A Response to Luke Todd on My Book

I am grateful to Luke Todd for taking the time to read and review my book, Did the Reformers Misread Paul? A Historical-Theological Critique of the New Perspective. It is good to know that yes, indeed, someone outside my dissertation committee has read it! The review is gracious in tone and competent in substance.

I am especially appreciative of this paragraph:

While not without its weaknesses, this is an important book, and one with significant strengths. O’Kelley has given us a nuanced take on the theological battle at the heart of the Reformation, thankfully taking us beyond a simplistic caricature of grace versus works. By so doing, he successfully supports his thesis: just as Paul was not out to correct a predominately legalistic Judaism, neither were the Protestants out to reform a graceless Roman Catholicism.

If the book serves to highlight the theological nuances of the Reformation period and bring those into the current discussion of Paul, it will have accomplished its purpose.

I am also grateful for Todd’s words of critique, to which I can respond here. Todd argues that I have “perhaps inadvertently, proven the importance of the [New Perspective on Paul].” Of course, I never set out to prove the NPP’s importance. I took it for granted, which was the reason for writing the book in the first place. If I communicated anywhere in the book that the NPP is unimportant, I retract such an idea here.

Todd further argues, if I follow him correctly, that I have taken on the NPP for allowing a caricature of Reformation/Medieval Catholic debates to drive many of its assumptions while letting the “old perspective” slip by on its faulty view of Judaism. (If Todd happens to read this, I would appreciate receiving any correction if I have misinterpreted the fifth paragraph of the review). To this I can only respond that the “old perspective” does not depend on any particular view of Judaism. To be sure, a certain strand of Protestant (particularly modern German) thought depends on a caricature of Second Temple Judaism, but that caricature has no essential connection to the theology of the Reformation. In other words, the question of the “old perspective’s” perspective on Judaism becomes virtually irrelevant if my thesis stands.

Todd also argues,

For a book that targets a presupposition (that the Reformation critique of Catholicism was about grace versus works), it makes significant assumptions of its own. Most evident is O’Kelley’s supposition that the entire NPP is built on this one flawed argument.

I don’t think I would quite say it that way. Here I would simply refer those interested to my first chapter, where I document the New Perspective’s view of its own origin, which does indeed depend very heavily on the construction of a foil, which turns out to be more a caricature than an actual grasp of historical theology.

I am grateful for the exegetical insights that have come from the NPP. I personally know Paul’s arguments better because of the works produced by N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn, Richard Hays, and others. It would be fair to say that I have benefited from a nuanced perspective that has been supplied in part through the works of these scholars.

But  as I argue in the book, nuance is not the same as a “new perspective,” an entirely new vantage point from which we are told (as N.T. Wright breathtakingly says in one place) that the church’s whole discussion of the doctrine of justification got off on the wrong foot somewhere around the time of Augustine (354-430 AD) and has remained there ever since! And so, he implies, we should all thank God that he and a handful of other scholars got the whole thing back on the right foot the day before yesterday.

To make good on a claim like that, you have to have all of your ducks in a row. On its grasp of historical theology, the NPP has its ducks scattered in every direction, with its ammo left in the truck. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of the book. I welcome exegetical nuances, from wherever they may come. I reject sweeping paradigm changes built on shoddy understandings of what they are seeking to change.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Can Kim Davis Accomplish from Jail?

It took barely over two months.

If you’re keeping score, keep that number in mind: two months. That’s how long it took for someone to be sent to jail because of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision from the end of June imposing same-sex marriage on all fifty states. In the United States of America, a county clerk now sits behind bars because she refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of her conscience. Ponder that sentence for a minute. In the United States of America, a county clerk now sits behind bars because she refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of her conscience.

Think back to 2008, when candidate Barack Obama felt compelled to hide his support for same-sex marriage by voicing public opposition to it, citing his personal religious beliefs as the basis for doing so. He knew the general public wasn’t ready to elect a candidate who took such a radical position as the one he held personally, namely, that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in all fifty states. Here we are seven years later, and a woman sits in jail because she has taken a stand for the same position Barack Obama publicly advocated in 2008. Seven years is the blink of an eye in the scope of history, and yet that is how far we have come in such a short amount of time.

