Jude on Showing Mercy to Three Types of “Doubters” in the Pews

mercy 2Last week I wrote a reflection/brief commentary on the short book of Jude. In it I dealt with the general problem of false antinomian teaching that had been cropping up in the church, it’s parallels to the current doctrinal struggles with moral revisionism, and our call to remain faithful in the middle of it all. Well, though I dealt with the whole of the letter, I judged it worth returning to the letter and take a closer look, especially at Jude’s admonitions to mercy towards the end.

As I read this last week with my small group, I was struck by Jude’s emphasis on mercy. I suppose I am a bit more sensitive to the subject after meditating on Thomas Watson’s beautiful reflections on the mercy of God. Still, after a letter full of warnings judgment it can strike some as a bit of a left turn. And yet it shouldn’t really. Only those with a sharp appreciation for God’s holy opposition to sin can understand the gratuitous nature of the mercy of God. It is to this dimension of Jude’s thought that I’d like to direct our attention. There is a level of discernment and discrimination (in the good sense) Jude shows, which we need to recover if we’re going to deal pastorally with those in our midst prone to various sorts of “doubt” and disagreement.

Meditating on Future Mercy

After condemning the false teachers and issuing a general call to faithfulness and resistance, Jude offers encouragement to his people:

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)

Jude tells his people to build themselves up like the holy Temple they are on the foundation of the faith, the solid doctrine they’ve been handed on from the apostles, prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit. They should do this as they keep themselves in the love of God, obeying God’s will. In order to do this, Jude says they should “wait for the mercy of our Lord.” Waiting for the future mercy of God in the final salvation that Jesus will bring when he returns gives them the strength to endure.  This is one of those places where having a sense of the “now and not yet” dimension of our salvation is so crucial. Christians are able to trust in this future mercy only because they are confident of the mercy already shown them in the sacrifice of Christ’s cross. His death for sin is the assurance they have passed from death to life and that the judgment of God to come no longer has their sins in view.

Mercy Towards Three Types of Doubters

From this encouragement to meditate on the mercy of God towards them, Jude urges them to extend this mercy towards others.

Be merciful to those who doubt;  save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (22-23)

That’s one of the true tests of whether or not you understand the mercy of God: do you have any inclination or instinct to show others the grace God has shown you? If you are an unmerciful person who tends to hold grudges, keeps anger hot, and ready to unleash on others, stop and spend some time meditating on the mercy of God. You cannot do this enough.

In any case, Jude moves on to enumerate three types of people (doubters) who need to be shown mercy, but in each case there seems to be a different shape that this mercy is to take. While mercy is to be shown to all, distinctions need to be made. As we’ll see, it might be unmerciful to do otherwise.

First, there is the group that seems to be “in doubt”, or hesitant. Here we can imagine the average church-goer sitting in the pews who has been confused by the influx of smart, charismatic false teachers advocating a tempting lifestyle. It’s not an aggressive, arrogant doubt, but one that is tentative, and would likely respond if properly and carefully corrected. I’ve seen this a lot. In fact, this about 99% of what I’ve encountered in my time. Students who come in, worried about this or that article they’ve read, difficult conversation they’ve had, and so forth and they ask me a difficult question. In this case, usually that is needed is a careful conversation or two and they are ready to hear biblical truth. Mercy here is gentle engagement.

Second, there seems to be a different category where the “doubt” is more aggressive. Richard Bauckham suggests that as those who need to be “snatched out of the fire”, these people have already been lead astray by the false teachers to the point of engaging in sinful, licentious behavior. And yet, it is likely that many here would respond to proper correction. All the same, it may be that a sharper approach is necessary. Once you’re engaged in sin, all sorts of rationalizations set in which require a more forceful approach. It’s the different between warning little Johnny from running into the street while he’s in the yard, versus reaching out and pulling him out of the street after he’s already crossed the line. It’s not sufficient to call softly. “Johnny, please come back here” when there’s a car rumbling down the road, set to interrupt his play-time. In the same way, a different level of rhetorical and spiritual urgency will be required in this second case, not to mention possible movement towards church discipline.

