Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock by Daniel Strange (TGC Review)

their rockDaniel Strange. Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 384 pp. $24.99.

If Christianity is the ultimate truth about God and reality, what’s the status of other religions or faith systems? Do they teach truth, or are they entirely false? If there is truth in them, is it in any way saving? If God is sovereign like the Bible says he is, why does he allow other religions to exist at all? Beyond that, how should Christians engage their neighbors who espouse other faith systems? What good news does Christianity hold out to the adherents of other faiths?

Ours isn’t the first generation to ask such questions, of course, but they do press in on us with seemingly greater pressure than in times past. Globalism and immigration, the Internet, and cross-pollinating media culture have shrunk the world. The reality of other religions, then, isn’t merely of antiquarian interest or academic exoticism. Our children play with our Hindu neighbors up the street. Our favorite coworkers are Buddhist or Muslim. Visitors at church are just as likely to be studying Taoism as they are the Bible.

The church needs more than pop apologetic answers if we’re going to faithfully preach the gospel to the world that’s arriving on our doorstep. We also need more than soteriology focused on exclusivism and the fate of the unevangelized—as important as those questions are. The problem in part is that while other religious traditions have been busy articulating their own identity, evangelicals have often been caught up with other matters. As Daniel Strange puts it, Catholics have Vatican II, but evangelicals have . . . The Chronicles of Narnia? In his new book Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions, the lecturer in theology at London’s Oak Hill College sets out to fill the gap.

Strange aims to articulate a theology of religions for evangelicals based on Reformed theological presuppositions (such as sola scriptura) and anthropology. He happily depends on the Dutch Reformed stream of reflection flowing from Herman Bavinck, J. H. Bavinck, and the brilliant but largely forgotten Hendrik Kraemer (followed with heavy heapings of Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, and other related figures). His construction is ambitious. He aims to straddle multiple worlds—academy and church, as well as theology, biblical studies, and missiology—in order to produce a work that forwards the academic discussion while providing practical value to the pulpit and pew.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jude, Corpse-Fights, and Angels: Dealing with Moral Revisionism Then and Now

michael v satan

Michael challenging Satan for Moses’ corpse.

Jude, Jesus and James’ little brother, wrote probably the quirkiest little book in the whole New Testament. For one thing, it’s not a typical epistle. It’s just a short little letter, only one chapter in your Bible with twenty-five short verses marked out. But then again, so are the letters to Philemon and 2nd and 3rd John.  What distinguishes Jude is how jam-packed it is with short allusions to really intense biblical texts about judgment, densely clustered together, barely unpacked, with an expectation you’ll just be able to pick up what he’s throwing down. Beyond that, I’m fairly sure it’s got the most references to extra-biblical literature than any other NT text as well. Certainly by volume. Tucked in the back, there, right before Revelation, it’s this spicy, aggressive appetizer that whets your taste for the hyper-figural, bizarrity of John’s Apocalypse.

Which is probably one of the reasons it’s so ignored. And that’s a shame because it’s such a fascinating and relevant little text. In preparation for a Bible study, I was able to finally do a little digging into it and nail down some of the flow and even quirkier elements of the argument and was surprised at the way that even some of the weirdest stuff maps onto the current modes of argument and struggles with doctrinal debate and struggle in the church today.

The Opponents

So what’s going on? Well, Jude tells his readers very quickly he’d rather be writing a different letter–a more positive one about our “common salvation”–than the one he had to write appealing to the believers “contend” the faith once for all delivered to the saints (3). Apparently, false teachers and “believers” had stealthily snuck into the church and were threatening to lead people astray with their doctrines (4). What kind of doctrines are these? Well, in the past, there was the theory that it was Gnostics, but Richard Bauckham has argued that this thesis pushes past the evidence we have in the letter.

Jude says these opponents are drawn along by their own desires and sinful instincts the way the Israelites in the desert (cf. Paul 1 Cor. 10), the angels (the Watchers) were in pursuing the daughters of men (Gen 6), and the men of Sodom who pursued strange flesh (whether the accent is on angelic or simply male flesh), and will be judged like them (vv 5-8, 10, 19). Judging by that and his judgment that “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (4), it seems licentious antinomianism is probably the biggest issue. According to Bauckham, these opponents were probably arguing for some sort of rejection of traditional moral norms because they’d transcended them and were inviting the rest of the Church to join.

