Not that “intermission” is a theological topic, but I am taking an intermission in this series. I’ll be glad to address any questions you may have in the future, but I sense that we can move on to other things. You will surely see more titles in this series somewhere down the road.
Would anyone be surprised that the traffic on this blog suddenly plunged when I dared to disparage the modern State of Israel? This will remain a choke point for many Western readers. I can’t apologize for my viewpoint on that issue. “Here I stand; I can do no other,” as someone famously said regarding his convictions. But how people react to such writing is a symbol of just how far outside the mainstream we are under the covenant of Radix Fidem.
At the same time, I remain utterly convinced that this may change in the near future. We are on the threshold of dramatic changes in our world. God’s wrath is poured out; the hounds of Hell have been set loose. In the coming days people will find everything they’ve trusted is swept away. The mainstream will fragment, scattering in all directions. I can’t promise many of them will turn to us for rescue, but there will be some.
So I was pleased to review some of the basics of our shared approach to religion. In the process I looked at a lot of current theological debates. Most of them were simply impertinent for us. For example, we have for more than a decade this debate between N.T. Wright and John Piper over what Paul said about the doctrine of justification. Let me assure you that most observers appear to be as confused as these two, even while everyone affirms they really do understand what’s going on.
So let me give you a sample of how we handle this doctrine of justification: As commonly defined, it’s not a biblical issue at all. It arose as a logical implication of some words Paul used in Romans, among other places. Paul talks about how we are “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28). This declaration comes in the context of discussing “works” and “law” and some other terms that have garnered a lot of attention and debate over the past 2000 years.
Most of the disputes arise from certain a priori assumptions about how to approach reading Scripture in the first place. The biggest problem is that most people want to nail down some intellectual statement to lock in place a kind of doctrine and orthodoxy, instead of reading Paul’s letter in its own context. They even claim that such orthodoxy is the context.
But what was Paul really saying about the religion of the Jews in his day? If you want to understand how Piper and Wright attempt to address that, you’ll have to pay a bit of money. Their books against each other are not free, and some of the most in-depth reporting on their debate is behind paywalls. Meanwhile, the studies of Jewish intellectual culture in Jesus’ and Paul’s day are broadly available on the Net for free.
That ancient Hebrew tradition would not approach Paul’s writings the way Western theologians do, evangelicals in particular. Paul was drawing a contrast between Jewish Talmudic legalism versus the ancient Hebrew mysticism that he shared with Jesus. In summary, Paul was saying the Jewish rabbis were wrong about their Talmudic approach to things. Their path ends in Hell, and garners God’s wrath along the way to Hell. And in the final Day of Judgment, they will be rejected as members of God’s family. The word “justified” is a code word for being pronounced by God as free of those penalties. There is no need to dig into long philosophical discussions about precise mechanisms and legal standing. Let’s rejoice that by our firm commitment to God, we are welcomed into His home.
But then we have to wrestle with the evangelical fixation on “getting saved” and all that stuff. We reject that obsession because we reject the underlying assumptions. For us, the whole thing is a tornado in a water glass — it may be entertaining briefly, but let’s quit playing with our food. We have work to do.
That work is to get ourselves firmly rooted in our shared faith so we can trust each other. We need to trust each other because there is a prophetic mission of facing tribulation, through faith and seeking shalom, as the only answer to all the world’s ills. That means projecting the power of Biblical Law into the world around us against the rising chaos. The whole point of faith is seizing the peace with God that enables us to quit worrying about all the philosophical questions when He calls us to act.