Finally, there is a third group of those whom we are still to show mercy, but do so with fear. At this point Jude appears to be referring to the false teachers themselves. There is a certain kind of person who is not simply confused, not simply doubting, not only led astray through a lack of knowledge or sinful desire, but is actively pursuing and propagating false teaching. This isn’t the kid with normal (though difficult) questions or the relatively skeptical but honest dude in your Bible study. No, this is someone with a culpable level of responsibility, or personal authority, who is trying to influence others into adopting beliefs and practices that oppose holiness and the truth of God. It’s the difference between Eve being led astray through doubt, and the malicious serpent who “doubted” and taught others that same sort of doubt.

Jude commands us to show them mercy, nonetheless, but do so with fear because there’s a foolish sort of “openness” that can put you in danger of being led astray. Of course, you still need to love this person, pray for their salvation, and hope that God changes their hearts. But you probably need to change the way you engage with them, have fellowship with them, or whether you treat them like a believer or not. There’s a holy fear, a hatred of sin which is a part of the love of God (Rom 12:9), of even the garment that leads to sin, which means that at a certain point you may have to guard yourself from certain kinds of conversations or contact. This person needs mercy, but there’s an understanding that they should be engaged by the proper authorities who are equipped for that sort of thing. Don’t be too arrogant to think you can’t be misled.

The Trouble with Mercy Outside the Church

Now, there are all kinds of application for this sort of text today. First, of course, is in our actual churches. Pastors, people in the pews, and various church leaders need to have these distinctions in mind when dealing with false teaching popping up. You need to be able to distinguish between the honest Christian who is “hesitant” and those who are maliciously stirring up others. Dealing harshly wth the first would be to break a bruised reed, while dealing too gently with the latter might put the rest of the flock in danger. This can be difficult, which is why we should constantly be in prayer in the Spirit, meditating on the person of Jesus, and the witness of Scripture so that our instincts and imaginations can be formed and shaped by God’s Word.

Second, there’s the troubling question of online interactions. See, one of the problems I see with a lot of the doctrinal discussion online is that all of these categories get mixed up. The internet makes these lines harder Say there’s some blogger in the third category, actively trying to lead people astray, but who is read and finds sympathy with people in categories one and two. And say some pastor moves to correct or argue against a position they’re advocating. Well, the problem I see is when your signals get crossed and the harder words you have for the false teacher get read as the tone, approach, or estimation of those who are merely hesitant, or maybe still open to rebuke. Ironically enough, in your desire to guard them, they might end up being pushed towards that position in reaction.

On the flipside, you have those in that third category who hide under the mantle of the first. “Is that what God said?” becomes a cover for “Did God really say?”, so that the aggressive doubt being advocated gets smuggled in surreptitiously under its more benign cousin. I don’t know that I have a real answer to all of this. I suppose I think it’s important enough to simply be aware of those dynamics and the way it colors the way we read online engagements, or go about conducting them. Stating our understanding of what exactly it is we think we’re doing, thinking about who our conversation partners are, who might silently watching from the sidelines, and so forth. For others, it might simply be wise to start considering the nature of doubts and questions. To that end, I’d recommend Matt Anderson’s book The End of Our ExploringI can’t think of a more helpful resource on the subject.

Finally, I suppose I can end by simply noting the way that this is one more text that reminds us every inch of Scripture, even the weirdest bits like Jude, has some fitting word to speak into our day. A word of truth as well as a word of mercy for those who struggle with it.

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

One Simple Meaning, Multiple Meanings, Or One Complex Meaning? A Little Typology

abraham and isaacMonday we looked at Turretin’s argument for the continuing doctrinal authority of the Old Testament for Christians. Many of his answers depended on the idea that the Old Testament contains by way of prophecy, type, and shadow, the same substance as the New Testament. Today I want to look at a section in related question that may shed some light on Turretin’s understanding of prophecy, types, and shadows.

In question 19 he takes up the issue of whether or not Scripture has more than one meaning. Or rather, whether the classic fourfold meaning–literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological–was admissable. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, Turretin explains:

In order that the Roman Catholics may force upon us another, visible, judge of controversies-the church and the pope-besides the Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking in it, they invent a multiple meaning in Scripture, and from this conclude that the meaning is doubtful and ambiguous. So they distinguish between literal and mystical meaning, and further divide the mystical into three parts: allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. They call it allegorical when the sacred history is applied to doctrines of the faith, like what is said in Galatians 4:22 concerning the two covenants or Sarah and Hagar; anagogical when the words of Scripture are applied to events of future ages, like what is said in Hebrews 4:3 concerning rest; tropological when applied to conduct. All this is expressed in the familiar jingle:

Facts the letter teaches; what you’ll believe, the allegory;
What you’ll do, the moral meaning; and where you’re bound, the anagogy.

Now, whether that’s an accurate take on Roman Catholic usage, I’ll leave it for others to decide, but it gives you an idea of what he’s worried about. Turretin goes on to explain that the Reformed hold to a single meaning per text. Now, while that may initially sound like a recipe for flat readings, he goes on to explain that this single meaning might be “simple or composite”:

A simple and historical meaning is one which consists of the statement of one fact without any further significance either as commandment or as dogma or as history. This can be one of two kinds, either strict and grammatical or figurative. The strict meaning depends on the exact words; the trope on the figurative language. A composite or mixed meaning is found in oracles containing typology, part of which [oracle] is type and part antitype. This does not constitute two meanings, but two parts of one and the same meaning intended by the Holy Spirit, who covered the mystery with literal meaning.

So the literal meaning is the only meaning, but that does not rule out that the Holy Spirit may have intended that same single meaning to have layers and dimensions to it. What’s more, the “literal” meaning does not mean a literalistic, or idiot-literal meaning. The literal meaning can comprehend metaphors, figures of speech, differing genres, etc. Indeed he quotes Aquinas and Salmeron here:

“literal meaning” describes not only that which is based on the strict, not figurative, meaning of the words, by which it is distinguished from “figurative meaning,” as was often done by the Fathers, but it also describes the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit and expressed either strictly or in figurative language; thus Thomas [Aquinas] defines the literal meaning as “what the Holy Spirit or author intends,” and Salmeron “what the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, wishes primarily to say, whether by the strict meaning of the language or by tropes and metaphors” (1.7)

His intention is to rule out the sort of exegesis that appealed to the “mystical” meaning that included allegories that were not governed by the literal meaning. Allegorical meanings hidden underneath the literal meanings, to be revealed by the discerning or authorized teachers made it easier to twist texts to fit doctrines, rather than norm doctrines by texts:

The mystical meaning may be either sacred or ecclesiastical. The sacred is that which the Holy Spirit sets forth through the Holy Scriptures, and which is therefore based on Scripture itself. Of this sort are John 3:13[14], concerning the bronze serpent; I Corinthians 10:1 – 4, concerning the baptism of the cloud and the sea, and the Israelites’ spiritual food and drink; Galatians 4:22, concerning the allegory of Abraham’s two wives; and I Peter 3:[20 – ]21, concerning the ark and baptism. The ecclesiastical is that which is developed by ecclesiastical writers, either for the sake of illustration, or of embellishment, which Philo Judaeus first attempted, in two books of allegories. Many of the Fathers followed him, especially Origen, who used this form of interpretation more than any other, so that he often fell into extremes, for which reason Jerome, in his letter to Avitus and Amabilis, rightly rebuked him: “Origen thinks that the brilliance of his mind is a sacrament of the church.” In the latter sense, although it can be used for illustration, [the mystical meaning] has no force for proving [doctrine], because it is a human interpretation, not divine [teaching], which can suggest probabilities but not convince (probabiliter suadere, sed non persuadere). But the former sense has the force of proof in the teachings of the faith, because it has the Holy Spirit as author and hence is part of his intention. Therefore what is said popularly, that theology is symbolic but not scientifically demonstrative (argumentivus), is true only of allegories and of parables that are of human, not divine, origin.

