Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

Head in HandsChristians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible.

For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years–in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class.  In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be ‘associated’ with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because “in Christ” you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his name not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Soli Deo Gloria

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

Jesus and the crowdsIf you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short amount of time you’ll know one of my consistent themes is the importance of a multi-layered, non-reductionistic view of the God of Israel. Heck, I just wrote about that yesterday. The Scriptures don’t present a flat portrait of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so neither should we.

One of the most popular ways of flattening and distorting our picture of God is through the violent/peaceful, or loving/wrathful dichotomy. While in the past this was done in a more straight Old Testament v. New Testament split, contemporary proponents focus more on what Andrew Wilson has called the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. Essentially, you take the person of Jesus, or the peaceful teachings of Jesus as you understand them, and then propose to strain out whatever bits of the OT, or even the NT, contradict the loving portrait of God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus’ picture of a Fatherly, non-violent, ‘Abba’-God who loves his enemies to the death ought to be normative, relativizing all other portrayals (even those in Scripture) in light of its purity and ultimacy.

Let me be clear here: I’m all for Jesus being the ultimate revelation of God. I’m also all for reading the OT and the NT through the person and work of Christ, as Andrew and I have said before. But it’s important that we actually pay attention to all of Jesus’ teachings, because more often than not they cut across our too-simple dichotomies and boxes. Take for instance his presentation of God in the parables.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner?

Most of us are familiar with his teaching on the parable of the prodigal son, or rather, the two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus here teaches us about the astounding, category-shattering grace of the Father for his lost sons. Both prodigals and Pharisaic humbuggers are invited to experience the humbling, forgiving, and astonishing love of God. He truly is an ‘Abba’, a Father we can run to despite our worst sins, fears, failures, and shames, who take us up and embrace, covering us in the finest robes of his righteousness and restoring us to full rights as sons and daughters. God here holds no grudges, suffers shame in our place, and reveals his welcoming and inclusive heart. We need this parable. need this parable. It’s one that I cling to and teach joyfully to my students on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s another parable later in the same Gospel, that doesn’t get quite as much airplay when talking about the kind of Father Jesus reveals. I’ll quote it in full here:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said,

“What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
(Luke 20:9-18)

Here Jesus tells a parable against the religious leaders of his day and in this too he speaks of God the Father. He teaches first of mercy and grace of God in the person of the vineyard owner who continually sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, to warn wayward Israel and especially the tenants who were supposed to be keeping watch over, but instead wickedly spurn his cautions and entreaties. Finally, as a great act of mercy and peacemaking, he sends his own Son, the heir to all that he has to plead with them and turn from their ways. But what do they do? They kill him in hopes of holding on to power.

What then does Jesus say the vineyard owner will do in response?

“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

God the great Vineyard Owner is also He whom Jesus came to reveal. God is merciful, long-suffering even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies. And yet, he will not suffer them forever. If they will not repent, or seek the pardon made available in the Son, he will put a just end to their violence and injustice.

This is Regular Thing

What’s more, this angle on God isn’t a bizarre aberration in his teaching in the parables. We find Jesus’ parable of the Great Wedding Feast where those who don’t come, or come without the proper dress, are cast out into the darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). Or again, the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart”(Matthew 18:21-35).

I remember being shocked the summer I taught through them with my students as story after story he gives us both the grace, mercy, and a significant dose of the judgment of God. I guess I shouldn’t have. Sounds just like the God of the Old Testament and the rest of the New.

Returning again to the parable of the Wicked Tenants, in itself it forms an argument against narrowly restricting our Jesus hermeneutic solely to the time of his first coming. There’s Dominical warrant for the idea that we must read his peaceful first coming alongside his more forceful Second Coming where he will, as the creed puts it, ‘judge the quick and the dead.’

From angle after angle, then, these overly-restrictive ‘Jesus’ hermeneutics end up falling against the stone of the Son and dashing themselves to pieces.

Soli Deo Gloria

Deal Gently with Bruised Reeds

bruised reedThinking about Robin Williams’ passing I was reminded of this text in Isaiah, speaking of the ministry of the coming Servant of the Lord:

“a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3)

Calvin commenting on the text says:

“…This is what he means by the metaphor of ‘the bruised reed,’ that he does not wish to break off and altogether crush those who are half-broken, but, on the contrary, to lift up and support them, so as to maintain and strengthen all that is good in them…Isaiah ascribes to Christ that forbearance by which he bears with our weakness, which we find to be actually fulfilled by him; for wherever any spark of piety is seen, he strengthens and kindles it, and if he were to act towards us with the utmost rigor, we should be reduced to nothing. Although men therefore totter and stumble, although they are even shaken or out of joint, yet he does not at once cast them off as utterly useless, but bears long, till he makes them stronger and more steadfast.”

