Critique from Within

N.T. Wright highlights how Paul and Jesus critiqued Judaism from within. He says:

Paul’s polemical engagement with paganism, however, was not exactly like a non-Christian Jewish engagement might have been. It involved, as its reflex, a critique of Judaism. But it was not a critique from outside, from a pagan standpoint. It was a critique from within.

…The prophet does not criticize Israel from a non-Jewish standpoint; he claims to represent Israel’s true vocation and belief, calling her back to an allegiance to her God from which she had declined. Though he may be regarded as a disloyal Jew, the prophet always claims the high ground: he stands for true loyalty, which the present regime or ideology is abandoning (compare Elijah’s exchange with Ahab in 1 Kings 18:17-18). The prophet’s task is to speak from the heart of the tradition, to criticize and warn those who, claiming to represent the tradition, are in fact abandoning it.

And again of Jesus:

One of the noblest and most deep-rooted traditions in Judaism is that of critique from within. The Pharisees were deeply critical of most of their Jewish contemporaries. The Essenes regarded all Jews except themselves as heading for judgment; they had transferred to themselves all the promises of vindication and salvation, while they heaped anathemas on everyone else, not least the Pharisees. That did not make the Pharisees, or the Essenes, anti-Jewish.

Healthy organizations of any kind can tolerate dissent and internal self-critique. They don’t have to shut down conversation and hunt down anyone who has dared to speak against their policies. They can conduct conversations in the light and they don’t have to obfuscate. Scientology would be an example of the opposite pattern. Hide, litigate, and shut people up. Paul was chased from city to city and beat up to shut him up.

Unhealthy organizations obfuscate, plead and discipline for the crime of speaking up. In most Christian situations, like the current Sovereign Grace debacle, you’ll see “O tempora, O mores?” type of criticisms leveled at the troublemakers. Pietism and moralism come into play with “why can’t we all just get along”, “what will unbelievers think” and “can’t we just get back to spreading the Gospel” questions thrown around to end debate. This semi-gnostic approach to reality assumes that it is not nice and pious to delve into the messy realities of politics and personalities. You have to stay above the fray in the airy realm of the spiritual. Shut down that conversation. These folks must cringe when they read the rhetoric used by the Reformers and Church Fathers. Listen to Tertullian:

You are fond of spectacles, expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquifying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded scholars;”

Wow, did he miss the Sunday School lesson on being nice? This is not to say that our conversations shouldn’t be irenic when possible, but sarcasm has a very Scriptural place (cf. Doug Wilson, The Serrated Edge). “Foolish Galatians…castrate yourselves,” “You are of your Father the Devil.” And so forth. But we are living in a nauseating age where the worst can get away with just about anything if they just say “bless your heart” as they knife you in the back.


The Challenge of Jesus, N.T. Wright

What Saint Paul Really Said, N.T. Wright

1 thought on “Critique from Within”

  1. Very nice post here Joel! Though I cannot follow the centre of NT Wright’s NPP, etc., he is simply brilliant, and has good things to say often! But a quote from Tertullian… rock on! 😉 I love the godly man myself! Tertullian is the master of the antithetical in the doctrine of God!

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