Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Analysis 16 - Aspirational Theology

‘A sinner pressed in conscience by the burden of uncleanness and guilt finds relief, not by reminding himself that his faith is evangelical righteousness by a new law, but by looking to the cross of Christ’.

- J. I. Packer on Baxter

In the last Analysis I argued that there are striking formal similarities between the views of Richard Baxter (in his Aphorisms of Justification) and Bishop N.T. Wright on justification. The most striking is that there is no provision in either view, so it would seem, for the idea of double justification, so prominent in the views of the Reformers. This is the idea that even our best efforts are tainted by sin and need the pardon of the Saviour. This failure to recognise this, at least in a way that is consistent with their ideas of justification, affects their view of Christian aspiration, of what it is that Christians hope and strive for, both the matter of it and the manner of it.

‘Aspirational Theology’, the title of this Analysis, is not (I hope) destined to join the ever-growing list of ‘theologies’: ‘Biblical theology’, ‘spiritual theology’ , ‘theology of culture’, ‘theology of work’, ‘theology of leisure’ and the rest. It is simply a way of noting that the New Testament portrays the Christian as aspiring for wholeness, completion, perfection. (I reject the phrase ‘spiritual theology’ because of its narcissistic overtones, and the ease with which the human spirit may replace the divine Spirit in such a ‘theology’.) Christian aspiration is a development in line, of course, with the aspirations of the Old Testament saints, for example in the Psalms. I shall argue that such longings, both the fact of them, and their nature, are intelligible – and rational – only in a particular theological context, a context that has at its centre justification through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

Paul's Aspiration

J.I. Packer says this of Richard Baxter’s inadequate view of justification.

The “political” idea of faith as allegiance and commitment loses sight of the dimension of self-despairing trust : faith appears less as the outstretched hand of the spiritual bankrupt than as the signing-on of a resolute volunteer, a work of some strength and merit. (A Quest for Godliness , (Crossway 1990), 159)

It is remarkable that several decades after Packer wrote this about the inadequacies of Baxter’s Neonomianism at the level of Christian experience, Piper should pick up Bishop Wright on almost exactly the same point. Which is more basic for Paul, his vocation as an ambassador for Christ, or his being ‘in Christ’? The question answers itself. Piper observes that in thinking of Saul’s conversion in terms of a change in vocation from being a persecutor to being an apostle, Wright has has missed what is more basic. Writing of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus, Piper says

I do not think it would be wild speculation to suggest that when Saul, who had hated Jesus and his followers, fell to the ground under the absolute, sovereign authority of the irresistible brightness of the living Jesus, his first thought would be about concepts, but about his survival. His first thoughts would not be about a new worldview and a new vocation, but whether he would at that moment be destroyed. What astonished Saul to the end of his days was thrust and foremost that a persecutor of the church should receive mercy instead of being cast into outer darkness. (The Future of Justification, 87)

Piper is making Packer’s point, that faith is the outstretched hand of the spiritual bankrupt, not the signing on of a resolute volunteer. On the road to Damascus, Saul was not volunteering to work for Jesus, but receiving his astonishing mercy.

A little before this John Piper says that Bishop N.T. Wright’s views are ‘minimally experiential’. (87) This seems to be almost an aside, like his remarks on the Christian’s need for double justification referred to in the last Analysis. It is a comment that may nevertheless have great importance. The aspiration of a resolute volunteer, or of someone who suddenly acquires a vocation, has a rather different character from that of a spiritual bankrupt.

What does the believer whose faith is characterised as ‘self-despairing trust’, ‘the outstretched hand of the spiritual bankrupt’ (Packer’s phrases) aspire to? Usually we answer this question in terms of mortification and vivification, the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new, as in Ephesians and Colossians, and so we should. But there’s more to aspiration than this, important as it is. Aspiration at its deepest explicitly links the Christian with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that is central to justification by faith, and that is unintelligible without it. It’s this that we shall think about in what follows.

