Saturday, April 30, 2005

If at first you don't succeed...

For some odd reason, Dave Armstrong has seen fit to reissue his original charade. Odd, I say, for if he really felt that his “challenge” had been so utterly devastating the first time around, there would scarcely been any need to reissue the “challenge.” Evidently, then, he is suffering from self-doubts about his initial performance—which is why he has decided to try, try again—with a rehash of the original “challenge.”

Now, being the agreeable guy that I am, I would be more than happy to meet Mr. Armstrong half-way by affirming that his self-doubts on this particular score are, indeed, well-founded; but I rather suspect, from past experience, that my best efforts to accommodate him would be badly mistreated.

So I guess, instead of attempting to find common ground, I must once again disagree with his assessment.

What he is pleased to call his “challenge” came down to this: in lieu of defending Catholicism—which, you might suppose, is not such an unreasonable demand to make of a Catholic apologist—he preferred to defend himself. In particular, he preferred to defend his right not to defend his church.

The excuse he gave for changing the subject is that he had made a resolution not to debate “anti-Catholics.” As it turns out, this resolution has remarkable powers of duality. You see, when he excuses his refusal to debate the substantive issues with an “anti-Catholic,” he appeals to his resolution as though this little promise to himself were absolutely binding on his conscience. But when he defends himself against the charge of oath-breaking, he is suddenly at great pains to point out that a mere resolution, as distinguished from an oath, is, after all, a very relative thing, subject to all manner of provisos. So there seems to be two classes of “anti-Catholics” with whom he refuses to debate—those whom he will not debate because he is bound by his resolution, and those whom he will not debate because he is not bound by his resolution.

Upon reflection, I can see how this excuse might prompt him to consider the need for a supplementary rationale. This was his so-called “Socratic Examination,” which consisted in a series of loaded and leading questions, designed to impale the unsuspecting on the horns a logical dilemma.

But his misrepresentations notwithstanding, any reader is free to compare the full text of his “Socratic Examination” with the full text of my “Catholic Sophistry,” and see for himself that I did, indeed, respond to his questionnaire.

Armstrong’s problem is not that I didn’t answer him, but that I didn’t answer him on his own tendentious terms. Rather, I demonstrated that his “Socratic” questions were question-begging questions.

Yes, it was a purely logical challenge. It only suffered from two minor deficiencies: (i) it was purely logical scam to divert attention away from all the concrete, substantive issues; (ii) it was a logical fallacy—“airtight” in the way that any viciously circular argument is “airtight.”

And that was the point all along: to construct an argument that was sealed off from direct contact with all the hard, corrosive evidence against Roman Catholicism.

But except for the obstinate fact that both horns of his dilemma were broken, it was a charming little ruse. Junk bonds pay no debts.

Let us get back to the big questions. Is fallen man lost and hell-bound apart from the gospel? If so, what is the gospel? Calvinism gives one answer, while Catholicism gives another. Indeed, Catholicism gives more than one answer—depending on the period in question.

For Armstrong to shuffle this off into a logical game, and a fallacious game at that, in order to underwrite a highly elastic and self-important “resolution,” is intellectually, morally, and spiritually frivolous in the extreme.

For some reason, Armstrong would rather play dodge-ball than defend his church. And since I don’t deem his church to be worth the effort either, that is something else we can agree on.

But if, at any time, Armstrong would like to drop the harlequinade and engage the real issues, then that is one challenge and the only challenge I am more than happy to meet.

And when I talk about the “substantive” issues in the conflict with Rome, I have in mind at least three things:

1. Is Tridentine theology contrary to Scripture?

2. How does a “conservative” Catholic defend liberal positions staked out by the modern magisterium and its deputies?

3. How does a “conservative” Catholic reconcile the hardline positions of Florence, Lateran IV or Trent with the incipient modernism of Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Faith & works-2

“What is ‘Faith’?

His answer is, of course, ‘faith,’ but his phrase is not just ‘faith,’ never mind “faith alone.” Instead, he tells them “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith doing work. There it is, faith and work right there together. The faith which is belief in the living God must produce something in life. St. Paul calls it ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16:26).”

i) But according to Bruce’s interpretation of Gal 5:6, “In keeping with the general teaching of this and other Pauline letters, faith is viewed as the root, love as the fruit,” ibid. 232.

Yet if faith is the root, and love is the fruit, then love and faith are not synonymous. Rather, what you have here is a cause-and-effect relation. And it is certainly not the case that causes are identical with their effects. For example, God is the cause of the world, but God and the world are not the same thing.

ii) You would never know from his citation of Rom 16:26 that there is more than one interpretation of this phrase. Cranfield, for one, in his classic two-volume commentary, cites no fewer than seven!

This two-word phrase is so compressed that it is probably not possible to arrive at a definitive interpretation. But I take it to mean that there is a moral imperative to believe the gospel. To believe the gospel is to obey God’s command to believe in his Son, while to disbelieve the Gospel is a comparable act of disobedience. This interpretation enjoy s the support of Pauline usage (cf. Acts 17:30; Rom 10:16; 11:30-31)

“As Akin points out, the formula is ‘intrinsically misleading’ since Protestants always have to explain that they don’t simply mean “dead faith” or simply intellectual assent.”

How is sola fide “intrinsically misleading”? Any theological formula will require a definition of terms.

“A Misunderstanding From the Beginning

Whatever St. Paul meant by faith as a badge of covenant membership, it seems that he was misunderstood by some of his readers from the very beginning since the Epistle of James deals with this very problem of people who assume that faith alone, in the sense of intellectual assent, is enough to be seen as a true member of the covenant community.”

i) This assumes that Paul what meant by “faith” was a badge of covenant membership. But that is denied by critics of the new perspective.

ii) To use James to interpret Paul is sloppy theological method. You can’t, without further argument, employ one author’s usage as an interpretive grid to construe another author’s usage, for different authors may use the same words in different ways.

For example, the Council of Trent and the Westminster Assembly both use the word “justification,” but it would hardly be accurate to reinterpret Tridentine usage in light of Reformed usage.

There is no reason to assume that James was commenting on Paul. Notice that there is no reference in his epistle to Jewish/Gentile relations in the church, which is the point of departure for the Pauline doctrine.

And there is no reason to assume that James is using the word in the same specialized sense as it acquires in Pauline thought. A word is not a doctrine. The reason we have a Pauline doctrine of justification is not because Paul uses the word, but because he has laid out a detailed theological model of justification—such as you don’t find in James.

From what I can tell, James is making a much simpler point, where faith and works are equivalent to hearing and doing (1:22-25). Don’t be hearers of the word only, but doers as well. This is a common admonition in Scripture.

I’d only add that if Fitzmyer wrote the standard Catholic commentary on Romans, then Luke Timothy Johnson wrote the standard Catholic commentary on James (in the same Anchor Bible series). And Johnson denies that James is interacting with the Pauline doctrine of justification. Again, is there a reason why Deavel turns a blind eye to contemporary Catholic scholarship on the very books he cites in defense of his own interpretation? James is making a different point from Paul--which is to distinguish between nominal and genuine faith.

“If after circumcision, then the true sign of Abraham’s covenant would be circumcision, the touchstone of fidelity to Torah. If not, then the sign would be something else.”

Where in Rom 4, or elsewhere, does Paul characterize faith as a “sign” of covenant membership? Faith is not a sign of our justification; rather, faith is a condition of our justification. This is not a matter of mere externals, but a living faith in God, engendered by grace.

