Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Plagued by grace and faith

A recent discussion of Romans on an Emergent Church blog essentially described the doctrine that we are justified by grace through faith as a 'plague.' (See comment 1).

If you read the rest of the ten comments, no one seems to think this description is remarkable or unfair or at the very least needs to be seriously discussed and explained. This is why I'm worried about postmodern philosophy and its influence in the Emergent Church.


-Dave said...

I don't think your summary quite captures what was meant (by that first comment, at least). The quote I am looking at:

"However, we have many reasons to return to Romans with eyes not satisfied to find the usual Law/Grace binary or justification by faith arguments that plagued Luther, Calvin and many people since. Much of the reason why we can no longer be satisfied with these tropes is that the philosophical and theological presuppositions behind them are no longer in place."

I think that the term is not directed at the doctrine per se, but at the fact that we don't read Romans without seeing what we've always been told is in Romans.

What I see in the comments is an eagerness to pull out the full, contextual meaning of the text - not just accepting the received interpretation.

This is not to say that I agree with him, as I'm not sure what "philisophical and theological presuppositions" are "no longer in place." What concerns me far more is the interpretation floated further down concerning the nature of eternal life and John 17:3.

Kenny said...

I admit I gave a bare bones description of what the commenter said, but I don’t think I described his comment unfairly, although I did it very briefly. These are his words”

“justification by faith arguments that plagued Luther, Calvin and many people since.”

Interpret those words how you will, but it’s clearly not a negative assessment of the doctrine of justification by faith. And I think much can be derived from the emphasis. For example, it would be one thing to say “Justification by faith is wonderful, but I think there’s even more to salvation!” It’s another to say ‘we’ve been plagued by this anti-Semitic doctrine’ (which he does say).

I will accept that the commenter would say that his comment was in the spirit you’ve described, Dave: ‘not a problem with the doctrine per se, but with the received interpretation.’ But in order to make that distinction, you’ve got to show me that the received interpretation is different than the real doctrine. But I’m going to go out on at least a 400-year old limb and say that the received interpretation (justification by faith) is a good description of the actual doctrine (say, Eph. 2:8-9). So, to the extent these are the same, the commenter is still calling the real doctrine as a plague.

Anyway, you also point out the unveiled appeal to universalism in comments 9 & 10, which is another common theme in the EC.

I hope a bigger picture is becoming clear here.

Kenny said...

I meant to say "it's clearly a negative assesment of the doctrine of justification by faith."

Ben said...

Kenny, it feels like you're playing a game of "gotcha." "Look at that, he called justification by faith a plague!"

I think you are stretching his words just a bit. And you don't even have to. It's not necessary to make your point. As you and Dave point out in the comments, there's several things that are said in those comments that are at odds with Christianity.

That said, I think there's nothing wrong with trying to attempt to approach Scripture in it's historical context and to look at it with fresh eyes, trying to peel away centuries of interpretation that have shaded our view. (Of course, I think it's also valuable to examine those interpretations and learn from the great Christian thinkers of the ages.)

Having said that, I'm skeptical of some of the interpretations these folks come up with. It feels like, rather than attempting to understand the meaning of Scripture in its historical context, they are approaching it with their own agendas.

Kenny said...

It's not 'gotcha' if it's actually representative of the overall discussion.

'Gotcha' is catching someone saying something that's not actually representative of them and presenting it as if it were representative.

The example I chose also fits a in larger context. The EC spends a lot of time challenging Reformation theology, particularly regarding salvation. So, I think it's important to note that, because justification by faith is a central doctrine. The comment that 'people have been plagued by the doctrine of justification by faith' is of a piece with the general Emergent Church program.

And, as you say, Ben, the short discussion I've cited is rife with questionable theology.

Kenny said...

Let me add this: I may have failed to contextualize the 'plague' comment. But the context doesn't help! The guy really means that we've been 'plagued' by the doctrine of justification by faith. This is why I don't think my headline was unfair, even if it is a bit inflammatory. Ultimately, the comment and the general Emergent discussion is what's really inflammatory and problematic.

-Dave said...

I should clarify:

I do not think the commenter means to say anything about either doctrine in his comment. I think its clear that he disagrees with both doctrines, but that's not his point.

His point is rather "How can we look at Romans as the author intended?" Or, to edit the arguments he cites as examples: "eyes not satisfied to find the usual ... arguments that plagued Luther, Calvin and many people since."

The plague in his mind is not justification by faith, but rather the fact that we've heard that interpretation of Romans so much and for so long that that's all we see when we look at the book. This is what I mean by my previous comments - it's not the message he is calling toxic but the means, the fact that this is the interpretation we have received.

Why he thinks Law/Grace promotes antisemitism is utterly beyond me. It may also be that he would consider the doctrine of justification by faith a plague. I still don't think that's representative of what he is saying here... so I don't find the lack of objection to such a statement to be remarkable.

More, I'd look into his description of these doctrines "tropes" (a word I confess I had to look up), as though the phrases didn't mean what Luther, Calvin, et al believed.

What I see most of all in all the comments, though, is the brash "we can do it better" idealism that I suppose every generation has. He dismisses the thought that we are somehow now better equipped to discern what Paul really meant... then does precisely that.

kennyching said...

Dave, I think your last comment is reasonable, and I agree with it. It presents a charitable interpretation of the comment, and therefore it's probably better than my comment.