The Opponents’ Main Moves

So how were they making the argument? There are about two or three arguments that I can spot Jude pointing to.

1. Abusing Grace. First, it appears that they were making a false appeal to Paul’s preaching of the gospel of grace. Mistaking grace for permission, they could be preaching “sin in order that grace may abound.”

Oh look, someone abusing the gospel of grace. How surprising.

2. False Appeals to “Visions”. Second, and the next two points are connected, they are appealing to “the strength of their dreams” (v. 9).  In other words, possibly some hyper-charismatic experience, or an appeal to a new, special experience of the Spirit that elevates or moves them beyond former moral norms given in the teaching of the Apostles or Scripture.

Oh look, someone abusing the claim of spiritual experience to downgrade Scripture. How surprising.

3. Assaulting the Law. Third, these “dreams” or visions taken to be superior to Old Testament moral law as given by lesser beings. And this is where we get to some of the quirky stuff in verses 8c-10a:

…reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand…

So, here’s where knowing some extra-biblical, 2nd Temple Judaism literature helps. At the time, there were a couple of teachings that were popular. First was the idea that the OT law was given by angels, intermediaries, and not directly by God, though by God’s authority. You can see this idea peeking out in Paul and Acts (Gal. 3:19; Acts 7 :38).

Second, there’s the story of Moses’ burial/assumption told in the Assumption (or Testament) of Moses. If you remember, Moses died on the mountain before entering the promised land. Well, a bunch of legends had grown up around that God had sent the Archangel Michael to retrieve the body of Moses for burial. When he got there, Satan (the Accuser), argued with Michael that Moses’ body was his because Moses was a murderer. Now, Michael knew that this was a slanderous charge, but what did he do? Surprisingly, he does not condemn Satan for slander or over-reach, but appealed to the Lord to judge him for the false accusation made according to the Law.

Without getting into the status of extra-biblical materials, what does this have to do with the false teachers Jude is dealing with? Apparently they were blaspheming the “glorious ones” or “celestial beings” through whom the Law came in order to denigrate the Law, and supplant moral authority of OT Scripture with their own licentious teachings. If the Law was delivered through untrustworthy angels, then it’s all the easier to replace with private revelations. Jude responds to their arrogance by appealing to Michael’s example. Bauckham comments:

Michael’s behavior contrasts with that of the false teachers when they reject the accusations which the angels, as spokesmen for the Law, bring against them. They do so because they claim to be above all such accusations, subject to no moral authority. In fact, even if they had the status of Moses or Michael, they would remain subject to the divine Lawgiver and Judge. — Jude, 2 Peter, pg. 62

If they really understood the nature of the spiritual realm they claimed to, they would not slander revelation as they have been doing, but apparently all they understand is their own lusts. The only authority that they will recognize is their own desires trumped up in the garb of elevated spiritual insight.

Oh look, someone is denigrating the revelation of the Scripture and the Apostles’ teaching  as revealing God’s creative intent of Christian moral practice because we’ve moved past that. How surprising.

This is Not New

Don’t get me wrong here. I know there are difficult issues involved with parsing the relationship with the OT and the NT, or contextualizing the preaching of the apostles in the 1st Century in the 21st Century. I have to say, though, when you begin to study the structure of heretical arguments made in the history of the church, there is a redundancy in form that becomes increasingly familiar.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve read about these sorts of moves in the first couple of centuries, and again with some of the hyper-radicals of the Reformation and the post-Reformation period, and down on into today.

Of course, that means that, despite the complexities, modern nuances, and varied ambiguities we need to manage, Jude’s call to “maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints” remains the same. We haven’t “moved past” this, or progressed on to a fundamentally new stage in spiritual history. Yes, history moves on, but now, as then, we live between the comings of Christ. The 1970s were not an eschatologically-significant event comparable to the changing of the covenants brought about through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, as difficult and tempting  as it might be, we are called to keep ourselves from being drawn off into false teaching:

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (20-21)

This is not a call to rigid, or harsh judgmentalism in matters of doctrinal difference, or towards those who struggle with belief. Christ-like pastors are sensitive to tender consciences. Jude continues by telling people that even though they should hate even the clothes stained by sin, they are to:

Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear… (22-23)

People in the pews are in all kinds of different places. We need to be prepared for that and deal gently, even as we correct false teaching coming from those set on uprooting the truth.

