Archives For N.T. Wright

The Apologetic Value of Beauty

Mark Beuving —  February 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Whenever I teach on the relationship between Christianity and art, there are always questions about how evangelistic our art should be. Christians are commanded to communicate the gospel. And art is a means of communication. So shouldn’t we be putting crosses in our paintings and verses in our poetry? Shouldn’t our literary characters be converting and our film characters be preaching?

One factor that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the nature of beauty as God himself formed it. When God created the word, he made it beautiful. Overwhelmingly so. There is beauty at every turn. There is beauty that literally brings us to tears. There is beauty that makes us stop and contemplate. Beauty is everywhere in the world that God made.

But why did God make his world beautiful? For example, why should lilies be beautiful as opposed to merely functional? The answer seems to be that God is a lover of beauty. As many have said throughout the years, beauty needs no justification. We don’t need to explain why the world should be beautiful. Why shouldn’t it be so?

But there is also an apologetic function to the beauty that God made. In other words, beauty is a tool for evangelism, for pointing people to God.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

The artistry in the created world reflects the God who crafted it, and it does so to such a great extent that David can say that it declares and proclaims God. Paul says something similar, and even goes a bit further:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19–20)

Paul is saying that everyone knows the truth about God. Sure, they’ll deny him. But deep down, they know God. How do they know this? Because God has shown himself to them in the things that he made. When people look at the beauty and grandeur of the created world, they are actually witnessing revelation about God. So evident is God in the beauty of this world, in fact, that Paul says that everyone who sees the created world has no excuse for their disbelief (sorry agnostics).

Christian LilySo here’s my point. God didn’t print Bible verses on flower petals. The beauty of those petals points to God without an explicit declaration of the plan of salvation. So it is with the art that Christians make. The beauty their art embodies points to God, even if John 3:16 isn’t written on the canvas. Beautiful, creative, well-crafted art is evangelistic—even when there is no verbalized gospel presentation.

This is because beauty inherently points beyond itself. Beauty, says N. T. Wright, “slips through our fingers.” We try to photograph it, to paint it, to record it. And we genuinely cherish and enjoy these beautiful expressions. But even so, the beauty embodied in our art does not fully satisfy our itch. And for Wright, this reveals something about beauty itself:

“The beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.”

Exquisite—not banal—pleasure that leaves us unsatisfied. As Ann Voskamp says, “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.”

Many Christians choose to talk about the gospel explicitly in their art, and many do this very well. But we sometimes impose upon our artists a Christianese quota that must be fulfilled in every song, film, or painting. And when we do this, we are (inadvertently) demeaning the apologetic value of the beauty that God infused into the most mundane facets of creation. And John Calvin goes so far as to call this sort of undervaluing of God’s diverse work “demeaning” and “reproachful” towards the Holy Spirit.

We wrapped up the previous post with a question: “What role do works play in our future justification?” We’ll get to that question below, but first, let’s throw on the table the whole Piper/Wright debate that’s been going for a few years. The gist of it is that Piper thinks Wright has seriously revamped the gospel, and Wright thinks that Piper is reading too much systematic theology back into the text. I’ve been a little discouraged by the whole exchange, since both Piper and Wright have hugely impacted my life as a preacher, teacher, scholar, and Christian. I value them both for somewhat different reasons, and I’m a bit saddened to see two gems miss each other like two ships passing in the night.

But lets back things up a bit. How does N.T. Wright fit into the New Perspective? In a nutshell, Wright’s views about Paul’s view of the law and first-century Judaism were already crystallized right around the time that E.P. Sanders published his tome in 1977, and a few years before Dunn christened “the New Perspective” with his essay in 1983. However, Wright has just as many disagreements with Dunn and Sanders as he does agreements, which means he can hardly be the poster child for the New Perspective. So you can love N.T. Wright, and not be New Perspective, which is pretty much where I fit in. There’s tons of things I love about Wright’s view of the New Testament. But I’m not “New Perspective” (whatever that means, anyway).

