Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Close Encounters of The Theological Kind:"New Perspectives on Paul" by N.T. Wright

(I had origionally intended to feature a regular seies entitled "High Theology Sunday." However, my Sundays have been too busy to do much deep reading. So instead of limiting this series to a particular day, I now feel free to post whenever I am able.)
It is easy to be enthusiastic about the presence of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, on the theological scene. We should be greatful that someone of his stature is willing to defend the authenticity of Scripture. He can offer thoughtful critiques of other theologians for their misreading of Biblical passages. He is also correct that scripture needs to be read in light of the Jewish culture in which it was written so as to bring greater understanding. However, reading his writings causes me to wonder why some Christians of my aquaintance accept what the good Bishop says without criticism. I do not question his orthodoxy, as some of his critics have done. Yet I hope to point out disagreements I have with his theology and methods which makes it impossible to give him my unqualified endorsement.
For the past few weeks I have given Wright's article "New Perspectives on Paul" a great amount of attention The article can be found on the N.T. Wright page at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm I have read and reread it, plus reading Romans and Galatians closely to see where Wright and scripture are in agreement and where I believes he misses the mark.
Throughout his aritcle Wright disagrees with the Reformed Tradition's reading of Romans. It is here that I believe that Wright is at his best. He is effective in marshalling correct scriptural exegesis and Biblical Greek to debunk the notion of righteousness as just a state imputed to believers by God. Wright also offers a compelling critique of the Reformed view of "works" and their place in God's final judgement of individual believers. "Works" have no place in Reformed theology because of the fear of living by our own strength. Yet Wright provides ample evidence from Romans that we will be judged on how righteous our actions were. Wright affirms the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura. Yet he rightly makes a distinction betwween this principle and the methodology currently employed by the modern Reformed movement in analyzing just what the Bible actually says. He seems able to criticise those who disagree with him with good humor, without casting aspersions on anyone.
In an earlier post, I describe Wright as a mixture of profound insight and theological naivete. Where does his naivete stem from? While he seeks to understand the Gospels in their Jewish context, this leads him to conclusions that run counter to the plain meaning of the text. In this article , Wright theorizes about what Paul meant when accusing the Jews of "seeking their own righteousness." Wright states that what the Jews were doing was not trying to establish their own righteousness through performance of the Law, but seeking an ethnic status based on the possession of the Torah. Possession signified membership in the Abrahamic covenant. Now, it cannot be denied that the Israelites considered themselves and other nations in terms of race. But my reading of Romans is not in agreement with Wright's. In Romans and Galatians, Paul takes great pains to describe how Gentiles are saved through faith, not through works. And what does he distinguish "salvation by faith" from? Not ethnic status, but seeking salvation through performance of the Law. Wrights enthusiasm for finding the Gospels' Jewish context, while worthy in itself, leads him to see things in scripture that just are not there. In his book The Challenge of Jesus, Wright sees the context of Israelite internal politics behind nearly everything Jesus said or did. This leads Wright to engage in Biblical exegesis that has no basis in the plain meaning of the text. His naivete stems from misplaced enthusiasm which causes him to find messages in scripture that just are not there. I hope to post articles on The Challenge of Jesus in the future. Wright also questions the traditional meaning of justification as God saving us even though we did not deserve to be saved. He bases this questioning on Rom 8:29-30: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many bretheren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." (NKJV) Wright, on the basis of this one verse, declares the meaning of "justification" to be concerned with a calling from God subsequent to salvation rather than equating it with salvation itself. Yet a reading of Romans and Galatians yields plenty of scripture to back the traditional meaning of the word. Wrights enthusiasim runs ahead of him. This should cause one to read Wright with a critical eye, comparing what he writes to scripture, so that our enthusiasm for Wright does not lead us into incorrect scriptural interpretation.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Monday Morning Devotions