“It’s difficult to know what it refers to, but there’s another passage, 2 Peter 3:15-16, where St. Peter refers to St. Paul and his writings…Are we dealing with the same ‘faith alone’ problem that the Epistle of James addresses?”

Notice that Deavel poses a question rather than an answer. This is the appeal of someone who has run out of arguments, and is casting about for any bit of stuffing to fill out his anorexic case.

“A Different, Catholic, Scriptural Language

We have noted that the language of ‘faith’ alone and even ‘faith alone,’ properly understood, can be used to signify what grounds our justification both now and at the last day. Protestants are not necessarily wrong in so doing. But, we noted, that language can be misleading, and in the case of “faith alone,” it can be literally ‘unbiblical.’”

i) From a Protestant perspective, faith is not the ground of our justification. The ground of our justification is penal substitution. Faith is merely a condition of its individual application to the sinner.

ii) In what sense is it unbiblical? Because that exact phrase is not used in Scripture? Well, in that sense, a lot of Catholic vocabulary is “literally unbiblical.” Nowhere in Scripture do you find such words as penance, purgatory, indulgence, co-redemptrix, the Mass, the immaculate conception, the treasury of merit, &c.

Sola fide is just a handy slogan. The salient question is not whether the slogan is found in Scripture, but whether the concept is found in Scripture. The Reformed doctrine of justification is a theological construct, based on many lines of exegetical evidence.

“It’s important for Catholics to remember and explain that their own emphasis on “works” of charity as the final “badge” of justification is just as biblical.”

Not only is this contrary to traditional Protestant theology, it is also at variance with traditional Catholic theology. The Tridentine doctrine of justification is certainly not synonymous with the new perspective on Paul. So if Wright is right, then Rome is wrong.

“Catholics are usually more comfortable with the Gospels since they are generally the text preached upon at Mass and they bear a special place in Catholic liturgy. What does Jesus say about being right with God? Let’s start with the story often described as the ‘rich young ruler’ in tradition.”

Well, Catholics may be more “comfortable” with the Gospels, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the Pauline doctrine of justification.

“Here is the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? What does Jesus then ask him about? Theology? What he believes? No, what Jesus asks of the man is whether he follows the commandments…Does Jesus ask what he believes? Does he ask how the ruler’s prayer life is going? Perhaps the man expected that and was ready to be commended for it. What Jesus instead tells him he lacks is yet another good “work”—selling his possessions to give to others. And then, says Jesus, follow me. What does Jesus look for in the man except for good works?”

i) Once again, Deavel is confounding salvation with justification, as though they were interchangeable.

ii) And even on its own terms, Deavel completely misses the point of the story. The young man thinks that he is better than he really is. So Jesus calls his bluff. Far from commending works-righteousness, the purpose of the challenge is to deflate that very presumption. Jesus dares the young man to do better, which exposes his venality.

“Believing is important, but the only way to know if you really believe is by what you do… But the only way to know we abide in him is if we keep his commandments.”

Deavel is now confounding a condition of justification with a condition of assurance, as if they were the same thing. The fact that justification is contingent on faith, while assurance is contingent on obedience, does not imply that justification is contingent on obedience. That is a complete non sequitur. One might as well say that if seeing is contingent on eyes, and hearing on ears, then seeing is contingent ears.

“Take I John 2:4-6…The only justification for us at the last judgment seems to be what we did (works of love) and didn’t do (sins) if we are to believe what the New Testament writes almost constantly.”

Notice, once more, the patent equivocation of terms. For this inference to follow, Deavel would need to establish that John is operating here with a Pauline-style doctrine of justification.

“And what’s more, even St. Paul uses that language. If we go back to Romans, the same letter in which St. Paul repeats so many times that justification before God is based solely on ‘faith apart from works of the law,’ we find that he can also use the same ‘works’ language when he talks about the “day of wrath” or, as we would call it, the ‘last judgment’:

For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom. 2:6-11)

St. Paul has here in chapter two the same polemic against thinking that adherence to the entire Torah is the way to be justified in God’s eyes. The Jew may be judged first and the Greek (or Gentile) second, but the criterion is the same: ‘works,’ ‘obey the truth,’ and doing—‘well-doing’ or evil-doing. St. Paul has no problem saying either that our final justification before God is due to faith alone or to works alone.”

Notice, yet again, Deavel’s bait-and-switch scam. If Paul has no problem saying that we are justified by works, then what doesn’t he just say so? But Paul, in the very passage cited by Deavel to prove his point, never uses that language. He doesn’t say that we are justified by works, but that our works figure in the final judgment, where the damned are punished according to their evil deeds while the redeemed are rewarded according to their good deeds.

In Reformed theology, sanctification is a necessary condition of salvation, but not a condition of justification. There is nothing in the passage to overturn that view. Deavel doesn’t seem to have a very secure purchcase of the position he is opposing.

The carrot-and-stick approach is a basic feature of Biblical pedagogy. Rewards are an incentive to good behavior, while punishment is a deterrent to bad behavior. There is nothing here about merit.

“Akin explains that their position was that keeping Torah, ‘works of the law,’ is necessary and sufficient for a right relationship with God. St. Paul’s point is that: ‘It is not necessary, so Gentiles do not need to become Jews.’”

I thought that Deavel subscribes to the new perspective on Paul. If so, what is wrong with saying that Jews were saved by their fidelity to the Old Covenant?

“But if the fuss is based on a misreading, the misreading is based on what I think is a deeper mistake that lies at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. That mistake is summarized by Louis Bouyer as the doctrine that ‘it is impossible to affirm and uphold the sovereignty of God without a corresponding annihilation of the creature, especially man.’”

This is a caricature of the Reformed position. For one thing, we’re not talking in generic terms about man’s relation to God, but in specific terms about the sinner’s relation to his Judge.

“Similarly, a Presbyterian pastor friend once wrote to me that he could never be a Catholic because the Catholic position was a sort of “synergistic” understanding. Synergy comes from the Greek words, meaning “work together” or “work with.” He seemed to assume that salvation was a sort of potluck supper where God brings some grace, I bring some freedom, and then I sit down and have some salvation. Of course this is not true, as the Council of Trent said in chapter eight of its decree that “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.” But what is odd is that his use of the term “synergy” is yet another biblical, indeed Pauline phrase for our relationship to God.”

i) Deavel suffers from a shaky grasp of his own theological tradition. In Catholic theology, the sinner does not merit justification by condign merit, but he does merit justification by congruent merit.

ii) The business about synergism is yet a semantic fallacy, confusing dogmatic usage with Biblical usage. “Synergism,” as a dogmatic term in Reformed theology, has a technical meaning which it does not possess in ordinary Greek usage.

“James Akin notes that salvation is spoken of quite often throughout the New Testament in terms of synergy, for example in 2 Cor. 6:1 where St. Paul urges the Corinthian Church, ‘Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”’ Akin says that this means ‘it is either possible to accept the grace of salvation at one time and then have it be vain, or it means that it is possible to accept the grace of the offer of salvation and have it be vain because you fail to cooperate with the offer—either of which means that Grace is not irresistible.’ If grace is not irresistible, said my Calvinist friend, then God is not in charge, not sovereign.”

i) Within the space of the a single paragraph, Deavel repeats the same mistake, confusing dogmatic usage with Biblical usage. The Reformed doctrine of grace is a theological construct based on multiple lines of exegetical evidence. It is not based on the mere occurrence of the word. Deavel is yet again confounding words with concepts.

ii) He is also assuming, without benefit of argument, that “grace” in 2 Cor 6:1 has reference to subjective rather than objective grace. But both in context and in Pauline usage, this is more likely a shorthand expression for the gospel of grace or preaching of the word (cf. 11:14; Act 20:24). Calvinism distinguishes between the decretive will of God, which is irresistible, and the perceptive will, which is resistible. See this distinction on display in Exod 4:21-22; 7:2-3.

