The Ensuing Riposte With James McGrath

The conversation thus far:

Where This Diablogue Started: Michael (When Politicians Say They're Christian)
Initial Reply: James (Flaming Meteorite Challenge)
Second Reply: Michael (A Response to James)
Third Response: James (Community of the Saved or Salvation of the Community)
Fourth Reply: Michael (A Rejoinder To James)
Fifth Response: James (Continuing Diablogue About Salvation)
Sixth Reply: Michael (current post below)

Some others who have joined in the convo: Ken Brown (1) (2) (3) and Drew Tatusko (1) (2).

So, I should note at the start that I was not intending to make you out, James, to be one who holds the view that this was “only” a social matter. I was just suggesting that you were letting the “social” define what Paul says. I do not. I think the issue, in the main, is theological and that the social implications are a result. Thus, the theology is central while issues such as identity, boundaries, etc., are social and resultant. I hope I’m stating this in a clear enough manner. (I feel it important to note, at the fore, as I have said in the previous posts, all that is said here is said in a spirit of love, humility and spirit of inquiry. What seems like a challenge is not agression or anger at any point. Kudos to James--and others--for being such good sports. I hope I'm doing the same.)

Next, it is now clear that we have a text to focus on: Galatians. Let’s stay there for a while. It is also clear that James and I have different ideas of what’s going on in Galatians. He thinks Paul is combating legalism (works). I do not. Paul is for “works”. In fact, in the end, he tells the Galatians to obey the “Law of Christ” and in doing so, they will fulfill the “Law of Moses”. Thus, I assert that what James sees as “clear” is in fact, not really all that sound. Along the lines of the New Perspective people, I would say that Galatians makes the most sense when we understand Paul forbidding Gentiles (that is, the Galatians) to submit to the notion that they must become part of Israel to acquire salvation; for instance, through circumcision, keeping calendar days, etc. (or even confession of the Mosaic Law). Paul himself was circumcised, still kept Hebrew holidays, etc., and while that maintained his Jewish identity, he did not force it on anyone for salvation and in fact, would not let Gentiles who thought it could “earn” them right standing with God, do it.

Thus, it’s not about good deeds, self-righteousness or legalism. The central issue is how one becomes and stays part of the people of God, what Paul redefines in Gal. 6 as God’s Israel—that is, a body of Jews and Gentiles united in/through/by Christ. (A uniting that came about through belief, confession, baptism, repentance and the indwelling of the Spirit, which are not works, but simply responses to grace.)

The Abraham issue is an important one here. For James, Paul’s use of Abraham as an example of one who is “saved” by faith is an example of someone who is “saved” but not by Jesus. The idea is: Abraham was saved by faith before Jesus; therefore, evidently, people can be saved without Jesus. But this is not what the text says. Gal. 3 only says that Abraham’s faith was credited to him—by God—as righteousness. This is a far cry from saying that Paul said Abraham was saved. Indeed, Abraham might be saved, but this is not what Gal. 3 is saying.

And this is where I think James makes a fatal turn in his interpretation of Paul: Abraham was to draw in Jews while “what Jesus accomplished was to draw in Gentiles.” Yes, Jesus was to draw in Gentiles but He was also to draw in Jews. Paul would have never written Rom. 9-11 had he not believed this!!! He is not merely haggling over the influx of Gentiles (though that was an issue, especially in Galatians). Many of the Judaizers were ready to welcome the Gentiles, so long as they adopted the badge of common Judaism: the Law of Moses. Paul is completely against this. And again, this is where I think James is quite mistaken because for Paul, it was salvation through Jesus Christ alone! There was no other way to be set in right standing. You could not be set right through another deity, you could not be set right through religious heritage, you could not be set right through ethnic cleansing (purifying the land of Israel), no, the only way was through Christ. So, he may not say it in these exact words but Paul certainly does say that salvation comes through Christ alone.

To claim that either Abraham "the" example for leading Jewish persons to right standing with God or that Jesus’ work was to draw in Gentiles is to, I think, miss the mark by a wide margin. To repeat myself, many Jewish persons were willing to let Gentiles “in” if they would adopt the Judaistic badge. But Paul knew it could not happen this way or any other. So, when he writes passages like Rom. 9-11, he has to spell out the alternative. He’s even willing to give up his own right standing if only such Jews would assent to this one point. However, he doesn’t foresee this and so, he can only hope that they will become jealous as they see God indwelling and empowering Gentiles who come to Christ. And here is the point: He wants them to get jealous so that, as Jews, they too will come to Christ. Thus, Christ is drawing in both Jew and Gentile—as Paul so eloquently states in Gal. 3.

Therefore, my statement that trusting in Christ for salvation alone (especially after Christ has already stepped on the scene), is not out of place. Neither is it anachronistic or biblically or theologically illiterate (not that you made those statements of me, James). But you are right, James, that this is the whole heart of the issue. It is the whole inclusive/exclusive issue again. The way you pose the question or frame the topic is interesting. You say, “The question is not whether, from a Christian standpoint, God is understood to have reached out to humanity through the life of Jesus, but whether in doing so God has restricted access to grace so as to exclude people who were otherwise acceptable.”

You make many, many assertions in this statement (most of which I will not dissect here). The main bone of contention here, for me (and to all reading, I think this is precisely the point where mine and James’ view of soteriology is most spelled out) is that you’re kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Did the coming of Jesus hinder (or restrict) some people from experiencing God’s grace? No, it didn’t. Was it a stumbling block to people? Paul says, “Yes.” Was it foolishness to some people? Paul says, “Yes.” Was it the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (e.g. that all nations would be united to Him)? Paul says, “Yes, all nations have the opportunity to unite in Christ.” No, it didn’t restrict but it was hard for people to accept. But the invitation (inclusivism) was and is always there to accept. At the same time, accepting it results in a form of exclusivism (not a nasty, hateful one but a peaceful one). Therefore, Paul’s argument is that even though it might be a hard pill for some to swallow, the fact is, right standing comes only through a relationship (e.g. acceptance of, belief in, allegiance to, etc.) with Jesus.

That is, I think, the best way to interpret what Paul has to say on the issue. Now, before I close out this post, I do want to make a couple more remarks. To clarify, I was not attempting to use spiritual gifts, especially tongue-speaking as definitive of experience but just as a simple example that persons experiences of God are quite often, not what unites them as a congregation. This was just one example of many that I gave. I may not have been clear on this but nevertheless, how it was interpreted was not what I was attempting to say.

Lastly, I do think it is appropriate, as I’ve already stated, to allow that the spiritual experiences of people outside of Christianity are partially legitimate. I say partially because they are not experiences of the One True, Triune God. You noted, James, as I have, the Mars Hill episode. The difference between you and I is that you’re willing to let the Athenians continue on with their religious experiences thinking that this is enough. I do not. Paul, as it seems, was not either. That is why he tries to lead them to the fullness of Christ. In short, he wanted to say to them, “What you’ve experienced in part can be experienced more fully, indeed, the most fully and legitimately in Jesus Christ. What you’ve had and what you’ve got is part and parcel, what I’m telling you about is the fullness of God—total right standing with Him through Christ.”

As for the diversity of opinions in Scripture, I am not frightened by this, nor do I find it offensive when appropriate. I think there are differing eschatological views; I am cool with that. However, when it comes to right standing through Christ, I wholeheartedly disagree with you, James, that the NT writers offer up ways other than through Christ. You may be correct that at various junctures they validate other (partial) experiences but in no way do the take that as the stopping point. Instead, it is a starting point. A starting point to lead persons to faith in Jesus and Him alone. When it comes to right standing with God, the NT writers are univocal: Christ alone!

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