Prov. 16:3- "Commit your works to the Lord, And your thoughts will be established."
This evening I preached from Hebrews 11:1, which refers to faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Now, evidence and substance generally refer to things that can be perceived by our five senses. Can we see faith, hear faith, touch faith, smell faith, taste faith? How can faith be equated with something tangibile? Because when we have faith in the living God, we act upon it. All the Old Testament figures in Hebrews 11's list of faithful ones were those who acted upon their faith. The pleasures of Egypt were certainly tangible to Moses. Yet he chose to identify himself with his own people rather that enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. Moses chose by faith. And as he neared the end of his life, he could point to the tangible things God had done for him and for Israel. Our faith practiced over time allows us to point to the promises God has fulfilled, the healings performed, the rescue from sin, the transformation from the old to the new man in Christ. These are evidence that we can point others to. Those who do not follow Jesus do not have experience that we do when we can witness to someone "God did that for me!" The idol worshippers of Joshua's day could not build altars where they were delivered because they had no god to deliver them. But Joshua could build altars where he and Israel were delivered, because they were in fellowship with the true God. We have the promise that if we commit our works to the Lord, our thoughts will be established, or our plans will come to fruition. This does not refer just to all our selfish desires. No. When we are born again, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts, dwelling there. The Holy Spirit transforms our hearts so we have new, Godly desires. It is these thoughts that are established. And as they are established, we have evidence, tangible evidence that the living God is real and can be depended upon. Our faith is perfected by works, as James would put it.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I could type on, but time is short. The cafe is about to close. If I were to add one more thing, lets remember that today, all over the world, people have been added to the Kingdom. Lets pray that they will not be deceived by the world, the flesh, or the devil. Lets pray for their discipleship and that God would provide fellowship for them that will spur their growth. Let them not only grow in knowledge, but let them become worshippers. And let them pray down strongholds and fight unrighteousness in all its forms. May they love and defend God's church. And let their spirit reflect I Cor 13. Amen.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Year With No Caffeine!

My health has improved much for the better since I kicked my caffeine habit one year ago. Its not that I did not know its harmful effects and that it hinders the effectiveness of my medication for Type II Diabetes. I used to think I needed its stimuli to get me going. But last year in Morgantown, I spoke with someone on the subject whose name I have forgotten. While he was telling me of his experiences with caffiene and how much better he was without it, I realized that the very symptoms that I thought caffeine reversed were actually caused by the caffein itself. Excessive caffein was keeping me tired and giving me the very headaches I thought it could cure.
I am not sure when I allowed caffein consumption to get out of hand. The only soft drinks I drank as a kid were decaffeinated. I hardly ever drank Coke until I started working nights. Working nights caused me to drink Coke for its caffein on an increasing basis. My weight really increased during this time. I never drank coffee until I began Seminary. When I was diagnosed with Diabetes in Seminary, I gave up drinking Coke without a struggle. But then, when I discovered Diet Coke, my caffeine consumption went through the roof.
But that is all behind me. Over this past year, my energy levels have gone up and my headaches have been reduced considerably. Sometimes, if I happen to drink diet Coke with caffeine, the headaches will return! Now is a good time of the year to kick the caffein habit. In winter time we do not feel the need to quench our thirsts with carbonated beverages as much as we do in the Spring and Summer. Now is the time to begin drinking water. Try to kick the habit when you have a few days off from your job or school. This will give you time to go through withdrawl symptoms in a relatively stress free environment.
I still have a way to to before I can say my health is what it should be. I have been drinking Caffein-free Diet Coke for a Year. Its time to reduce my consumption of this and drink more water. Yet I cannot emphasize too much how progress I have made in giving up consuming this harmful substance.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I am not sure how to characterize the events of this past weekend when the Senate refused to go along with the House of Representative's resolution on Bush's "Surge" strategy. I am glad the Senate held its ground. I am no uncritical fan of Bush; there is much to criticise him for. Nor do I predict that the Surge will work. I hope it does. I hope 21,000 additional troops will do the job. But I have heard some experts say the number should be 50,000. I have no idea who is correct. Yet am am glad the Congress as a whole did not declare to the world that the stategy will not work nor that the mission is a failure. Such a rebuke to the Commander-in-chief for political purposes in wartime would not only hamper Bush's effectiveness, but every future President's effectiveness as well. Our nation's enemies are capable of exercising great patience while they wait for our political establishment to tire of conflict. That the House is willing to pass such a resolution is damaging enough. That the Congress is seeking to usurp the President's wartime powers is beyond dispute. At least we can give credit to those in the Senate of either party who refused to side with Pelosi on this issue. Continue to pray for our leaders and the troops and their families!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Clouds of Witnesses: IN THE PRESENSE OF MY ENEMIES, part 2.

