Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lesson From A Fig-Picker

One of my favorite little vignettes in all of scripture occurs in the little, oft-neglected book of Amos. The northern kingdom of Israel was enjoying one last burst of prosperity (just a few years before being vanquished by Assyria), and they had started to believe they were blessed, safe, and secure. But Amos saw their rampant sin and impending doom, and he proclaimed a message calling them to repent or face judgment. His message had been made known to the king's inner circle, and they were none too pleased with it. We pick up in Amos 7:10.

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.

Amaziah the 'priest' was nothing more than a yes-man, one of the false prophets the kings of Israel surrounded themselves with to pretend they had the Lord's blessing. (This trend did not die with them, by the way.) When he heard what Amos had been preaching, he had the king bring Amos in so they could intimidate him into silence or, better yet, make him go away. So Amaziah gave him a dressing down, telling him to get in line or take his message south to Judah where that sort of thing was more acceptable. It's easy to imagine Amaziah axing "Who do you think you are? Don't you know what we're supposed to tell the king? Don't rock the boat! Get with the program or go away."

Amos had an answer that Amaziah and King Jeroboam probably weren't expecting:

Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, "I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs."

Interesting, eh? In response to the "who do you think you are?" challenge, Amos essentially answered, "Me? I'm nobody. I'm not of royal descent or noble birth, I don't have a great job, I'm just a lowly shepherd and occasional fig picker." So if Amos was nothing special, why did he go around challenging the status quo? By what authority did he pronounce judgment on the king and contradict all the king's hand-picked prophets and advisors?

"But the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' Now therefore hear the word of the LORD."

Amos knew the truth, that he was nobody special. But he had what none of the supposed priests and prophets of Israel did - the word of God. He was fully aware that his authority did not come from his own greatness, skill, charisma, or persuasiveness. Like Paul, Amos had no illusion of his own grandeur, but he knew the grandeur of the message that was entrusted to him by God.

And so he spoke boldly, pronouncing judgment on Amaziah, continuing to preach God's word even when threatened by the king. God had spoken, and that message was to be proclaimed, regardless of how it would be received, regardless of any opposition. What mattered was not the greatness of the messenger, but the divine authority of the message. It was too important to be compromised, molded to the acceptable standards of the day. What God had said, Amos would say. He would preach the whole counsel of God, because only in God's word was there hope for Israel.

Perhaps we should go and do likewise.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Questions on the NPP

Last night our church hosted a lecture on the New Perspective on Paul, and unfortunately I was not able to attend. This is a teaching I've read a bit about and frankly still don't understand tremendously well, so I was hoping to get some of my questions answered. Since I couldn't go last night and I know some brilliant, well-informed people read the stuff I write (for reasons I can't quite comprehend), I thought I'd throw some of my questions out there and see if anyone can help me out.

1) What if the NPP is correct - how exactly does that change anything about the faith from how it's been passed down (specifically in reformed/protestant/evangelical circles)? How would it change evangelism?

2) If the NPP interpretation of early Romans is correct, how does that lead to the objection of Romans 6? For example, when I'm teaching about the doctrine election, people will generally raise several objections. Frequently these objections will perfectly match the objections Paul raises and answers about election in Romans 9. I think this is a good confirmation that the way I'm presenting this doctrine tracks well with how scripture does, because it brings about the same responses.

Similarly, when teaching through the first five chapters of Romans (or presenting the gospel) in the 'traditional' understanding, one big objection frequently comes up - that we might as well sin all we want if we're forgiven anyway. A natural/logical response to the ideas of sin/wrath/atonement/forgiveness is for people to latch onto the 'forgiveness' part and pervert it into a license to sin (an accusation papists still bring against Christians - much as early unbelievers apparently leveled it against Paul). Romans 6 is Paul's presentation of this objection and his response to it. If Romans 1-5 are understood in the 'traditional' way, it makes perfect sense for this objection to be raised. My question is, if the NPP is true, how does its understanding of 1-5 lead to the objection of 6?

3) Whenever a 'traditional' scholar critiques the NPP, its best-known proponent (NT Wright) will respond by claiming they just don't understand it. Not that they understand and don't agree, nor even that they're intentionally distorting his teachings; no, they're giving a good-faith effort, but they somehow fall short of comprehending. This has come out most clearly in his interactions with John Piper, who Wright credits for diligently studying the NPP and writing the best critique he could, but apparently for some reason he just can't grasp what's being taught (otherwise he'd agree, of course). Don Carson has received similar commendations and rebukes.

Now, by any reasonable measure, Piper and Carson would be considered intelligent and well-educated. Yet both are supposedly incapable of comprehending what the NPP actually says. You will note that never does Wright accuse them of intentional misrepresentation or intellectual laziness. He credits them with honest, good-faith efforts to understand. But they are supposedly incapable of doing so.

So my question is.... can such teaching possibly be the gospel?

Should this not be a huge red flag? The gospel was understood by those who were "not wise according to worldly standards." The poor, uneducated, illiterate slaves of the Roman Empire were fully capable of intellectually grasping the message. It was proclaimed by fishermen who weren't exactly Harvard-edumacated. Those who rejected it are never portrayed as lacking the intellect to comprehend, but lacking the spiritual eyes to embrace. They regard it as folly, not as unintelligible technobabble that flies over their heads.

But in this case, a form of the gospel is presented. Godly scholars, well-educated and intelligent by any measure, make a diligent study of it in order to faithfully re-present its claims. And when they disagree, it's supposedly because the message flies over their heads. Let that sink in. The Bible claims the gospel was easily understood by children and uneducated slaves. This gospel supposedly cannot be understood by godly scholars of the highest order. Something don't line up.