Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The NT Wright Lecture at Calvin

NT Wright came to Calvin and I was as privileged enough to see him. He talked about how we get the Gospels wrong because we think that there about going to heaven when we die or building an earthly utopia. Instead, the Gospels are about "God becoming King." What this means is that in Jesus God has rescued us from sin and so we are now free to implement God's kingdom program by helping the less fortunate and reforming society in other ways. This of course, he points out, does not destroy the necessity of the second coming. NT eschatology (as his Doktor Vater George Caird and his C.H. Dodd would say) is inaugurated eschatology. The second coming completes the implementation of the kingdom begun in the Church by the power of the Spirit. Implementing the kingdom, it would appear, is about implementing a special divine law revealed in Jesus.

There is of course much good in this, but I find the language of "God becoming king" problematic. Moreover, I also think it strikes at what's fundamentally wrong with Wright's approach. For one thing: Why does God need to become king? As Luther notes, his kingdom will come- but we pray that it will come to us in grace. This is the difficulty. God already rules in his power and glory, but in a way that will destroy us insofar as we are sinful. Wright seems to attribute our situation of wrath to an absence of God's presence and rule. When God's kingship is absent (it would seem) things go haywire. Better use the law to implement his authority and then everything will be put right (excuse the pun)! But that's not the problem. God is already applying the law. He did so with Israel in the form of exile, and, (as Wright likes to emphasize) its continuing exile in the Second Temple period. So, the story of the Gospels is not about God applying is sovereignty (after he's taken a time out) but rather is power condescending to humanity in the form of grace. It's not about the application of God's rule, but rather about God's rule in grace.


  1. Great stuff... Would be interested in hearing Wrights original thoughts. It's hard to tell if it's rhetoric or not.

  2. As you implied, Jack, confusion of the two kingdoms!

    Subtle (and nuanced) but confusion it is ...!

  3. "God already rules in his power and glory, but in a way that will destroy us insofar as we are sinful."

    The above is a wonderful sentence. Full of truth and delivered by a theologian of the cross. To paraphrase Caiaphas when he declared Jesus' fate: "This sinner must die." Naming, of course, the fate of humankind as no better than its Lord's.

    Thanks, I've been instructed.


  4. You objection is from systematic theology, whereas Wright is doing Biblical theology; I was wondering if you have objections to Wright's Biblical Theology? (It isn't necessarily wrong to have systematic problems, just curious.)

  5. Yes, systematic theology has its limitations; but so does biblical theology. Both proceed from the same assumption, namely that theology *interprets* the Word. In this model, the Word is passive. The result is that speculation is the tendency. God is transparent ... His essence is transparent. Philosophy and reason is mistaken for theology. If the essence is transparent and simple and comprehensible(instead of beyond affirmation and negation) then God is *reducibly* simple and the Word is reducibly simple, and all theology is reducibly simple that forms the basis for a theological system.

  6. Instead Luther proposed (proposes!) that it is not theology that interprets the Word rather it is the Word that interprets theology ... or if you will, the Word interprets the *theologian*. This is the meaning that Scripture is its own interpreter ... Scripture interprets itself by interpreting the sinner. And the sinner is interpreted by Scripture in, with and through Law and Gospel -- proclamation.

    If Scripture interprets theology, then the first person discourse of I-(it)-thou takes precedence over third person discourse ... that is the difference between the Word *from* God and a word *about* God ... by extension, theological language is construed differently, namely God within proclamation (preached/ revealed God) and God outside proclamation (unpreached/ hidden God).

    Both systematic and biblical theologies tend to flatten the difference between the two ... so that proclamation (where the Word is active so that the Word does what it says and says what it does) gets substituted by a preaching of theology (in the abstract) ...

  7. Instead of encountering the revealed God in, with and through the proclamation (Law & Gospel --- two Words out of the One Word) and liturgy, we get a God-in-general ... of Aristotle, of Plato ... a God of systematic theologians instead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Whose acts are recounted in the liturgy ...

  8. Instead of two distinct (but inseparable) kingdoms, Wright discoursed and theologised as if the kingdom of Christ was reducibly one ... so that it betrays an inclination to regard the Kingdom of God as ecumenical - a movement upwards, rather than incarnational, i.e. downwards ...

