Monday, August 18, 2014

N.T. Wright Helping To Put the Story of the Law Back Together Part 5 – Commentary on a Prototypical Protestant Evangelical Sermon on Christ and the Law

So far in this blog series, I have offered a baseline picture of N.T. Wright’s way of looking at Torah, Christ, and their relationship. I have also begun to compare the differences between what we see and hear in the protestant evangelical church today and what Paul is saying, at least according to N.T. Wright. To serve that purpose, I started by summarizing a sermon I recently heard on Galatians 3, which was part of a series on Galatians in general, called “Simple.” I will now explore how, from the basis of Wright’s thought summarized in the earlier part of this series, comments on the sermon summarized in the last blog post might be offered. In the next post, I will provide some thought on extended application points concerning where I see the rubber meeting the road in light of all of that.

Before continuing, I would like to note that this commentary is not meant as an attack on the pastor (who I like) who gave the sermon. Rather, his sermon provides the perfectly prototypically evangelical Protestant point of reference for the very issues raised by N.T. Wright’s reading of Paul, along with some inter-related church issues that I will explore, as well, in the next post.

So, to begin the commentary on the prototypical Protestant Evangelical sermon that I summarized in the last blog post, note should be made of the fact that the sermon skipped Gal. 3: 1. That makes sense, Considering the decontextualized nature of the message offered in the sermon, because Gal 3: 1 depends on the context of what came before in Gal. 2. If the sermon started in context, then the fragmentation and decontextualization of the content of Gal. 3, as it was about to be heard in the rest of the sermon, would not be heard as a coherent message.

As has been established the first three parts of this series, Paul’s concern was not the problem of “rules and religion.” Wright notes on numerous occasions that Paul was not making an argument against nomism, and Wright makes numerous references to E.P Sanders in the process. The point, rather, was the misuse and abuse of Torah as the defining feature of God’s family in the interest of exclusive group, national, or racial self righteousness. That, in fact, is precisely the point of Gal 2: 15-16, which was part of the context ignored in the sermon on Gal 3 and skipped in the previous week’s sermon on Gal. 2.

Regarding: “The law is a system of rules of how to live life. It’s like the hamster wheel of life. It’s a SYSTEM!” – which was the pastor’s commentary on Gal. 3: 11-12. Again, this is clearly out of context and not what Paul was talking about. Paul was referencing the specific blessings and curses “proclaimed by” Torah, with life being the primary blessing. Because the sermon took Paul out of context, sense can be made, then, of the fact that verse 10 was left out of the bulletin and not mentioned in the sermon. It is a quotation of Deuteronomy 27: 26.

Even further, the “hamster wheel of life” is a reference to the modern machine, with which Paul was clearly not concerned. One could probably rather easily translate much of what Paul said about “the world” into today’s “world” of the modern machine. Given that, what does the hustle and bustle of today’s daily routine driven by technology, speed, production, and captial have to do with the law? The most truthful and direct answer is “nothing.” And yet, the pastor made a clear, obvious, explicit, purposeful, and even didactic connection between the two, without qualification. Why? I believe Wright may have made note of the answer in The Climax of the Covenant:

“We live….in a post-Lutheran world. Seen through the haze of the Romantic movement, this produces in Western minds a strict antithesis between a religion that depends on, or largely consists of ‘rules,’ and one that has done away with them in the interest of grace and/or spiritual freedom. This perspective has sometimes encouraged interpreters to play off (for instance) Galatians against 1 Corinthians, since Paul seems to be against rules and regulations in the first and in favor of them in the second. Paul is, by turns, a libertine and a legalist. It seems to me, however, that this is another false dichotomy.” (p. 121)
Just for clarity, Wright is there referencing, mainly, chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians, where Paul, if read from that post-Lutheran and Romantic haze, appears to be laying down dietary rules for the church.