The moral revolution that has crescendoed into a landmark Supreme Court decision has left our society in a turmoil of uncertainty about where we will land on questions of religious liberty once the fog clears away. Every battle over religious liberty sets a precedent that further solidifies the direction our culture will go. To this point, early battles have not yielded encouraging results. One thinks of Aaron and Melissa Klein, fined an astronomical sum for a mere refusal to lend their artistic abilities to the celebration of a same-sex wedding. And now, a mere two months after the Supreme Court unilaterally altered the job descriptions of county clerks all over the country, one of them sits in jail for her failure to conform. Federal Judge David Bunning (son of the former Senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning) has decided that the best way to swat a fly is to use a sledge hammer.

And yet, the insane overreach of Judge Bunning is the very thing that provides Kim Davis the opportunity to create lasting change by her suffering. Reasonable people on all sides of this debate would seem to agree that forcing her to sit in jail is an extreme measure, and it would be much more preferable for the state of Kentucky to work out a compromise that would enable the county clerk’s office to fulfill the responsibilities forced on it by the Supreme Court without forcing Mrs. Davis to participate. To this point, the state of Kentucky has failed to act in any way to address this situation. Democratic Governor Steve Beshear is not persuaded that state action is necessary, since only three county clerks have taken exception to their new job descriptions from the Supreme Court.

Well, if Governor Beshear thinks the consciences of three county clerks are expendable, I suppose that is his prerogative. But surely the people of the state of Kentucky are capable of letting him know that this issue is far bigger than he thinks, and that they would overwhelmingly support (as I suspect they would) a compromise solution that would ensure Christians with conviction could continue to serve as county clerks without having to send any more of them to jail. The longer Kim Davis sits in jail, the louder the outcry to Governor Beshear and the state legislature of Kentucky should echo until the voice of the people has been heard. (So that means, if you are a resident of Kentucky reading this, you need to light up the switchboard at the state capitol and pack the inboxes of everyone you can think of until your point has been made.)

Christian leaders whom I respect have been tepid, to say the least, in their support of Kim Davis. Rod Dreher has argued that Mrs. Davis has chosen the wrong hill on which to die, and that we should fall back to defending private Christian institutions, not the conscience rights of Christians serving in government positions. Dreher says that if we fight this particular battle, we risk alienating people in the middle whom we will need to persuade when the appropriate time comes to fight for the religious liberty of our institutions. Essentially, Dreher’s argument entails that the position of county clerk in the state of Kentucky is now off-limits to any Christian who holds convictions on this matter. We have lost that battle, and fighting it now will only hurt our chances to win later.

But why are we already conceding defeat when the battle has just begun? Does Dreher see no possibility that the outlandish treatment of Mrs. Davis could itself become the event that exposes the slash-and-burn tactics of the other side in this debate, thereby showing those in the middle how extreme this revolution has become? And we’re talking about the citizens of the state of Kentucky, for crying out loud! Not exactly a bastion of left-wing ideology. If Kim Davis can draw attention (as she is doing by taking her courageous stance) to the utter mess the Supreme Court has foisted on the states, thereby motivating state governments to carve out conscience exceptions for county clerks and others in similar positions, wouldn’t that represent an achievement that would more than vindicate her suffering?

Others have drawn attention to the fact that, as a county clerk, Kim Davis acts as an agent of the state. It would therefore seem theoretically possible for her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on behalf of the state without thereby giving her personal endorsement of the practice. I can only hope that all of the other Christian county clerks in Kentucky (and across the nation) who are readily complying with the demands of the Supreme Court have reasoned their way to such a conclusion. But does that solution actually work? It seems that all would agree it doesn’t work in every situation. Who among us would hold innocent the murderers of the Nazi government who simply followed orders as agents of the state? And if the “agent of the state” excuse doesn’t work there, why should it work here? Not enough moral reflection has gone into this argument to make it work, at least not yet.

The bottom line for me is this: Kim Davis has exercised, and continues to exercise, amazing courage in the face of an oppressive government, an antagonistic media, and even criticism from Christians who have never faced such a decision as she has. She has taken a stand against unrighteousness, and it would behoove all of us who care about religious liberty to stand with her now in the task of exposing the overreach of the forces that have accomplished an unprecedented moral revolution in a historical blink of an eye. Who knows? We may even accomplish something if we do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Seven Things You Should Know about the Civil War

With so much attention focusing on the Confederate flag this week, here are some things you should know about the Civil War:

1. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, at least not directly. When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, their purpose was to defend their country from an invading force. Southerners fought to protect their homeland. Their war aim was to repulse a foreign invasion.

