On being a Reformed, Pauline and Narrative Theologian.

Related Post: Short Comment on N.T. Wright’s Narrative Model

Two false dichotomies:
1) “Pauline” versus “Reformed”
It has been convenient for some New Perspective on Paul (NPP) scholars to pose a false dichotomy between being “Pauline” and being “Reformed”. This dichotomy is misleading because it refuses to acknowledge that Reformed theologians, as children of Martin Luther and John Calvin, are imbue with a profound desire is to think Paul’s thoughts after him when they insist that justification by faith alone and union with Christ is the central and teaching of Pauline soteriology (regardless of whether their critics agree with their theological insight). Likewise, the Reformed critique of NPP arises from a deep concern to uphold the integrity and coherence of Pauline soteriology.

2) “Narrative reading of Scripture” versus “Doctrinal, thematic reading of Scripture.”
N.T. Wright criticizes conservative scholars for formulating doctrines without grounding them on the “biblical story” of God’s advancing kingdom that results in human liberation and final completion of creation because of Christus Victor. His criticism is well taken if his concern is that systematic theology should not be based on abstract, arbitrarily selected “proof-texts” (it is an irony that this misunderstanding arises when critics read “proof-texts” without their context!) However, it would be wrong to direct this criticism at Reformed theology. On the contrary, the defining mark of Reformed theology is its ‘big picture’ synthesis of the Trinitarian soteriology that flows through Creation, Covenant and Redemption.

On the other hand, one wonders whether Wright is no less selective in his theology given how his singular focus on Israel’s failure of covenant vocation, exile and restoration through the messiah leads him to neglect other vital aspects of the biblical story. Reformed theologians appreciate the historical concerns of Wright, but their rejoinder to Wright is that biblical theology needs to move beyond “the stories of Israel” and Israel’s covenant of vocation and stewardship of creation (here Wright personally acknowledges his debt to the founders of Reformed theology). That is to say, soteriology realizes it fullest significance when it is set within the larger narrative of the Trinitarian work of salvation. The quintessence of Reformed covenant theology is its affirmation and assurance to believers that their salvation is rooted in eternity as the work of the Trinitarian covenant.

The covenant of redemption is the eternal self-determination of the blessed Trinity, who wills to communicate the bliss of his triune life to elect sinners through the mediation of Jesus Christ for the glory of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is a faithful conceptual gloss of biblical teaching regarding the eternal appointment of the Son of God, by way of covenant, to become the incarnate redeemer and head of his adopted siblings. Because it faithfully renders the eternal mystery of our salvation, once hidden but now revealed  through the gospel, the doctrine not only orients our understanding of the broader economy of God’s works to its divine source, but it also enables us to perceive that economy in relation to its Trinitarian and Christological ends.

To put the matter in its native biblical idiom: the supreme end of all God’s ways towards his creatures is that the Father’s eternally begotten, eternally beloved Son might be preeminent as the firstborn among many redeemed siblings (Rom. 8:29; Col.1:15-16; Heb. 1:2), “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved’ (Eph.1:6). [Scott R. Swain, “Covenant of Redemption” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology and the Church Catholic (Baker, 2016), pp. 109, 116]

Building on this insight, Reformed theology seeks to weave together various fundamental and complementing biblical themes like “divine sovereignty and human vocation,” “promise and fulfilment”, “covenant and creation, “history of salvation (historia salutis) and order of salvation (ordo salutis)”, “law and obedience of faith,” etc. into a seamless tapestry of the Trinitarian narrative of salvation.

What could be more compelling than a theology that is Reformed, Pauline and grounded in the Trinitarian narrative of salvation?  In contrast, N.T Wright’s version of the biblical story excludes other biblical themes that are equally fundamental for the recovery of the fullness of Trinitarian revelation and salvation. I refer to D.A. Carson’s gentle warnings about the possibility of theological distortion in Wright’s limited version of the biblical story.

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Supplementary Reading: Why N.T. Wright’s Narrative Model Needs a Larger Trinitarian Framework – D.A. Carson Responds to N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (2005).

