Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some Wedding Cake Leftovers

(nb: this should be consider part 2 of my earlier post.)

One of the most important times to keep in mind the reality of the wedding cake is in the midst of theological controversy. When discussing theological positions, or in thinking about those with which we disagree, it is important to remember all four layers of the cake, and to remember that we must always work from the bottom up. Let me explain with reference to a current theological brew-ha-ha.

N.T. Wright recently wrote a book on Justification that has caused quite a stir. He departs from the traditional understanding of Justification, and presents the case for a reading now commonly known (at least common to theologians) as the New Perspective on Paul. His book is notable is several regards, but not least for the way it covers all the layers of the cake.

The first half of the book, roughly 125 pages, discusses justification from a systematic theology standpoint. He defines what justification is, what it is not, how it relates to other doctrines (covenant, eschatology, Christology), what the component parts are (imputation, federal headship), etc. As you can see, the systematic discussion of justification is complex, but highly necessary. A few comments on application are interspersed, although that is not really the point of the book. And several of the topics require a discussion of biblical theology.

The second half of the book is dedicated to exegetical theology. In other words, recognizing that his new(ish) interpretation of justification must stand or fall based on the biblical evidence, he spends 125 pages (or so) discussing the key passages in Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans. The discussion of Romans alone receives almost 85 pages.

Whether or not Wright is right about all this is the question for another post, but methodologically, it is quite interesting. Wright has many critics, and many of them have gone to great lengths to point out how Wright is not clearly within the reformed tradition (historical theology), how his theology will have deleterious effects on people's lives (practical theology), or how he has misunderstood the theological categories (systematic theology).

But very few have attacked his understanding on the basis of his exegetical theology. And as Wright is correct to point out, exegesis is the foundation of the theological enterprise, and any critique or accusation of heresy must work from the bottom up. Or again, many are quick to point out that Wright is outside the bounds of the Westminster confession, or that he is far afield from Hodge or Calvin. But Wright is justified in responding - yes that's true, but I'm more in line with the scriptures. (Again, the question of if Wright is right about that claim must wait for another day, but I can appreciate the motivation!) In fact, Wright is now claiming the high ground of Sola Scriptura that the reformation tradition has held so dear.

If we see someone who appears to have a screwy systematic theology, as many have claimed Wright's theology of justification is screwy, then the first thing to do is to examine the foundation. If the foundation of exegesis is caddywompus, then of course the whole cake will be messed up, and we will have our explanation as to why everything looked odd to us. But if, upon examination, the foundation is solid, then we can examine the biblical theology and the systematic theology again with fresh eyes. Perhaps, where we thought the cake was crooked, we were really just holding our heads at a funny angle. Which is another way of saying that if the exegesis is correct, perhaps it is us who was wrong, and we need to adjust our own thinking, rather than accusing the other.

This is the real value of keeping the layers of the cake in order. If we do really believe in Sola Scriptura, that the Bible is the final arbiter of truth, then of course we must always consider potential heresy on the basis of the exegesis. Wright has done all his critics a huge favor in this last book, he has laid all his exegetical cards on the table. They are free for examination. If he is found to have laid a faulty foundation, perhaps misunderstood the historical context, or cherry picked the literary context, misapplied a Greek root-word, then the brew-ha-ha can end, and we will see clearly how this one mistake can transfer all the way up through the layers of theology. But on the other hand, we no longer have the luxury to simply criticize his systematic understanding, or his divergence from historical predecessors. He has tied his theology to the text, and it is to the text we must go.


Ken said...

While I once again greatly appreciate your post, I can't help but wonder if you wrote 777 words only as a framework in which to place the word "caddywompus" (the 778th).

Caddywompus indeed...

Jeff said...

I won't lie, I was pretty happy about my use of 'caddywompus.' Aubrey recently introduced me to the word, and I'm trying to make it a part of my regular vocabulary.

Jeff said...

Also, I'm glad to see you counted the words, and caught the Biblical symbolism inherent in my post.