of the car solved a pollution problem in the streets caused by horses, but no one foresaw that it would cause pollution problems of its own.

All this is to say that the call for Christians to evangelize remains more pressing than any call to work in the political sphere, even though all our work in this world is significant. Wright emphasizes that the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, but, as John Piper has pointed out, this isn't good news if you're still a rebel against God; its terrifying news. The New Testament is permeated with the message that we must turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ. Wright does not disagree with the need to do so, but he seems to be most excited about our work in the political and social sphere.

I could perhaps understand why Wright would stress social concerns if England's churches were full and thriving—as if almost everyone was a believer. But what is curious is that England's churches are empty, and unbelief is common. It seems that a bishop in these circumstances would vigorously call upon the church to evangelize, and would emphasize the need to put one's faith in Jesus Christ and to turn from one's sins. I don't see that urgency in Wright's writing, and therefore he veers from the message of Jesus and the apostles.

I would also mention some bits and pieces of the book that call out for comment, even if I don't have space here to interact with them here in detail. For instance, Wright contends that Jesus never spoke about his return. He defends this claim in other works, but it's a controversial point. Here I simply want to register my disagreement with his exegesis.

Also, Wright correctly says that justification by faith and judgment according to works do not conflict (p. 140), but he gives us no help in seeing how these two themes fit together. Readers would be helped in knowing how the two themes cohere. Putting these truths together wrongly can lead to a final curse (Gal. 1:8-9), and hence Wright must be clearer in explaining the gospel in his exposition.

The section on purgatory is nicely done, showing that purgatory is absent from the biblical witness. But Wright falls into inconsistency when he endorses praying for the dead since this practice is not found in the Scriptures (p. 172). He does rightfully rule out invoking the saints for assistance.

Contrary to Wright, Jesus' statements about gehenna do not refer to the judgment of A.D. 70, though I cannot defend this argument here. Nor do I think Wright is correct in saying that judgment is a minor theme in the letters. The theme is pervasive in them, but, again, that would take too long to defend here.

Too often Wright prosecutes his case by caricaturing a view and then introducing his own view as the solution. Hence, he rightly rejects the notion that hell is a torture chamber, but his own view of hell seems to be shorn of any notion that God punishes those who refuse to believe in Christ. Wright argues that those in hell lose the divine image, and this may well be part of the picture. Nevertheless, many texts speak of God's active punishment of the wicked. Since Wright summarizes his view and does not engage in detailed exegesis, I assume he would offer a different interpretation of the relevant texts. Still, it's difficult to see how God's active punishment of the wicked can be denied (e.g., Rom. 2:8-9, 16; 2 Thess. 1:8-9, etc.).

Wright appeals to many because he is brilliant and fascinating, and some of what he says is helpful. Nevertheless, his failure to emphasize the centrality of the gospel is troubling, and pastors who find his work illuminating need to be careful that they do not veer away from their central task of proclaiming the good news to a lost generation.

Go On To Part 5
Go Back To Part 3
Go Back To Part 1


Jeff Godley said...

"Furthermore, Wright is on target in saying that we are to strive for justice, truth, and beauty in this world. Some believers have said that this world is destined for destruction, and hence only focus on the salvation of the lost."

OK, I have no problem with the first sentence. But the second sentence gives me pause.

The main problem I see is the use of the word "only". It implies a certain disdain for "saving the lost" - as if were an ignoble task, or even an easy one. If the road is narrow and few find it, and if many will try to enter the kingdom of heaven only to be cast into the outer darkness, doesn't that preclude any statement about "only" saving the lost?

Wondering if you could comment on this, Cameron? Great post, otherwise.

Jeff Godley said...

To clarify, I see from the rest of the quote that Schreiner clearly holds evangelism in high esteem, and rightly talks of how we enter the kingdom of heaven.

It simply rubs me the wrong way when anyone says "only" saving the lost.

Cameron Buettel said...

I agree with your point Jeff and I have made similar comments on this blog in earlier posts. When these guys throw around disdainful phrases like "only a ticket to heaven" and "is that all" etc. it reeks of a high view of man and a low view of the atonement. We should find these comments offensive because genuine Christianity is a faith that marvels at the profound breathtaking possibility of God making a way that wicked sinners could be reconciled to a Holy God. A lot of this contempt for PSA is rooted in denial/avoidance of the subjects of God's wrath and the depths of human depravity.

Jeff, my only counsel to you would be to keep riding that hobby horse REAL HARD!

Jeff Godley said...

Thanks for the encouragement!

Looking forward to future posts.

Keep preaching the gospel, brother.

gandalf said...

Hi Cameron,

To this post I might give just a short answer.

Wright's book "Simply Christian" has a subtitle named "Why Christianity makes sense" and that sounds to me mot as if a (reference manual like) summary of Christian faith was intended, it looks more like as if plausibility of christian faith was the intended goal.

Schreiner's review I see as mainly arguing for a somewhat different focus and emphasis he would have preferred to find in the book, he also see some disagreement.
I see nowhere that he claims to have found severely misguiding and heretical stuff therein.
His critique that Wright misses to emphasize the centrality of the gospel can be made (and discussed), however the need to do the practical "working for the shalom of the city" is in my opinion something that many western Christians have also to learn anew.