We Can’t Say He Didn’t Warn Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Commentary on Matthew 7:15

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners. That said, taken at a this-worldly level, he’s got a good point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth. What’s more, even at the historical level, yes, there are changes, differences made, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is basic human nature.

I bring all this up simply to make the point that the history of philosophy and theology, while constantly progressing, developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history—the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. So, how did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas. It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact parallel with the kinds of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts. Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Israel? T.F. Torrance and the Hermeneutics of History

incarnation_large“Why Israel?”

There are a number of angles from which we could ask this question. Why would God choose this nation among all the nations? Indeed, why should God choose any nation at all? That’s the question that’s often been termed the “scandal of particularity.” Western thinkers have often been offended that the salvation of the universe brought about by the God of the whole cosmos is given to us through specific, historical acts at a particular time and place. It all seems so narrow.

Push deeper and you’ll see there’s another question: “Why history?” Why should God waste all that time? Why thousands of years of slow interaction with the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of Israel? Why concern himself with the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in Ancient Canaan? Why should salvation come this way? And even more, why should we be concerned with such things? Now that Jesus has come and a universal salvation has come to humanity, why must we be bothered about such things?

T.F. Torrance tackles the subject towards the beginning of his landmark volume Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. (Yes, for those wondering, I’ve finally managed to get around to Torrance). One of the elements that clearly marks his theology of the Incarnation is just how hermeneutical you have to be, in order to grasp it. This is so in at least two ways. First, the Incarnation is a hermeneutical event in that the Word of God comes revealing God to us. Jesus is the exegesis of the Triune God (John 1:17).

Second, and this is where we return to Israel, it’s that we must understand the interpretive Word of God against it’s proper pre-history, the election of Israel (37, 40-41). As Torrance notes, “if you are to understand something you must have the conceptual tools with which to grasp it and shape the knowledge of your mind” (41). But how do you go about acquiring the right conceptual tools to grasp the infinite God? You can’t do it of your own effort, could you? No, God himself would have to provide them to you. And that’s exactly what he has done in the election of Israel to himself as a people .

Torrance essentially argues that the history of Israel–all of its centuries-long struggle with grace, rebellion, resistance, slavery and redemption, exile and judgment, cultus and worship, prophecy and song–all forms the necessary interpretive background for understanding the person and work of Jesus. God’s election, patience, grace, love, and judgment of Israel are (among other things), his way of furnishing his people with the proper conceptual tools for understanding the coming of the Son into the world. This is part of what it means for the Son to come “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4).

Why Israel? Because without Israel, we could not know mighty work of God in Christ. Torrance sums up the point in this magnificent paragraph:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all boundup inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures of the New Testament church, that the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour.

Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God: apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God’ apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we would not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus.

The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work out from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. (43-44)

While a number of answers could be given to the question, “Why Israel?” and “Why History?”, Torrance points us to the very important hermeneutical one: without them we could not have the saving knowledge of God that we needed.

This is just one of the many reasons Marcionism and all those theologies that would belittle or leave behind the Old Testament are so damnably dangerous. Christ comes clothed in the gospel, as Calvin says, and the textiles and prints are drawn from the history of God’s dealings with Israel. When we strip Christ of these glorious garments, we inevitably clothe him in the idolatrous, conceptual patterns of our own making, robbing ourselves of the truth of God come in Christ.

In a sense, Torrance reminds us that understanding takes time. And so God accommodates himself to us by coming in Christ as the culmination of Israel’s very specific history. And this too is grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

Daniel Kirk has moved to the Progressive Channel at Patheos. And that’s great for him. Really, I’m happy. It seems like it will be a good fit for him.

That said, without wanting to pick on him, I had a quibble about his recent post on why he’s a “Progressive Evangelical.” You can read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion that sums it up:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Okay. At first this sounds like an old-school, Red-Letter Jesus approach to things that pits the Red Letters of Christ over and against the Black letters of the average apostles and certainly the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the true Word, who has the authority to interpret, fulfill, and even correct Scripture, moving us along in God’s plans and so forth. I think it’s wrong, but it makes a certain sense.

jesusbuddyjesusExcept there’s a quirk with Kirk’s position. He’s already on record saying that the Jesus of the Gospels got some things wrong. And not insignificant things, either. The meaning and nature of marriage is at the heart of the moral order of the universe.* And yet Kirk says we need to move past Jesus at this point.

In which case, it seems like reading the Bible in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than having Jesus as your authority over the Bible.

It’s not just the Red Letters v. the Black Letters. At this point, it appears we’ve got a Red Letters v. Red Letters situation. Or rather, a Red Letters v. “Spirit of the Red Letters as Read By Progressives At the Beginning of the 21st Century” situation.

Here I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, but which was apparently actually coined by George Tyrell, speaking of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf Von Harnack:

The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.

Conservatives have most certainly been guilty at times of recreating Jesus in their own image. (My buddy Dan Darling has a great little book chronicling a number of the ways we do that, by the way.)  So it’s not that this is only a danger with progressive theology. Far from it.

The problem is that Kirk’s approach virtually guarantees it.

When a conservative runs up against Scriptures that press on their economic preferences, or sexual hang-ups, or what-have-you, they at least have to go through the gymnastics of trying to explain them differently. The Jesus of the text is someone determinate to be wrestled with. His words and deeds must be reckoned with.

But once you decide that even they can be corrected, then what does it actually mean that Jesus is your authority, let alone the Bible which testifies him? Which Jesus is this? How can your admittedly fallible Jesus allow you to correct your fallible Bible? Which bits of Jesus’ teaching and life do you appeal to against the parts you’re suspicious about? I mean, what if it turns out you should be using the exact opposite parts of Jesus’ teachings and work to correct the parts you like, the way someone using the same method on a different continent might?

In other words, “Progressive Evangelicals” using Kirk’s same theological principles in Latin America, Africa, or Asia might correct the Bible in light of Jesus far differently than a White Westerner steeped in identity-politics. And at that point, how do you adjudicate in a way that isn’t just a blatant appeal to cultural prejudice? Or variable human reason? Or different human experiences?

To put it bluntly, the only real Jesus we have intellectual access to is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Kirk’s model functionally ends up coming to something like, “God is still speaking, through people like me, who are inspired by our take on Jesus but not limited by the actual teaching of the actual Jesus.”

For that reason, I’m skeptical about the possibility of a progressive Evangelicalism with “a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible” when both the pages of the Bible and the Jesus you meet there are subject to your judgment.

Again, I say this with no spite or hostility. I really just want us to deeply consider what we’re signing on for when we adopt these positions. Their consequences are deep and far-reaching, and I think in the long-term, they’re inevitably corrosive to the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. Jesus says there is blessing for those who hear his words and keep them (Matthew 7:24). That’s pretty hard to do when you’re deciding which ones actually count.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Eyebrows have been raised about this phrase. Suffice it to say that from Genesis 1-2, onwards, the nature of male and female, marriage, and family are central to the biblical account of anthropology, society, and politics. Marriage is a main (though not sole) metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people (both OT & NT), and caught up in the warp and woof of biblical theology. So, if “heart” of the moral universe is a bit much, it’s certainly central and not merely tangential. For Jesus to get this subject wrong, then, is not a minor point.

Really Elisha? Bears Attacking Children? This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

bearsOne of the weirdest stories in the narratives of the Old Testament comes at the end of 2 Kings 2 with Elisha and the bears. The deal is that the prophet Elisha has just been anointed by God through his old master the prophet Elijah to succeed him after God took Elijah up to heaven in a vision of God’s holy chariot. Just prophet stuff. In any case, 2 Kings tells of a number of incidents where Elisha is confirming his role as God’s holy prophet by performing similar, miraculous works as Elijah did. As he’s going along, this weird thing happens:

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)

Now, there are several reactions you can have to this story about bears mauling youths for bald jokes. First, if you’re a teenager or something, you can think, “Sweet! Bears!” Or, as a balding man, you can think, “Well, there’s justice.” Finally, as just a normal person you can think, “Whoa. Seriously? Bears? Against children? For a bald joke? That’s fairly horrifying.” Of course, if you’re prone to trust the prophets of Scripture as being not terrible, various answers start to suggest themselves as to whether one should really take the text at face value.

For instance, you might wonder, “Are those ‘little boys’ really ‘little boys’? What if that’s a translation issue and we’re talking about a street gang or something? And is this really about a bald joke, or is something else going on here? Maybe the 3,000 year cultural gap is playing with our perceptions?” Once again, I ran across a stimulating passage in Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, shedding some contextual light on the bizarre passage.

One point I have to make before sharing, though, is that Leithart has earlier identified a key typology or resemblance in the story of Elijah and Elisha with that of Moses and Joshua. Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua is to Moses, the latter carrying on the conquest into the Holy Land after Moses leads the people out of slavery to idolatry and gives them the Law on the mountain. Alright, back to the bears:

In 2:3 and 2:5, the sons of prophets inform Elisha that “Yahweh will take your, master from over your head today”. Elijah is Elisha’s protector, guide, and “head,” and Elisha is about to lose that leadership. As Elisha’s head, Elijah enters heaven, while Elisha continues the work of his master in Israel, just as the church’s head is enthroned victorious in heaven as it suffers, serves, and overcomes on earth (Eph. 1:20-23).

This repeated statement from the sons of the prophets helps to explain the story at the end of 2 Kgs. 2, one of the most controversial passages in Scripture. The phrase “little boys” in 2:23 can mean “young men” or “subordinates.” Bethel is the site of Jeroboam I’s golden calf shrine, and the context suggests that these are not children, but “Levites” of the idolatrous shrine. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare, a Joshua-like attack on a center of idolatry. This is reinforced by the chiastic structure of the chapter:

A removing the “head” (2:1-6)
B fifty men (2:7)
C cross Jordan: Elijah divides waters (2:8)
D Elisha requests spirit (2:9-10)
E chariot separates them (2:11a)
F Elijah by whirlwind into heaven (2: lib)
E’ Elisha sees, calls to chariot, tears clothes (2:12)
D’ mantle (2:13)
C’ divides water (2:14)
B’ fifty men (2:15-18)
A’ bald head (2:23-25)

The young men mock Elisha because his “hairy head,” his “baal of hair” (1:8), is taken from him. Perhaps he literally shaves his head in mourning over Elijah’s departure, but it is also possible that they are mocking Elisha because they assume he is unprotected without Elijah. Their taunt to Elisha to “ascend” also points back to Elijah: “You know where you can go, Elisha!” Elisha again demonstrates that he bears the spirit of Elijah, which is the Spirit of Yahweh, for he can call out bears from the forest as readily as Elijah can call out fire from heaven to consume the soldiers of Ahaziah…., as readily as Yahweh can unleash lions against disobedient prophets (1 Kgs. 13:20-25; cf. Lev. 26:22). –1 & 2 Kings, 175-176

Elisha’s opponents are not toddlers with bold mouths, then, but a large band of hostile, adult priests serving the idolatrous shrine of the Northern Temple in Israel. For myself, I believe the context of the earlier story of King Ahaziah sending out a troop of soldiers to attack and lay hands on the prophet of God, Elijah, makes it likely that this “taunt” was more than a simple act of name-calling, but an expression of hostility, spiritual warfare, and a present threat to Elisha’s person. This is not an exaggeration when considering the various, deadly fates the prophets of Israel had suffered throughout her history and even Elijah’s own generation in the time of Ahab and Jezebel.

Of course, this may not solve all the difficulty of the passage for you. I’m not sure it does for me, either. It is one more example, though, of what a willingness to sit and wrestle with the Scriptures instead of simply turning from them when they’re difficult or offensive. That’s not a recipe for accepting any and every interpretation that comes along. There are a lot of bad ones that, in an attempt to “preserve” the Scriptures, end up betraying the character of God. All the same, trusting in the character of God as revealed in Scripture will give us the interpretive resilience needed to struggle with the text long enough to win a blessing and gain new light for the path.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: As it turns out, my friend Seth T. Hahne has written on the passage in a similar and complementary way, adding some broader canonical considerations that reinforce the reading offered above.

Final Review: Assorted Thoughts on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift

paul and the giftI’ve already written once about John M.G. Barclay’s phenomenal new work Paul and the Gift. We also plan on taking up the issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast soon. All the same, having just finished the work, I wanted to address a few themes and offer a few assorted and incomplete judgments about the work. If you’re interested in the thesis of the, Barclay’s own summary of his work that I excerpted here ought to fill you in as he basically delivered on what he promised. And more.

First, an evaluative point: the book really is ground-breaking and it’s set to light up the field of Pauline studies. I don’t think all the rave reviews from other scholars are just an exercise in academic back-scratching, at this point. If you’re at all interested in discussions around the New Perspective or Old Perspective on Paul, Judaism, and justification, this should be on your list along with the other major recent works by Wright, Dunn, and so forth.

Beyond that, I simply wanted to note some thematic takeaways, quibbles, and comments.

Vindication of the Reformers. From a theological and historical perspective, the first thing I noticed was the way Barclay’s work offers at least a partial vindication of the Reformer’s use of Paul in the medieval debates over justification. Recall that Barclay makes a couple of key points.

First, yes, Judaism in general had a very present theology of grace. On that point, E.P. Sanders was correct. Second, “grace” didn’t mean the same thing for all of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries. “Grace is everywhere in Judaism, but it is not everywhere the same.” For many, grace meant the “priority” or “super-abundance” or “singularity” of God’s favor, but for Paul it particularly meant the “incongruity”–the unfittingness–of God’s grace to the undeserving. Second, writing after Augustine and Luther left their mark on the interpretation of grace, when Sanders saw someone affirming the priority of “grace”, he also read into it the “incongruity” of grace because he assumed that everywhere the word is used, it must have that resonance. Not so.

Now, this offers a partial vindication of the Reformers in that, theologically, whatever else you might say about a possible individualism, or misreading of the nature of “works-righteousness”, they were affirming the incongruity of grace against the medieval theology of grace that had managed to sneak “congruity” or worth back into the picture. By conceiving God as “graciously” accepting the merit of the saints which could be procured by good works, penance, “doing what is in us”, and so forth, there is still an element of God accepting or rewarding on the basis of achieved worth or “fittingness”, that’s not dependent on the grace of Christ alone. And this conception of “congruent” grace seems to mirror some of the theology found in 2nd Temple Jewish texts, against which Paul’s teaching stands out starkly.

I did say “partial” for a reason, though. Two related points of difference to note are Barclay’s criticism of Lutheran “non-circularity” and his position on works at the final judgment. Barclay points out that it’s only with Luther that we first find a prominent emphasis on the “non-circularity” of grace, or it’s “unconditional” character in which God’s gift of grace expects no “return” of any kind. It’s a “pure” gift in the modern sense. That’s not something Barclay finds in Paul. For Paul, grace is unconditioned by any notion of worth, but it is not unconditional; Paul expects a change in the life of the believer that issues in good work that will be approved of at the eschaton.

Even with those points made, Barclay’s very careful and sensitive survey of both the 2nd Temple literature and the reception history of Paul does end up highlighting significant parallels between the Reformation debates and Paul’s 2nd Temple context that are illuminating.

Sociology. Second, Barclay, like so many current interpreters of Paul, stresses the sociological dimension to Paul’s theology. Thankfully, Barclay doesn’t use that to screen out or kick to the side classic concerns about individual salvation and such. Still, Barclay is very clear that Paul’s main aim is to create a community of Jew and Gentile upon the joint recognition that both have been received without respect to worth, not according to the old values systems of the world, or according to Torah, but only because of the incongruous grace of God through Christ in the New Age.

Barclay goes into all sorts of helpful social dynamics that Paul’s moral instruction cuts off or addresses, setting things in Jewish and Greco-Roman social context. This angle is a real gain from recent, New Perspective and social science emphases. I found especially illuminating the way Barclay draws on Pierre Bordieu’s notion of practice, habitus, and the body as the site of sanctification.

That said, Barclay can maybe go too far along the sociological angle for my taste. Consider his paraphrase of Galatians 2:15-21:

You and I, Peter, are Jews, used to thinking of ourselves as categorically distinct from “Gentile sinners.” But we know (though conviction and experience) that a person (whether Gentile or Jew) is not considered of worth (“righteous”) by God through Torah-observance (“living Jewishly”), but through faith in (what God has done in) Christ. We look to God to consider us valuable (“righteous”) in Christ, not through obeying the Torah, and this is so even if (in situations like Antioch’s) our resulting behaviour makes us look like “sinners” (“living in a Gentile fashion”). Does that mean that Christ has led us into sin? No way! Only if one were to reinstate the Torah as the arbiter of worth (“righteousness”) would “living like a Gentile” in Christ be classified as “transgression”. In fact (taking myself as a paradigm), I have died to the Torah – it is no longer what constitutes my standard of value – because I have been reconstituted in Christ. My old existence came to an end with the crucified Christ; my new life has arisen from the Christ-event and is therefore shaped by faith in the death of Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. This divine gift I will by no means reject: if “righteousness” were measured by the Torah, the death of Christ would be without effect.

While there’s much that’s clarifying in this reading, the translation of “righteousness” into the language of “worth”, or the way he focuses in other places on the “transgression” of Torah as a cultural framework of evaluation, or the “recalibration of social norms”, seems more appropriate as a preacherly contextualization for late-modern, Westerners than a straightforward, historical reading of Paul.

Apocalyptic-Augustinian-Lutheran. Barclay says that depending on how you look at it, he might be an Augustinian-Lutheran appropriating New Perspective themes, or vice-versa. So, a strong theology of the incongruity of grace, meets social context and a more fine-grained, positive evaluation of Judaism.

What’s more, Barclay has his eye on drawing on the focus of recent “apocalyptic” readings of Paul highlighting Jesus as divine activity that ruptures history and which avoids presenting salvation as the smooth development of potentialities inherent within it. At the same time, unlike some other apocalyptic readings, he acknowledges that in Galatians and especially Romans, salvation happens in fulfillment of the promises to Israel that came before.

All the same, I’ll just put my cards on the table and say that the Augustinian-Lutheran-Apocalyptic Paul still needs more Calvin and the Reformed emphasis on redemptive-history. (Which is interesting because I thought his treatment of Calvin to be very helpful, historically). This is one of those places where Wright, though he can get a bit carried away, is right to give us “big story” readings of Paul’s letters. Also, I don’t think Barclay has done quite enough justice to the positive, continued place of the Law as instruction in Paul’s thought, even though he does give positive place to the growth of holiness and practice of good works in the life of the believer.

Is Paul’s Grace Real Grace? One of the brilliant points Barclay makes about the whole discussion around whether Judaism was gracious or not, is that people have been coming into the discussion with a master concept of grace that doesn’t recognize its various shades and “perfections”, which don’t always have to come together as a package. This is why Sanders was right to think Judaism had grace in it and wrong to think that Paul disagreed with various of his contemporaries about the issue of God’s grace. In other words, it wasn’t only that they disagree as to whether or not Jesus was the only mediator of it, but it truly was about its nature.

At this point, this is where I put my theologian-in-training hat back on (if I ever happen to take it off). The question I’m toying around with is whether “grace in Paul” simply is grace for the confessional theologian.

In other words, it makes sense for a religious historian to be somewhat neutral about which 2nd Temple Jewish theologian had a “better” conception of grace in order to not prejudge the sources from a Christian standpoint. What’s more, we shouldn’t be anachronistic or slanderous, saying that all Jewish religion at the time was legalistic, graceless, and so forth. It wasn’t.

But the time comes when we must speak dogmatically and make normative statements about other conceptions of grace on the basis of Scripture. If we follow Barclay’s case out to its dogmatic conclusions, according to Paul, according to Scripture, to speak of God’s grace without recognizing (and maybe even denying) that it is not according to merit or worth–even though you see that it’s abundant, prevenient, and so forth–is to speak wrongly of grace. This is no attempt to denigrate Judaism, or certain forms of it, but if we take Paul’s letters as revelation—then where Paul disagrees with his contemporaries about grace on the basis of the “Christ-event”, they are wrong.

Now, this might cut against the grain of Barclay’s methodological aims, but at the end of the day, that’s what I think his exhaustive study of grace in Paul has shown us.

Concluding

To wrap up, none of my quibbles disqualifies anything I’ve said about the book as a must-read bit of Pauline scholarship. Its top-rate and I’ve benefitted from it immensely. Even though it’s not a full-dress commentary, there’s no way I’m going to preach or teach in Galatians or Romans without consulting the passage references, since it’s chocked full of exegetical insights waiting to be applied.

So, yes, if you’re wondering, right about now would be a good time to start adding it to your Christmas list.

Soli Deo Gloria