Atoning for the Altar? Medieval Honor Culture and Leviticus

One of the oddest puzzles in the Law comes in the Day of Atonement ceremonies outlined in Leviticus 16. On this great and holy day, the sins of Israel accumulated throughout the year were cleansed and atoned for in the sacrifices offered up by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. There are a progressive series of sacrifices to be offered up for the high priest, his family, Israel as a whole, the mercy seat, the Tabernacle, and even the altar:

Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses…Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Lev. 16:16, 18-19)

This may initially strike some of us as peculiar. We typically would think that persons needed to have their sins cleansed and expiated and taken away. But the Holy Place and the altar itself have committed no sins–they are inanimate objects–so why should they need atonement?

leviticus as lit pictureJewish scholar Jacob Milgrom has forwarded an influential theory about the contagion of impurity and sin that causes the uncleannesses of the people to sort of pile up throughout the year around the Holy places of the Tabernacle. Sin is brought in regularly and it also penetrates through, polluting the Holy places rendering it in need of cleansing if God is going to dwell in blessing with his people.

In her work Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas finds Milgrom’s work helpful, but she says it’s too materialist in its discussion the accumulation of sin and uncleanness. Instead, she draws some comparative work between the logic of impurity in Leviticus and the discourse of honor in European cultures connected to the virtue of women or the honor of a knight (146).

She notes that the Bible itself presupposes a patronal structure where the client is concerned for the honor of the patron. God is the covenant Lord who has brought separated Israel out from the nations and made it his own people (Ex. 19; Deut. 7:6-10)–they are holy to him.

Defilement as a violation of holiness is a particularly apt expression for an attack on the honour of God perceived as a feudal Lord. The word for holy has the sense of ‘consecrated’, ‘pledged’, ‘betrothed’, as ‘sacrosanct’ in modern English, something forbidden to others, not to be encroached upon, diluted, or attacked. (147)

The Lord has saved Israel into a special relationship of dependence, loyalty, and love. This means they are to be obedient to him and keeping from insulting his honor and glory.

“This power also protects his people or his things and places, and to insult any of them is an insult to his honour.”

Douglas sees this as key to understanding the logic of the defilement of the altar:

In the courts of chivalry a warrior would recognize that his armour is dishonoured if he himself is impeached: as well as his children, and father and mother, his helmet, his coat of arms, his house, all are tainted and made worthless by the contagious dishonour. Blood washes off the major taint, a noble gift cancels a minor fault. In the same way, bringing uncleanness into the Lord God’s sanctuary makes it impure since the place shares in the insult to God. (148)

Of course, I’m obviously delighted to see a 21st century, anthropologist partially vindicate St. Anselm’s appeal to the logic of feudal honor codes to explain atonement. But beyond that, I find the analogy intrinsically persuasive. There is a clear logic of moral identification at work throughout Scripture such that an attack on God’s things is an attack on God and vice versa.

Leviticus is different that many other books–even from it’s closest kin, Deuteronomy and Numbers–but it is not utterly divorced from their moral, covenantal universe. Cleansing the altar, then, is another way of recognizing and reinforcing the holiness, majesty, and glory of the God who has chosen to dwell with Israel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Worship Services and Evangelism

Mere FidelityThis week on Mere Fidelity, we have the full cast and crew on to talk about the point of weekly worship. What is it about? Is Evangelism part of the central purposes or is that a secondary concern? How does this affect the way we go about thinking through our services and the broader church programs surrounding them?

Also, we make fun of Andrew for being an UK televangelist now.

We Can’t Say He Didn’t Warn Us

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)

Night of the HunterWe can’t say he didn’t warn us.

I was struck by that thought as I was watching the opening of the classic, 1955 Southern Gothic film The Night of the Hunter the other night. The film opens with a saintly, older Sunday School teacher Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), reading these verses to her children, then leads into the story of Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a melodramatic huckster, traveling preacher who makes a habit of ingratiating himself with widows, killing them, and using the money to further his ministry to the Lord.  I won’t go into the film, at length, but I’ll simply say that it’s one of the most brilliant explorations of true and false religion in modern times.

