Tagged: N. T. Wright

Anthony Flew’s flight from atheism – review of “There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”

The late Anthony Flew (11 February 1923 – 8 April 2010) was a philosopher and something of a genius. He was an atheist philosopher for most of his career and a notable one. By notable, I mean he even invented new arguments against God’s existence, writing many books. However, with increasing advances in science and philosophical arguments for God’s existence, Flew changed his mind to become something of a Deist. This book is the story of how this happened.

Flew’s oft-repeated matra is “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and maintains the importance of being open to changing your mind if the evidence blows that way.  I appreciated his candor on this.

The book begins somewhat autobiographically with good bits of philosophy thrown in, an aspect I really liked. I had some schooling on philosophy and philosophers reading this book. He has great discussions on free-will and determinism, as well as some overview of his past debates and writings, all telling the story of his intellectual journey.

Then he launches into the reasons why he changed his mind:  His first reason is mainly the argument from design. The new findings of science on the complexity of life and the ultimate rationality of the universe seen in the laws of nature were major proofs of a rational Designer for Flew. Another was the so-called fine-tuning argument. This says that the universe and its laws are specifically designed and tuned for human life on earth. He then goes on into the problem of the origin of life and the complexity of the DNA molecule and how impossible it is for life to come about by itself. He proceeds from there to the cosmological argument (that due to the law of cause-and-effect, the universe must have a cause, a starter for the big bang would most reasonably be God), and its further development by philosophers David Conway and Richard Swinburne that he found very sound. Flew wraps it up defending the coherency of God as an explanation and a few conclusions.

The two appendices are excellent. One is by Roy Abraham Varghese, who helped Flew write this book (Flew was in his eighties at the time), interacting succinctly and powerfully with the “New Atheists” arguments. This alone is excellent and he broke some new ground for me. The second appendix is by N.T. Wright on the arguments for the self-revelation of God in human history through the resurrection of Jesus. Flew doesn’t believe that God has revealed himself in any way (Deist), but he thought Wright’s argument was fascinating and “the one to beat.” While Flew dismissed it as deficient for him at that time, he was still open to the possibility. But again, Wright had a very hard-hitting article for how short it was.

I’m being vague though – it’s better just to read it. It impressed me enough for a 5/5. This is among the top-ten books I’d recommend to anyone (not just eggheads). It’s only a 213 page simple, yet complete, sum-total of the arguments for God’s existence. Before people make definitive decisions about theism and atheism, this sort of book is the minimum that should be read on the pro-God side, and may be all you need for this side (The door-stop books Swinburne and Plantiga write simply cannot be read and understood by everyone… or rather, your average person just won’t). It also won Christianity Today’s book award, so I’m not alone.

It should be noted though, Flew was not a Christian or a believer in an afterlife. Nonetheless, Christians find it useful (not surprisingly), as would Muslims, Jews, Zoroasterians, etc. But really,  I think anyone would find it thought-provoking on life’s most important question – is there a God? It’s worth the investigation.

Quotes:

“Progress in philosophy is different from progress in science, but that does not mean it is therefore impossible… To the extent that these things are accomplished with better reasoning and greater effectiveness, progress will be seen – even as consensus and persuasion remain elusive and incomplete.” 41

“I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?'” 88

“Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.” 88-89

“The important point is not merely that there are regularities in nature, but that these regularities are mathematically precise, universal, and ‘tied together.’ Einstein spoke of them as ‘reason incarnate.’ The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion. This is certainly the question that scientists from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg have asked – and answered. Their answer was the Mind of God.” 96

“Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling and irrefutable.” 112

Introducing Wright’s article: “I think that the Christian religion is one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul.” 186-187

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N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’

I didn’t know what to expect in picking up this book. I believe N.T. Wright’s theology has some serious deficiencies, but I really appreciate  his excellent scholarship on some things (especially on Christ’s resurrection).  But overall, I’m very glad I read it.

The Challenge of Jesus basically addresses the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus (Jesus the man, the historical figure rather than the Jesus of dogma and theology), as well as how this directly and freshly relates how we live our lives today. Wright believes that investigating Jesus in his historical context does no violence to the Faith: Jesus “has his feet solidly planted in first-century Palestine and yet rings deeply true to the resurrected Christ of Christian belief, worship, and experience” (backcover).

I liked the entire premise of the book – that Christians should pursue seeing Jesus as the man of history in his first-century world in order to know God more deeply and learn how to live in our postmodern age. Wright argues that because of God’s glory revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ centrality to Christian mission, and our imperative to pursue truth and loyalty to Scripture, we’re obligated look to the real Jesus of history. I was a history major in college, thus I’m always frustrated by theologians who downplay the importance of history and narrative, instead focusing on the abstractions and philosophical categories of theology. Just because people misuse history to diminish Jesus does not mean we cannot use history to discover more truth about Jesus. After all, the historical Jesus is the same Jesus we worship.

I liked how Wright counter-acted revisionists of the historical Jesus — while at the same time mostly ignoring them! He only occasionally mentioned the “Jesus Seminar” authors, but using the internal character of the Gospels, Second Temple Judaism literature, and other background knowledge, Wright  decisively rebuts their theories. This is a very nice feature and puts a positive face on the book that will make its message and truth appeal to more people (in particular, those who dislike the whole idea of “debate”).

I did learn some valuable things from this book  I did not know before. The contrast between Jesus and the Jerusalem temple was a  powerful and very compelling evidence that Jesus believed himself to be divine. The Jewish self-understanding of exile and Kingdom/Messianic hope was also informative, as was his chapter on the resurrection (not surprising, that being Wright’s forte). Furthermore, he describes biblical and theological truths in an inspiring and rich vocabulary (in contrast to some theologians who seemingly even try to sound  boring).

On the negative side, there was much I honestly didn’t like about the book. While I did enjoy the historical bent Wright took, he uses it to come up with interpretations of Jesus’ parables and other things that virtually no one in church history has taken, and his reasoning for taking those interpretations does not always follow. He lacks tight argumentation. He applies 1st century texts and events to the biblical text and events without giving warrants on why those 1st century backgrounds should be applied in the way Wright is applying them.

Case in point: Wright notes a passage in Josephus’ works where Josephus was telling a brigand leader to “repent and believe in me” to lay down his rebellion against Rome. Wright notes the similarity of the Greek sentence to Jesus’ own teaching of “repent and believe,” and makes the conclusion that Jesus’ kingdom message was one of political bent and against war with Rome. While I find that comparison between Josephus and Jesus’ statements informative and worthy of further study, he makes a big logical jump here.

Wright’s hermeneutics have weaknesses  – he leans toward heavily allegorical rather than plain-literal interpretation. The Bible certainly has many parallels, types, and allegories, but may of his connections are a bit of a stretch, and he’s a more dogmatic on them than he should be. He takes some shots at Premilennialists and to my surprise, brings up some of his “New Perspective on Paul” soteriology into the book, which seemed out of place.

Things like this made many portions of the book less helpful, and I was unsure about recommending it until I came to the last two chapters on applying Jesus to today, especially this postmodern world and the chaotic changes going on. The last two chapters are excellently written, wise, and tremendously inspiring. They alone make me want to buy the book now (I borrowed this copy from a library). Wright is strong on practical, all-encompassing applications, the joy and anticipation of the future, what the historical Jesus can bring through us in ministering to people in the postmodern culture, and connecting  our vocation with biblical truth. It really impacted me and helped my spiritual life this whole week.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, but  not to a new  believer. If you already have a holistic grasp on the Bible, theology, and hermeneutics will you better appreciate how wonderful and fresh Wright’s insights are… and discern some of his craziness!

Here are some highlights from the book:

“We can categorize the challenged of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its  asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion” (19)

“Jesus took his own story very seriously. He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” (85).

“The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known.” (94-5).

“If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.” (111).