Thankfully, we have God’s promises to sustain us, which is why in the midst of conflict and controversy we praise him now as Jude did then:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (24-25)

Soli Deo Gloria

Torrey on the Trustworthy Temple of Scripture

torreyFred Sanders put together a nifty little collection of evangelist, expositor, Bible college dean, and pastor R.A. Torrey’s sermons entitled How God Used. R.A. Torrey. Sanders introduces the work with a little bio, then adds brief introductory commentary before 13 representative sermons and addresses by Torrey. I’ve been reading it for a couple of days between other works and it’s been a fun little work so far. The preaching is dynamic, personal, and spiritually compelling. Also, as a preacher, it’s just interesting to see how much the game has changed, so to speak, since Torrey was calling people back to faith.

One address I enjoyed, in particular, was his famous “10 Reasons Why I Believe the Bible is the Word of God.” Torrey, of course, famously edited the collection of essays in defense of orthodoxy known as The Fundamentals at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies, so it’s unsurprising he dedicated significant preaching to the subject of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.

Well, the whole sermon holds up remarkably well 100 years later on, but the section I enjoyed most was his argument about “the unity of the book”:

This is an old argument, but a very satisfactory one. The Bible consists of sixty-six books, written by more than thirty different men, extending in the period of its composition over more than fifteen hundred years; written in three different languages, in many different countries, and by men on every plane of social life, from the herdman and fisherman and cheap politician up to the king upon his throne; written under all sorts of circumstances; yet in all this wonderful conglomeration we find an absolute unity of thought.

A wonderful thing about it is that this unity does not lie on the surface. On the surface there is oftentimes apparent contradiction, and the unity only comes out after deep and protracted study.

More wonderful yet is the organic character of this unity, beginning in the first book and growing till you come to its culmination in the last book of the Bible. We have first the seed, then the plant, then the bud, then the blossom, then the ripened fruit.

Suppose a vast building were to be erected, the stones for which were brought from the quarries in Rutland, Vermont; Berea, Ohio; Kasota, Minnesota, and Middletown, Connecticut. Each stone was hewn into final shape in the quarry from which it was brought. These stones were of all varieties of shape and size, cubical, rectangular, cylindrical, etc., but when they were brought together every stone fitted into its place, and when put together there rose before you a temple absolutely perfect in every outline, with its domes, sidewalls, buttresses, arches, transepts–not a gap or a flaw anywhere. How would you account for it? You would say:

“Back of these individual workers in the quarries was the master-mind of the architect who planned it all, and gave to each individual worker his specifications for the work.”

So in this marvelous temple of God’s truth which we call the Bible, whose stones have been quarried at periods of time and in places so remote from one another, but where every smallest part fits each other part, we are forced to say that back of the human hands that wrought was the Master-mind that thought.

How God Used R.A. Torrey, pp. 23-24

I have to tell you, this “argument” isn’t one that you just trot out in the middle of an apologetic dispute, especially with someone predisposed to disbelieve or be hostile to Scripture. Still, year after year, this insight into the unity of Scripture–it’s ability to consistently point to Christ through Law, Prophets, and Gospels, across various genres, generations, authors, and centuries is a continuous marvel. This is especially the case when you take off the modernist blinders and begin to pour over the various narratival and typological continuities.

The Scriptures truly are a marvelous Temple of God’s truth. But Torrey is right–it’s not a unity that just lies there on the surface. It’s the kind of thing that you come to see once you give it the sustained attention and care that it deserves. But once you see it, much as Moses face coming down from Sinai, it shines with the reflected glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

JJesus and the crowds.D. Crossan has apparently written a book about How to Read the Bible and Remain a Christian. In light of the obvious, almost trite, irony of a man whose rejection of basic Christian orthodoxy extends to even a denial of the resurrection of Christ, attempting to tell people how to remain Christians, one must wonder what the point of engaging such a work with seriousness. Well, the reality is that he’s taking up one of the most recent causes du jour, which we’ve had reason to deal with on this blog on a regular basis: the problem of reconciling violence in the Scriptures with the allegedly non-violent God revealed in the preaching and person of Jesus.