Back to Jesus, though, I find it fascinating that he goes out of his way to tell us that false teachers are coming. And it’s not like he was the only one, either. In many ways, he was just following the warning of the Old Testament Law and Prophets that warned against false, abusive religion. What’s more, he was echoed this warning by most of the apostles in the New Testament letters–correcting false teachers was about half of what they seemed to spend their time doing. So the Bible is thick with warnings about the distortion and corruption of religion truth for power and gain.

And yet despite all that material and some 2,000 years of Christian history to confirm it, we’re still surprised when it happens. We’re shocked at false religion. We’re astonished to hear about the abuses of power that happens in the church up the street. We turn on the TV and we’re outraged at the way so many of these televangelists are out there fleecing people for all their worth, leading them astray with all sorts of blatantly absurd heresies and false teachings. We still have trouble heeding Christ’s warning.

Commenting on Jesus’ warning here, Calvin gives us two helpful insights on what it means to “beware of false prophets.”

These words were intended to teach, that the Church would be exposed to various impositions, and that consequently many would be in danger of falling from the faith, if they were not carefully on their guard. We know what a strong propensity men have to falsehood, so that they not only have a natural desire to be deceived, but each individual appears to be ingenious in deceiving himself. Satan, who is a wonderful contriver of delusions, is constantly laying snares to entrap ignorant and heedless persons.

Essentially, where there’s a demand, there’s usually a supply. There are false teachers–and an abundance of them–because there are false hearers. Something in us loves to be lied to. As Calvin says there is a “strong propensity” in humanity to accept what false–we have a “natural desire to deceived.”

This isn’t very groundbreaking, but the point is that some part of us actually wants to believe in the prosperity gospel. It’s attractive to me. And so, for that reason I ought to be on guard against temptations in my own heart that render me prone to believe false teachers. I am not above being deceived and, in many ways, am prone to complicity with deceivers. I am not above this.

 

Second, to the discouraged, Calvin offers a surprising word of comfort:

Hence too we infer, that there is no reason why believers should be discouraged or alarmed, when wolves creep into the fold of Christ, when false prophets endeavor to corrupt the purity of the faith by false doctrines. They ought rather to be aroused to keep watch: for it is not without reason that Christ enjoins them to be on their guard. Provided that we are not led astray through our own sluggishness, we shall be able to avoid every kind of snares; and, indeed, without this confidence, we would not have the courage necessary for being on our guard.

Commentary on Matthew 7:15

The presence of false teachers in the church doesn’t threaten to disconfirm the truth. Nor should we be worried that the church will be overcome because of it. As Calvin notes elsewhere in the passage, Christ has promised to preserve his church and his sheep will recognize the voice of their master (John 10:3-5). No, instead of discouraging us, this ought to put us on our guard. Indeed, Christ himself puts us on guard against those who would pervert his work. This warning is actually part of how he cares for us and confirms his lordship to us.

Actually, this is one of those important apologetic points to preachers ought to regularly remind their people of: many of us are often tempted to chuck the whole thing because of the repeated failures we see among religious leaders and within the Church as a whole. We see it as proof that the whole thing’s a sham, a joke, a set-up. And yet here we see that Christ himself says that Christianity will be twisted. So how is that evidence against it, when the founding documents of the New Testament say its going to happen?

In any case, to wrap up, when we run across false teaching and are threatened with discouragement and despair, we should take heart. Jesus warned us this was coming, so we can trust him to bring us through it.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Webster on Mercy: Divine and Creaturely

God without measureJohn Webster is in the business of doing “theological theology”—theology that takes its beginning and end to be God and the works of God—and so, in one sense, there’s nothing surprising about finding rich, dogmatic reflection in the second volume of his stunning set of essays, God Without Measure. In another sense, it’s remarkable given that it’s a set of essays in moral theology—indeed, the subtitle is “Virtue and Intellect”, specifically those of human creatures.

For Webster, however, dogmatics considers the creature and the principles according to which it acts only in light God—his being and the order of reality brought into being and rescued from corruption in the economy of creation and redemption. In other words, to speak of creatures and our activities, we must always consider God and his works in and through the Son and the Spirit. As he expresses it in the first chapter, activity follows being. We act out of what we are and the very first thing we must recognize about ourselves is that we are God’s creatures (3).