In what is perhaps the classic example of Christian aspiration, in Philippians 3. 7-12 Paul says

For whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, become like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have alreadyobtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own

Here Paul expresses his aspiration to be found in Christ having the righteousness of God which comes by faith. Having such righteousness is not a means to an end, it is itself the end. According to him we ‘gain Christ’ by losing all we that we have, in the sense that we no longer trust or rely on it before God. The things that we have or do are not to be regarded any longer as ‘gain’. We are to let go not only the law, which Paul discusses in the passage immediately before the one quoted, (and which might be thought to have a restrictedly Jewish reference), but everything is to be counted as loss and as rubbish in order to hold, and to keep hold of, the righteousness of God. Paul’s deepest aspiration is not to let anything get in the way of having the righteousness which depends on faith, and the prospect of having this righteousness rests on the fact of his union with Christ, and hence in his sharing in the power of his resurrection.

To know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death is not, despite Paul's reference to 'the resurrection from the dead', to be regarded only as an eschatological hope. No doubt when the resurrection is realised, then that loss of all things, and the gaining of Christ, being found in him having a righteousness which comes from faith, will be understood and experienced in its completeness. But until that time the Christian struggles to rid himself of the continued encroachments of self-righteousness. The strong inclination to assert one’s own self continually recurs. In its character, such resisting is like Christ’s resistance against temptation from demonic suggestions to leave the path of his Father’s will, and in such struggles the Christian both shares in the sufferings of Christ, and experiences something of the power of his resurrection.

I think that John Calvin is here expressing the same thought in a different way.

The conscience, if it looks to God, must either have sure peace with his judgment or be besieged by the terrors of hell. Therefore we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God. When our souls possess that by which they may present themselves fearless before God’s face and receive his judgement undismayed, then only may we know that we have found no counterfeit righteousness. (Inst. III.13)

Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is not of course, an act of co-redemption. It is Paul’s way of saying that he strives to rid himself of all that may get in the way, and block him from, the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus. For it is that righteousness which we shall need and enjoy at the last. (There's more to Paul's understanding of Jesus than 'letting Jesus into your life'.) So Paul’s aspiration is grounded in his present enjoyment of the righteousness which is of God by faith, and which is motivated by the desire for a fuller and purer realisation of it.

What is most interesting here is that Paul thinks of those things which previously were gain to him as being impediments to his being found at the last clothed with the righteousness of Christ. Similarly, Christ’s temptations, against which he battled, and which caused him suffering, were potential impediments to his doing the will of his Father. Hence Paul’s reference to the sufferings of Christ. His sense of this is the very opposite of the idea that we are co-sufferers with Christ. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings is not a hint at co-redemption but in participating in the character of those sufferings, not augmenting them. The sufferings of Christ that he refers to do not relate to his penal sufferings, therefore, but to those blocks placed in his way by Satan, by the religious leaders, and by his own disciples, which would hinder the doing of his Father’s will. They relate to Christ's active obedience, as some say.

So, to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ is both the motive - that at present a believer only partly realises the fact of being in Christ, which drives him on – and the goal – the full realisation of what it means to be found in Christ, not having one’s own righteousness. Because Christ had made him his own, Paul presses on to make the righteousness of Christ his own by struggling to set aside, in the most deliberate way, anything that would be an impediment to this. This is the discipline of mortification and vivification, but with a clear foundation in Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ, the heart of which is his teaching of justification through an imputed, alien righteousness.

Back to Baxter and Wright

Briefly, back to Baxter and Wright. The hope is that the views of each of them, when held and lived consistently, might in some way give expression to this deep Pauline aspiration. But both the logic and the ethics of Paul here are sharply different, so it seems to me, from the express positions of both Richard Baxter and of Bishop Wright. For each of their views on justification compromises in different ways justification through Christ’s alien righteousness, appropriated by faith alone. A sinner pressed by conscience will find relief neither in more works of evangelical obedience nor in a renewed effort to be a bona fide covenant-keeper, but in the precious blood of Christ. To possess the righteousness which this blood bought lies at heart of Christian aspiration.