A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Paul, justification, the Grand Narrative, and word usage

Good ole Chris Tilling wrote a post addressing justification in the context of the NT Wright/John Piper debate, in which he writes:

If words like ‘righteousness’, ‘Law’, ‘justification’, ‘promise’, ‘righteousness of God’ etc. are put in the context of Luther’s question about how to find a gracious God, they will tend to mean one thing. But if these words are placed within a story which is about God’s covenant promises to Israel, her purpose through God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to the clans of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3), her exile, the Prophetic promises in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel of return from exile, the vindication of God’s faithfulness and his covenant people, the gift of the Spirit, the universal acknowledgement of YHWH and the renewal of the covenant etc., those words will potentially mean something different, something bigger which includes that beat of God’s gracious and redeeming love, which Luther so poignantly grasped.

Let it be said that I neither agree with Piper or Wright fully on the issue of justification. Let is also be said that I think Wright’s work is brilliant in analyzing the big picture of Second-Temple Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. Matter of fact, he is the one author I have read enough of that I agree with the most (hopefully Wright will believe I am not trying to defame him!). Yes, even more so than John Wesley.

But one of my criticisms of Wright is that while he does a great job of seeing the big picture, he assumes that such a grand narrative is at the conscious forefront in its entirety (or at least the majority of it) in writings such as Paul’s. But that grand narrative is ‘authored’ by God (or for skeptics, the purposeful or accidental authoring of person or persons), whereas Paul and others are writing on a different level. The grand narrative is the belief in the historical past and direction of Gods’ creation as display through the passing of time and witnessed to by the Bible. As such, it is a great organizing schema for understanding the different smaller narratives, letters, exhortations, etc. written by people. Furthermore, it is probable that the persons themselves recognized the grand themes of exile, vindication, covenant, the Spirit, etc., or were at least subconsciously influenced by it.

However, seeing as the grand narrative is a more abstract generalization, it is problematic to state that Paul’s letters as such are direct expressions of that storyline. The problem is that word usage is derived more from the context of the other words and their immediate referents (and all their usages in other contexts), and only secondarily influenced by the larger context. But even then, the usage within the larger context reflects a purposeful usage of the author. To attribute to Paul a certain definition of dikaiow and dikaisunH based upon an abstract idea that is unlikely to be at the conscious level is problematic. The burden falls upon those who think the abstract grand narrative is being expressed consciously to show that within the texts in such a way that it can not be seen as merely a subconscious, or scripted, expression. If it is not a conscious expression, then it is unlikely a direct influence upon word usage.

As a result, I find the story about the grand narrative to be too distant to be helpful in exegeting at the micro-level. I do not think “righteousness of God”, “justification”, etc. should be understood along the lines of the grand narrative and covenant faithfulness as Wright would have it. Nor do I think that Piper’s and classic Protestantism’s emphasis upon the forensic ideas and forgiveness are correct, as I think they fail to fit within the whole of Romans (Luther’s emphasis of grace, while derived from the text, is not the only theme within Romans). Rather, I think it is more ethical in its nature, referring to the behavior (or future behavior in the context of Romans 4:6) of persons who place their trust in God in the manner that Jesus did, culminating in belief in resurrection. This fits within the constant theme of obedience leading to blessing and sin leading to cursing within the Torah, and are expressed on the textual level. It also fits within the ethical emphasis of Hellenic philosophy (Romans takes upon the character of a philosophical treatise). It has its forensic implications, and it fits within the grand narrative by illustrating part of the means of the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness. However, in my opinion it neither suffers from too narrow a focus (Luther and grace) or too abstract and broad a focus (Wright and the grand narrative).

Now if anyone can understand what I just wrote, I will buy you a cookie. 🙂

February 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

God and History – Chapter 1

God and History by Laurence W. Wood

God and History by Laurence W. Wood

Chapter 1 – The Emergence of Historical Consciousness and Critical Thinking


Wood’s first chapter starts off talking about the development of a distinction that many of us take for granted today, the subject-object distinction. Wood describes the world without this split as “Natural phenomena were imagined to be an extension of human experience, and human experience was considered to be cosmic in proportion because the distinction between physical nature and the human spirit was not explicit.” This is also known as monism, where everything is inseparable. These cultures also gave rise to the ancient mythology, much of which we are familiar with.

But Wood goes on the speaks of two groups of people that began to form the subject-object distinction: the Hebrews and the Greeks. The Hebrews made this distinction as early as Abraham. Because of this distinction, the Hebrews came to see a distinction between the created world and God the Creator, which lead to the understanding of God’s transcendence. They were the only group in that time to not hold to some form of monism, and they never adopted it because they were not prone to assimilation. The Hebrews became a group who had “the emancipation of thought from myth” and as a result they did not understand God in mythical terms. History then became important for making meaning of the world.

The Greeks also made the subject-object distinction, but a little bit later and with some subtle distinctions. Beginnings with Thales and continuing with Democritus, then on to Socrates, monism slowly disappeared. Socrates was critical of other philosophers who failed to make a distinction between the material and spiritual world. He began to form the distinction of “the world of Forms (or Ideas” and the fleeting world of sense-perception”, in which the former were real while the latter was less real. Understanding of the Forms was then obtained through rational reflection.

In addition, Socrates’ student Plato became the first writer to make an explicit distinction between the material and immaterial world, and the first writer to think of the existence of the soul after death. This idea affected Judaism to some degree. However, with the doctrine of the resurrection gradually developed in Jewish thought, the existence of the soul after death served to be an explanation of what happened to people in between death and the resurrection. Hebrew thought thus avoided the body/soul dualism, but still embraced some of the Platonic aspects. Platonic thought also played a role in the writings of Christian thinkers such as Justin Marty in his language about the Logos.

Another one of Socrates’ students, Aristotle viewed God as the unmoved Mover and as a self-knowing mind. This doesn’t make God the transcendent God of the Hebrews, but rather one who exists on “top of things,” is self-sufficient, and so God isn’t aware of anything “below” because that would cease to make him self-sufficient. Thus God is simply self-aware. Aristotle also was distinguished from Plato in that he thought the body and the soul were so interconnected, that without the body there is no soul. Also, Plato allowed the existences of the gods without trying to rationally connect them, whereas Aristotle attempted to develop some metaphysical principles, ending any personality of the gods. The result was the Greeks had “indisputable rational theology, but the had lost their religion.”

Hebrew and Christian religion then are distinguished from Greek thought because God is personal and not merely some rational principle. Also, the Greek mindset did not really conceived of God being the creator of the world. They instead spoke of a Demiurge that created the world. Creation ex nihilo formed the main Hebrew religious tenet then.


Overall, I find the relationship between the subject-object distinction, the existence of the soul, God, mythology and the world order all very interesting and logical. But something that begs questioning is whether the Hebrews really developed the subject-object distinction as early as Abraham? But this goes right back to origins of the Old Testament, and whether it has a genuine earlier authorship (or at least sources) or whether it was a later addition. But, one can look at the progression within Genesis and see the materially getting progressively less and less mythological, which favors the sources coming from an earlier time, but reflecting the slow transition from mythological favoring monism to a historical based understanding of the world.

But if the Hebrews were indeed the first group of people to develop this new world view, and it was accomplished through revelation, this might reflect one of God’s redeeming actions in the world by using Israel to be the basis to transmit the knowledge of the transcendent God, creator of the world.

Also, if we look at religious thinking today, it is definitely shifted more towards Greek thinking than Hebrew thinking, where the immortality of the soul is emphasized and the resurrection is demphasized. But if the Hebrews represent the basic revelation that developed the notion of the resurrection, but not the immortality of the soul, then it might be imperative for the Church to move back to this Hebrew roots in this instance, and excise some of the superfluous Greek influence.

October 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

My seminary paper on “knowledge and validation” for Christian philosophy class

First off, I believe there is a need to distinguish epistemological study of how humans know (the psychological aspect) and how knowledge can be validly obtained. Distinguishing between the two is important in that how people generally come to “know” may or may not be conducive to actually obtaining proper knowledge. Although, one can not divorce the impersonal aspect from the human knower, as we perceive the world in a certain way and as a result affect how it is best to obtain knowledge. But in the epistemological quest, we must recognize that understanding how humans come to “know” may not tells us little about how we can come to correctly know. The rest of this paper is focused more upon the latter, although the psychology of knowing is necessary to a certain degree.

There are three assumptions I make that serve as “foundational” that can neither be proven or disproven: that there is a reality that is independent of our perception (however that might be defined) and that our perception can be a generally reliable indicator of reality, although not necessarily generally reliable at all times. Neither of these ideas are falsifiable, because it would require proving reality independent of perception, but we can not cease to perceive. In the end, all our knowledge of reality, whether correct or not, is a perception. Finally, I assume that there are an infinite possible explanations for everything, which is not falsifiable itself because it would require conscious recognition of an infinite number of possibilities, which is not humanly possible

Perceptions in themselves are the combinations of experience of “reality” with associations with other experiences that are associated with something else. In other words, perceptions are the interpretations of our experience, founded upon previous experiences that have also been interpreted. This leads me to say that all our understanding is essentially “theoretical.” However, this does not say that people’s knowledge is wrong. Only that there is no way to independently verify our perceptions on our own.

It also says that all knowledge is based upon other knowledge, but not necessarily is a linear fashion. As we come to evaluate previously held beliefs (or interpretations) we look at them in light of our more newly formed interpretations, and so beliefs begin to become “web-like”. The psychology of knowledge is in many ways more foundational, especially earlier on. But with time it progressively becomes more holistic. This process varies for individuals because it is based upon the reflection of beliefs one has previously had, which is a more common habit in some than others.

Going back to the fact that knowledge is based upon perception,.this leads the pursuit of knowledge to then need the combination of perspectives from multiple to verify or invalidate certain ideas. But for the individual, even what another person can ably communicates requires an interpretation by the individual, so one may “bias” other person’s perceptions. Furthermore, the other’s interpretation is still a perception. Perhaps their “web of beliefs” are so similar to the “knower” that it would naturally “lead” to same interpretation. However, if the two individual interpretations are the same and yet their “web of beliefs” are more divergent, this is a more independent verification. It still suffers from the problem of perception. The person also can not reliably know the divergence of the two web of beliefs so as to be able to draw more confidence on the basis of one person, so one needs multiple people, a community of “knowers.” Even then, the divergence can not be known for sure. But nevertheless, this provides a pragmatic method to deal with the problem of perception (although not sufficient on its own).

So what else can the individual appeal to? If the belief is essentially predictive of occurrences that were, at the time of the formulation of the belief, unknown, then that provides more validity to the interpretation. Validation is not as dependent upon interpretation, because “reality” fulfilled the predictions. It was not based upon the person predicting what he had already experienced.

The validation must be dependent upon occurrences that were otherwise unknown, or we are back we are started. There are presumably an infinite number of possible explanations for everything (although practically speaking, it might be more limited), but not all of them can be true unless we deny mutual exclusivity. If thats the case, then what stops a person from explaining everything one experiences based with an interpretation that can handle everything observable, but yet is in fact wrong?

And even if a belief predicting something previously unknown or unaccounted for, who is to say that it is in fact the correct interpretation. If there are an infinite number of explanation that can account for everything, then maybe the person happened upon one of the ones that could explain what they saw and what they did not see. All one has really done is narrowed the possibilities. But taking a portion of an infinite possibilities still leaves infinite possibilities. Although, pragmatically, one has reduced the set of beliefs.

So pragmatically, we can hope to develop a practical understanding of reality, but it requires the passage of time within the community to progressively develop and narrow the possibilities. But, in reality, we can not be sure that our pragmatic explanation is in fact reality, since there are truly infinite possibilities. In which case, we can never truly come down to one possibility.

If there is to be hope of correct knowledge, and not merely pragmatic knowledge, we can not obtain it on our own. It must be given to us by a source of knowledge that doesn’t have the problem of perception, if such an independent source or being with such knowledge does indeed exists. This naturally leads to the question of revelation in religion. But even then, our acceptance such knowledge must go through our own interpretations as to whether the source is reliable or not. The problem of knowing, in the end, can not be solved by people in the end, even with revelation. At the least the possibility of someone can obtain precise is obtainable, even if we can not be absolutely certain the source itself is correct.

October 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment