Reformation

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Reformation Myths, Part IV

Reformation Myths, Part IV

The final myth is that when the Reformers broke from Rome, they broke free from liturgical worship. True Protestant worship is spontaneous and unconstrained by liturgical forms. “Who needs a bulletin? Let’s just follow the Spirit.” This is the general belief of most evangelicals in America– that breaking from Rome is breaking from liturgy. Of course, everyone has a liturgy; some are thought through, others are not. And because of this supposed idea of how a Reformed Church should be, many Protestants have ended up with spontaneous and entertainment-driven worship. But here is the irony of all of this: before the Reformation, the people would gather to be entertained by the Roman Church. Now they were not entertained by skits and praise bands as many do today, rather they were entertained by seeing the priest do his magic. In those days, the priest would take the bread and wine and magically it would be turned into the substance of Christ’s body. But when the magic was done the people themselves did not take the bread and wine; only the priest took the bread and wine. The people just sat there and listened to the priest talk in a language that they did not know. It was a sort of passive entertainment. Do you know how the Reformers reacted to this magical trickery and this passive entertainment offered to the people? The Reformers said: “Enough of this!” “The Reformers rediscovered the biblical truth that the whole congregation is a priesthood called to offer up spiritual sacrifice before God.a

The Reformers insisted that the people together with the minister do the work of worship; that people instead of sitting down passively and watching the trained musicians or the priest do his trick were now going to become themselves living sacrifices unto God. So, instead of only the trained musicians in the choir singing, the Reformers began to take the laity, the common people, and trained them to sing. Luther, of course, was a much better trained musician than most of the Reformers, so he began to compose beautiful music. He began to train the congregation to sing robustly, not like monks, but like warriors. And Calvin, who was not musically gifted, hired a musician to put the psalms into music b. So, you see what is happening is that the  passive nature of the people in worship, where only the professionals sing–that is in fact still prevalent in our own day– has much more in common with Roman Catholicism than it does with Protestantism. The Reformers wanted the congregation involved in the liturgy: in the singing, confessing, and every other part of worship. Therefore, the Reformers did not abandon the liturgy, they corrected the liturgy of Rome. Instead of only priests and trained singers involved in the church, while the people remain silenced, the Reformers involved the entire congregation in sacred worship.

Many of you who have probably visited a Roman Catholic Church may say, “The modern Roman Catholic church is not like the Catholic Church of the 16th century.” The modern day Catholic church has services in English and the people sing and the people take the bread and wine every Sunday. Do you know why this is the case? Because many years after the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholics realized that the Reformers were taking over the world and that they were losing the game and so they concluded: “We need to imitate the Protestants.”

It is not uncommon to have someone visit the congregation I pastor in Pensacola and say that our liturgy looks Catholic. But this means that they have bought into a myth. It is not that our liturgy looks Catholic, it is rather that anything that the Catholic Church does that appears in any way similar to what we do at our Church was learned from the Protestant Reformers, not the other way around. Do you think the modern day Protestant understands the Reformation? I would like to think they do. But every time you hear these myths stated remember what really happened. Remember and remind non-Reformed people that the Reformers loved the unity of the Church, they believed strongly that the people should read their Bibles in the context of the church, that the Reformers believed in predestination because the Bible taught predestination, and that the Reformers, not Rome, restored worship to the people.

Why do we celebrate the Reformation? Because the Reformers believed that the ancient paths of Moses and Paul were good paths and that we should walk in them and find rest for our souls.

  1. Thanks to Rich Lusk for some of these insights and quotes  (back)
  2. called the Genevan Psalter  (back)
Reformation Myths, Part I

Reformation Myths, Part I

Reformation Sunday is coming! With the popularity of new movements, the Reformed faith has become a familiar furniture in the evangelical house. Still, Reformed theology can be very divisive. Our calling as Christians is to strive towards like-mindedness with other non-Reformed people, but this does not mean that we ought to strive towards like-mindedlessness…the call to unity is a call for us to come to open discussion with other Trinitarian Christians with an open Bible and a humble spirit. aAnd to begin this conversation we need to clear away misunderstandings; to clear away the myths concerning the Reformation. It is my humble opinion that the greatest expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy in the world today is found in the Reformed faith, and so explaining precisely what this great tradition desired to do will help us ground ourselves in the Reformation’s conviction that the Scriptures is our highest authority in life.

Critics have developed many myths about the 16th century Reformation. The irony of it all is that if it had not been for the Reformation, the critics would not have the privilege and liberty to express their criticism towards the Reformation, yet, here are four of these myths. I will list the first one and add the others in the days ahead.

The first myth is that the Reformers did not care about the outward unity of the Church.

In Jesus’ high-priestly payer in John 17, He commands that we be one just as He and the Father are one. But the more astute may say, “But wait a minute: the Reformation did not unite the Church, it actually fractured it greatly.” In some sense it did, however, what one may fail to understand is that true Christian unity cannot be rooted in coruption. A corrupt and immoral Church cannot continue to bless the nations. You see, the issue here is not just unity, the issue is uniting around the right things. The Reformers understood this. They understood that unless false doctrine and corruption were dealt with you would have a weak, paralyzed Church incapable of being the salt and light of the earth. The Reformers were so concerned about not dividing the Church that when Rome charged the Reformers with the sin of schism (the sin of division), Calvin called for a Church wide council, so that both sides could be examined. He wanted another ecumenical council to debate these important issues, and perhaps they could come to an agreement and not divide. In fact, Luther—the father of the Reformation—said to Philip Melanchthon before he died that “after his death many harsh and terrible sects will arise, God help us!” The Reformers feared the idea of a divided Church. They wanted to unify the Church, but their vision never came to pass in their day nor in ours. Our hope is that the vision begun in the Reformation will continue in the decades and centuries to come. Still, the Reformation understood that unity is not based on the appointment of an arch-bishop or a pope; placing an ecclesiastical figure does not bring unity unless there is purity and true doctrine as the basis of this unity. The Reformation was intended to be a reformation of the Church, since the Reformers understood that without the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

  1. Thanks to my friend, Rich Lusk, for elaborating on these  (back)

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. To me and many others, I take his project to be fruitful, though not always agreeing. I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some skeptical theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), however, his theological vision will be widely narrow and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe, while we prefer to open it up and see Narnia in all its beauty.

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

James Jordan on the Forgotten Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a reform movement within Western Catholic Christendom, not a revolt against it. While there were some movements at the time of the Reformation that continued various revolutionary medieval outbursts, and others that extended medieval notions of separated and highly discipled pacifist communities, these were not part of the Protestant movement itself.

The word “protestant” comes from the latin “pro” meaning “before” and “sto, stare, status” meaning “stand.” To protest is to “stand before” someone, either to make a positive declaration or to make a criticism. Protestantism was both a declaration against various corruptions of liturgy, life, and doctrine in the Western Church, and a declaration in favor of Biblical and patristic understandings of the Church and Christendom.

The Reformation: The Truth Will Set You Free

Here is my Reformation Sermon at Providence Church.