“Romano Guardini, in his delightful little book on the Our Father perfectly described the “problem” with grace: I)

One cannot reduce it to a system. It is not a doctrinal structure of “ifs” and “therefores” but a dialogue between the child of God and his Father—a prayer of love.”

i) This has no bearing on the Pauline doctrine of justification.

ii) There are plenty of “ifs” and “therefores” in the letters of Paul.

iii) Guardini blindly begs the question of how one comes to be a child of God in the first place. Of how this loving relationship is established.

Faith & works-1

David Deavel has written an article for the May issue of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review defending the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification.

I’m not sure that this is worth my while, but since I’ve been asked to comment on his article, I’ll take a wild leap of faith.

“How do faith and works go together? This question implies another question, namely, how do grace and free will go together. And at the root of these two questions is the question of how man is justified before God—how is he saved?”

Since Deavel is defending the Catholic position, he is entitled to frame the issue in Catholic terms. Since, however, he is not only defending the Catholic position, but opposing the Protestant position, it is worth noting that this is not how a Calvinist would pose the question. For a Calvinist, freewill, as Deavel defines it, would not go together with grace.

In addition, justification and salvation are not synonymous in Reformed theology. Justification is a subset of salvation. Salvation is broader than justification. Salvation includes such other elements as regeneration, propitiation, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

“Was repentance itself a work? Could an unrepentant sinner still be saved? Some Protestants seemed to say yes and some no.”

I will only be defending my own position, which is the Reformed position. Lutherans and fundamentalists are free to speak for themselves.

In fairness to the Lutherans, however, I’d point out that if Deavel were interested in offering a serious critique of the Lutheran view, he would not pick out a few quotes here and there from Luther, but address himself to a subtle and sustained statement of the opposing position such as we find in R. Preus, Justification & Rome (Concordia 1997).

“Calvin, as we have seen, is more careful to say that ‘we are justified not without works, yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness’ [Institutes 3.16.1]. Whether there is a difference between justification “not without works” and in some sense ‘through works’ is a good question.”

Yes, this is a good question—a very good question. I’m more interested in exegeting Scripture than Calvin. However, the Calvinian distinction only looks nebulous because Deavel chooses to clip little snippets out of their larger frame of reference. There is a quite elementary distinction in saying that on those whom God confers the grace of justification, he also confers the grace of sanctification, without in any way confounding justification and sanctification.

“In the end, of course, St. Francis was right: Protestants themselves differ as much among themselves as they do with us, even if they go back to the ‘original Reformers.’”

I don’t see much division here. By his own accounting, Deavel has only identified two basic views: an antinomian version of justification which he identifies with Lutheran and fundamentalist theology, as well as a Reformed version, where justification and sanctification are both necessarily elements in salvation.

“What, however, is the problem with the ‘whore of Babylon’ that makes Protestants so nervous about the Church, even when, as with Calvin, their teaching is so closely aligned as to make the differences almost purely a matter of semantics.”

The Council of Trent would not have anathematized the Protestant position had the Tridentine fathers regarded the differences as “almost purely a matter of semantics.” So this is an odd way for Deavel to defend his own church.

“They generally read St. Paul’s polemics against salvation by “works [plural] of the law” in, for instance, Rom. 3:20 as a polemic against the notion that good works of any kind have anything to do with our final justification before God… Protestants, taking this verse at face-value and without any context, will tell you that there it is, plain as day, what you do has nothing to do with justification before God. St. Paul even repeats it in Rom. 3:28…Similarly, in Gal. 2:15-16.”

What Protestants take this verse without any context? It should be unnecessary to point out that there is a very extensive literature in Reformed theology, for one, defending in no inconsiderable detail the Reformed doctrine of justification. This is not a case of isolated prooftexting. Has Deavel never read the second volume of William Cunningham’s Historical Theology? Or the second volume of Turretin’s Institutes? Or Berkouwer’s book on Faith and Justification? Or Hoekema’s chapter in Saved by Grace—to name a few? Or is he talking about some backwoods preacher in the Smoky Blue Hills? An honest critic will test his own position against the best that the opposing side has to offer.

“What are ‘Works of the Law’?

Taking the second point first, what are works of the law? Rom. 3:28, denying justification by “works of the law,” is immediately followed by a question: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (3:29). This question is a tip-off. What law would apply to Jews only but not Gentiles other than the law of Torah? When he refers to “the law” (nomos in Greek), St. Paul is not referring to any old law, particularly not the natural moral law that he said is “written on the hearts” in Rom. 2:15. No, “the law” means the Torah. Continuing in Rom. 3:30, St. Paul writes that God is the God of Gentiles also “since God is one; and he will justify the uncircumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” So the point is that circumcision, the prime entrance into the life of the old covenant, stands for the Torah in its entirety. God does not justify or make just people who simply follow the commands of the old law. He justifies all, both Jew and Gentile, on the basis of faith.”

Is that what Rom 3:28 really means? Let us turn to the standard Catholic commentary on Romans:


Paul uses for the first time [3:20] the plural phrase erga nomous, “deeds of the law.” The singular appeared in 2:15, and the plural will appear again in 3:28 and 9:32…Gal 2:16; 3:2,5,10; and in abbreviated form in Rom 3:27; 4:2,6; 9:[11?],32.

For Dunn, it would refer specifically to “circumcision and foot laws,” two obligations that “functioned as boundary makers” to set Jews off from Gentiles…This restricted sense of the phrase is hardly correct, for it contradicts the generic sense of “law” about which Paul has been speaking since 2:12 and to which he refers in 3:20b. See further Cranfield, “The Works of the Law.”

J. Fitzmyer, Romans (Doubleday 1993), 338.

Paul [in 3:27] is playing on the different senses of nomos. Such an understanding of deeds prescribed by the law has already been discussed in the argument of 2:17-3:20.

His emphasis [v28] falls on pistei, “by faith”…that emphasis and the qualification “apart from deeds of (the law” show that in this context Paul means “by faith alone.”

Paul is not speaking about deeds that are the fruit of Christian faith.

Ibid. 363-364.


Notice that Fitzmyer affirms everything that Deavel wants to deny, and denies everything that Deavel wants to affirm. He affirms sola fide. He denies that “works of the law” has special reference to the Torah. He denies the new perspective, represented by Dunn. And he denies any link between justifying faith and the fruits of faith.

What is more, Fitzmyer offers a number of supporting arguments in defense of his interpretation. So this is more than a matter of scholarly opinion.

Now, you just might suppose that Roman Catholic like Deavel would make it his first order of business to consult the standard Catholic commentary on Rom 3:28, and if it undermined his case, to interact with that interpretation and show where Fitzmyer went wrong.

Since Fitzmyer refers the reader to Cranfield’s study, we might quote a bit of that as well:


The particular concern of this essay is Prof. Dunn’s understanding of Paul’s usage of the phrase erga nomou in Romans…It is an understanding which is to a large extent determinative of his view of the Epistle as a whole, and it is an understanding to which he has apparently come, at least in part, under the simulation of Prof. E. P. Sanders’ work.

It is Prof. Dunn’s contention that Paul has been misunderstood by successive generations of commentators.

C. Cranfield, On Romans & Other Essays (T&T Clark 1998), 1.

The foregoing exegetical discussion has shown, I think, that Prof. Dunn’s explanation of erga nomou in Romans (and also of erga alone where it seems to be equivalent to erga nomou) as referring specifically to those practices which function as identity-markers, distinguishing Jews from their Gentile neighbours, in particular, circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and observance of food laws, must be rejected; and that even in Galatians, where at first sight it might seem to possess a certain plausibility, his explanation of era nomou should be rejected.

The true explanation…denotes (the doing of) the works which the law requires, obedience to the law; and that, when Paul says that no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law, he means that no one will ear a status of righteousness before God by obedience to the law, because such true obedience is not forthcoming from fallen human beings.

Ibid. 13-14.


I leave it to the interested reader to work through the closely reasoned argument between his introduction and his conclusion. The immediate point is that Cranfield, like Fitzmyer, soundly rejects the reinterpretation of Paul offered by the new perspective. Thus we have two premier commentators on Romans, one of them a Roman Catholic. And that is above and beyond the additional literature I’ve cited below.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Fitzmyer is right, and Deavel is wrong. But if Deavel wants to make good on his claims, then he needs to make a case in which he rebuts the opposing position rather than assuming, without benefit of argument, that his interpretation is the only interpretation or the best available interpretation.

“That this is the case in Galatians is evident as well. The entire book is about the question of whether new Gentile Christians, that is members of the New Israel, had to follow the rules of the Old Israel. St. Paul is quite adamant that neither Jews nor Gentiles are required to follow all the rules of the Torah.”

No, the question is whether Jews and Gentiles alike are justified by law-keeping. A very different question indeed.

“What is ‘Justification’?

To see what justification is like, we can look to the end of Galatians…how, that is, “through faith, by the Spirit, we wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5). That we are waiting for righteousness is important. It is Protestant scholars like E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright who have for over twenty years been pointing out that St. Paul does not mean by the justification of human beings “how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God…’”

This assertion calls for a fair number of comments:

i) You’d never know from Deavel that the new perspective on Paul is hotly contested. Just consider a few of the following titles which have been published in opposition to the new perspective:

Carson, D.A., O'Brien, P., and Seifrid, M., eds. Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Baker 2001).

Carson, D.A., O'Brien, P., and Seifrid, M., eds. Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul (Baker Book 2004).

Elliott, M. The Survivors of Israel:: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism (Eerdmans 2000).

Gathercole, S. Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 (Eerdmans 2002)

Kim, S. Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel (Eerdmans 2001).

Schreiner, T. The Law & Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker 1993).

Seifrid, M. Christ Our Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Justification (Apollos 2000).

Stuhlmacher, P. & Hagner, D. Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective (IVP 2002).

Westerholm, S. Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Eerdmans 2003).

To appeal to the new perspective as though this were representative of a critical consensus, when it is, in fact, the subject of raging debate, is ignorant at best and deceptive at worst.

ii) Let us consider an alternative reading by the doyen of NT scholars, beginning with Gal 5:4:


To seek it [justification] through faith in Christ was to seek it on the ground of God’s grace; to seek it through legal works was to seek it on the ground of their own merit…Paul has already made it clear (3:10) that those who seek justification through legal works do not attain it (cf. Rom 11:7), but rather incur the curse of the law; what he emphasizes here is the incompatibility of faith and works, of divine grace and human merit, where justification of the sinner before God is in question.

Here [5:5] is such a reference, however; by contrast with the vain hope of righteousness by legal works, he says, we who believe in Christ are enabled by the Spirit, through faith, to wait confidently for the hope of righteousness. The law holds out no such sure hope as this. The ‘hope of righteousness’ is the hope of a favourable verdict in the last judgment (Rom 2:5-16). For those who believe in Christ such a verdict is assured in advance by the present experience of justification by faith…In their case the eschatological verdict of ‘not guilty’ is already realized.

F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (Erdmans 1988), 231-232.


Far from supporting the Catholic position, Deavel’s prooftext undercuts it root and branch. And that is precisely why, according to Trent, a Catholic is not entitled to the assurance of salvation.

Deavel continues to cite Wright as saying that justification was not “so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we concede this claim. In Paul’s doctrine of the church, can you drive a wedge between who is saved and who belongs to the church? Remember, we’re not talking, here, about membership in a modern denomination, but Paul’s doctrine of the universal church, a la. Ephesians.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Jewish roots

I’ve been asked the following question:
“Do you see similar root causes or underlying problems within Messianic Judaism, or alternately the Hebraic Roots movement, and the New Perspective on Paul?

For example, the emphasis on Paul's supposed Shammaite background (despite the fact that Paul tells us that he was educated under the feet of Gamaliel, himself a disciple of Hillel); the trend toward focusing on outward signs such as…keeping certain aspects of the Law as proofs that one belongs to the covenant community, sealed in ‘justification’; the tendency to elevate outside material to the level of Scripture (the Oral Torah, a certain take on Second Temple era history and culture, etc.), and so on?”

By way of reply:

1. I’ve written a review of Wright’s book, What St. Paul Really Said. This is posted on the blog, in the book review section, under the title “Reinventing Paul.”

2. Let us begin with a very rough-hewn distinction: on the face of it, the new perspective goes from Christianity to Judaism while the Jewish Roots movement (hereafter JRM) goes from Judaism to Christianity. Put another way, the new perspective approaches Judaism from the outside, via Christianity, while JRM approaches Christianity from the inside, via Judaism.

3. JRM is a loose-leaf theological movement that ranges along a continuum. At the evangelical end of the spectrum are Messianic Jews who affirm traditional historic Christian theology (although they have problems with supercessionism), but want to retain their Jewish identity, and encourage Christians to become better informed about the Jewish roots of Christianity.

At the other end of the spectrum are representatives with a classic cultic view of church history, according to which the church went totally apostate after the 1C, corrupting the “pure,” primitive Gospel with pagan philosophical speculations like the Trinity. This is throwback to the old Ebionite heresy.

Near the same end of the spectrum are representatives who repristinate the view of the Judaizers (a la Galatians), according to which a gentile must convert to Judaism and be an observant Jew before he can convert to Christianity and be a true Christian. This assumes that Jews are still in covenant with God, that the Mosaic covenant remains in force, such that salvation is through incorporation into the Mosaic covenant.

There are other eccentricities such as a belief in the end-time restoration of the lost tribes of Israel, as well as a rejection of the Greek Gospels in favor of hypothetical Hebrew originals.

Whether we include these aberrations under the rubric of Messianic Judaism is a matter of definition. But they are certainly sub-Christian. And if we define Messianic Judaism by NT standards, then it is clearly at odds with NT theology.

As with most any heresy, there is a grain of truth to this. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the uncritical rejection of tradition, the other an uncritical acceptance of tradition.

Messianic Jews are welcome to reopen and reexamine old theological debates. But a preemptory and wholesale rejection of two thousands years of historical theology betrays an unscriptural disrespect for the role of the church in the plan of God.

In addition, the Talmud and customs of Eastern European Jewry are several steps removed from the 1C Judaism and the NT church. This is not the root, but a branch.

4. I’ve said that, superficially speaking, JRM represents the insider’s perspective. But upon closer examination that is a gross oversimplification.

21C Jews are not 1C Jews. They have no more direct contact with the roots of Judaism than do Gentiles. They can go back to the primary sources, but so can Gentiles. They are, at most, rediscovering their roots. So they really aren’t insiders after all. Rather, they come to Judaism through study, and then employ their Judaic studies as a prism through which to view the Christian faith.