“My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding through Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross — and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.” (123-4) [very much in the spirit of John 1.18]

“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not a clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax. Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all. Suppose this was, after all, how exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven, how the kingdom was to come.” (162).

“The individual existential angst of the sixties has  become the corporate and cultural angst of the nineties. The human beings who could not pull themselves together in the 1960s have become the human societies that cannot pull themselves together in the 1990s… The Christian answer to it is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is of course love. The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes all postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known…” (170).

“When God does what God intends to do, this will be a fresh act of grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone on before so that in the midst of our surprise and our delight we will say ‘Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.'” (179-180).

“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact. It is a vocation” (183).

“We can and must as Christians within a postmodern world give an account of human knowing that will apply to music and mathematics, to biology and history, to theology and chemistry. We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)

Review of ‘No Condemnation’ by Michael Eaton

I’ve come across one of those rare books that would be of great benefit to anybody. In No Condemnation, Dr. Michael Eaton studies “the biblical, theological, and historical dimensions of assurance in the life of a Christian believer. He challenges both traditional Arminian and Calvinist views, in which salvation and good works are too tightly bound together, by drawing a clear distinction between salvation and reward.” (From backcover). Eaton argues that the quest for assurance of salvation is impossible in the excessive introspection of traditional Calvinism and in the fear for loss of salvation in Arminianism. It must be found by faith alone in the Christ who died for you personally, apart from our works, apart from the Law of Moses.

I met Dr. Eaton at the Free Grace Alliance conference in Dallas (which I wrote about previously). I was impressed with him as a person, preacher, theologian, and all-around authentically-living Christian. He is very humble in person but a powerful preacher and speaker at the pulpit. His style is to combine Truth-proclamation with obvious joy and passion, a characteristic I’ve always liked in preachers (Similar to the style of John Piper and Chuck Swindoll, versus more reserved like Haddon Robbinson or aggressive like John MacArthur). Dr. Eaton is from the UK but has pastored and remains heavily involved with the Chrisco Fellowship of Churches in Kenya. Eaton is not only a pastor but a heavy theologian and prolific author.

 Pros

  • Exegesis of Scripture. What I loved most about this book is its focus on the biblical text. I did not agree with all of Eaton’s conclusions and interpretations, but his use of Scripture is far more than most other popular Christian books, even books I’ve read by proponents of strong exegesis (Al Mohler comes to mind. His books look to Scripture, but not near the extent Eaton does here). Usually the only books you see like this are actual commentaries. Eaton goes through the entire Epistle to Galatians, Gospel of Matthew, and Epistle to Hebrews, selected portions of Genesis, John and Romans and many other passages.
  • Honesty. Eaton became a Christian as a teenager, was discipled in the Calvinist/English Reformed tradition, and taught their doctrine of assurance based on works and a Limited Atonement (among other things). From pastoral experience and study of Scripture on his own, he went from a Limited Atonement to Unlimited Atonement position, and changed his mind to say that assurance is based on Christ’s work and promise, not works. (He shares the story of his shift in an video interview HERE). His view of assurance and the atonement is very common in dispensationalist faith traditions, but Eaton is not a dispsenationalist, or even a pre-millennialist (as far as I understand). He broke rank with his tradition to stand alone in what the text taught in keeping with his conscience. He is still a Reformed Calvinist (he calls his view “Encouraging Calvinism” versus “Developed Calvinism” [341]), but has modified his theology by studying Scripture on his own.
  • The section answering N.T. Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul” theology was the best critique I’ve seen of Wright in so few words. I have not seen Piper or Carson’s own superb critique’s handle Wright’s main problems so succinctly as Eaton. Eaton’s angle of attack using both Scripture and historical background literature is devastating to Wright’s view. The first edition did not have this, but I’m very glad it is included in the revised and expanded edition I have. For those of you familiar with the NPP, this alone is worth the price of the book.
  • Background and research. He interacts well with a wide variety of commentators and theologians old and new, represents other viewpoints fairly and completely, works through the history and development of given ideas, and has significant historical background.
  • Good content on the concepts of oath, covenant, and Torah in the Old Testament text and times. Much of this was new ground for me and I learned valuable things through this study. I do not totally buy his conclusions on God’s oaths. But he makes a compelling and well-argued case that the Torah was a legal document for Israel more than a personal, moral one, and is now totally abrogated with the coming of Christ, though the whole moral character of the law is “fulfilled accidently” — and then some — through the working out of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.
  • Systematic and logical order. If Eaton has several points or conclusions to make, he numbers them so! (See examples in quotes below). This makes his book so much easier to follow and enable me to clearly agree/disagree with what he’s saying.
Cons
  •  While Eaton holds to the inspiration of Scripture, his view on authorship is not as conservative. He talks of “Paul’s editor” and the like. I myself do not see how a letter claiming to be written by Paul can really be someone else and still be the inspired, infallible word of God. Eaton’s understanding is indeed a common view among Christians, but I found it unnecessary to see parentheses and phrases with “editor” in them.
  • Lack of depth on a certain passages. I understand the book only has so much space, but a few more pages on kingdom entrance/inheritance and gehenna would have been helpful. He suggests gehenna is not hell but the “fire” mentioned in 1Corinthins 3.15 burning up our works. He made some inconclusive statements on this that left me confused. Whether gehenna means hell or something else has a huge effect on how you interpret the Gospels, so I would have liked more on this.

