Engaging BHI; Reading Paul in the shadow of Luther

Old debates and “New Perspectives”

Martin Luther rememberedAs far as old debates go there is none older1 than Justification either; by faith or “faith + works” since the “Sola” part of “Sola fide” is the issue of contention. This was dug up (not that it was ever buried) once more quite publicly in the theological skirmish now historically known as “NT Wright vs. John Piper“. As usual many lined up on one side or the other and many blog posts were written that mischaracterised the position of either of the theologians. What wasn’t known by outsiders looking in was just how much the two parties agreed on, relying on rhetoric alone, a lot was lost in what Piper or Wright each uniquely offered in their positions.

The small issue of contention was Wright’s notion of future justification at the judgement seat of Christ and whether this is going to be on the “basis” of the initiating justification through faith or that the believer is vindicated by the works (done in faith, through the spirit and as a result of union with Christ).  Now the way I have framed the previous sentence is a synthesis of the views of both Piper and Wright in order to show that they do agree that righteousness is granted entirely by grace alone and though faith alone. So, lets try that again. Quoting NT Wright2 directly about future justification, he says:

“One of the key charges against me, in the human lawcourt which, if I were Paul, would not bother me (see 1 Cor 4:3), is that I have said that final justification, the verdict of the last day, will be in accordance with “works”. Sometimes I have been quoted as saying “on the basis of works”, with the meaning – at least, this is the meaning that has apparently been heard – that “works” are thereby a kind of independent “basis”, something entirely of my own doing which takes the place, on the last day, that is occupied in present justification by the finished work of Jesus Christ…I repeat what I have always said: that the final justification, the final verdict, as opposed to the present justification, which is pronounced over faith alone, will be pronounced over the totality of the life lived. It will be, in other words, in accordance with “works”, with the life seen as a whole – not that any such life will be perfect (Phil 3:3 -14) but that it will be going in the right direction, “seeking for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7)”

I’ll leave you to be the judge of whether or not this leaves Wright in the clear but this is not what I want to focus on. Academic debates are sometimes viewed by outsiders as pedantic “arguments over words”. The concerns of ivory tower theologians have not much to do with ‘on the ground’ issues of the lives of your everyday person. I’ll grant that for now, but promise that in this instance and in many others these debates can be cashed out in sometimes unknown and yet unseen places and ways.

Sola Scriptura and Protestant Tradition

Contrary to popular opinions, Protestant churches have traditions though unlike the our Roman Catholic counterparts it doesn’t overtly and intentionally tint our judgement of scripture its shadow however always looms in the background and most of us are unaware of it. Ask any Protestant to tell you what Galatians is about and they’ll immediately tell you something about Justification. Thanks to Luther it is near enough impossible to read Galatians with new questions other than justification. It is near enough impossible read Romans 9 with new questions other than election. Read afresh though, we must if are to follow the spirit of “sola scriptura”. It is this maxim that allowed the revolution of 500 years ago and still continues to shape the world. It amazes me to re-read Romans 9 to find that the initial question that Paul seeks to answer was about the trustworthiness of God (or “righteousness of God”, a contentious term) and answers it with the doctrine of election. In the same vein it amazes to find that the question that Paul sought to answer in Galatians has mainly to do with Identity. G. Walter Hansen in his commentary rightly recognises the Identity question in Galatians. He notes:

The Protestant preoccupations with the question “How can I, a sinner, be right before a just and holy God?” has resulted in an individualistic perspective on justification by grace through faith. The social implications of justification have been largely ignored…There is no basis for interpreting his letter [Paul to the Galatians] as a direct attack on Judaism…while all commentaries on Galatians (as far as I know) interpret Paul as rejecting any attempt to keep the Mosaic in order to earn God’s blessing, very few have the perspective that Paul also rejects attempting to keep the Mosaic law as a appropriate response to God’s blessing.3

The social question which most protestant commentators have largely ignored is the very thing that the New Perspectives gets right, it also goes a long way in correcting some of Luther’s anti-Semitism (yeah I said it! no need to make excuses for him). Rather than have a either or debate about whether Galatians (and some parts of Romans) is about “self-referential legalism” or “ethnically focused covenantalism”4, it will be beneficial to read and apply along the lines of Identity to see what the text can offer us again and again.

The Black Hebrew Israelite

45.NYC.27October1995It is at this junction that I bring up a relatively unknown religious sect known as the Black Hebrew Israelite until the recent release of Kendrick Lamar’s album. This group has now come into mainstream attention due to one track on Lamar’s album where BHI views are expressed. Also, Nick Cannon is another high profile name associated with the group. You might think that BHI is just an American thing, but the first time I came across them was outside the big Topshop on oxford street in London. At the time I thought their view was strange, they were rude to me and everyone else that tried to engage with them and I was eventually told to f**k off. A week after I came across an article on Vice about the same group I spoke to.

There are several levels this kind of group can be engaged, the main issue remains the psychological one where they have so associated Christianity with the same western society that has historically mistreated and marginalised them, that they cannot possibly see themselves belonging. The other one being the historically shadiness of view which amount to nothing but the kind of stuff you’d hear from the mouth of your stoner friend. Theologically though, if Wright is right then the cash out of a convenantal reading of Paul is exactly in engaging with a group such as BHI.


Notes

  1. The “East–West Schism” of 1054 is not so much a live issue as the Protestant-Roman Catholic. Feel free to disagree. 
  2. Justification: Yesterday, Today and Forever“, N.T Wright. JETS 54.1 (March 2011) 49-63. PDF available here.
  3. G. Walter Hansen, “Galatians” (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series). p24, 5, 6.
  4. The two terms used here are from Bruce W. Longenecker, “The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians“. p179.
  5. I highly recommend this “mere fidelity” podcast episode and the accompanying notes as an update on where the New Perspectives debate currently stands.
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