New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!

The historical Jesus, justification, and resurrection as the beginning (and the end). . .

I had the privilege this week to meet N. T. Wright, one of the most prolific contemporary authors with regards to Jesus (both theological and historical) and the New Testament.

Wright gave a talk at Princeton University on the historical person of Jesus, and during the interview, Prof. Eric Gregory inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) alluded to a dichotomy that I had long been unconsciously aware of but had never consciously thought about, let alone heard articulated: the difference between Christ as a religious/theological figure and Jesus as a person in the history of the world.

The ensuing conversation led my mind to wonder about the relevance of the Jesus of history when considering my own faith in Christ as the second person of the Trinity. Does it matter whether I know of Jesus’ life and teachings? I suppose the easy answer is yes, but to take things even further, I wonder if it should matter what was behind his teachings? What kinds of cultural prejudices existed that could determine what Jesus taught, how he lived, and with whom he interacted? The even scarier question would be this: how have my own cultural distinctions (specifically from that of Jesus’ day) tainted my understanding of what he was trying to get across to his audience?

I suppose there is a sense in which his teachings and ideologies were transcendent, but some questions continue to plague my mind. In recent years, some have attempted to convince me that Jesus was some sort of political revolutionary or insurrectionist. But if that were true, why was Governor Pilate so hesitant to execute him? How could he rightfully say, “I find no fault in this man,” if Jesus were not some kind of seditionist?

Another related thought: some have similarly said that Jesus was subverting the established Jewish religious tradition. I doubt this idea less than the previous one, but some questions still remain. If he were so blatantly subversive, why did so many call him Rabbi? Why was he welcome to speak in synagogues?

But back to my original concern: Does any of this matter?

Perhaps of even deeper controversy are these considerations with regard to Paul’s writings. Recently (thanks to Wright) I’ve become aware of a criticism of Pauline interpretation that has me asking even more questions. Paul’s argument with Judaism (and by extension, Judaizing Christians) was not with regards to legalism. That is to say, he wasn’t concerned with the Judaizers’ presentation of a barrier to salvation.

The Judaism of Paul’s day has often been paralleled to the Romanism of Luther’s day. But is that a correct analogy? Is Paul’s argument with Judaism the same as Luther’s argument with Romanism? Much—if not all—popular Protestant and Evangelical interpretation of Paul’s writings approach his teachings with this attitude.

But what if instead his greater concern was with communal identity? What if justification and salvation are concepts that are not as intertwined as we’ve believed since the mainland Reformation? Reading Paul’s writings again have me concluding that his battleground wasn’t legalism (though I’m willing to bet that if he lived under the auspices of the Roman church, legalism might have been his battleground). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that his concern was the inclusion of all people in the identity of the family of God.

Justification seems to take on a different meaning than I’ve believed for much of my life. But recently I’ve become unconvinced that God’s righteousness is imputed to the individual. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the more I think about it.

Wright uses the idea of a courtroom to analogize justification. God is the judge, and humanity is the defendant. A judge possesses two kinds of righteousness: one wherein he is considered righteous in his courtroom if he judges rightly based on the evidence presented to him, the testimonies of the plaintiff and defendant, etc.; the other being that which the judge gives to the defendant should he be found not guilty. One type of righteousness is faithfulness to the truth and to justice, and the other type of righteousness is right standing with the judge and with society. But a judge cannot imbue the defendant with faithfulness to the truth. A judge can, however, declare the defendant to be in right standing.

I wonder if that’s more of what we see in justification rather than what we in evangelical circles call “imputed righteousness.” Because of Christ’s death on the cross—for us and in our place, God declares us righteous—in right standing with him.

As Wright expounded upon the historical figure of Jesus, the event of his resurrection came up in discussion (naturally). It seems as though Wright is less concerned with proving the event of Christ’s resurrection than he is with discovering what it actually means. (After all, as Wright explains, the rise of Christianity as a world religion necessitates the veracity of Christ’s resurrection; otherwise, the fledgling movement would have died almost immediately after his crucifixion.)

It’s pretty easy to fall into a slight form of Docetism by saying that Christ’s bodily resurrection simply proves that he is God. But what does that say for the rest of the story?