One of Wright’s great strengths, viz. the careful way he ties his thesis to the Bible’s “story,” opens the door to one of his great weaknesses. The Bible’s “story” for him is central to his understanding of Scripture: whatever else the Bible is, it is story. Israel’s “story” is “fulfilled” in “Jesus’ story.” Yet the exclusiveness of this category to explain how the Bible hangs together rings gentle warning bells. I am sure this is a better category than law (as in the theonomy movement). Yet others trace out the relationships among the covenants, worry away at promise and fulfillment, or use “salvation history” as the controlling vector. Of course, any one of these can “control” the others. But would it not be a richer analysis to show how these and other trajectories intertwine?

The extent to which “story” controls Wright’s thought is clearly seen when he discusses Second Temple Judaism: the Scriptures, he said, “formed the controlling story in which Israel struggled to find its identity and destiny as the covenant people,” and “formed the call to a present obedience . . . through which Israel could respond appropriately to God’s call” (30). Well, yes, I suppose one could say that. But equally, large swaths of Judaism devoted enormous energy to thinking through how law should be worked out in their day, generating new halakah. Again, we are told that modernity challenged “the overarching story of the church” (4). Why word it like this? Why not say that modernity challenged the truth claims of Scripture, and sought to undermine its authority? For transparently, one of the things that goes into making a document authoritative is its reliability, its “truthfulness” in that sense, when it speaks on whatever topic is the focus of its attention. But Wright ignores that facet of authority, so as to focus on the inbreaking kingdom and the Bible’s story. I’m far from saying that all of his emphases are mistaken; but they soon appear distorted and troubling because they are so narrow, so reductionistic.

Moreover, the actual story Wright finds in the Bible is again so narrowly construed as to miss or reduce matters of central importance. We have repeatedly seen how the “story” of God’s advancing kingdom is cast in terms of rescuing human beings and completing creation, or perhaps in terms of defeating the powers of darkness. Not for a moment do I want to reduce or minimize those themes. Yet from what are human beings to be rescued? Their sin, yes; the powers of darkness; yes. But what is striking is the utter absence of any mention of the wrath of God. This is not a minor omission. Section after section of the Bible’s story turns on the fact that God’s image-bearers attract God’s righteous wrath. The entire created order is under God’s curse because of human sin. Sin is not first and foremost horizontal, social (though of course it is all of that): it is vertical, the defiance of Almighty God. The sin which most consistently is said to bring down God’s wrath on the heads of his people or on entire nations is idolatry–the de-godding of God. And it is the overcoming of this most fundamental sin that the cross and resurrection of Jesus achieve. The most urgent need of human beings is to be reconciled to God. That is not to deny that such reconciliation entails reconciliation with other human beings, and transformed living in God’s fallen creation, in anticipation of the final transformation at the time of the consummation of all things. But to speak constantly of the advance of the kingdom without tying kingdom themes to the passion narrative, the way the canonical Gospels do, is a terrible reductionism. To speak a couple of times of the cross in terms of the Christus Victor theme, as Wright does (though without using that expression), is unexceptional; to do so without burning with Paul’s “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), and to show how this is tied in Paul’s thought to the setting aside of God’s wrath, and to the reconciliation of alienated rebels to their Maker, is irresponsible. I know that Tom Wright affirms substitutionary atonement: I have heard him defend it, for instance, from Romans 8:3-4. Yet the massive story of Israel is replete with sacrificial references–e.g. to Passover, to the slaughter of bull and goat on yom kippurim–which are then explicitly said to be fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. Yet not a word on this from Wright. While he berates Luther and the other Reformers for what they do not see, not to mention Spurgeon and assorted brands of “conservatives” and “fundamentalists,” I confess I am more than a little worried by what Wright himself does not see–or, if he does see it, what he barely alludes to. We all have our blind spots, and most of the time I’m glad to be helped to see what Wright sees. But it is highly troubling that what Wright himself does not see lies at least as close to the heart of the gospel, in Paul’s view, as what Wright does see. I would not want to take the step that Wright himself takes at this juncture, when he charges his opponents with stepping away from the authority of Scripture. All I would say is that we not only need to come under the authority of Scripture, and above all of the God whose authority establishes the authority of Scripture, but we must strive with all our might not to do so in such a selective way.

Source: D.A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, (Crossway, 2010), pp. 296-298.

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