Having finished In The Presense of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill a few weeks ago, this has been the first opportunity to comment on the book as a whole. This is the true story of Gracia and husband Martin Burnham's year long ordeal as hostages of Philippine Muslim Terrorists. It details their constant flight from the Philippine army and their walk with Christ as they suffered incredible privations and mistreatment from their captors. Martin Burnham was killed during the rescue.
This book should be read for three reasons. First, this is an incredible account of God's presence and provision in the most harrowing of circumstances. The terrorists are on the run with their hostages all the time, fleeing the Philippine Army intent on rescue. The book claims that the Burnhams and their fellow hostages were in the middle of fifty-five shoot-outs with the Philippine special forces. Always on the run, stripped of all comforts, dignity and privacy, the Burnhams realized how much of "civilization" is non-essential for true contentment in their Lord. Their knowledge of scripture was crucial in maintaining their relationship with God. They had no Bible; the only verses they could read were in letters written to them from family and friends. Had they not led faithful lives before, I do not see how they could have survived their ordeal when God seemed so far away. What about our own faithfulness? How is the level of our current intimacy with God going to help when we face the future? If our walk with God is weak now, do we dare rest content that when times of testing will come, we will receive undeserved grace? Will our lack of intimacy with Jesus now cause us to fall away in the future? Or will present faithfulness and close relationship with Him serve as a reminder of God's presence when in hard times His presence seems to be removed?
A second reason this book should be read is to see the mind of Islamic terrorists linked to Osama Bin Laden in action. Human reason alone is insufficient to reason with them. They are willing to die to establish Islam all over the world. There is no logic ruling their personal ethics; one cannot rely on their promises. On the night of the kidnapping, they promised not to touch the women. Later, many of the female captives were forced into sexual relations with their captors. This personal account gives a close-up view of their disdain for the lives of others. One should never witness to anyone without reliance upon the Holy Spirit. How much more this is true when witnessing to those as represented by the Burnham's captors. The Burnhams were able to show Christ to their captors. Again, their previous faithfulness cannot be over-emphasized here.
A third reason to read this account is to become knowledgeable of the witness of Martin Burnham. Of course, since he did not survive, we cannot see things through his perspective. Yet the account of him is so well written that I felt as if I became aquainted with him personally. His witness as portrayed in the book is forever stamped upon my consciousness. He was a man who early in life became sold out to God. His calling as a Missions pilot caused him to face mortality in a much more real way than most of us do. His presense was a stabilizing force for not only his wife, but the whole group, terrorists and hostages alike. While he did not survive captivity, his witness so shines throughout the narrative that he deserves to be remembered as an example of how a Saint is to walk in the presence of the Enemy.
Gracia Burnham has no complete, tidy answer as to why God allowed this to happen. Still she does not allow herself to become engulfed in sorrow. Perhaps the witness alone that they gave was one reason. I don't know. Gracia Burnham is very honest about her own shortcomings that were made known to her through this ordeal. Still, what impressed me the most about her was her not lashing out at the inept, but well meaning rescuers who accidentally killed her husband. When they asked her if she was angry with them, she answered that she never considered them the "bad guys." Whatever her shortcomings, her walk with the Lord before this tragedy was strong enough to face her year of terror.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Monday Morning Devotions

John 14:2- "In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (NKJV)
Jesus expected his disciples to believe everything he said. He is the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. So his disciples should have accepted all that he said. Yet it was not just on this basis alone that Jesus expected to be believed. He had taught them for three and a half years. They had witnessed his miracles: he had fed the five-thousand, calmed storms at sea, healed the sick, and raised Lazurus from the dead. Being with Jesus for a prolonged period of time led Peter to declare to Jesus: "...You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Jn. 6: 68-69. NKJV) Jesus had a history with his disciples. By this time, the night of his betrayal, while they fellowshipped in the Upper Room, the disciples should have known his character. What he said was so. They knew by experience he had no falsehood in him. That is why when Jesus promised them that in his Father's house there are many mansions, Jesus could expect to be believed. "...if it were not so, I would have told you." At the beginning of our relationship with Christ, we are just getting to know him. As our walk progresses, we have our own histories of Jesus delivering us from sin and harm. We also experience him transforming us into his image. That is why we can stake our lives on the fact that Scripture's promises are true. Our history with God shows us that God does what he says, and he will bless our obedience. If this has not been your experience, then examine yourself. Repentence will probably have to be made somewhere. Then as you abide in Christ, he will protect and guide you. And you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt, by experience, that Jesus will do for us what he said he would do. And at the end of our journey on earth, we will worship before Him!
Rom. 8:1- "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." (NKJV)
In chapter seven of Romans, Paul described the futility he experienced trying to please God by living according to the Law. He could not live up to its standards because his flesh was weak. No one had more zeal for the Law than he, yet even his human energies could not make his religious activities cause God to consider Paul righteous. And if Paul could not please God in the flesh, neither can we. We say we live by the Spirit, but our reliance on our incessant religious activities says otherwise. We place burdens on ourselves, but we can never live up to the Gospel's standards on our own. There is only one who can live a life pleasing to God. Jesus. If we have repented of our sins and truly have placed our faith in Him, then Jesus takes up residence in our hearts to live the Christian life through us. The Holy Spirit guides and empowers us. We listen, obey and cooperate. Then as Jesus lives His life in us, we truly experience that His yoke is easy and his burden light. Trying to please God in our own strength brings condemnation. But Jesus in our hearts living the Christian life through us, that brings victory over sin, the flesh and the devil. This is what Paul is celebrating in Romans. He is praising God for setting him free from the law of sin and death. If we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, letting Jesus live through us, then we can celebrate with Paul that we have been set free from the law of sin and death by the Law of the Spirit of life!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Monday Morning Devotions

Read 2 Pet 1:10
Anniversaries can be useful. They can be times where you can measure your life's progress. This past summer was my twentieth anniversary as a Christian. The Fall marked twenty years of fellowship with my oldest Christian friends and my first group Bible study. It was twenty years ago this month that I first walked into my home church in West Virginia. Ten years ago I began engaging in activity that led me into full-time Christian service. I never thought that as I reached my twentieth year in the Lord that I would see a sudden rise in the number of friends who are forsaking the Lord for sinful sexual relationships. I have been astounded by the number of men and women who are leaving their spouses just this past year. One has been one of my closest friends. The number of children affected are many. This does not have to be.

Peter declares that we can engage in positive actions that would keep us from stumbling. Does this imply we would reach a state of faultlessness? Of course not. Nor is Peter advocating living according to our own strength. We live by God's grace. But we can cooperate with God, using Biblically approved means, "Means of Grace," to prevent us from falling away. Peter summons us to examine ourselves. We are to evaluate how well we are living up to Biblical standards and how intimate our walk with God has been. Our examinations can take place while reading and meditating on the Word, prayer, fasting. Also, we are to examine ourselves before Communion. The great value this examination produces argues for frequent Communion. (What a pity that Churches engage in Communion only a few times a year for fear of it becoming an empty ritual!) The counsel of brothers and sisters is also valueable. If our faith is to become vital, Peter calls on us to add to it virtue(our actions), knowledge, self-control, perserverence, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. Failure to grow causes us to forget who we are in Christ and what we have been delivered from. Failure to grow causes us to return to the world we were saved from. Lastly, we are to be partakers of the divine nature. In fact, our destiny is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. We progress in Christ-likeness as we act upon God's promises, as we meditate on them and then through faith act on them. As each promise is realized in our lives, we grow in experiential knowledge of the Triune God. This is the reason I publish these short devotions on Monday, so to encourage you to become partakers in the divine nature.