Quick Questions For/About Helm

I just expressed appreciation in my last post for what I felt was a very helpful point on Paul Helm’s blog, Helm’s Deep.

I confess I don’t get one thing, however: why does Helm dismiss BT (replacing it with ET!)?

I’d go so far as to maintain that the systematic theological task does not need biblical theology or any of its friends. What we do need is exegetical theology. I gain some encouragement to assert this from something that John Piper says. ‘Behind each of those actions is the assumption that there is something about God’s righteousness that explains why he acts as he does. What is that? I do not ask it for speculative reasons but exegetical ones.’ (63) Exegesis shows (Piper believes) that ‘What we find therefore in the Old Testament and in Paul is that God defines ‘right’ in terms of himself. There is no other standard to consult than his own infinitely worthy being’. (64, Piper’s emphasis).

But Piper doesn’t dismiss BT. In his helpful introduction to The Future of Justification, he observes some problems with BT (namely, that we should not import categories from the historical milieu into our exegesis, thereby distorting it). But he calls BT “an essential part of responsible exegesis and theology” (34). I agree. I think it is helpful to understand Paul and James, for example, on their own terms before trying to fit them together. They must be fit together—and they do fit! But BT is how I get to that fit.

Someone enlighten me as to what Helm is saying!

Paul Helm on John Piper on N.T. Wright

I’m aiming at an early seminary readership (or its equivalent) on this blog, so let me summarize some fairly difficult stuff for my help and, D.V., yours.

Paul Helm has written an appreciative reflection/expansion on two points in John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. I admit that Helm is capable of writing stuff too difficult for me to summarize; but you and I should be able to get this! I’m limiting myself to the first point.

Helm expresses appreciation for Piper’s point that Wright seems to confuse what righteousness does with what it is. Wright confuses these by at times defining righteousness as “covenant faithfulness.” Piper points out that covenant faithfulness is what righteousness does, not what it is.

But why would Wright commit such an error? Helm says Piper has offered a very helpful answer: Wright’s problem, Helm says Piper says (!), is that he views the Bible too much as a story, a narrative. Now, I tell people frequently that they need to understand the Bible’s storyline instead of atomizing it all into discrete propositions (that’s why I recommend using a Bible without verses numbers and why I’ve become more and more interested in Biblical Theology). The Bible is certainly telling a grand Creation-Fall-Redemption story. But notice: a story can tell you only what a righteous person does; it takes propositions to tell you what righteousness is. A story can demonstrate that God has been faithful to His promises. But a story cannot teach, except by implication, that He will be faithful next time. Only a proposition can do that. For Wright’s emphasis on story, see his The New Testament and the People of God and many other of his works.

Another Disclaimer on a Blog Too Full of Them

Now let’s get clear what many conservative Christians don’t: you don’t have to fully agree with someone to profit from his books. A few points on that:

  • Wright has written some very helpful stuff which I just praised on this blog the other day.
  • A very solid conservative theologian, Tom Schreiner, just expressed in an interview deep appreciation for the very narrative emphasis Helm critiques!
  • At least Wright is open about his theological methodology—and aware that he has such a thing!
  • Be fair to Wright: try to understand Helm’s and Piper’s critique before repeating it. =)

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Christ and Culture Revisited: Carson’s Summary of Niebuhr’s Taxonomy (3)

The final three views in Niebuhr’s five-fold taxonomy are all forms of “Christ above culture.”

3. Christ above Culture

Summary: This view, which Niebuhr thinks is the majority position among Christians throughout history, believes that “Christ and the world cannot be simply opposed to each other. Neither can the ‘world’ as culture be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature” (Niebuhr, 117-118). These “synthesists seek a ‘both-and’ solution. They maintain the gap between Christ and culture that the cultural Christian never takes seriously and that the radical does not even try to breech—yet they insist that Christ is as sovereign over the culture as over the church” (Carson, 21).

Exemplars: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas..

Counterargument: “The synthesists simply ‘do not in fact face up to the radical evil present in all human work’ ” (Niebuhr, 148).

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Christ and Culture Revisited: Carson’s Summary of Niebuhr’s Taxonomy (2)

2. The Christ of Culture

Summary: Christians who take this view “seek to maintain community with all believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture” (Niebuhr, 83).

Exemplars (some partial): Gnostics, Abélard, culture-Protestantism, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Schleiermacher, Emerson, F.D. Maurice, Albert Ritschl, Protestant liberalism.

Example: “Formally, Abélard merely quarrels with the church’s way of stating the faith; in reality, ‘he reduces it to what conforms with the best in culture'” (Niebuhr, 90).

Counterarguments: “These cultural Christians have sacrificed too much of what is essential to Christianity…. They ‘take some fragment of the complex New Testament story and interpretation, call this the essential characteristic of Jesus, elaborate upon it, and thus reconstruct their own mythical figure of the Lord’ (109).” “Theirs is a moralism that understands little of grace, because it understands little of the need for grace” (19).

Carson adds in his critique in chapter two that this is not Christianity at all. Gnosticism wasn’t Christian; it was a later parasite on Christianity. And classic Protestant liberalism, despite its (now waning) influence isn’t Christian either.

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Christ and Culture Revisited: Carson’s Summary of Niebuhr’s Taxonomy (1)

Here is a summary of Carson’s summary of what is, in sum, the most influential taxonomy of relationships Christians take to culture. I’m speaking, of course, of H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. And Carson’s book is, of course, Christ and Culture Revisited.

Note: Some exemplars are such only partially, and some are added by Carson to Niebuhr’s list.

1. Christ against Culture

Summary: This view “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects the cultures’ claims to loyalty” (Niebuhr, 45).

For the Christian, political life must be shunned, and so also military service, philosophy, and the arts. Of course, learning is important for the believer, so “learning literature is allowable for believers” (55, citing [Tertullian’s] On Idolatry x), but not teaching it, since teaching it enmeshes the teacher in commending the literature, with the result that one ends up commending and affirming “the praises of idols interspersed therein” (55)

Exemplars: Tertullian, some Mennonite groups, early Quakers, later writings of Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Stanley Hauerwas (and, says Niebuhr, Revelation and 1 John).

Counterarguments: “In almost every utterance Tertullian makes evident that he is a Roman, so nurtured in the legal tradition and so dependent on philosophy that he cannot state the Christian case without their aid” (Niebuhr, 69-70).

  1. “There is a tendency in such radical movements to use ‘reason’ to refer to the methods and contest of knowledge within the ‘culture,’ and ‘revelation’ to refer to their own Christian faith.”
  2. “These radicals give the impression that sin abounds in the culture, while light and piety attach themselves to Christians,” but life isn’t that simple.
  3. “This position often seeks to defend itself with new laws, new rules of conduct, that are so unbending and so precise that grace itself seems demoted to a second or third tier.”
  4. “The ‘knottiest theological problem’ with this position, according to Niebuhr, is ‘the relation of Jesus Christ to the creator of nature and Governor of history as well as to the Spirit immanent in creation and in the Christian community’ (80-81).”