Friday, January 05, 2007

Repentance from What?

I hesitated to post this because I'm embarassed to reveal just how slow my progress in JVG has been. Nevertheless, I thought it was significant enough to bare all. I came across something I strongly disagreed with Wright about...I know, brace's a historical moment. Many thought it wouldn't happen, but here it is.

In dealing with "Stories of the Kingdom" Wright examines Jesus' call to repentance under the heading of Invitation. While I appreciated much of what he says, when he comes down to defining repentance, I had some issues. His approach is mostly inductive, but when he comes out and defines it, he suggests two emphases to Jesus' message of repentance: "returning to YHWH so that exile may come to an end; renunciation of nationalistic violence. It was an eschatological call, not the summons of a moralistic reformer. And it was a political call, summoning Israel as a nation to abandon one set of agendas and embrace another" (JVG, 251). Contextually, he is setting Jesus call to repentance off from the ahistorical, timeless, moralistic call to individualistic piety (all words he uses). The first move is to say it's eschatological (the call to Israel to return to YHWH and bring about the real return from exile) and the second is to say that it's political - the turning from revolutionary violence against Rome and/or Herod.

Here's my beef: On the first emphasis, I am in total agreement with his description of Jesus' call to repentance as being eschatological in nature. Yes, He is calling them to return to YHWH and it most certainly is a historically occaisioned call. The problem I have is that this does not inherently set it apart from a call to individualistic piety; that would be a false dilemma or an either/or fallacy. True, the call may have more nationalistic overtones, but what does it mean for the nation to return to YHWH? Either faith driven Torah observance, or more likely in the present context, adherence to Jesus. No matter how you slice it, this is a call to individual ethical holiness. After all, the New Covenant is designed to foster Spirit enabled obedience, yes for Israel, but Israel, no matter how you define it, is composed of individuals.

However, it is the second emphasis that really got my biscuits burning. Wright suggests that bound up within the meaning of the term metanoia itself, is the idea of "abandoning revolutionary zeal" (p. 249-250). His reasoning here rests heavily on an occurence in Josephus. Josephus says, of a brigand chief whom he discovered was plotting to kill him, "that I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me...; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me. All this he promised..." (Ibid). The form here is actually the infinitive, rather than the noun I mentioned above, but that matters little. Wright points out that many commentators on the synoptics ignore this occurance when wrestling with the meaning of repentance, while he says "It is, I suggest, of considerable significance. This is what those words meant in Galiliee in the 60's [i.e. Josesphus day]; by what logic do we insist that they meant something rather different, something perhaps more personal, inward or religious, in Galilee in the 20s and 30s?" (still p. 250). By what logic you ask? Well for starters, that's NOT what it meant in Josephus day either. In my humble (though it may not sound that way, that's how I mean it) opinion, this is a raging exegetical fallacy.

For starters, metanoia and metanoeo simply mean "repentance" or "turning" and "to repent" or "to turn" respectively. What exactly is to be turned from depends on the context in which it is used. To import what it is that one is turning from in a given context into the lexical meaning or semantic range of the word is just plain wrong. It's sloppy lexicography. Further more, to take that imported meaning and apply it to all other contexts, especially those that clearly indicate something explicit that is to be turned from is even more dangerous exegetically, not to mention theologically. Let me offer a modern day example: Say you read the Mapquest directions that I recently used to get from VA to NH. You would see something to the effect of "turn right off of St. Luke's Blvd on to Great Bridge Blvd." Suppose you wanted to determine just what I meant by "turn." Well, a little historical/geographical research reveals that St. Luke's Blvd is a dead end side street and Great Bridge is a major thoroughfare. You conclude that "turning" is a technical term used for street navigation and is particularly useful in describing the move from a lightly traveled street to a major road. This is fine and good, until you hear someone ask to "turn the light off" or "turn in your assignments" or "tossing and turning" etc ad nauseum.

I don't think this is an unnecessary caricature of what Wright has done here. I grant that he is primarily gunning for existential theologians like Bultmann who demythologize the history right out of the Gospels and turn them into a collection of timeless aphorisms (you would be aware of this too if you read the essay linked to below about Wright :-). Doubtless, he is aware of and not apologetic for the fact that it also steps on the toes of many evangelical interpretations too. Yet, I am convinced that he has swung the pendulum too far. I grant his historically occaisioned appeal, as noted above; in fact, this sort of appeal is one of the things that I have learned most from any and all of his writings. However, I'm convinced his methodology is flawed here and the result is just plain wrong. If Jesus says He's come to call sinners to repentance, then there is substantial reason to assume that they must turn from there sin. Granted, perhaps some of the sin that some of the people (maybe even many of them) needed to turn from was their violent revolutionary zeal; however, for all the times we read Jesus saying "go and sin no more" I'm not convinced every time He was addressing a political zealot. The burden of proof would lie on Wright here, and the various contexts just don't sustain this.

Now, please don't misunderstand: I still love the guy, I still love Jesus and the Victory of God and I am learning a TON from it. In fact, I wish there were the forum for him to respond to what I've said; he's far more intelligent than I and he may blow me away with additional data I've not considered. However, maximalistic approaches to language (a la TDNT) just rub me the wrong way. I am and probably always will be a minimalist here to the core.


G said...

I just finished reading a lecture he gave in 2003 defending his perspective of "The New Perspectives on Paul". What are your thoughts on this? I think I remember you studying out the NPoP. He seems to make some good points, but this is the first reading I've really done on the topic. I could use a nudge in the right direction for resources.

Nate Mihelis said...

Check out Mike Bird's essay - "After the Dust Settles: Coming to a Post NPP Perspective" It's online free linked to his blog. He takes a good mediating position. Wright's position on Justification is in flux and his latest treatment is in Paul a Fresh Perspective. It seems he's increasingly allowing more room for a forensic dimension to Justification from what I've read and heard -- a good thing:-)

In my opinion, the NPP has both necessary corrections and negative extremes. I think overall, the discussion has been good for both the church and the academy.

McAdams Eric said...

Hi Nate,

At last, someone who pointed out that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
I find Wright uses this tactic to redefine most key words.

Everyone falls for it, you are the first that I have found who disagrees.

Even in the story about Josephus it was not a conversation about the politics of Israel but about the brigand's thwarted attempt to kill Josephus. Josephus was prepared to forgive him if he repented (at the point of a sword!) and promised to be loyal to Josephus - rather than continue to try to kill him.

Best Regards,