So what is it that’s roped Wright into the whole NPP movement? Here’s the gist:

First, Wright agrees with Dunn about the meaning of “works of the law” (e.g. Rom 3:20, 28); namely, that they refer to Jewish boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.). Second, Wright believes that first-century Judaism was not legalistic (though many old perspective proponents, including myself, would agree with that). Third, Wright tends to see Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians along the lines of Jew/Gentile relations, and not strictly how a sinner finds forgiveness before a holy God. The two streams of thought, of course, are not at odds; it’s usually a matter of emphasis.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot in common between Dunn or Sanders and Wright. The first two, in fact, are quite Arminian, while Wright is much more Calvinistic—despite what you may hear from his critics.

Now that we’ve got a running start, what is it about Wright that’s ruffled Piper’s feathers? There are actually 8 different issues, but for the sake of space and your precious time, let’s deal with the 2 big ones.

First, Piper believes that Wright’s understanding of final justification is a serious aberration from the gospel. Again, Wright thinks that our final justification will be on the basis of the total life lived by the power of the Spirit, and Piper thinks this is tantamount to justification by works. But remember, Wright never says that our initial justification (the thing that happened at conversion) was on the basis of any ounce of good behavior. We were “ungodly” when we were justified in the past—Wright agrees with this, and so does Paul (Rom 4:4-5). But Wright says that God will judge all people according to works in the future (Paul agrees with this as well; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12), and this means that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future (not past) justification. But Piper is not at all comfortable with works playing such an important role in our future salvation. Piper, however, does “believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (Future of Justification, 110).

Did you get that? Piper says that works are the evidence of genuine faith and will be necessary for our future salvation; Wright says that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future justification.

Basis vs. evidence; salvation vs. justification. That’s the gist of one of the most blistering points of contention between Piper and Wright. And interestingly, at a conference a year a go, I heard Wright say that he was unaware that he’s been using the phrase “basis” and explained that he in no way was saying that Spirit generated works replace the work of Christ as the foundation for our past, present, or future salvation. What he meant and what his critics thought he meant were two different things.

Personally, if they got together at a pub and worked this out in the context of brotherly Christian dialogue, I wonder if they’d really be that far apart. I mean, all Wright is pushing for is what John MacArthur trumpeted back in the 80’s with his whole Lordship salvation gig (that obedience matters for the final day), and no Evangelical would accuse him of denying the gospel.

Oh, wait a minute. They did. Um…this is awkward. Ok, let’s move on.

Second, Piper goes after Wright for denying the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In sum, Piper believes that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law was credited or “imputed” to our account, so that when God looks at us he sees the perfect, sinless, obedient life of Christ in us. Wright thinks this is fine theologically, but doesn’t see it clearly taught in Scripture. For Wright, “the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him,’ but the righteousness of Christ is not the sinless obedience of Jesus that he merited before God on earth, but “that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection.” And what is true of Christ is true of us by virtue of our union with him; as such, we received the righteousness of Christ (see Piper, The Future, 121-23).

Let this be clear, then. Wright believes that we have an “alien” righteousness; that our righteous status before God is not our own; that it has been given to us by God through Christ by virtue of his resurrection. I emphasize this because I’ve heard people accuse Wright of saying that our works constitute our righteousness and this is what vindicates us before God. But man, that’s a pretty butchered view of what Wright is saying, and if he did say that, I’ll tie the noose. But he hasn’t. In his own words, God’s justification is his “judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the law-court verdict, ‘in the right’” (Wright, Justification, 206).

Okay, I have yet to stick my neck out on where I stand on these issues, so I’ll close with a response to these two issues. First, future justification on the basis of works. This is a huge issue and to understand it fully we’d need to comb through some pretty tough passages. But in short, I think that Paul does believe that there will be a future justification and it will be “according to works” (Gal 5:4-6; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12). The phrase “according to” is desperately vague, however. Will works be the “evidence” of genuine faith (Piper) or the “basis” of the verdict (Wright)? I’m going to mildly side with Piper on this one, though as we’ve seen, I don’t think Piper and Wright are actually saying different things. The unilateral work of Christ, whose death and resurrection was a free gift toward the ungodly (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11) must form the foundation for our past, present, and future verdict—hence the word “basis” (see too Rom 8:31-34 in the context of future justification). Everything we do flows from that unconditional gift. So I’m totally fine with the word “evidence;” I’m even okay with the word “condition” to speak of the role of works on judgment day, since according to Paul our works are created and sustained by the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit. So when we receive a positive verdict on judgment day—when we will be justified—it will be God pronouncing “well done good and faithful Spirit, who took a pile of dung and squeezed a beautiful gem out of it.” This ain’t works-righteousness, friends. It’s God being well-pleased with his own work in our lives.

