I sat there, soaking it all in. My professor, with a voice full to the brim with boredom, introduced us to the controversy that wouldn’t die. Often described as The New Perspective on Paul, he guided us through a church fight over a single word.
Now I understand why he was over it.
At the time, I was consumed with zeal.
- It changes everything!
- It isn’t so much new as it is a rediscovering!
- How much of Protestant theology is predicated on a mistranslation?
Now? I’m exhausted just thinking of what to write here. Because this is both a meaningless fight and one foundational to how we actually function as Christians. So…no pressure.
In or Of: or Adventures in Missing the Point
Of course we go to Paul because he is one of the contours of the salvation debate. He links the righteousness of the follower to faith. And he does so to the opposition of works.
Then to James, who links faith with works.
Fast forward some 1400 years and we find a Catholic priest who comes up with the first new perspective on Paul. He argues that the lynchpin of the gospel is an individual’s personal faith. This priest, Martin Luther, ignites the Great Reformation around this question. He redefines our understanding of faith and works: both in theology and practice.
Several 20th Century theologians and Paul scholars, led by E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright argue for a new New Perspective. The work settles around a different translation of the phrase from Luther’s.
The debate is whether we should see it as
- A person’s faith in Christ which leads to righteousness or
- The faithfulness of Christ which leads to our righteousness.
Many well-meaning Christians have made this into the fight of the century and claimed the sky was falling. While others dismiss the new work and see Luther’s 500 year-old revision as the “traditional” approach.
This fight, like most church fights, comes off in the end looking like a battle over an animal living in a single tree while the forest is threatened with fire.
Is Jesus Important?
The crux of the gospel as received by those first followers wasn’t born in the embers of a theology, painstakingly formed like blown glass.
They thought of themselves as followers of Jesus, and were known as Followers of the Way.
They saw in themselves that discipleship of the apostles; a discipleship of imitating and learning from Jesus. Of going the way of the Messiah. Pursuing more than a better understanding of God, but the building of God’s Kin-dom come.
Doing and being were always intertwined. Works and faith aren’t in opposition. Any attempt to make precedent of one over the other is bad theology.
If justification is the sport, your whole life becomes the game.
And being like our rabbi, Jesus is how we know how to play it.
The trouble with making the Christian pursuit all about a faith in Jesus is it becomes one-dimensional. We make that whole ballgame be about our brains, a creed, and our ability to make sense of it all. We can say
I believe in Jesus! He was born of a virgin!, crucified, was raised, and ascended!
And in saying these words out loud we’re suddenly promised eternal salvation like a magical incantation.
Even the most ardent supporters of Calvinism or Reformed theology struggle with how logic and philosophy inform such a confession. That if we pick this side, we’re left saying this, this, and this must be true! and also that, that, and that must be false! While ignoring the lived experience.
This vision of faith seems much like picking one side of a riddle and then developing a theology around justifying that choice.
Of course, picking the other side of the riddle is no good.
Can God make a rock too heavy to lift? You get to decide: does God have the power to create or the might to lift? Go ahead. Choose. But know that making a choice is buying into a constructed paradox: a riddle masquerading as logic.
You can choose, but both answers lose.
No theology should justify not giving a damn.
I’m willing to give most theologies a fair hearing, but they need to at least past the smell test. I’ll take a whiff and see if that thing is even edible.
Any system of belief that hints at the suggestion that we can misbehave and it’s all good is really foul theology.
So what should we believe?
We’ve gotta believe that God does give a damn about you. About the whole you. The you when you fall down and when you get up. When you screw up and when you ask for forgiveness. There’s a reason confession has been a sacramental part of the church far longer than any part of Luther’s theology. They saw Jesus as taking on the mantle of John the Baptizer, who came preaching a gospel of repentance and reconciliation.
The question isn’t about Jesus being cool with screwing around. It’s about health.
Like my kids who are far happier when their bedtimes are the same as yesterday. And when we’ve restricted their screen time and kept them away from too much sugar.
They are not only healthier, but happier and more themselves.
For many of us, the choice is less about a theory of grace and more about learning what it means to live a healthier life in Christ.
* * *
This is from a series on Choices. We have plenty more choices to make!