… and not much else! This is among the best books I have ever read. He offers something very near the “Free Grace” view of salvation, assurance, and reward, and argues it with a compelling and certain force. I learned much from this book, and Eaton really gave me a joy and gratitude toward God, His Son and His grace. Read it!

Notable quotes:

On Galatians: “What are Paul’s governing principles here? (i) Faith in Jesus is adequate for the living of the Christian life without submission to Mosaism. (ii) Turning to the the law is really a form of panic. Abraham was momentarily fearful that merely trusting the promise concerning the seed, the seed would not come. Something similar happens when one turns to the law. It means turning away from a simple trust in Jesus to self-justification and self-sanctification by the flesh. (iii) To turn to the law can only produce bondage…” (170)

“The Spirit’s leading will always be along the pathway of love. His leading will not contradict the moral aspects of the Torah although it will go beyond them.” (176).

“We can profit from what Wright says positively (that justification needs presentation in light of wider issues, cosmic salvation, social relationships and the like) but in my view he must be repudiated on what he denies.” (242).

“In the New Testament, assurance of salvation is not a sign nor a duty, but a fact!” (256).

“Eternal life is more than justification-forgiveness. It is the experience of life, the ‘life of the age to come’, which is known even in this world.” (286).

“The ground of salvation is at one and the same time the ground for assurance. Faith is an assurance about Jesus. Its immediate consequence ought to be an assurance about oneself. To counsel the doubter will involve no more than drawing out what is implicit in their assurance concerning Jesus.” (310).

“We must not fear rewards – as if they will lead us back into justification by works. It is by mercy alone that God brings his people to salvation, but he asks for works of gratitude and he encourages us by the knowledge that they will be rewarded. . . they are largely a matter of receiving honour from Jesus, and being prepared to serve him yet more. Can it ever be wrong to want Jesus’ ‘Well done!’?” (326).

“I doubt however whether it is possible to practically hold the viewthat it both is and is not possible for the Christian to lose salvation. In practice the fear that it is possible will override the conviction that it is not.” (375).

“What paradoxes! Amazing grace and profound challenge; incredible assurance yet awe-inspiring responsibility; freedom to be myself yet the knowledge that Jesus achieves it all in me. Here is a theology that motivates but does not discourage – a theology of encouragement. But is this not the gospel? I believe it is.” (393).

N. T. Wright to the next generation of Christian leaders

I came across this excellent charge from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and loved the way he said it. I disagree with a good bit of Wright’s theology, but this is gold!

Let’s be dead-serious on “The Bible, prayer, and loving people”!