Second, imputed righteousness. I’m going to side with Wright on this one. As much as Piper’s view makes some theological sense, I just don’t see it in the text. Piper sees it everywhere—in Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:6-9. But it just isn’t there. Paul never explicitly says that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law and credited this obedience to our account. And plus, this seems to assume a covenant of works (you theologians know what I’m talking about) that I don’t see in Scripture either. In any case, what matters most for me is that our righteousness that vindicates us before God is not our own. It comes from Christ, who is inherently righteous (he didn’t need to earn it through obedience the law), and is given to us freely by virtue of his death and resurrection—this seems to be exactly what Paul says in Romans 4:25 and 5:18-19.

There’s much more I can say, but let me just remind us that the whole debate about the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a New Perspective thing. Neither Sanders nor Dunn made it a big deal, and Wright never made it a big deal—he sort of mentioned his view in passing in 1997, which whet the swords of his critics.

Ya’ll sick of this New Perspective series yet? Hang in there, we’ve got one more post, where I’ll lay out my main contention with the New Perspective on Paul.

The last two posts have summed up some key New Testament passages that are foundational for the New Perspective on Paul (Rom 3:28-30; 4:12-14; Gal 2:11-16). Dunn and others have argued from these passages—and this is the most basic center of the New Perspective—that since first century Judaism was not legalistic (as shown by Sanders), Paul was not arguing against Jewish legalism with his justification by faith, but against ethnic exclusivity. To be justified by faith and not by works of the law means that Jews and Gentiles are justified on the same basis. Justification is primarily a Jew/Gentile thing, and not a grace/legalism thing.

If you can get that, then you’ve gotten the heart of the New Perspective (NPP). This is where it all began and all other tenets of what New Perspective writers have said over the years flow from that basic thesis. So, what are those other tenets? I’m glad you asked, since that’s what this post is all about. I’ll list these out as succinctly as I can, but remember, not every NPP writer would sign off on all of these.

Krister Stendahl

(We’re now leaving the world of the New Perspective and into the world of New Perspectives.) I’ll begin with just a brief summary of what we’ve already said in the last 2 posts:

1. Judaism was not legalistic in the first century and Paul was not reacting against Jewish legalism, but against Jewish ethnocentrism.
2. The phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) refers to Jewish boundary markers, such as circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. These laws excluded Gentiles as Gentiles from the covenant.
3. Justification by faith is not the central feature of the gospel, but was one of many metaphors Paul used to describe salvation. Justification by faith is largely limited to 2 of Paul’s letters (Romans and Galatians) and doesn’t come up at all in 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians and Philemon, let alone the General letters: 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-3 John, Hebrews. And then there’s James…we won’t even go there. So justification by faith is important, but largely limited to the Jew/Gentile conflicts Paul was battling in Romans and Galatians.
4. Paul, in his pre-converted state, was not plagued by guilt as he sought to obey the law, and he never saw himself as failing to measure up to the law. While this was true of Luther, Paul’s own autobiographical narratives reveal a “robust conscience,” as Swedish scholar Krister Stendahl used to say, who in Philippians 3 says that he was “blameless…as to righteousness under the law” (3:6; Acts 23:1). Paul’s so-called “conversion” (Acts 9; Gal 1) was not so much a change from one religion to another, but was more of a “call” to a new prophetic type of ministry in the vein of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 1; Ezek 1). He was called, not converted, to be a prophet to bring Gentiles into the covenant (e.g. Isa 2:1-4).
5. Justification has both a past and a future component. Romans 2:13 uses the term “justify” in the future tense (“the doers of the law will be justified”) and the same idea is implied in Gal 5:4-6, Rom 8:31-34, and other passages. Just as “salvation” and “redemption” have a past and future component, so does justification. Since the future aspect of our salvation takes into consideration our Spirit-wrought works, therefore works will be a factor in our future justification.

This is a lot to think through if it’s the first time encountering these issues, so I’ll stop the list here (we could go on and on). But I want you to think about that last point (#5) because this will lead us into our next post about N.T. Wright. Do you agree that there is a future component to justification? Why, or why not? (The Bible must be consulted if you post a response; if not, I’ll delete it.) Let me just affirm that there is indeed a past, present, and future component to salvation. Consider the following texts:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). This refers to the past aspect of salvation.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). This refers to the present aspect of salvation.

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9). This refers to the future aspect of salvation.

Salvation has past, present, and future components. We are “saved,” are being “saved,” and will be “saved.” And the same is true of all the other salvation metaphors, such as reconciliation and redemption. But is this true of justification? And if it’s true of justification, then what role do works play in that future justification?

If you’re totally lost, then just know that if you talk about future justification, many people (Bible geeks, anyway) will think you’re either catholic, a heretic, or both. Martin Luther himself is rolling over in the grave listening to this post (though John Calvin is a bit intrigued). Justification, according to most reformers, is a past act with no future component. But again, our goal is not to be reformed, catholic, protestant, or Lutheran, but to be biblical—which is what the reformers fought for anyway. So I ask again: “what role do works play in that future justification?” Everyone agrees, by the way, that our initial or past justification (the thing that happened at conversion) did not take into account any good deeds that we did—for we had none.

Are you with me? Ok, so this is where the whole Piper and Wright showdown comes in: the role of works in final justification/salvation. We’ll cover that in the next post.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to blog about the New Perspective, but have been reluctant, since I’m not sure that our readers are all that interested in it. But just this week, I’ve had quite a few people ask me about it—real people, not seminary students or scholarly geeks—so perhaps a number of you out there are asking this question: What is the New Perspective on Paul?

Or, if you haven’t asked that question, perhaps you’ve wondered what John Piper has been all fired out about in a couple of his recent books: Counted Righteous in Christ and The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. The last one, of course, is a direct response to a well known, though in some circles still unknown, British theologian. So what’s all the hubbub?

Well, it all began back in 1977, when a biblical scholar named Ed Sanders published a book titled Paul and Palestinitian Judaism. In it, Sanders studied a bunch of different Jewish documents, written around the time of Jesus, to see if they promoted a legalistic theology. For most of church history, it’s been assumed that Judaism was a religion of works, where Jews stock piled good deeds, hoping that one day the good would outweigh the bad. This has been taken for granted among virtually every Christian for hundreds of years, so Sanders went to the proverbial horse’s mouth to ask whether or not the Jews themselves promoted this sort of legalistic religion. The answer he came up with in so many words was “no, they did not.” Judaism very much believed in the grace of God for salvation; obedience was simply a response to grace, not a means of earning God’s grace—the same as Christianity.

The question that follows, then, is what was Paul arguing against when he preached justification by faith, if it wasn’t Jewish legalism? Sanders didn’t do a great job of answering this question, but other scholars stepped in and teased out an answer. The one who picked up the mantle with the most zeal was a British scholar named James Dunn. Dunn gave a lecture in 1982 titled “The New Perspective on Paul.” This lecture, published a year later, gave traction to Sanders’s study and, probably unexpected at the time, gave a name to this new way of understanding Paul and Judaism. Dunn agreed with Sanders that Judaism was not legalistic, but took things a step further by using this new view of Judaism to better understand Paul. So, for instance, Dunn argued that Paul’s phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) does not refer to legalism, or works-righteousness, but ethnic exclusivity. In other words—and this is really the heart of the debate—when Paul says that we are “justified by faith” and not “by works of the law” (Gal 2:16), he wasn’t arguing against works-righteousness but against a Jewish disdain toward Gentiles. These “works of the law,” says Dunn, refer to those laws that traditionally distinguished Jews from Gentiles—circumcising your sons, not eating pork, observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says that we are not justified by “works of the law,” he’s basically saying that we are not justified based on our ethnic heritage—which is what John the Baptist and Jesus said in so many words.