5. This all goes back to the ancient problem of Jewish identity. Who’s a Jew?

Under the Mosaic law, the terms of membership were clear. But even then, there was the temptation to assimilate with the surrounding cultures.

Under Roman rule, the identity crisis became more pronounced, and there were various strategies to retain their distinctive identity. At one extreme were the Zealots who wanted to expel the alien occupation force from the Holy Land. Rather less extreme were the Essenes and other separatists who tried to put literal distance between themselves and the foreign element. Still less extreme were the Pharisees who tried to put ritual distance between themselves and the foreign element.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the identity crisis reached a peak, and for two reasons:
i) Without the Temple, it was no longer possible to be a fully observant Jew.
ii) Having rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus, the very idea of a Messianic expectation become problematic. How could they accept the Messianic hope while they rejected Jesus? What better claimant was there to that title?

As such, modern Judaism lacks a positive identity and fixed frame of reference. It tends to define itself--on the one hand--by what it is not—by its anti-Christian character, while--on the other hand—by looking to ethnicity or culture, tradition or creed, to supply a positive definition. But, of course, these are fluid criteria, subject to a multiplicity of interpretations and variations.

6. Now the new perspectives also lays claim to unearthing the Jewish roots of Christianity. And this is very much a gentile enterprise, conducted by outsiders like Sanders, Wright, Dunn, Esler and the like.

At the same time, they then position themselves as spokesmen for Judaism, lecturing Protestants on the true character of Pharisaic theology.

Ironically, one of the harshest critics of the new perspective has been Jacob Neusner, the world’s leading authority on Rabbinical Judaism.

7. As my questioner rightly points out, there is a certain affinity between the two schools of thought inasmuch as both are apt to locate Jewish identity in certain externals of observance and group membership.

And this sets them in common opposition to sola fide, where Christian identity is not situated in outward boundary-markers, but in the objective work of Christ, applied to the sinner on condition of faith—condition which is, itself, effected by the grace of God through regeneration.

As he also notes, there is a common opposition to sola Scriptura, where the Talmud and other Jewish source materials become both the filter through which Scripture is viewed, and the standard by which it is judged.

Likewise, neither JRM nor the new perspective regard the New Covenant as a break with the Mosaic Covenant.

8. In general, Messianic Jews are very Christocentric inasmuch as that is what sets them apart from their fellow Jews. But when they convert to Christianity, they must also decide where to position themselves between the church and the synagogue. And there is a range of opinion on that subject. Cf. L. Goldberg, ed., How Jewish is Christianity? (Zondervan 2003).

9. How Messianic Jews react to the new perspective is difficult to ascertain, for Messianic Judaism lacks a unified tradition. In his multivolume work (three volumes and counting), which sets the present-day standard in Messianic apologetics, Michael Brown has only a few passing references to the new perspective, and his own position inconclusive. Cf. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker 2000), 160-63; 230; 244.

Anyone who happens to know more than me is welcome to pipe in at this point.


I received the following answer to my inquiry:

Dear Mr. Hays,

Thank you for contacting us with your question.

After asking Dr. Brown what he thought, he answered with this, "There are lots of different approaches to the "New Perspective" on Paul, and there are just as many different views within Messianic Judaism. A good book to read on this as a starting point would be How Jewish Is Christianity, ed. by Louis Goldberg and published by Zondervan."

I hope this will help you.

In Him,

Assistant to Dr. Michael L. Brown

ICN Ministries
P.O. Box 1446
Harrisburg, NC 28075

From: Hays
Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2005 10:28 AM
Subject: The new perspective on Paul

I was wondering to what extent the New Perspective on Paul, a la Sanders, Dunn, Wright, has had an impact on Messianic Judaism. Does Dr. Brown have an answer to that question?

Steve Hays

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Ave Maria

Recently, someone asked me about Marian apparitions. What are we to make of all the reported instances? By way of reply:

I've not made a special study of the subject. Maybe I should. On Marian apparitions in particular, I think those have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Different explanations are applicable to different cases.

1. The fact that apparitions of the BVM appear to be confined to Catholics in Catholic lands is cause for considerable suspicion.

2. Some witnesses are simply liars, looking for publicity.

3. Other witnesses may be sincere, but we know from "repressed memories" and other suchlike that many people are highly suggestible, especially if they are culturally predisposed to believe certain things or interpret certain phenomenon in light of their preexisting religious categories.

I realize that this sort of explanation is often used to explain away biblical miracles. However, biblical miracles are attested by multiple lines of evidence. In addition, some witnesses are more credible than others.

4. The Christian worldview is, of course, open to paranormal phenomena. But a paranormal event can issue from the dark side. Marian apparitions fall under the general category of necromancy or trafficking with the dead. Since this is condemned in Scripture, I find it hard to credit the phenomenon as heaven-sent.

That explanation might strike some a special-pleading, but I don't think so. If the event is at all authentic, then this is a supernatural event. According to Catholic interpretation, it's a supernatural event. But if we're already moving in the realm of the supernatural, then there is no antecedent reason why we should offer a positive rather than negative interpretation of its supernatural origins. It could issue from below as well as above.

5. I have no a priori reason to deny that a Roman Catholic may have a miraculous experience. I believe that Calvinism offers a more accurate description of the experience of grace, but this doesn't mean that Calvinism has a monopoly on the experience itself--whether in its ordinary or extraordinary manifestations.

At the same time, the witness will interpret the event in light of his prior expectations and preexisting categories, which may place a more specific and sectarian construction on the event than the event itself presented to the witness.

What, for example, are we to make of someone like Teresa of Avila? Maybe she was a liar, but she doesn't strike me as the type. Maybe she was self-deluded, but she doesn't strike me as the type. At the same time, her explanations would be "redshifted" to the Catholic end of the spectrum, since that's all she knew.

Allow me to use a personal example. Back in my 20s, I had a series of "encounters" which, at the time, struck me as both paranormal and diabolical. Years later, when I was doing research, I stumbled across a well-documented phenomenon called Old-Hag syndrome (it goes by other names as well). This was a perfect description of my experience.

And I found, in reading about it, that there is a tie-in between Old-Hag syndrome and ufology, viz., alien abductions. Now, before I studied this, I had dismissed ufology along the usual psycho-sociological lines. And I think that analysis is still valid in many cases.

But I can now see how someone who had an experience of Old-Hag syndrome could reinterpret that experience according to categories supplied by ufology. Indeed, this can be self-reinforcing. We've all been raised on SF. So someone has an experience. He construes his experience according to ufology. That's how it gets started. Over time, this interpretive grid becomes canonical, so that others with the same experience automatically construe their "encounter" the same way since that is the nearest available interpretation offered them when they do online research and stumble across ufology support groups.

There may be a genuine paranormal phenomenon underlying this "encounter," but the particular construction they put on their experience is underdetermined by the phenomenon itself, and is, instead, provided by the pop culture and their fellow "abductees." In former times, they would have construed the same experience as diabolical rather than extraterrestrial. And I suspect that many "Marian" apparitions operate the same way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Recently, the question of “block-logic came up for discussion. Marvin Wilson has appealed to “block-logic” as an argument against Reformed theological method. Since I happen to own a copy of Wilson’s book, it is worthwhile to revisit this issue, assessing Wilson’s view separately and directly, minus the interference of a middleman.

I would have brought this up earlier, but due to technical difficulties, I was in computer hiatus for about a month. I’ll begin by excerpting what I take to be the gist of Wilson’s argument:


Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine.

Let us turn, then, to some of the many examples of block logic found throughout Scripture. The book of Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but it also says that God hardened it (Exod 8:15; cf. 7:3). The prophets teach that God is both wrathful and merciful (Isa 45:7; Hab 3:2). The NT refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Jn 1:29,36; Rev 5:5). Hell is described as both “blackest darkness” and the “fiery lake” (Jude 13; Rev 19:20). In terms of salvation, Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will ever drive away,” yet no one can come “unless the Father draws him” (Jn 6:37,44). To find life you must lose it (Mt 10:39). When you are weak, then you are strong (2 Cor 12:10). The way up (exaltation) is the way down (humility) (Lk 14:11). “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated (Rom 9:13; cf. Mal 1:3).

Upon a more careful reading of the biblical text one can often observe that the Bible views one block from the perspective of divine transcendence—God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”—and the other from a human point of view—“Pharaoh hardened his heart” (Exod 4:21; 7:3,13; 8:15). The same is often true of scriptures which deal with themes of predestination/election and freewill/human freedom.

Samuel Sandmel’s discussion is particularly helpful…”The Jewish view—we might call it providence—never concluded that a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God’s omnipotence and mercy…Unless God’s proposed destiny for a man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alternation is nonsensical.”

Neither God nor his Word may be easily contained in a box for logical or scientific analysis. Both God and his Word have a sovereign unpredictability that defies rational, human explanation. The Christian dogmatic tradition has much to learn from the Jewish community at this point, particularly in its attempt to understand Jesus and Paul.

In this connection, Jewish biblical scholar Pinchas Lapide writes that…[Jesus] would certainly have detested as arrogant blasphemy any attempt to unravel and neatly systematize the mysteries of God.

In a similar context, Lapide reinforces the above point by commenting on Gentile Christians who try to squeeze Jesus and his paradoxes into a “logical straightjacket.” Says Lapide, “He [Jesus] is still protesting, ‘I am not cleverly-thought-out book; I am a human being, with all the inherent contradictions.’” Lapide’s point is well taken. It drives the Christian back to the Gospels to consider anew such saying as Mt 10:34, in which the “Prince of Peace” (Mt 5:9; cf. Isa 9:6-7), says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

To the Jew, the deed was always more important than the creed…Neither did he feel compelled to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable.

It is our conclusion that the Church’s propensity for categorizing or methodologically organizing great theological systems of thought is at best risky business.

Our Father Abraham (Eerdmans 1998), 150-153.


Okay, let’s go back through all this piece-by-piece, beginning a few general observations

1. Wilson is an ecumenist. That’s why he wrote the book in the first place. So he has an agenda. This doesn’t mean that we can dismiss his arguments out of hand. But he does not come to the data as a disinterested exegete.

In particular, it is necessary for Wilson to take the church down a few notches in order to narrow the distance between the church and the synagogue.

2. In addition to his ecumenical subtext, Wilson also has a theological ax to grind. It is obvious that he is hostile to Calvinism, and he uses his examples of block-logic as a pretext to disprove Calvinism.

Again, that doesn’t mean that we a free to dismiss his claims without benefit of argument. But he isn’t concerned with block-logic qua block-logic, but as a club to take a whack at Calvinism.


i) The facile appeal to “paradox” and the like is, of course, popular in liberal and evangelical theology alike. In the case of evangelical theology, this serves an apologetic purpose. If you can’t win by means of logic, you can achieve a stalemate by the opportunistic appeal to paralogic.

My point is not to deny that there is a dimension of mystery to the ways of God. But the ready appeal to paradox is not substitute for exegesis. If sound exegesis should yield a paradoxical result, so be it. But much more often, paradox is introduced to prejudge and preempt unwelcome exegesis.

In addition, the dialectical theologian suffers from the same unprincipled selectivity as the relativist. He is more than happy to use logic to prove his point when his point is provable, but he abandons logic when the very same logic would disprove his point. Frequently, then, paradox is a pious fraud for a rather unscrupulous selectivity.

ii) The Bible was written to be understood. Scripture is the revelation of man’s duty to God and to his fellow man. It is our duty to believe what is true and to disbelieve what is false. And it is our further duty, where feasible, to act in accordance with our belief. You cannot act on a paradox, as Wilson uses the term, for a paradox would present you with mixed signals.

iii) Calvinism is not attempting to predict or second-guess God’s will. Rather, Reformed theology is taking God’s revealed will as its point of departure. We are not putting God in a box: God is putting us in a box—for our own safekeeping.

iv) For all his talk of paradox, Wilson seems not to know what a paradox is. In particular, he fails to draw an elementary distinction between a literary paradox and a conceptual paradox. A literary paradox is a rhetorical device designed to express the truth in a provocative fashion. It is true on one level, but false on another, and the duty of the reader is to decrypt the truth-claim by discerning the intended level of meaning.

v) Imagine how much fun a liberal would have with Wilson’s glib invocation of paradox. He could easily relativize the prescriptions and proscriptions, affirmations and denials of Scripture by pitting one against the other and playing both ends off against the middle. Yes, the Bible forbids adultery, sodomy, and bestiality, but this must be held in creative tension with what the Bible has to say about the love of God and neighbor-love.

4. Should we assume that Jewish liberals like Lapide and Sandmel, who are ultimately and fundamentally hostile to the Christian faith, enjoy some unique insight and authority on the meaning of the NT? For example, is Jesus just another human being, with all the attendant contradictions? In what sense is a sinless and impeccable Savior, even in his humanity, riddled with inherent contradictions? What does this say about Wilson’s Christology?

Let us also remember that these men are children of the Enlightenment, spiritual progeny of Moses Mendelssohn. Their intellectual ethos is a world apart from Jesus and the Apostles—much less OT times.

Again, that doesn’t mean that we are absolved of considering their claims. But to blindly defer to their judgment is simply naïve. Christians can read the Talmud too, and have done so—including such Reformed scholars as Lightfoot, Gill, and Duncan.

5. On the face of it, Wilson’s description of historical theology is ill-informed at the very point where it needs to be well-informed regarding the long history of Jewish philosophical theology and its impact on Scholastic theology and beyond (e.g., Philo, Saadia, Gabirol, Costa ben Luca, Halevi, Isaac Israeli Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, Spinoza).

6. Wilson has a very low view of the church. He almost treats 2000 years of church history as a wrong turn. Does he think of gentiles as squatters on hallowed ground? No doubt the church has much to learn from the synagogue. And the synagogue has much to learn from the church.


i) It is almost funny how libertarians argue against Calvinism. Election and predestination of explicit biblical categories. By contrast, freewill is not a biblical category at all. Rather, the libertarian regards this faculty as a presupposition of moral incumbency. Unlike election and predestination, which you can actually find in Scripture, freewill is not something you can find in Scripture. Rather, it is something the libertarian brings to Scripture. So the burden of proof lies entirely upon the libertarian, not the Calvinist. The Calvinist is beginning where Scripture begins--with Scriptural categories. The onus is on the libertarian to show that there is something else in Scripture which mitigates the force of the predestinarian passages.

ii) Scripture does not treat the will of God and the will of man as equitable cofactors. In the Gospel of John, the human response is traced by to the will of God, in terms of whom he chooses to draw or harden (e.g. Jn 6; 12; 17). Likewise, in Rom 9-11, the human response is contingent on God’s plan and providence. A Calvinist is lifting his harmonistic principle direct from the pages of Scripture, where the human will is subordinated to the divine will. We are not putting God in a box. Rather, we are taking God as his word.

iii) All that Scripture assumes is that man is able to entertain hypothetical situations, to grasp the moral and practical consequences of each action, and to take appropriate action if he is so inclined. A sinner was free to do the right thing had he wanted to do the right thing. But he was not free to choose what he wanted to do. He was, rather, in bondage to an evil heart.

