The Changing of Lenses

Many who study theology on a regular basis would be aware of the constant debate hovering around the theological word justification. We have on one side the more traditional, reformed view of justification and on the other side what has been termed the new Pauline perspective (NPP for short). If you are not aware of the debate, here is a brief overview I posted just over a year ago.

In his newest treatise on justification, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, one thing Tom Wright begins in his introductory chapter is a challenge to our theology, mainly that we read Scripture through the lens of Luther and Calvin more than that of Paul and the first century theological setting. Listen to these words:

This is what has happened, I suggest, in the uses to which Paul has been put in the centuries following the Reformation. Let us grant for the moment that Luther and Calvin (for all their major differences – another point often glossed over in the hasty and sometimes angry anti-new-perspective movement) really did hear a true overtone from what Paul was saying – say, the E which forms the fifth of the chord based on the pedal A. What has then happened? Things have not stood still within Protestantism. All kinds of movements have come and gone. The eighteenth-century Continental Enlightenment was, in some respects, a thoroughly Protestant movement, getting rid of authoritarian religion and asking demystifying, rational, historical questions. The Romantic movement, in reaction against dry Enlightenment rationalism, carried a further strain of Protestant sentiment, this time insisting that what mattered was the inward feeling, not the outward action. Different kinds of pietism have sprung up, flourished, mutated and left their legacy within all of this. Finally (this, of course, cuts several stories exceedingly short) there has been existentialism, looking to authentic human experience as both the key to, and the yardstick for, genuine faith. There is no such thing as a pure return to the Reformers. They themselves have been heard and reheard repeatedly in echo chambers that they would not have recognized. And their own readings of Paul have been passed on through those echo chambers to the point where the voice of the apostle has become all but unrecognizable. All the notes on the piano are jangling away merrily, and any attempt to discern which pedal note was struck first appears hopeless.

Unless, of course, we return to history. History was where Paul looked to see the roots of the story whose climax he believed was Jesus Christ. History is where we have to go if, as we say, we want to listen to Scripture itself rather than either the venerable traditions of later church leaders or the less venerable footnotes of more recent scholars. For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions. (p36-37)

What I noticed in my own life is how difficult it is to make a shift from one theological perspective to another. Of course, we must guard against doing so because it is the cool thing, for it is very hip to do so these days. But, especially with pet doctrines, it is like having surgery when it comes to seeing one’s theological perspective change. But, as for surgery, though it can have risks and can leave you sore for a while, we know it is ultimately helpful in correcting what is wrong with the body.

Still, it is hard to deconstruct our theology to allow for change, good change that is. I use the word deconstruct very cautiously because I know it is a word paraded by extremely liberal scholars. Some can deconstruct so much that nothing of substance is left. That is not my desire at all.

For example, I find it extremely difficult to not read Romans through a more reformed, Calvinistic and Augustinian lens. So very hard! Such doctrines like the more reformed view of justification, original sin, election, etc, jump off the page at me. They are so clearly there, I tell myself. Right? But I am becoming more and more convinced that that particular lens (or lenses) is too cloudy. Not everything must go, but some must go. The lens must be cleared and cleaned just a bit more (or possibly a lot more).

I am by no means suggesting that N.T. Wright has all the answers with regards to this one issue of justification. I simply quote him to emphasise the importance of moving towards a lens correction, rather than putting on some glasses that are a bit cloudy and cracked to start with. Well, those cracked and cloudy glasses are already on. So maybe the illustration is that I need a repair, not just a wipe of a smudge.

But, unfortunately, too many believe they have the correct lens on already. And now, because they are convinced they wear the clearest of lenses, those of the line that were once persecuted have now become the persecutors (and I plan to write about this topic sometime soon). Think of Luther’s engagement with the Romans Catholic church of his day. Now think of some of the new Pauline proponents of today. Hence, the once persecuted moving into the camp of persecutors themselves.

Change is hard, especially with doctrine and theology. Especially with doctrine and theology for studied theologians, scholars and pastors. But, I suppose that when we only know things in part now (1 Cor 13:8-12), we must expect change to happen – both small and significant. It’s our lot in life.

So, with Pauline theology, maybe we should be willing to chew over the ‘new’ perspective (it’s not actually ‘new’). And with our views on the roles of women, our understanding of Scripture, our perspectives on science, and a hole host of other issues, maybe we ought to consider that there might just be one small crack here or fingerprint there on our lens, which could even lead to majorly skewed eyesight with these issues. Perhaps.

I don’t simply challenge others. I want to join in as well. I am convinced I can’t see very clearly.

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4 thoughts on “The Changing of Lenses

  1. But, especially with pet doctrines, it is like having surgery when it comes to seeing one’s theological perspective change. But, as for surgery, though it can have risks and can leave you sore for a while, we know it is ultimately helpful in correcting what is wrong with the body.

    Scott L,

    I continue to go under the knife on a lot of issues, not least Paul’s doctrine of Justification.

    And of course, Wright and others don’t have all the answers. But one thing Wright made clear is that we shouldn’t stop with the Reformers, which is the problem with Piper and others.

  2. Yes, this isn’t just about the NPP nor that Wright has all the answers on justification or the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. I simply wanted to use his words to springboard into the challenge to recongise our lenses need repairing, cleaning and/or changing on many issues.

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