  9. In other words, it's another form of a theology of glory where the kingship of Jesus is reducible to sight rather hidden (Word and Sacraments, masks of creation), i.e. the kingship of Jesus is recognised only by *faith* ...

  10. So are you saying (and I'm doing my best here) that Wright's exegesis is necessarily wrong because it does not assume a sharp Law/Gospel divide and therefore is an abstract theology about God, rather than specific interaction with God?

    Two objections then: First, (and I may just not be well read enough) in my experience it's the Orthodox who emphasize doxological knowledge of God, and specifically liturgical knowledge of God; whereas Lutherans tend to regard liturgical distinctions as adiaphora. (Thus Pr. Miles from Zion Lutheran (LCMS) in Portland told me that the question of whether worship is liturgical or contemporary is merely personal preference.) But if we know God only in the interaction with Him in the Word and Liturgy, wouldn't the Orthodox position be nearer the truth?

    But second, and more pointedly, the Law/Gospel distinction (dialectic?) is itself a system, and although it may have been necessary at the time to preserve God as revealed in Word and Liturgy, it itself should be subject to the Word. Which means Wright offers a true challenge to it, because his challenge is exegetical. And so (it would seem) to answer him, you would have to answer his exegesis. Which was my original intent anyway.

  11. Matthew-

    1. Liturgy is not adiaphora. Pr. Miles is deeply mistaken. He is likely part of the the far left of our synod (he's from Portland, right?). Though aspects of liturgical worship may change and evolve, the basic liturgical structure of worship cannot change insofar as such worship centers on Word and sacrament. Correct knowledge of God does proceed from the liturgy, though this liturgy is properly understood as being regulated by the nature of Word and sacrament, and not the other way around.

    2. Law/gospel is a rule for preaching, it is not a system per se or even the most fundamental manner in which we describe the being of the Triune God. It is simply a description of what the Word does and therefore how to use it in preaching Christ. All words either point to a reality already present or demand something from us- and therefore one cannot escape the law/gospel distinction even in everyday discourse. Scripture recognizes this and therefore insists on this distinction repeatedly. You are of course correct that Wright means to mount a exegetical attack on our "Lutheran" understanding. Nevertheless, his attack is no less tradition bound. He's simply reproducing Reformed covenant theology- which he in part admits. He's often described himself as a Calvinist. Neither can he escape the fact that his proclmation of the words of Scripture will either kill or make alive. My point is that whether or not he likes it, all his chatter about implementing the kingdom of God will either kill his audience by driving them to despair, or create pride in them for having done a good job. It will not create genuine faith as it is described in the NT. Such faith only proceeds from the centrality of the gospel about Jesus.

  12. Matthew,

    Is the Orthodox position nearer the truth? Yes, and so is the Lutheran position. Both claim patristic continuity (in the context that the patristics are not infallible. Tradition is only infallible when it is considered as proclamation ... the literal passing on of the Gospel) And indeed Law-Gospel is dialectical. You cannot get anymore dialectical than that.

    Wright, as you say, is mounting an exegetical challenge to Luther, to Lutheran Orthodoxy, to the Reformed systematic theology tradition. Dr Wright's exegesis confuses Law and Gospel and all their logical implications. Interpretation and exegesis(!) is a matter, primarily speaking, of proclamation. One interprets Scripture by distinguishing Law and Gospel (two Words which though emanate from the One Word cannot be reduced or subsumed into an "undifferentiated whole" without confusing the two acts/ energies and persons-nature (heretical implications of modalism, subordinationalism, etc. on the one hand and legalism, antinomianism, etc. on the other).

    For example, although Law and Gospel are two words/ acts/ energies that come from the Son, these are not perculiar or limited to Him. The Father and Spirit are also involved. Thus, Law-Gospel are not reducibly simple and must be allowed to stand.

  13. Of course, as Jack says, my views on Law and Gospel is as far as they go ... for Jack and the LCMS bound to the confessions and revered tradition of their spiritual forefathers, Law-Gospel distinction is a hermeneutical rule but not the way to do theology. It has to be noted that however, theologians such as James Arne Nestingen and Steven D Paulson have spoken in the LCMS before and positively received.