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the text, but I have read his earlier God and Empire text, and from what it looks like, Crossan’s working with much the same presuppositions, with less of a focus on America-as-Rome narrative, but cashing out a more general thesis about Scripture and violence. Collin Garbarino has an excellent review of the work over at First Things. He quotes Crossan’s main thesis:

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities—be they earliest Israelites or latest Christians. That pattern of assertion-and-subversion, that rhythm of expansion-and-contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

For Crossan, the Bible needs to be read in light of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Revelation, or anything like that, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount given in the Gospels. Garbarino quotes him again:

This biblical patterning of yes-and-no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

What we see here is another variation, albeit a bit more radical, of some of the Jesus Tea-strainer hermeneutic.

In an oversimplified nutshell, for many, the arrival of Jesus, his preaching in the Sermon the Mount, his rejection of retaliation against enemies, his message of forgiveness, love, and open-armed reconciliation leads to a clear conclusion: Jesus rejected wholesale the logic of justice as retribution, or any component which contains violence. “Mercy over justice”, if you will. If that’s the case, then we must read the Scriptures as presenting us with two logics: a retributive, violent logic present in Deuteronomy, the Law, OT narratives, and Paul’s more unreconstructed moments, and a prophetic, non-retributive logic given to us in the prophets and ultimately in Jesus that overcomes retribution. God simply is not like that. Now go reorganize your atonement theology, doctrine of God, and revelation accordingly.

I bring all this up because I found his response to this sort of thing so helpful and compelling. With apologies to First Things, I’ll go ahead and quote it at length:

It seems to me that Crossan will need to cut the Sermon on the Mount down to just a few sentences bereft of context if he wants to maintain a Jesus who is primarily concerned with everyone getting their fair share. When read in context (that’s something we historians do), the Sermon on the Mount contains quite a bit of retributive justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that condemns the Jews for their inability to see Jesus for who he was. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew juxtaposes the king of the Jews with the gentile magi, a comparison which doesn’t leave the Jewish king looking too good. At the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the people of Jerusalem shouting, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The Sermon on the Mount is an integral part of Matthew’s argument that the Jews missed their Messiah, not some parenthetical aside that somehow managed to slip into an otherwise tightly constructed theological narrative.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as being the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Just as Israel experienced exile in Egypt, baptism in the Red Sea, and wandering in the wilderness, Matthew depicts Jesus as experiencing exile in Egypt, followed by baptism in the Jordan, followed by wandering in the wilderness.

Which brings us to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on the mount to deliver a new law to the people. Crossan imagines that it’s here we see God’s distributive justice, “God’s radical dream for an earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its people.”

In Crossan’s defense, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sounds warm and fuzzy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that those who mourn will be comforted and that the meek will inherit the earth. It seems to me, however, that Jesus demonstrates good homiletic technique—hook the audience and then let them have it. Jesus moves swiftly from comforting his audience to causing great discomfort.

After pronouncing blessings on all of the good people, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wait a second—didn’t he just say that the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven? So the poor in spirit must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the guys who were experts on the Law? The audience would do well to consider whether Jesus thinks them poor in spirit.

Then he says that we’re going to hell if we’re angry. And he also says that we’re going to hell if we’ve ever looked on a woman with lust. And then he says that we can’t defend ourselves from our enemies.

And then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This talk of hell is pretty heavy stuff. Jesus’s law is heavier than the Law of Moses, and if you don’t follow his law perfectly, he says you stand condemned. Perhaps Jesus was referring to himself in those Beatitudes, not his hearers. After all, neither the prophets nor the Romans ever called the Jewish people “peacemakers.”

Here’s the frustrating part about this. There’s no real winning with this kind of hermeneutic, no matter how many texts you pile up.

One really can’t argue with Crossan, however, because his methodology ensures that he’s always right. If one brings up some contrary evidence to his thesis, he’ll just apply his editorial pen more liberally and label that bit of Jesus inauthentic. This isn’t how one ought to read the Bible if one wants to stay Christian.

The same thing is true with (some) other versions of Tea-Strainer hermeneutic. Produce yet another text in the Old Testament or Paul, or whoever, and it’s often simply a text that needs to be overcome, or subverted, or read backwards, sideways, or in a code we finally cracked in the 1970s.

Here’s the problem, though: either you take Matthew’s presentation as the proper context for reading Jesus’s words as Garbarino does, or you’re left with a very awkward operation of reading the words of Jesus as given to us by Matthew against Matthew. This puts us in the rather intellectually unenviable position of having to assert that Matthew is a somewhat reliable witness to the historical Jesus in many cases, but that he’s a rather poor one in others, or simply an inept theologian. It seems that he, as a disciple, or the disciples from whom he gleaned these stories, words, and theological interpretations didn’t understand Jesus quite as well as we do now. Reading at a 2,000-year remove in the 21st century, we’re finally piecing together the real, true, deep intentions of Jesus, using hermeneutical presuppositions given to us through the witness of the text, despite the text, that his disciples who authored the text have missed somehow.

Or again, I’ve made this same point with the accounts of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira as well as the Tetrarch Herod in judgment in the book of Acts. In the text, the author clearly identifies God or God via an angel, as ordering the very retributive judgment. Now, the thing to remember is that this is the same author as the Gospel of Luke, who gives us a fair amount of the picture of Jesus who tells us to forgo vengeance, love our enemies, and so forth. Either we’re to believe that Luke, or whoever you think wrote it, didn’t see the very clear contradiction, or maybe we should allow Jesus, and the Bible, to have a far more complex, yet unified message than that.

This, of course, is just a rehash of the old historical-critical Jesus Seminar problem. First, you take a statement or two from the Gospels that you label “The sorts of thing we know Jesus could say”, whether because it’s different enough from the kinds of things later disciples said, or its similar to the particular political movement you’ve chosen to set Jesus against, (or it fits with your 1970s-style political socialism) something like that. Then, you measure all the rest of the statements against it, usually pressing for strict dichotomies in order to rule out “the sorts of things we know Jesus couldn’t say”, or “the sorts of things we’re not quite as sure about.” At the end, you get the classic problem of historians staring down the well of history to find the Jesus behind the Gospels, only to end up seeing a Jesus who looks very much like a bearded, 1st Century version of themselves looking back up at them.

The same sort of logic is at work in a number of the Tea-strainer hermeneutics. Attempts to split Jesus off from the “retributive logic” found in Scripture inevitably leads to accusing the New Testament authors of a schizophrenic presentation of Jesus himself, or with the inconsistent attempt to uphold the Jesus of the Gospels, without actually upholding the Gospels. With Crossan, a bona fide historical critic, you at least get the benefit of an explicit acknowledgement of what’s going on.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Nonviolent God of the Exodus?

sacrificial lambI keep returning to the issue of the consistency between the Old Testament and the New Testament in it’s portrayal of God because the issue keeps getting brought up in popular (and academic) forums. Driven largely by a particular hermeneutic and reading of Jesus’ revelation of God, atonement, and nonviolence, a significant drive towards screening out large sections of the Old Testament portrayal of God is afoot. The basic argument is that while the Old Testament is fine for what it is–a limited, timebound telling of God’s dealings with his people according to their lights–Jesus came along and corrected that view. So, we need to go back and look at the Old Testament in light of Jesus and judge it according to his standard of non-violent love. By that standard, much of the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s activity falls short and we ought to gently set it aside as a bit of revelation of who God is.

We can call this the “Nonviolent God” premise or hermeneutic. Note, this is not the “Christian nonviolence” position. Though this is inevitably a form of nonviolence, there are many like Preston Sprinkle, or even my Mere Fidelity companion Andrew Wilson, who would advocate for nonviolent practices as a part of the progressive ethic revealed in the New Testament, while still accepting the full truth and authority of the Old Testament.

