Originally titled, “Always Reforming,” I read this opinion piece at a mini-conference for my writing workshop as my show case for Karl Giberson and Peter Enns. I do not claim much originality in its message, but it bridges my personal experiences of theology with the continuing legacy of the Christian faith. Imagine me reading this to you out loud.
A year ago, I sat in my dorm room, thinking about the implications of what I had heard in my professor’s lecture. In his course, a survey of the New Testament, some of the points he made challenged the theology I brought to college. Immediately, something like scales fell from my eyes. I realized the Bible I read was one interpreted through the lens of a Korean Protestant living in the United States, in the 21st century, and that Paul wrote his letters two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. When the doctrine of inerrancy as I had known it was pulled out from underneath me, I fell hard. But when I picked myself up, I came to appreciate what I had once condemned as the “liberal” historically-contextualized view of Scripture, against a “plain” reading that treats the Bible as if it fell out of the sky one day.
Pandora’s Box opened up, and in my spare time I studied, prayed over, and explored the issues which poured out of it, which I previously forbidden to scrutiny. This young undergraduate could not help but wrestle with the authenticity of Paul’s letters, the moral character of the God portrayed in the Old Testament, the incarnation, the atonement, Heaven, Hell, the sacraments, universalism, the age of the Earth, the historical Adam, the list goes on.
Of all the doctrines I had to wrestle with, I felt most reluctant to reconsider my view on justification. With all my heart, I believed in double imputation, the Reformed belief that God imputes the sinless righteousness of Jesus to sinners, so that I was justified by Christ’s perfect obedience and none of my own deeds. However, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, an advocate of a school in Biblical thought called the New Perspective on Paul, argued against this. He and other proponents believe that we are justified in part by our own deeds. They displayed much credibility as scholars who studied the historical context behind Paul’s letters.
It became unsettling to think that this doctrine, something that caused me to love God, could be argued untrue. But I remained determined to have a charitable, open mind to all views, no matter how uncomfortable it made me. Or so I thought. I pored over many online blogs and articles involving justification from conservative Protestants like myself. But I did not have the intention of seeking the right interpretation of Paul. Why should I, when I thought I already had it? But I wanted some intellectual justification for my view, and so I went online to seek arguments that could refute Wright.
However, they either dismissed him as a heretic or responded defensively against him with arguments that did not take into account the occasional nature of Paul’s letters, and then called him a heretic. It felt as if another set of scales fell from my eyes. I became convinced that N.T. Wright had it right. When I discussed this with a prominent Christian hip-hop artist on Facebook, the conversation ended with him condemning me as a heretic, telling me he prayed for my soul because I denied double imputation. He excommunicated me for my apostasy by removing me from his friends list.
As months passed, I learned to make an important distinction between two types of Reformed individuals. There are those on the Internet angry enough to condemn whatever they want in the name of discernment, too stubborn to change their views; and those in flesh and blood who respond with love, and the humility to have wrestled with the same issues I have and still hold to their views. I found the latter to be my local seminarians and pastors. I would clash with them, sometimes with unwarranted hostility and the arrogance of a young budding theologian. They respectfully disagreed with intellect and maturity that humbled me, as they had thought these things through and probably read more than I have on the matter. They pointed me to Michael Horton, a heavyweight in today’s Reformed scholarship that takes into account the historical background of Scripture in his matters, something I desperately wanted months earlier.
Thankfully, I realized I had become somewhat entrenched in Wright’s theology. I noticed this as I talked with these seminarians who had studied more on the subject than I did. I remembered not to make the same mistake of stubbornly holding onto one view. So, I read Horton’s book, Covenant and Salvation, with the most charitable, thoughtful mindset. He gave a strong defense of double imputation against proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, including N.T. Wright, and pointed out the flaws in their arguments that I did not notice.
At this point, some may expect me to say, “Then I dismissed the New Perspective, and came back to the Old Perspective, with the intellectual support, humility, and maturity that I needed.” But no, I did not return to my old theological view on double imputation. Wright believed that Christians are justified by the works of the law, and Horton effectively argues that Paul does not think that way. But there still seemed no Scripture to show that Paul believed God imputes Jesus’ active obedience to sinners in a purely forensic sense. Another set of scales fell from my eyes, and at this point, I wondered if I had any eyes left since I could not agree with either N.T. Wright or Michael Horton. Clearly, I am not as brilliant as they are.
If I ever find the answer of how God justifies sinners, I will come to it with humility and a provisional attitude, and I hope many other Christians in North America consider adopting a similar mindset. Ironically, individuals like the aforementioned rapper on Facebook seem to betray the principles of the Reformation when they vehemently defend its theology, instead of openly considering different views. Unwilling to critically examine the church’s authority and theology, when men like Calvin and Luther did just that by challenging the establishment by saying, “Come, let us reason, by comparing tradition with another look at the word of God.”
I want to believe that the neo-evangelicals of today do honor to the Reformation when they challenge traditions with another fresh look at Scripture. With gratitude, we stand on the shoulders of Luther and Calvin. Not as parrots to mimic everything they believed, but as springboards to greater insights in loving God and neighbor. After all, these theologians sought to resolve problems and to challenge what they perceived as oppressive tradition and corruption, to reform. Authors like N.T. Wright, though I may disagree with him on the law, do not write about the issues they address out of an egotistical liberalism or for the sake of divisive speculation, but to hold onto this noble paradigm.
At its heart, the emergent church should not be considered “Post-Reformation,” but “Reformation.” If they had the archaeological discoveries, the information, and the tools to understand Scripture in the historically contextualized way we do today, would not past theologians come to see the Word of God differently? So, we do not contradict, we continue. We do not end it, but extend it. Today’s traditionalist perspectives have lost the meaning of “Reformed.”
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, it says “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Karl Giberson uses this quote at the end of his book, Saving Darwin, to make a point about the mystery of the universe, but it resonates to the ever explored and ever reformed view of Scripture. I never abandoned my Reformed faith, but have found its fulfillment in the progressive perspectives I espouse now.
This means that the real Reformers of today hold onto their perspectives with open hands, or else they establish a tradition which may possibly oppress later generations. Who knows? Someone might discover another set of Dead Sea Scrolls which overturns the new paradigms of today. By then, I hope the scales fall from our eyes yet again, joyfully passing on the torch given to us by Luther, onward to future Reformers.