He clarifies:

It is not a question whether there is only one idea (conceptus) in the meaning of Scripture; we grant that the one meaning often yields several ideas, but they are mutually dependent, especially in the composite sense composed of type and antitype. The question is whether there are in the same pericope (locus) different meanings not dependent upon each other, as is the opinion of Azorius (Institutio moralis 1.82), Thomas (1.1.10), Lyra, Gretserus, Becanus, Salmeron, Bellarmine, and others.

Even more, Scripture having a single meaning does not mean that it cannot be applied in several ways, whether at one time for apologetics, others instruction, and still others for comfort. Scripture might have one meaning, but its significance in application can be varied.

So the allegorical, anagogical, and tropological are not different meanings, but applications of the single literal meaning; allegory and anagogy apply to instruction, and tropology applies to discipline.

So how does all of this cash out with respect to typology? What does this look like in Turretin’s mind? Well, in a stunning passage, Turretin gives us a crash-course in exegetically- and contextually-sensitive typological exegesis.

Since Scripture, which contains much more than words, is very rich in meaning, it is not absurd to say that the Holy Spirit wanted to give many teachings to us in the same word, but [always] one subordinated to the other so that one is the sign and figure of the other, or that they have some connection and dependency. Thus the promise given Abraham concerning his descendants refers both to Isaac as type and to Christ as antitype (Gal. 3:16). The oracle forbidding the breaking of the bones of the lamb (Exod.12[:46]) refers both to the paschal lamb as a figure and to Christ in mystery (John 19[:36]). The promise given David, “I will be a father to him” (II Sam. 7[:14]), refers both to Solomon and to Christ (Heb. 1[:5]). The prediction in Psalm 16[:10] that the holy one will not see corruption applies both to David, although incompletely, and to Christ, completely (Acts 2:29 – 30). There are any number of such texts in Scripture, which have various aspects (sceceis) which must be held together in order to have the full meaning of the oracle, and they are fulfilled not all at once, but in stages over a period of time. Thus many of the ancient oracles had three aspects: for the dispensation (status) of the law in the Jewish church, for the dispensation of grace in the Christian church, and for the dispensation of glory in heaven. Thus Isaiah 9:1, about the people who walked in darkness and saw a great light, has three stages of fulfillment: the liberation from Babylon, the proclamation of the gospel (Matt. 4:[14 -16]), and the final resurrection, through which those who were living in the valley of the shadow of death will see the great light of the glory of God. Likewise in Ezekiel 37, it can be observed concerning the dry bones that the oracle had already been fulfilled when the people went out from their most bitter captivity in Babylon as from the tomb (v. 12), it is being fulfilled today in the spiritual resurrection (Eph. 5:14), and it will be perfectly fulfilled in the final resurrection (John 5:25).

Here we see Turretin’s approach to typology on full display. In each case, he has a clear view of the multiple layers of meaning within the single “literal” meaning. The mystical, or typological significance is married to and dependent on the initial, contextually-defined, historical base. All the same, it rich, textured and sensitive to the Christological and redemptive-historical import of each text. Reading through a passage like this, we see a couple things worth highlighting.

Paying careful attention to the structure of types and shadows helps demonstrate the clear unity of Scripture from Old to New Testament. Yes, the Bible is 66 books and thousands of micro-stories and texts, but it is one grand drama authored by the Lord of History, recorded under the inspiration of the Spirit.

Second, once again, a “literal” reading of Scripture according to the Reformers and the tradition that followed them did not mean “flat”, rough, or literalistic. This is not mere proof-texting that runs rough-shod over context. Reformed scholastics like Turretin were actually sophisticated and careful exegetes. Systematic theologians can be responsible interpreters of the text no matter the style of theological argumentation they engage in.

May we learn to walk in their footsteps.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus, the Greater Daniel

daniel-in-the-lions-den-briton-riviereI’m a sucker for biblical typology. I’m not an expert at it, but seeing the way every story, trope, theme, or event either directly, or as part of a broader whole, points to Jesus Christ as the center of Scripture is one of my greatest joys in reading biblical theology. This is why, despite the many merits of James Hamilton’s book-length study on the biblical theology of Daniel With the Clouds of Heaven, this little chunk might be my favorite:

Daniel, who was righteous, was accused by those jealous of him on a trumped-up charge (Dan. 6:4-13). The king recognized the injustice of Daniel’s condemnation and sought to deliver him (6:14). Nevertheless, Daniel was condemned, given over to certain death; then placed in a pit with a stone laid on the opening and sealed by the king (6:15-17). At daybreak those who lamented the way Daniel was treated came and found that his God had delivered him (6:19-23).

Jesus was also declar4ed innocent (Matt. 27:24; cf. Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22, 41) but accused by those jealous of him (Matt. 27:18) on trumped-up charges (26:59-61; 27:15-19). Pilate recognized the injustice and sought to release Jesus (27:15-19). Nevertheless, Jesus was condemned to death (27:26), and after they crucified him he was put in a new tomb, with a stone rolled over the entrance (27:60), which was later sealed (27:66). At daybreak on the first day of the week those who lamented the way Jesus was treated came and found that God had raised him from the dead (28:1-10).

These points of historical correspondence, and the obvious escalation from Daniel to Jesus, constitute grounds for considering Daniel as a type of Christ.

With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, pg. 191

This is the sort of passage that enables to see the deeper dimensions of Scriptural fulfillment when Paul says that  “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Christ dies and rises again, not only in fulfillment of specific prophecies, but as the culmination of every thread and storyline of Scripture.

Jesus truly is the greater Daniel. He was thrown into the pit, not only because of his great faithfulness to God, but for the salvation of his people from the lions of sin, death, and hell. He not only risked death, but was consumed by and still emerged victorious.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is It Possible to Be Too Christocentric? Vanhoozer on Christomonism and the OT

remthologizingPart of Kevin Vanhoozer’s project in his massive work Remythologizing Theology is developing a method of moving from Scripture to theology, especially with respect to a properly gospel-centered doctrine of God. Roughly, the idea is to get from the narrative (mythos) of God’s “theodramatic” doings in redemptive history and derive a metaphysic, an account of God’s being (or being-in-act), that takes its cues and categories from that, instead of speculative philosophical categories (re-mythologizing = re-narrativizing). It asks, “what this ‘who’ is like – on the basis of what God says and does?” I’ve tried to summarize Vanhoozer summarizing himself here.

Vanhoozer examines Karl Barth’s approach in the process–one that informs his own at various points–to see its strengths and weaknesses, and set it up as a sort of foil for his own project. Barth clearly wants to speak of God on the basis of God’s own self-revelation, the Word we see uttered in the history of the Godman Jesus Christ. For Barth, God is who he is in the act of his revelation. To speak of his attributes is to speak of God’s divine activity. Still, Vanhoozer notes that there are a number of questions to be raised about Barth’s approach:

Yet questions remain: (1) Is God who he is apart from his act – his lived history in Jesus Christ – as well? It is one thing to say that God is in se the one who loves in freedom, quite another to say that God only becomes who he is – the one who loves in freedom – thanks to his self-actualization as Word become flesh. (2) If God is who he is in the history of Jesus, how are we to distinguish deity from humanity, divine loving-in-freedom from human loving-in-freedom? (3) Does Barth do justice to the idea that “the personalizing of the Word does not lead to its deverbalizing” if, as Wolterstorff thinks, he regards the Incarnation as God’s sole illocutionary act? [DZR: ‘illocutionary act‘ = act of revelation]

These three questions resolve into one: can Christian theologians ever be too christocentric? Usually Barth’s critics worry about his tendency so to emphasize the work of Christ that it reduces the significance of human action. The present concern moves in the other direction, however, questioning Barth’s tendency to let the work of Christ reduce the significance of other instances of divine action: Why must we equate God’s being-in-act exclusively with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ when the Bible depicts God as in-act at other points of the biblical narrative as well? 