I wonder if Christ’s resurrection marked the culmination of the story of Israel, that through Jesus God was fulfilling the promises long thought neglected. Through the eyes of the Hebrew people, God had forgotten about them when he allowed them to be taken into exile. Prophet after prophet claimed that God would return to the Temple, but God never appeared. God had become silent, and he had removed his presence.

Then in shocking and shameful display, God did return to the Temple, but instead of coming in power, he came covered in his own blood. Throughout Israeli history, the Temple is the dwelling place of God. This is why it is so bizarre to the Jewish ear that Jesus would say, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days.”

Christ’s resurrection not only serves as the final climax of Israel’s story, it serves as the birth moment of the Church.

The resurrection of Jesus is where our story begins.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins. . .

Few men are as polarizing in the Church world today as Rob Bell. In his latest work, Love Wins, Bell takes on the age-old debate regarding heaven and hell (and “the fate of every person who ever lived”).

The big question that was on everyone’s mind when the trailer came out last month was this: is Rob Bell a universalist? In my earlier post regarding the fallout from the release of his book trailer I said that I’d be waiting until after I’d read the book to weigh in on whether Bell is a universalist.

But I’ve decided to avoid answering that question altogether since many of the better versed and smarter leaders in my “camp” of Christianity have released better rebuttals than I could ever hope to form.

Kevin DeYoung wrote an extensive review of Love Wins, which you can download here.

Here’s DeYoung’s summary of Bell’s book:

“Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready for God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.

“Bell correctly notes (many times) that God is love. He also observes that Jesus is Jewish, the resurrection is important, and the phrase ‘personal relationship with God’ is not in the Bible. He usually makes his argument by referencing Scripture. He is easy to read and obviously feels very deeply for those who have been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in.”

Instead, I’ll try to find a practical response to all this since this book is now within the top 5 bestsellers on Amazon and is probably the topic of many spiritual discussions in offices, coffeeshops, bookstores, and pubs. And because of this, no doubt the concepts of heaven and hell are on many people’s radars as well.

When faced with questions of God’s goodness—”How can a good God send people to hell for eternity?”—it’s important to know that God doesn’t operate within our concepts of good and evil. Bell’s operating premise is that God is love and cannot act outside of love. But his assumption is that our understanding of love is also God’s understanding of love.

Yes, God is a God that rescues and liberates us from sin, death, and destruction, but it’s often easy for us to dismiss the fact that God is also a God of justice and perfection.

One example of Bell’s misuse of scriptural concepts is the way he handles the parable of the lost son from Luke 15. While he correctly takes the emphasis off the character we often refer to as the “prodigal son,” he makes an incorrect correlation between this parable and the realities of heaven and hell.

But perhaps my opinion on that matter should be reserved for another day.

Throughout his book Bell makes strong statements regarding the roots of Christianity and how our concepts of heaven and hell were formed fairly recently in the history of Christianity. But is it really possible that he’s stumbled on truths that thousands of pastors, teachers, and theologians have missed for centuries?

Jake Johnson, Media & Communications Pastor at Redemption Church had this to say about Love Wins:

“Could it really be that Rob Bell has rediscovered lost truths of Christianity, this man who claims so often not to be a theologian but rather an artist? Could it be that the vast majority of church fathers, theologians, and believers have been wrong all this time? Is Rob Bell, alone, saving the church from two millennia worth of wrong thinking? Does it even matter?

Or is it possible that this one man may be wrong and misguided? And that it matters a lot?

I’d opt for the latter.

It’s clear that Rob Bell is motivated by love for people. He has many moving stories about pain and sin in his book. He definitely has a pastor’s heart. He badly wants people to have hope and love Jesus. The problem is that he has let his version of love for people become more important and a ‘better story’ than the way in which love is actually displayed by God in the Bible. It is not love to tell someone they will eventually go to heaven when the Bible is clear that they may not. That is hatred in the end, even if unintended.”

Then what can we say when our friends, coworkers, and relatives ask us these questions about heaven and hell?

Perhaps we should simply tell them the truth—that God loves them and longs to spend eternity with them, but that our sin keeps us separated from him. That until we accept Christ’s gift of eternal life with him beginning in this life (for our choices here reverberate through eternity), we will forever be separated from God.

Only after we communicate this truth can we honestly say that love wins.