As Christians we are to deal gently with the broken and mournful. It is in this way we follow the Christ we have in the gospel. We follow a Messiah who was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with the painful way of the world we live in. Indeed, it’s precisely to bring comfort and relief to those who mourn that he took up his own cross; he came that he might end their suffering in his own.

If you haven’t already read it, I’d also point you to Alan Noble’s beautiful piece “When Existence Becomes Seemingly Impossible.” He concludes:

What I want to say is that life is harder than most of us will let on, and probably the deepest struggles we’ll face will be silent and petty — things like choosing to get out of bed and get dressed. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, but so too is Christ’s Grace. So, get up, when you can, and carry on. Rest your burdens on He who loves you, and turn to the pilgrims alongside you. Some days, rising out of bed is a great act of worship. And when you can’t get up, let those around you bear you up as Christ’s body, always remembering that you are loved. And then, carry that mercy and grace to your neighbor, who needs it no less.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Legit Ladies of the Exodus

moses motherI love noticing layers and dimensions to the narratives of Scripture that I haven’t seen before. I was particularly edified the other day when reading an older post by my Mere Fidelity compatriot, Alastair Roberts, on the early chapters of Exodus. Among other things, he takes some time to highlights what a dominant role the godly, courageous women play early on in the story. I thought it was worth quoting at length:

Throughout Exodus 1 we see the fertility and liveliness of the children of Israel and the thwarted efforts of Pharaoh to arrest their growth. First, Pharaoh afflicts the Israelites, setting taskmasters over them, and forcing them to build supply cities. Later on the description of the process of making bricks will recall the building of Babel in Genesis 11. Pharaoh then speaks to the Hebrew midwives, instructing them to kill the sons and spare the daughters. The killing of the sons prevented the children of Israel from defending themselves or challenging the Egyptians, while the daughters would be spared for Egyptian men. Once again we see a threat to the promised seed and to the woman by the serpent/dragon figure. The dragon wants to kill the seed that threatens him and use the woman to produce his own seed.

The Hebrew midwives, like the godly women of Genesis, deceive and lie to the tyrant. The women of the Hebrews are contrasted with the Egyptian women, who lack their vigour. The sense is of a divinely given life that is continually outpacing the death-dealing tyrant that is fruitlessly seeking to overtake and arrest it. Having failed with the midwives, Pharaoh then instructs his people to kill every Hebrew baby boy, while saving the daughters alive. The fact that midwives are mentioned should also alert us to the fact thatIsrael is about to undergo a national birth.

It is important that we recognize that this story, as in the case of other great stories of Exodus, focus at their outset on faithful women (Rachel and Leah, Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth). Exodus 1 and 2 are all about women and especially daughters – the Hebrew midwives, the Hebrew mothers, the daughters of the Israelites, Jochebed, the daughter of Levi (2:1), Miriam, the daughter of Jochebed (v.4), Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidens (v.8), and the seven daughters of Midian (2:16). Our attention is typically on the slain sons and on Moses, and we miss the crucial role that the women play in the story.

It is the women who outwit the serpent, Pharaoh, and mastermind the salvation of the Hebrew boys. It is Jochebed and Miriam who bring about Moses’ salvation and the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues him. The place of women in the narrative will be important as we go along. Having registered the importance of this detail, we will remark upon its presence at various points as we proceed.

The women and the seed are in direct conflict with the tyrant because the story of the Exodus grows out of the enmity established between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed in Genesis 3:15. Until Moses grows up, the only man really active within Exodus is the greater serpent, the dragon Pharaoh. Exodus 1:15—2:10 is a story of Eve and the dragon.

Yes, when we think of heroes of the faith, there are a lot of mens’ names on that list. But we shouldn’t for an instant forget the story of the Gospel is one that includes both men and women. We have a great many fathers in the faith, but we also have some really, really legit mothers as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Elisha Ben Kenobi and the Power of God

The other night I taught my students on subject of the power of God out of 2 Kings chapter 8. What follows is a cleaned up, very abridged version of the talk.  

