Straining Gnats and Siding with Pharaoh Over the Midwives

midwives-1024x563I’d like to quickly conduct a little experiment in our responses as moral readers. Bear with me as I set the stage, though, as this is going somewhere.

Exodus opens with the story of the oppression of God’s people in Egypt. Years after Joseph lead Jacob’s sons into the land to escape the famine, they grew prosperous and multiplied–so much so that the Egyptians began to fear them. So one of the later Pharaohs actually enslaved the populace in order to subjugate and suppress them. In the end, though, the oppression only caused them to expand further. So Pharaoh took it into his head to handle the population crisis in another fashion:

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exodus 1:15-21 ESV)

So there you have it. Pharaoh’s plan was a limited genocide, but it was initially thwarted by the efforts of two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah–named slaves against a nameless king.

Here’s my question: who’s the hero of the story? Or, rather, who’s the villain? What’s your instinctive answer? In your gut, who provokes your anger? Who do you judge to be of dubious character? Who is being wronged here? Well, obviously, everyone would agree that the Hebrews, in general, were.

But what about the Pharaoh? Are you kind of tempted to see him as a victim? I mean, didn’t the midwives lie to him? Didn’t they deceive him? Weren’t they unethical in the way they misled him about their intention to follow his commands? They actively spread falsehoods about the heartiness of Hebrew women in the birthing process. That’s not just a little fib, now is it? And on top of that, you have to consider that for Pharaoh, slave labor was great for infrastructure. And it’s not like it was the only thing he did, or he was enslaving them just to enslave people.  No, I mean, it probably allowed him to provide grain and other services to the general populace and advance Egyptian society as a whole, right? Beyond that, he was entirely within his legal rights as the Pharaoh. His word was the law of the land.

But none of that really changes the way you read the story, does it? The lying Ziphrah and Puah are clearly the heroes–so much so that God blesses them for their actions. Their mild deception was in the service of life, in the service of justice, of protecting the defenseless and so the God of Israel honors them.

I bring all this up in light of the recent videos surrounding Planned Parenthood’s (PP) alleged sale of “fetal tissue”–the hearts, eyes, livers, and lungs of the unborn and aborted–to medical research facilities. These undercover videos show PP officials discussing these sales with representatives of a dummy corporation set up by the investigative organization looking to expose the practice. The videos range from simple conversations of “less crunchy” techniques of procuring tissue (over lunch), to hearing practitioners admitting that at times infants make it out of the womb intact and are still used to harvest tissue, to hearing one doctor in the middle of a procedure exclaim, “it’s another boy!” It’s truly horrifying stuff that even has presidential candidate Hilary Clinton saying the videos are disturbing.

Of course, the reactions are mixed. Die-hard Planned Parenthood advocates look to defend it as misrepresentation of an entirely legal practice*, pro-lifers are incensed calling to defund the organization**, but in the middle of all of these predictable reactions, though, there is this third group that puzzles me most: the Christian/Evangelical purist. I’ve seen it a number of times now, but you get this middling response where someone will say, “Guys, I don’t like abortion either, but we really shouldn’t have to lie about stuff like these fanatics. We’re Christians, guys. I mean, lying to Planned Parenthood representatives is kind of low.”

And here’s where I just want to say, if your first instinct when you want or read about these videos is to think, “Geez, are you telling me they lied to get the footage of these people sorting through these fetal parts, or discussing prices non-chalantly over lunch? Woof. That’s a bridge too far”, then you’re reading the story wrong.

I don’t know what’s motivating it in various cases. Maybe it’s a desire for some progressives to not be identified with those pro-lifers. If that’s the case, then maybe your identity as a not-your-parents-kind-of-Evangelical is just a little too important to you. Or, maybe it is a genuine discomfort with the act of lying. If that’s the case, then I’d urge you to consider the fact that Scripture does give different moral weight to issues in the Law.

When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees’ hardness of heart, he denounced them as blind guides:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

He launches into them for being so particular about smaller matters–which are fine to care about–but in their case it was at the coast of missing the broader issues of the justice of the Law. Let me put it this way: watching these videos and being more uncomfortable with the investigators and quick to denounce them than PP is like watching a police video of a man being beaten mercilessly by an out-of-line officer and asking, “Well, did he jay-walk or not?”

Be careful that you’re not swallowing moral camels in your attempt to strain the gnats.

And finally, for those of you nodding you head vigorously to all this on the more conservative side–watch your own heart on other issues where gnat-straining becomes a temptation. None of us–and I definitely include myself in this–is above this danger. Pray for humility toward your brothers and sisters. But most of all, in this time, pray for justice and clarity for the American people so that we may come one day closer to the day when the phrase “it’s another boy” is only uttered in the delivery room, not the Planned Parenthood office.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Accepting money for the tissues to cover cost does appear to be an entirely legal practice. That said, killing fetus/babies who are born intact, as the fourth video seems to admit, or possibly performing partial birth abortions, and so forth, is not. That, at least, merits investigation. Beyond that, there is serious evidence pointing to possible profit on the part of many PP affiliates that, again, at least merits investigation.

**I know that the organization does other services that can be helpful for certain communities, so I do think there needs to be conversations about replacing its infrastructures, or simply repurposing the organization. Christians need to be–and I think many are–prepared to not only expose evil but be part of the loving solution to the systemic and social structures that make it seem tragically necessary to so many poor souls.

Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

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