Moral theology, then, is a grand exercise in the famous dictum of Pauline theology that imperatives follow indicatives. Taking his cue from a theological reading of the letter to the Colossians, Webster suggests that Christian ethics is a matter of “seeking” and discerning “where Christ is”, for ingrafted into his history and life, that is where our life is and the reality out of which we must act (Col. 3:1-4). Theology cannot separate Christology from ethics, then, nor displace the primacy of the “metaphysical…over the paraenetic”, nor must it conceive of the human vocation as one separated from Christ (26).

This structure comes out in the variety of essays ranging from human dignity, courage, to the nature of theology in the university. For myself, I was struck by it in particular by two insights in his essay on the work and virtue of mercy. One on the nature of divine mercy and the other on the limits of human mercy.

Saying Jesus is Saying Mercy

But to begin, Webster makes it clear that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ” (49). Jesus Christ is the reality that gives our reflection weight—not because he’s some symbol or exemplar, nor because he’s prophet or legislator of a moral truth beyond him. No, he himself is the concrete, historical, embodiment of the Word of God who “makes manifest the metaphysical and moral order of the entire creation” (51). So to speak of the history of Jesus Christ is to speak of the ultimate good and final end of creation, who clarifies, corrects, displays, and gives shape to the world as it is and as its meant to be.

Two more points before moving on. Webster makes it clear that to speak of Christ means to look back into the depths of God’s Triune life as he is the eternal Word of God, come at the command of the Father, in the power of the Spirit—to speak of Christ’s mercy is to speak of God’s mercy (52). What’s more, speaking of Christ means also looking forward into the lives of the people of God, since Christ coming as the mercy of God is aimed at reconciling and transforming the life of creatures, rendering them able to render mercy towards others (53). And this brings me to the two points that struck me.

Divine Mercy

First, Webster notes that God is intrinsically and unfadingly good—he is perfect in and of himself. This perfect goodness in himself is the ground for his goodness towards others—the relative (relating) goodness and love of God are his will to communicate goodness towards his creatures. Now, “mercy is the directing of God’s majestic goodness to the relief of the creatures in misery and wretchedness” (54). God’s mercy is God’s goodness at work to give us respite and liberation in our miserable rebellion and evil. Aquinas says that mercy is proper to God because it “involves the giving from one’s abundance to others” and “relieving their needs, a function especially belonging to a superior.”

Following this insight, Webster stops to draw out what it means for mercy to be proper to God. He urges us not to think that creaturely need is the cause of God’s mercy. No, rather, it is the occasion that brings to light God’s goodness in this particular situation of our misery. In other words, mercy is free act of God, but it is not an arbitrary one. Here he appeals to the distinction between an affection and a passion. A passion is an “emotion” that is forced, or drawn out of one under compulsion and by distress. An affection is a rational, free response consistent with who God is in himself. The upshot of this is that “God is not reduced to misery by creaturely wretchedness, so that his mercy is a relief of God’s ow trouble as much as that of the creature” (55). Quoting Barth, “God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in his own free power, in his inmost being…his compassionate words are not grounded in a subsequent change…but are rooted in his heart…” (56).

God does not have to be convinced to be merciful. God, in his goodness, simply is merciful. This is the free, stable, unshaking ground of the gospel of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ.

Human Mercy

Of course, this divine mercy is the source of God’s victorious conquest over our sin and rebellion, bringing us back into proper relations, or fellowship with him. This fellowship in the Son and Spirit transforms and renews us, bringing us into a new order—an order of mercy, in which we begin to understand ourselves as objects of God’s mercy. “God’s active merciful presence and rule establishes a creaturely kingdom of mercy” (59). Webster goes into detail about the relationship between God’s mercy and our mercy at this point because he says “we should remind ourselves that a great deal hangs on achieving a sufficiently fine-grained description of a theological account of human mercy, but also”—and this is the point that caught my eye—“the burden of expectation which we place on human mercy” (59).

Among other points that he makes, Webster struggles to capture the tension of our works of human mercy in the command, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). In the first place, they are the work of “God’s new creatures”, plucked up from misery, restored, renewed, and given a moral energy by the Spirit. They do not have to “strive to introduce grace into a world from which it is otherwise absent.”

That said, “because mercy is creaturely, it is limited.” Despite our new creation, we are still finite and we can only do what we can do, “no more.” This is important since it’s easy to become exasperated or hopeless at the limits to our efforts. Indeed, we can become merciless towards ourselves and others in our urgent drive to transcend the creaturely limits of our mercy. For this reason, it is so important that “creaturely mercy accept the restriction of its capacities without resentment or despair”, but instead, “venture its imperfect work cheerfully and hopefully, looking to God’s own encompassing mercy as its vindication” (61).