  14. This is why I am no longer Reformed. I am sure Reformed systematic theology is what made you to lean towards Orthodoxy, Matthew? I'd rather have Lutheran systematic theology anytime (Franz Piper comes to mind as he's one of the few LCMS theologians I'm familiar with).

    And Reformed folks often talk about covenant theology as if it is the key insight about Scripture. There is a difference between covenant and testament. Normally all the talk about covenant theology flattens out the difference between Law and Gospel. The distinction is preserved in the case of a testament. It is unilateral and *unique* - in exactly the same manner as the Word and Sacraments ... the Person who makes the Testament is also the same Person Who will His own death freely Whose Body is the subject of the Testament ...

  15. Whose Body is the subject of the Testament, i.e. *given* to the beneficiaries ...

  16. Sorry I've been gone for so long.

    Jack, you said:

    "All his chatter about implementing the kingdom of God will either kill his audience by driving them to despair, or create pride in them for having done a good job. It will not create genuine faith as it is described in the NT. Such faith only proceeds from the centrality of the gospel about Jesus."

    Doesn't it depend on how it's phrased? If it is "you must implement the kingdom of God, or you will perish" it will condemn. But if it's "By His death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has enabled you to implement the kingdom of God, so that in Christ, all is not vapor, but rather you do not labor in vain. That Spirit which raised Christ from the dead will raise you too, and you will not have labored in vain." I have trouble seeing how that is problematic, particularly, as it clearly stated by Scripture (II Cor 1, I Peter 2, et passim); but also because it runs into Christological problems to deny it: namely, the human will of Christ was able to will good, to cooperate with the Divine Will, and indeed to (in part) accomplish our salvation--for to deny this is monothelite. Moreover, the will of the Theotokos also effected good, and cooperated with God in the gospel, for she precisely is the Mother of God, and thus as all mothers do, aided in forming the will of her Son, which will saves us--and to deny this is docetism, or monothelitism again. And I'm not sure that this is in contradiction to even the book of Concord, because no one would say that Christ or His Mother, or any of the other saints willed anything Spiritual aside from the inspiration of the Spirit, who does not obliterate our (created) nature, but creates and sustains it.

    I'm not quite sure I understand your point Augustinian. Also, are you saying you're ELCA? Or WELS or am I missing something?

    I am relieved to hear that Pr. Miles is not correct.

  17. I'm not ELCA though I am sympathetic to ELCA theologians as well as LCMS theologians. But of course I'm more sympathetic to ELCA theologians in almost everything except for a few issues such as women's ordination. But heck no, I'm no WELS and wouldn't want to associate myself with the likes of WELS in so far as their ecclesiastical position is concerned. I am sure the WELS theologians and ministers are good folks too.

  18. If I may ..., to be "enabled" to "implement" the Kingdom, i.e. facing outwards towards the world (coram mundo) to serve the neighbour is synergistic, and synergy has its proper place in the left-hand kingdom. This happens when coram Deo, sinners are brought into the right-hand kingdom to be justified. These two actions cannot be confused; they are totally distinct. To be brought into the kingdom centred on Word and Sacraments ("centripetal force") is not synergistic but monergistic ... "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." (John 6: 37) -- this is predestination ... again "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." (John 12:32). It is the difference between *receiving* the Kingdom and *extending* the Kingdom (moving from the centre of Word and Sacraments into the old creation -- "centrifugal force"). The former is monergistic, i.e. by faith alone; the other is by love. Indeed, by extending the Kingdom, the Christian is fulfilling the Law (in its concrete form according to the 1st use -- civil & political).

  19. Thus, how one is brought into, and enters and receives the right-hand kingdom is *not* the same as how one "implements" the right-hand kingdom ... the right-hand kingdom comes by Word and Sacraments alone, i.e. *proclamation* alone. Thus, there is no room for "Nestorianism".

    On the other hand, feeding the poor, caring for the infirmed, etc. are all in the realm of the left-hand kingdom where the Church's service for the neighbour takes place.

  20. But I'm not sure Wright would disagree with that.

    For instance, he says:

    "A footnote to this. I was surprised to hear it said elsewhere that I understand dikaiosyne to mean “covenant faithfulness.” Of course, that is (part of) what I think it means as applied to God. But as applied to humans the best rendering is “covenant membership.” Of course, that membership is marked precisely by pistis, faith or faithfulness. But for Paul dikaiosyne, like its Hebrew background tsedaqah, is easily flexible enough to mean, if you like, “covenant-ness,” with the different nuances appropriate for different contexts following from this."
    (Here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/54/54-1/JETS_54-1_49-63_Wright.pdf)

    Did Christ (in his humanity) receive the kingdom by faith alone, and monergistically?

  21. Ah, but there's the rub ... whose faithfulness ... Christ's *alone* or Christ's *and* ours? The distinction in Wright is always *blurry* (not blurred to the point of the differences obliterated obviously) but nonetheless vague.

  22. The Eastern Orthodox makes a powerful argument against what it considers as monothelitistic heresies. Having said this, what can be taken as a full-blown theology of free-will epitomised by St Maximus the Confessor can also be, arguably, be considered as "Nestorian" -- particularly if taken to its logical extremes.

    To speak of cooperation *within* the same (albeit divine) person is problematic for it tends to confusee the distinction between the will as a natural faculty and the will (willing) as a personal mode of being. Furthermore, such theology also tends to obviate and undermine a real communicatio idiomatum which is not merely a verbal predicate of attributes bur real transfer of properties via the One Divine Person.

    In other words, for St Maximus to say that Jesus initially willed to save *His* life/ avoid death on the Cross is to say that the Divine Person (who is never apart from His *Divine* Essence and of which the Will as Natural is grounded theretofrom but not reducible nor co-terminous) willed according to his divine nature also to avoid save His life/ death on the Cross which is absurd. Recall that the death of Jesus is not the death of a *human* being but a divine *being*.

    Another difficulty is that the "distorted" exegesis tends to do away with any real distinction or differentiation between "desire" and "will". When Jesus prayer in agony to the Father that, "not My will be done, but Thine" it was precisely that. That is, the will of Jesus is *not* done at all. In other words, not actualised ... not *willed*. By extension, it tends to undermine St Maximus's own definition of "willing" - process of willing as part of the psychology of willing. The *process* of willing implies a direction, psychological movement or course that has an object in view and hence anticipation of an action (either as cause or consequence or both). To appeal to the example of Jesus's *prayer* is a bit to much of a stretch ...

    Also, cooperation implies a relationship between two persons. Obviously wills do not cooperate by themselves - it is persons who do the willing & cooperating. Can we say, therefore, that Jesus cooperated with Himself? Can a person cooperate with himself?

    Can it be properly said that the divine Person cooperates with the the human will when it is but a natural faculty? In other words, did Jesus in His human nature *will* (personal mode of being) as a divine person or not?

  23. In other words, can the example at Gethsemane where only one person was involved in both the divine and human willing, i.e. the will as personal mode of being and operation be conceived of as a cooperation which is then applied to the cooperation between *persons*?

    Or was it monergistic in the sense that there was only *one* personal mode of willing involved and hence when applied to salvation, equally presupposes and implies monergism?

    Can we really and properly assert that the human will of Jesus was undetermined by the divine will when it belongs to the divine person? In other words, if it is not a human person who determined the human will of Jesus who but the Divine Person Himself? Thus, in the final analysis, the Maximian exemplar is a Nestorian Jesus.

  24. In synergism, the will is conceived as free, i.e. undetermined until it moves so that the whole person follows as consequence. The charge of "fatalism", philosophical determinism, human beings as puppets, etc. thus does not apply to monergism for the simple reason that the will is not so conceived (as in synergism).

    In monergism, at least in Lutheranism, the whole person is destroyed by the Word in His alien work only to be raised up anew by His proper work ... so that the New Adam is already "faithed" i.e turned towards God ...

  25. Luther is right on the distinction and by extension sequence between Sacramentum and Exemplum. The Maximian Jesus by default places Jesus as Exemplum first and simultaneously distorts the distinction between the two. Imitation (exercise and right exercise of our supposedly free-will) leads to reception of Jesus, instead of the other way round. The implication is a kind of Pelagianism -- albeit monastic or ascetic type ...

  26. If I may add, Wright confuses promise *and* demand ...