Still, if we set out the basic argument in logical form, it flows something like this:

Nonviolent God Premise 1: Jesus shows us what God is like in a way that supersedes and corrects all prior conceptions.

Nonviolent God Premise 2: Jesus’ nonviolent practices show us that his God would never perform acts of violent judgment, because he would rather die for his enemies on the Cross than kill them.

Nonviolent God Conclusion 3: Accounts like those of the Invasion and Conquest of Canaan are inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, therefore God did not command them or perform them.

These narratives, then, are highly-accommodated tellings or permissible falsehoods allowed in God’s benevolence. But thankfully we have Jesus now, we can see clearly that this is wrong, and we can move on, applying a Jesus-hermeneutic and still appropriating the OT Scriptures as they fit.

But here’s the rub that occurred to me when I was reading Psalm 78: acts like those are the chief events by which the God of Israel is identified and identifies himself in the OT. They are ineliminably at the core of Israel’s narrative understanding of the Lord with whom they are in covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2, Deut. 5:6; cf. also, Lev. 26:13; Ps. 81:10). Indeed, one of the main OT confessions of faith is found in Deuteronomy, where worshippers coming to celebrate the festival of the firstfruits. Worshippers were supposed to respond to the priests as they brought their offerings to the LORD:

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ESV)

The “great deeds of terror and signs and wonders” are precisely those events which our nonviolent God hermeneutic ought to lead us to reject as less than appropriate for the God of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to posit couple more premises and a logical entailment that isn’t usually accepted by more Evangelical advocates of the Nonviolent God hermeneutic, but I think follows naturally.

OT Data Premise 4: The Exodus from Egypt and Redemption of Israel was accomplished by similar, if not more aggressive divine acts of violent mercy and judgment such as: the 10 plagues (rivers of blood, sickness, deadly hale, economic devastation, etc) , the drowning of a massive Egyptian army in Red Sea, and finally, the execution of the firstborn in all the land as an act of Judgment on the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12).

OT Data Subpremise 4.5: It is clear from the narrative that each of these acts of divine violence was not ancillary to process of redemption. It occurs precisely in and through these acts of divine judgment. There is simply no way to read out God’s activity (even those who distance God via the destroying angel must admit that it is by God’s permission, will, and command that the angel goes out).  

OT Data Premise 5: Yet, the God of Israel willed to be known primarily as the God who accomplished the mighty acts of mercy and judgment in the Exodus and Redemption of Israel (cf. Exodus and the hundreds of celebratory references in the Prophets and Psalms). Indeed, the foundational Passover celebration and meal memorialize an act divine violence and mercy–the death of the firstborn–which is surely as problematic as the accounts of the Canaanites (though I think there are better approaches to contextualizing that). 

Logical Entailment of the Nonviolent God Premises: Jesus reveals to us a fundamentally different God than the God of the Exodus and Redemption and therefore a different God than the God of Israel.

At this point, my question becomes, “How is this not some form of Neo-Marcionism?” Note, I don’t mean full-blown Marcionism. That would require a gnostic rejection of Creation, materiality, and whole lot more. But I am asking, how does this hermeneutic not slowly, but surely lead us to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a significantly different being than the God of Jesus Christ? How can we continue to narratively-identify them when the chief liberating acts of the one allegedly deny the chief liberating acts of the other?

Again, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the kind of nonviolence approach that says God has a multi-stage plan in which his people can participate in warfare in one stage (Israel) and then move away from it in another (the Church/New Israel). I actually do believe there are significant discontinuities as well as continuities between the Old and the New Testament. Thank God for that, or I, a Gentile, wouldn’t be here. I don’t think the OT Law in its entirety is for applicable, or even advisable to today. I think Jesus has changed some things. Still, the problem comes when we arrive at a “Jesus”-hermeneutic that ends up retooling our entire doctrine of God, the cross (atonement), and entire telling of salvation history.

Let me be clear: most of the Evangelicals flirting with or advocating the Nonviolent God hermeneutic have not gone this far. I am not call them Marcionites straight out or even all Neo-Marcionites. What I am saying is that unchecked or ungrounded by other concerns, it logically flows into something like this. That’s something that ought to give us pause.

Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus. And that’s a bridge too far.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria