Monday, March 19, 2012

Article Review: The Fourfold Pattern of Moral Reasoning According to the New Testament

Last summer I went to Korea with my wife and daughter. During the trip we took a couple of days to go to a resort at Na Num Jae, on the Yellow Sea, with my wife's family. One morning I went down to the beach to read for an hour (as you can see from the picture it was at low tide). In what was one of the best hours of my whole trip, I read this article, The Fourfold Pattern of Moral Reasoning in the New Testament by Bernd Wannenwetsch in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible. It's a fantastic essay that I've been hoping to discuss and I now have the chance.

The goal of Wannenwetsch's essay is to 'explore the core practices that constitute Christian ethics-the art of moral reasoning in a theological vein' (178). He identifies four core elements, perceiving, discerning, judging, and giving of account(178). These are undertaken cyclically. You progress through the list and then go back to the beginning. Your perception is affected by the account you give that results from your judgment and so on (179).

Wannenwetsch fleshes out each of these four practices starting with perception (180-5). He asks, 'Is perception not actually a premoral faculty, a spontaneous impression that falls outside of the realm of moral responsibility?' (180). Most people discuss ethics solely in terms of decision making. You are faced with situation 'X' and based on certain moral principles, you determine the right thing to do. This makes it seem as if we have an objective perspective in the situation. Reality is, as philosophy has shown, that we don't. The way we perceive effects the way we describe situations and the way we implement moral principles. We are subjective. This is clear from the language we use to describe an event. 'A situation is always more than a set of external circumstances; it embraces the agent's (or observer's) personal convictions, beliefs, and dispositions' (180). Who we are shapes what we see.

Paul addresses this very issue in Romans 12. Wannenwetsch offers the following translation: 'Do not be conformed to this world time, but be transformed by the renewing of your perception, so that you may discern hat is the will of God...' (181). We are called to have a renewed perspective which causes us to see the world in a different way. The Spirit is to transform us as is our ecclesial setting.

Next Wannewetsch discusses discernment (185-6). Discernment is the process of testing; testing to determine the will of God, and testing of our moral fitness. 'Our probing of God's will is not separable from God's probing of our hearts' (185). When we are in a situation, our job is to explore the will of God from within the situation. It's learning to be moral on the ground, and it's to be carried out within a community.

Judgment is the third item up for discussion (186-7). Simply put, judgment applies the will of God to the situation at hand. After one has discerned then they will determine if the proposed action is in line with that will (or is a matter of preference). Since situations vary, there is no strict calculus for coming up with proper judgments. These must always arise out of the process of discerning and also is a communal task.

Last, Wannenwetsch covers the giving of account (187-9). You would think that judgment would form the last step in the chain, but it doesn't. We need to recognize the provisional nature of all judgments, and be open to revise our decisions. The giving of account is the process of explaining to others and God how you came to that judgment. This process is an open process where others give input and if a revision of judgment needs to be made, then the cycle of moral reasoning begins over again.

Wannenwetsch closes his discussion by suggesting that three of the moments of moral reasoning need to be rooted in cardinal Christian virtues. Perception in love, judgment in faith, and giving of account in hope (189).

This section on perception is the most significant in the article. Contemporary philosophy has shown us that the way we see the world is greatly effected by our culture. Why is a stick with a colored piece of cloth attached to it a flag (a single object), while a stick with a chalkboard eraser attached to it, not a single object, but two objects being held together? It's because that is how society has decided to divide up the world. We can easily imagine a world where it's the other way around. The same is true with moral perception. Take pornography as an example. Society now teaches us that a woman posing naked is an exercise of her rights over her own sexuality. It's liberating. We are told that this is how we should understand this act. The word, 'porn' no longer has as strong of a negative connotation as it used to. The goal of society is to dictate the way we see, so that we do not have a natural negative reaction. Why do we need to see the way the world wants us to see? As Christians we need to have our perception transformed so that we make proper judgments on how to act. Yes our perception is not determined by society alone, but also by biology. However, we cannot blame all of our shortcomings on our biology.

Of all of the articles in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible, I found this one to be the most profitable. Wannenwetsch distills New Testament emphases in a way that is illuminating, not individualistic, and corresponds with what we know from modern philosophy, allowing us to extend it in fruitful ways. Not only that, we have a practice that is doable and recognizes that our judgments will be fallible. Following Wannenwetsch's pattern will help us towards our goal of steady growth so that we can continue to do better next time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Deliverance of God: Further Problems

In the third chapter Campbell lays out a preliminary reading of Romans 5-8 that he uses to expose further weaknesses in the justification theory of salvation. I'm going to skip his reading of Romans 5-8 and wait to discuss that when he gives his fuller treatment later in the book. For now I want to focus on one more objection that he raises (out of ten).

The first, and the biggest issue I had with what Campbell has termed justification theory is the problem of ethics. It has no way of encoraging converts to behave ethically. In fact, exherting effort to be ethical is usually condemned. To claim to be good is to be hypocritical (80-1).

Some would respond that this is where sanctification steps in. Justification only deals with salvation where the Holy Spirit sanctifies the believer on an ongoing basis. Campbell sees several problems with this move. I believe the most significant is that this is unexpected. 'Justification theory itself contains no obvious need for such assistance' (81). The problem of sin has already been dealt with. Why do ethics matter? Can a non-arbitrary reason be given? I don't think one can. The answer that saving faith produces always ends up producing works, while biblical, is arbitrary. Nothing about the doctrine of justification by faith prepares you for that solution.

Evangelicals struggle with how to encourage ethical behavior. The charge of 'works righteousness' and hypocrisy are fearsome, as is the stress on total depravity. We need a theory of justification that will allow us to boldly exhort one another to righteous living.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Song of Songs: Contrasting Two Approaches

I've almost finished my preliminary reading on the Song of Songs before I dive into serious study verse by verse. I wanted to take this post to contrast some approaches to the Song. The two primary approaches under discussion will be that of Exum and Garrett, though, towards the end I will also incorporate Longman's. The question is, what is the Song of Songs? The answer given by most everyone now is that it is erotic love poetry. Upon probing deeper, a variety of approaches emerge.

Once upon a time, it was common to read the Song as a dramatic poem. One variety saw it as a story of a love triangle between Solomon, the woman, and a shepherd. There aren't many proponents of these views anymore, however, the question of plot is still discussed. Does the Song (if it is a single poem) have any plot? If so to what degree? Garrett is one of the most vocal critics of the dramatic theories (80-1 in fact Garrett's introduction is one of the most negative towards other views that I've ever read in a commentary). That's why I found it so interesting that he sees a fair amount of plot in the Song. It's a poem about two lovers leading up to their wedding, and consummating it (111-3). He uses terms like 'protagonist' (for the woman) and 'quest' in his descriptions. The Song, to Garrett, is a poem about the woman's transformation from virgin and bound to wife and free. While perhaps less ambitious than the dramatic theories, I think it still falls into the same traps. There's not enough warrant in the text (at least based on my preliminary readings) to support this theory. More on this later.

Exum takes a much more restrained approach. There is a very strong stress throughout her introduction that the Song is lyric poetry. In effect, structure gets mistaken for plot. There arguably is an overarching structure to the Song, and there are repeated motifs and key words, but poetic development should not be mistaken for plot. There are stories told on the micro level, but there is no larger 'story' as far as we can tell (44).

I think that Exum is assuredly right here. This would be especially true if the suggestion of Longman (among others) is true (54-6). Do we have only one poem present here (as Exum thinks)? I am not so sure. We clearly have one poet, but this could be either one very long poem or a collection of multiple poems with an intentional arrangement. I write love poetry for my wife. You could take a selection of poems that I have written for her over the past decade and find a way, with minimal editing, to arrange them into a coherent whole. Since the characters remain constant, you could probably string together a basic plot (some of my poems clearly refer to key events like engagement, the birth of our child, etc.). It would seem as if there was a plot. But that would be a misreading of the poems as poems.

Is the Song a unity? I'm not sure. I'll dive into that more as I study the individual units. However, reading for plot seems to be clearly a mistake, at least to me.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Deliverance of God: What's Wrong with Justification Theory?

The second chapter of The Deliverance of God is probably the most logically rigorous argument that I've read in New Testament scholarship. Campbell proceeds to deconstruct the justification theory of salvation, exposing several key weaknesses. I'll only highlight three here. It seems to me in each of these cases that Campbell is on to something.

Perhaps the biggest is his claim that, 'Justification theory posits a God of strict justice who holds all people accountable to a standard they are intrinsically unable to attain, and this seems unjust' (45 - emphasis original). I think this is a question worth asking. How can God be just for holding people accountable for failing to do the impossible, be perfect? As Campbell points out, yes the gospel does provide a way out, but that provision does not make the initial scenario any more just. Some (a small group) will simply escape its unfairness. The majority have to endure a fundamentally unjust system and are held accountable for sins they can't help but commit (48). And, the punishment is severe (especially if one is not an annihilationist).

A second point is that 'Justification theory does not explain why Christ must atone as against other people or things, and especially, in place of the established temple cultus' (49). He deals specifically with Anselm's argument that so much sin needed to be atoned for that an offering of unlimited value was required. Only the death of God could would be sufficient compensation (50). Campbell notes that there is a fundamental mistake in this line of thinking that in the end forces us into a ridiculous view of God were it to be true. Specifically, justification theory fails to notice the distinction between value and price (53). Clearly Christ's death is valuable, but this theory seems to cast that value into economic terms. Yes, it does make sense in some cases to have an economic price for a crime, but certainly not in every case. A murder who is put to death did not pay for his crime in his death. Being executed gives payment to no one. Thus to view Christ's death as atoning by paying a price then,' the underlying premise would have to be granted that all human action is essentially economic...' (52). Even more damning, 
Moreover, it simply seems ludicrous to imagine that human wrongdoing is essentially economic in any sense with respect to God - that human sins are a violation of God's rights to certain goods and services. God is both transcendent and Creator! Nothing a person can do could deprive God of something, and certainly not of anything material...The only thing God can be deprived of is the honor and respect due him and his decrees. Hence, the economic view of wrongdoing makes little sense in relation to the God posited by the theory of Justification (52).
The Bible does use the language of payment (e.g., ransom) in relation to Christ's death, so there's no need to abandon economic language. We just need to recognize that it's metaphorical (54). Other grounds must be sought for why Christ had to die to atone, as the Bible says he did.

The third issue, which I found to be the most interesting was that, 'Justification theory harbors a cluster of complex problems with respect to faith, in two main variations. The "Arminian" variant struggles to explain faith fully, and, in particular, how individuals can actually exercise faith in order to be saved. The "Calvinist" variant can get beyond these difficulties by introducing revelation and election at the point of faithbut then runs into further problems in relation to the privileging of faith and its gifting to individuals who have negotiated phase one. Ultimately, both variants collapse (55).

Integral to justification theory is faith. One must believe to be saved. You become a Christian by choosing to believe (if you're an Arminian, at least). The problem is that you can't choose to believe. Beliefs aren't chosen. No act of will can make you believe something you aren't convinced of. So it boils down to being convinced? Unfortunately, you are being asked to believe unverifiable claims like, 'Jesus died for your sins.' There is no way that anyone could figure it out on their own. Only God knows that and it can only become known to us if God chooses to disclose it to us (58). So we end up with an epistemological problem. We are guilty and should know that we are guilty apart from any special revelation from God. This information is readily available to us by nature. However, the way out of the predicament isn't similarly attainable without tapping into an alternative way of knowing, namely revelation (55). Thus the criteria of salvation is divorced from the criteria of judgment. Calvinists attempt to get around this by attributing salvation solely to God, but that then eliminates the need to have any saving criteria, including faith. Why is faith important? Why not love? The Calvinist model cannot explain this, yet Paul does 'massively privilege faith' (59). And from this conundrum, I see no way out. 

As the book progresses we will get to see how his theory avoids the shortcomings of justification theory, but even if his presentation doesn't hold up under scrutiny, his exposition of the weaknesses of justification theory are invaluable.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Deliverance of God: A Statement of the Problem

I've finally begun reading The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, and I'm immediately seeing what all of the hoopla was about. I thought it might be worthwhile to blog through the book as I read it (so it will be "live blogged" in a sense), assuming I have the drive to keep it up. This means that you will probably see more evaluation of Campbell's argument from me only as we get deeper into the book. This book is almost 1200 pages if you include the end notes, so be ready for a long ride!

I wanted to start today with a brief discussion of the basic premise of the book and an overview of the first chapter. Campbell believes that we've largely misunderstood Paul at many key junctures. This has led to misunderstanding justification and the gospel. The order of the book is to first expose the weaknesses in our current understanding of Paul and then to help us reread Paul, especially keeping an eye open to the bigger picture of what he's doing.

Campbell begins the introduction by discussing what he sees as being at the heart of the conventional approach to Paul's letters and his gospel. At it's core, this approach has 'powerful commitments to individualism, to rationalism, and to consent, these being organized in turn by an overarching contractual structure' (7). These happen to be 'fundamental components within Western history and culture' that dominate large swaths of the world today (7).  This is what causes so much concern for Campbell. Our understanding of justification seems to be too compatible with how our society is structured. Paul's letters can in effect support these commitments because we too easily overlook their particularity (even scholars do this with Romans), seeing especially Romans as a fairly generalized argument on the nature of salvation rather than a circumstantial argument. If Campbell is right, and I think that he is assuredly at least partially so, then this is a big deal.

In chapter one Campbell lays out what he calls the justification theory of salvation. Here he lays out in propositional form and in very fair fashion what one would consider a very robust traditional explanation of the gospel according to Paul (it looks very much like a traditional exegesis of Romans 1-4). The story of Martin Luther's conversion would very nicely follow the flow of Campbell's argument. Along the way he deals with all of the presuppositions that gird the argument and the key metaphors that help explain it. The goal of this model (to greatly simplify what Campbell says) is to convince rational, self-interested, introspective individuals to realize their ethical inability and the certain retributive judgment of God that awaits them, so that they have no other choice than to believe certain things about Jesus, that his atoning death would count for them.

We'll pick up next time with chapter two and Campbell's analysis of this argument.