I guess my concern is that regardless of the precise intent of the commenter, the general program clearly involves calling into question the Reformation teaching on salvation.

Now, if you think that teaching is the essence of the Gospel, as I do, then you're going to find the EC program extremely objectionable.

Further, even if you believe the people who are carrying out the EC program have good intentions and even a kernel of a good idea, you might be very concerned that in the process of re-interpreting the Gospel, you'll boggle it.

Then, when you see the sloppy and confused "conversation" that passes for 'doing theology in community' as the EC loves to say, you get really worried about what's to become of core doctrine.

Finally, your last paragraph, Dave, points out to me why PM philosophy in the church is so dangerous. The EC wants to tell you that Reformation soteriology is just a time-bound interpretation, but the point is you can never escape intepretation. So, they clumsily toss aside a venerable intepretation, and in its place they offer a sloppy blog commentary -- and they think they've improved upon matters!

So, I'm really torn between being nicer to the EC vs. taking the attitude of Paul in Galatians, namely, of extremely harsh words for people who would mess up the Gospel. Obviously I'm leaning toward the latter, but you and Ben are to some degree restraining me.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Even though I don't have enough "up there" to get involved with this discussion, I'm just really glad that the Bible, including the letter to the Romans, will always say what it means, and mean what it says, right till the end of the world, and that there will always be some people around as foolish as I am, to take it plainly at its word.

"Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith;
not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God;
not by anything that you have done,
so that nobody can claim the credit."

I know that this isn't from Romans. Heck, it's from Ephesians, but it's still true. Anyway, brothers, it's an interesting discussion, even if it's over my head in places. Keep cutting through the knots of tangled lore, and always be vigilant. The Bridegroom is expected to return at any moment…

-Dave said...

Thanks for the admonition, Romanos. It is a good thing to remember.

And Kenny, as for messing with the gospel, I suppose the crucial question is whether they are preaching a different gospel. The truth is, I'm too unfamiliar with the EC movement to say. If they are in fact preaching a truly different gospel, then it truly is a damnable offense.

But If they want to set aside the phrase "justification by faith" as something that has been turned into a cliché, in order to get at the heart of the matter - that's something else altogether. I think we'd agree that "justification by faith" has been taken and turned into some interesting conclusions, like the "say this prayer and believe it" movement.

What I find tremendously interesting in all of this is the strong similarities between a church like EW and a church like Coram Deo. In reading through their "About Us" section on the website, it sounds very similar to us - though Dawson is certainly takes a Modernist, logical approach to Scripture.

I think the strongest similarity doctrine-wise is an emphasis on the person of Jesus as revealed in the gospels. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" and "always be prepared to give an answer" are both scripture, but I wonder if focusing on one or the other will inspire different responses in life.

Kenny said...

I completely agree, Dave, that if they are ultimately preaching the real Gospel, then great. But, there is a big movement in the EC to question and even reject substitutionary atonement, and so I tend to see this comment in that light.

Also, I have noted similarities between the EC and Coram Deo. But for me, I’ve tended to see that as a refutation of the need for the EC, and particularly its leanings toward radical changes to theology and theological method. So, for example, my sense of CD is that you place a premium on community service as a way of making your faith into deed. I think this would be a major theme in the EC, too. And I think this represents a wide-scale cultural movement among Evangelicals who were dissatisfied with a 2-dimensional, ‘pray the prayer’ faith. But, the EC embraces a radical approach to theology, which is essentially the incorporation of postmodernism into Christian theology – the EC writes books with titles like ‘Everything Must Change’ (Brian McLaren). And I’m saying ‘no,’ to that program. To me, that an E-Free church like CD can retain a systematic approach to Scripture and still be concerned about service proves to me that everything does not need to change. So, parts of the EC to me seem to be doing a classic ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’

Ben said...

I guess, for me, it depends on where they are going in "questioning or even rejecting substitutionary atonement."

Are they moving to a works-based Gospel in which we earn our own salvation? If so, then the words of Paul from Scripture that Romanos quotes clearly show such a movement to be un-Christian and heretical.

On the other hand, I wonder - in pure ignorance....without having done the extensive research Kenny has done into the EC movement - whether they are getting at something more like this article.

In the article, Christianity Today Editor-in-Chief David Neff reviews EC-advocate Scot McKnight's book about the various formulations of the Gospel (or, specifically of "atonement") that have been used throughout history. If what Neff and McKnight say is true, and I have no idea whether it is, the description of the Gospel as penal substitution is an 11th century innnovation of Anselm of Canterbury seized upon by the Reformers. Now certainly penal substitution has scriptural support and I wholeheartedly believe Christ died to take the punishment for our sins. However, that may not be the whole story. The early Church Fathers focused a lot on the Gospel/Atonement being about "redemption." I.e. the Fall made us the Devil's property and, by His sacrifice, Jesus bought us back. It's a different way of describing the Gospel, but it doesn't conflict with penal substitution. I think McKnight's "Identification for Incorporation" - or at least Neff's description of it - also comes across as biblically sound.

So let me put it this way...I'd like to understand better exactly (1)WHAT Emerging Church folks are challenging, (2) What they propose to replace it with, and (3) What their Biblical basis is for doing so. At this point, although some of those comments in the discussion Kenny links to ring massive alarm bells in my head, I'm not willing to pass judgment on the movement until I understand it better. (If it's all just a rejection of objective truth, then...yeah, they are wrong.)