I will assume my reader knows enough about Luther to see how he relates to what Wright is saying in the above quote. The Romantic movement, however, may need some explanation. It produced a morality whose commitment is to individualism and the unfolding and growth of the self. It emphasized intuitive perception and assumed that the natural world is inherently good, while assuming human society is filled with corruption. In its emphasis on intuitive perception, it rejected rationalism and the role of the intellect in religious pursuits. This led to a tension between feelings and reason. The Romantic movement gave rise to Transcendentalism of Thoreau, which portrayed a less restrictive relationship between God and the universe and presented the individual with a more personal relationship with God. As opposed to the restraints of tradition and custom, individual freedom of expression was not only emphasized but morally imperative.

In that light, the didactic and purposive reference to “the hamster wheel of life,” although not directly related to anything Paul said, seems rooted in Romanticism’s disdain for the corruption of human society. Not only that, but it goes a step further and assumes corruption in the basic foundations and operations of human society in the first place rather than making reference to any particular corruption in society that one might observe. I can see how one could trace this sentiment to the sin of Genesis and the curse of working by the sweat of man’s brow. The specificity of the socially oriented reference to “the hamster wheel of life” however, when taken in conjunction with a number of other common things one hears or sees in our Protestant evangelical churches, ties it to it’s historical relationship to the Romantics. For example, a very common refrain at the church where this sermon was spoken is that life with Christ is about a “personal relationship” with God. That “personal relationship” is typically set against “religion” because of its externally applied rules, as was implicitly done in the very sermon being here commented upon. Where is that in scripture, and what does it mean? These are questions that come to mind every time I hear the statement, but they are never answered. I submit that this is because no one realizes the source of what’s being said, and, if they did, they would have to say it was not biblical.

In light of the previous paragraph and of our church’s individualization of the gospel, close ties to the Romantic movement are again close at hand. Without going into a great deal more detail of why Galatians is played against 1 Cor. 8-10 as a battle between individual inner freedom and external social constraints, the point of the above quote from Wright is thus affirmed. We could also note that the basic structure of our typical church service reflects Romanticism’s tension between feelings and individual expression and intuition, on the one hand, as opposed to rationalism, reason, and intellect, on the other, in the biphasic church service scheduling of emotional and “inspiring” worship music and the more dry and heady teaching that occurs in the sermon.

An example of such an “inspiring” and emotionally based “worship” song that comes on a favorite Protestant Evangelical radio station - K-love - is “More Like Falling in Love” by Jason Gray. It sounds like it was written by a 13 year old girl who has a crush on a boy rather than any human of any age worshiping the God of all creation. This song totally ignores biblical truth, and even blatantly contradicts it, in favor of the truth of our Post-Lutheran and post Romantic movement haze. Exemplary lyrics that make my point are as follows:
"Give me rules, I will break them.
Show me lines, I will cross them.
I need more than a truth to believe.
I need a truth…to sweep me off my feet.
It’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in
It’s gotta be more like falling in love than giving my allegiance…
It’s like I’m falling in love."

Playing down the humble giving of one’s allegiance and obedience are big parts of how these lyrics make my point. That is because the giving of our allegiance and obedience to the King of all creation is precisely what we are called to do as Christians. Concerning allegiance in particular, why else would early Christians die rather than give their allegiance to Caesar?

In the process of noting all these examples of where the church has organized itself around this hazy truth, the relation between Wright’s commentary and the sermon’s reference to “the hamster wheel of life,” if taken to be influenced by Romanticism’s disdain for the corruption of human society and for external social constraints, is affirmed, as well.

After discussing Gal 3: 11-12, remember, the sermon moved back to Gal. 3: 3-6. Once there, as mentioned briefly in the last blog post, the sermon omitted the verse that requires context to make biblical sense. That is verse 4, which refers back to Gal. 2: 15-21. In reference to the persecutions of the church, Paul says that the Galatians would have “suffered so many things in vain” (Gal. 3: 4) if the law is what makes one a member of the covenant people of God (Gal 2: 16), and, thus, if Christ is a “servant of sin” (Gal 2: 17). As discussed previously, considering the question of whether faith or the law is the mark of the people of God, in this situation being addressed by Paul, Christ would not be the “servant of sin” if the law was not sinfully misused as a charter for racial privilege thanks to the flesh. To address the pastor’s out-of-context commentary on the matter, a mere general set of external “rules” that runs contrary to a “personal relationship with God,” in and of itself, would not render Christ a “servant of sin.”