The work of mercy proceeds, then, because God is merciful and he is so towards his creatures in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Learning to Pastor From Leviticus

When I was a college minister, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for pastoral theology. Actually, Leviticus wasn’t the book I typically went to for most things, with the exception of an atonement talk here or there. I suspect I’m not alone. Most of us don’t relish the idea of delighting our parishioners with details of cleansing skin diseases.

But I’ve recently been learning how mistaken we are when we take this approach to Leviticus.


Pastoral Care in the Old Covenant 

In his recent work, Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (IVP Academic, 2015), L. Michael Morales draws our attention to the pastoral implications of Leviticus’ first verses:

The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.” (Lev. 1:1–3)

Whenever an Israelite offered a burnt offering to the LORD, he was to present it to the priests first. The priests were to inspect it for any hint of defect, blemish, disease, infirmity, or weakness (Lev. 22:17–28). As Morales points out, this gave the priests a chance to exercise pastoral care for God’s people.

Located at the center of the Torah, the provisions of the sacrificial system formed the heart of Israel’s shared life with God. Not only did God use them to instruct his people in holiness (contrary to what many of us have been trained to think, God likes to both show and tell), but they were how he brought sinful people into his presence. Sacrifice was as much about God’s longing for us to draw near as it was about our inability to do so.

Worshipers, then, were to offer God their best as an act of worship. Offering a weak or defective animal indicated either carelessness about the things of God or a lack of trust in his provision. They signaled a distant heart. So the presentation and inspection of the sacrifices was an opportunity for the priests to offer pastoral accountability, correction, and instruction.

I continue to unpack the implications for New Covenant worshippers and pastors over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity: Is it Immoral to Watch the Superbowl?

Mere FidelityKids, the Superbowl is coming up, so being the athletes that we are, we decided to take up the subject of Football (American style) for conversation. Matt, Alastair, and I invited Matt Millsap (professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist) to come on and join us.

The premise is basically this: given the recent studies about the long-term damage to players’ mental and emotional health, is it moral to watch the sport or support it? Should changes be made to the way the game is played? Should our kids play it? Should we listen to anything Alastair says on the subject given the fact that he loves cricket and was probably knitting while we discussed this?

I’ll leave it for you to decide after you give it a listen.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write

zwingli

Poor guy didn’t know how much literature he was gonna ruin.

This last week Peter Leithart ruffled some feathers by claiming, in an admitted “gleeful fit of reductionism”, that Zwingli is the reason Protestants can’t write (poetry or fiction). You can read the two pieces here and here. What follows assumes knowledge of at least the first.

Now, once you read them, you see that he’s actually making a narrower, more specific claim. If Protestants take a certain view of the sacraments, the Real Presence, of the reality linking the sign and the signified in the Lord’s Supper, etc. that has an effect on the shape of your poetics, your literary abilities, your view of the way the world and literature connect up. People who take Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Supper with its thinner link can’t help but fall into bad writing because their options are limited, while Catholics with their thick views of the way that signs can do something are in a better position to cultivate the proper imagination, the proper poetics that leads to great literature.

There are many things to say, but before I say them, a few caveats are in order.

First, I actually love a bunch of Leithart’s work. I say this not as a total endorsement, but simply to set the context. I’m not a critic.

Second, I’m not a Zwinglian. I take Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and of the Real Presence and so forth. I’m in a church that takes the Supper every week. With real wine (sorry, Mom).

That said, I have tended to find that reductionism of any sort, gleeful or not, is unhelpful.

In this case, I find Leithart’s thesis unhelpful because I think it clouds our ability to actually see the phenomenon before our eyes, which is the apparent inability of North American Evangelicals with of the last 100 years or so (which is basically who he’s talking about, having ruled out Anglicans and other large swathes of Protestants who have “sacraments” and a Prayer book) to write the sort of literature that’s broadly recognized as quality. It’s too clean of a “just-so” story that hinders us from addressing the varieties of conditions that play a role in such a complex phenomenon as cultural production.

It’s also unhelpful because instead of drawing people towards the liturgical practices and theological convictions Leithart wants, this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the “Suicide Death-Cult” tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth. Or, for a certain sort, a quick dip across the Tiber to embrace their inner Dante.