So how do Dunn and others argue this from Scripture? The clearest inroad to their argument comes in Romans 3:28. Here, Paul gives one of his clearest statements about justification by faith.

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).

Now, ask yourself, is Paul arguing against works-righteousness, or against excluding Gentiles from the covenant? If works-righteousness, then Paul will probably follow this statement up with something about trying to work your way to heaven. But if excluding Gentiles, then he’ll probably follow it up with something about Jew/Gentile relations. So which is it? Well, here’s what Paul says:

“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom 3:29-30).

If you’re following my point, then you’re catching the gist of the New Perspective. If you’re not seeing the difference, then it may be good to read Romans 3:28-30 again. In any case, it seems that Dunn has a point. Paul clearly follows up his statement about justification by faith with a rhetorical question about God being both for Jews and Gentiles and this is the beauty of justification—it is by faith and not by one’s Jewish identity, or “works of the law.”

All of this may be old news to some of you; for others, it’s the first time encountering this discussion. So let me bring this discussion to a close and let you digest it a bit. I’ll pick it up again tomorrow with more thoughts, but let me end by giving a few pastoral challenges.

First, just because something is called “the New…” doesn’t mean it’s bad. So don’t make the mistakes of already thinking the New Perspective is evil and heretical if you haven’t taken the time to understand it. Quite a few pastors got their underwear in a bunch when Martin Luther spouted off his “New” doctrine a few centuries ago, but we’re all grateful he did. “New” isn’t bad; unbiblical is bad, so you need to sort out whether the New Perspective is biblical or not. I’ve already given you one biblical point in favor of it—Romans 3:28-30.

Second, there is no such thing as the New Perspective. (I’ve been using this phrase throughout simply because it’s well-known.) I cannot emphasize this enough. Like the term Baptist, or Presbyterian, there is no such thing as a monolithic movement called “The New Perspective.” There’s no denomination, no membership fee, no badges, uniform, or annual conference to attend. There are so many perspectives within the broad umbrella of “the New Perspective” that it’s utterly unhelpful to even use the phrase the New Perspective unless you realize that there is much diversity within this school of thought. So asking the question: “Are you New Perspective” is unhelpful, imprecise, and reveals a good deal of ignorance in the one asking the question. It’s like asking someone if they’re Baptist. What does this mean? For some, being Baptist means you’re Arminian, or against women in ministry, or believe in congregational rule, or that you are theologically conservative, or that you don’t dunk babies, or that you’re theologically liberal, or pro elder-rule, or for women in ministry, or that you’re Calvinistic. (The chiasm was intentional, by the way; I was feeling creative.) Many within the broad umbrella of “THE” Baptist denomination disagree vehemently on a wide range of issues, and the same is true of the so-called New Perspective. And, if I can be so frank, most people who try to categorize other people using that phrase are on a witch hunt and want a black and white “yes” or “no.” So be careful! The villagers are agitated, the pitch-forks are sharpened, and they be comin’ home baggin’ them a witch, so you’d better answer right! But seriously, the very demand for a “yes, I am New Perspective” or “no, I am not” reveals a thick level of ignorance, and, in many cases, arrogance. No one who understands the issue would ask that question.

Third, the whole New Perspective thing has got way out of hand. I did my entire Ph.D. on the issue and I would easily say that 90% of the critiques are fueled by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge—none of which made the list of Christian virtues. Rarely is the Bible even opened when a witch is put on the stand. (It’s ironic and sad that charges of being “unbiblical” are made with a closed Bible.) I’ve seen relationships destroyed, ministers fired (or hired), churches split, and unchristian dialogue flood the Internet based on this issue—and it’s rarely governed by the text. Perhaps this whole issue hits home a bit because my name has been tossed around here and there as being a big New Perspective proponent. And I am totally ok with this except for one major problem: in everything that I’ve published on the subject, I’ve argued against the New Perspective. How does that happen? Fear, anger, lack of knowledge. So any time my name may be lumped into the whole discussion, just know that this is clear evidence that much gossip and ignorance has shaped a critique that’s been made under the banner of being biblical.

In the following posts, I’ll discuss other features of the New Perspective, how N.T. Wright fits into the whole thing, and why I disagree with it. So stay tuned!