So I am starting where R. C. Sproul left off in his message to us yesterday. And I consider this message as an exegetical extension and defense of what he said: “If you don’t have imputation, you don’t have sola fide (faith alone), and if you don’t have sola fide, you don’t have the gospel.” And my goal is to argue that Jesus preached the gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, understood as the imputation of his righteousness through faith alone.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Canonical Jesus vs. Historical Jesus
The canonical Jesus is making a come back while interest in waning in the historical Jesus. Evidence of this (1) The Wright vs. Hays engagement at the 2008 SBL in Boston and the 2010 Theology conference in Wheaton; (2) Scot McKnight's recent article in Christianity Today with responses by N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock; and (3) Dale C. Allison writing two books on Jesus that reshape his understanding of the Jesus Quest. I intend to address this issue more thoroughly in a couple of years when I get into my New Covenant Theology, but let me make two observations:
1. We still need the historical. Today I read John Piper's T4G sermon, which all in all ain't a bad exposition, especially if understood as a Reformed theological reading of Luke 18:9-14 and a forthright attempt to find unity between Paul and Jesus. However, there are elements of Piper's sermon that left me gobsmacked. Consider the following remarks from Piper:
I confess that I am primary a Gospels scholar and not a Paul-man. I've done work on the historical Jesus, the Gospel of Mark in particular, and made forays into Paul as well in light of those studies. So I have to confess that it defies a straight forward reading of the Gospels to say that Jesus preached his own imputed righteousness. I don't think Paul preached imputation if Acts is anything to go by. At best, imputation is theological corollary of Paul's understanding of union with Christ (that's Leon Morris talking!). To be honest, even if Jesus did preach the imputation of his own righteousness, I doubt that anyone until John Calvin would have had the foggiest idea what he was talking about. This reading emerges if one believes or (more properly) practices the view that the context in which Jesus is best understood is 16th century Geneva or 19th century Princeton. I submit that the WCF and LBC 1689 are not the contexts for understanding Jesus' proclamation of a gospel. Rather, I would say that Isa. 52.7, Ps. Sol. 11.1-7, 4Q521, and the Priene inscription help us to understand what Jesus and the Evangelists meant by "gospel". When I read Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:16-21; Matt 24:14, imputation does not come to my mind or to the the mind of any ancient Gospel commentary that I know of. Jesus' "gospel" is Isaianic not Calvinistic (and this is coming from a Calvinist!). What is more, Piper rules out of bounds the tools that would falsify what he has said. Piper is right, the church's Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition-history (i.e., excavated beneath layers of "faith and theology" and devoid of anything of interest to Christians), but the (historical) Jesus that should interest us is the one who make sense in the context of first century Palestine. I've made similar warnings in my article "The Perils of Modernizing Jesus and the Crisis of Not Contemporizing the Christ," EQ 78 (2006). If Piper's Jesus is canonical, then Matthew becomes a Gospel of straw! I would also point out that in the history of the church you'll be hard pressed to show how the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ was part of the universal church's confession of faith (yes I know about Epistle of Diognetus 9.1-5, but I don't think it's saying quite as much as some folks would like it to say). Piper's Jesus, on this point about imputation, is a construct conducive to a particular hermeneutical community, but it is neither canonical, nor catholic, nor historical. Piper is setting off on a noble task of trying to show the parity of Jesus and Paul when it's all the rage to drive them apart. The problem is that rather than showing that Paul was a faithful follower of Jesus, he seems to make Jesus an advocate of a theologically freighted reading of Paul (for a better effort on this task I recommend the work of David Wenham).
2. Even canonical folks need the historical. Before we abandon the historical for the canonical (and feel free to make canonical an adjective to any subject that you like - Jesus, Paul, early church, etc.), everyone still pleads the historical at some point. Note that Luke Timothy Johnson was advocating the canonical Jesus over and against the historical Jesus long before it became fashionable again. However, I would point out that Johnson is very set on a historical reading of Luke-Acts. He rejects attempts to loosen the hypen between Luke-Acts when it is claimed that the two where never really read together in the early church. In the reception of Acts, Acts was ordinarily read with the Apostolos (Catholic Letters) and the Praxaapostolic (Paul, Catholic Leters, Acts). But Johnson appeals to the authorial intent and original audience of Luke-Acts that read them together, that is, he concerns himself with the historical situation of the original composition and dissemination of Luke-Acts.
In sum, the relationship between the canonical, historical, and catholic (= reception-history) Jesus is a future area of research for some brave soul!