Review: Delivered from the Elements

My earlier notes here.  A potential problem with Leithart is that most people who read him either “join his camp” or “attack his camp.” I don’t want to do either. I actually think the book is quite good.  It has a lot of promise for evangelism and missions and steers a path through the problems with New Perspective on Paul. It is also a good book on metaphysics.

Main idea: the fundamental physics of every society consists of purity, pollution, and ritual (Leithart 12). If you “relocate” the sacred then you change the structure of society.  Goal: a successful atonement theology must show how Jesus’s death and resurrection is the key to history.

One interesting point is that he draws attention to the word “nature.”  Yes, the NT uses “substance” language, but not the kind usually thought.  The NT use of “nature:” a moral order rooted in the differences of the sexes (27).  When Paul uses “nature” it is neither Aristotelian or Stoic.  Gentiles do not have the Torah “by nature” but they still can do what Torah commands (sometimes). Physeis is closely linked to nomos, so of law means a change of the elements (29).

Here is the problem: given what is wrong with the world, how does Jesus’s death as my substitute fix the world?  Leithart will defend substitutionary atonement, but he does not the problem in most popular accounts.  If the goal is to cash Jesus out as the credit card on my account, then did it matter that he was a Jew?  Framed another way: how does Christ’s dying for me deliver humanity from ta stoichea?  You have to be able to answer this question.

“The elements (ta stoichea) are features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).  In both Gentile and Jewish worlds they are structures and symbols that involve distinctions between purity and impurity, sacred and profane.

Yahweh’s intention is to destroy the fleshly physics.  When he introduces Torah he is continuing his cutting away of flesh.  The problem with flesh is that flesh spreads pollution (100). As Leithart notes, “Torah cannot kill flesh without killing the man or woman who bears that flesh” (102).

Torah provides a way for Israel to be Yahweh’s people among the division of nations.  It regulates the flesh but does not fix it. As long as Israel is under Torah she is under managers. It is spiritual and we are flesh.  If we come to it it will kill us.

Justification

(1) The judgment is not a  mere verdict of righteousness, but it is the very act by which it is accomplished (181). “It is a favorable judgment in the form of resurrection.” It also makes more sense in the historia salutis than in the ordo.  Justification was an act in Jesus’s life (1 Tim. 3:16). And through it we are delivered from the realm of death and stoichea to the realm of Spirit.

Thesis: Paul denies that the Spirit comes through the mechanisms of Torah (193). Flesh and Torah are mutually defining (Romans 7:1-6).  Paul’s argument: to be reckoned righteous is to receive the Spirit.  We receive the Spirit who does acts of power by hearing the message [as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Humanity is supposed to grow into maturity, but it cannot do this while remaining under the elements and Torah.  The elements are beings who guard and manage children. They could be angelic beings, since Jews received Torah through angels and Gentiles were under beings that are “by nature no gods” (Gal. 4.8).

While stoichea regulate the elements of social life, and a dissolution of stoichea would dissolve the universe, Jesus gives the Spirit who is the new fundamental element of social life (219).  As the Spirit spreads, stoicheic divisions give way to a new order of the Spirit. Instead of a pyramid society of slaves, Paul sees a single body.

Conclusion

The book has several appendices of varying interests.  My main problem with the book was it could have been about 50 pages shorter.  The chapter on Presbyterian Buddhists was neat, but could have been reduced to a footnote.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review: Delivered from the Elements

  1. cal says:

    I thought part I was worth the price of the book, but the rest of it is mediocre. I’m not sure Leithart gives us a more useful paradigm than what Wright has done (that is vintage Wright, not his refraction through anti-Calvinists that he himself has coyly promoted).

    Also, and this is my main beef with both Leithart and James Jordan, it’s not clear what Christ accomplished definitively. Leithart is heavy on continuation between before and after Christ, but it’s not clear if there’s any discontinuity. Israel was given a flesh-destroying mission that it fails because Torah itself becomes an instrument of the flesh. So Christ comes, but then we’re still capable of doing the same thing viz. the Galatian heresy.

    Plus his vision of what Christendom looks like is a sad fantasy, which is shored up by the fact that he has no real examples of it happening with the exception of the Jesuits in Paraguay.

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    • J. B. Aitken says:

      I think you put your finger on it. I loved part 1. The second half of the book, or at least the last part, seemed to go nowhere.

      I also wonder if his Christendom vision ties in with his End of Protestantism narrative, which is especially naive.

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    • J. B. Aitken says:

      I knew Jordan in person back in my seminary days at RTS. From past conversations he would say “the change” between Old and New, as it were, is that the New Covenant is the resurrection of the old. Covenants die and are resurrected.

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