8. It is quite unscriptural to say that the deed is more important than the creed. What’s the difference between a good deed and a misdeed? You can only do the right thing if you know the difference between right and wrong in the first place. You can only do the truth if you know the truth. Certainly the Bible has no use for a deedless creed. But neither has it any use for a creedless deed. In fact, there is no such thing as a creedless deed. Behavior is belief in action. It is pretty pathetic when an Evangelical teacher like Wilson can indulge in such breezy and morally disreputable principles.

9. It is misleading and quite inaccurate to set up a contrast between the divine and human perspectives in Scripture. This is like setting up a contrast between a novelist and his storybook characters. Now the novel will, indeed, present the viewpoint of the characters. But it will do so from editorial viewpoint of the novelist himself. Scripture gives us the divine perspective, not only on God, but also on man. This is what God thinks of man.

10. To speak of reconciling the irreconcilable begs the question. To say that we should make no attempt to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable teachings is to canonize a snap judgment, as if our first impression were sacrosanct. Now, to begin with, paradox is person-variable. The examples that strike Wilson as paradoxical may not strike someone else as paradoxical. And this brings us to the next point. Wilson is confounding his subjective impression with the objective sense of Scripture.

A paradox is a relation between two assertions. Scripture does not assert a paradox. Rather, a paradox is a relation between two assertions of Scripture. The teaching of Scripture lies in the respective assertions, and not in our person-variable impression of whether they generate a paradox.

11. For Sandmel to claim that a fixed future would contradict God’s omnipotence and mercy is not a claim which he derives from the teaching of Scripture—to judge by Wilson’s quote. No exegetical argument is offered in support of this claim.

What we have, rather, is Sandmel’s theory of what of is implied by predestination, on the one hand, and divine freedom, on the other. This is not an interpretation of Scripture, but instead, Sandmel’s interpretation of the concept of predestination in relation to the concept of divine freedom.

And, frankly, his theory fails to survive rational scrutiny. If the future were fated in some way independent of God nature and will, then that would, indeed, infringe on his sovereignty. But if the future is predetermined because God himself has predetermined the course of future events, then it is nonsensical to say that this infringes on God’s freedom of action, for the fixity of the future is, in that case, the tangible transcript of God’s freedom to choose.

Sandmel’s objection would only make sense if he believes in a finite, fickle, and fallible God who is riddled by doubts and second thoughts about his plan for the world. Or perhaps Sandmel doesn’t believe that God even has a plan for the world. The world is just a lab experiment, a chemical reaction.

Likewise, Sandmel’s claim that predestination and prayer are nonsensical is not something given in Scripture itself. There is nowhere in Scripture in which his claim is taught, either expressly or implicitly.

Rather, this is only his theory of what preconditions must be in place for there to be petitionary prayer. And notice that he doesn’t even offer a rational argument for his claim. He merely posits a nonsensical relation between the two and leaves it at that. And he seems to be wholly ignorant of arguments to the contrary in Thomism and in Calvinism.

What we have in Wilson, as well as his Jewish authorities, is a shallow, knee-jerk reaction which makes a virtue of superficiality—as if our initial, unthinking, unreflective impression should be the rule of faith. And this appears to be seconded by a studied ignorance of a preexisting literature to the contrary.

12. BTW, notice that there is nothing in Wilson’s argument, such as it is, which is based on the psycholinguistic conditioning of the Hebrew language, per se.

Moving, now, from the general to the specific, let us examine his exegetical examples, one-by-one:

1. “The book of Exodus says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but it also says that God hardened it (Exod 8:15; cf. 7:3).”

What we have here is a simple cause-and-effect relation. Exod 8:15 says that Pharaoh hardened his heart in fulfillment of God’s hardening process, which God had announced in advance of the fact (4:21; 7:3). These two units fit together in a perfectly rational and harmonious pattern of promise and fulfillment, cause and effect. Their relation is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s.

2. “The prophets teach that God is both wrathful and merciful (Isa 45:7; Hab 3:2).”

This is only a paradox if you insist, in simple-minded fashion, that God is both wrathful and merciful at the same time with respect to the same object. But the Bible itself is guilty of no such simplistic reasoning.

It distinguishes between God mercy towards the elect and his wrath upon the reprobate. It distinguishes between his retributive judgment upon the reprobate, and his remedial punishment of the elect—which is an expression of divine mercy. It distinguishes between the way in which he views people in Adam and how he views them in Christ.

3. “The NT refers to Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Jn 1:29,36; Rev 5:5).”

This betrays a terribly wooden handling of figurative language. A metaphor is a picturesque analogy. It assumes a literal point of commonality between one object and its analogue. And t also makes due allowance for various points of disanalogy in the relation.

To compare one metaphor with another commits a level-confusion, for the writers of Scripture never intended to coordinate their figures of speech. To compare a metaphor with the object for which it stands is a first-order relation; to compare one metaphor with another metaphor is a second-order relation. The Bible writers don’t operate at that level of abstraction.

Each theological metaphor has its own literary history, its own context and connotations. No, you can’t just map one metaphor onto another, but that has nothing to do with block logic. It has, rather, to do with the difference between literal and figurative discourse, as well as the unique history and thematic development of each theological metaphor.

Even so, it would be quite possible to harmonize the sheepish metaphor with the leonine metaphor if we isolate and identify what each of these literally and distinctively signifies. These are only disharmonious if, like Wilson, one chooses to single out the incidental physical attributes of each which were never intended to count in the analogical relation.

4. “Hell is described as both ‘blackest darkness’ and the ‘fiery lake’ (Jude 13; Rev 19:20).”

This is even more inept than #3. It commits the same fallacy as #3, but adds yet another blunder by juxtaposing one writer’s figurative usage with another writer’s. But if there were such a thing as block-logic, it could not be attested by taking two different authors who may be ignorant of each other’s usage. At most, it could only be attested by showing that the same author reasons in self-contained units of thought.

5. “In terms of salvation, Jesus said, ‘whoever comes to me I will ever drive away,’ yet no one can come ‘unless the Father draws him”(Jn 6:37,44).

Here we have, once again, a simple cause-and-effect relation. If God does the drawing, then those whom he draws will come in response to his irresistible initiative. Their coming is the necessary effect of his causal action in drawing them to himself. Why do they come? Because he draws them. Why does he draw them? To make them come. And, of course, he wouldn’t draw them to himself in order to drive them away. Absent his action, they are already aloof. He draws them to bring them to himself.

This relation is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s. What is there in this lucidly logical and transparent transaction that Wilson finds so difficult to figure out?

The problem is, in part, that appeal to paradox becomes addictive. You lose all mental discipline, all incentive to think through a problem. Indeed, you begin to see a problem where none exists.

The motive is not to solve problems, but multiply difficulties in order to justify your repudiation of certain disagreeable doctrines. If you dislike the sovereignty of God, you invoke the universal solvent of a “paradox” to excuse your rebellious unbelief.

6. “To find life you must lose it (Mt 10:39).”

This is a good example of Wilson’s failure to distinguish between literary and conceptual paradox. What we have here is a case of literary, not conceptual, paradox--with a double entendre on the meaning of “life.” To find eternal life you must forfeit your mortal life.