As noted in Part 2, arguing against nomism was, for Paul, not the crux of the issue. And, although “not doing things in our own effort” (to quote The Message’s version of Galatians) is important, and, belongs to what Paul was saying, it was not the crux of the issue. Any ancient Jew would have also noted that we are not saved by our own efforts, since Torah was given by God to the people He chose.

Regarding the sermon’s portrayal of Gal 3: 3-6 as saying the Galatians made the gospel more complicated by adding lots of rules to it, I would like to invite my reader to visit Galatians 2: 11-13, and ask him or herself whether the context there fits better with a problem in the Galatian church better described as “adding complicated rules” or as “racial self-righteousness that was getting in the way of the spreading of the blessing of the covenant to the Gentiles due to the influence of sinful people susceptible to sin because of the flesh.”

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party, 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

To reference what was stated in the previous blog post, “God doesn’t work miracles in your life because you’re good. He works miracles in your life because you believe” was the pastor’s commentary on Gal. 3: 5.

On the surface, there is certainly nothing wrong with the sermon’s interpretation of Gal 3: 5 as saying that God doesn’t work miracles in your life because you are good, but, instead, because you believe. On top of that, the point being made is a good one that is certainly not contrary to Paul’s. Said point does, however, imply and rely on the constructed non-biblical context of the church in which the sermon occurred, which has already been discussed in this blog post. In other words, not “because you’re good” meant “not because any general human follows a set of external rules” rather than “not because you can rest easy in the power of the law, which was given specifically to the Jews, to demarcate the people of God, who will be vindicated and raised by God when final judgment comes.” As stated previously, that means that the pastor was, in reality, saying something quite different from what Paul was saying. Possibly even more importantly, that something different has a very different set of practical implications for what the life of the Christian church means, which will be discussed in the next blog post.

Both of the samples from the sermon concerning Genesis 17: 5 and Genesis 15: 1-5 – on “leaving a great legacy” and on the rhetorical not necessarily so much goodness in getting “all this stuff” - serve as efforts to relate the content of the scriptures to a contemporary audience in a way that they will want to hear it while missing much of the meat of what the scriptures are actually saying in biblical context. Both scriptures require, in order for us to now connect with them, an understanding of the in depth contextual interconnections between them and the rest of the story of the covenant, the law, Christ, and the Spirit. Rather than diving down to such depths, however, the covenantal story is flattened, decontextualized, and fed to an audience of consumers in such a way that they get to hear that they get to get something. If one chooses to not go into the depths of that story and what it would have meant to people who were very different from ourselves, then one is forced to superimpose our own contemporary context onto the ancient scriptures.

Concerning Geesis 15: 6, I have already discussed how discussing this in terms of Abraham’s not being counted righteous because he doubted and then did enough stuff to be good not only makes no sense, but, wrapped up within, such a discussion sends a message containing stuff that is not part of the gospel.

As discussed in the previous posts of this series, father of many nations – in biblical context - indicates God’s covenantal intention to eventually form one world wide people of the one God. O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessing when I don’t even have a son? – in biblical context (rather than, in and of itself, being a critique of contemporary consumerism) - constitutes a key beginning point in God’s plan and story that lead to the establishment of that exact unified world wide people of the one true God through the “seed” that God promised to Abraham. In the process of the formation of Christ’s body of the church on earth, with the Cross as the model, the Holy Spirit spurs the church along to mutual self sacrifice that makes the fulfillment of God’s unity here possible. As mentioned at the end of the last blog post, the reason this establishment of Paul’s actual context is important is because, if you are reading and teaching different scriptures, then you end up with a different church. Or, in our case, you end up with different factions of separated churches on the basis of competing fragmented systematic theologies. As discussed previously in this blog series concerning Galatians 3: 19-20, these different and factioned peoples imply different gods.