Also, I’m really just dubious about the whole connection.

In what follows, what I’d like to do is simply re-complicate the account and briefly list a number of reasons Zwingli might not be the main cause for Protestants of a particular sort lacking literary capabilities. Some are other contributing factors and others are questions I have about Leithart’s account.

First, what of eschatology? It seems quite plausible to construct a narrative around shifting literary output and cultural engagement on the basis of the major shift in eschatology within Evangelicalism in the last hundred years. In other words, why not blame Darby and the Scofield Bible instead of Zwingli and Marburg? If you’re so busy trying to get people saved from a world that’s about to go up in flames after the rapture, what does producing subtle literature matter? Of course, I know Dispensationalists with lovely literary sensibilities over at BIOLA and so forth, but it seems a narrative of this sort could easily be written with some force.

Next, we might speak of one feature of Bebbington’s quadrilateral defining Evangelicals: conversionism. This contributes in two ways. First, building on the last point, if conversionism is at the heart of your religion, then there’s always a certain urgency of having better things to do with our time like save souls, than build culture. In which case, certain habits, sensibilities, etc. will be less likely to be promoted in our congregations. Second, it would contribute to a need to evangelize and edify in all that we do, quite explicitly. Think of God’s Not Dead, or the way Lecrae became suspect as a sellout in some circles once he hit broad-based appeal and didn’t make every song an explicit sermon. Though, this element doesn’t seem relegated to Protestants, since it’s a mentality that even the heroine of Leithart’s story, Flannery O’Connor, was pushing back against in her own sacramental, Roman Catholic context. Apparently, sacramentalism wasn’t as strong of a bulwark against moralism as all that.

Also, broadly following the Modernist/Fundamentalist fight, there’s the broader fundamentalist disengagement from culture for fear of its corrupting influences. Of course, that also limits exposure to the good sorts of cultural influences that you need to produce the proper literary sensibility for good writing. It’s not implausible to argue that we’re still feeling the effects of it. Indeed, Evangelicals still tend to do a lot of the silo, bubble culture thing with Christian music, literature, and so forth, which is even now affecting generations of young, possible future Evangelical Protestant writers.

We can also note here the prudery involved in almost all explicitly Evangelical endeavors. We created the websites with content ratings listing every “d” word and instances of “low cleavage”, in order to protect ourselves from the crudities of mass culture. And there’s some wisdom there, of course, but when you think about the constraints that general moralism can have on Evangelical artistry, you begin to see why some of it is stilted. This was one of the bits that Leithart was on to, but was rendered less plausible by tacking it onto the un-sacramental poetics.

Another possibility one could suggest is a tight focus on historical, propositional truth, facticity, and so forth, as well as the broader loss of narrative preaching. We’re recovering it now, but you could imagine that a church tradition caught up with the question “did it happen”—which is massively important—might lose sight of cultivating a broader sense for why it matters, reading for rhetorical shape, and so forth. I’m not at all sure about this one, but someone creative could probably make a go of this reading.

Of course, there’s the old Mark Noll stand-by of populism and anti-intellectualism having infected the Protestant-Evangelical mindset. That doesn’t tend to produce the sort of fruit in keeping with righteousness Leithart is looking for. Why not go there instead of long narrative about Zwingli’s long hands reaching out from Marburg to choke our literary talent?

Finally, and this is actually a big question for me: what of unbelievers? We can take this question in two ways. First, do unbelievers ever write great literature in the 20th Century? If so, what view of the Real Presence do they take? I’m being somewhat facetious, but I think the question raises the point that far too often we’re given to make these tight connections between doctrine and practice that are far messier out in the world. Second, from another direction, are there protestant sensibilities in unbelieving authors we’re not accounting for? I wonder how easy it would be to find great secular authors grew up in churches—churches with low liturgical and sacramental sensibilities—who might exhibit those tendencies in their own writing?

Of course, all of the foregoing presupposes that we should buy the basic premise that a certain sort of Protestant can’t or hasn’t written great literature. I’m not entirely sure that’s historically true, nor even true now, but I’m not much for going into the history of it here. My point, though, is that this thing is much more complicated that a clean story about the sacraments and we don’t do ourselves any favors by simplifying things to say otherwise.

Soli Deo Gloria