The war aim of the North was to preserve the Union and render void the secession of the eleven states that had withdrawn from the United States. Secession, not slavery, was the cause of the War. It was not until 1863, two years into the conflict, that the emancipation of some (not all) slaves became a war aim of the federal government. This purely military tactic then evolved into an abolitionist movement by the end of the war. If, however, the Union had won the war prior to 1863, it is almost certain that southern states would have been readmitted to the Union with slavery still intact.

2. Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist until the War made him one. Lincoln detested slavery, and he strongly opposed its spread to any new U.S. territories. But his political platform included leaving the institution in place where it was already practiced. Abolitionists were regarded as radical at this time, whereas Lincoln took a more moderate political stance, without which it is doubtful he would have won the election of 1860. Of course, Southerners certainly considered him radical enough to justify their withdrawal from the Union.

Lincoln came to identify with the abolitionist cause after the Emancipation Proclamation made the liberation of some slaves a stated war aim. By the end of the war, he had become the driving political force behind the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

3. The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free many slaves. It only applied to states or parts of states that were regarded as in rebellion against the federal government at the time. It left slavery untouched in border states that did not secede (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri). It also left slavery intact in parts of Confederate states that had come under Union control by 1863, including the entire state of Tennessee. Of course, you can imagine that in most places where it did apply, the citizens did not comply, since they did not regard President Lincoln as having any authority over them.

4. Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection during the War against his former general, George McClellan. There were times, particularly times of Confederate success, prior to the election of 1864, when it seemed that Lincoln would lose his reelection bid. It is interesting to imagine what a President McClellan would have done since, had the vote gone his way, it would have sent a strong message that the citizens of the United States were tired of the War. In my view, the South’s only path to victory lay in a political scenario like that one, where the North simply lost the willpower to fight.

But it was not meant to be. By November of 1864, a string of Union victories (particularly Sherman’s taking of Atlanta) had turned the tide of public opinion in Lincoln’s favor. He was reelected with a mandate to lead the country to victory.

5. The flag that we readily identify with the Confederacy is actually the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. As such, it did not represent the government of the Confederate States of America or its Constitution. It represented Lee’s army and did not, therefore, fly over the institution of slavery per se.

6. Wilmer McLean, a Virginia resident, has one of the most interesting stories of the War. He lived near Manassas, where the first major battle was fought in 1861. He was so close to the fighting that a Union shell exploded in his kitchen. Desiring to move his family to safety, he relocated to a town called Appomattox Courthouse. In 1865, Generals Grant and Lee negotiated the terms of surrender in his front parlor.

7. The Constitution of the Confederate States of America both protected the institution of slavery while outlawing the slave trade. That the Confederacy would seek to protect the institution in writing is no surprise, given that slavery was their primary purpose for seceding. But few people realize that these words are also in the Confederate Constitution in Article I, Section 9.1: “The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Election

First, I was clearly wrong.  Not only was I wrong, I was wrong in a big, big way.  To all my loyal readers whose hopes I raised only to see them dashed to pieces, please accept my groveling.  I’m not going to quit my day job in order to become a political pundit.

Second, I have been thinking all night about what this election means for America.  If Republicans cannot beat this President during this time of economic stagnation, after a campaign in which the President had no message, no vision for the next four years, no semblance of being presidential about much of anything, then I am beginning to wonder if we can ever win again.  Democrats were, in spite of my predictions, able to replicate a similar turnout to 2008, even after four years of Obama!  I don’t understand this, but it is a reality to be reckoned with.

I think it means the American landscape has now changed for good.  We are, probably irreversibly, on our way toward a European style of life.  We have reached the tipping point where the number of takers in our country has reached a critical mass large enough to vote government benefits to themselves indefinitely.  This means, in the long run, that we are looking at more dependence and less prosperity over the long haul.

I lament this tragedy.  America may never be again what it once was.  I fear for the society that my children will inherit.  What kind of opportunities will be available for them?  What kind of life will they have to adapt to in order to survive in the new America that is coming?  It can be scary if you think of it that way.

On the other hand, I could look at it this way: how much more will they be able to treasure Christ if the god of mammon does not loom so large over them as it has over previous generations of Americans, including myself?  How much more loosely will they hold on to the fading wealth of this world and demonstrate a willingness to give up their lives in service to the gospel?  How much more treasure will they be able to lay up in Heaven because God has chosen to take away some of it from them on earth?

I have absolutely no confidence that Barack Obama will lead us out of the mess we are in as a country.  He is not capable of that kind of leadership.  Our decline will continue, and I have no clue where this ends, though I can imagine that what we see happening in Greece is a fair approximation.  And, as a country, we have voted for this, so we deserve every bit of what is coming.

But if this is the path God has chosen for us to walk, then I know that in the end it is for the good of his children.  A billion years from now, perhaps we will be able to see clearly how today’s historic event enabled us to treasure Christ more than we otherwise would have.  And that is worth far more than any political victory.

Don’t be too invested in this world or in the future of America.  There’s not much there now.  The present form of this world is passing away.  Tonight was a good solid reminder of that biblical truth.  May we rest, now more than ever, in the hope of the age to come.

Posted in Contemporary Issues | 5 Comments

My Prediction for Tuesday

On September 16, 2011, when the Republican primaries were still in full swing, I predicted that Mitt Romney would be the next President of the United States.  I continue to stand by my prediction.  I am now going to predict, not only a Romney win, but a very convincing one.  My guess is that Romney wins with 52% of the popular vote and 331 electoral votes compared to 48% for Obama and 207 electoral votes.

Furthermore, I predict that Republicans will expand their majority in the House and gain a slight majority in the Senate, expanding from their current 47 seats to 51 or 52.  We are going to see an extension of the 2010 bloodbath that left the Democratic Party in shambles.  And not a moment too soon.

If, throughout the day on Tuesday, you hear a contrary prediction based on exit polls, don’t buy it for a second.  The election of 2004 demonstrated that exit polls can be hopelessly flawed.  I don’t know what the exit polls will suggest throughout the day, but I predict that, once the vote totals start coming in, Romney will be on his way to such a convincing win that Obama will be forced to concede on Tuesday night.

Posted in Contemporary Issues | 5 Comments

Subversion At Its Best

Now this is subversive.  Katie Pavlich has drawn attention to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s benediction at the Democratic National Convention for its explicitly pro-life stance.  The relevant portion reads as follows:


Thus do we praise you for the gift of life. Grant us the courage to defend it. Life without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected.

But if you listen to the whole prayer, there is actually more.  Around the 2:50–3:10 mark, Dolan prays:

Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God.  Empower us with your grace, so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making or to remake those institutions you’ve given us for the nurturing of life and community.

I can’t imagine what else Dolan is referring to here except marriage, the primary institution given to us by God for the nurture of life and community, and the very one that the Democratic Party is seeking to remake, contrary to the laws of nature.

The man who was asked to deliver the benediction at the Democratic National Convention delivers a benediction that runs directly contrary to the Democratic Party platform on the two most significant moral issues of our day: the protection of human life and the definition of marriage.  This is subversion at its best.

Posted in Children, Contemporary Issues | Leave a comment

Election 2012: My Prediction

It was about a year ago that I predicted that Mitt Romney would win the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.  (I also made a similar prediction on my Facebook account around the same time, which is no longer active).  I was right about the nomination, and I remain confident about my prediction for the general election.

In fact, I want to take things one step further and predict a convincing Romney victory as part of an overall Democrat bloodbath.  The Republicans will maintain a strong majority in the House, they will gain control of the Senate with 55-57 seats, and they will win the White House by a comfortable margin (perhaps even by a landslide).

All of the signs are pointing in this direction.  The Obama campaign has become unhinged.  It has no unifying message, other than the claim that Mitt Romney is the antichrist who murders innocent women, refuses to pay taxes, and abuses animals.  And the only reason he chose Paul Ryan is because he enjoys watching the young congressman torture grandmothers.  These dirty tactics will backfire.

Romney’s base is energized.  His VP pick was brilliant.  Swing voters will break his way. The Tea Party won round 1 in 2010.  This year, they will take round 2 as well.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Posted in Contemporary Issues | 4 Comments