I would say that the sermon’s idea of faith as trusting God to do more than what you can do on your own is a perfectly legitimate idea, but it was not placed in the context of the scriptural story that gives it relevance and fullness of meaning. This is precisely because faith was given another meaning shaped by our contemporary context, itself shaped by the modern story of the development of our evangelical church.

Borrowing from Wright, I have noted elsewhere that dying and going to heaven being explained and defined as faith in the supernatural is the evangelical church’s historical response to the naturalist question posed by the Enlightenment's categorization of reality into modernity's reductionist terms. The Enlightenment reduced reality to the purely measurable and observable. In the process, it intentionally and purposefully excluded any external influences, or the role of the divine, in the intimate affairs of human life and in the physical phenomenon of the universe. What came out of that, then was a “modern” version of what claimed to be Christianity that took scripture to be written by human authors in time, and, thus, fallible and open to interpretive misunderstanding. These modern Christians also tended to exclude faith and miracles from the scriptures, and, in the process, defined faith as belief in the supernatural power that could perform miracles. Jesus, then, was “reduced” to merely an exemplarily good human being whose social good will was to be emulated.

A group of Christians whose history was the first and second great awakenings and who was later to be identified as fundamentalist then reacted aggressively to this “modern Christianity.” This reaction became “the fundamentals” that defines the beliefs of this group of Christians and gave them their name. In reaction to the moderns’ idea that scriptures are authored by humans and fallible, the “fundamental” doctrine of inerrancy of the Bible was formed. The “fundamentals” of the literal interpretation of scripture (especially of Christ’s miracles and of creation), and of the virgin birth of Christ, were constructed in reaction to the moderns’ belief in a lack of faith and miracles. And, in response to the modern reduction of Christ to merely an exemplary human being, the “Fundamentalists,” as they came to be called, placed heavy emphasis on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (and the Virgin Birth). These “Fundamentalists” were at one time basically the same group of Chistians as what we now think of as Evangelicals, who eventually sort of split off from the Fundamentalists based on their having less of a militantly aggressive drive to argue with the moderns.

In the end, then, faith came to be thought of – by both fundamentalists and evangelicals - not in reference to the covenantal story of God’s plan for working in human history, but in reference to the evangelical church’s argument with the moderns. Because the moderns had defined faith as belief in the supernatural power that could perform miracles and, in the process, rejected it, and because evangelicals had made it their mission to refute the ideas of the moderns rather than to live out God’s plan and story for the earth, faith in the evangelical church came to be strongly affirmed as belief in the supernatural power that could perform miracles. In other words, Fundamentalists and evangelicals, in their definitions of and ideas on faith, capitulate to the moderns, to whom the fundamentalists and evangelicals, in a sense, owe their identity, precisely because the argument between moderns and Fundamentalists defines said ideas on faith. Although the sermon being critiqued here was nearly 100 years removed from the arguments that gave rise to evangelicalism as we know it, the pastor was still, quite naturally, defining faith on the terms by which his evangelical church owes its existence. He only added the wrinkle that we should also, on top believing in the supernaturally performed miracle of dying and going to heaven, “believing for the practical.”

This definition of faith, although it paradoxically owes its existence and continuing affirmation to those who stood against it, serves as a startling example of where, beyond the level of individual struggle to forgive and love in the face of being wronged or offended, the evangelical church as a whole has succumbed to the triumphalism and imperialism that N.T. Wright notes has infected the church. Where the evangelical church embraced the mission to triumph over the “modern Christians,” it has sacrificed modeling its words and actions after the mutual self-sacrificial love modeled after the cross. This Christ centered love was discussed in previous blog posts as being, for Paul, the starting point for what guides the actions of the church, as opposed to the “works of the law” that affirm the triumphant self-righteousness that fragments rather than unifies.

This definition of faith – as belief in dying and going to heaven, so long as you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior – in addition, serves as an example of church teaching that, according to N.T. Wright, is contrary to the teachings of Paul and the early church on what the future holds for the body of believers, which is fulfillment of the promise of a bodily resurrection. As Wright has noted, this teaching, in the West, at least, began to change with the culture around 1200 A.D. I have already covered this extensively in a previous blog series.

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