When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

booksI’ve been on a bit of a Henri Blocher kick since his visit to Trinity this last week and I have to say it’s been paying off. For instance, I looked up an article of his, “The Justification of the Ungodly” in the second Paul volume, Justification and Variegated Nomism to thumb through this weekend. While most of it is caught up with the nature of justice and justification in relation to the New Perspective, Blocher opened up with some important insights on the nature of systematic theology as different from other disciplines.

Important, at least, to me. When people ask me what I’m studying and I say, “Systematic theology”, I can’t tell you how many times I get the question, “Okay, so what makes it ‘systematic’ theology?” Then when you try and explain that it’s systematic versus “biblical”–but not unbiblical!–you just get this funny stare until you sputter something about a logical ordering of topics and hope the subject changes. If you’ll pardon the comparison, I’m reminded of that famous line of Justice Potter Stewart on trying to define what counts as pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...”

(I leave it to others to decide whether there are any more comparisons between the two phenomena to be made.)

All the same, there have been a number of different approaches to distinguishing the two sub-disciplines of biblical and systematic theology–a couple of which I will probably return to in the future–but I think Blocher’s little section gets at some key insights worth laying out.

Blocher begins to get at the issue with this initial paragraph:

On the one hand, systematic theologians draw from Scripture the substance and light of their thinking. They are not seeking for another source or standard. In Berkouwer’s words: “Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.” This dependence entails for them a major interest in the work of biblical scholars, through whom they receive knowledge of scriptural contents. On the other hand, they also make their own contribution to the joint enterprise of Bible study: as Heinrich Ott emphasized, Dogmatics should be included in the “hermeneutical circle.”

Protestant, Evangelical, and especially Reformed systematic theologians are–or ought to be–firmly committed to the normative status of the text of Scripture for doing theology. Sola Scriptura is not something we simply confess, but something we practice. Scripture alone is the final authority, and so faithful theologians will want to be attentive to what biblical studies has to say. We are concerned with and must draw the roots of our theologizing from solid exegesis.

But is theology anything more than exegesis? Blocher asks, “How distinctive is the contribution of systematic theology?” What do systematicians do beyond repeating the biblical scholars? Blocher’s brief answer begins, first, by dispelling the notion that or some sort of faith-interest or presupposition is what separates the two:

Theological interests motivate exegetes and historical critics as well; they cannot dispense with theological criteria to guide their search nor with a “fiduciary framework” (Polanyi’s phrase) to give meaning to their findings; they do think these findings “together.”

It’s not, then, that systematics’ only contribution is a theological bias–no matter what some biblical scholars might claim. No, what systematics does is deepen the reading.

Systematic (or dogmatic) theology only pushes a little further the effort at synthesis, representing the “whole” as opposed to the “parts” in the older construal of the hermeneutical circle; critical integration becomes its specific object; it establishes itself at a few more removes from textual ground level, in a more reflective mood. It does so in deliberate interaction with the history of Christian thought (and, in various degrees, with “human” thought, past and present). Systematic theology thus faces more openly or squarely the challenge of personal commitment: “What do you say. . . ?” (cf. Matt 16:15). It delineates and expounds for the use of the church the credendum: the focus is no longer on what Paul thought and believed – but nostra res agitur. The systematic concern for appropriation makes one vulnerable, exposing the person in the weakness of his or her faith. It corresponds to the other construal of the hermeneutical circle, the involvement of subject with object.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, Blocher is already assuming that biblical studies/theology is a “synthetic” task. Biblical scholars are trying to forward readings of biblical texts that bring together the various parts into a coherent, synthetic whole. Systematic theology shares that concern but pushes a bit further down the road. Or, to change the metaphor, a bit further back from the pages of Scripture, in order to take in the broader sweep.

Second, systematic theology typically does this in conversation with other historical-theological readings of Scripture. Biblical studies, as a discipline, is typically concerned with recent scholarship, Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds, and so forth, but not so much with Patristic, Medieval, or Reformation readings of those same texts. Though, that does seem to be changing in some circles. All the same, systematic theology typically takes the history of exegesis as a more obvious conversation partner, since systematics–or dogmatics, to introduce another term–is a churchly activity.

Which brings me to the third point Blocher makes–the subjectivity of systematics. Here, it seems that Blocher sees systematics more openly owning the subjective, confessional dimension to theology. As he says, it’s not so much a matter of only putting together “what Paul believed then”, as drawing conclusions about “what Paul believed then”, for “what we as the church believe now.” Theoretically, biblical studies can be done with some separation from personal confession. Obviously, it can’t be done entirely so. Believing Paul to be an inspired, authoritative writer does shape the way you come to the text. Believing in the possibility or reality of miracles will change how you construct the intention and theology of the Gospel writers. Still, it’s possible to have a brilliant Pauline scholar who can describe the apostle’s thought then, without actually subscribing to it. The systematic theologian cannot do that. The theologian puts forward claims as truths to be owned by the individual, the community they are a part of, and, ultimately, the world.

There is likely more to be said about the relationship and distinction between biblical and systematic theology, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Jesus Judge the Wrong People? Or is it Still A Bit Silly to Disagree With Him?

disciplesWas Jesus overly judgmental? Did he ever look at someone and condemn them when ought to have welcomed and affirmed them? Did he ever call something evil, which was really good? Did he say that some things were unacceptable in the sight of God that really were acceptable in the sight of God?

To most orthodox Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant), the confession of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, would rule that sort of thing out. I mean, Scripture clearly says he is without sin in a number of places. Beyond that, it’s part of the logic of the Gospel itself and a key to the salvific efficacy of his representative humanity on our behalf.

I bring this up because of an interesting post by J.R. Daniel Kirk on ‘Disagreeing With Jesus.’ It’s apparently a follow-up to Robert Gagnon’s piece at First Things piece praising Fuller’s decision not to offer Kirk tenure because of some of his views about Christ, as well as his evolving views on same-sex marriage. In it, Gagnon basically says that had Fuller done otherwise, they would have been allowing and opting for a position on sexuality squarely at odds with Jesus’ view on the matter per Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Kirk’s response is basically to point out that we all disagree with Jesus on a number of issues:

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions of Jesus that he stated:

  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • The truly final eschatological judgment would arrive within a generation of his life
  • My divorced and remarried friends are living in adulterous relationships

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions he probably had but didn’t state:

  • The world is flat
  • The world is 3,000 or 4,000 years old (in the first century)
  • The earth is at the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it

I agree with Jesus in some areas where many (or most) Christians disagree with us:

  • To understand Jesus best we have to understand his ministry as that of God’s faithful human representative (the son of humanity/the Human One)
  • Jesus didn’t know everything that God knows (like “the day or the hour”)

I also agree with the church about things that Jesus didn’t think or say:

  • Gentiles get to be part of the people of God without becoming Jewish
  • I’m not guilty of sin when I break the Sabbath every single Saturday

The idea, apparently, is that since many obviously disagree with Jesus on all sorts of issues, Gagnon’s argument is just a rhetorical ploy and not a serious, theological argument. Good disciples can disagree with Jesus at certain points without much of a Christological problem.

Now, I don’t really want to comment on the Fuller situation, nor even the same-sex issue. The Christological claims made in this short piece, however, seem very problematic. Since Kirk’s piece was brief, I’ll try to keep this as short as I can.

First, a number of the things Kirk says he disagrees with Jesus about assumes positions that are by no means foregone conclusions in Gospel scholarship. The old thesis about Jesus’ mistaken view of the coming, final day of judgment within a generation is one that is highly debatable. Another is his judgment that Jesus viewed divorce and remarriage as necessarily sinful, especially given the historic witness in Matthew 19:9 of Jesus giving at least one legitimate exception.

Second, that throwaway bit about germs is rather odd. As Adam Nigh pointed out in the comments, that’s just a historically focused version of the general problem of evil: why didn’t God use any number of supernatural or human means to tells us about germs or a half-dozen other medical insights Jesus failed to pass on? Quite frankly, bringing it up like it’s a serious, moral challenge is a bit silly.

Third, the idea of “disagreeing with Jesus” seems to suffer a bit when we get into counterfactual about what thoughts Jesus didn’t think and didn’t say. Kind of seems like we’re padding the list of disagreements for effect.

Fourth, and more importantly, Kirk mixes up a number of different categories of Jesus’ beliefs into a jumble. We’ve got Jesus’ (potential) views on the age of the earth thrown in with Mosaic authorship as well as his views on eschaton. But that’s really a questionable logical and “rhetorical ploy.” It seems plausible to make a distinction between Jesus knowing according to his human nature the age of the earth and a bit of geography, versus the onset of the coming kingdom of God, doesn’t it? Mixing all them up together just muddies the waters.

To sharpen this, let’s come back to the questions I opened with above. There’s nothing inherently sinful about Jesus not knowing certain cosmological questions. I’m fine with admitting a limitation to Christ’s total knowledge of random facts according to his human nature. That’s not sin. That’s just finitude. There’s nothing Christologically-riding admitting Christ was finite according to his human nature. Indeed, that’s Chalcedonian logic.

But what about his allegedly mistaken views about divorce and remarriage? In this case, Jesus is making a significant, moral judgment about the aims and intentions of the Creator regarding the most basic of all relationships. What’s more, given his own Messianic, self-understanding and his explicit statements about the binding authority of his own words as the Son of Man, making a judgment about this kind of thing isn’t a morally insignificant thing. Jesus getting divorce and remarriage wrong–saying it’s immoral when it really isn’t immoral–condemns as sinners those whom God doesn’t condemn as sinners. He morally binds those who shouldn’t be bound–the very sin Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees.

Let’s be clearer. The implication here is that the very Logos of God, sent to reveal the heart of the Father to the world, would be grievously misrepresenting God’s will for the world. That’s actually a lot more serious that Kirk lets on. For my money, I think we ought to be a bit less cavalier about admitting we disagree with Jesus on the aims and intentions of the one he called Father.

It’s a bit difficult to say, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life” with Peter and then add on, “except for on marriage, the eschaton, etc.” Seems like the sort of thing a disciple shouldn’t do.

Soli Deo Gloria

I, Tertius

papyrusFor my money, the Epistle to the church in Rome–the book of Romans more commonly–is the finest, most important letter in church history. Certainly in the canon. So who wrote this tremendous piece of work? The apostle Paul, right? Actually, no. That’s a bit of a trick question. Paul is the author–it is full of his words and thoughts–but the writer is another chap we only find out about towards the end of the letter:

I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (Romans 16:22)

Tertius was apparently Paul’s writer–his amanuensis— as he dictated the letter to the Romans. Now, there might be any number of reasons for having a writer take down the letter for you. Some speculate that Paul had vision or health issues. Others point out that writing, in those days, was a much more difficult skill than reading. The materials required sharp, deft strokes that required training to develop. Tertius was a believer who was one such scribe.

I don’t know why, but this guy fascinates me. This is a verse in the Bible. This chap whom we don’t know anything about, really, was a part of this massively crucial piece of Christian history. And that largely because he knew how to write. He wasn’t an apostle. We don’t know that he was a teacher or preacher, a deacon, or particularly skilled in any area. All we know is that the brother had a technical skill and made himself available to Paul as a scribe.

There’s no big lesson I have beyond saying this: there are millions of Tertiuses sitting in the pews. Millions of ordinary Christians, with ordinary skills, doing ordinary things. And who knows what God will do with theses gifts? What ordinary skill is God currently using to get his extraordinary work done?

Soli Deo Gloria

The Jerusalem Council: More Law, Random Rules, or Something Else?

acts of JesusOne of the key interpretive puzzles in the book of Acts comes towards the end of chapter 15 with the famous decision of the Jerusalem Council on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus’ commission to the disciples to be his witnesses to the gospel in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), meant that eventually some Gentiles were going to hear the gospel. And, as we might expect given the power of God, many responded positively in faith and confessed Christ as Lord. This raised a number of questions: on what basis are they to be admitted into God’s people? Is the Mosaic law still binding on them? Must they become Jews (get circumcised, eat kosher, keep Torah), in order to be justified?

Resolving these questions takes up a great deal of the narrative of Acts. Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10-11, makes it clear that certain food laws don’t apply. As a part of the new stage of history brought on by Jesus’ life death, resurrection, and ascension, God seems to have abrogated or set aside key food laws and has cleansed the Gentiles like Cornelius who confess faith in Christ through the forgiveness of sins and by faith.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In Acts 15 we read that some Jews from Judea had come down to Antioch and began stirring up trouble in Paul’s church by teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (v. 1). Obviously, Paul wasn’t having it, so they had it until they all decided to go up to Jerusalem to have the council of apostles and elders sort out the issue for them. In council, in the face of opposition, Peter stands up, gives a solid defense of justification by faith, not Torah-keeping (vv. 7-11), and eventually the council basically sides in his and Paul’s favor. The Gentiles are saved by grace as well as the Jews and so they shouldn’t be “troubled” by being made to keep the Law in detail, certainly not by being circumcised.

All the same, there is a caveat. James says:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write them to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (vv. 19-20)

Okay. So no need for circumcision—the covenant isn’t restricted to Jews or strict Torah-keepers—but it still seems like some of the restrictions of the Law are in play. Now this doesn’t seem like this fits into the classic categories that Protestants typically use to think about the way the Old Testament Law does and doesn’t still apply to New Testament believers (moral, ceremonial, and civil). There seems to be a couple that are moral (sexual immorality, things polluted by idols) and a couple that are clearly ceremonial (strangled food and blood). And why those moral categories? Why is sexual immorality mentioned and not stealing or murder or something?

What gives?

Three Options

Alan J. Thompson, in his work The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, notes that there are a number of options put forward by scholars (pp. 184-187).

Some think that these restrictions are a sign of the Law’s continuing binding authority drawn from Leviticus 17-18 that govern the behavior of Gentile sojourners in Israel. But that wouldn’t cover the strangled animal issue and there are a bunch of laws elsewhere covering sojourners.

Others have suggested that requirements are kind of on the spot laws picked because they were particularly offensive to Jews. So, this isn’t a requirement of the Law, but more like pragmatic commands just to suit that time and those groups. So, salvation by grace, but don’t offend your Jewish neighbors. The problem with that, though, is that it “overlooks the general applicability of these requirements to all the Gentiles in 15:19 and 21:25” (185).  And the language used about them refers, not to preferences, but binding “decisions” made by the council.

The final view that Thompson notes and opts for is Ben Witherington’s which is that, essentially, these form a restriction on idol practice. Witherington observes that all four of the practices were all associated with pagan temple practices at the time. He notes that the language used of “Gentiles turning to God” in Acts 15:19 is similar to that of 1 Thessalonians 1, where Paul talks about turning from idols to God. Also, there’s a very strong link between food practice and idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10, especially where Paul says to “flee from idolatry” (10:4). Beyond that, this fits with the polemic against idolatry in Acts, Paul’s preaching, and early Christianity.

Thompson summarizes the twofold thrust of the council’s decision this way, then:

The Jerusalem Council therefore clarifies two issues involved in how Gentiles may be saved: (1) Gentiles do not have to become Jews; salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace alone through faith in the Lord Jesus alone. (2) However, Gentiles cannot remain pagan idolaters either; they must turn from their pagan idolatrous past. (p. 187)

This option makes sense out of the general applicability of the commands, the fact that they’re not to be seen as just a pragmatic grouping of requests, and the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as a continuation of the OT covenant Law’s binding character on the Gentiles.

Moving Forward

What comes of this? Well, I’ve seen it argued that this text is a good example of the somewhat arbitrary approach to the OT law, or the moral commands of the New Testament. It’s then taken, in some cases, to be part of a case for seeing the New Testament’s commands about sexual immorality to be of the same category as the temporary and apparently pragmatic as the food laws. In which case, now that we’re in a different situation, we’re free to thoughtfully move past them as we have the food restrictions.

Of course, this is all too brief. Still, I think this way of viewing the Jerusalem council’s decision is quite helpful, though, in understanding the way that commands of both sorts—perennial moral commands grounded in the norms of creation and what seem to us to be temporary ceremonial ones—can be coherently grouped together under the broader, perennial concern about idolatry. And this is without falling into the view that we are still partially under the Old Covenant, or that there is no significant difference between the New Testament’s restrictions on sexual practice and food practice.

Insofar as eating food that’s been strangled or with blood in it is connected to idolatry, it is always wrong. On the flipside, given that there are a number of different lines of reasoning behind the prohibition against sexual immorality (porneia), just because it might not be connected to explicit idolatry as in Temple prostitution, that doesn’t mean it’s now okay. As we might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

While there are a number of lessons we could draw here, once again are faced with the reality that we must be wary of constructing our moral and theological frameworks on the basis of single texts or narratives. We have the whole New Testament—narratives, epistles, and so forth—for a reason. While individual texts must be heard, studied, and paid attention to in their own right, this is a case where issues regarding the law, authority, sexuality, and so forth, must be judged in light of the broader canon given to us through the apostles and prophets. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

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

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

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

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

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Christensen comments:

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

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

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

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rounding it Out

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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