Barth resists christomonism inasmuch as he accepts the witness of the Old Testament. Yet does he show sufficient awareness that without Israel’s Scripture we would lack the right interpretative framework with which to understand the event of Jesus Christ? More pointedly: without a prior revelatory rather than merely religious (i.e., man-made) framework, the event of Jesus Christ would ultimately be unintelligible. We must therefore press for greater clarity: is there nothing we can know of God prior to christology, on the basis not of speculative metaphysics but the mythos of Israel’s history with YHWH? Does YHWH’s activity in ancient Israel (not to mention the Ten Commandments and other texts that purport to be direct divine communication) count for Barth as divine revelation or not? Are there not events in Israel’s history in which one catches glimpses of God’s being-in-act?

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pp. 202-203

Vanhoozer goes on to wonder if Barth works a christological doctrine of simplicity, whereby God is defined solely by the narrative of the life of Jesus and nothing else. But there seem to be some problems with that:

Yet it is difficult to see how he can derive a complete list of divine attributes by analyzing the life of Jesus alone…For example, is God essentially related to the world, or is the world the result of God’s free (and hence contingent) choice? It is also difficult to see how Barth can demarcate divine from human attributes from the history of Jesus alone inasmuch as it exemplifies both “true humanity” and “true deity.” To be sure, Jesus’ taking on human flesh and laying down his life for many speaks volumes about God’s love, but what about Jesus’ sleeping ( Mk. 4:38) or increasing in wisdom and stature ( Lk. 2:52)? Is every moment in Jesus’ life equally essential to God’s being?

–ibid, pg. 204

What’s more, given what he says about the humanity of the biblical witness, which doesn’t truly become revelatory until God takes it up to confirm what he has said through Christ, it seems we’re in a bit of revelatory bind. This is why Vanhoozer later says:

Barth is clearly a kindred remythologizing spirit…Yet we have wondered whether Barth takes the biblical depictions of divine speaking seriously enough. Is the knowledge of God such that everything can be derived from his single incarnate illocution? By viewing Jesus Christ as God’s singular speech act, does Barth inadvertently demythologize the biblical accounts of God’s speaking by refusing to take them literally, that is, as ascriptions that render an agent?

–ibid, pg. 205

While there’s a lot more going on, and I’ve probably botched the summary sections, you can start to see the problem with a particular way of being “christocentric”–it ends up being not so much christocentric, but christomonistic. In focusing on the ‘Word’ uttered in Christ, he relativizes and doesn’t seem to have a place for the words that set up and help disambiguate that Word.

Where am I going with this? I’ve seen people complain recently that Evangelicals and other typical Christians have too long let the OT define Jesus rather than letting Jesus redefine the OT. And I can see that. I’m all for reading the whole OT as pointing to and finding its ultimate meaning, resolution, and clarity in the revelation of the Incarnate Christ in the New. Still, while this is not exactly what’s going on with Barth, you can start to see some of the same problems emerge in those ‘christocentric’ accounts that place so sharp a distinction between the life of the Incarnate Christ, and the OT that forms the revelatory background for the Word God speaks through His Son.

In my best Vanhoozer, then: Christ is the center of the action to be sure, the climactic act and dramatis personae who explains and gives meaning to the whole drama of redemption. But he doesn’t step onto an empty stage. The earlier acts of the drama between YHWH and Israel recorded in the Old Testament are what form the necessary background to understanding Christ’s lead role. To write off the earlier acts as parochial, confused, or semi-inspired testimonies of a backward religious age, actually ends up undermining our ability to see the way Christ’s redemption resolves the various dramatic tensions at work in the plot-line of God’s relationship with Israel, and impugns the artistry of the Divine Playwright.

Soli Deo Gloria