7. “When you are weak, then you are strong (2 Cor 12:10).”

This is the same thing as #6. We are weak, but God is strong, and our infirmity sets the stage to dramatize the surpassing power of God’s grace. Has Wilson never read 2 Cor 12 in context?

8. “The way up (exaltation) is the way down (humility) (Lk 14:11).”

Once more, this is a literary paradox—a rhetorical device. If we humble ourselves in this life, we will be exalted in the life to come; if we exalt ourselves in this life, we will be cast down in the life to come. That expresses the literal and commonplace principle in Biblical ethics of the eschatological reversal of fortunes, viz., the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

9. “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated” (Rom 9:13; cf. Mal 1:3).

How do these two “units of thought” not fit together in any “rational or harmonious pattern”?

If God said that “Jacob have I loved, and Jacob have I hated,” then that would indeed, present a paradox. But there is nothing even apparently self-contradictory about God harboring different attitudes towards different objects. This is only illogical to an illogical mind like Wilson’s.

10. “Mt 10:34, in which the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Mt 5:9; cf. Isa 9:6-7), says, ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’

This reiterates his tone-deaf ear for figurative language. But beyond that incorrigible fault, it systematically bungles the real meaning of Isa 9:6.

i) In Biblical usage, a “prince” is a warrior king (e.g., Gen 21:22; Dan 8:11,25).

ii) “Prince of peace” forms a synonymous parallel” to “mighty God,” which is a title for the divine warrior.

iii) This picks up on the martial imagery of vv4-5, with their dual allusion to the Exodus and the defeat of Midian at the hands of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts.

iv) The motif of the messianic warrior king in 59:17-18; 63:1-6 is a carryover from 9:1-7.

The title therefore denotes a figure that brings peace by means of military conquest. First there is war, then there is peace. Peace is the end-result of war, of vanquishing his enemies and subjugating his adversaries on the field of battle.

That’s the picture in Isaiah. It is, of course, largely figurative, yet the depiction is not without a literal element of truth as well. For God is the Judge of all the living and the dead, and at the end of the church age he will forcibly defeat and despoil the ungodly.

You might suppose that a man with a doctorate in Semitics from Brandeis would be sensitive to literary imagery, be able to read a text in context, know how to handle figures of speech.

Wilson fails to do this, not because he can’t, but because he won’t—because it would get in the way of his agenda. At the end of the day, all he offers is not block-logic in Scripture, but block-logic in himself—for Wilson’s thought process fails to cohere together in any rational or harmonious whole.


Marvin Wilson informs me that he is not a Messianic Jew. Rather, he is "a Christian who worships at an evangelical, Congregational Church" (private email, 4/27/05). In that event, he doesn't bring any insider's perspective on the Jewish mindset. This doesn't mean, of course, that his position can be discounted without further ado, but it does mean that he is a gentile trying to get inside the Hebrew mind, and in that respect, he has no inherent advantage over any other gentile Bible scholar.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

No to God

There are many popular introductions to the Catholic faith. Most of these are written by members of the laity or priesthood. As such, the writers have no real authority to speak for the RCC.

But recently I was reading a popular introduction to the Catholic faith by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver. As a member of the magisterium, he is an official spokesman for the RCC.

There are, of course, degrees of authority in Catholic teaching. Presumably, though, he is a representative voice for Catholicism.

On page 17 he tells the reader that God “has a plan for us,” Living the Catholic Faith (Charis Books 2001). Now there’s a statement that any Calvinist would be happy to affirm. But on the very next page, he says that “Mary could have said ‘no’ to the Holy Spirit.”

Think about that for a moment. For more than a moment. Think long and hard about that. Where does that put the plan of salvation?

For centuries, in type, promise, and prophecy, God had laid the groundwork for the Messiah. From the protevangelion (Gen 3:15), through the flood, and the covenant with Abraham, and the seed of promise, and the patriarchs, and the Exodus, and the covenant with Moses, and the sacrificial system, and the covenant with David, not to mention the Messianic prophecies of Job and Joseph and Balaam, David, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Malachi, to name of few, as well as the Exile and restoration—and yet all that age-long preparation could have been negated by a single word from a single woman: “No!”

With one solitary word it was within her own power to damn the whole human race, herself included. Or maybe she was exempt, give the Immaculate Conception.

This is what freewill really means. It means “no.” It means “no” to God.

Archbishop Chaput is not saying anything outlandish from the standpoint of Catholic theology. For in Catholic dogma, Mary is the exemplar of synergism. Just consider what Vatican II has to say about the role of Mary in the economy of redemption:


Wherefore she is hailed as preeminent and as a wholly unique member of the Church, and as its type and outstanding model in faith and charity.

Thus the daughter of Adam, Mary, consenting to the word of God, became the Mother of Jesus.

Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience.

Thus the Blessed Virgin…associated herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim which was born of her.

Thus, in a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace. This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect.

Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, A. Flannery, ed. (Liturgical Press 1979), 414-419.


The only difference between Vatican II and Archbishop Chaput is that he cuts to the chase, summarizing the point in a brief, blunt sentence.

Mind you, Vatican II, in the very same context, speaks of the “predestination of the Blessed Virgin as Mother of God,” ibid. 418. Yet there is no place for predestination when the creature can negate the plan of God. Indeed, there is no room for foreknowledge when the creature can either say “yes” or “no” to God.

What we have here is a twisted and perverted version of covenant theology. For, in Scripture, the fate of the human race is, in a sense, bound up with the fate of certain individuals—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and—of course—our Lord. The fortunes of mankind in general, or the elect in particular, rise and fall in the fortunes of their federal head.

But with a world of difference. In Calvinism, a man may say “no” to the law of God, but not to the plan of God. And even when he says “no” to the law of God, that, too, subserves the plan of God. Although our destiny is bound up with the destiny of our federal head, his destiny and ours are both predestined in the eternal purpose of God. No man can negate the decree of God Almighty.

I have taken Mariolatry as my point of departure. But Chaput’s essential position is by no means limited to the details of Catholic dogma. Any libertarian is committed to the same basic proposition. Mary could have said “no” to God. Noah could have said “no” to God. Abraham could have said “no” to God. Moses could have said “no” to God. David could have said “no” to God. One or all could say “no” to God, and thereby damn mankind.

So where, again, would that leave the plan of salvation? Must God recruit an alternate or understudy for Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, or Mary? In that exigency, God would also need to recall all copies of Scripture and issue emended prophecies. Can’t you just hear it now?

“”Hey, all you folks down there. That’s right, this is God talking. I’ve been working overtime ever since Mary backed out on me. Said it would ruin her figure! Did I say Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? Scratch that! There’s gonna be a change of venue. Check back with me on that. I’m working on Topeka Kansas. Oh, and that business about the 70 weeks. There’s been a last minute cancellation. Sorry ‘bout that. I’ve gotta nail down Topeka before I can reschedule. Thanks for your patience! Oh…I almost forgot! Did I say the ‘son of David?’ I’m afraid that statement’s inoperative. Messiah’s new name may be Cuthbert or Leroy. I’m negotiating the name-change with a girl in Topeka. She wants a slot with American Idol in exchange for the unplanned pregnancy. If that falls through there’s a girl in Buenos Aires who might be game. If not her, maybe another girl I know in Heshbon. Pray for me, folks! It isn’t easy being God all the time. Sometimes I have to play it by ear, just like the rest of you.”