Here we encounter a funny episode in the ministry of Elisha, demonstrating the Lord’s favor and supernatural power working through him. Israel and Aram were at war with each other, and apparently the unnamed king of Aram kept sending raiding parties into Israel. Time and again, though, Elisha kept warning the king of Israel of his plans and thwarting Aram’s plans. Finally, the king of Aram had enough, found out Elisha’s location and sent a platoon of men and chariots to capture Elisha in Dothan, and this is where we pick up the text:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. (2 Kings 6:15-19)

Now, this is amusing on couple of levels. First, there’s the reaction of of the servant compared to Elisha. This man opens the door, probably fresh from bed, looks up, and see the place surrounded by soldiers armed to the gills. Then Elisha says, “Nah, don’t worry about it, we got more guys.” At that point, if I’m the servant, I’m looking out and saying, “Elisha, I’m looking at the jerseys and they all say ‘Aram’ on them, what are you talking about?” At which point Elisha prays and has his eyes open, and sees the fiery chariots.

obi-wanSecond, Elisha pulls a total Jedi with the blindness above:

Elisha: “This is not the city you’re looking for.” (hand waves)
Aramean Storm Trooper: “This is not the city I’m looking for.”
E: “You want to follow me now” (hand waves)
AST: “I want to follow you now.”

Beyond the humor, though, you see the difference between the reactions of the Elisha and the servant came down to one thing: Elisha knew the power of God and the servant didn’t.

Knowing the power of God is at work on your behalf leads to a radically different approach to way believers live their lives. This is why Paul was so determined that the believers in Ephesus know what was the power at work on their behalf:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

(Ephesians 1:15-23)

You see that? One of the main things that Paul is praying for this young, struggling church to know is the muscle God is flexing on their behalf! What is the power the God is leveraging? Resurrection power!

Paul says that the power that broke through the chains of death that were holding Jesus is at work for those who believe! The power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father is being exercised on your behalf! In fact, it’s precisely because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things–whether political powers, economic powers, and every other power you can think of–that we can have hope that he has power over the enemies that threaten us.

See, the young man was scared until he saw the power that God was leveraging for him and Elisha. But we have seen what the young man could not, we have seen God do something even greater. Kierkegaard has a fabulous quote on this in his journals:

God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners. 

Every single one of us who have place our faith in Jesus and been united with him by the Spirit has experience personally the miraculous, regenerating power of God. Every Sunday you sit in the pew, you’re sitting next to a miracle. You’re sitting next to someone who used to be dead, but now is alive.

So what happens when you know the power of God? Plenty, but I think at least three things mark the lives of believers who know the power of God.

1. Belief in God’s power means belief in prayer.

The first thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to pray more. Look at Paul. Paul is right here praying for the Ephesians to believe in the power of God, but he only prays that because he believes God has that kind of power. Right? That’s what we see in the story of Elisha as well.  Elisha prays for God to save because he knows the power of God to save. As James says, “You have not because you ask not”  (James 4:2). God can change things. He can improve relationships. He can heal the sick. He can lift our spirits. He can save marriages. He can save the lost. And the believer who knows this will ask in faith and begin to receive these things in accordance with God’s wisdom.

2. Belief in God’s power means trusting transformation/holiness. 

Connected to this, believing in God’s resurrection power for us, means that we have actual hope for holiness in this life. A lot of us live with this sense that, “Yes, I’m a sinner who needs to be saved. Yes, God has paid for my sins in Christ. Yes, I’m forgiven and one day I’ll be set free from sin–when I die.” But what a lot of us don’t realize is that even now God is at work and has given us the power to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. This is what Paul tells us in Romans 8:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

(Romans 8:9-12)

You don’t actually have to stay stuck where you are. God not only saves us from the guilt of sin on the Cross, but from the power of sin through his Resurrection gift of the Spirit. You don’t actually have to keep sinning over and over, never moving forward, never getting freedom, never getting better. Through union with Christ, you have the Spirit of life at work in you, enabling you to make actual progress in holiness and freedom from sin.

3. Belief in God’s power means allowing ourselves to be weak.

A lot of us live like we have to be strong all the time. That’s the American way, right? We’re rugged individualists. We don’t need help. We’re as emotionally composed, complete, and stable as our best Instagram shots say we are. Except that’s a lie. At least for a lot of us. The spiritual reality is that we’re all weak. We’re all broken. We’ve all got bits falling off and in need of repair.

Paul says that the gospel teaches us that we see God’s strength come into its own most in our weakness:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul knew that it was only when we stop trying to be strong, complete, whole, and everything the way the American dream says we should, we actually tap into the way of strength. See, when I’m focused on being strong, I’m not relying on God’s power. When I’m fixated on my own natural solutions to things, I don’t give God any space to work supernaturally in my life. The upside-down reality of the gospel is that it’s only when we begin to admit our weaknesses, when we proclaim our inadequacies, that we can see the omnipotence of God.

Pray that God would open your eyes to the mighty power he is leveraging on your behalf, that you might begin to live with the confidence, joy, and peace of Elisha before the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

God’s Very Verbal Word in the Words of Jeremiah

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10

mouth full of fireI’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.

At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:

..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph  is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.

-A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54

This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.

That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.

I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria