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

Religious trust, community, the emergence of self-esteem, and politics

The prevailing emphasis upon the boosting of the self-esteem of individuals is a particularly newer phenomenon, rooted in the scientific study of psychology. But yet, self-esteem isn’t a new cognitive phenomenon. However, boosting of individuals self-esteem is given as a panacea, particularly for depression. There is no denying that it does not work in that regard, as those who have high self esteem do not tend to be depressed (although other things like productivity may not correlate well with self-esteem, at least not as well as productivity would correlate with depression). But why is the focus upon self-esteem such a contemporary phenomenon?

At its core, self-esteem is essentially the confidence of an individual in the individual. It does not consider other persons, nor does it consider (at least directly) a God or higher power. It is focused solely upon the self as an individual. In the American landscape which placed a huge emphasis upon rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, there would not be much focus upon the idea of the esteem of a corporate group or other individuals. Each person should be able to do everything they need on their own.

Once psychology became a more developed field and followed a greater scientific rigor, it would have studied the concept of self-esteem and by seeing a correlation with self-sufficiency. With a disregard for reliance upon others already within the American and modern mind set, individual self-esteem would have been seen as a solution to problems.

When we consider the idea of depression though, which self-esteem correlates well with, the idea of happiness and sadness is a combination of two things: the current state the person is in in addition to the prospect of future pleasure and happiness. Self-esteem relates to this in making judgments about whether we can capably reach a positive goal. In a sense, self-esteem is a self-trust to manipulate our the environment and our resources (both physical and mental) in order to bring about what we feel will be a positive emotional result. Self-trust provides hope, and the greater the hope, the lesser the depression.

But hope doesn’t have to be grounded upon self-esteem in order to exist. If we trust that someone other than ourself will provide the positive outcome we want, then that still engenders feelings of hope. But the individualism of modern philosophy and American culture instead engenders suspicion in others, which leads to break down of trust other persons within a community. The natural result then is of the breakdown of community, although it would be a gradual process.

In addition to that, though, is that with the modernist skepticism of religion, trust in God to provide hope would have been minimized also. At best for some of the religious, they might think that God has given humanity everything they need (in a Deistic manner), and so there is no need to place any further trust in God, but to help ourselves. This is most exemplified by the Benjamin Franklin quote “God helps those who help themselves.”

Combine these two factors, and it leads to the present situation we are in day. Gone is the confidence even in scientific progress taken up by the scientific community. And there is a lack of trust in God by theists, agnostics, and atheists alike. The one bastion of refuge is individual.

But even that is getting torn apart, as it is becoming less and less feasible for people to truly view themselves as truly as capable as they were lead to believe they were. Self-esteem is an evaluation of trust in oneself like trust in another person. It can be eroded when the trust is found to be false, or the person will always interpret their failures as do to others people or situational factors. The first leads to extreme depression, the other to narcissm. The former depresses the individual, the latter frustrates everyone else. But narcissism will slowly erode as the concept of self-esteem becomes less and less tenable. Fewer people will go down the route of self-esteem that can lead to narcissism.

Depression rates are indeed increasing in America, as one would expect with the destruction of individual self-esteem. And postmodernism, with its implications now being a very influential way of thinking among the masses, is in one sense an extension of that idea, in that we can not even trust upon ourselves reliably for knowledge.

But humanity can not be sustained within a vacuum of trust and hope. There has to be a reliance upon something or someone, or there will be the permanent fall into depression. And when the public is so worn down, it is natural to place trust in a seemingly powerful figure. Postmodernism and modernism would not allow this to be in God. So we look to another person or persons. Hence, in America the fascination by the masses by Obama and the near messianic expectations placed upon him and the concept of change. Whether or not Obama is indeed capable at all, a society that constantly views politicians in a negative light can not help but place such huge positive expectations upon a particular politician. The current skepticism makes “Obama-mania” even more suprising, except when we realize that the current societal mood leads for people to be grasping for something. But it isn’t so much in a community, but in a particular individual.

When the bubble bursts, what will be the result in America? Will there ever be an opening to actually placing trust in God and community (particularly a Christ-like community)? Of course for that to be true, a community of Christians must differentiate themselves form the current morass of Christianity. But with Christian ministers themselves existentializing the Bible and making it relate to individualistic self-esteem, will that happen? Is this already happening, and the previous Christian inclination to be based upon belief in propositions instead of trust in God is beginning to pass away?

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment